Looking back on the vision for the Ben Franklin Parkway

by Brady Dale

N 15th St & John F Kennedy Blv

Every month at countless large, public events, thousands of area residents are reminded that the Ben Franklin Parkway is a place that provides amenities other than a quick route out to the Schuylkill from Center City. That common sentiment complements a recent vision articulated by PennPraxis in its report, “More Park, Less Way.” In it, Praxis suggest strategies to make the Eakins Oval and other parts of the Parkway more of a space for people than commuters. A plan that appears to be moving forward.

The Parkway as we know if was first articulated in 1917, by Jacques Gréber, though the concept officially entered the city’s overall plan a decade before that. Construction began on the parkway that year. In a book digitally preserved by The University of the Arts Internet Archive, The Fairmount Parkway: a pictorial record of development from its first incorporation in the city plan in 1904 to the completion of the main drive from City Hall to Fairmount Park in 1919 (1919), there’s a photo of what stood where the parkway now stands. It was a neighborhood. Here’s the photo, shot from the tower in City Hall before construction began.

View from City Hall out onto where the Parkway would go.

To help orient a reader familiar with the city, the domed building is Logan Circle’s Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. Here’s a photo of one of the houses that’s now gone, along with a tiny park. Not so long after, a photo documents the Parkway under construction. You can again see the Basilica in this photo, which helps provide orientation.

The Ben Franklin Parkway, under construction. View from City Hall.

The book also includes a topical view of Jacques Gréber’s final plan, which served as the original vision for the Parkway, though it has seen some hefty revisions since then. Look closely at Eakins Oval, depicted below, to see how that space has changed.

Much of the green space along the northern edge of the plan above is now parking for a few high rises that have gone in on the north edge since then. Another major change to the space has been the replacement of the trees that line its boulevards. In 1989, the 219 red oak trees lining the boulevard were removed because they had all become too unhealthy, due to repeated collisions from automobiles, disease and nails used to post notices. In their place were planted red oak, red maple and sweet gums, so that the space would no longer be an arboreal monoculture.

The Parkway began roughly contemporaneously with the construction of the Art Museum, which broke ground in 1919, but took until 1928 to complete.

The design, as shown in “The Fairmount Parkway: A Pictorial Record.”

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One Comment

  1. Tom Kearney
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised you did not mention that the original trees along the Parkway were planted in memory of World War One soldiers killed in the conflict. There is a tablet in the southeast corner of the Swann Fountain called The Tribute Trees.

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