Philadelphia Baroque’d


Many of the earliest European settlements in the Americas were based on the informal street patterns found in the settler’s homelands. Boston is famous for its web of streets, and Lower Manhattan, the first part of New York City to be settled, still has some of its original, organic street network. Philadelphia, on the other hand, was one of the first New World cities to have a gridiron plan. William Penn’s plan for the city, with numbered streets going one direction and tree-named streets running perpendicular, and with four parks in the quadrants of the city and one in the center (now City Hall), was truly innovative, allowed for rapid development as well as interior-block expansion, and made navigation comparatively simple.

From philageohistory.org.

From philageohistory.org.

Then, in the early 20th century, someone decided, “Hey, forget this grid plan–let’s put a big diagonal right through it.” And thus, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was born.

Before the Parkway...From philageohistory.org.

Before the Parkway…From philageohistory.org.

And after. From philageohistory.org.

And after. From philageohistory.org.

The Parkway was modeled on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and if it had been properly executed, it might have worked, but come on, this is Philly. By the time the city acquired and demolished all the properties in the way, and built the road and the Art Museum which terminates the vista opposite the City Hall tower, they were out of money. They built the vacant properties along the road up with parks, which were in fact desperately needed in the area, and by the time they had enough money for the buildings that were meant to line the Parkway, the citizens decided that they would rather have the parks.

What the buildings do for the Champs-Élysées, and thus what the Parkway doesn’t have, is they create a full-time, active district, with people living or working on the upper floors and retail on the ground floor. Without that, the Parkway just isn’t a place where people spend a lot of time. Sure, you can go to the museums there or have a pickup baseball game, but that just isn’t enough to have a constant pedestrian presence in the area the way the Champs-Élysées does. The Parkway became a major car thoroughfare and a pedestrian nightmare, and even though the traffic isn’t as bad now that the Vine Street Expressway has relieved it, it still just isn’t the kind of place you would just wander around.

But what if it had been done right? What if it was so successful that the city got Baroque-axial-planning-happy and decided to connect all the major landmarks in the Center City? It might go something like this.

First, we start with a map of Center City:Philly Baroqued1-01

Then we tease out the most important places or landmarks that we want to connect. For this project, I chose Penn’s Landing, the Society Hill TowersHead House Square, Christ Church, Independence Hall, Washington Square, Reading Terminal Market, City Hall (including, for the purposes of this project, Love Park and Suburban Station), the Kimmel Center, Rittenhouse Square, Logan Circle (including the Free Library and the Franklin Institute), 30th Street Station, and the Art Museum.Philly Baroqued2-01Next, we draw axes linking them all together. To try and eliminate some redundancy, I wouldn’t draw a link if it went through another important building (ie from Rittenhouse Square to Reading Terminal) or if having a direct route was only slightly shorter than another route (ie from Independence Hall, one would go through Washington Square and then to the Kimmel Center rather than directly to the destination).Philly Baroqued3-01This would create a street network like this:Philly Baroqued4-01And with the new axes cutting through the existing building network, would look something like this:Philly Baroqued5-01I imagine that, like Washington DC, some major intersections (for instance 16th and Chestnut, which is now an 8-way intersection) would have small parks or monuments placed there. A plan like this would be extremely difficult, time consuming, and expensive to complete, which is why it could probably never happen in America and definitely not in Philadelphia. But hey, if we end up with an overbearing despot running the country who doesn’t care so much for private property rights, I could hand this to them and let them think about it.

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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