There’s much more to this deceptively simple, skyscraper with the famous neon sign than meets the eye. It’s timeless!

“The PSFS Building is one of the city’s most important buildings,” claims Ken Hinde, former director of the Tour Program for the Foundation for Architecture.

“Why? I asked myself at one of Ken’s lectures. My untrained eye just couldn’t see it.

So I set up a meeting with Ken and his colleague, Arthur J. Petrella, one day recently at 1200 Market Street to better understand what I was missing. I came away a believer.

First, Arthur, a walking encyclopedia of Philadelphia history and architecture, pointed out the building’s three distinctive parts, coverings and colors.

Look carefully and you’ll see:

The highly polished gray granite-covered podium base, rounded at the12th and Market Street side. Inside were retail stores on the ground level, a large banking hall on the second floor, plus several floors of banking offices above – covered by sand colored limestone.

The office tower, which includes exposed vertical piers, is covered in the same sand-colored limestone. The tower rises some 30 stories.

And finally the rear wall of the service core, covering stairwells, elevators and utilities, is clad in glazed and unglazed black brick.

Not visible – but essential to the design – is a massive truss 16 ½ feet deep that spans the entire 63-foot width of the banking area. It carries the weight of the office tower.

At night, Petrella says, the tower “looks like it is floating on a delicate glass box.”

PSFS was designed by architects George Howe and William Lescaze – with significant input from PSFS president James M. Willcox.

The building, Petrella says, is both the first multi-story building air-conditioned in the world, and the first international-style skyscraper anywhere. Why international style? Because of its sleek modern look, glass facades, steel for exterior support, reinforced concrete inside, plus simplicity, openness and straight lines – with no applied ornamentation.

Want to see the difference between this and other styles? Compare the U.S. Custom House at 2nd and Chestnut Street with the PSFS Building, says Historic Landmarks of Philadelphia. Completed just two years after PSFS, it is massive, immense and ornate, as opposed to the simple, sleek and functional PSFS Building.

For banks, the PSFS Building was revolutionary. It exchanged earlier industry desires for fortress-like security and safety with newfound customer comfort and convenience.

5 things you may not know about the PSFS Building:

  • The Safe Deposit Vault contained over 18,000 boxes, more than any other bank in Pennsylvania.
  • Because the Depression drastically lowered prices for materials and labor, the PSFS Building actually cost $5 million less than originally estimated.
  • Even so, the building, branded in its sales brochures as “Nothing More Modern,” included the very best materials. Among them: stainless steel, luxurious varieties of marble, rare woods, leather and more.
  • Air-conditioning contributed greatly to the building’s success. Some 90% of prospective tenants listed it as the most appealing feature.
  • The iconic PSFS sign, with 27-foot-high letters that are visible for some 20 miles, actually covers up cooling equipment on the roof. The sign – one of the first to use the Futura Light font – was also one of the first branding elements designed right into a building. At the time, some joked that the letters meant: Philadelphia Slowly Facing S

FAST FACTS

Name: PSFS Building (Philadelphia Saving Fund Society)
Style: International
Architects: George Howe and William Lescaze
Constructed By: George A. Fuller Co.
Opened: August 1, 1932
Amenities: Cartier clocks in lobby and elevator lobbies; air conditioning; sound-absorbing acoustic tile; custom-built tubular steel furniture for the banking floor; radio outlets in every office.
Honors: U.S. National Register of Historic Places and U.S. National Historic Landmark. Called the United States’ first truly modern skyscraper by Architectural Review in 1957.
Cost: $7,420.942.37
Number of Stories: 36
Height: 491 feet high
Office Space: 375,000 sq. ft.
Reopened as Loews Philadelphia Hotel: 2000
Address: 1200 Market St., Phila., PA 19107
Style: Norman Romanesque
Construction Completed: 1873
Interior Completed: 15 to 20 years later
Tours: Tuesday thru Friday, 10 and 11 a.m., 1, 2 and 3 p.m.; Saturday, 10 and 11 a.m. and 12 noon. Call ahead to confirm
Costs: PA masons and active military, free; Adults: $13; students with I.D. $8; children 12 and under, $5; Senior citizens (65 and over), $7. See website for more details
Phone: Tours: (215) 988-1917; General Info: 215-988-1900
Website: pagrandlodge.org