The Benjamin Franklin Parkway has no regard for the city’s checkerboard street grid as it slashes right through it diagonally from City Hall to Fairmount Park. The notion that there should be a substantial avenue leading to the park first emerged in the 1850s as the park was assembled. Such a road would link the harsh congested city with the airy recreational park, and would facilitate access to the park for all Philadelphians, especially laborers in the city’s flourishing industrial districts.
Several proposals for a grand thoroughfare to Fairmount Park surfaced throughout the second half of the 19th Century. In 1871, for example, an unsigned pamphlet entitled “Broad Street, Penn Square and the Park” suggested two approaches, one to East Fairmount Park and the other to West Fairmount Park, in anticipation of the Centennial International Exposition of 1876. Indeed, the difficulty of getting visitors to Fairmount Park during the Centennial celebration underscored the need for direct access to the park.
In the mid-1880s, real estate developer Charles Landis issued a prospective map advocating his proposal for a 150 foot wide street from Philadelphia City Hall (then being built) to the reservoirs of the Fairmount Water Works (atop the hill of Faire Mount, where the Philadelphia Museum of Art resides today). Landis declared on his plan: “A convenient approach to the park is a necessity. Why not make it something worthy of the magnificent city of Philadelphia?” (His “Map of the Grand Avenue to the Park, Philadelphia” was amazingly prescient; the Benjamin Franklin Parkway follows Landis’ recommended course almost exactly.)
Yet perhaps the most impressive of these proposals was a design suggested by Lewis Muhlenberg Haupt (1844-1937), an American civil engineer who was especially keen on the topic of diagonal streets. In essence, he wanted all of Philadelphia to be crisscrossed with skewed thoroughfares, and this was long before the Ben Franklin Parkway came to fruition.
Haupt was the real deal when it came to major engineering projects. His father, Herman Haupt (1817-1905), was a Philadelphia civil engineer and a railroad construction engineer who revolutionized military transportation as a Union Army General during the Civil War. The younger Haupt entered the University of Pennsylvania, but continued his education at Harvard before graduating from West Point in 1867. Afterwards, he served in the Army Corps of Engineers and worked on lake surveys and as engineer officer in Texas. He then worked as an engineer for Fairmount Park and subsequently joined the Penn faculty as a mathematics and engineering instructor. Haupt later served as a member of the Panama Canal Commission.
Haupt wrote and gave engineering presentations about diagonal streets generally, but focused on Philadelphia in particular. The Proceedings of the Engineers’ Club of Philadelphia contains an article titled “Intercommunications in Cities, Etc.,” that he read before the club on January 15, 1881. Haupt lays it on the line, using all types of calculations and implications to prove that long cross streets should be built right through the heart of Philadelphia:
Our city plan could be much improved by opening diagonal ways for pedestrians through the blocks similar in their general features to that at “Walnut Place,” and thus rendering a much larger amount of the building area available for stores and offices. At present many of the blocks are simply “hollow squares.” By opening or enlarging streets through them, the available building area would be largely increased without at the same time crowding out any of the population.
The rectangular system of streets is good enough so far as it goes, but for a person whose objective points are on the diagonal lines of this system, it is the worst possible. Every such individual must lose 42 per cent. of his time, distance and energy in traveling between the termini of his route. It is the same whether he ride or walk, except that in the former case, the wear and tear comes on the horses and vehicle instead of on himself, and the cost to the car company transporting him is increased in the same ratio. This waste when taken collectively amounts to a very large quantity and is, to that extent, a bar to the growth of the city.
Now, assuming the centre of the retail trade to be at Eighth and Market; that of the commercial and monetary interests to be at Fourth and Chestnut; and that of municipal business to be at Broad and Market, it is evident that a large portion of the population living beyond the limits mentioned is obliged to travel a long distance out of the way to reach these points, and that if the merchants, bankers and professional men generally desire to retain the patronage of this vast population, which is daily getting farther away, it will be necessary to increase the facilities of communication by opening diagonal streets, providing more rapid means of transit, or moving their stores, banks and offices, out in the wake of the receding population.
Haupt’s proposed diagonal streets, in effect, sought to restore some of the pathways that crisscrossed Philadelphia County before the regular street pattern was pushed through the city as it expanded. The old slanted roads were former Native American trails through the region, in place strictly as the fastest way to get from point A to point B. One of those paths, the Ridge Road (Ridge Avenue), was built atop a ridge that approached the Schuylkill River.
In any case, Haupt was convinced that his avenues “would constitute one of the grandest improvements this city has ever devised.” Such radial lines would “increase the available assessable frontages more than they would diminish the available building area.” Plus, he showed that the cross streets would reduce overall travel distance through town from 23,000 to 16,000 feet…
thus saving 1 1/3 miles for every person required to move diagonally across the heart of the city, with the same percentage of saving for any part of the distance. It would open up over twelve miles of building lines available for stores and dwellings, and as these avenues would be crowded thoroughfares, they would form the most desirable sites for trade in the city. The additional building fronts thus created would far more than accommodate the small portion of the inhabitants displaced by such an improvement. It would open a direct line of communication to [Fairmount] Park from the southeastern portion of the city, and furnish avenues for the more efficient performance of all municipal duties such as may arise from fires, riots, etc.
Haupt’s plan was based on efficiency and property valuation concerns—in other words: cold, hard mathematics. The February 25, 1881, issue of English Mechanic and World of Science summarizes Haupt’s rationale well:
The rectangular method of laying out cities leads not only to architectural monotony, but also to a great loss of time and travel, as soon as the area covered becomes at all extensive. In a recent paper to the Philadelphia Engineers Club, Prof. Haupt shows that a combination of the rectangular system with diagonal or radiating avenues is vastly more economical. In a city like Philadelphia where half a million of people live at least a mile from the business centre, the zigzag course those have take to whose homes lie in a direction diagonal to run of the streets, greatly waste time and effort, increasing the travel more than a third. A diagonal street through the heart of the city would save a mile and a third. The streetcar lines of the city carry something like 100 million passengers a year. From this and the average yearly expense of travelling, Prof. Haupt calculates that every mile less in distance would be a saving to the people collectively of 1,500,000 dollars in money, 1,000 years in time, and something like three billion foot pounds of energy. He suggested two diagonal avenues with “cut off” or diagonal lanes for pedestrians.
Compared to the Ben Franklin Parkway, the diagonal streets Haupt wanted were much more impressive. One roadway would have been built from Grays Ferry Road all the way to Brown and Laurel Streets in Northern Liberties, and another would have been from 21st Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to Front Street and Washington Avenue. Imagine, thus, a huge X being laid over the grid of Center City and beyond. And like the Parkway, these boulevards were to have been huge: wide enough for four or six of lanes of carriage traffic plus at least two lines of street cars, with twenty foot sidewalks and shade trees.
Obviously, the major skewed roadways that Lewis Haupt recommended did not come about. In fact, his proposal was immediately criticized in the very next issue of Proceedings of the Engineers’ Club of Philadelphia by a Dr. Henry M. Chance, who wrote:
Prof. Haupt states… “At present many of the blocks are simply ‘hollow squares.’ By opening or enlarging streets through them, the available building area would be largely increased without at the same time crowding out any of the population.” No, the population would not be “crowded out,” they would be crowded in; crowded into houses without yards or gardens, crowded in between walls that shut out the sunlight and the pure air needed by all; crowded so close that contagious diseases would more easily spread, so close that there would be no play-yards for the children, no room for flowers or trees.
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It is the boast of all those who are proud of our city, that she is a city of homes, not tenement houses. Our houses are roomy and comfortable, and what city has yards and gardens comparable to ours? The benefit the children derive from the yard or garden is inestimable. In it they have a place to romp and play under their mother’s eye, removed from the dangers and the demoralizing influences of the public streets. Crowding means disease, immorality and death–can we afford to court these visitors for the paltry gain of three or five minutes a day?
Dr. Chance thus focused more on the social and practical needs of the citizenry in rejecting Haupt’s efficient/calculated/financial reasoning for two immense streets laid crossways through downtown Philadelphia and beyond.
Yet the idea that a series of large slanted roads would improve the city and its populace persisted into the 20th Century, apparently reaching its apex in the early teens. Philadelphia’s Bureau of Surveys in 1911, for instance, issued at least two maps showing over two dozen proposed diagonal streets throughout the entire city. Lewis Haupt, who lived until 1937, must have been proud that his thirty-year-old idea was getting such serious attention, although for different reasons than those he had advanced.
Furthermore, in May 1911, the nation’s first city planning exhibition was held at Philadelphia City Hall during the Third National Conference on City Planning. Among other things, the exhibition sought to educate Philadelphians about the city’s plans for the Fairmount Parkway, then about to be constructed. (“Fairmount Parkway” was the original name of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the name changing in 1937 to honor the city’s most illustrious citizen.) The show featured a thirty-foot model of the drive that demonstrated what the spending of so much municipal money would accomplish.
Jacques Gréber, the French landscape architect and city planner who worked on the Parkway’s design late in its development, was very influenced by the City Beautiful movement and was one of its chief proponents. One elaborate illustration of the Fairmount Parkway that he drafted for the Fairmount Park Commission in 1917 shows the completed avenue and several of the other slanting roadways that were proposed for the city. Ridge Avenue, one of Philadelphia’s former Native America trails, was to have been incorporated into this scheme.
The City Beautiful impetus for creating the Ben Franklin Parkway ultimately won the day for that road. But that was the only diagonal boulevard ever realized in Philadelphia anew. (The likes of Passyunk, Point Breeze, Grays Ferry, and Ridge Avenues all predate modern planning and were usually derived from Native American trails.) As the City Beautiful movement waned, all thoughts of the other skewed streets for the city were forgotten due to civic indifference, the Great Depression and World War II. Suffice it to say that Philadelphia would look very different today if even a handful of those other diagonal concourses had been built.
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This piece was gathered for research for my third book: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014). This Arcadia Pub. title is a postcard history book that traces the development of the Parkway and the various institutions along the Parkway through the use of period postcards and other images, followed by explanatory captions. The book was released on Monday, July 7th, and is available in the gift shops of the Parkway attractions, as well as via Amazon.com and other Internet and brick-and-mortar book stores.