Architects of the Renaissance would have expected more for Philadelphia. Oh, they’d have seen some wisdom in the city’s original city plan. Leone Battista Alberti imagined grandiose “public ways” leading to “some Temple, or the Course for Races; or to a Place for Justice.” Andrea Palladio concurred in the importance of creating large, “Broad” streets and “High” streets, “whence the Mind is more agreeably entertained and the city more adorned.”
Upgrade those streets into public avenues and boulevards lined with worthy buildings. Cities should have built-in expressions of “moral” and “political” significance; they should project “public magnificence.”
But in their “green countrie towne,” William Penn and Thomas Holme avoided any kind of unctuous, obsequious expression. Their plan for Philadelphia was quite the opposite: modesty and restraint. That’s the original vision for Philadelphia’s center square, the nucleus where the city’s DNA would propagate.
But then, in the 1870s, they blew the lid off Philadelphia’s planning toolkit. It started with the design for City Hall, which grew more immense and more ornate every year. And, as if this bright white-marble building rising out of a sea of red brick in a style akin to the Louvre wasn’t enough, its designers encrusted the exterior with hundreds of allegorical and historical sculptures. Then they topped it all off with a giant bronze rendition of the founder. Apparently Philadelphians had enough after two centuries of understatement. Now was the time to indulge in full-blown “public magnificence.”
How would this new city be made to look and feel? That was the question for the time.
At first, the answer was to create a “way to the park”—the newly expanded Fairmount Park. Then that concept got an exuberant upgrade. Replicate the axis of Broad Street by cutting a new diagonal swath northwest from City Hall. Make the boulevard a bold starting and ending point for a grand boulevard. Here would be more, much more, than a mere way to the park. Here was a destination in and of itself: The Parkway.
The idea caught on and grew. And in 1911, when 200 city planners gathered in Philadelphia for their conference, the centerpiece in the room where they deliberated (the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall itself) was nothing less than a 30-foot model of the vision. This was how public magnificence was going to play out in the 20th century. A departure and a glorification. A Quaker apotheosis—if such a thing was possible—something big enough and new enough, to play in the same ballpark as City Hall. Who knows, the Parkway might even up the game.
No longer would the 17th-century grid hold back urbanity. Here, in all of its diagonal glory, severing an entire quarter of Penn-Holme Philadelphia, was a contrary vision of a fresh, new city—a City Beautiful, though still in plaster and papier-mâché.
Charles Mulford Robinson , the man who gave the City Beautiful movement it’s name, came to the conference in 1911 and declared it so.
“America is waking up,” declared W. Templeton Johnson in anticipation of the exhibition. “Conservative Philadelphia is taking a great step forward” in its new priority to turn “away from the checker-board plan, the curse of our American cities.”
“They have planned radial streets after the French manner, but with a constantly increasing width on leaving the center so as to create a great path for fresh country air to come blowing in to the very vitals of a great city.”
“The great purpose of the Philadelphia exhibition is to start a campaign of education, to attract people to the City Hall, and once there to show them graphically and expeditiously by means of plans, beautifully prepared perspectives, and photographs what far-seeing men are doing to make the cities of the world not only more beautiful to look upon, but better places to live in. It is hoped that not only Philadelphians, but people from all parts of the country may come to this exhibition, and with the aid of the competent guides which it is proposed to have, learn the great lesson of good city planning, and spread its propaganda through the city and over the land.”
The model stood at the heart of the “International Exhibition of City Planning” which was “on view free to the public, in the corridors of the City Hall from May 15 to June 15” 1911. The headlines screamed approval: “Splendid Municipal and Educational Buildings Will Line Sides of Parkway;” “City Planners Loud in Praise of Philadelphia.”
The model is gone, long gone, but we have these and other photographs of it. Eight in all: From the City Hall end of the model there is this one (a detail of which is illustrated, top) and another. There’s a bird’s eye view from Broad Street South. And yet one more from the East. At the Northwest end of the Parkway, there’s this view of Fairmount from across the Schuylkill. And another from further downstream. On axis from the Northwest there’s this view (a detail of which is illustrated above) and other at a similar angle showing more of the park.
You’ll find other historical material as well: William E. Groben’s Bird’s Eye Perspective of Fairmount, the subject of this earlier post. And if this is all a bit of Déjà vu, maybe you read this post back in 2011, which, as we see it, would have been the best time to celebrate the Parkway’s Centennial.
[Sources: David Brownlee, Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989); W. Templeton Johnson, “The Coming City Planning Exhibition,” in The Survey, April 1911, pp. 183-184; “Nation’s Experts to Inspect New Plan: Splendid Municipal and Educational Buildings Will Line Sides of Parkway,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 28, 1911; and “City Planners Loud in Praise of Philadelphia” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 16, 1911.]