Le Corbusier Dynamites the Drexel Block

The intersection of 40th and Locust Streets, 1953.
Locust Street, looking east from 40th Street to 39th Street, 1953. Almost all of these structures were demolished.
39th and Spruce in 1912, when Hamilton Village was a prosperous commuter neighborhood.

In his writings on architecture and city planning, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1967) was fond of using the “royal” we:

We must create a mass-production state of mind:
A state of mind for building mass-production housing.
A state of mind for living in mass-production housing.
A state of mind for conceiving mass-production housing.

In the 1930s, Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) devised a plan to level the center of Paris and bring “reason” and “order” to what he saw as complete urban chaos.  Baron Haussmann’s 19th century low-rise apartment buildings and triumphant boulevards would be replaced by tall, concrete cruciform towers set in green, wooded parks.

Le Corbusier had nothing but disdain for historic architecture, lambasting Gothic cathedrals as hideous to behold.  In his view, commercial, residential, and industrial districts had to be separated from each other, eliminating multi-use structures that housed both apartments and “mom-and-pop” stores.  Enamored with the automobile, he argued that cities needed to be reoriented around arterial expressways, and that people should surrender the street to the car.

“We must kill the street!” he declared.

He called this vision “The Radiant City.”  He hoped it would not only bring order to the urban form, but would also eliminate class distinctions by having everyone occupying “machines” for living.

In fetishizing the urban form, the collective, and the machine, Le Corbusier had little regard for individuals, especially those in the way of what he saw as progress.

His plans for the rebuilding of Paris were never carried out, but his gospel was taken up not just by  forward-thinking architects and theorists, but also by the automobile industry and real estate developers, who loved the prospect of building new superhighways and the demolition of older urban cores.

Present day critic Theodore Dalrymple has harsh words for Le Corbusier and his “Radiant City.” Comparing him to Pol Pot in the destruction his ideas wreaked, Dalrymple wrote:  “Le Corbusier extolled this kind of destructiveness as imagination and boldness, in contrast with the conventionality and timidity of which he accused all contemporaries who did not fall to their knees before him.”*

But in the years following World War II, his starstruck admirers and disciples fanned out across America, occupying positions of power and influence in major universities and big city planning departments.  Robert Moses, New York’s all-powerful Parks Commissioner, was one.   Edmund Bacon, Philadelphia’s director of city planning and builder of the Society Hill Towers, was another.

One university president that fell under “Le Corbu’s” spell was Penn’s president Gaylord P. Harnwell, a physicist who presided over the gigantic expansion of the size of scope of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s, in which it grew into a truly national institution.  According to the Harnwell Papers website, during his term (1953-1970), “The campus was expanded, many new buildings erected, and all major areas and programs strengthened….a new milestone in the history of the development of the University.”**

Until the 1950s, the University of Pennsylvania had very little green space, and almost no room to expand in any direction.  Today’s Locust Walk was a busy urban street, with a trolley line that cut right through the middle of campus. According to a report from 1963, “Students were poorly housed; faculty established residences in suburbs and formed no campus connection; women students feared to be on the streets at night; traffic became a major problem and parking all but impossible. These ills were dramatized in 1956 by the senseless murder of a Korean student by a band of hoodlums who roamed the area.”***

It was the perfect time for Penn to adapt a new design philosophy that turned away from the neo-Gothic, Oxbridge aesthetic of the past and towards a modern, efficient one that reflected a cosmopolitan, modern university.  In the years following World War II, the GI Bill had led to a massive expansion at America’s universities, and prestige ones like Penn were especially popular with a growing, more socio-economically diverse student body.  Although historically Penn had a large population of commuter students, by the 1950s the old dormitories in the Quadrangle and private rooming houses were exploding at the seams.

Something had to be done.

Philosophical arguments aside, Le Corbusier’s urban high rise vision provided college administrators a way to cheaply house as many students as possible.

Soon after taking office, Harnwell instituted a bifurcated plan for the historic core of the Penn campus inspired by the vision of Le Corbusier.   East of 38th Street, it was pointless for Harnwell to tear down most of Penn’s historic buildings, as they were already occupied by academic departments and fraternities with powerful alumni who donated money to the University.   There was talk of tearing down Frank Furness’s main library — by then considered a monstrosity by most architecture critics — to make room for a more modern structure, but thankfully nothing came of it.  Locust Street was closed to cars, the trolley line running along it shut down, and it was transformed into a tree-lined pedestrian walkway that has since become a model for urban college campuses.

Penn then set its eyes on the blocks west of 38th Street.   The area known as Hamilton Village included ramshackle Victorian mansions that had once belonged to the Drexel banking family (they had long since left West Philadelphia) as well as numerous low-rise apartment buildings and 19th century rowhouses originally built for prosperous commuters.  In its salad days, Hamilton Village was simply called the “Drexel Block.”

To the followers of Le Corbusier, this one-time elite Victorian neighborhood known as “Black Bottom” represented the worst of the “old city”: dirty, cramped, riddled with blight, and bad for the circulation of cars.

The residents of Black Bottom had a much different perspective: “It was a neighborhood of very active people, people who had very high standards for themselves and their families,” remembered Pearl Simpson in a Philadelphia Weekly interview.  “Most people worked at the hospitals, on the railroad. Some people had their own businesses, like dressmakers, tailor shops, doctors, little stores and whatnot. They were very into culture and having a good neighborhood.”****

Rather than rehabilitate Black Bottom, Harnwell and his fellow members of the West Philadelphia Corporation (which included representatives from Drexel University, the University of the Sciences, and Presbyterian Hospital), decided on mass-demolition and slum clearance.  The city of Philadelphia quickly condemned Hamilton Village through eminent domain and gave it to the Corporation for redevelopment.

The residents did not leave without a fight.  During that watershed year of 1968, residents erected a barbed wire barricade on 38th Street to prevent the bulldozers from moving in, and cars were overturned and set on fire. It was, as one resident described, “urban warfare.”*****

But by the late 1960s, thousands of mostly African-American residents had been evicted from the Hamilton Village.  With the exception of a few old mansions and the Gothic St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the blocks bounded by 38th, 40th, Spruce, and Walnut were completely leveled.

Three high-rise concrete dormitories and several low rise student residences — built according to Le Corbusier’s design principles of towers in a park — now occupy a part of campus that students today derisively call “the Superblock” or “the Wind Tunnel.”

The mass-demolition not only destroyed dozens of historic structures, but also deeply scarred relations between the University of Pennsylvania and the surrounding community.

Le Corbusier would have been proud.

Former Drexel family mansion at 38th and Locust, now a fraternity house.
38th and Locust Street in 1953, before demolition and the removal of the trolley tracks.
A mansion converted into apartments and shops, at 40th and Walnut, 1963. This corner is now occupied by a McDonald’s.
Interior details of the former Lea mansion at 39th and Spruce, pre-demolition, 1967.
Le Corbusier waves his hand over his vision for “La Ville Radieuse,” 1964. Source:

*Theodore Dalrymple, “The Architect as Totalitarian,” City Journal, August 2009.

**Guide, Gaylord P. Harnwell Papers, University of Pennsylvania Archives.

***”The Corporation,” The West Philadelphia Partnership, 1963.

****Jeffrey Barg, “Black Bottom Blues,” Philadelphia Weekly, September 6, 2006.

*****Jeffrey Barg, “Black Bottom Blues,” Philadelphia Weekly, September 6, 2006.