Neighborhoods Urban Planning

Preservation to Demolition: Why Lancaster Mews Matters

11.17.47 3600 Lancaster Aveneu. ashx
36th and Lancaster Avenue, looking south down 36th Street towards the Market Street elevated line station. The line was placed underground in the 1960s. A corner of Lancaster Mews appears on the right — it now the terrace of the Aloosh Hookah Bar. The station stop and Queen Anne homes on the west side of 36th Street were demolished in the 1970s to make way for University City High School, now also under demolition. The “Old Quaker Building” on the left survives as apartments. The intersection of 36th and Market Street was the heart of the so-called “Black Bottom” area. Photograph dated November 17, 1947.

Yet another high rise student housing complex going up, billed as “luxury” apartments? At a community meeting last night,  residents of the area expressed their concern at the possible loss of an historic anchor structure at the corner of 36th and Lancaster Avenue.  The building entered the spotlight a few weeks ago, when Inga Saffron wrote in her “Changing Skyline” Inquirer column that the 1870s Second Empire building at 3600 Lancaster Avenue may be yet another victim of University City’s “frenzied real estate market.”

The recent demolition of the Boyd Theater near Rittenhouse Square has bothered many Philadelphians — for a city with so much well-preserved building stock, it now seems that anything is for sale.

Powelton’s homeowners are particularly on edge.  Despite its wealth of historic Italianate and Queen Anne architecture, the neighborhood is  almost completely unprotected by local historic ordinances. Over the past few years, several Victorian row houses and twins have been torn down and replaced by boxy, bland student apartment houses.

According to resident and local property owner Hanley Bodek, 3810 Hamilton Street is the latest house under threat. Over the past three decades, Bodek  — along with his business partner John Lindsay — have carefully restored dozens of abandoned Victorian structures in the neighborhood. Until last year, Bodek taught a hands-on class at PennDesign about historic renovation called “Entrepreneurial Inner City Housing Markets,” in which a group of students renovated an abandoned Philadelphia row house and sold it to a low-income family.

Now, there are few vacant lots left in Powelton.  Bodek owns 3808 Hamilton, the adjacent twin to the house now under threat.  He restored the brick house at a time when “nobody wanted these houses.”  Now, there are few vacant lots left in Powelton.

Glamorous, Lancaster Mews definitely is not, but it does have character and its own kind of utility, and houses a variety of local businesses that have thrived catering to students and Powelton Village residents alike: Aloosh hookah bar, Dr. Cycles bike repair, and Lemongrass Thai restaurant.  They do not offer the sanitized predictability of the chains that occupy the lower levels of the latest crop of West Philadelphia student high rises, but they do offer character and a sense of place, and they provide a place for local, “basic needs” entrepreneurs.

“Such blocks are what make Philadelphia, well, Philadelphia,” Saffron astutely declared.  And it was not built to be transient.

At least one local business owner feels threatened by the loss of the building. “Pure evil,” wrote Bodyrock Boot Camp owner Nate McIntyre in a Facebook post. “From the perspective of a small business owner on Lancaster Ave. that’s exactly what I call these plans by an outside developer and the city council woman to tear down this 150 year old historic, and thriving block of business and residences in my neighborhood.”

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509 N.40th Street, which housed an automobile repair shop and a tailor’s shop, with apartments on the second and third floors. April 17, 1950.

Not a bad considering that two decades ago, the entire block now known as Lancaster Mews was largely abandoned, as was much of the Lancaster Avenue commercial corridor.  After a thorough renovation, it now serves the same purpose as it did in the 1870s.

Lancaster Avenue, which branches out diagonally at the intersection of 30th Street and Market and continues all the way to Lancaster City, is the oldest turnpike in the country, opening for business in 1792.   It was the starting point of Lewis and Clark’s  journey west.  After the Civil War, its right of way was the object of a fierce battle between the trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the trolleys of the Philadelphia Traction Company.

Despite its storied history, Lancaster Avenue and the buildings that grew up around it were comparatively hum-drum — most of its structures are mixed-used buildings erected in the second half of the 19th century.  Aside from a cluster of grand houses in the Powelton neighborhood, this part of West Philadelphia was never an especially fancy part of town. According to architectural historian Robert Morris Skaler, it was an “economically diverse community,” mostly middle class, comprised of “old stock Americans, as well as more recent immigrants of German, Irish, and Italian descent,” who lived in modest three story row houses located within walking distance of shopping on Lancaster Avenue.

Queen Anne twins at 66. N. 36th Street, September  1948. Demolished.
Queen Anne twins dating from c.1890 at 66. N. 36th Street, September 26, 1948. Demolished.

Not that the commercial buildings in the area were completely without flair. The now vanished William Penn Theater at 4063 Lancaster had an auditorium just as glamorous as the (now half demolished) Boyd’s near Rittenhouse Square.  It was a favorite gathering place for Penn students, who in the 1920s had no qualms about crossing Market Street (and cutting class) to catch a movie.  The curved face Hawthorne Hall, located just up the street from Lancaster Mews at 39th Street, is an Art Nouveau fantasy in red brick, terra cotta, and pressed tin.  It once housed a drug store, theater, and other small businesses. A former apothecary shop catty-corner from Lancaster Mews boasts an elaborate pressed tin storefront that is a riot of Louis Sullivanesque plant forms.

Today, such design whimsy is largely confined to the ephemeral  images that flash across the screens of our smart phones and tablets.

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The street fronts of Lancaster Mews, 3612 Lancaster Avenue, December 12, 1951.

Some of Lancaster’s buildings have been butchered by modern signage or punctured by garage doors.  Others are abandoned or in poor repair, with wood trim and cornices stripped.  These once viable neighborhoods were victims of multiple forces: the rise of the automobile, redlining by banks and insurance companies, white flight, and government policies that favored new construction versus preservation.

Lancaster Mews, which still has its gingerbread trim and historically appropriate windows, represents a successful blending of historic preservation and redevelopment, in which a building is restored to much of its former appearance while still being viable from an economic standpoint.  We have learned a lot since the 1960s, when mass demolition — i.e. Philadelphia’s “Black Bottom” — was rampant in American cities and old buildings were seen as disposable.  Trouble still occurs when a neighborhood goes from grassroots historic preservation mode to big money demolition mode — hopefully Powelton Village and the Lancaster Avenue corridor will be revitalized without being sterilized.  Philadelphia may rejoice in its economic resurgence, but new construction in a city as historic and well-preserved as this one should should be mindful and measured rather than frenzied.

Hawthorne Hall, built in the 1890s on the site of the former McIlvaine lumberyard.  This photograph dates from c.1970.  The pressed tin cornice on the second floor has been partially removed, but most of the terra cotta statuary and ornament remains.
Hawthorne Hall, built in the 1890s on the site of the former McIlvaine lumberyard. This photograph dates from c.1970. The pressed tin cornice on the second floor has been partially removed, but most of the terra cotta statuary and ornament remains.


Inga Saffron, “Changing Skyline, Frenzied Real Estate Market Makes Any Building a Teardown Target,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2015.

Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia, University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, SC: The Arcadia Press, 2002), pp. 95,97.



Historic Sites Neighborhoods Snapshots of History Urban Planning

The History and Background Behind The World’s First Statue of Charles Dickens

Although I have lived in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Cedar Park since 2006, I have not really given too much thought to the history of the Charles Dickens statue in the “Park A” part of Clark Park at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue. In fact, the statue is of not only Dickens but his character “Little Nell” (i.e. Nell Trent, a character from his 1841 novel The Old Curiosity Shop). I had heard that it is the world’s only statue of Dickens, but this is technically not true, as there is another one in Sydney, Australia and a very recently erected statue of his likeness in his birth city of Portsmouth. Still, I found it quite odd that of all the places on earth where a statue of Dickens could possibly exist, one was here in Philadelphia and not in London, which at least in theory would make much more sense. Thus, I decided to do some investigating.

Photo of statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in 1910.
Photo of statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in 1910.

As it turns out, the statue was commissioned in 1890 by Washington Post founder Stilson Hutchins to be completed by New York City-based artist Francis Edwin Elwell. Initially, the idea was that it would indeed be placed in London. When Hutchins backed out of the deal, Elwell finished it anyway. The statue was then shipped to London and put on display with the hope of finding a buyer. However, this was unsuccessful namely because Dickens expressed a strong desire to not be depicted in such form. In fact, his will does not allow any “monument, memorial or testimonial, whatever. I rest my claims to remembrance on my published works and to the remembrance of my friends upon their experiences of me.”

The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park circa 1959.
The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park circa 1959.

After Elwell shipped the statue across the Atlantic and back, it won two gold medals at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892-3. Despite the awards it received, the work failed to find a buyer and so it was then sent to languish in a Philadelphia warehouse.

Then in 1896, the organization that became the Association for Public Art (back then it was called the Fairmount Park Art Association) negotiated to keep the work in Philadelphia. In 1900, the FPAA purchased it for $7,500 (about $213,000 today) and in 1901, it was placed in its current location and it has stayed there since then despite numerous failed requests to move it to a more prominent location. In November 1989, the sculpture was vandalized but ultimately fully restored.

The entrance to Clark Park circa 1927.
The entrance to Clark Park circa 1927.

Every year in February, Dickens’ birthday is celebrated in Clark Park. In 2013, the celebration included Morris dancing, sampling of Victorian-era desserts, readings from his books and other events.

The statue of Dickens and Little Nell is the only statue that is placed in Clark Park and while we’re not exactly sure of how it got there in the first place, the likely answer is due to Clark Park’s namesake Clarence H. Clark himself. Clark was a wealthy financier and developer who sat on the artworks committee of the FPAA committee. Thus, it was purchased by the FPAA in 1900 and placed at 43rd and Chester in 1901.

In addition to the statue of Dickens and Little Nell, the park also contains a large stone from an area called Devil’s Den in the Gettysburg Battlefield during the Civil War. The stone was placed in the park in June of 1916 and was set up there to remember Union soldiers who were treated at the site, which was once Satterlee Hospital, and “services of the patriotic men and women” who cared for them.

Another example of public art in Clark Park is an initiative set up by the University City District called Heart and Soul. Last summer, 4 decorated pianos were set up all over the park with the goal being spontaneous, random piano performances by whoever wandered by and sat down to play.

Behind the Scenes Neighborhoods Urban Planning

Campus Clearance: A Look Inside UPenn’s Lost Houses

4045 Walnut Street, c.1955.


Apartment building on the corner of 40th and Locust, May 8, 1953. Demolished.

It’s hard to believe that before the 1960s, adaptive reuse was an alien concept to architects and city planners.  To universities, the planning ethos of “out with the old, in with the new” was especially potent.  Disciples of Le Corbusier and other modernists were in control of the University of Pennsylvania and American schools. The classical Beaux-Arts tradition as taught by Paul-Philipe Cret was largely replaced by the Bauhaus creed of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.  There was little interest in fixing up old buildings. They represented an unenlightened past — the gloomy “horse-and-buggy era” — out of sync with modern life, technology, and especially the automobile.

3910 Walnut Street, c.1955.
The former Comegy mansion at 4203 Walnut Street, photographed on April 20, 1959. Built originally in the 1850s as a streetcar suburban villa, a century later it was in the heart of inner-city West Philadelphia.

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, of course.  As is nostalgia.  In Penn’s defense, the GI Bill and the general “opening up” of American universities to the sons and daughters of the middle class caused serious strain on the old campus infrastructure.  Once largely the preserve  of the sons of the wealthy, an Ivy League education in the 1950s was well within the reach of young men and women from middle income families.  Penn president Gaylord P. Harnwell realized that in order to satisfy growing demand for classrooms and beds, the Penn campus would have to expand upward and westward. He built the massive new Van Pelt Library, and closed the trolley lines that ran down the middle of Locust Street, creating a new pedestrian greenway through the center of campus known as Locust Walk.  Most importantly, Penn leveled the four blocks bounded by 38th, 40th, Spruce, and Walnut Streets, replacing them with three concrete high-rise skyscraper dormitories designed by Penn Design dean G. Holmes Perkins, as well as several low-rise student housing structures. All of these were surrounded by lawns and walkways.The clean lines and smooth surfaces of the International style represented something striking, modern, and optimistic, a break with the dreary years of the Great Depression and World War II.

The Professor Henry C. Lea mansion at 3903 Spruce Street, November 9.1967. Originally built in the 1860s, this Italianate house served as the suburban residence of Penn professor Henry Lea (1825-1912). After serving as a fraternity house, it was pulled down in 1967.
The former dining room of the Lea mansion, just prior to demolition in 1967.


Fraternity paddles in an upstairs bedroom of the Lea mansion, just prior to demolition, November 1967.
Interior plasterwork, the Henry C. Lea mansion, just prior to demolition in November 1967.

Most of the houses on these blocks dated to the mid-to-late 19th century, and were built for middle class, white collar commuters. There was also were truly grand suburban residences built for the Drexels and other wealthy families.  Few people saw these grungy old homes as having much architectural value in the 1960s: what had once been a fashionable suburb had become a slum to be cleared. Critics derided Victorian architecture as decadent, ugly, and functionally obsolete.  From a practical standpoint, the buildings were old and run down, serving as ad hoc classroom space, student housing, fraternity houses, low-rent apartments, retail, and restaurants.  Their electrical and plumbing systems were at the end of their useful lives.  There was also a human cost to this expansion: scores of families, mostly African-American renters, were displaced. In fact, Penn’s expansion ignited tension in the surrounding neighborhood that lasted for years.

The destruction wasn’t total. Penn adapted a few houses for new uses: the Eisenlohr mansion became the president’s residence, while the Fels mansion housed the Fels Institute of government.  Two of the Drexel family houses survive as fraternity houses, while the Potts mansion survives largely intact as the headquarters of the Penn Press. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church also escaped the bulldozer.  Yet almost every other structure came down to make way for the “Superblock,” which stands in stark contrast to Penn’s historic, compact campus to the east.

Miraculously, city photographers documented many of these homes before the wreckers arrived and smashed them to pieces. These photographs give a rare glimpse into these homes, which appear remarkably intact despite decades of neglect and alterations. During this mass demolition, scavengers picked through these homes, salvaging paneling, piping, leaded glass, and other examples of fine 19th century craftsmanship.  The carved wood and plasterwork dated from a time when labor was cheap and rich materials plentiful: solid walnut pocket doors, for example, were common in West Philadelphia houses.  After the Civil War, machines could cheaply churn out elaborately ornamented furniture and fittings that previously could only have been laboriously made by hand.

Much of what is seen here in these pre-demolition shots had been dismissed not only as out-of-date, but just plain hideous.  Who wanted a monstrous Frank Furness fireplace in their home, anyway?  Most of these houses were simply smashed to smithereens and hauled off to the nearest landfill.

The remarkably well-preserved library of the Comegy mansion in April 1959: the paneling is most likely either walnut or mahogany. It is doubtful that any of this fine 19th century craftsmanship survived the wrecker’s ball.
39th and Locust Street, looking east, February 11, 1930. The Drexel mansion on the left is still standing, while the Second Empire rowhouses on the right are gone, replaced by Harnwell College House, one of three skyscrapers designed by G. Holmes Perkins.

It took a new generation of urban pioneers, real estate investors, and preservationists to realize the aesthetic (as well financial) value of historic structures, no matter how tired, in urban areas such as West Philadelphia.

Behind the Scenes Historic Sites Neighborhoods Snapshots of History Urban Planning

The Carriage Houses of Van Pelt Street

247 and 249 S. Van Pelt Street, July 3, 1969. Ponies have given way to Porsches.

Two months ago, while giving a book talk at Bucknell University, I was fortunate to tour an actual working carriage house, attached to an 1840s brick mansion in the small town of Mifflinburg.  My host Karl Purnell had restored his family’s carriage house to its original condition and configuration. Within its walls were a horse named Mercedes and two antique carriages: a two-wheeled runabout and a six-seat surrey. The second story contained the hayloft — bales are hoisted up to this level by a set of block-and-tackle above the doors — as well as additional storage and quarters for the coachman.

Mifflinburg used to be known affectionately as “Buggytown” — during the late 19th century, the town was the largest manufacturer of carriages in the state of Pennsylvania.  The former William Heiss carriage works, one of the few intact carriage shops in the country, has been restored as the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum.  Amish farmers in the surrounding counties keep the tradition of carriage building alive, although obviously not in the flashy colors and trim of the 1860s and 70s.

Getting the horse and surrey ready for a ride took about half-an-hour.  First, Karl had to tack up the horse.  Then the two of us shoved the surrey out of the carriage house and turned it onto the street, using the mechanical brakes to keep the vehicle from rolling out of control.  Then Karl led the horse out of the stable and attached him to the carriage.  Then we were off, trotting down High Street.

Karl Purnell, the horse Mercedes, and his 1870s surrey, built in Mifflinburg, PA. April 4, 2013.  This house, with the carriage house in back, was similar in set-up to homes in early Philadelphia suburbs such as Germantown. Photograph by the author.

The short trip was a rare insight into 19th century life, when traveling anywhere — church, market, visiting relatives — was a significant undertaking and the instant gratification provided by a modern car was a foreign concept.  Compare all this work to pushing a button or turning the key, shifting into reverse, and backing the car out of the garage.  Then there’s caring for animals and finding parking…or a hitching post.

“The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand” by Thomas Eakins, 1879-1880. This is an iconic, world-famous image of Philadelphia during the horse-and-carriage era. The setting is Fairmount Park near today’s “Please Touch” Musem. Eakins meticulously studied and sketched the horses’ gait and physique before committing brush to canvas. Fairman Rogers, a long-time patron of Eakins, lived in a Frank Furness-designed mansion on West Rittenhouse Square, which was later occupied by Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt. Their horse-and-carriages may have been kept on Van Pelt Street.

In the late-19th century, the carriage works in Mifflinburg and other Pennsylvania towns supplied middle class and wealthy Philadelphians with their horse-drawn transportation. Companies such as Brewster, Wolfington, Fleetwood (later purchased by General Motors’s Cadillac division), William D. Rogers, D.M. Lane and Sons, and Heiss crafted a variety of colorful custom bodies using exquisite woods for the body, fine leather for seats, polished brass for the trim, and high-grade steel for the springs.  Shaping wood into wheel rims was particularly tricky: the wheelwright would have to steam the wood and then bend it over a “spoke turning lathe.”

In a congested urban area like late 19th century Rittenhouse Square, where real estate was at a premium, storing a horse and carriage was a logistical nightmare.  Unlike a car, horse and carriage could not be “parked” in an outdoor lot, but rather had to be stored indoors, usually in a structure apart from the main house. For the wealthy denizens of Rittenhouse Square, carriages were as much fashion as they were basic transportation — much like luxury automobiles today. On a typical Sunday in the 1880s, the parade of horseflesh and equipage on Walnut Street, in the words of Senator George Wharton Pepper, “made upon the onlooker an impression of urbanity, of social experience and of entire self-satisfaction. If during church-time they had confessed themselves miserable sinners, by the time they appeared on parade their restoration to divine favor was seemingly complete.”

By contrast, most 19th century Philadelphians either had to walk or pile into a horse-drawn omnibus, if they could afford the fare.  On hot summer days, the city reeked of horse excrement, and many people pressed flowers close to their noses in a futile effort to fight the stink.

Portrait of Berthe Morisot holding violets by Edouard Manet, 1872. Whether in Paris or Philadelphia, urbanites fought the stink of horse manure as best they could…

Van Pelt Street — a small, tree-lined alley located between Spruce, Locust, 21st and 22nd Street — is lined with several carriage houses once affiliated with the big townhouses along Spruce Street.  In a carriage house belonging to a well-to-do Rittenhouse Square household, the horses dwelled in stalls on the first story. Next to them was kept an assortment of carriages used according to the weather and the needs of the family: church, the opera, a picnic, house calls. The range of coach bodies available to potential buyers was bewildering:

  • Landau: a formal four-seater coach with a collapsible roof, pulled either by a pair or a four-in-hand. Appropriate for open-air city touring. Driven by a coachman. The curved landau roof bar would later find its way onto early motor cars.
  • Buggy: a two person carriage with either two or four wheels, and pulled by one horse. Usually driven by the owner.
  • Surrey: the ancestor to the modern station wagon or minivan. A four-wheeled box topped by a fringed-canopy, with 3-4 bench seats.  Driven by the coachman or owner.
  • Brougham: a two-passenger enclosed coach with four wheels. Driven by a coachman.  The namesake of the Cadillac “Fleetwood Broughams.”
  • Berlin: an enclosed four-person coach for foul-weather travel, pulled by a pair or a four-in-hand.  Driven by a coachman.

And so on.

To accommodate all of this coachwork and horseflesh, the carriage houses of Rittenhouse Square were quite large: two or three stories high, 20 feet wide, and 80 feet deep. Then there was all labor required to keep this urban menagerie in tip-top condition.  In addition to the coachman and grooms — who would feed the animals, maintain the carriages, and muck the stalls — a farrier frequently would visit to re-shoe the horses, crafting shoes to fit each individual hoof.

By the early 1900s, many of these carriage houses were converted into garages, housing cars like Mercedes, Wintons, Renaults, and Packards. The cars often had bodies with coach names such as phaeton and coupe. Coachmen were replaced with chauffeurs, who doubled as live-in mechanics. In the early 1900s, young men would race their family cars along the roads of Fairmount Park. Their clanking pistons and backfiring exhausts frequently scared horses out of their wits, causing them to bolt and run.  In response to this racket, the Fairmount Park Commission banned cars along the Wissahickon Creek between Germantown and Chestnut Hill.  Hence the name Forbidden Drive.  It remains a haven for pedestrians and equestrians to this day.

The carriage houses on Van Pelt Street were service buildings for the big townhouses like this on the 2100 block of Spruce Street. The kitchens were in the basement, and the servants lived in the dormer rooms in the attic. Irish domestics –often forbidden to speak Gaelic under their employer’s roofs — frequently referred to the neighborhood as “Rottenhouse Square.”

Today, Van Pelt Street’s carriage houses have been converted into private residences.  One serves as the clubhouse for the Orpheus Club of Philadelphia, the nation’s oldest male singing society.

The horses and carriages have long been exiled to the fields of Chester County, the grounds of the Devon Horse Show, and the roads of Lancaster County.

Riding in the 1870s surrey owned by Karl H. Purnell, April 2013. Filmed with the 1920 setting of the 8 MM iPhone app.

Don’t scare the horses! Footage of the 2009 London-to-Brighton Veteran Car Run, showing many of the 1890s and early 1900s automobiles that terrorized pedestrians and horses around Rittenhouse Square…these noisy and expensive “contraptions” led directly to the creation of Fairmount Park’s Forbidden Drive.


“Wood Bending: Applied Mechanics in Wheel-Making,” Hub, November 1878, pp. 388-389. From:

Carriage Museum of America

Mifflinburg Buggy Musem

Historic Sites Neighborhoods Urban Planning

The First and Only to One of Many: How a Coffee Shop Helped Transform Spruce Hill

Excavation in front of 4239 Baltimore Avenue on June 18, 1912. The building housing the Green Line Cafe was originally a pharmacy with the owners living upstairs. Note the striped shades meant to keep the rooms cool during the hot spring and summer months.

Soon after moving to West Philadelphia in 1995, Douglas Witmer joked with his brother-in-law Dan Thut that one day they would open up a coffee shop in the Spruce Hill section of West Philadelphia.

Neither had business experience. Douglas studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His wife’s brother Dan had a background in history and had run a language school in Guatemala. After graduating from PAFA, Douglas realized that real estate was a great way to supplement his income as an artist and curator.  In the late 1990s, he and his wife purchased a multi-unit building at 44th and Osage.  Prices were low, and there was a healthy demand for student housing.

Witmer and his family loved Spruce Hill neighborhood.  Its Victorian architecture, academic flavor, and socio-economic diversity appealed to his creative sensibilities. “There’s no other place in America like this neighborhood,” Doug maintains.  “Take any spectrum you want – income, race, you name it – it’s really heterogeneous. It’s a walkable community, and it’s also a very green neighborhood. All these elements that make it unique.”

The longer they stayed in Spruce Hill, Douglas said, “the joke about starting a coffee shop became serious.”

Despite the bustling student scene, there was no coffee neighborhood in Spruce Hill, no where art could be displayed, residents mingle, and people could study, read, or just converse.

“We did it out of wanting to create something in the neighborhood that we wanted for ourselves,” he recalled.

In 2001, a three story brick building came up for sale at the corner of 43rd and Baltimore, on the northeast corner of Clark Park.  A florist shop occupied the ground floor, and apartments on the upper two stories.  Built around 1900 when Spruce Hill was a prosperous, upper-middle class neighborhood, it was originally a pharmacy, with the owners living above the store.

The structure was quite run down when Witmer and Thut purchased it from a large local property owner.   An underground creek running under 43rd Street had weakened its foundations, as well as those of several of the other houses in the area.  A dropped ceiling, boarded -up clerestory windows, and other alterations had compromised the original interiors.  Yet what really captivated Witmer and Thut was the bow-front window that commanded a view of Clark Park, visually connecting the future coffee shop to the bustling street and urban green space.

It was right across the street from a Green Line trolley stop. A century ago,  It was the streetcar that made West Philadelphia a desirable commuter suburb. So Witmer and Thut named their new coffee shop “The Green Line Cafe.”

Renovation of the coffee shop space in progress. The mirror on the left is the only original furnishing from the c.1903 pharmacy.  Photograph courtesy of Douglas Witmer.

The gun-renovation of 4239 Baltimore Avenue took about a year to complete. Douglas and Dan let their creative sensibilities make this space one-of-a-kind. “We don’t come from business backgrounds,” Douglas said.  “We were thinking more in terms of a space for the neighborhood to come together.”  The contractor removed the rotted floor and replaced it with salvaged, honey-hued pine boards, and sheathed the coffee bar with antique pressed tin.  Light from stained-glass windows streamed into the brightly-lit room.  A large mirror, topped by an egg-and-dart cornice, was the only surviving piece from the early 1900s.

The Green Line Cafe opened its doors in 2003.  It quickly became a home for neighborhood art shows and concerts, as well as a haven for families, writers, and cramming graduate students.  When the Clark Park Farmer’s Market set up shop on Saturdays, scores of people flooded into the cafe every hour, including many of the Amish farmers.

The coffee shop became financially successful enough for Witmer and Tuth to open up two more branches: one at 45th and Locust and another in Powelton Village. Penn’s massive redevelopment of the area, most notably the construction of the nearby Penn Alexander School at 42nd and Locust, gave a massive boost to adjacent property values. Soon, local real estate agents were using “Close to the Green Line Cafe” as a selling point in their apartment listings.

Green Line Cafe co-founder holding up the “Philadelphia Weekly” special on his establishment. Click on the picture to read the feature. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Witmer feels very lucky that a running joke with his brother-in-law turned into a successful business proposition.  The Green Line has provided an indoor “public” space complementing Clark Park, a gathering place for the diverse residents of Spruce Hill.  He just hopes that his coffee shop does not become a victim of its own success: “After 2005, we had five other businesses competing with us.  It’s a challenge from being the first and only to being one of many.”


The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park, April 10, 1910.


Urban Planning

100 years of the signage debate in Market East

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
A 1911 photo of a hodgepodge of signage covering buildings on
North Juniper Street.

Just over a hundred years after this photo of North Juniper Street was taken, businesses in the Market East corridor may once again find inspiration in the jumble of advertisements adorning this row of buildings.

Late last year, Philadelphia adopted a revamped Zoning Code that promises to have important implications for the city’s attitude toward signage, particularly in the struggling central area along Market Street that spans from 7th to 13th streets. The new rules loosen the restrictions on commercial signage and, according to the New York Times, require a minimum investment of ten million dollars, making the sign licensing a way for developers to generate new revenue to enhance redevelopment.

The policy change combined with the Inquirer’s move to the old Strawbridge and Clothier building at 8th and Market (think enormous news crawler and four total digital signs) are supposed to be a one-two punch that will make the area more exciting and appealing to new businesses.

“The city has been embroiled for years over whether signs are evil or merely disgusting and terrible, but when you look at cities, and this goes all the way back to ancient Rome, commercial districts have always been filled with signs,” George Thomas, a Penn Lecturer on Urban Studies and adjunct faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Design in the strategic and critical conservation program, said. “They’ve always been about communication and connecting people with words and images.”

The realization of the city’s dreams for Market East may take some time. But the genesis of their central assumption — that signage can improve a neighborhood, not blight it — already marks a shift in the way the city thinks about the urban experience.

One hundred years of urban planning finds the city once again in support of the sort of building signage — multistory, LED — that makes the collage of ads in the photo above seem benign. So what happened in between?

At the time this photo was taken, these large, bright, crafted forms of signage were part of a dying breed, according to Thomas. Late in the 1800’s the purifying City Beautiful movement, which frowned on large scale commercial signage, was already on its rise to dominance in the cadre of urban planning paradigms.

Thomas, who is also a partner in architectural consulting firm Civic Visions, says the signs were already being treated as imagery-non-grata in rich areas, like Rittenhouse Square.

“In a larger local frame it was also part of the shift from valuing the engineering and industrial culture that we had created in the Workshop of the World to one that denigrated commerce — with Philadelphia elites losing their connection to the physical world,” Thomas said.

What’s odd is that the haphazard pyramid of antique typefaces seems beautiful today, the randomness of so many commercial entreaties adorable, thanks to the benefit of a century of nostalgia.

“Buildings spoke and people were bombarded with commercial information,” Thomas said.

But those responsible for urban renewal over much of the 20th century, particularly through the 1950s and 1960s, saw no such whimsy in the blunt signage. The broader erasure of so many signs from building picked up pace during these years as stricter sign restrictions became ever more closely tied to urban renewal and modernism.

“The historic preservation movement of the 1950s and 1960s also valued primarily colonial and federal era architecture – hence a great deal of great Victorian architecture (and a lot of [Frank] Furness buildings) got demolished in that era and we adapted a somewhat stylized idea of preservation in which lots of signage from federal-era buildings in Society Hill was also removed,” Center City District President Paul Levy said.

Fifty or so years later, enter the most recent controversy over signage in Market East. In 2007, the city began investigating what new signage rules might mean for Philadelphia by observing other cities, like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston. What Philadelphia learned, Levy said, was that it could relax signage restrictions without turning Market East into Times Square, a major concern for some stakeholders.

“The goal was not to cover every building with a sign, as in Times Square, but rather to use these signs as a tool to help prompt redevelopment,” Levy said. “Developers would have to do substantial renovation or new construction in order to be eligible for a sign and then would have to animate and open the building at street level (primarily the Gallery) to enhance pedestrian activity.”

The controversy over signage in downtown Philly hit an apex in advance of the Zoning Code passage in December 2011, but Thomas says decades of opposition to signage has scared companies like Unisys out of the city and into the suburbs where commercial signage regulations are friendlier to businesses.

“Commerce was and is a language and a meeting point of a community — and the commercial zone reflected this. Notably when cities were at their most vital they were also at their most communicative. And note too that as sign ordinances and controls began to limit commercial real estate, business moved to malls where signs are the dominant interior landscape feature and keep the quality of the Victorian street.”

The hope now, is that a modern vision inspired by the 1911 photo above, will act like an abstract version of an electric billboard to draw some of those companies, and many of those jobs, back to Market East.

Urban Planning

“The Boulevard”

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Roosevelt Boulevard, officially named the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Boulevard, is one of Philadelphia’s most important traffic arteries. It carries millions of drivers every day and is arguably the backbone of Northeast Philadelphia. Roosevelt Boulevard has become such a part of Philadelphia that when one speaks of “the Boulevard” anyone who’s lived in Philadelphia for any significant length of time, whether they reside in the Northeast or not, knows immediately which road is being referenced.

The origins of the Boulevard date back to 1902 when Mayor Samuel H. Ashbridge proposed the construction of a road to connect central Philadelphia to the communities in the northeastern reaches of the city. At this time, most of the Northeast was rural farmland communities connected by a loose network of dirt roads. Ashbridge had to convince a reluctant Common Council (the predecessor of City Council) that the Boulevard was worth the cost of construction, arguing that it would open the Northeast to greater expansion and development which would be beneficial to the whole city.

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When first built, the boulevard ran from Broad Street into the city’s Torresdale neighborhood. In the initial planning stages, the boulevard was to be called the Torresdale Boulevard. At its completion, however, it was renamed the Northeast Boulevard. It wasn’t until it was expanded to reach Pennypack Creek in 1918 that the boulevard was given its present moniker in honor of former president Theodore Roosevelt. In 1926, the Boulevard became a part of the first Federal interstate highway system, designated as US Route 1. The extension of the Boulevard continued over the next decades into the Far Northeast until it reached its current end point just across the border of Bucks County in the late 1950s.

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In 1961, the Boulevard grew again when it was connected to Interstate 76 via an extension called the Roosevelt Expressway. The Roosevelt Expressway runs from its connection with I-76 at the Schuylkill River through North Philadelphia to connect with Roosevelt Boulevard near Hunting Park Avenue. While this provided an important link to I-76, it only increased traffic on the already congested Boulevard. Adding lanes did not solve the problem, and many other solutions have been proposed over the decades. One idea was to extend the Broad Street Subway line out to the Northeast. This idea came so close to fruition that Sears built a subway station underneath their famed Merchandise Center located along the Boulevard. Other people suggested building another road entirely. Called the Northeast Expressway, this new road would roughly follow the path of the Boulevard. Needless to say, the Northeast Expressway was never built, and Roosevelt Boulevard remains one of the most congested roads in the country.

Mayor Ashbridge was right; with each extension of the Boulevard, development of the surrounding area soon followed. Today, it would be difficult to imagine the Northeast without Roosevelt Boulevard. Because it played such a vital role in the growth and development of the neighborhoods in the Northeast, one has to wonder how much of “the Northeast” would exist as an urban area had the Boulevard not been built.


“Roosevelt Expressway Historic Overview” –

“US 1; John H. Ware III Memorial Highway; Roosevelt Expressway; Roosevelt Boulevard; Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway” –

Events and People Urban Planning

A Special Relationship: Philadelphia and Great Britain

With the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton dominating the news, we here at have been reflecting on the historical ties between Philadelphia and Great Britain, many of which are captured in our photo collections. As a former colony of Great Britain, the United States has always maintained a special relationship with its mother country and, in many ways, Philadelphia and Great Britain have their own special relationship as well. A brief survey of writings on Philadelphia and Great Britain shows that historians have explored topics as diverse as trade relationships, the Quaker influence on British abolitionism, architecture, industrialization, and theater and popular culture, just to name a few. Moreover, the historical ties between Philadelphia and Great Britain do not end with the colonial era but rather extend over centuries and have had an enduring impact on the city that Philadelphia was and the city it has become.

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From its inception, the connections between Philadelphia and Great Britain were literally laid into the foundations of the city by virtue of the grid system that William Penn and his surveyor Thomas Holme designed. In hopes of staving off the overcrowding, fire, and disease that plagued European cities, Penn envisioned Philadelphia as a city modeled after an English country village, with ample space separating homes and businesses and an abundance of gardens and orchards. Published in 1683, Holme’s A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania, 1683 brought Penn’s vision to life, laying out the city on a grid system of wide streets intersecting at right angles between the Schuylkill River to the west and the Delaware River to the east. Also visible on the 1683 map is perhaps the best known feature of Penn and Holme’s design, the four squares of dedicated parkland that Holme envisioned as “for the like Uses, as the More-fields in London.” Further proof of the English influence on Philadelphia’s topography, Moorefields was a public garden that notably evoked the “well-ordered spaces” of public recreation that, according to William Penn, would bring a sense of moral discipline and healthful living to the city. Along with Centre Square (later the site of City Hall), the four original squares of dedicated parkland were Northeast Square (now Franklin Square), Northwest Square (now Logan Square/Logan Circle), Southwest Square (now Rittenhouse Square), and Southeast Square (now Washington Square). Notably, while Philadelphia’s five squares have largely endured in one form or another, Penn and Holme’s careful, English-style planning did not; as early settlers began to populate Philadelphia, they largely ignored the grid design and crowded by the Delaware River, which remained the city’s de facto economic and social hub for more than a century.

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Even as Philadelphia did not develop according to William Penn’s original vision, the city did emerge as a principal colonial trading port and, as the social and geographic center of the original thirteen colonies, was once the second-largest city in the British Empire. Of course, Philadelphia was also a key site of political and military activity during the American Revolution, including the British occupation of Philadelphia, then the national capital, during the winter of 1777-78. While many historians have highlighted the Philadelphia campaign as a turning point that eventually led to the defeat of the undermanned British forces at Saratoga and France’s entry into the war, the British occupation of Philadelphia also has a more subtle cultural legacy. As it had done in New York City the winter before, the British army staged theatre productions during its occupation of Philadelphia both for general amusement and to benefit the widows and orphans of British army and naval officers. Performed at the Southwark Theatre at Fourth and South Street, productions ran throughout the winter and into the spring and included several Shakespearean dramas, as well as such lesser known works as Duke and No Duke and The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret. Interestingly, the spectacle of British theatre performed in Philadelphia continued even after the Revolution, as the scarcity of American texts in the new nation caused British dramas to dominate Philadelphia theatre productions in the early nineteenth century.

As America established itself as an independent nation, larger cities like New York and Boston increasingly overshadowed Philadelphia, which nonetheless became a popular destination for British tourists. Recounting travelers’ impressions of the United States between 1840 and 1940, historian Richard L. Rapson observes that of the cities along the Eastern seaboard British tourists found Boston more English than other cities, but Philadelphia was often complimented for being pleasant and “clean.” And, with its wealth of historic sites and attractions, Philadelphia has remained a prime destination for tourists and dignitaries alike – from King Hussein of Jordan and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands to Queen Elizabeth II of England.

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In 1976, Philadelphia memorably played host as the first stop on a six-day state visit by Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip in celebration of America’s Bicentennial. On July 6th, an estimated 5,000 Philadelphians greeted the British royals at Penn’s Landing, where they arrived aboard the 412-foot royal yacht Britannia. Wearing a dress with white and navy blue stripes, a matching coat, and white straw hat, the Queen was greeted by Mayor Rizzo who then received the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at City Hall. The royal couple also took in a panoramic view of the city from the Penn Mutual Building and hosted a luncheon party aboard the Britannia where 54 V.I.P. guests dined on lobster and eggs, lamb cutlets, and apple caramel.

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Following the luncheon, the Queen and her husband toured Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell pavilion, but the centerpiece of the Queen’s visit to Philadelphia was the official presentation of the Bicentennial Bell. Cast in London’s Whitechapel Foundry where the original Liberty Bell was cast in 1752, the six-and-one-half ton Bicentennial Bell was a gift from the British people in commemoration of the 200-year anniversary of American independence and bore the inscription “For the people of the United States from the people of Britain 4 July 1976. Let Freedom Ring.” Delivered to Philadelphia in June 1976, the Bicentennial Bell was installed in the bell tower of the Independence National Park Visitor Center where it still resides today. At the ceremony, the Queen signaled for the bell to be rung for the first time and spoke about Independence Day as a day of mutual celebration for America and Great Britain, two nations bonded by the common cause of freedom. An estimated crowd of 75,000 witnessed the afternoon’s festivities, and the royal visit to Philadelphia concluded that evening with a dinner and reception at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

From street design and theatre performances to visits by British tourists and even the royal family, Great Britain has left its mark on Philadelphia and vice versa. The historic ties between our mother country and the City of Brotherly Love add yet another dimension to Philadelphia’s reputation as a city rich with history and tradition, a legacy so vividly captured here in’s photograph collections.


“Queen Calls 1776 a Lesson that Aided Britain.”  The New York Times, July 7, 1976.

Charlton, Linda.  “Queen Gets Rousing Welcome as Visit Begins in Philadelphia.”  The New York Times, July 7, 1976.

Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network.  “A portraiture of the city of Philadelphia in the province of Pennsylvania in America, 1683.”  Accessed April 27, 2011,

Milroy, Elizabeth.  “‘For the Like Uses, as the Moore-fields:’ The Politics of Penn’s Squares.”  Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 130:3 (July 2006): 257-282.

Pattee, Fred Lewis.  “The British Theater in Philadelphia in 1778.”  American Literature 6:4 (January 1934): 381-9.

Rapson, Richard L.  “British Tourists in the United States, 1840-1940.”  History Today 16:8 (August 1966): 519-527.

Urban Planning

The Girard Piers

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Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront has played a significant role in the city’s development ever since William Penn himself stepped foot on the area we now call, rather appropriately, Penn’s Landing. Penn’s oft-mentioned plan for Philadelphia as a “greene country towne” included a tree-line waterfront that would serve as a serene promenade for Philadelphians to come and relax. However, the waterfront quickly become the economic and commercial heart of the young city, with the Delaware River serving as a major highway for the importing and exporting of goods from the European continent. Penn’s idea of serenity quickly gave way to the hustle and bustle of a rapidly expanding city. As the city grew, shops, warehouses, and factories continued to cluster along the waterfront, and with the advent of the railroad in the mid-19th century, the area become further congested with tracks leading from the docks, piers, and warehouses into the interior of the country.

For the first centuries of the nation’s life, Philadelphia was considered by many to be its most major port. However, by the early-20th century, Philadelphia’s port infrastructure was showing its age, and Philadelphia had clearly been surpassed in importance by ports in cities like New York City, Boston, and Baltimore. In 1907, the City of Philadelphia created the Department of Wharves, Docks, and Ferries and tasked it with rejuvenating the waterfront area and making it once again a competitive port for international trade and commerce. This long-term plan included the dredging of the Delaware River channel from the sea to Allegheny Avenue to a depth of 35 feet to handle larger ships, the construction of the Delaware River Bridge (now called the Benjamin Franklin Bridge), and the construction of several new, municipally-owned piers to be leased out to private companies. The entire project took two decades to be fully realized and cost an extraordinary (for the time) $27,000,000.

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One of the last components of the project was the construction of Piers 3 and 5 North in 1922-23. These two new piers were constructed on the site of several aging wooden wharves built in the 19th century with money that had been left to the city by Stephen Girard. Therefore, the piers were officially called the “New Girard Group”, though they came to unofficially be known as just the “Girard Group” or the “Girard Piers.” These double deck piers were designed with all the latest technological advances of the time in order to increase efficiency and handle the maximum amount of cargo in one day. They extended 550 feet into the river, the maximum amount allowed by the federal government to maintain safe navigation of ships through the channel, and could therefore service more than one ship at a time. “Turn over” doors that folded upward and inward ran along the entire length of each side of the piers and allowed for the loading or unloading of cargo from a ship’s deck from any point along the pier. Each pier had about 100,000 square feet of storage space and also contained office space on both the upper and lower decks for the companies who would lease the piers. Finally, each pier had an automatic sprinkler system installed that was connected to the city’s water system.

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While the steel-framed sides of the piers were certainly utilitarian in their appearance, the inshore and outshore steel frames were encased in brick and limestone and were designed with utmost care by John Penn Brock Sinkler, City Architect from 1920-1924. The embellished facades belied the piers’ strictly industrial use, and at the time they stood in stark contrast to the plainness of normal pier design. The Girard Group’s blend of state-of-the art functionality with architectural expression was said to have ushered in a “new interpretation of industrial architecture.”

Despite all of their technological advancements, the Girard Group piers were rendered obsolete after World War II with the construction of newer port facilities in South Philadelphia and changes in methods of cargo handling, particularly the rise of containerization. The Delaware waterfront industry in general began to suffer in the 1950s and 1960s as companies moved to markets with cheaper labor. Demolition of many waterfront factories and warehouses in order to construct Interstate-95 in the late 1960s delivered a final crushing blow. The Girard Group, once a source of great pride for the city, sat derelict and decrepit.

As Philadelphia began to plan for the country’s bicentennial, city planners sought to finally realize William Penn’s vision of a tree-lined promenade along the waterfront. Called Penn’s Landing, the Girard Group were marked for demolition to make way for this park. However, like other large-scale city projects, only half of Penn’s Landing was finished in time for the bicentennial, thereby sparing the Girard Group. In 1983 the Girard Group were added to the National Register of Historic Places and were renovated as luxury condominiums. Renamed “The Piers at Penn’s Landing,” the luxury condo conversion struggled at first, but by the 1990s they were successfully established luxury condominiums. The turn-over doors once used for loading and unloading cargo became large picture windows, the railroad entry and loading depot on the ground floor became a parking garage, the roofs of both piers were removed creating a sun-drenched atrium for residents in the center of each pier, and a marina full of recreational boats rather than cargo ships now surrounds the piers.

This blending of the past with the present, with taking something old and repurposing it into something new, is something that seems to occur often in Philadelphia. The Girard Group/The Piers at Penn’s Landing stand as testaments to how adaptive reuse, plus a little patience, can further add to the rich historical story for which Philadelphia is known.


Kyriakodis, Harry. “The History of Pier 3.”

“Piers 3 and 5 North (The Girard Group), 1923.”

“Penn’s Landing – William Penn’s “Greene Country Towne” has Finally Become a Reality Here.”

Urban Planning

The City that Might Have Been: Edmund Bacon’s Philadelphia

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Heralded as the father of modern Philadelphia, famed city planner Edmund Bacon was the man behind many of the city’s most notable post-WWII redevelopment projects, from Penn Center and Market East to Penn’s Landing and Society Hill. While these projects are well-known and have become essential parts of the Philadelphia landscape, the plans and projects that never came to fruition are also a compelling part of Bacon’s legacy.  As outlined in his 1959 essay on urban planning and redevelopment, Bacon envisioned a new golden age for Philadelphia in the postwar years, one that would reinvigorate community investment and development to ensure “no part of Philadelphia is ugly or depressed” in fifty years time.  While some of Bacon’s projects succeeded and others never came to pass, both outcomes provide a window into the evolution of city planning and the city itself in the post-industrial age as well as the ongoing struggles to navigate Philadelphia’s future in a new era.

A Philadelphia native and Cornell-educated architect, Edmund Bacon served as Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970. Under Bacon’s direction, the Planning Commission sought to capitalize on postwar optimism and looked to the future with coordinated, comprehensive plans to eliminate blight and liberate Philadelphia from its now obsolete industrial clutter. Whereas urban renewal projects in cities like New York and Chicago meant the wholesale demolition of unsavory neighborhoods, Bacon and his colleagues emphasized small-scale demolition and often restored older structures so that new features like shops and parks were interwoven with the existing landscape.  Best exemplified in the redevelopment of Society Hill, these design principles were also publicly showcased at the Better Philadelphia Exhibition in 1947.  The Exhibition, which Bacon as a Planning Commission staff member co-designed with Oskar Stonorov and Louis Kahn, took up two floors of Gimbel’s Department Store at 8th and Market Streets and attracted 385,000 visitors between September 8th and October 15th.  Following the theme “What City Planning Means to You and Your Children,” the exhibition contained movies, murals, dioramas, and, most spectacularly, a 30-by-14 foot model of Center City that boasted 45,000 buildings, 25,000 cars and buses, and 12,000 trees.  Notably, as a recorded narrator highlighted various parts of the model, segments flipped over to reveal the planners’ future vision for the site, which frequently included open space, planning for pedestrians, and efforts to work within the original landscape.

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The Better Philadelphia Exhibition effectively paved the way for Bacon’s ascension to the Executive Director position and pushed his vision for transforming Philadelphia into a competitive world center to the forefront of urban planning.  Bacon presented many of the projects and guiding tenets of his approach to redevelopment in his seminal 1959 essay “Philadelphia in the Year 2009,” which specifically outlined plans for a transportation center at East Market Street, development along the Delaware Riverfront, and a 1976 World’s Fair to showcase the city.  For Bacon, the World’s Fair was the project around which all other projects revolved, providing an impetus for urban redesign and the construction of buildings and transportation hubs with long-term benefits.  While Bacon proposed that most of the Fair’s structures be erected in Fairmount Park, he nonetheless envisioned the Fair as a city-wide event where a variety of attractions, from the “Lights of Freedom” spectacle on Independence Mall to outdoor performances of Shakespeare and Kabuki theatre in the City Hall courtyard, were all easily accessible through underground streets and moving sidewalks linked to the proposed Crosstown Expressway.  In terms of transportation, Bacon also conceived of an overhead cable car system that ran from Fairmount Park to the west bank of the Schuylkill and out across the river to Chestnut Street, which would be equipped with an electric tram system.  In these plans, Bacon simultaneously saw the 1976 Philadelphia World’s Fair as a showcase for American culture and technology that would also spur civic activity and development and ultimately have long-lasting implications for the city’s renewal.

Initially, Bacon’s World’s Fair proposal was warmly received, especially since a 1976 Fair would coincide with America’s Bicentennial Year.  A committee was formed to seek federal funding and petition the Bureau of International Expositions to reserve 1976 for Philadelphia, but as early as 1960 Bacon was dissatisfied with the committee’s progress.  By 1964, the plan had encountered several additional stumbling blocks, including the failure and widespread criticism of the 1964 New York World’s Fair and skepticism about Bacon’s assertion that the Fair’s building and structures could be re-purposed later for private development.  In the coming years, political and community resistance to the Fair arose, as did competing proposals from activist groups like the Young Professionals.  With the so-called “World’s Fair” concept itself increasingly criticized as antiquated, the Young Professionals argued that a modern Philadelphia Fair should be more socially conscious and work to alleviate racial and social problems like the disconnect between Center City and outer-lying ghetto neighborhoods such as Mantua and Powelton Village.  To this end, the group proposed holding the Fair in a megastructure to be built over the rail yards at 30th Street Station that would enhance transportation and access to all parts of the city.  The megastructure idea dominated plans into the late 1960s, but struggles over the rights to the area and control over the design ultimately defeated it. Afterwards, organizers briefly resurrected Bacon’s proposal to locate the crux of the Fair in Fairmount Park, while alternately suggesting Penn’s Landing, Port Richmond, Byberry, and Fort Mifflin as additional options.  However, no viable site was ever agreed upon and the 1976 Philadelphia World’s Fair eventually succumbed to inertia, as well as President Nixon’s reluctance to endorse any urban renewal project associated with former President Johnson’s Great Society agenda.

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Even without the impetus of a World’s Fair, several of Bacon’s key redevelopment projects, such as the Market East transportation center and improvements to the Far Northeast, were eventually realized, albeit with alterations to Bacon’s original designs.  In many ways, both projects sought to provide suburban amenities in an urban context, as Bacon aimed to draw middle-class families back to the city following the population dispersal of the postwar years.  To this end, Bacon’s plans for the Far Northeast included family-friendly residential homes positioned in loop streets that echoed the area’s natural topography and preserved open spaces for children to play.  In addition, retail centers with connections to downtown transit would serve as the central hubs of these communities, though in the end retail centers were eliminated in favor of strip malls and the loop street design evolved into cul-de-sacs.

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Interestingly, the Far Northeast was not the only area to see alternations to Bacon’s original street plan; as detailed in Bacon’s 1959 essay, Chestnut Street was to be a pedestrian-only thoroughfare of open-air, bazaar-style storefronts with a trolley at its center.  As with so many other elements of Bacon’s vision for Philadelphia, Chestnut Street never fully evolved to meet his expectations, but those expectations still offer a compelling snapshot of the plans and possibilities that captured Philadelphia’s imagination in the postwar years. And in the end, whether in Philadelphia’s physical landscape or the photographic history presented here on PhillyHistory, Ed Bacon’s vision lives on, a legacy demonstrated by both the city that might have been and the city that came to be.

Note: This article provides an overview of Bacon’s career accomplishments and several developments including the Yorktown Housing Development were not included. Please leave comments on the post if there are additional developments you would like to highlight.


Edmund N. Bacon.  “Philadelphia in the Year 2009” aka “Tomorrow: A Fair Can Pace It.”  Greater Philadelphia Magazine, 1959.

The Ed Bacon Foundation. 28 September 2010. (Accessed 13 October 2010).

Scott Gabriel Knowles, ed.  Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

Nathaniel Popkin.  “The Future is Now.”  Philadelphia Citypaper, December 16, 2009.