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Philadelphia, the nation’s first capital city, is coming back into power. All sectors of the city’s real estate markets are heating up. Buildings are being renovated, old warehouses are being converted into creative adaptive re-use and new construction (as in the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Tower and the dual-branded W Philadelphia and Element Philadelphia) is off the charts. And, it hasn’t hurt that up-and-coming graduates from this community’s menu of prestigious colleges and universities are staying on to live and work here. That trend helped ignite a construction boom for multi-family living units, restaurants, retail, hotels and nightclubs.

Even the legendary Philadelphia Zoo, built in 1859, is adding to this new wave of excitement with the June 4 ground-breaking for a state-of-the art LEED dining facility. Part of a sweeping initiative to upgrade and update this Victorian-era landmarks’ F&B offers, the new 20,000-sq.ft., two-story Earth & Elm restaurant (named for a 200-year-old English Elm tree on the site) will offer 650 seats, a rooftop deck, green roof infrastructure, a glass-enclosed pavilion and multiple dining concepts. The opening is set for next spring.

Earth & Elm | Rooftop Deck

Daroff Design Inc. + DDI Architects, PC, the project’s master planner, architect, and interior designer, explore the very current and pertinent idea of integration. Boundaries have been collapsing as functions blend into one communal experience. But for this project, the concept of free-flowing, multi-tasking spaces isn’t just about general. It links directly to the new ZOO 360 mission, which officials speaking at the event summed up as, “When you move around the zoo, the zoo moves around you.”

Barriers for where zoo animals and visitors can move around are changing. Carefully designed runs and trails that allow for the animals to have more freedom of movement and an increased variety in the environments they can access, which, hopefully will make a for happier and healthier life for them. This redesign also gives visitors get a closer look at animal habitats and a more “lifestyle” look at these beautiful creatures.

Earth & Elm | Dining Room

The new zoo restaurant Earth & Elm advances that no-boundaries thinking with a layout and FF&E that not only blurs the lines between inside and outside but also forges a fresh fusion between a restaurant and an education center.

In my view as a designer, DDI’s president and design principal Karen Daroff, principals Sven Schroeter, AIA, and Thomas Daley, AIA, associate Richard Lanning, RA, project architect Chris Greene, AIA, Louis Iannone, interior designer, and their team did an outstanding job in creating a must-see destination restaurant.  At the groundbreaking, they shared with me some of their inspirations:

  • Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” inspired the use of local Wissahickon schist stone and the wrap-around, floating terraces.
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium served as a model in its organization and dramatic  connections to nature.
  • Shofuso Japanse House and Garden inspired architectural details and the strategic framing of views to the landscape.
Philadelphia Zoo | Exterior

While the material palette is mainly industrial, the space is elevated into something more than the expected exposed-brick-and-Edison-bulb cliché by how the clever design fits into the landscape. All of the activity options intersect inside the double-height glass entry, featuring a floating, sculptural steel stair. Other design elements include floating, backlit ceilings accented with a cloud of pendant light fixtures, an organic patterned perforated metal façade which acts as a landmark by day and a beacon by night, and an overhanging occupiable green roof. The challenging budget was met with creativity by the Daroff Design team. They recruited various suppliers who over-delivered on value-for-money for this worthy civic cause.

Philadelphia Zoo | Stair Foyer

The restaurant is like a great piece of art that resonates as your perspective changes. It’s also completely visionary in terms of how multi-faceted it is and how it answers the diverse needs of the zoo’s broad visitor base. Because of its fluid design, it can be all things to all people:

  • It’s a learning center that teaches about natural processes and building technology. Visitors enter the building across a bridge spanning visible, functional rain gardens that manage storm water. Inside, an interactive display serves as a building “dashboard”, showing real-time statistics like water savings and fuel consumption.
  • It’s a food court with a variety of offering serving 600 people on multiple levels, inside and out.
  • It’s an entertainment center with two levels of outdoor terraces providing dramatic views to the adjacent giraffe habitat and other animal exhibits, the Bird Lake with its boats, and the city skyline beyond.
  • It’s a gathering space for children’s parties but also meetings, weddings, and the still unexpected.
  • It’s a destination for social events, with a beer garden on the green roof that’s perfect for parents and corporate parties alike.
Philadelphia Zoo | Servery

With more than 1.2 million people a year venturing through its historic gates, the zoo hopes to reshape, rethink, reinvent how people experience zoos. Earth & Elm will be a big part of that.

Floss Barber is the founder and ceo of Philadelphia-based interior design firm Floss Barber Inc.