On February 8, 2018 perhaps the largest public event in Philadelphia’s history unfolded along the city’s iconic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as fervent football fans from around the region flocked to the city to watch their beloved Eagles hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s photogenic steps. One expert estimated that 700,000 revelers attended.
While smaller in scope than the Eagles celebration parade, plenty of arts and civic events boasting massive turnouts have taken place on the Parkway in recent years. From Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to the 2016 Women’s March, not to mention annual events like Made in America, Philadelphia’s famous boulevard has hosted an incredible number of public gatherings that have attracted untold multitudes of visitors. And it’s been doing so for 100 years.
This October marks the centennial of the Parkway’s opening. Conceived during the 1870s and 1880s, the initial plan for the Parkway was formally integrated into Philadelphia’s official city maps in 1892 following an ordinance passed by City Council. Economic turmoil delayed its initial planning and construction. This postponement ultimately benefited the Parkway’s final design, as the increasing popularity of the City Beautiful Movement throughout the 1890s sparked new interest in urban beautification, grand architectural design, and open spaces.
Bankrolled by the city’s elite, the Philadelphia Parkway Association issued a plan for the Parkway in 1903, which kicked off four additional years of bureaucratic holdups before construction finally began in 1907.
Various plans and a map of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway circa 1880-1900. From the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Although the Parkway officially opened in 1918, its full realization would take decades. Many of its integral landmarks, such as the Free Library and the Franklin Institute, would take years to complete (their doors opened in 1927 and 1934, respectively). Even the Philadelphia Museum of Art did not open until 1928, a full 10 years after the Parkway’s inauguration.
Despite the long saga of the Parkway’s construction, it began serving as a key civic gathering ground almost immediately. Among its earliest public events occurred during its opening year, when soldiers returning home from the trenches of WWI marched down the Parkway in front of cheering Philadelphians. In 1937, pilots landed planes directly on the Parkway as part of a transportation parade, perhaps setting the stage for the complex logistics of modern-day events.
All images appear courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.