The Parkway’s Tipping Point: a Millionaire, a Mayor and a Model

The Parkway Model Looking [North]West, Mayor’s Reception Room, City Hall. May 1911. (PhillyHistory.org)

Imagine John Reyburn’s shock when he heard the massive Parkway project was headed—literally—in the wrong direction. Demolition of the first of 1,300 buildings had been underway for two months when Reyburn, Philadelphia’s brand new mayor in April 1907, learned that the swath being cut through the northwest quadrant of Center City was off course.

Reyburn became convinced of the City’s profound mistake days after his inauguration in a meeting with streetcar magnate P.A.B. Widener, who summoned him to the palatial Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park. One of the nation’s richest and most voracious art collectors, Widener had been trying for more than a decade to get Philadelphians interested in his vision for a new art museum. Why should the Parkway, which started out at foot of the monumental City Hall, come to a distinctly unceremonious end in the park when it could terminate with a glorious new museum, set high on Fairmount?

Reyburn agreed with Widener. And he immediately took it upon himself to adjust the Parkway’s course. Correct “the present line of the Parkway, “he wrote in his first annual address, and continue “the removal of buildings on the new line. … I want this improvement to be the magnificent work that it ought to be.” The Parkway “is an opportunity that no other City in the United States can boast.”

But moving the Parkway’s axis would add $2 million to an already complicated and expensive project. How could Reyburn convince City Council, business leaders and the public that they had gotten off on the wrong foot and the fix would be worth the cost?

First there was compromise. The Parkway’s axis would be angled to the south of its former line, but planners would also artificially extend Fairmount itself to the north.

Then there was a rethinking of the far end of the Parkway by the city’s design establishment. Architect Charles L. Borie took the idea of placing the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Fairmount and went even further. He envisioned a grand plaza surrounded by a cluster of institutions for art and art education. As Borie’s partner, Clarence Zantzinger put it, “the opportunity is…unique in any city in the world.” The Parkway had evolved into something more than an ambitious boulevard connecting park and city. Now it was becoming a sophisticated, civic and cultural solution for the new century.

Reyburn continued to build support by appointing a group of bankers and businessmen, who served, along with city officials, on a new “Comprehensive Plans Committee.” Their work was timed to conclude before a national conference on city planning convened in Philadelphia.

In fact, Philadelphia’s commitment to planning had made the city the preferred location for its Third Annual City Planning Conference in May 1911. Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., who headed up the conference the year before, said as much. In terms of city planning, Olmstead told Reyburn, “your city is the farthest advanced in the country.”

Detail of Parkway Model in City Hall, 1911. (Click image for uncropped version.)

Reyburn proudly hosted the 200 professionals who came from all over the United States. But what was he doing to build support among the taxpaying, voting citizens of Philadelphia? Journalist and planning theorist Charles Mulford Robinson, the man who popularized The City Beautiful Movement, happily noted Reyburn’s tactic designed to build public support. The conference, wrote Robinson, “was more than its title suggests or promised.” The mayor used it as an excuse to mount the “first municipal planning exhibition in America.” And the Parkway would be its focus.

For this exhibition, the Department of Public Works presented new drawings of the re-envisioned Parkway and they built a thirty-foot model that resided for a full month in the Mayor’s Reception Room. The public showed up in droves; a reported 20,000 came the first day. They filed past displays lining the corridors of City Hall to see the model, the exhibition’s pièce de résistance.

So what did Philadelphia taxpayers, those who would foot the bill for this largely expanded and hugely expensive project, conclude? The idea of the Parkway, which had first been proposed forty long years before as a way to the park, now looked like something to be proud of, a public avenue that would come to redefine Philadelphia.

For more information: David Brownlee, Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989).

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