PCA headquarters is a national historic landmark
Since 1990, Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) has called the Wallace Building, at 642 N. Broad St., its home. PCA initially leased space for its offices, then as programming for older Philadelphians grew and its staff increased, PCA purchased the national historic landmark for its operations.
But long before PCA occupied the facility as its headquarters, 642 N. Broad St. held a significant place in Philadelphia’s history of department stores and clothing manufacturing. In 1888, Nathan Snellenburg, owner of Snellenburg Clothing on Market Street, contracted with architects William Steele and Sons to build a clothing manufacturing facility and warehouse on the north side of Broad Street in what was known as Garment Row.
The Wallace Building, named for its location at the intersection of Wallace and Broad streets, consists of two grand limestone and red brick buildings constructed from 1903-1905. The buildings are Romanesque structures featuring a prominent, handsome seven-story central tower split into a north and south side. Dozens of six-foot windows let in plenty of light and ventilation during manufacturing.
Serving as both an attractive landmark and a lifesaver, the tower atop the factory concealed a state-of-the-art fighting system, with a massive water tank and hoses. The firefighting features were not limited to the tower. Fireproof stairwells, now standard in multi-story buildings, were installed at each corner of the seven-story building. Even the
elevators were equipped with fire extinguishers to keep workers and visitors safe. Another innovation for the time was the inclusion of a women’s restroom on each floor.
A private driveway still runs between the main building and its adjacent western building. It was originally used for the delivery of raw clothing materials and shipping of finished products. Overhead, a skyway connects the two buildings on the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors.
The Wallace Building has seen its fair share of transformation in its over 120 years of existence, including being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. It was considered so impressive that local architectural firms and even the Philadelphia Housing Authority once called it home.
PCA has seen its range of services expand while its footprint within the building has also grown. Over its 33-year residency, PCA has invested in several upgrades to the building which increase its efficiency and further support PCA’s ability to serve Philadelphia’s older adults. Improvements include replacing all exterior windows, converting the entire structure to LED lighting, installing automatic-open doors throughout, and rehabbing the more than 17,000-square foot 6th floor into an event space for PCA gatherings.
These efforts have earned PCA the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR certification for superior energy performance, a designation reserved for buildings that use 35% less energy, cause 35% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and are less expensive to operate.
“We’re honored to be recognized for superior energy performance for the Wallace Building and are proud of its efficient operation,” said PCA’s Director of Housing Mark Myers. “Saving energy is just one of the ways we show our community we care. Energy efficiency allows us to save money on building operations, reduce waste and serve more of our community. We’re also committed to doing our part to protect the environment and public health for future generations.”
Modernization efforts allow the building to remain a vital and prominent structure in the city of Philadelphia. When one walks the halls of the Wallace Building, you can feel the historical significance of the building to Philadelphia. As the agency reflects on its 50th anniversary, on Dec. 3, 2023, the decades spent in the Wallace Building have been a time of growth. PCA launched its Heatline, helping callers of all ages stay healthy during a heat health emergency, and centralized its information and referral services through the PCA Helpline call center. The following services were also added: home-delivered meals, in-home care, community outreach and Victims Support Program. [For more of PCA’s accomplishments over its 50 years of service, see this timeline.]
PCA’s tenure within the Wallace Building has also seen its initial Executive Director Rodney D. Williams retire after 39 years, then Holly Lange and later Dr. Najja R. Orr being named the agency’s president and CEO. Lange and Orr continued the agency’s drive to grow the resources it offers older adults throughout Philadelphia, whether that be help in the home, community and connection, or safety and security.
As it happens, one of PCA’s longest tenured employees has worked with every leader and executive since 1984. As we all count down the weeks to the new year, Burma Hart-Thrower, executive assistant and office services manager, is planning her retirement. In addition to witnessing the transformation of the 30 person-centered programs and services of PCA, she also speaks animatedly about the warmth of the “home” that PCA has made just across the street from the Divine Lorraine and a brisk walk from Philadelphia City Hall.
“One of my fondest memories about PCA over the years is how, from ourearl y days here, Rodney D. Williams would every Friday without fail, walk through the different departments to chat with employees to get to know them on a very human and personal level so they knew they mattered, regardless of their position,” said Hart-Thrower. As the agency grew, he kept up that tradition.
Today, the Wallace Building provides more than 400 PCA employees with an impressive history and a sound, solid place to call home. “I’m thrilled that I’ve worked here long enough to see that our current CEO, Najja R. Orr, despite the pandemic, changing agency cultures and growing consumer needs, is building his own legacy by continuing the feeling of family, heart and home, right here at 642 North Broad St.”
For more information about PCA’s services for older adults, call the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040 or go to pcaCares.org.
This article was jointly written by Bill Conallen, Elizabeth Long and Alicia Colombo – members of Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s Communications Team.