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A Look Back: Planner Ed Bacon

Bacon (right), with architect Vincent Kling.
Image courtesy

Edmund N. Bacon, the last of a generation of heavy-duty planners died on October 14. Like Robert Moses in New York and Edward Logue in Boston, Bacon left an indelible imprint on Philadelphia in the postwar decades. As the executive director of Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970, he revitalized a decaying center city with a group of strategies akin to those of Sixtus V of Rome in their scope of design vision.

In the 1950s Bacon began transforming a seedy historic area between Independence Hall and the Delaware River, removing the meat market plus blocks of deteriorating rowhouses to create Society Hill. Here historic 18th- and 19th- century townhouses were renovated, infill construction added, and a pedestrian path and park system inserted; all signaled by I.M. Pei’s high-rise apartment towers. West of City Hall, Bacon replaced the Broad Street Station of the Pennsylvania Railroad and its “Chinese Wall,” an eight-block-long viaduct, with Penn Center, a Rockefeller Center-style complex of office buildings linked to mass transit, plazas, sunken courts, and pedestrian concourses.

As Alex Garvin, former vice president for planning design and development at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation pointed out in 2003, “By 1970, owners had rehabilitated more than 600 of Society Hill’s historic structures, property values had more than doubled, and the population had increased by a third.” Businesses filled the office buildings of center city and there began a renaissance that, although sometimes rocky, was revolutionary for its time.


Bacon had the energy and sheer will to work with government and private developers to make things happen. “He took a number of disparate planning ideas, including spot condemnation and spot preservation, and put all of them together as one,” says G. Craig Schelter, who worked with Bacon at the city planning commission, before heading it himself in the 1980s.

Bacon’s bold planning changes, not surprisingly, upset many. For example, his stanching the outbound flow of the middle and upper classes from city, and drawing the young and the affluent from the suburbs to center city and Society Hill did not help the poor. In fact about 1,000 families were were displaced in Society Hill’s gentrification. And in the grand urban high-rise projects there was no room for Philadelphia’s most creative architects, Louis Kahn––who came up with concept sketches for Penn Center in the 1950s as a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee––or for Venturi Scott Brown––who helped trounce Bacon’s very Moses-ish idea for a crosstown expressway along South Street. Bacon’s favored architects such as Vincent Kling and Emery Roth, who designed nondescript office towers that could be inserted into the grand Penn Center plan. Even tearing down the 1893 terminal and Chinese Wall meant destroying the work of Frank Furness, now Philadelphia’s most revered 19th century architect.

Some of Bacon’s other visions—to revitalize Market Street East, a shopping and office street connecting City Hall to Independence Mall that had gotten more depressed over the years––took longer to fix. A plan to turn Chestnut Street into a pedestrian mall only speeded the conversion of a once-tony shopping street into a downmarket franchise strip. And Penn’s Landing, the 38-acre landfill project for mixed uses along the waterfront, has not been developed to its potential, owing in part to I-95’s placement along the water, which makes it hard for pedestrians to get there. (Bacon wanted it to be covered over, but only part of it was, owing to high costs).

After getting a degree in architecture at Cornell University in 1932, Bacon worked in Shanghai and studied planning with Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook, before returning to Philadelphia in 1939 as the managing director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Always his own man, Bacon, raised as a Quaker, entered the Navy during World War II, instead of registering as a conscientious objector. In 1947, he joined up with friend architect Oscar Stonorov (then in partnership with Louis Kahn) to design the “Better Philadelphia Exhibition,” at Gimbel’s Department Store, where Bacon presented his urban planning ideas based on grand vistas, perceptual sequences, pedestrian movement systems, and interlocking transportation modes. During his these years he moved his family into the city he was changing: six children, including Karin Bacon, now an events planner and producer, and Kevin Bacon, the actor, lived in a townhouse on Locust Street.

After retiring from the City Planning Commission in 1970, Bacon became vice president of the Montreal development firm, Mondev, and taught and lectured at various universities. In these years Bacon, always a pugilist, remained committed to Philadelphia’s planning issues. He broke off relations with Willard Rouse when Rouse built Liberty Place, violating the gentlemen’s agreement that no building should rise above the 491-foot height established by the top of William Penn’s statue on atop City Hall.

At the memorial service for Bacon in Philadelphia on October 23, Mayor Street announced he was going to propose a resolution to the city solicitor to change the Home Rule Charter so that the executive director of city planning would always have a seat on the mayor’s cabinet, instead of having only an advisory role.

In the thirty-five years since Bacon’s retirement, the legacy of his years is still evident (including the founding of The Ed Bacon Foundation in 2004) even if planning philosophies and the means to carry them out have undergone major shifts. Planning now involvesmore input from neighborhood groups who have felt too much attention was devoted to the grand visions of autocratic planners at the expense of communities and affordable housing. And although the participation of private developers in city planning projects was so critical to the rebirth of Bacon’s Philadelphia and elsewhere, now, with local, state and federal monies drying up, that dalliance has often led to the developer’s overbearing influence on the design of cities. Nevertheless, as Schelter says, “Bacon was the perfect person to be in Philadelphia at that time.”

Suzanne Stephens