At the Urban Outfitters headquarters in Philadelphia, a salvaged decompression chamber stands at the entrance and dogs romp on a lawn fronting a lagoon.
The clothing and accessory retailer is carving out its future in the defunct 1,200-acre Philadelphia Navy Yard, where mothballed aircraft carriers loom over the Delaware River waterfront and a neighboring business fabricates high-tech submarine propellers.
The company has spent $120 million so far to overhaul 330,000 square feet in six buildings, and it’s planning to convert two more. Far from ordinary warehouses, these are sturdy tile-roofed buildings. They’re all historic landmarks, low-slung Roman palaces with intricate brickwork and high arched windows.
Urban Outfitters was founded in Philadelphia in 1970 by Richard A. Hayne, 63, who is still president. As it grew, Hayne created other lines to expand the brand beyond the original college-age target, including Anthropologie and Free People.
While other fashion retailers have shrunk, Urban Outfitters has grown, rolling out Leifsdottir two years ago and working up a chain of house and garden stores called Terrain.
It continued expanding through the recession by cleverly channeling consumers’ fickle tastes. The company credits the navy yard architecture’s melange of old and new with helping attract staffers who know what works.
After it bought the buildings from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation for just a dollar, the company confronted abandoned, often-altered structures covered in rust, mold, flaking paint and graffiti.
Part of the secret to converting them was not doing too much.
Hint of Danger
The untidy evidence of decades of human use spoke to the Urban Outfitter ethos of eclectically layering esthetic ideas: a little geeky vintage, a little sexy rock ‘n’ roll, a hint of danger.
“They didn’t want everything cleaned up and made pure,” said Jeffrey Scherer of the Minneapolis architecture firm Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle.
“With Hayne, we worked through an aesthetic that the new thing should not interfere with the old thing,” Scherer said, “so that many periods of time could coexist.”
It was a painstaking process that has created a haunting grandeur bathed in daylight perfect for comparing fabric colors, textures and workmanship.
In converting the first buildings, Hayne and Scherer met weekly to decide what idiosyncrasies to keep, what to let go, and when to stop scraping paint and start stabilizing it. Scherer had to teach sandblasters to “treat their nozzles like a paintbrush not a scrub brush.”
Layers of paint and rust form Rorschach blotches across the steel beams and interior walls. Floors are reclaimed wood, with gouges, stains, and scratches intact. Massive, corroded anchor chains were turned into an artwork. Landscape architect Julie Bargmann shaped the sidewalks to trace old rail tracks and built self-draining plazas from broken concrete chunks.
In building 25, the newest addition to the campus, I crossed a wooden bridge over a sunken moss garden sprouting tropical plants. A long couch was covered with throw pillows in a variety of patterns and embroidery inspired by India, the signature of the company’s Free People brand.
Contractors had opened up the full 500-foot length of the building, revealing 18-foot ceilings, spidery roof trusswork, and clerestory windows that aim bands of light across the rows of open workstations.
Artful dishevelment reigns. Bolts of fabric overflow from desks not covered by scavenged knickknacks and idea-tweaking photos ripped from magazines. Clothes racks crowd the aisles and samples hang in window light from gauze-covered fiberboard partitions.
For a business whose stores are styled in flea-market chic, it’s not a stretch to locate in derelict workshops dating from the early 1900s at the bedraggled southern edge of the city.
Still, it’s rare for companies to avoid the brain-deadening cube farm and try to build their ethos so thoroughly into their workplace.
It’s too bad that the Urban Outfitters complex is far too messy and freewheeling a place for most companies. And the outre location? I can hear the condescending dismissal: it’s OK for a “creative” business.
Who can afford not to be creative these days?
As for the dogs out front, a key reason the company moved to the navy yard was to accommodate dog-owning staff. When they’re inside, the dogs curl up in soft beds under desks.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)