Thursday, June 2, 2011

Curtis Center, Public Ledger on market

by Natalie Kostelni

"The Curtis Center and Public Ledger, two office buildings overlooking Independence Mall, are up for sale and join a growing list of Center City commercial properties hitting the market.

The buildings are owned by a fund involving Apollo Global Real Estate. A partnership that included local real estate investor Joe Grasso and a fund managed by Citi Property Investors originally bought the buildings in 2006. Since then, Grasso’s involvement diminished and the Citi-related fund was sold off to Apollo.

In 2006, the Curtis Center sold for $94 million, and Public Ledger traded for $43 million. If these properties sell, it will help illuminate where the downtown office investment market now stands. As of now, 1700 Market St. is up for sale and reportedly under agreement for an estimated $135 million. A local investor has also tied up Two Penn Center, also on the market.

The Curtis Center and Public Ledger are two of the largest buildings in the Independence Square office submarket. The submarket has a vacancy rate of 13.4 percent. Usually a tight submarket, it has seen some tenant defections in the last year, such as Wolters Kluwer, which relocated to the Central Business District.

The two buildings will be marketed as a pair. The brokers and owners involved declined comment.

The Curtis Center totals 885,000 square feet at 124 S. 6th St. It is 94 percent occupied with the General Services Administration as one of its lead tenants. The building has a 350-space underground garage that can be expanded.

The 12-story building, which also overlooks Washington Square, was constructed between 1909 and 1921 for $3 million by publishing magnate Cyrus H.K. Curtis for his company’s headquarters. There The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal and other magazines were published. It was designed by architect Edgar Viguers Seeler.

Curtis incorporated several amenities for his employees that were considered unusual at the time. Some of those perks included a purified drinking water system, stocked library, an infirmary that could accommodate minor surgery, recreation rooms, food service, a roof garden and special lighting, as well as an ice-cooled air circulation system.

While the building was under construction, Curtis commissioned Maxfield Parrish and Louis Comfort Tiffany to create a glass mosaic for the building’s lobby that became the artistic treasure called “Dream Garden.” Completed in 1916, the five-ton masterpiece stands 15 feet by 49 feet and became a point of controversy. The dispute that arose over the mosaic came to light in 1998 when it was revealed that Steve Wynn, the casino owner, offered to buy it from the estate of John W. Merriam, which owned the artwork. Wynn eventually decided against buying the mosaic and the question of how to preserve the piece swirled around for years until November 2001, when the Pew Charitable Trusts decided to pledge $3.5 million to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to acquire the mosaic.

The building is also renowned for its historical renovation. A previous owner bought the building in 1984 from Merriam for $25 million and launched a $75 million renovation. The face-lift included prettying up the hand-carved walnut paneling, decorative moldings and marble floors. A 13,000-square-foot courtyard was transformed into a 12-story enclosed atrium with a vaulted glass roof and is now used as a prime spot to host special events.

Its sister building, Public Ledger, has a less flamboyant history. The 12-story, 456,000-square-foot building at 620 Chestnut St. is about 92 percent occupied. It was designed by Horace Trumbauer and built in 1924 as home to the city’s first penny journal called the Public Ledger, which was also owned by Curtis. It’s listed on the National Register as a historic property."

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