The Municipal Services Building is the quietest it’s been in decades. Weeks into the coronavirus shutdown, only a handful of city agencies continue to operate with limited staff out of the 18-story government tower, less clunkily known as MSB.
Most of the bureaucrats are working from home. Gone is the daily procession of grim-faced residents trying to pay their tax and water bills in the basement. Outside, the awkward dominoes and Parcheesi pieces look more forlorn than usual, as if they miss the skateboarders and protesters and selfie-takers who normally populate the granite tundra of Thomas Paine Plaza.
It seems as good a time as any to reflect on MSB itself — a place that Philadelphians have always felt some kinda way about.
Empty or not, the building and plaza have been a historic backdrop to life in Philly for more than half a century. It has been the staging ground for many demonstrations, from outcries over local policy to national protests during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Its plaza also remains home, for now, to the controversial statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo, who is currently waving his bronze hand at fewer people than usual.
Much like Rizzo, MSB has its lovers and haters.
Built in 1962, the building won numerous accolades from architectural critics, who praised the compact, efficient design that was in global vogue at the time. But even back then, the blocky, Brutalist structure rubbed people the wrong way — and not just because it’s where they were sent to pay bills.
“There are differences of opinion about the design of the Municipal Services Building and how much beauty it radiates,” the Inquirer reported upon its opening in 1965.
In an alternate universe, we might have gotten a futuristic zigzag tower shaped like a tetrahedron. Instead, we got MSB.
To some, it was a depressing ode to government mundanity; to others, an underappreciated landmark of Center City’s post-World War II rebirth. On a more practical level, MSB exists because the city was growing — and its government needed room to expand beyond City Hall.
A vision from Philly’s 1950s boom
Many U.S. cities saw surging growth periods in the post-WWII years, before the massive declines that would come to define the latter half of the century. In 1950, Philadelphia breached 2 million residents — the largest population it’s ever seen.
For then-Mayor Richardson Dilworth, this presented new planning challenges. The government had grown to accommodate its ballooning constituency, and City Hall was too small to house the various appendages of the state.
At the time, Dilworth was spending upwards of $500,000 on rent for outside office space. Meanwhile, Center City was getting a facelift. The old “Chinese Wall” that cut Center City in half was demolished. Legendary urban planner Edmund Bacon, often considered the grandfather of modern Philadelphia, was developing his grand vision for the city of the future — big towers with retail below and apartments above, all connected by a network of subterranean concourses with public transit. Underground parking garages, too.
The future also included structures like MSB.
In the area around City Hall, that vision was manifested by an architect named Vincent Kling. In some circles, this pocket of like-minded spaces is called the “Klingdom,” according to Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron.
Kling did JFK Plaza (a.k.a Love Park), Centre Square, One Meridian Plaza, and of course, the MSB campus, known then as Reyburn Plaza. All big office towers aproned by vast, low-maintenance public spaces.
‘Why not City Hall No. 3?’
Part of a global trend in architecture at the time, MSB was considered revolutionary for downtown Philadelphia. It was, to some extent, a symbol of the post-war rebirth of big city centers in the U.S.
Big news warranted big guests: Vice President Hubert Humphrey came to town to deliver a rosy speech at the building’s dedication ceremony in October 1965.
“We can and will rid our cities of the ugliness of slums and the ugliness of intolerance,” Humphrey remarked in the shadow of MSB, “and create instead not only beauty of design but beauty of spirit.”
But even from the early days of construction, the government obelisk didn’t exactly win over the locals. Observers lamented the dreary design, and even drearier name. “Municipal Services Building” sounds like a place streetsweepers go to “get oiled and greased,” one resident remarked in 1961. “Why not City Hall Number Three? That’s what it will be.”
The architecture world showered the building with awards, however, lauding the vaulted-ceiling lobby and other design elements. Emphasis was also placed on the then-glorious pragmatism of the 500,000-square-foot office space. Said one critic at the time: It’s nice to see buildings that “look as if they were meant to last.”
As the decades bore on, however, more attention turned toward the failures of these cold, sprawling campuses. Saffron, the Inky’s architecture critic, observed they essentially became “pedestals for buildings, rather than parks for people.”
“The consensus today, after a mere 30 years of use, is that the indulgent granite composition is a colossal failure,” Saffron wrote in 2009. “It never became a place where anyone wanted to linger. At best, it works as a crossroads.”
Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng’s futuristic tower that never was
It could have been worse — or better, depending on your aesthetic sensibilities.
Around the same time that Edmund Bacon was fashioning Philly’s Brutalist downtown, other local architects were drafting ideas that appeared radical in contrast.
Philly’s famed Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng came up with an idea in the mid-1950s called “City Tower,” a zig-zagging juggernaut of a skyscraper that looked like it crawled off the storyboard for a Blade Runner spinoff.
Kahn and Tyng believed in the idea of colossal government monuments spaced far apart and accessible to pedestrians only. They reportedly detested City Hall, and came up with the City Tower as an alternative. Their desired location: the plot of land next to the one from which MSB now rises.
Their City Tower is mind-boggling to look at, and, like the building that actually ended up getting constructed, it had serious skeptics. Philaphilia, a foul-mouthed sometimes-updated architectural blog in Philly, opined that the building would have looked obscene.
“It would be like if someone built a 5,000 foot tall model of a sphincter next to your house,” blogger GroJLart wrote in 2012. “You would hate it at first but a few years later you would just describe directions to your house as ‘next to the sphincter.’”
City Tower never came to be, but the idea is carried on by architecture nerds and city planners alike. The prototype for it has been widely exhibited, including at a recent local exhibit showcasing avant-garde ideas born in Philly.
Instead, MSB soldiers on — even during the pandemic.
Currently working there are some staffers in the Managing Director’s Office, Licenses and Inspections, Homeless Services, the Streets Department, the Treasurer’s Office and CLIP, the blight-removal arm of city government. It has also become a regular stop for folks involved with emergency COVID-19 operations, a city spokesperson said.
But even those people are working in staggered shifts to mitigate potential virus spread. So as Philadelphia waits out the peak, the Municipal Services Building remains mostly empty, standing by until society emerges from quarantine and gears up for a recovery.