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11 / The Urban Experience

Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Artist / Origin Paul Philippe Cret (French, 1876–1945) and Jacques Greber (French, 1882–1962) (designers)
Region: North America
Date 1917–1926
Material Pavement and trees
Dimensions L: approx. 1 mi. (1.6 km.)
Location Philadelphia, PA
Credit © Alan Schein Photography/CORBIS

expert perspective

David B. BrownleeProfessor of Art History, University of Pennsylvania

Benjamin Franklin Parkway

» Paul Philippe Cret (French, 1876–1945) and Jacques Greber (French, 1882–1962) (designers)

expert perspective

David B. Brownlee David B. Brownlee Professor of Art History, University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia was laid out by its founder, William Penn, with the help of a surveyor by the name of Thomas Holme in 1683 as a grid plan city—a city that was regular and orderly, as the cities William Penn knew growing up were not, and a city that he imagined would be immune to the destructive fires that destroyed, well, in fact, that destroyed the city of London in 1666. This would be an orderly and regulated world. He laid out enormous city blocks. They were so big because he intended that there would be no row houses. That each individual homeowner would build a house, surrounded by trees, in what he called a ‘green country town.’

The settlers who came to Philadelphia did not buy into his vision, and they settled on this great grid plan only reluctantly. They built houses cheek by jowl up against each other. They cut narrow alley ways through the gigantic blocks that he imagined would be orchard-filled and built a tangled mass of small houses and courtyards, just like the medieval cities that they had left—the medieval cities that for them represented civilization, that they wanted to recreate on this side of the Atlantic.

At the time of the Declaration of Independence, probably only an eighth of the city had been built upon, but over the next two centuries, the plan was completely filled out. The idea of the grid plan prevailed. But in the nineteenth century, the city of Philadelphia also created the great antithesis of this infinitely expanded grid plan. They annexed and preserved gigantic tract of natural land that they converted into Fairmount Park. The world’s largest park associated cheek by jowl with this gigantic grid-planned industrial city.

Throughout the last years of the nineteenth century, Philadelphians struggled with the idea of connecting these two things—the grid plan city and the largest park in the world. And out of this came a genuine metropolitan consensus that what was needed was a great roadway, a great roadway that would connect the city to the park. And in the early twentieth century, with demolition beginning in 1907, the city seemed to disembowel itself by cutting a great boulevard from City Hall diagonally north westward to Fairmount Park. That Fairmount Parkway, renamed in honor of Benjamin Franklin in the 1930s, was conceived in some respects, very like the boulevards that Haussmann cut through Paris in the 1850s and 1860s, and it is a connection between two different worlds—a bridge between the natural and the man-made.” 

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