Past Meets Future: Philadelphia's Historic and Cutting-Edge Construction

The Museum of the American Revolution’s collection began more than a century ago when a minister in Valley Forge raised money to buy the original tent that George Washington used as his command center. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.

Philadelphia, the birthplace of U.S. independence, is a city that evolves while also reflecting on its past. Its new Museum of the American Revolution showcases this history with snapshots frozen in time. Conversely, the Rail Park has reincarnated an abandoned railway as a tree-filled park where people can stroll and view the city skyline. Meanwhile, the PennFIRST Pavilion, a state-of-the-art hospital, celebrates the future of medicine and healthcare on the site known previously as Penn Tower.

Museum of the American Revolution

Tourists flock each year to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. A new addition is the Museum of the American Revolution, an 118,000-square-foot museum that displays weapons, household items, clothing and life-size dioramas, including one in which George Washington is breaking up a fight between troops.

Working in a design-assist capacity, Gordon Group Electric, an electrical contractor based in Feasterville-Trevose, Pa., provided the wiring and exhibit lighting.

Educators share stories with visitors in the galleries. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.
Educators share stories with visitors in the galleries. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.

“Our biggest challenge was getting the project into budget without mitigating the design intent by altering our installation methods and suggesting other ways of doing the wiring and fixtures to reduce the price and have the same effect,” said Steve Lagreca, project manager, Gordon Group Electric.

Since the building’s architecture was wide open and it wasn’t possible to conceal the wiring above the ceiling—it had to be installed in columns on the periphery—Gordon Group was challenged to figure out the best paths for the power conduits.

Visitors explore the origins of the Revolution with interactive exhibits.
Visitors explore the origins of the Revolution with interactive exhibits. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.

According to Lagreca, exhibit lighting was very intricate work.

“The fixtures had many different beam angles from narrow to wide beam that had to be positioned to shine on items or displays that were being featured in just the right way,” Lagreca said. “For areas with changing exhibits, we had to put lights in that were completely adjustable to adapt to the featured scenes. We installed lighting on racks that could be moved depending on the exhibit to accommodate the changing scenes.”

Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution
Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution

Perhaps the trickiest display to light was Washington’s Headquarters Tent, his dwelling and office in the field during the war. Preserved for generations by his family, it is now a featured exhibit in the museum. It is fragile, so it is enclosed behind glass in a climate-controlled room.

“The challenge was to install lights to show the different parts of the tent,” Lagreca said.

Visitors can do hands-on activities on this life-size replica privateer ship. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.
Visitors can do hands-on activities on this life-size replica privateer ship. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.

Rail Park

In the 1890s, a steel viaduct was built to carry passenger and freight trains into downtown Philadelphia known as Center City. Almost 100 years later in 1984, the train traffic came to a halt. The Center City District and the community-based Friends of the Rail Park, Philadelphia’s City Commerce Department, and the Department of Parks and Recreation saw an opportunity to create a park-railway that would enliven a part of the city of that was one-third vacant and undeveloped.

The plan was to clean and spruce up the viaduct structure where there had been derelict tracks, create a park atmosphere with spectacular views of the city and create an opportunity to further residential and light commercial development. Center City District took on the role of managing the project, raising all the funds and overseeing the design and construction process. As a subcontractor to A.P. Construction, Shelly Electric Co. Inc. was the EC on the project.

“Our office is right across from the rail line, so it was important for us to be part of this project to change the neighborhood,” said Adam Shelly, project manager, Shelly Electric.

When complete, Rail Park will be a three-mile public greenway connecting 10 neighborhoods with pathways and gathering spaces for pedestrians, bicyclists and visitors. Courtesy of Center City District
When complete, Rail Park will be a three-mile public greenway connecting 10 neighborhoods with pathways and gathering spaces for pedestrians, bicyclists and visitors. Courtesy of Center City District

Access to the elevated rail, the site of the future Rail Park, was at street crossings—Callowhill Street, 12th Street and Noble Street.

“When we started, the rail was rotted, the metal corroded, and we had to install light fixtures above and below the crossings, working around and coordinating with other contractors doing the landscaping, metal work and irrigation,” Shelly said.

The Lighting Practice, a company with offices in Philadelphia and New York City, specified the fixtures, created the lighting plan and detailed the design intent for all fixture mountings.

“We worked closely with Shelly to make the details real and make the system robust and maintainable,” said Alfred Borden, founder of The Lighting Practice. “Their craftsmanship and engineering expertise made them very effective teammates.”

For example, lights were mounted on poles and within the handrails, and the top of a hand-railing that continuously edges the whole park for a quarter-mile was used as the electrical conduit.

Courtesy of Center City District
Courtesy of Center City District

“We had to take that light fixture that was originally designed as a step light and figure out a way to mount it to a pedestal and then power it from the hand rail behind it and try to be as discreet as possible,” Shelly said. “There were a lot of architectural features that called for us to use our engineering ability to figure out a way to power all the lights while also concealing all signs of our equipment. We tried to conceal everything and ran thousands of feet of conduit underneath the entire park, so we had to be spot on with where the fixtures were going to be. In addition, we had to put the hand holes and expansion joints in locations that wouldn’t take away from the aesthetic of the park.

“Irrigation was a moving target because we didn’t know where it would be. We had to make sure we were able to connect to the irrigation without disturbing the other components of the park that were already installed, for example, some of the planters and the sidewalks. In addition, the elevation changes on the bridge required we use expansion joints to make sure the conduit wouldn’t break as the bridge expanded or contracted during the different seasons.

“The entire park’s design, including the lighting, erred on the side of industrial to highlight the surroundings because historically it’s been a very industrial neighborhood. It’s changing now, but the organizers really wanted to keep that industrial, functional feel with metal benches with a rusted look. We worked closely with everyone to make it work,” Shelly said.

PennFIRST Pavilion

Wm. A.J. Shaeffer’s Sons Inc., is a family-owned electrical contractor based in King of Prussia, Pa., that was founded in 1908.

“We’re not far out of the ground, but we’re already ahead of the game,” said Bernie Shaeffer, partner at Wm. A.J. Shaeffer’s Sons. “I’m the third generation, and the fourth generation—my 32-year-old daughter Kate—is coming up.”

As the new generation moves in, the construction tools available are changing construction practices in ways that update and streamline the industry.

The PennFIRST Pavilion is a new inpatient hospital at the University of Pennsylvania on the site known previously as Penn Tower, which was demolished in 2016. Planned for 2021 completion, the Pavilion will house 500 private patient rooms and 47 operating rooms in a 1.5 million-square-foot, 17-story facility across from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Rooms in the PennFIRST Pavilion are designed to adapt from standard to intensive care. The builders are pursuing LEED certification. Courtesy Wm. A.J. Shaeffer’s Sons Inc.
Rooms in the PennFIRST Pavilion are designed to adapt from standard to intensive care. The builders are pursuing LEED certification. Courtesy Wm. A.J. Shaeffer’s Sons Inc.

Shaeffer attributes the advantage on the construction, a joint project of construction managers L.F. Driscoll and Balfour Beatty, to his company’s participation in integrated project delivery (IPD).

“Instead of getting contacted by a construction manager for a lump sum, we are part of the construction manager’s team with the owner,” Shaeffer said. “There are seven to eight key trade partners on the project, which includes the owner, designers and contractors that have all agreed to a budget and all signed on for the total budget of the job. At the end of the project, the profit will be split between the partners. For the past year, we’ve been assisting the engineers and architects, being part of the whole design piece of the job, to help design the job better, make it easier to build.”

All members of the construction team work in the same office, allowing for daily coordination. Since everyone does 3-D computer designs, all of the trades can work together.

“The key to the success of the project will be innovation with a heavy emphasis on off-site prefabrication,” said Warren Immel, project manager, Shaeffer Electric. “The work flow is that we will place the inserts—23,000 of them—in the metal pan decking before the concrete is poured so all our anchors are installed without the necessity of having to drill them afterward. With the inserts or anchors set at precise locations, we can then prep or prefab all the electrical racks, hangers and conduits and just install them in the inserts. All this will eliminate a lot of the layout and planning, which has traditionally been performed in the field. This would not be practical without an accurate building model and the time to produce it. To me, this is a key advantage to the IPD method.”

Courtesy Wm. A.J. Shaeffer’s Sons Inc.
Courtesy Wm. A.J. Shaeffer’s Sons Inc.

“For the past two years, we’ve been assisting the engineers and architects, being part of the whole design piece of the job, to help design the job better, make it easier to build,” Shaeffer said.

It’s a system that impacts the role of the project manager.

“We used to draw the different systems on paper or computers to coordinate how we would all fit in a tight space above the ceiling,” said Kevin Pinkerton, project manager, Shaeffer Electric. “We now do it remotely using Autodesk Revit’s latest technology, which has the most amount of information for coordination service. It’s brand new to the industry, and this is the first project we are using it with. We’re learning on the job, and we love it.”

It should be a good thing for the industry and its future generation.

“It’s a new way of delivering a large project, relatively new to the East Coast, pretty much a West Coast phenomenon, so it’s a grand experiment for us, particularly for a project of this size, and it’s been a pretty good experience,” Shaeffer said. “I hope it’s the way we do things in the future.”

All of this goes to show that Philadelphia, the center of the American Revolution in 1776, is a vibrant city today.

About the Author

Susan Casey

Freelance Writer

Susan Casey, author of "Women Heroes of the American Revolution," "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors," and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks...

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.