Monday, May 14, 2007
An Urbanist's Guide to Philadelphia
The fifteenth Congress for the New Urbanism meets in Philadelphia this week. One of the subscriber's to the Urbanists list asked for some hits on walking tours. Here's my stream-of-consciousness response.
Philadelphia has a grid organized around the cardo and decomanus of Broad (north – south) and Market (east – west) streets. City Hall sits at the cross-axis, terminating four vistas. The Loews Hotel [headquarters for the congress] is on (east) Market, a few blocks from City Hall. Until recently, no building in Philadelphia was allowed to be taller than William Penn’s statue on the top of City Hall. But that rule was broken, and our own Bob Stern [Bob is one of the keynote speakers] currently has Philadelphia’s tallest building under construction.
The original city sat between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Broad Street is in the middle of the two, but the oldest part of the city is to the east, south of Market Street near the Delaware. Most of your first visit to Philadelphia wll be best spent in the two quadrants south of Market and in West Philadelphia, west of the Schuykill, around the University of Pennsylvania.*
Along the Delaware River south of Market is the old part of Philadelphia now known as Society Hill. Ed Bacon, the longtime planning director of Philadelphia and author of Design of Cities, focused a lot of his urban renewal efforts here after suburban flight in the 50s and 60s made the area quite poor. Bacon hired IM Pei to design the Society Hill Towers, another set of Pei’s ubiquitous triple tower urban renewal efforts, this time with Pei-designed rowhouses supplying a finer-grain urban fabric than usual. Many other Philadelphia architects also worked in the area at the time.
An easy walk from the Loews, Society Hill has some of the best 18th century urban architecture in America. On the edge of Society Hill is Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The mall there was 20th century urban removal. Be sure to see William Strickland’s Merchant's Exchange and Second US Bank.
In the same quadrant east of Broad and south of Market are the Holy Trinities, very small rowhouses on very small streets. Don’t miss those. They’re called Holy Trinities because they have three floors, each so small that there’s only one room per floor.
The most famous cheesesteaks are a few blocks over at 9th and Passyunk. Across the street from each other are Geno’s and Pat’s, which both claim to be the best. They have plenty of competitors, but these are the best known.
My heart and I prefer hoagies, and you can get excellent ones at many places, including in the Reading Terminal Market, near the hotel at 12th and Arch, one block north of Market. “Hoagie” is pronounced “hoʊ-ghee,” with the emphasis on the first syllable. To imagine the sound, think of Rocky Balboa’s pronunciation of “Yo, Adrian.” One of the charms of Philadelphia is that its most famous food and its most famous greeting both display its most characteristic regional sound. (But New York gets its version right in its name, NOO Yawk, NOO Yawk.)
Readers of Bacon’s Design of Cities know that he was entranced with the idea of getting light down to the Philadelphia subway tracks. You can see this along Market to the west of Loews and judge for yourself it it makes a better streetscape than storefronts. I believe Bacon’s daugther Elinor, of HUD / HOPE VI fame, is speaking at the Congress. Six degrees of New Urban separation: she’s also Kevin Bacon’s older sister.
Near the Schuylkill River, in the quadrant west of Broad and south of Market, and to the west and south of Rittenhouse Square, is some of the best 19th and early 20th century urban fabric. Walk west on Delancey from 17th Street and you will pass through alternating blocks of impressive rowhouses and carriage blocks for those rowhouses. The cross streets are some of the best blocks in Philadelphia. Delancey between 20th and 21st is one of the most impressive rowhouse blocks. Follow your nose when you see something good a little ways off.
If you walk across the South Street bridge from there, it will take you past the best urban football field in America (City Football Magic), designed by the same architects who designed some of Penn’s and Princeton’s best dormitories. Turn right (north) on 33rd Street, and look for the pedestrian way on the left that leads you to 34th Street and across the street, the great Furness Library and the heart of the University of Pennsylvania campus. Continuing on that axis (now called Locust Walk) through the campus to 44th Street or so and then turning left and walking one block to Spruce and then east again, will give you a good impression of the campus and West Philly. At 37th and Spruce is the best Penn dormitory, one of the best college dorms in the country. Cross the campus on 37th to Walnut and you’ll see Penn’s new(ish) bookstore, hotel, food court, etc., considered by many developers and colleges to be one of the best new “college town” developments. One block over on Sansom is the White Dog Café, a good Slow Food place.
If you started at Rittenhouse Square, you’ve probably been walking for 4 or 5 hours at this point, and can take the subway back to the hotel. If you walk back and didn’t come to Philly by train, don’t miss the 30th Street Station at 30th and Market. You can cut diagonally through the Drexel campus at 33rd Street, and can also get on the subway at 30th Street, or walk back through Center City on Market. As always, follow your nose when you see something good a block over. Near 30th Street on the Surekill is the outstanding 18th century Waterworks, but you’d better have a good pair of walking shoes for all this.
30th Street Station was designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the successor firm to Daniel Burnham’s office. But Philadelphia has had as many good architects as any US city, starting with the masons and carpenters of early Philadelphia, going to one of America’s earliest architects, William Strickland, and continuing through Frank Furness, Wilson Eyre, Robert Rodes McGoodwin, Horace Trumbauer, Mellor, Meigs & Howe, George Howe, Paul Cret, Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi. Some of the best practiced circa 1890 to 1920, and much of their work can be seen in Chestnut Hill, the more suburban (not sub-urban) part of Philadelphia. George Howe transformed himself from a great country-house architect (Katherine Hepburn’s character in Philadelphia Story was based on a real-life Main Line beauty who grew up in a George Howe house) into the Modernist Dean of Yale and the architect of the PSFS Tower, now the Loews Hotel. Lizz P-Z’s father was the in-house architect for PSFS, working in the tower.
You can find all this and more at the AIA bookstore, near the hotel at 17th and Ionic (ironic).
* But in the quadrant north of Market and west of Broad is a late City Beautiful intervention in the Philadelphia grid, the diagonal Franklin Parkway, that runs from City Hall to the Philadelphia Art Museum. The museum is a temple on an acropolis that terminates the vista at the northwestern end. The scale of the parkway is large and not very pleasant for pedestrians, but if you run along the parkway and up the art museum steps, you can relive the famous scene from Rocky. Serious runners can continue past the museum to Fairmount Park, one of America's greatest 19th century parks.
Along the way is Logan Square, with two buildings designed by Horace Trumbauer that pay homage to two buildings on the Place de la Concorde designed by the great 18th century Classicst Ange Jacques Gabriel, the French Naval Ministry and what is now the Hotel de Crillon. Behind them is a trench with an Interstate intervention, the Vine Street Expressway.
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» Philadelphia Quotes from Veritas et Venustas
Having established my Philadelphia cred and praised Philadelphia as the home of the some of the best urbanism, architecture and architects in America, I offer the following quotes:I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was on a Sunday. — W.C. ... [Read More]
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