With the construction of Independence Mall underway in the mid-1950s, the architectural historian and social critic Lewis Mumford spent four of his 1957 New Yorker “Sky Line” columns thinking through the reconstruction of Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhoods. (Mumford had been a visiting professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Fine Arts from 1951-56.) He objected to the visual clutter that had accumulated unregulated there for more than two centuries; he sought coherence and uniformity over variety and disorder. And yet in the context of “historic Philadelphia,” he embraced the forceful architecture of the 19th century as much as he did the quiet Georgian grace of the State House and Carpenter’s Hall, so much so that he called Frank Furness’s 1879 Provident Trust Company (which would shortly be torn down), at Fourth and Chestnut Streets, “nothing less than a second Declaration of Independence.”
Mumford worried that certain preservationists, with a vision to “mummify” the colonial city, would prevail in the public debates about Independence National Historical Park, Old City, and Society Hill. They would cleanse the area of anything but the architectural forms of the 18th century. And they would fill in the gaps with “counterfeit” buildings meant to look old. “Since so much historically genuine remains,” he wrote in the third column, on April 6, 1957, “why should anyone debase its value by minting and scattering about false coin that the innocent will take as real money?” (Fool me once…)
But Mumford also agonized over the plan for Independence Mall itself, three long blocks north of Chestnut Street that would establish, at last, a monumental visual approach to Independence Hall. The problem was, as Mumford so incisively noted, the old State House is a humble Georgian building, domestic in its proportions; the long vista, Baroque in its origins, would be better suited to “a vast palace or temple.” Gazing south from Market or Arch Street, he said, “one will be looking at the Hall through the wrong end of the telescope.” The little building would–and did–seem even further away.
Indeed, as Mumford recognized, the best approach to Independence Hall was to come from the back, on Walnut Street, through the intimate grounds of Independence Square. Halfway through the little park, when the building becomes all of a sudden visible, he noted, “it almost seems bigger than it is, and that, too, is quite fitting.”
The planners of the time–the Independence Mall scheme had been initiated by the firm of Harbeson, Hough, Livingston & Larson, who would later design Love Park’s saucer, and made possible by the State of Pennsylvania, which purchased the land–were hoping to dignify Independence Hall and its ancillary structures with a classical approach. They wanted to free the building from the mess of commercial establishments that bore down on it, and isolate it as a symbol.
But this certainly visionary notion, as Mumford noted, ran against the meaning of the building, an icon of the democratic urge to break through the palace doors. Hiding Independence Hall seemed somehow more Philadelphian anyway. A great city, Philadelphia has often struggled with grandeur. That is not to say Philadelphia through history has lacked ambition or pride: several times Philadelphians have put up the tallest or largest building in North America. Yet with a great deal of discomfort we’ve struggled to rectify Quaker then republican then market-based thinking with the urban reflex toward magnificence.
So we have few grand boulevards, a smattering of epic views. The discomfort has lead to strange half-measures and ham-fisted mistakes: the placement of an ambitious, palace-like City Hall dead center in an intersection without room to breathe–an imposition instead of an inspiration. At the other end of the Parkway, a grand boulevard in theory, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a latter day Parthenon, was stuck high on the Fair Mount without a careful connection to the city below. The Parkway, instead, left our art monument hanging, and no subway ever arrived.
The renowned landscape architecture firm Olin has been charged, over the last decade, with assuaging these products of our discomfort. The Center City District tasked the firm with creating a master plan for the Parkway and about one billion dollars in investment later, you don’t mind being led up to the Museum, or at least as far as Eakins Oval, where now, depending on the day or season you might be treated to a carnival. There’s more to do, as Center City District president Paul Levy will admit, but the museum’s own plans, designed by the architect Frank Gehry, which are meant to reach out to and embrace the city in various ways, will help cover the distance.
A couple miles to the east, beginning in the late 1990s, Olin’s team of designers transformed the flat, Baroque-inspired Independence Mall just outside their office. Here, they made a critical decision Mumford would have been thrilled by, to raise the grade of the mall going north from Market Street. This subtle trick means that at Arch Street in front of the Constitution Center, or even mid-block, you look down on Independence Hall in a way that resembles the gaze from a cliff’s edge down to a village that’s nestled below. The steeple of the town’s largest church is what your eyes will settle on, a seemingly giant–monumental–construction in situ. In this case, your eyes are drawn down upon our diminutive symbol of democracy so that it appears to be the most significant building on the landscape. It’s as if someone has come by, noting you were holding the telescope backwards, and flipped it in your hands.
Now, the landscape architects have taken the opposite tack to solve the opposite problem in redressing Philadelphia’s most monumental piece of architecture, City Hall, which unlike Independence Hall is threaded tight inside the urban fabric. At Dilworth Park, all of which is open as of today, the most startling delight is in the approach from the street. Enter from the Parkway, Market Street, or now, South Penn Square, and thanks to the rise in grade from street level you are carried up to the great Second Empire building, as if on a pilgrimage. Your head automatically lifts as your eyes try to absorb the colossal.
Come back again and again. Each time, the same: rise up from the street and reconnect (the same sense of rising up to the monument is produced when you come out of the subway). And thus, Olin’s design for the park, at a very basic level, has solved a longstanding problem, City Hall’s lack of context. The new park is, in fact, all about enabling a new relationship with the old building, forged of respect and admiration, but also a strange kind of intimacy so appropriate to Philadelphia. Those are your sculptures up there and your elected officials working on your behalf (at least in theory) inside, and your heroes, Penn and Franklin, all over the place: the people’s palace.
Once you’re up there, in direct communication with City Hall, the most difficult problem has been solved. The rest is a well-proportioned, handsome, rather dynamic stage (it feels like a stage, too, with secret mechanics under the floor). The floor pattern of light and dark granite cut in long sections connotes movement, as does the fountain; the curving planters guide you, further enhancing the sense of being carried onto the scene. The benches and the lips of the planters are generous: there are, in fact, hundreds of different places to sit here, and once you’ve had enough of looking at the building, take in the many newfound views. One of these views, it should be pointed out, ought to be of the Parkway and the Art Museum in the distance. However, the tree cover, as it’s arranged in the present at Love Park, blocks the view—something to consider as that space is newly conceived. Restoring that monumental view should be a priority.
This is not a terribly large park (as Liz Spikol, at Philadelphia Magazine, explains, it really is a plaza, not a park), and yet the designers have done an admirable job of creating nodes of activity: the cafe at the northern end surrounded by discrete seating areas, the interactive fountain, which can adjust in size, the skating rink, which will open November 14 and be capable of supporting “a couple hundred skaters,” according to Levy, pop-up shops and bandstands, and, at the southern, quieter end, the not unsizeable lawn. Sit, ramble, work (the Wi-Fi connection is strong), eat, gaze, let your mind absorb the city in its various forms all around.
In other words, the space works admirably, despite the difficulty of humanizing what is essentially the roof of the subway concourse below (the lawn, for example, could not have been placed where the fountain is because of the weight requirement). The materials are uniformly of high quality. The plantings are smart and well conceived, and they don’t detract from the main drama here, which is the stage set (City Hall) and the action on the stage (you and me). When sculptor Janet Echelman’s “Pulse” is finally installed next year, the drama will only intensify.
There has been some criticism that the park isn’t green enough. It’s hot in summer, surely. The fountain is really only an antidote for children. But mercifully, the landscape architects didn’t obliterate the space or City Hall with trees. The idea is to be able to see and connect. However, the lawn—a rectangle of grass, unadorned—worries me. Olin’s designers have used a seed mix meant for shade. They’ve installed an irrigation system (hidden below the stage) and non-compacting soil. And yet there is something about a patch of grass, as opposed to a wide lawn, that will compromise its wear. I hope this is not the case, but I can also see that end of the park evolving over time (public spaces should always be capable of adjusting).
I similarly worry about the cafe. Certainly, Garces is a capable operator. But the coffee so far has been mediocre. I’m still likely to go across the street to La Colombe—and that shouldn’t be the case. At Sister Cities Park, also managed by the Center City District, the Logan Square Cafe, as it’s now called, is similarly mediocre. The original operator there, Milk and Honey, had higher standards for food and coffee than the present concern. Given all the effort the CCD has made to run a string of cafes down the Parkway, I hate to see them—in this golden age of Philadelphia coffee—disappoint.
Yet even if the coffee isn’t quite good enough, and even if the grass dies, and even though the fountain, with its syncopated jets, feels dated, Dilworth Park represents, and, in fact, makes real, a newly reaccepted approach to living in this city, in public, connected, in warm embrace of the city itself. This is a monumental shift.
On January 25, 2007, writing on the pages of PhillySkyline.com, I began to postulate ideas for the recapturing the public spaces in and around City Hall. Quite possibly, I’d been reading Mumford, who wondered 50 years earlier in regard to historic Philadelphia, why contemporary design shouldn’t be used to give life to ancient places. The beauty of the city, he wrote on April 13, 1957, “must be a living beauty that strengthens its links with the past through successive acts of creation and that respects the needs and purposed of our own day without attempting to deform them in the mold of an earlier period.” Toward the end of the PhillySkyline.com article, I imagined that if the ideas I had mentioned were made real, Philadelphia would finally make the leap from “a nineteenth to twentieth to twenty-first century notion of a city.” In Dilworth Park, it’s made an admirable argument that our present-day ideas matter, and that they can, in real time, lift the experience of urban life.
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To launch a gallery of Dilworth Park photos, taken by Bradley Maule over several days in its first month, click any of the images below.
About the author
Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
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