“ART MATTERS: Architecture: Bringing home the legacy of Bacon”

Source: Montgomery Media
Date: September 26, 2013
Byline: Diane M. Fiske

About 50 years ago, the tasteless joke died about a contest in which the first prize was a week in Philadelphia and the second prize was two.

Today, Philadelphia’s image has improved to the point that the huge Labor Day music festival “Made in America” was organized in Philadelphia, and it drew crowds that stayed at hotels filled to capacity. No one who came to the festival on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was heard complaining about Philadelphia.

One of the ways to understand this improving image of Philadelphia is to read about the life of Ed Bacon, the former head of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, who served from 1949 to 1970.

In his book “Ed Bacon, Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia,” published by University of Pennsylvania Press this year, Gregory L. Heller traces the work of the legendary architect-turned-planner in influencing the changes in Philadelphia from a largely industrial city to one of diverse financial resources.

Heller establishes some of the reasons why, while others worked along with Bacon during the postwar period when urban planning was in its heyday, Bacon seems to have received a great deal of attention, both positive and negative.

The extent of his influence was obvious in an article published in the Philadelphia Inquirer after Bacon’s death in 2005, in which he was credited with “reinventing Philadelphia.”

Heller’s book traces Bacon’s roots from his Quaker upbringing in the Philadelphia area, through Cornell University’s architecture program. His independence became obvious when he apologized to his parents for serving in the Navy in World War II, an unusual step for a Quaker, and saw combat in the South Pacific.

In his very readable book, Heller begins tackling the story of Philadelphia’s recent planning history by quoting a 1964 Time magazine story, saying, “Of all the cities under the planner’s knife, none has been so deeply and continuously itself as the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed: Philadelphia. For 12 years, the nation’s fourth largest city has been tearing down and digging up, burrowing, building, restoring, condemning, relocating and spending what will amount to more than $2 billion in private, city, state and federal funds to carry out the most thoughtfully planned, thoroughly rounded, skillfully coordinated of all the big city programs in the U.S.”

Heller, who served as an intern with Bacon, beginning when he was a student at Wesleyan University, traces how he walked through the city for four or five days every year “listening to his stories about the city he so passionately loved.”

Bacon’s background, after he received his undergraduate degree in architecture, includes studying under the great Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen in Michigan. He worked for a time in Flint, Mich., and then returned to Philadelphia, where he was one of the main designers of the Better Philadelphia Exhibition, a planning show that drew 385,000 visitors.

At age 39, he found himself head of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission just before the federal acts that financed U.S. Cities redevelopment. This was also the time of Philadelphia’s political reform that brought in Democratic mayors Joseph S. Clark and Richardson Dilworth, ending the political machine that had governed the city for decades.

Bacon was named by Architectural Record in Heller’s book as being the last of a group of national heavy planners.

Heller quotes a 1976 AIA journal, saying that “part of Philadelphia’s renown came from the novelty of its approach. The 1949 Federal Housing Act facilitated ‘slum clearance’ which many cities used to bulldoze and rebuild entire neighborhoods. Philadelphia’s model made headlines early on for its more selective demolition, focus preservation of existing structures and its attempts to work with community groups.”

The book is not a one-sided tribute to Bacon. Heller also says that Bacon never actually designed anything himself but he took others’ ideas and converted them to have public appeal — a rare skill for someone in his position.

He helped develop the idea of tearing down the “Chinese Wall” that brought the Pennsylvania Railroad downtown to Broad Street. His plans saved the Market Street site of the former “Chinese Wall” from being a series of small sites and instead it became one large unified development.

“Ed Bacon” is worth reading for many reasons — among them are the illustrations of the history of the planning process in Philadelphia. The illustrations are definitely worth seeing, particularly one of Bacon in his 90s roller-blading as part of his effort to encourage skate parks in the city as well as multiple photos of the architects and planners who helped shape the city as it is today.