Urban Renewal in Philadelphia


: Demolition of the Chinese Wall

1956: The Transportation Center Building and Greyhounf Station

1963: The Municipal Services Building

1965: Love Park

1965: The IBM Tower

1965: The Stock Exchange Building

1969: The Central Penn National Bank Building

1972: City Hall West Plaza

1972: The Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Building

1973: Centre Square

1991: The Bell Atlantic Building

Model of Part of Penn Center, uncredited. Courtesy of Kling

After World War II, Center City Philadelphia was described in architectural design journals as a dark and blighted city in social and economic decline.  Residents of the city began moving out to the suburbs in search of space and greenery.  The car was an instrument of everyday life as people commuted to the city for work and hurried home at five leaving the city deserted.  There was a shortage of available office space in the city, and business also began looking to move out to the suburbs.  As workers did not find reason to stay downtown after work hours, pedestrian traffic was slow.   Stores and businesses suffered.  Two major department stores (Lit Brothers and Snellenberg) had closed and a third (Gimbals) was considering a move out of the city.  The heyday of city living seemed to be over (Progressive Architecture, 1976).

In 1963, city officials announced a redevelopment plan that would revitalize Center City Philadelphia and attempt to draw the middle class back to the city, according to an article in Progressive Architecture (1976).  Vincent Kling played a major role in this redevelopment with the design of towers, plazas and transportation hubs that would occupy center city along Market Street west of City Hall.  The driving force behind his design was his theory of architecture for the people which would become his underlying philosophy throughout his career. Kling was a relatively unknown young architect in Philadelphia at the time of redevelopment.  His role in the project shaped the urban design of Philadelphia today, and established him as a modernist icon.  This report will examine the work of Vincent Kling during the critical years of urban renewal in Philadelphia and how his vision changed the built environment of the city for the everyday lives of Philadelphians.

In 1950’s, the Pennsylvania Railroad demolished the “Chinese Wall” that ran along Filbert Street separating the city into north and south.  The wall, designed by Frank Furness, was a transportation viaduct that was 16 tracks wide and eight blocks long.  It connected the commuter trains lines of Reading and Penn Central.  Trains ran on the upper level and cars passing through arched openings on the lower level.  The wall was problematic in that it discouraged passage visually and physically.  Pedestrians were hesitant to pass through the dark archway in the evening, and the city was visually cut off.  The demolition of this wall created the opportunity for redevelopment (Progressive Architecture, 1976).

In 1963, city officials announced a redevelopment plan for center city.  The intent of the plan was to revitalize downtown in order to lure the middle class from the suburbs back to the city, retain those who stayed and reestablish the urban economy.  The land cleared by the removal of the Chinese wall was an opportunity to build shops, offices and plazas and reconnect the north side and south side of the tracks.  What was needed was a strong clear vision, and Edmund Bacon was there to provide it.  As an architect and planner Bacon was the executive director of the City Planning Commission from 1949- 1970.  He attempted to commission Louis Kahn as the architect of the masterplan, but Kahn declined due to the lack of a client and program and therefore he believe lack of reality.  Bacon then turned to Vincent Kling who accepted the commission marking the beginning of a long and successful line of projects. 

Kling and Bacon devised a masterplan of the city based on the ideology of urban design as described in an article for Architectural Record by Bacon (1961).  William Penn’s original layout of the city would stay intact.  Penn’s layout consisted of two major axis and five squares, one at the center and one in each quadrant.  The automobile would be welcomed into the city, as it had become an undeniable part of everyday life.  The development west of city hall would collectively be called Penn CenterPenn Center would consist of underground concourse filled with shops that was open to air at certain intervals.  The concourse would be connected to above ground buildings and plazas.  The area was to be pedestrian friendly with minimum building ground coverage for maximum green space.  Because the plan was devised without a client, budget, or program, many believed that the project never would happen. 

Kling’s interpretation of designing for the people is evident in his vision of Penn Center.  The plan not only included the office towers and parking garages but also considered the scale of the pedestrian level.  The redevelopment included pleasant pedestrian paths, designated underground vehicle traffic, courtyards, and consideration of light and air into underground passage and concourses as published in Architectural Record (1955).  Kling considered how the person would enter the city in a car, park underground and ascend above ground to their office.  A pleasant park or courtyard would be provided at street level for lunch.  In the event of rain, worker could utilize the underground concourse for traveling to other buildings and service all while undercover.  Shopping would draw in the tourists and non working suburbanites.  The underground concourses were envisioned to be full of stores convenient to parking. 

The timeline to the right will be the guide through the development of Philadelphia building by building. The map below shows the area of Philadelphia affected by this redevelopment plan.

Click here for our analysis of this urban renewal project.