Finding Philadelphia’s “Wow Factor”

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Construction of the Sesquicentennial Bell at the base of Broad Street, 1926

Philly history is telling us something: We lost our sense of humor at the bottom of Broad Street.

Consider the new spine of lights proposed for a stretch of Broad, the 2 ½ miles from Spring Garden to Norris. These 29, 55-foot tall stalks of light are meant to restore North Broad Street’s long-absent “wow factor,” according to the folks at the Avenue of the Arts. But history suggests otherwise.

Want to find Philadelphia’s “wow factor?” Go back to Broad Street and Oregon Avenue in 1926. That was the real deal: a monumental, iconic claim of Philadelphia as the nation’s “Cradle of Liberty.” Sesquicentennial designers installed a giant sculpture right in the center of Broad Street on what’s now Marconi Plaza. Never before or since has the city seen something so bold, so apt—so much fun. Visible for miles, the giant Sesqui bell seemed to be in a kind of conversation with the 38-foot-tall statue of William Penn on City Hall. “Make no mistake,” these two sculptures seemed to be saying, “you’re in Philadelphia, and there’s a message to share. We’re saying it here and we’re making it come alive—with light.”

Long before the invention of the electric bulb, light had been the city’s best metaphor. Philadelphia was created around the central Quaker belief in an “inner light,” that divine spark in everyone so essential to the idea of equality and community. Later came the notion of the light of Liberty, something worthy of a new and independent nation.

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The Sesquicentennial Bell lit up the night, June 1, 1926.

How to make these metaphors come alive on the street? Cue the electric light. For more than a century, Broad Street, the founding city’s longest, widest public avenue, has been a light laboratory, a stage for meaningful illumination. At the end of the Spanish American War in 1898 lights adorned the temporary arch at Broad and Walnut. Lights draped from City Hall celebrated Philadelphia’s 225th birthday in 1908. Powerful spotlights permanently illuminated City Hall’s tower in 1916. And as recently as 2005, wild light play continued at City Hall. But nothing topped Broad Streets convergence of form, meaning and light more than when the gargantuan, sheet metal blow-up of the Liberty Bell was switched on in 1926, for the nation’s 150th birthday.

We don’t know what creative genius proposed this 80-foot sculpture covered with 26,000, 15-watt light bulbs. (We do know D. W. Atwater of the Westinghouse Lamp Company designed the illumination.) Switched on May 31, 1926, the Sesqui Bell predated Pop Art by a long shot: Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg weren’t even born until the late 1920s. Warhol painted his Campbell’s soup cans 36 years later; Oldenburg installed his giant Clothespin 50 years later. “I am for art that is flipped on and off with a switch;” wrote Oldenburg in his Pop Art manifesto, considered avant garde in 1961: “I am for the blinking arts, lighting up the night.”

We’re convinced: Philadelphians in the 1920s were way ahead of the curve. They knew how, where and with what to light up Broad Street. They were in touch with Philadelphia’s “wow factor.”

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