Filling a Historical Gap: Behind Philly’s Tallest Residential Tower

6 min read

The 48-story high-rise in the metro's Rittenhouse Square is an iconic addition to the city's skyline.

Clara Wineberg on Philly's tallest residential tower
Clara Wineberg, Principal & Executive Director, SCB. Image courtesy of SCB

Designing a building for the last available parcel in a historic neighborhood is quite a challenge for any architect. Couple that with the ambition of erecting the tallest residential tower in the city, and the stakes go even higher.

Envisioned by SCB and developed by Southern Land Co., The Laurel is a 583,000-square-foot mixed-use tower currently under construction on the last undeveloped parcel in Philadelphia’s iconic Rittenhouse Square. The 48-story high-rise is set to include 66 condominiums, 184 luxury rental units, as well as 44,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space with fronting on three streets.

Clara Wineberg, principal & executive director at SCB’s Boston office, revealed the ins and outs of this iconic project that is set to change the city’s skyline. 

The Laurel, Philly's tallest residential towerHow does The Laurel relate to the historic neighborhood of Rittenhouse Square? 

Wineberg: Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square is a fantastic urban amenity, with buildings reflecting various eras of urban living. Buildings range from classically inspired historic to mid-century modern, with a couple more reflecting a Brutalist expression.

The design of The Laurel provides a nod to the rhythms of the pre-war buildings with a strong base, an elegant tower, distinctive top and sophisticated palette of materials. Its proportions deliver a forward and contemporary expression that provides expansive glazing and large terraces that denote modern luxury living—while also keeping in mind the historic nature of Rittenhouse Square.

What sets this residential tower apart from other luxury residences? 

Wineberg: The Laurel is an incredibly complex mixed-use project, with a significant retail program, condominiums and apartments, all within a narrow site—all competing for Walnut Street frontage. The Laurel’s Walnut Street side is only 105 feet wide, anchored by historic townhouses on the west and the significant Rittenhouse Plaza building on the east.

The Walnut Street facade is both reminiscent of the historic fabric with its materials, while also confident and inspiring with its scale and ability to provide hierarchy and entries for competing uses. SCB is proud of the impact and level of sophistication we are bringing to the Walnut side. It is fresh, but also respectful.

What were the main challenges in designing the city’s tallest residential tower? 

Wineberg: We wanted to carefully position the tower away from Rittenhouse Plaza so we could benefit from a gracious distance between the buildings. Since the site is a bit narrow, we worked hard to ensure the core was efficient, thus limiting its impact on the floorplate—which required very careful study between units, core, gravity and lateral system.   

From a design standpoint, we were very cognizant that we wanted this addition to the Square to be mindful of the past, while also making The Laurel a forward-looking aesthetic of its own time and place. 

  • The Laurel, Philly's tallest residential tower
  • The Laurel, Philly's tallest residential tower
  • The Laurel, Philly's tallest residential tower
  • The Laurel, Philly's tallest residential tower
  • The Laurel, Philly's tallest residential tower

As the residential tower features condominiums and rental apartments, the design team developed separate programs for the two portions. What are the main differences between the two? 

Wineberg: Both programs sought a feeling of luxury, with the condominiums focused on exclusivity. The condo amenities offer sweeping views of Philadelphia, while the apartment amenities have a more garden feel and urban connection.  

Please tell us a few more details about the common-area amenities that residents can enjoy.

Wineberg: Fitness areas, cozy lounge areas, a spectacular outdoor amenity garden with cabanas and private outdoor kitchen for the condominium owners. The Laurel also features wellness-focused amenities such as indoor and outdoor pools, a yoga studio, a library, a music room and even a game room. 

What is the target buyer and renter pool for the units? 

Wineberg: Southern Land is seeing a great deal of interest from local buyers seeking to reengage with the city and move from their Main Line or nearby suburban homes.  

On the renter side, we had the young professional in mind as we considered units and amenities. The mixture of condos and apartments has allowed us to attract various targets within Philadelphia’s diverse population, ushering in a new era of luxury living.  

To what extent has the health crisis impacted the design of the project? 

Wineberg: We started designing The Laurel in 2015, so construction was well underway by the time we entered the COVID-19 pandemic. Amenities are well-suited for a wellness-focused high-rise living.

Units have gracious balconies, outdoor terraces, separate outdoor decks and separate fitness facilities along separate lounges—to incorporate increased connections to nature and prioritization of health, with all the benefits of urban living.  

Mixed-use has been the talk of the town since the pandemic bent traditional working models towards flexibility. Do you have any other mixed-use buildings in the making? 

Wineberg: We have several mixed-use projects underway at SCB, such as a prominent project in San Francisco dubbed 30 Van Ness, where we are in construction of a large condo and office project. Another notable mixed-use development is Four Seasons Nashville, which will provide luxurious amenities and regal design for its 5-star hotel and 143 condominium units.

Major talent urban centers have seen increasing land values—backed by innovation, tech or life science growth drivers—while mixed-use developments have also grown in popularity.

Although more complicated for our developer clients in assembling their equity partners, a mixed-use project can sometimes allow maximization of land values without putting the burden of the financial model on one use. For example, our clients can right-size each program.  

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