09/25/2012 - Philadelphia's iconic Benjamin Franklin Parkway has a split personality inherited from two of the principal planners of the broad, mile-long boulevard that runs in a diagonal from City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Paul Cret, a French classical architect who practiced in Philadelphia, envisioned it as a grand boulevard, much like Paris' Champs-Élysées, lined with civic, cultural and educational buildings.
His countryman Jacques Gréber, a landscape architect who took over design work when Cret returned to France to fight in World War I, saw the Parkway as a vast—and mostly empty—swath of greenery that would, as he wrote, open the gritty city to "the sanitary breezes" of the 4,100 acres of Fairmount Park, which begins at the Museum.
In short, Cret wanted the Parkway to be the cultural heart of the city; Gréber wanted it to be the lungs.
Today, the Parkway is a bit of both. There are institutions clustered at the end closest to City Hall (the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the main branch of the city's Free Library, to name three.) Then it quickly falls off to lawns, trees and not much else until it reaches the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the city's art deco temple that sits atop Fairmount hill.
As Don Kimelman, managing director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia programs, put it, "The Parkway is something Philadelphians take pride in. It's unique and it's beloved, but it's flawed as well. It sort of works more from a distance than from up close."
The view from the top of the steps of the Art Museum toward City Hall can be breathtaking, as anyone who has seen the 1976 movie Rocky can attest. When the young boxer runs up the museum steps, then turns and throws his hands into the air in triumph, he is overlooking the Parkway.
In the years before World War I, when Cret and Gréber did their work, the automobile was an afterthought. By the 1970s … well, let's put it this way: Rocky was lucky he made his famous run at dawn. Had he made it an hour later, he probably would have had to dodge traffic. At that point, the boulevard had been taken over by a third group of designers: traffic engineers. To them, the Parkway existed to move a huge volume of cars in and out of Center City and had become a major commuter thoroughfare.
Cret's vision of the Parkway as a cultural hub was enhanced in May by the opening of the Barnes Foundation at 20th Street and the Parkway, a $100 million project that Pew helped champion and to which it contributed $20 million.
The move of the Barnes from its original home in Merion, Pa., a suburb just across the city line, was contentious. Opponents said it would be a sacrilege to take the astonishing collection of Post-Impressionist and modern art collected by Dr. Albert C. Barnes from its original home, which was, as it happened, also designed by Cret. The Barnes was opened in 1925, one year before the Parkway was finished and three years before completion of the Museum of Art.
By the 1990s, however, the Barnes Foundation was in financial peril. A move to the Parkway was seen by many civic leaders as a way to restore it to fiscal health and end its days as one of the art world's best-kept secrets. Critics feared a new location would be artificial and trample on Barnes' forceful (and unconventional) ideas of how art should displayed.
For the most part, the criticism came to a full stop when the Barnes opened. Reviews of the new building, designed by the New York husband-and-wife architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsein, ranged from enthusiastic to rhapsodic. In a front-page essay in the New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote: "Against all odds, the museum … is still very much the old Barnes, only better."
In the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl confessed: "In this magazine in 2004, I termed the proposed relocation 'an aesthetic crime,' because I couldn't imagine that the integrity of the collection … would survive. But it does, magnificently."
If the Barnes was a showpiece, Pew's work on the rest of the Parkway was less obvious, but also significant. By the turn of the new century, as Kimelman put it, the Parkway had become "shabby"—a byproduct of the city's precarious finances combined with the boulevard's subservience to the automobile. It was a period Paul Levy, head of the Center City special services district, has dubbed "the Run for the Arts" era. Pedestrians often had to make a mad dash to get to the Art Museum's steps or sprint across Logan Circle, home to the glorious Swann Fountain, because there were no traffic signals.
Clearly, the Parkway needed help. In 2001, Pew took its first step by contributing $3 million to the Center City District for a $5.5 million project to relight the Parkway, removing ugly '60s-era highway lights and replacing them with more attractive fixtures. Work was also done to light the facades, statues and monuments that line the boulevard. "We figured we couldn't fix everything," Kimelman said. "But we could make it lovely at night."
It was apparent that the Parkway was prime for major renewal and that Pew was interested in helping that happen. In 2003, Kimelman and a Pew colleague, senior officer Timothy Durkin, walked the length of the Parkway with Blaine Bonham, then vice president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, a premier practitioner of urban horticulture.
They saw that Gréber's green boulevard was not so green. Especially dingy was Logan Circle, with its centerpiece Swann Fountain. "The fountain was wonderful," Kimelman said, "but the landscaping was not. It was seedy." In 2004, Pew made a $750,000 grant to a $1.4 million project to landscape the Circle, a project of the horticulture society. All trees, shrubs and plants were removed and replaced with fresh, durable plantings. Today, the Circle has a beautiful landscaped garden along with its wonderful fountain.
At the Center City District, Levy was also planning. His object was not to make the Parkway more grand, but to make it more human. "This is a grid city," he said, "and these diagonal boulevards are a challenge and an opportunity. The question was: How can we take all the lessons we have learned about mixed use, density and pedestrian fabric [in the grid] and apply them to the Parkway?"
In 2008, these efforts led to a coming together that Pew encouraged of the city, the state, the Museum of Art and three of Philadelphia's major philanthropic organizations—Pew and the William Penn and Knight foundations—for a $21 million redo of the Parkway. Pew contributed $2 million to plan and implement a number of these projects. They included traffic "calming," to tame the force of the automobile; creation of bike lanes; new landscaping and pedestrian-friendly traffic signals so visitors could cross the Parkway safely.
The Rodin Museum, which sits on the block to the west of the Barnes, got special attention. Created by movie theater owner Jules Mastbaum, the small museum opened in 1929 and also was a joint project of Cret and Gréber. But 83 years later, it looked a bit forlorn, needing new landscaping, lighting and interior repairs. That project was completed in July.
Some of the work along the boulevard consisted of smaller but much-needed improvements: new granite curbs, new benches, new signs for the 109 flags of nations that line the Parkway. Some was inspired: new directional signs that also told stories about the Parkway. Levy said the idea was to turn it into an "animated urban campus" with a pedestrian experience every minute.
What began as a single project for Pew—new lighting—had turned into a major redesign and improvement initiative. "I'd like to be able to say we had a grand vision for the Parkway, but like a lot of things it was serendipitous," said Kimelman.
Pew's reputation for careful vetting of proposals before funding them makes it easier to attract partners. Such was the case with the Parkway. "Pew has been essential to this," said Levy. "They have been in it for the long haul."
The most surprising success was a redo of Sister Cities Plaza, a 1.3-acre park directly across from the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul on 17th Street, which had become a barren, little-used piece of land.
The design team, which included local architects from the DIGSAU firm and landscape architect Bryan Hanes, envisioned Sister Cities as a water park for children. There are now small fountains—each one representing a Sister City—set on a flat bluestone surface where children can play. There is a sailing pond and a cleverly designed "hill" that children can climb by walking up channels that carry water. There is also an airy glass-and-wood café.
On one hot summer weekday afternoon, the park was crowded with toddlers, teenagers and adults, with strollers in abundance. Levy said parents and children often walk from a dozen blocks away to visit Sister Cities. Like the Barnes, it has been an instant success.
All these improvements, grand and small, add a new dimension to the Parkway. These days, if you stand atop the steps at the Art Museum and look toward City Hall, you get more than a great panoramic view. You also get to see people enjoying this special place—something Rocky would have missed.
Tom Ferrick has been a reporter, columnist and editor in Philadelphia for four decades.