The Parkway at 100: Philadelphia’s Champs-Elysees celebrates its 100th birthday

The Ben Franklin Parkway. By @phillydroneshots on Instagram
The Ben Franklin Parkway. By @phillydroneshots on Instagram

A run up the 72 “Rocky steps” to the courtyard of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has become a tradition for millions of visitors to the city. The skyline view from the top of the stairs has changed considerably since Sylvester Stallone raised his arms in the 1975 movie, but the highlight of this panorama remains the majestic Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Opened to traffic in 1918, the Parisian-style boulevard stretches from one Philadelphia icon to another, ending in the shadow of city founder William Penn’s statue atop City Hall. Along the way, the Parkway encompasses many of the city’s most storied attractions, from the Franklin Institute science museum to the showcase of impressionist art at the Barnes Foundation.

The cultural heart of Philadelphia, the Parkway hosts the annual Fourth of July celebrations and concert, Jay-Z’s Made in America festivals, and numerous other events and gatherings. Over one million spectators filled the boulevard in 2005 for the Live 8 concert. Huge crowds gathered again in 2015 for a visit by Pope Francis. From September 2017 to November 2018, the Parkway Council, a cooperation of museums, attractions, and businesses along the mile-long boulevard, will add a number of special exhibits, events, community conversations, and promotions to celebrate the 100th birthday of this iconic street.

A way to a park

As its name suggests, the original proposal for the “parkway” was as a thoroughfare to link central Philadelphia with bucolic Fairmount Park to the northwest. A huge green space dedicated in 1858 to protect waters of the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek, Fairmount Park saw millions of visitors as the site the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, exposing the need for a more direct route from the city. By 1892, clamor for diagonal road starting at soon-to-be-completed City Hall saw the proposed boulevard inscribed on official city maps.

_Jacques Greber's 1917 plan for the "Fairmount Parkway"
_Jacques Greber’s 1917 plan for the “Fairmount Parkway”

Plans for the Parkway were quickly dropped after the financial collapse of 1893, but another push for came a decade later from architect Albert Kelsey (1870-1950) and a all-star committee of architects from the Art Federation of Philadelphia. The “boulevard committee”’s 1902 plan, along the axis of the beautiful Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, won the support of city luminaries, who formed a “Parkway Association” to energetically campaign for the proposed route.

Mayor John Weaver won city council support to purchase the land needed for the boulevard in October 1906. Demolition began with the ceremonial removal of the first brick at 422 North 22nd Street on  February 22, 1907, but, a new mayor, John E. Reyburn took office a few months later and immediately ordered the axis altered. Reyburn was motivated by a meeting with property magnet P.A. B. Widener, who promised to fund a new art museum building atop Fairmount and donate his extensive art collection if the Parkway ended at this hill, though construction delays and Widener’s death prevented this generous promise from being realized.

Reyburn adopted a revised layout for the parkway designed by a team of architects led by Frenchman Paul Cret. The new plan, inspired by Baron Haussmann’s wide Parisian boulevards and the “city beautiful” movement of urban regeneration, required the destruction of several productive factories, which raised the cost of the project and slowed demolition work. Voters approved a $1 loan in 1911, but the election the same year of reformist mayor Rudolph Blankenburg again put a brake on the Parkway, as the new mayor fought the political machine-led city council in an attempt to control the corruption and waste which marred the grand civic project.

The final impetus came in 1917, after land around the parkway had been annexed to Fairmount Park. he Fairmount Park Commission oversaw a reworking of the parkway’s layout by premier French landscape artist Jacques Gréber reflecting the park’s green-minded priorities. His plan introduced more park space to the boulevard by creating an enlarged Logan Circle, moving the grand equestrian statue of George Washington to the head of what is now known as Eakins Oval, and forming a large triangle of open space to the north of this plaza.

At long last, construction of the Fairmount Parkway officially began in 1917, and the road was opened to traffic in November 1918, though construction continued for several years. It was renamed after Philadelphia’s most famous son in 1937.

A boulevard of culture

The earliest plans for the road envisioned it as a boulevard of culture, housing the city’s major cultural institutions. Although some proposals, such as an orchestral concert hall, never came to pass, additions in the ensuing decades gave shape to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway we know today, home to major museums and landmarks, numerous pieces of public art, and charming pocket parks.

Several prominent cultural institutions already lay along the Parkway route before its completion. The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul stood at 18th and Logan Square since 1864; the fossils at the Academy of Natural Sciences had been housed across the square at 19th Street since 1876. Modeled on the Louvre Palace in Paris (now a world-famous museum) with embellishments in the French Second Empire style, City Hall was finished in 1901.

Atop City Hall, and prominent from any vantage along the Parkway, sits a 37-foot, 27-ton bronze statue of William Penn created by Alexander Milne Calder. His son Alexander Stirling Calder designed Swann Fountain in the center of the reconfigured Logan Circle. Completed in 1926, its three reclining “river gods” symbolize the city’s major waterways: the Schuylkill, Wissahickon, and Delaware.

A mobile by the third generation of Calder sculptors, Alexander (Sandy) Calder, hangs in its atrium of the Parkway’s most prominent architectural marvel, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The magnificent neo-classic structure, called the “Acropolis of Philadelphia” by one contemporary observer, opened in sections beginning March 1928.

Alexander Calder's Swann Fountain.
Alexander Calder’s Swann Fountain.

The Free Library of Philadelphia was finished in 1927 with design by Julian Abele, then the country’s most prominent African American architect. Its sister building, the Municipal (now Family) Court building was dedicated in 1941. Together, these structures replicate two 18th-century buildings on Paris’s Place de Concorde.

The Rodin Museum, designed by Parkway architects Cret and Greber to house the collection of bronzes purchased from Rodin’s Paris studio by movie theater mogul Julses Mastbaum, opened in 1928. Franklin Institute moved to its present home on Logan Circle in 1937, with its towering sculpture of its namesake complete the following year.

Like Philadelphia itself, the Parkway continues to evolve. The Philadelphia Museum of Art opened its Perelman annex in 2007 in a nearby 1920s art deco building, the former headquarters of the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company. The Parkway gained another major art collection in 2012, with the relocation of the Barnes Foundation’s extensive collection of to a state-of-the-art modern art museum that preserves the unique layout of its previous headquarters in suburban Merion, PA.

Renovations also continue at the Parkway’s southeastern terminus. John F. Kennedy Plaza, better known as LOVE Park, was laid out in 1965 by renowned urban planner Edmund Bacon, who is responsible for much of the city’s modern charm. Popularly renamed LOVE Park after Robert Indiana’s iconic sculpture, the Parkway’s centennial will see a new restaurant, fountain, and layout for the much-loved square. Another pocket park, Shakespeare Park outside the Free Library, gets a new life with expanded greenspace atop newly covered segment of I-676.

Parkway 100

Celebrations for the Parkway’s centennial will launch September 8, 2017, with a We Are Connected Festival of activities and exhibits all along the avenue and pay-what-you-wish entry into most attractions. From December 2017 to March 2018, huge video installations by artist Jennifer Steinkamp form floral inspired winter fountains.

Parkway 100 logo w RSeveral Parkway institutions are launching themed exhibitions during the 15-month centennial celebration. The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway History will display photographs and texts related to the creation of the boulevard and the buildings along it. City Hall and Friends Select School, two institutions present on the Parkway’s route before it was built, will open exhibits considering their own history. The Rodin Museum celebrates another centennial, as sculptor Auguste Rodin died in November 1917.

The fun continues for over a year, with walking tours, lectures, contests, and events celebrating the Parkway’s birthday. The annual Wawa Welcome America events around July 4 will include centennial-themed activities and the celebrations will culminate in a grand finale event in November 2018.

As the Benjamin Franklin Parkway enters its second century, it reputation as an indispensable cultural destination for Philadelphia visitors grows. There’s always life on this street, outside in the beautiful parks and roadway or inside the cultural jewels which line it.

 Previously published in the Where Philadelphia Guestbook 2018

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