Phillyhenge, Or The City As Sundial

September 5, 2012 |  by  |  Vantage  |  , , ,

 

Photo: Peter Woodall

Tonight at 7:24, the sun will hang for a moment just above the double yellow line of Market Street before dropping below the horizon somewhere west of 69th Street. Falling as it does just after Labor Day every year, this “Phillyhenge” will mark the passing of another summer, this last summer being the 329th to pass since Thomas Holme first drew that slightly off-kilter line that would become Market Street.

Most days, Philadelphia’s street grid belongs to the city alone. East, west, north, south, left, right, it gets Philadelphians from here to there. But a few days a year, it becomes a great civic sundial, registering Philadelphia’s place in the cosmos. On these days, ranks of buildings become ancient steles and the sun sets in perfect alignment with the street grid. It’s Phillyhenge.

A map showing September 5th, 2012’s sunset aligning with the Philadelphia grid. Taken from the cool solar mapping tool “The Photographer’s Ephemeris

The -henge appendage of course, recalls Stonehenge, that ancient relic of a time when people built for the sun. Their greatest monuments were a means of registering the universe and their place in it. Stonehenge aligns with the extents of the sun’s arcing annual trip through the sky, marking the solstices twice a year since its construction around 2600 BC. By Penn’s time, people built for the exigencies of man, but of course, these annual coincidences with the sun cannot be escaped.

The “henge” phenomenon is shared by many gridded cities, the most notable being Mahattanhenge, when the canyons of crosstown streets blaze with the setting sun. The picturesque occasions have become particularly popular with professional and amateur photographers alike. This July, the event seemed to garner more attention than ever, with hordes of Instagrammers crowding the medians of 34th Street at sunset. In most places, Philly among them, the alignment gets much less attention, perhaps just the frustration of a westbound motorist.

Market Street | Photo: Michael Burlando

When Thomas Holme drew out the iconic plan of Philadelphia in 1683, the streets paralleled the edges of the pages, running in perfect straight lines from East to West. In geographic reality, the geometric grid came into being a little off-kilter.  The north-south axis of Broad Street got a little shove to better align with the peninsula on which the city sits, landing it at about 9 degrees east of true north, not quite the rakish angle of Manhattan’s grid (29 degrees off axis), nor the geometric precision of the American West’s relentless, perfect grid. For everyday use, this is close enough. The sun rises over the Delaware and sets over the Schuylkill. East, west, north, south on the grid are perfectly legible, if not perfectly precise.

A few times a year the grid grants us this brief reminder that Philadelphia is just one place in a larger space and time. When the sun sets down Market Street tonight, it will register the passing of another year, and if it’s not too cloudy, you might just be able to watch that year go by.

Fortunately, there will be many more.  Upcoming Phillyhenges:

Sunsets

September 5th – 19:24
April 5th – 19:29

Sunrises

October 12th – 07:08
March 1st – 06:33

About the author

Michael Burlando is a designer, builder, photographer, and lover of all things Philadelphia. While earning his Master of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Michael restored an 1870's Victorian rowhouse. After graduation he spent two years at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings, and Merill before returning to Philadelphia with his wife in 2010. He now manages construction projects for Columbus Construction, lives in Graduate Hospital, runs the revived Philly Skinny, and blogs at brlndoblog.blogspot.com.



3 Comments


  1. Interesting! It’s worth noting that StreetsDept is one of the best photographers at capturing this kind of thing in city streets. https://twitter.com/StreetsDept/status/241360673370693632

  2. This is some neat info. Phillyhenge gives some cool effects with buildings as well. The windows of the abandoned warehouse at 9th & Girard along the SEPTA viaduct light up brilliantly at sunrise during the last half of October. It’s worth getting up early to see.

    Here’s a link to one photo I took last year:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/phillytrax/6277351538

  3. A quibble: A sundial is a clock, but Phillyhenge is a calendar.

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