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Bresslergroup’s Arch Street Digs

2015 was our 45th anniversary and not only did we undergo a brand refresh, we moved out of the space we’d occupied since 1995 and into a new space in a new building in a new part of town.

We’ve gone through several moves since our founding in 1970 but this was our biggest.

Bresslergroup's office locations

There Go the Neighborhoods: Bresslergroup’s various homes over the years.

In the previous two years, we’d expanded so much that we first had to retire our Ping-Pong table, and then our Foozball table, and then we moved our growing cadre of bikes out into the hallway. With us outgrowing our space and the building we occupied being sold, it was time.

Location, Location, Location

Our new office is at the Young, Smyth, Field Building (1216-1220 Arch Street), a location known by some as the Loft District and by others as the Convention Center District and by most of our staff as Half A Block From Reading Terminal Market. Young, Smyth, Field has quite a history. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 for being an “uncommon surviving example of a Classical Revival light industrial building in Philadelphia.”

Below is a comparison of our new block, looking east from 13th and Arch in 1917 (left) and today (right). In the picture from 1917, you can make out the words, “Young Smyth” painted on the side of 1216-1220 Arch. The enclosed bridge in the distance provided train access into the upper train shed portion of Reading Terminal. In the current photo, an enclosed bridge in the distance connects the Convention Center and Reading Terminal Market.

A view of 13th and Arch streets in 1917 and 2015.

Here are some things we found interesting about its history:

• It was constructed from 1901 to 1902 for a cost of approximately $200,000. Around the turn of the century business and industry was shifting away from the Delaware River and west toward this area neighboring the new City Hall (completed in 1901). The opening of Broad Street Station in 1881 and Reading Terminal in 1893 encouraged its ascendance as the city’s new central business district, which came to include the John Wanamaker department store when it was dedicated by President Taft in 1911. Many of the other area loft buildings of this era were demolished – in many cases, to make room for the Convention Center.

• Loft buildings like Young, Smyth, Field were designed for manufacturing. Their large, open interiors had the space and sufficient structural support necessary for the heavy machinery and workforce to produce large volumes of goods. The large banks of windows lit deep factory floors. New factory reform laws passed at the turn of the century supported the construction of lofts in favor of the smaller, older sweatshop lofts of Old City. (Now, of course, lofts are ideal for 21st century workers who like open offices.)

Young, Smyth, Field was built using cutting-edge construction technology and techniques for its time, including steel high-rise construction — with masonry exterior walls hung from a steel and iron frame — developed in Chicago in the 1880s. The YSF building also uses elements of reinforced concrete construction, with reinforced concrete that is further reinforced by steel bars for structural support.

• It was one of the earliest commercial buildings in the city to employ the simple, straightforward Classical Revival design vocabulary that later became widespread. It’s the only one of its kind still standing in the Reading Terminal area.

Our new neighbors include the Center for Architecture + Design, the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Chinatown, and, of course, Reading Terminal Market. And the abandoned Reading Viaduct built for the long-ago dismantled City Branch rail line is being transformed into the Rail Park, a linear park and recreation path that is shaping up to be Philly’s version of the High Line. We’ll have front row seats for it.

Our Arch Street Digs

This was an opportunity to build from scratch – we took over the 7th floor, and razed the rabbit warren of rooms that belonged to the previous occupant, a video production company. Gone are the soundproof recording studios with fabric-coated walls and raised floors. Gone are the storage rooms with huge racks for keeping video reels made on big reel-to-reel tape recorders. We scooped out the space to its bare bones and built it up and out. Below is a time-lapse video of the demolition.

We worked with local architects, Stanev Potts, to create an office space that represents our work – a blend of design consultancy and innovation lab – and our personality. We asked for a space that sparks innovation and facilitates cross-collaboration between our strategists, researchers, designers, and engineers. We wanted to enable creative collisions as well as provide more formal – yet inspiring – spaces for brainstorming sessions and client meetings.

We handed the architects the significant challenge of designing an office that meets the needs of a 21st century design firm whose work bridges the digital and physical, while maintaining the character of a space dating back to Philadelphia’s industrial heyday.

As the architects discovered, this mirrors Bresslergroup’s yin and yang as well as our evolution. Erin Roark of Stanev Potts put it this way, “You guys are very modern and you’re doing things that are very cutting edge. But there’s also a bit of the old school to you where you’re actually building things with your hands.”

Making It Our Own

We sat down with Petra Stanev, Stephan Potts, and Erin Roark of Stanev Potts for a Q&A that provides some insight into the process and progress.

Andrew Weiman (AW): I’m going to start by going back to the beginning: Why did this project appeal to you?
Petra Stanev (PS): We always like to take projects based on the client, not the program. We felt Bresslergroup would be fun to work with because you’re a creative firm and product design is an interesting thing to try and design for. You’re not just an office. You’re also a workshop and a lab. It’s like a whole machine for inventing things and we thought that was very exciting.
Stephan Potts (SP): It was exciting to us that there are so many parallels between our worlds [architecture and product design] but at the same time enough differences to keep it really interesting.

AW: The beginning of the process was about getting to know us and our requirements. You’ve spent a lot of time meeting with us and asking us questions. Have there been any surprises?
Erin Roark (ER): Not so much surprises as learnings. There have been some back of the house things that are interesting about how design and engineering interface and about the workshop/studio/prototyping lab. There are a lot of different pieces that all have to fit together.
PS: We had to learn how Bresslergroup does what you do in order to be able to work with you to help lay out an ideal workspace. There is an interesting combination of creativity and also very strict requirements.

Bresslergroup's new office at 1216 Arch

Hard Hat Area: A couple of the original architectural details in our new space, stripped down to its bones; plus Tom Murray, one of our industrial designers, checking out the blueprints.

AW: Were you struck by the contrast between the office space that used to occupy the 7th floor and the one you’re creating for us?
PS: Yes, it’s not at all the way you guys work. You have an open space with people collaborating. You have a workshop. Theirs was a very different organization – with them it was all about small, compartmentalized interiors.
SP: I think it was a product of what they were actually doing. Their tasks were so separated. It seems like people just sat in their own little worlds and did their thing. It could also be a product of workplace design at the time [the 1990s] which was not this whole idea of open studios and collaborations.

AW: Anything special to note about the building?
PS: It was a manufacturing building and you guys are not exactly manufacturers but you’re designing things that have to do with manufacturing and production. So, early on we had the idea of acknowledging the history of the building but also of making sure everything that goes into the space is very crisp and new and about speed and thoughtfulness and thoroughness and creativity and diligence. That has worked out, because it’s a very light and airy kind of contemporary-feeling space that lends itself to timelessness. We are trying to design something that is timeless enough to remain current as a backdrop for the shifts we know happen quite often in your industry.

Newspaper ads that show different aspects of Philadelphia industry in 1907

A Bit of the Old School: Calvin Smyth (of Young Smyth Field) proclaims Philadelphia one of the “nation’s busiest looms” in an article in a 1907 issue of the Dry Goods Reporter; down the street at 1211-1213 Arch, James G. Biddle was peddling scientific instruments like vibrometers and tachometers; elsewhere in Philly, Oneida Hosiery was crafting Cadet “scientific stockings.”

AW: What was manufactured there when it was built in 1902?
PS: I think it was hosiery.
ER: Yes, clothes. It was some sort of fabric.

AW: What can you tell us about the design intent of the space?
SP: It’s the things that Bresslergroup creates that tell the story of who you are. So the space needs to make its own statement but it also needs to be a backdrop to what happens in the space.
PS: Having spaces that highlight the importance of each individual as opposed to being so uniform that you can’t sense how your work is making a difference – that’s been very important. So has this idea of integrating the quirks and history of the old building – it has character that a brand new, raw construction space wouldn’t necessarily have – and then integrating some touches that feel more informal, as opposed to corporate, has definitely been utmost in our mind. There is a mix of casual meeting rooms and more formal conference rooms. And we’re hoping for a blend of very new, sleek, simple, and light materials juxtaposed with the space’s existing blemishes. There are a lot of quirks and peculiarities to this existing structure – for instance, the floors have a little bit of slope.

AW: Any hints we should give about the design before the big reveal in early summer?
SP: Well, you’ll see glimpses into the workspace when you come off the elevator. Right away you’ll see that pulse. You’ll be able to feel it and see it. One of the things Bresslergroup is very proud of is the people that work here and everybody’s skills and their excellence and their nimbleness of mind. So we want to highlight that with the way we’ve laid things out.
PS: We created an open area in the front where a lot of the activity will happen. The kitchen is there and the reception and a cluster of conference rooms – so it will be very well-used. It will be very lively and will also allow visitors to see you guys at work. It’s located in such a way that when clients come, they can see you work and have access to a tour where parts of the mechanical and electrical labs, the machine shop, and the woodshop can easily be seen without compromising the confidentiality of some of the work you’re doing.

AW: We can’t wait. In the meantime, check out this drone footage of the path as the crow flies from our current office (2:07) to our new one (4:50).