Breaking Away from the “Gentleman’s Agreement”

The statue of William Penn on City Hall tower. (PhillyHistory,org)

What kind of a city should Philadelphia be? Ponderous, historical and homey, stuck in its quaint ways, admiring of its own image in the review mirror? Or should Philadelphia throw in its hat and become lively, contemporary and international, willing to join the what’s what of World Cities?

Developer Williard Rouse didn’t think it was a real choice as he put the make-it-or-break-it question to the people of Philadelphia in the Spring of 1984. Rouse proposed breaking the city’s “gentleman’s agreement,” that quirky, decades-old a pact more ephemeral than legal. It had never been on the books but had been kept alive in the boardrooms as a ready-made, self-deprecating put down. Anyone suggesting a project over 500 feet would be brought up short by city planner Edmund N. Bacon with the same line:  ‘It’s only a gentleman’s agreement. The question is, are you a gentleman?’”

There were a lot of places in the city where you couldn’t even see City Hall tower or the statue of the founder. “If you stood at Rittenhouse Square right now and looked for William Penn,” Rouse pointed out, “you would not find him.”  According Benjamin M. Gerber’s chronicle of the gentleman’s agreement’s demise, the Inquirer editorial board agreed: “much of the symbolism of Penn’s supremacy was already lost amidst ‘a stubby tide of undistinguished office buildings already [lapping] just shy of Penn’s pantaloons.’”

Inquirer architecture writer Thomas Hine had seen it coming. “The breakthrough might come in private office building, or as a public monument,” he wrote in 1983, “but it seems that sooner or later, the city will rise over William Penn’s head.” When, the following April, Rouse presented two projects, a short one and a tall one (he only intended to develop latter). The debate that ensued became “The Battle of Billy Penn” as Gregory L. Heller tells it in his new biography of Bacon. It played out everywhere: in the streets, in the media, and in the public mind as Philadelphia redefined itself at the end of the century that began with the installation of the 37-foot bronze founder above the a humble skyline.

“The way people talked about One Liberty Place when plans for this skyscraper were announced,” wrote Paul Goldberger in the New York Times, “you would have thought that this was not a new building but some sort of nuclear weapon. One Liberty Place would be the ruination of Philadelphia, cried the project’s opponents, the sign that this somewhat genteel city had sold out to real-estate developers and become just like anyplace else.” The crier-in-chief, of course, was the retired Bacon, whose energy, style and way with words fueled the debate. The height limitation “sets Philadelphia apart from all other” cities. And Bacon warned: “once smashed it is gone forever.”

One Liberty Place in Philadelphia’s skyline, December 5, 1987. (PhillyHistory.org)

Liberty Place was built, of course.

In 1987, when it opened, some couldn’t forget that architect Helmut Jahn adapted it from a much taller, unbuilt tower proposed for Houston. They couldn’t forgive that it looked like a bulked-up version of New York’s Chrysler Building. Hine wrote that Liberty Place “loomed,” but appreciated how, amidst the “stubble” of existing office buildings, it turned “the uninspiring commercial agglomeration into a complete visual composition.” Liberty Place stood “like a mountain among the foothills.”

Philadelphia’s height limitation had been “an empty gesture, hollow and pretentious,” wrote Goldlberger in the New York Times. “The urban order that Philadelphians had for so long cherished was a myth… it was a fallacy to pretend that City Hall still commanded the skyline…William Penn barely stuck his head above his grim surroundings.” With Liberty Place, “City Hall…is still there, still great, and still at the critical center of the city. The only thing that has been lost is the illusion that William Penn was lording over it all.” Goldberger glowed that Liberty Place “transcends the old order, and establishes a new one, at a level of quality good enough to justify throwing away the old.”

Liberty Place would “dislodge this historical center which… informed our city from the beginning,” predicted Bacon. “In our arrogance, we replace it with a floating center up for sale to the highest bidder.” In that sense, Liberty Place and the still taller Comcast Center confirmed his worst fears.

But in the end, what was sacrificed? Sure, the skyline would never be the same. It would never again take on the same kind meaning. In the debates of the 1980s, Philadelphians were forced to think long and hard about where they found substance and where they found meaning. “We may be giving up something insubstantial, but not meaningless,” observed one architect.

In the 21st century, Philadelphians would search for substance and meaning in places other than the skyline. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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One Comment

  1. John Burkhart
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    What some proponents of breaking the “gentlemen’s agreement” overlooked is a very practical consideration, which may or may not have been part of the original height limit. Penn founded and created the grid for his city in the late 17th century, influenced by the destructive fire in London of the 1660s. He sought to create a town of wide streets and boulevards to prevent a similar catastrophe. Unfortunately, the meaning of “wide” in 1682 is not that of the late 20th century. Long before Rouse’s abomination Philly’s streets & sidewalks were a traffic nightmare; a proliferation of ever-more vertical space resulted in increased crowding of the 17th-century grid at street level. Rather than grow our downtown horizontally, planers dismissed Bacon and sprouted to the skies. Not even the Phillies’ World Championship in 2008 could break the curse (and some might say that season was a fluke!).