The View from 27th and Aspen Streets

27th and Aspen Streets, "Near East Park," ca. 1880. Etching by Augustus Kollner, (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

27th and Aspen Streets, “Near East Park,” ca. 1880. Etching by Augustus Kollner, (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Artist Augustus Kollner hit the ground running as soon as he arrived in Philadelphia from Germany in 1839. Thing is, the ground in Philadelphia was changing under Kollner’s feet.

In watercolors, lithographs and etchings, Kollner captured scenes of a city in transition, a grid expanding uniformly to accommodate the railroad, the factory and miles of previously unimagined rowhouses. Kollner’s wistful titles of his collections: “City Sights for Country Eyes” and “Bits of Nature and some Art Products, in Fairmount Park” speak, again and again, of his attraction for surviving surprises like the shack and tethered goat on the rocky outcropping at 27th and Aspen Streets.

Caption

From the 1910 Philadelphia Atlas by G. W. Bromley, (Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network)

Kollner the brinksman knew this texture—the goats, the shacks and the rocky remnants they stood on—were all disappearing. What could an artist do? He documented as much as he could, and preserved his work in tidy albums and portfolios, filling the better part of his house at 616 North 7th Street. When Kollner died in 1906, his life work was nearly lost, sold as waste paper for two dollars.

Long before then, of course, the flattened, expanded city grid had won out, replacing all remaining picturesque bits of rural life with industrial necessities. By the turn of the century, Domenic Vitiello tells us,the Baldwin Locomotive Works employed more than 11,000 and produced more than 1,200 locomotives each and every a year. Baldwin took over the triangular block along Pennsylvania Avenue between 26th and 27th hard by Pennsylvania Avenue’s sunken tracks with a roundhouse to launch its locomotives.

Pennsylvania Avenue Southward from 27th Street, Andrew D. Warden, June 11, 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

27th Street at Aspen Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Andrew D. Warden, photographer, June 11, 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

The industrial city was going strong when Baldwin decided to move its operations to Eddystone, Pennsylvania. At the same time, an alternate and competing vision for a grand civic boulevard, in the form of the nearby Parkway, promised to transform the city industrial into the City Beautiful. Within a couple of short decades, the smoky red-brick roundhouse (seen at the upper left in this photograph) was rendered obsolete—an antique.

What would replace it?

Just across 26th Street from the roundhouse, the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company would light the way. This Art Deco building from the late 1920s, a white-limestone temple to the gods of insurance, is seen here in an aerial view effectively separating the old, working-class, rowhouse neighborhood from the Parkway. Fidelity Mutual stood as a lodestar for the new idea for a 20th century civic city, a place that would continue to call itself the Workshop of the World, but in reality had moved beyond that very 19th- century identity.

Pennsylvania Avenue, 27th Street and Aspen Street, Wenzel J. Hess, October 17, 1940. (PhillyHistory.org)

Pennsylvania Avenue, 27th Street and Aspen Street, Wenzel J. Hess, photographer, October 17, 1940. (PhillyHistory.org)

The civic buildings along the Parkway would be up to the task of forging this new identity, but what could augment Fidelity Mutual’s beacon-like claim to the present?  First, the 2600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue would need to be connected to the new Parkway by covering the half-dozen depressed tracks with a new grade-level deck along Pennsylvania Avenue. Then the challenge of what the new high-rise residence dubbed “2601 Parkway” might look like could be tackled by the office of architect Paul P. Cret. In fact, the project would evolve over nine years. As David Brownlee put it in Building the City Beautiful, Cret eventually stripped his idea of a building “of all detail and produced a series of ‘moderne’ alternatives that assumed an “expressionist guise.”  No less than 161 drawings for the project are listed in the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings database, and at least one other drawing for a proposed design found its way into the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Why was 2601 so important?

As we’ve come to realize nearly a century later, the success of the Parkway cannot be measured by the impressive facades and ambitious missions of the institutions along its path. Rather, what defines success in the post-industrial, civic city is the value these institutions have for the communities they serve. For that reason, the transformations of 27th and Aspen then, and now, complete the story.

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