A Look Back at the PSFS Building, the First Modern Skyscraper in the United States

PSFS Building. Image from Hagley Digital ArchivesPSFS Building. Image from Hagley Digital Archives

The Loews Philadelphia Hotel, formerly known as the PSFS Building, located at 1200 Market Street in the Market East section of Center City, is a remarkable skyscraper for Philadelphia as the building was ahead of its time when it was built. Upon completion, it was the most massive structure in the skyline as the large, T-shaped tower rose almost as high as the clock tower of City Hall. The 36-story building originally stood at a height of 491 feet, the first skyscraper to be built just under the informal Gentleman’s Agreement height limit. The International Style tower was designed by George Howe and William Edmond Lescaze. William later on went to design One New York Plaza just three years before his death in 1969. The developer of the skyscraper was the Philadelphia Savings and Fund Society, which still has their iconic initials attached to the east and west sides of the blue crown above the main roof.

PSFS Hotel construction. Image from phillyhistory.org

PSFS Hotel construction. Image from phillyhistory.org

Banks had been scrambling for floor space in Philadelphia just before the Great Depression, and the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society had selected the site of the former William Penn Charter School to construct its skyscraper. PSFS’ President James M. Wilcox had approved the architects after the board of directors selected them in November 1930.

Loews Hotel (left) in the Philadelphia skyline. Photo by Thomas Koloski

Loews Hotel (left) in the Philadelphia skyline. Photo by Thomas Koloski

The tower was built by the George A. Fuller Company as an all-steel structure, which started to rise out of the ground in July 1931. The skyscraper rose incredibly fast back then, and the structure had reached the top by December and cladding reached the top at the end of the month. The PSFS Building had opened on August 1, 1932 with a mixture of polished granite, light gray limestone, and glazed and unglazed black brick. The large television antenna that extends the buildings height to 792 feet was installed on the south side of the roof in 1948. The tower was also converted into the Loews Hotel from 1998 to the opening of April 2000.

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13 Comments on "A Look Back at the PSFS Building, the First Modern Skyscraper in the United States"

  1. The PSFS Building was the first international skyscraper built in the United States and is a national historic landmark in Center City Philadelphia, PA, USA.

  2. And an art deco style which is still vogue as the Lowe. The William Penn Charter School, where did they move ti?

  3. Andrew Porter | March 29, 2021 at 9:38 am | Reply

    For years, the joke among Philadelphia’s science fiction fans was that the PSFS actually stood for “Philadelphia Science Fiction Society,” a club which still exists today.

    • Do you remember the CP building?

      CP = Central Penn National Bank.

      I’m sure some would believe that CP stood for Central Philadelphia.

  4. John L Hemphill | March 29, 2021 at 2:59 pm | Reply

    I remember many skyscraper enthusiasts use to try to say that the PSFS Building was the building in Philadelphia because its antenna was above 790 feet over the city but of course we were often told this attempt to push the height of the skyline up didn’t count for obvious reasons.

  5. PSFS was the first bank my mother set up a savings account for me. The building is art deco like my 1947 Parker 51 Fountain Pen. Looking north you can see the building next to John Wanamaker which was torn down in 1973 by Donald Pulver when he built 1234 later purchased and occupied by SEPTA. Looking next to the PSFS building you can see the Snellenberg department store until it was torn down to two stories high and served as the location be of descript businesses in until be replaced by two apartment towers with retail.

    Now it is the Lowes hotel and the fave place for sports teams to sleepover be in Philly.

  6. george e thomas | March 30, 2021 at 9:09 am | Reply

    So much misinformation – the idea of a “gentleman’s agreement” came in the 1950s from Ed Bacon – and had nothing to do with the height of PSFS. Its purpose was to keep the identity of Philadelphia in the Quaker city – with Penn above it all – but the impact of course was to kill the future of the city by closing off the possibilities of transformation. Fortunately Rouse stated that he was no gentleman.

    • Hello George, the article specifically states, “The 36-story building originally stood at a height of 491 feet, the first skyscraper to be built just under the informal Gentleman’s Agreement height limit.” We state this due to the building to be the first tower to stand under the William Penn Statue, however the information you provided is also extremely important so we thank you.

      • I don’t believe this.

        When Philadelphia was building City Hall, it was originally designed to be the world’s tallest building.

        Due to delays, it took 30 years to build and in that span of time, the Eiffel tower and the Washington monument were both built taller.

        Having missed the opportunity for a world’s record, a gentleman’s agreement was established to prevent any building in Philadelphia from being built taller; enduring that the title of city’s tallest is never erased.

        Edmund Bacon, the executive director of the city planning commission enforced the gentleman’s agreement.

        When Willard G. Rouse, III wanted his development to reach the sky, John Street helped negotiate a deal with the city planning commission to make that happen.

        I can talk about this all day, but suffice it to say, Philadelphia has a rich history.

        On a side note; former mayor Frank Rizzo was opposed to breaking the gentleman’s agreement. 🙁

  7. My grandfather worked in the Bourse building in Philadelphia in the 1930’s and he told visiting business people that PSFS stood for Philadelphia Slowly Facing Starvation

  8. George,

    Wilson Goode was the mayor at that time. He negotiated the agreement with the city planning commission so that Willard Rouse III could build taller than City Hall.

  9. When Rouse intended to have his building break the Gentlemen’s Agreement on height the City held hearings. I testified against the Rouse proposal. My name was in the paper and I have been in hiding ever since.

    • Vitali Ogorodnikov | February 9, 2022 at 7:03 pm | Reply

      That’s fascinating. What was the gist of your opposition to the proposal? Clearly, most of us here are/were in support of the project, but at this point it’s history and all sorts of historical perspectives are interesting. No need to be “in hiding” here, I’ll moderate any overly mean responses if need be 😛

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