Philadelphia’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams
The Schuylkill Expressway, a clogged four-lane artery into Center City Philadelphia, requires emotional stamina and automotive endurance. The eastbound lanes, crammed between wooded hills and the Schuylkill River, present a stop-and-go orchestra dictated by traffic volume, weather, and sudden exits. Drivers slowly pass trains, the ubiquitous Action News ZooBalloon, and remnants of Philadelphia’s industrial past before the city’s skyline emerges beneath the arched Girard Bridge.
The expressway leads to a stunning structural and arboreal vista of gleaming glass and water. Boathouse Row, 19th-century gingerbread houses that designate allegiance to university rowing clubs, charmingly commands the languid river. On warmer afternoons, rowers furiously keep pace with bikers along Kelly Drive, an alternative route for wearied commuters. Just beyond the boat houses is the Fairmount Water Works, an elegant reminder of the city’s history of municipal innovation. Dominating the entire scene, stoic and majestic above Fairmount Park and beneath rising skyscrapers, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Art Museum, a yellow-hued neoclassical masterpiece, overlooks a flag-lined linear boulevard that leads to City Hall. This impressive stretch, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, marks its centenary this year. From the air, the Parkway resembles a Parisian thoroughfare of monuments, buildings, and trees. But a closer inspection leads to apprehension. A century after its creation, the Parkway appears unfinished, an assembled boulevard of pedestrian confusion, architectural contrasts, and impaired urban scale. Understanding how such a prominent city feature came to be—and suffered setbacks as the urban landscape was overtaken by cars—may point to ways in which the Benjamin Franklin Parkway can achieve its promise as a great public space.
The Parkway’s completion was a multi-generational endeavor. In 1858, Philadelphia’s City Council presented a plan to run boulevards between the city’s center and its growing suburbs. This proposal paralleled the city’s relentless explosion in population, industry, and commerce. Between 1850 and 1860, Philadelphia witnessed a 367 percent increase in population—in just one decade, going from 121,376 to 565,529 residents. Immigrants drove this staggering increase, principally from Ireland’s Ulster and Connacht. When this Irish influx arrived at Philadelphia’s ports, they typically settled in the city’s neighborhoods to work for textiles factories, locomotive works, or the Pennsylvania Railroad. But many Irish continued north, following the Schuylkill River’s headwaters to work in the anthracite coal mines.
Irish migration necessitated the creation of parishes. In 1864, Napoleon Le Brun, a Philadelphia architect, designed an edifice that served as an everlasting tribute to this period. Completed during the Civil War, the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul remains a brownstone masterpiece, a gracefully proportioned basilica overseeing what was Logan Square. The square was named after James Logan, the Irish colonial secretary under William Penn who established shipping links between Philadelphia and Ulster. The cathedral was built under Archbishop James Wood, a Catholic convert from a prominent Philadelphia family. Wood presided over the diocese while forging an alliance with the industries that employed Irish immigrants.
The Cathedral towered over a poorer immigrant neighborhood known for fairs and special events. Through the late 19th century, industrial, commercial, and residential homes expanded from Logan Square. In 1876, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the oldest institution of its kind in the Americas, opened its doors on 19th Street during the nation’s centennial. The structure, initially designed to resemble a Gothic cathedral, opened in a neighborhood that, for all its growth, remained on the city’s outskirts. The neighborhood’s future remained frozen until an urban planning movement enraptured the nation’s industrial cities in the early 1890s.
The City Beautiful movement, introduced at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, popularized multi-building neoclassical and Beaux-Arts revival projects throughout the Progressive Era. At a time when corruption corroded civic institutions and industry polluted air and water, the City Beautiful movement served as an aesthetic-conscious response to the Gilded Age. In his book on the Parkway, the historian David Brownlee explains that the planning movement was a “model of an orderly, classical metropolis, crisscrossed by boulevards and dominated by stately groups of public buildings.” Cities like Philadelphia worked to improve their urban presentation. Despite the nation’s unparalleled economic growth, these cities still lagged behind London, Paris, and Vienna.
In the early 1890s, the city council reviewed the first proposal for what became the Parkway. A citizen-led petition accompanied the proposal, which called for a 160-foot wide road linking Center City to Fairmount Park, Philadelphia’s largest municipal park. The proposed boulevard would cut through a dense neighborhood, Logan Square, and ultimately, the still incomplete City Hall. The multi-tiered Second Empire structure, the nation’s largest municipal building, was finally completed in 1901. Its ornate tower, crowed by a William Penn statue, remained the tallest building in Philadelphia until the Liberty Place skyscrapers broke the tradition in the mid-1980s.
Prudent urban planning followed a sustained period of city corruption. By the turn of the century, Philadelphia’s Republican party had controlled the city since the Civil War era. The Republicans operated City Hall like New York’s Tammany Hall, its power extending to police stations that were placed adjacent to the party’s ward clubs. One observer called City Hall an “unholy alliance” among the “‘best people,’ representing the city’s financial, industrial and commercial interests, and a tightly-knit machine made up of grafters, gamblers and goons, whose political philosophy [was] based on the simple formula ‘what is in it for me?'”
The reporter Lincoln Steffens famously called Philadelphia “corrupt and contented,” but the city experienced a renaissance in architecture and planning despite this reputation. Reform simply expressed itself through brick and mortar. By 1907, ground was broken for what was presented as the “Fairmount Parkway.” Its planners, commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association, called for “a direct, dignified and interesting approach from the heart of the business and administrative quarter of the city, through the region of educational activities grouped around Logan Square, to the artistic center to be developed around the Fairmount Plaza, at the entrance to Philadelphia’s largest and most beautiful park.”
The project commenced through a series of corrupt mayoral administrations. For a decade, the construction, which cleared over a thousand structures, slowly moved toward completion amid political fights for reform. But the Parkway owed its existence to the long-standing machine. In his book, Brownlee wrote that “an invincible alliance…between powerful citizens and corrupt politicians” ensured the Parkway’s opening.
In 1917, following years of demolition projects and public debate, the Fairmount Park Commissioners adopted a formal design for the Parkway. The design was presented by Jacque Gréber, a French architect who specialized in landscape design and city planning. Gréber was a leading proponent of the City Beautiful movement, whose urban planning in Ottawa later transformed the modern layout of Canada’s capital city.
Gréber’s Parkway plan called for two linear segments running between Fairmount Park, through Logan Square as the central anchor, and narrowly toward City Hall. In 1918, over a decade after the groundbreaking, Philadelphia’s Evening Public Ledger triumphantly declared that the “Uninterrupted Parkway at last leads from City Hall to Fairmount’s entrance.”
What followed were a series of building projects designed to match the intended grandeur of the Parkway. Gréber modeled the Parkway after the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and he hoped visitors would behold a thoroughfare of monumental buildings, arresting statues and fountains, and bountiful greenery. Following World War I, Gréber stated, “I am glad to say that, if by this work the city of Paris may be enabled to bring its sister in America the inspiration of what makes Paris so attractive to visitors, it will be the first opportunity of Paris to pay a little of the great debt of thankfulness for what Philadelphia and its citizens have done for France during the last three years.”
Following World War I, the Parkway physically embodied the prosperity enjoyed by American cities. Major construction projects commenced during the Roaring Twenties, including the Insurance Company of North America building, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company building, and the Rodin Museum. The succession of buildings personified the ideals intended by Beaux-Arts and neoclassical architecture. The Parkway itself became Philadelphia’s center for culture, a boulevard of elegance in a city sprawling with steeples, smoke stacks, and row homes.
By the Great Depression, parts of the Parkway resembled a Parisian boulevard. Logan Square was reconfigured as a circle to imitate the Place de la Concorde, a major public square in Paris. The Swann Memorial Fountain was placed as the circle’s centerpiece, a sculptural tribute to the Schuylkill River, Delaware River, and Wissahickon Creek. The Family Court building, along with the Free Library, were painstakingly modeled after the Hôtel de Crillon and Hôtel de la Marine. Overlooking the circle, they created a structural gateway to the Parkway, which slowly fulfilled Gréber’s architectural and planning vision.
Completing the postcard was the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an ongoing project that created a barrier between Fairmount Park and the Parkway. Designed as a Greek Revival temple, the structure stood over its fraternal buildings on the Parkway, creating an Acropolis for Philadelphia. Through World War II, one could ascend the Art Museum’s steps to behold the Parkway’s ongoing development. From the Franklin Institute to the School Administration Building, the Parkway—renamed after Benjamin Franklin in 1937—deceivingly had limitless possibilities. But the Depression slowed its continued development. By mid-century, the Parkway appeared unfinished, an imperfect arrangement of Gréber’s Parisian dream.
In the 1960s, the celebrated urbanist Jane Jacobs panned the Parkway. Jacobs was a leading skeptic of the City Beautiful movement, labeling its planning approach an unrealistic theory that destroyed the natural order of urban neighborhoods. “The library has no business being out here and neither do the Art Museum or the Franklin Institute,” she said. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs observed that Logan Circle was “discouraging to reach on foot,” noting that it was “mainly an elegant amenity for those speeding by” and “gets a trickle of population on fine days.”
Edmund Bacon, the esteemed urban planner and long-time executive director of Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission, disagreed with Jacob’s assessment. Although Bacon steadfastly defended the Parkway, his planning vision disrupted Gréber’s intentions from an early age. Bacon’s 1932 thesis at Cornell called for “A Civic Center for Philadelphia,” which included the replacement of City Hall with two small civic buildings, along with a tree-lined promenade that awkwardly met the Parkway.
Bacon’s plans arguably hastened the Parkway’s decline. In the 1950s and 1960s, Philadelphia embraced ill-advised urban renewal projects. The city attempted to respond to the ascendant automobile culture and the accompanying flight to the suburbs. More cars made the Parkway nearly inaccessible to pedestrians endeavor, as it became less of an urban boulevard and more of a route for escaping downtown. Bacon attempted to “rescue” the city by planning the Vine Street Expressway, a gross interruption of the Parkway’s streetscape that created gaping holes and pedestrian inaccessibility. Such planning also failed to stall Philadelphia’s industrial and population decline. Between 1960 and 2000, the city lost nearly 500,000 people.
By the time Ed Rendell became mayor in the 1990s, the Parkway was an urban wilderness. Lifeless office buildings—modernist slabs of concrete—disrupted the scenery. The Park Towne Apartments awkwardly stood near the Art Museum, a lonesome structure reached by car, not foot. Chain restaurants were more common than cafes and bars. In Hidden City, the urban designer Greg Meckstroth called the Parkway “a veritable museum ghetto that often becomes desolate at night.” He concluded that it appeared to be “condemned to sour monotony.”
The Parkway endures as a symbol of disappointment in Philadelphia. In a 2014 piece, Gregory Heller—a biographer of Bacon—wrote that the “Parkway looks good on the Fourth of July and during the [Philadelphia] marathon. But otherwise it’s an underutilized, poorly planned, highway wasteland of an urban space.” Heller argued that Philadelphians “should face up to the fact that as much as we love the view from the museum steps, and the boulevard of flags on the evening news, the Parkway is a disaster and the city would be better if it were never built.”
During the spring and summer months, the Parkway transitions into a landlocked pit for festivals and concerts. Temporary security fences and portable bathrooms vandalize a frustrating boulevard of unfulfilled promises. In a recent Philadelphia Inquirer column, the architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote that this year’s “anniversary events, which…focus on high-toned cultural offerings, are a painful reminder that we still haven’t figured out what the Parkway should be.”
At the same time as the Parkway is struggling, Philadelphia is also experiencing a renaissance. Over the past decade, the city witnessed a boom in commercial and residential development, game-changing investments made by universities, and gentrifying neighborhoods that had recently suffered from crime and blight. The Fairmount neighborhood, near the Art Museum, has turned into a thriving residential quarter and a popular nightlife destination. A controversial property-tax abatement program, spearheaded by the city and embraced by developers, contributed to this rapid change. But Philadelphia, a city with an ambivalent future in the 1990s, continues to enjoy an upward trend in population growth, business investment, and neighborhood-level improvements.
Philadelphia’s leading planners still debate how to turn the Parkway into the European-style street envisioned a century ago. The city is leading a study to properly manage festivities and for-profit events. Frequent street closures and disruptive concerts spoil the revival occurring in the Parkway’s surrounding neighborhoods. The city’s study would join numerous plans previously intended to address the Parkway’s flaws.
In 1999, Paul Levy, president and CEO of Center City District, called for more pedestrian-friendly park space, apartment buildings, and cultural venues. Levy’s radical proposals languished through the decade. In 2013, however, Philadelphia’s park officials released “More Park, Less Way,” which prescribed ideas to attract people to the Parkway. In recent years, the Parkway experienced minor improvements, including reconfigured sidewalks, expanded plazas on the north side of Logan Square, and the opening of a serene art museum, the Barnes Foundation. But the Parkway lingers as a lonely pocket in a lively setting, a major city artery with cultural institutions more likely accessed by taking Uber than walking.
In 1998, Buzz Bissinger wrote A Prayer for the City, a magnificent profile of the Rendell years and Philadelphia’s fight for survival during that period. Nearly two decades later, Philadelphia’s prayers appear answered. A city that ignited America’s industrial rise seems ready for the future. But the Parkway, designed to signify Philadelphia’s place in the world, remains in purgatory. It awaits special dispensation. The Parkway, along with Logan Circle, have significantly evolved since the Cathedral opened its doors to immigrants. For now, it remains a destination to daydream. It could use a prayer or a lucky penny in Logan Circle’s fountain.
Charles F. McElwee III works in the economic development sector in northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter at @cfmcelwee.