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History's Headlines: PPL Tower was architect's 'sculpted mountain'

By Frank Whelan, Historian
Published On: Aug 16 2011 12:11:53 PM CDT
Updated On: Dec 26 2013 11:00:00 PM CST

Harvey Wiley Corbett's buildings, including London's Bush House, the former headquarters for the BBC, were few.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

"Architects may come and architects may go and never change your point of view, when I run dry I stop awhile and think of you."

Simon and Garfunkel were "thinking" of the pioneering genius of their hero, modern architect Frank Lloyd Wright, when they wrote this lyric. But they might also have been singing about Harvey Wiley Corbett, the architect - father of the modern skyscraper who gave the Lehigh Valley its PPL Tower building.

While Wright is widely known, Corbett remains a relatively obscure figure. Born in San Francisco in 1873, he was a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley in 1895. He studied architecture at Paris's Ecole des Beaux Arts, then considered the best in the world. His first job was in the office of Cass Gilbert, architect most famously of New York's Woolworth Building, at the time the tallest building in the world.

Corbett's buildings, including London's Bush House, the former headquarters for the BBC, were few. He is best known for his visionary concepts, drawn by delineator and architect Hugh Ferris, in a 1929 book "The Metropolis of Tomorrow." These drawings later inspired Hollywood cityscapes like those of Gotham City in the recent Batman films. Corbett also was a major force behind the modern architecture that defined both the 1933 and 1939 World's Fairs in Chicago and New York.

Perhaps Corbett's influence was most significantly felt in his lectures from 1907 to 1937 at Columbia University's School of Architecture. Here his notions of modern buildings as a form of modern art influenced generations of American architects.

So how did an architectural visionary like Corbett end up designing the PPL Tower building in Allentown? Well nobody can say for sure exactly how that decision was made, but there are some clues.

In the years from 1920 to 1926 the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company, which had been founded by a merger of a number of smaller utilities, was an orphan. Its employees were scattered up and down Hamilton Street. Some were above a woman's hat store. The company's drafting department was housed in an entire upper floor of what is now the Allentown Brew Works.

Someone, perhaps General Harry C. Trexler, one of the founders of the company who had insisted its headquarters be in Allentown, may have recognized the inefficiency of this and suggested a headquarters building be built.

Trexler wanted it constructed across the street from its current site. But that space was occupied by a Victorian townhouse owned by a Mrs. Martin, an elderly member of a prominent family whose eyesight was failing. She knew where everything in her house was and did not want to move. There is no record of what Mrs. Martin felt about having a construction project that included a 23-story building for a neighbor.

Trexler sat on the board of a New York bank that represented the Rockefeller interests. And in the 1920s the mega rich oil family was deeply interested in modern art and architecture. It is a possibility that the Rockefellers may have influenced the choice of Corbett.

It is known that a young student of Corbett, Wallace K. Harrison, had married, in 1926, a Rockefeller relative. And Harrison, who later designed many prominent buildings like the United Nations headquarters and Lincoln Center's Metropolitan Opera House, was in Allentown in the late 1920s to learn first hand the construction of skyscrapers. Shortly before his death in 1981, Harrison called the PPL tower, "Harvey Corbett's great building."

But since the records disappeared long ago, we can only speculate on how Corbett got the commission to design the PPL tower.

Corbett used the PPL tower as a way of putting his ideas into steel and stone. Chief among them was that modern times demanded modern buildings. Most architects of skyscrapers felt compelled to top them with something from the past. A little Greek temple with stately Ionic columns or an Egyptian pyramid was the norm. It was a way of proclaiming homage to the past and validating their buildings as works of art.

Corbett would have none of it. He developed a style that he called "sculpted mountains," a monumentality that was its own art form that had no reason to bow to the past. It freed humanity, he said, "of the shackles of style that for years have forced architects to erect duplicates of Grecian temples...regardless of modern requirements of light, air and utility."

From 1926 to 1928, the embodiment of Corbett's vision rose over Allentown. Made of beams from Bethlehem Steel, the project drew workers from all over the Lehigh Valley. Deep footers called caissons gave the huge building a sure foundation. Higher and higher it rose, giving a Jazz Age rhythm to Victorian Hamilton Street.

Corbett felt only modern art could do his modern skyscraper justice. He selected Alexander Archipenko, a Ukrainian sculptor and contemporary of Picasso who studied art in Paris and largely rejected classical styles to embrace Cubism. Around the base of the building his reliefs feature abstract fish and gear wheels reflecting hydroelectric power. Other panels include bird and animal themes from Ukrainian folk tales. Although not Archipenko at his most radical, these sculptures were probably the first 20th century modernist sculpture on public display in the Lehigh Valley.

The PPL tower building opened in June 1928. It was hailed in the local press and soon acquired a national reputation. Its elevators were the fastest in the world. And the Encyclopedia Britannica edition for 1930 used it as the perfect example of the modern skyscraper.

Harvey Corbett died in 1954. By then his modern style was no longer pioneering but had been overtaken by the glass and steel buildings that his former student Harrison was constructing for the Rockefellers.

But Corbett was the pathfinder and his design for the PPL tower remains as the icon of an era and monument to his creativity.