Any time changes are made to a historic building there will be controversy, especially when those changes involve digital media technologies. Critics will argue that these updates disrupt the integrity of the building or tarnish the character of its neighborhood. We believe, however, that thoughtfully designed digital experiences have the potential to enrich historic places.
Although it’s always important to respect historical context, it’s also important to remember that there was never a moment in time where a building or neighborhood was “perfect.” Even preservationists will tell you that an ideal state is an imaginary state. History is not static. History implies progress. History implies change.
At Bluecadet, our interdisciplinary team of designers, programmers, and architects believe that understanding the stories behind those changes is critical to extending the life and legacy of a historic structure. Our project for the Lit Brothers Building in Philadelphia is a perfect example of this approach.
In 1891, Philadelphia entrepreneurs Samuel and Jacob Lit opened what they called “A Great Store in A Great City” – a slogan proudly displayed on a billboard atop their Market Street department store, which operated in the city for nearly a century.
Today, the store may be gone, but the Lit Brothers’ name still lives on. So does their cast-iron-clad building near City Hall, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Once slated for demolition, Lit Brothers has been renovated and revitalized as a mixed-use building and a cultural landmark in the city’s Market East District. Bluecadet was asked to design a new entry marquee that evoked the Lit Building’s early twentieth-century heyday while incorporating early twenty-first-century technology.
So how did we do that?
First and foremost, we viewed it as a placemaking project rather than a digital signage project. It was, for us, an opportunity to define and program a new space in the public realm – a responsibility we take very seriously. We began with the architecture. Inspired by early twentieth-century commercial marquees, which often incorporated lighting and signage, we designed a new canopy as a natural extension of the existing street-level storefronts, creating an immediately identifiable public entrance where one has never before existed.
The Lit Brothers name is written in neon across the top of the marquee, illuminating the entry and the building’s heritage to a city that previously only knew it, if they knew it at all, as “the cast-iron building.”
We designed the entry to seamlessly incorporate three digital screens—one on the underside of the canopy and two flanking the interior vestibule. It’s a combination of old and new that almost feels like it’s always been there, with architecture, art, and technology working in unison to create a new sense of place. Architecture marks the building’s entrance, while the dynamic digital element engages passers-by and entices them into its atrium with a welcoming mix of content that includes historical imagery, abstractions of architectural ornament, seasonal displays, and original artwork commissioned specially for this project. Before the installation of this new entry there was no clear indicator that the building was open to the public, much less that it contained one of the city’s grand public spaces.
Local culture and context informed every design decision we made, from the architectural design to the digital content. Early on, we learned that the Lits Brothers Building itself is a strong precedent for how to successfully incorporate new architectural elements. It’s not a single building at all, but rather 33 separate buildings of different styles and structure—brick, steel, cast-iron—that were added to the original corner store over 20 years and eventually unified behind a new facade. These new digital signs are not only consistent with Lit’s architectural character and history of growth, but also with the rich tradition of Philadelphia’s celebrated mural arts program.
We believe it’s essential to build on an institution’s past to plan for its future. We’re inspired by the creative challenges of artfully weaving new technologies and experiences into historic fabric. We’ve learned to do the research, understand the context, and think critically about how to apply the lessons from that context to our work. Most importantly, when working with historic architecture, we don’t build over history, we build on it.