For the DesignPhiladelphia Festival guidebook this year, we asked four members of the design community to reflect on iconic design in the city – from places to objects. First up, Elise Vider writes about the PSFS sign. Timely, as the PSFS building is back in conversation.
As you’re walking the city, consider -
What design elements make Philadelphia unique to you?
Think about the spaces and places that make you linger.
PSFS Spells Home
By Elise Vider
The PSFS sign atop Loews Hotel Philadelphia (1200 Market Street) is a four-letter primer on 20th century design, a quickie lesson in architecture, typography, historic preservation, urbanism and corporate identity.
When I moved to Philly in 1984, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society was still around, but the sign was already an iconic element on the city’s skyline. (With the battle raging over tall buildings, the sign pretty much was the skyline.)
In 1929, when Howe and Lescaze designed the first International Style skyscraper in the U.S., the 27-foot-tall sign was a radical element, widely considered the first incorporation of advertising into architecture (maybe not a great idea in retrospect) and the first use of acronym-as-logo. Its form is Futura Light, then a brand-new typeface that perfectly echoes the design; its function is to hide mechanical equipment.
The sign quickly engaged the public as great design can. Visible for 20 miles, it stayed lit during the Depression to telegraph PSFS’s stability. In 1990, a new bank owner briefly extinguished it – to public outrage. In 2000, during the hotel conversion, a short-lived preservation skirmish arose over altering the sign to read “Loews.”
Today, “PSFS” is dwarfed by the city’s skyline. But to me it symbolizes another four-letter word: “home.”
Elise Vider is a writer/editor/project manager for print and electronic publications, with a specialty in design and economic development.