September 10: the end of the gentlemen’s agreement

2012/09/10 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1986 One Liberty Place became the tallest building in Philadelphia.

Ever since the sculpture of William Penn was hoisted up to its perch on top of the City Hall (a marble leviathan so ponderous that it was already out of style before its construction was completed), architects, planners and developers operated with the understanding that no one would ever build taller than the brim of Penn’s hat.  All through the twentieth century this “gentlemen’s agreement” was in place, acting as a de facto code limitation on the height of skyscrapers.

That was the case until the 1980s, when the the sixty-one story Liberty Place was planned just two blocks away.  When architect Helmut Jahn and developer Willard G. Rouse III asked City Planner Ed Bacon (who, by the way, makes it possible to extend the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game into the world of architecture) just how serious the city was about that fusty old tradition respecting the Penn sculpture, Bacon responded with a question: “well, are you gentlemen?”  Up to that point, the simple challenge had silenced all others who thought about building taller than Penn.  For the first time in his centuries-long career with the city, Bacon was surprised by Rouse’s answer.

The public outcry was fast and furious, but since there was no actual legally binding code being challenged, the project went forward.  One Liberty opened the way for many more very tall things to be built in Philadelphia.  There have been plenty of critics who continue to sneer at its design (sort of Chrysler-Building-meets-Miami-Vice), but seeing what else has gone up in Philadelphia in the last three decades (yawnugh, yikes, yuck, double yuck), Helmut Jahn’s dumbed-down Art Deco improves by the comparison.

Image: One Liberty on far left, little Bill Penn in foreground (from this source)

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