A Century of Selling the Parkway as Cultural Cluster

The Parkway Model, Fairmount from the South, (detail), 1911. (PhillyHistory.org)

The lost 30-foot model of the Parkway from 1911 was hardly the first time Philadelphia’s professional, public and political following was wowed in 3-D. In April 1875, Philadelphians enthused over a 40 by 20-foot model of Fairmount Park complete with the Centennial buildings exhibited at the Masonic Temple. And in 1947, the Better Philadelphia Exhibition featured a gigantic, rotating model of the entirety of Center City.

The big idea about the Parkway in 1911? It wasn’t the grand diagonal boulevard. That notion had been around since 1884. (See this image at the Free Library.) New here was the plan “advocated by the Fairmount Park Art Association in 1907 and … formally accepted and approved by the city government in an ordinance by councils, approved September 20, 1909.”  This plan promoted a Parkway, lined, end-to-end, with civic, religious, and cultural institutions, the latter clustering on and at the foot of Fairmount itself.

It was hardly a given that this grandiose, extravagant idea would be widely accepted. And so the opportunity to sell it arrived in the Spring of 1911 when Philadelphia hosted city planners from around the world.

As the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) put it in 1912: “Very satisfactory progress has been made by the movement for improved City Planning, to the promotion of which the energies of the Association have been largely devoted in recent years. The movement is now thoroughly organized on national and even international lines and the Third National Conference on City Planning, which was held in Philadelphia on May 15, 16, and 17, 1911, was much the most important and successful event of this kind that has ever occurred. The conference was held under the joint auspices of the City Government, the Fairmount park Art Association, and the City Parks Association. His Honor Mayor Reyburn gave the conference his cordial and active support and its sessions were held in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall. Out of the fifty cities having a population of over 100,000 in the United States more than forty were represented, a very large and instructive exhibition of the projected improvements planned by the different cities forming one of the most impressive features of the conference. It was the first exhibition of this kind, arranged on any such lines as these, to be held in America and the expressions of appreciation and approval which were elicited from all who attended it were extremely gratifying. Some 900 exhibits were brought together, showing plans for the betterment; partly it is true, on economic and sanitary, but very largely, after all, on artistic, lines of more than one hundred cities of this country, Canada, South America, and Europe. They bore eloquent testimony to the strength and vitality of a great movement in which the Fairmount Park Art Association was one of the first, if not the very first, to lead.”

“The central feature of the exhibition at City Hall was a large model of the Fairmount Parkway constructed in the Bureau of Surveys.” Demolition had been underway since 1907, but this model made it clear that the improvement was not merely about creating a street, or even a boulevard, but a civic and cultural district populated by, according to the model, 18 public buildings of various types stretching from Logan Circle to Fairmount. One would be the Free Library. Another, dominating the Parkway atop Fairmount itself, would be the “Municipal Art Gallery” – a/k/a the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Parkway Model, Fairmount from the West, (detail), 1911. (PhillyHistory.org)

At the time, only two institutions, the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Roman Catholic Cathedral, were in place. Over the next several years, no less than 22 institutions several would at least consider relocating to the Parkway. The comprehensive array included the American Catholic Union; American Philosophical Society; Architecture Department of the University of Pennsylvania; Art Club; Boy Scout Headquarters; Cathedral (Episcopal); Central Manual Training School; Convention Hall; Franklin Institute; Free Library of Philadelphia; Johnson Collection; Medico-Chirurgical Hospital; Museum of Commerce and Industry; Pennsylvania Museum’s School of Art; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Philadelphia College of Pharmacy; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Post Office; Rodin Museum; School Administration Building; Temple University; Wills Eye Institute.

The city built the Parkway, though only six institutions of the 22 listed above (those in bold) came.

At the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, the notion of a cultural cluster of Parkway-based cultural destinations had a revival. A contingent led by Mayor Ed Rendell attempted to persuade the estate of sculptor Alexander Calder to relocate its collections in a promised new museum on the Parkway. That idea failed. And in 2002, 95 years after the idea of the cultural cluster first surfaced, Rebecca W. Rimel, president of Pew Charitable Trusts, claimed that if the way could be cleared to move the Barnes Foundation to the Parkway from Merion, “Philadelphia will have a “magic museum mile.” The Barnes opened at 19th Street and the Parkway in 2012, 101 years after the big idea was first promoted.

[Sources:  David Brownlee, Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989); Fairmount Art Association, Fortieth Annual Report of the Board of Trustees, (Philadelphia, 1912); Patricia Horn and Patrick Kerkstra, “Barnes Wants to Move Art Collection to Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 2002; Edward Sozanski, “Rendell Courting Museum of Alexander Calder Works,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 29, 1999.]

 

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