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Atop the White Tower

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Thumbnail image for Inquirer Newsroom.jpgThe first time I walked into the Inquirer building was in 1970 when I was a Temple student working the summer as an intern at the paper.  To say it was grungy is to be kind.  The paper's owner, Walter Annenberg, had not lavished money on the property, even though it had iconic status as the newspaper's headquarters.  The tall white tower was even featured on the masthead of the paper for years.

The story was that after the Newspaper Guild, which represented white-collar employees, went on strike in the 60's, Annenberg retaliated by never improving the office space.  So, the Fifth Floor Newsroom had a 1930's feel to it, with ancient typewriters and some surviving wooden desks, and yellowed (from the cigarette smoke) linoleum floors.  The staff, modest though it was in size, had long outgrown its quarters, so there was fierce competition over those worn desks.

John Knight had just purchased the Inquirer and Daily News from Annenberg and brought in Miami Herald editor John McMullen into the Inquirer to clean house. By that I mean the staff, not the physical facilities.

When Joe Miller, the paper's chief political writer (and an Annenberg factotum), was reassigned to Camden, N.J., there was almost a fistfight over who would get his desk, prized because it was close to a window.


Those were heady days for a young wannabe reporter. By the time I returned to the paper as a bona fide employee in 1976, McMullen was long gone - but so were many of the people I worked with that summer six years before.  Gene Roberts was executive editor and he was in the midst of leading an exciting journey that ended with the  Inquirer being considered among the best  American newspapers.

But, the infernal machine that is change never stops.  Those glory days are past. Philadelphia Media Network, the papers' third owner in five years, just announced sale of the building to Bart Blatstein, the local developer who probably plans to turn it into apartments, though he has not officially said so.  Blatstein already has been active along North Broad Street.  He closed a deal recently with the Commonwealth to purchase the state office building at Broad and Spring Garden and plans apartments and retail there.

Sale of the building is a bittersweet moment for me, like the day when your parents sell the family home, the place where you grew up.

But it makes economic sense.  There is too much building at 400 North Broad Street for the size of the staff of clerical and editorial employees who work there. 

The Inquirer Newsroom, which was moved to the end of the building that once housed the presses, is a huge space designed to hold 600 editorial employees.  Today, it is like one of those old European cathedrals - with interiors that are both glorious --  and mostly empty. Before I left in 2008, people had already appropriated some of the empty space for putting greens and mini-basketball courts. And no one is fighting over desks these days.  Reporters, who never want to throw anything away, now have that particular dream fulfilled.  They can now spread out their messes ad infinitum.

To the new owners of the company, the fact that the building is iconic is irksome. They want to be considered a modern, with-it company on the cutting edge of the media revolution. And where do they work from?  A 1920's Beaux Arts white tower that literally personifies the old media.  (That tower, by the way, isn't paint over concrete.  The fa├žade consists of white terra cotta tiles.)

When Annenberg sold the papers in 1969, he included a proviso that allowed him to keep his offices on the 12th floor for another decade.  It was the one exception to the general grunge there.  Once, as an intern, I was riding in an elevator when the operator (they had them in those days) accidentally stopped on the 12th and opened the door.  It was like peeking into a room at Versailles, with brocade wall paper and enough gilded French furniture to make Louis XIII happy.

In reality, it wasn't built as an office but as a residence.  Col. James Elverson, who owned the paper and built the white tower in the 1920's, lived there. (Now that's local ownership.)

In 1980, Annenberg's deal expired and workers began deconstructing the 12th floor to make it more office like.  I was one floor up, working on a long project, and would sometimes go down to sneak a peak.  It was a gorgeous 20's-era apartment, straight out of The Thin Man. Elegant carpentry White walls, a black-and-white bathroom (with its own steam room) and, as I remember them, bronze-and-glass mini-greenhouses that led out to a deck that overlooked the city.

When I stepped out on the deck and gazed south the city was laid out before me. It was a baronial view for the resident press baron.  And it wasn't just the view that was intoxicating. You got a sense of power over the city beneath you. A sense of ownership. And standing atop your white tower, you could be forgiven for having the illusion that it would last forever.

 

-- Tom Ferrick

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