How High Was Up? A History of Philadelphia’s “Gentleman’s Agreement”

Center City Philadelphia from Belmont, ca. 1900 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Contemplating “that vast gray labyrinth” of Philadelphia, with “great Penn upon his pinnacle like the graven figure of a god who had fashioned a new world,” G. K. Chesterton imagined Philadelphians could “feel the presence of Penn and Franklin” just as his English brethren could “see the ghosts of Alfred or Becket.” But Philadelphians didn’t need to use their imaginations. They could literally see Penn from every quarter of the city, miles from the center, where a giant statue of the founder had been installed 500 feet up, on top of City Hall tower.

Philadelphia’s love affair with the Founding Fathers would persist, but they’d soon turn on their late-19th century City Hall. By the 1950s, when Lewis Mumford lectured at Penn, City Hall was seen as “an architectural nightmare, a mishmash of uglified Renaissance styles welded into a structure rugged enough to resist and atomic bomb…” It is “woefully obsolete,” wrote Mumford, but “the problem of whether to do away with it…is not an easy one to solve…because wrecking it would wreck the wrecker.”

But for the cost of demolition, City Hall survived. And as long as it had to remain in the center of the plan, city planner Edmund N. Bacon was going to make the most of it. In a new biography, Gregory Heller tells us Bacon “saw the dominance of City Hall tower in the skyline as a critical element to the city’s historical continuity.” Bacon “created an unwritten ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that no building would rise above the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.”

“Developers would periodically meet with Bacon and propose a building taller than City Hall tower,” Heller learned in his interviews. “They would query whether the height limit was legally mandated, to which Bacon would respond: ‘It’s only a gentleman’s agreement. The question is, are you a gentleman?’”

Throughout the 20th century, gentleman’s agreements were mostly associated with spurious and immoral practices: limiting Japanese immigration, preventing the employment of African Americans or denying real estate to Jews. Legal scholars begin discussions of the practice with this somewhat amusing (or chilling) definition: “A gentlemen’s agreement is an agreement which is not an agreement, made between two persons, neither of whom is a gentleman, whereby each expects the other to be strictly bound without himself being bound at all.”

Penn Center from City Hall Tower, ca. 1972. (PhillyHistory.org)

Bacon used the idea of a gentleman’s agreement to challenge the civility of (and presumably quickly end meetings with) developers audacious enough to bring him proposals for skyscrapers. But was there an actual gentleman’s agreement, or was it just a useful ploy to bury projects that would alter the city’s skyline? Over the years, the origins of the gentleman’s agreement have remained a mystery.

On April 28 1956, seven years into Bacon’s tenure as Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, The New Yorker published the first of Lewis Mumford’s two articles that, interestingly, do not mention Bacon, but do introduce Philadelphia’s “gentleman’s agreement.”  With the “Chinese Wall” coming down, Mumford concludes the city is looking up, although how far up isn’t open to discussion. “Without legislation and with nothing more solid than a gentleman’s agreement, the tallest of the city office buildings have been piously kept lower than the bronze figure atop” City Hall. “Sentiment and symbolism have made unnecessary—temporarily at any rate—any legislation.”

In 1963, when a developer proposed a sixty-story building, Bacon responded that “for the first time in the history of Philadelphia” a project “would violate the gentleman’s agreement that William Penn will not be topped by private construction.” The Planning Commission responded by approving a “height limit ordinance” of 450 feet that made its way through the Mayor’s office and to City Council, where it eventually died. The gentleman’s agreement remained, though worse for wear, its authority unclear.

The following year, another developer proposed a tower taller than City Hall for 15th and Market Streets and Bacon found himself at odds with his own Planning Commission. As built, the project came in shorter than proposed, but the challenge now seemed possible. “Not all Philadelphians favor squat skyscrapers,” wrote Glynn D. Mapes in The Wall Street Journal of November 29, 1967.  Philip Klein, vice chairman of the Commission, hankered for a proposal “that would top William Penn.” Said Klein: “It’s time Philadelphia did something like this. I’d fight for it all the way. No city can be a big city without tall buildings.”

Philadelphians loved tradition, something like what Chesterton appreciated and Bacon perpetuated. “It still matters what Penn did two hundred years ago or what Franklin did one hundred years ago,” Chesterton had written in 1922, “I never could feel in New York that it mattered what anybody did an hour ago.”

OK, Philadelphia was different from other American cities. But a real challenge to the city’s traditional skyline, gentleman’s agreement or not, was mounting. And in 1984, the question would again be posed: Could Philadelphians maintain an honest love affair with the past if the past didn’t also dominate their city’s skyline?

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One Comment

  1. Scott Kieserman
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    What are you talking about. What historical continuity was there when the city saw fit to tear town most of Frank Furness’ buildings. What about all the ancient houses that were destroyed to build r. 95? Get real.