Urban Planning

Views from Center City

As the geographic heart and Central Business District (CBD) of Philadelphia, Center City is busy hub of activity. It is bounded by South Street to the South, the Delaware River to the east, the Schuykill River to the West, and either Vine Street or Spring Garden Street (depending on whom you ask) at the North. While Center City continues to grow and transform, the following images from the past offer unique glimpses of the area’s physical continuities and changes.

The first markets were held at the corner of Front and High (Market) Streets during Philadelphia’s early years. The location of market houses shifted and expanded over time. One impressed traveler wrote in 1824, “The market house, which is nothing more than a roof supported by pillars and quite open to each side, begins on the banks of the Delaware, and runs more than one mile, that is eight squares in length!” (Alotta 150). This photograph, taken almost 90 years later, shows the inside of the market house at 2nd and Pine Streets.

At the City Archives, there are many photographs taken from the heights of City Hall. This spectacular shot demonstrates why, as it captures parts of Center City and Fairmount in gorgeous detail. Aside from its world-class collection, the Art Museum, of course, brings to mind Rocky, but this photo was taken many years before the first bad imitation of the fictional boxer’s run up the museum steps.

Heat indexes of over 100 degrees may leave us begging for cold weather. This 1914 image, which looks north from Broad and Walnut Streets, offers a reminder that Philadelphia winters can be as equally punishing. The caption says it all: “Snowing Like Hell.”

Here is a portrait of (controlled) chaos. The landscape around North Broad Street goes up in smoke in this 1913 photograph depicting a fire demonstration.

The Drake rises imposingly from its location on the 1500 block of Spruce. Built in 1929 as a luxury hotel, its 32-story structure is now restored to its former glory. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and operates today as an apartment building–with a great view.


  • Alotta, Robert I. Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees and Custer: The Stories behind Philadelphia Street Names. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1990.