As far as small business success stories go, Sophy Curson may well be one of the best in Philadelphia. Remarkably, this business has operated since 1929, selling designer dresses to generations of the city’s well heeled denizens. First the eponymously named store operated out of a second floor space at 124 S. 19th St., and focused on petite women’s fashions. The product lines slowly expanded and in 1951, Sophy Curson relocated to a larger space in a new building next door at 122 S. 19th St., a one-story Mid-Century Modern building designed by the owner’s brother-in-law. Today, the store is owned by Sophy’s niece and grand-nephew, and it continues to operate just a half block from Rittenhouse Square as it has for over ninety years.

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Sophy Curson building

The building at 122 S. 19th St. is more or less the same as it was when it was constructed shortly after World War Two. When the building was first built, it surely stood out from its surroundings in historic and staid Rittenhouse. Today, however, the building is a clear example of an architectural approach which fell out of style decades ago, and actually represents a specimen that could be considered historic. As such, the property was nominated to the local Historic Register about two years ago, as one of the best examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture in Center City. Interestingly, it appears that the Historical Commission hasn’t yet added the property to the local register, probably thanks to Covid.

We rarely see historical nominations come around for buildings constructed so recently. Nevertheless, we’re all about Mid-Century Modern architecture! We appreciate the unusual nature of this building and would be delighted to see it stick around forever. There’s just one little fly in the ointment for us on this, and it’s the fact that the building represents a ridiculous underuse at a highly desirable location. This is quite literally one of the best addresses in Philadelphia and a one-story retail building, attractive though it may be, is far from the highest and best use here. High rise development nearby, like the ongoing and progressing Laurel project, puts a pretty fine point on the types of projects we’re seeing around here of late.

Adjacent building on Sansom Street
Looking up

It seems that the owners of Sophy Curson understand that their property could be used for bigger things. They have submitted a conceptual application to the Historical Commission for a proposal to build an addition on their building and the adjacent structure on Sansom Street. The plans call out a seven-story addition on the 19th Street building and a four-story addition on the Sansom building. Campbell Thomas has worked up a massing study for what we can only assume would be a residential project.

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Proposed massing
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View on Sansom Street
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Aerial view

Again, these images only represent an initial idea on how these additions could relate to the existing buildings and will likely change some in terms of setbacks, with feedback from the Historical Commission. At this point, we have no idea what this addition will actually look like, as those drawings have not yet been produced, or at least they haven’t been shared publicly. But the initial response from the Historical Commission seems to be favorable, which tells us that they’re likely to ultimately get behind some version of this plan. Assuming that happens, we’ll see this longtime underuse finally move in a more appropriate direction, while fortunately maintaining the wonderful building that’s there today. As the application notes, Mid-Century Modern buildings have successfully supported additions before in Philadelphia, and we believe that will again be the case at the Sophy Curson building.