March 17, 2023
As head of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC), Edmund N. Bacon, FAICP, seared his stamp on the nation's then fourth-largest city like no one since founder William Penn in 1682. Beyond his long tenure — 1949 to 1970 — Bacon's vision remained Philadelphia's guiding force until 2011, when a new comprehensive plan, Philadelphia 2035, was introduced.
Planners who come to downtown Philadelphia this April will likely pass by signature Bacon redevelopment projects like Penn Center, The Gallery at Market East (renamed the Fashion District), and the restoration and infill of historic Society Hill.
There's no way around it: Some of these projects were problematic, criticized even in their time for displacing low-income residents and people of color.
"Certainly, all of these accomplishments are tinged with the ramifications of racism that had been there from the beginning," says Alan Greenberger, the city's chief planner from 2008 to 2016.
"Under Bacon, the entire Northeast [of Philadelphia] was platted and developed, creating livable, affordable — although to whom remains a legitimate question — neighborhoods, some of which are our most diverse places now," he adds, referring to Mayfair and Lower Northeast. "Even Eastwick, despite all its technical flaws of foundation design and flood-proofing — which are big problems — nonetheless represents advanced thinking about neighborhood-making, at least as far as what was understood in the 1950s and '60s."
While Bacon undoubtedly shaped a new city, for Eleanor Sharpe, AICP, PCPC's executive director since 2017, his lasting impact may well be that "he, along with the large staff of planners supporting him, was a champion for planning as a profession."
Here, in a nod to his famous son Kevin, we look at the six degrees of Edmund Bacon: the people he influenced, and the city they helped create.
1. The early days: Oscar Stonorov
Born in 1910, Bacon grew up in a world defined by the tail end of the Victorian era and his family's Quaker heritage. His complicated responses to those milieus would figure heavily in his sometimes-hesitant, sometimes-enthusiastic embrace of modernism.
Bacon first became interested in architecture as a teenager, after his family moved from Philadelphia to the suburbs and he befriended a young architect, Bill Price Jr., who nurtured his love of the built environment. He obtained a degree in architecture from Cornell University in 1932, where his thesis — a design for a new civic center in Philadelphia — included several elements that came to fruition decades later. After graduating, he joined a small architecture firm that was working on a new public housing project. There, he learned the ins and outs of the practice and came to an understanding that architecture could have social impact. He was introduced to celebrated thinkers like Catherine Bauer Wurster, Lewis Mumford, and, most pivotally, Oscar Stonorov, a German immigrant and modernist architect with an interest in public housing who would become a lifelong friend and influence.
"Bacon started his career at a time when planning was still emerging as a profession," says Gregory L. Heller, author of Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia. "He was part of a group that would shape what planning would become and what role it would play."
2. In like Flint: Eliel Saarinen
Soon, Bacon left town again, prompted by the dean of Cornell's College of Architecture to apply to the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art outside of Detroit. There, then president Eliel Saarinen espoused the ideas that doing good and designing well went hand in hand — and that the real design problem to solve was the city.
When Saarinen selected his prize student for a project in nearby Flint, Michigan, Bacon's planning career truly began. During his three years at the Flint Institute of Planning Research, Bacon produced policy reports, conducted a major traffic study, and encouraged community involvement in downtown housing and reinvestment.
In Flint, Bacon "was aligned with people who were active in the labor movement and had a strong focus on improving the lives of people," says Heller. That commitment would prove a through line in Bacon's career, from the new affordable neighborhoods mentioned above to the successful 1970 negotiation he mediated with Temple University, which was intent on an expansion that involved land occupied by private homes and its residential neighbors in North Philadelphia.
"It would be an odd quirk of fate if my part in this jointly produced nonphysical edifice would prove to be my most enduring contribution to the city of my birth," Bacon remarked of the agreement in a speech he presented at the time.
3. A "Better Philadelphia": Louis Kahn
An earlier example of Bacon's commitment to involving the public in the design of their city was the Better Philadelphia Exhibition, a 1947 civic lesson held in a downtown department store, created primarily by Stonorov with his then partner, architect Louis Kahn.
At this point, Bacon — lured back to Philadelphia by an offer to run the Philadelphia Housing Authority — left again for a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy, then returned once more. Stonorov wanted Bacon to participate in the exhibition and arranged for him to be hired as a staffer on the planning commission. Bacon's role in charting a course for Philadelphia's future was set: Two years after staging the exhibition, he would be running the whole show.
Four hundred thousand visitors gawked at exhibits like a detailed model of Center City, with 45,000 miniature buildings, 25,000 tiny cars, and 12,000 trees, that could be mechanically flipped to show potential transformations. "But most of the show was actually about . . . how residents could get more empowered to advocate for their communities," Heller says.
Of course, the salesmanship also included more grandiose plans and aspirations. Chief among these was the kernel of a commercial development that would eventually be known as Penn Center, a project that involved the demolition of a much-loathed railroad headhouse and viaduct (the so-called Chinese Wall).
A team of designers, including Stonorov and Kahn, had floated this specific plan a year earlier, revisiting an idea that had been around since the '20s. But while Bacon considered Kahn the "greatest architect in the world," he soon tired of Kahn's auteurism and resistance to compromising with businesses and politicians. The two parted ways, although Bacon did incorporate (with credit) several of Kahn's ideas into other projects that were eventually realized, notably the pedestrianization of Chestnut Street and the use of greenways in Society Hill.
4. Towers in a park: I.M. Pei
In many ways, the decision to redevelop Society Hill, a residential neighborhood of colonial and federal houses near the Delaware River that had become dilapidated and impoverished, is one of Bacon's most complicated legacies.
As per the times, new construction figured prominently into this mid-century project (roughly 1958 to 1968). Bacon chose a proposal by the young architect I.M. Pei, who had worked on similar efforts with the developer behind Society Hill, William Zeckendorf. Pei took inspiration from the greenway idea, aligning the three high-rises with nearby historic structures. To better tie the towers into the older fabric of the neighborhood, his design also called for a ring of new low-rise townhouses. He set the whole complex in a five-acre hilly rise of parks and gardens.
In contrast to the rampant clearing practiced by other cities, Bacon's relative sensitivity to historic preservation was notable. Although a wholesale fish market and other warehouses were razed to become the site of the Society Hill Towers, much of the old residential stock was left untouched. Today, the area remains home to the country's largest collection of 18th- and early-19th-century buildings — and is one of the city's most expensive places to live.
As part of the project, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, working closely with a newly established Historical Commission, acquired hundreds of dilapidated properties and deeded them back to existing homeowners or sold them inexpensively to new owners, with all owners bound to restore them according to strict standards. In an early example of gentrification and displacement, though, most of the new and existing homeowners were white, and it was a smaller, lower-income populace of majority Black renters who were almost entirely displaced.
5. Planning's superstar: Not Robert Moses
In her caustic takedown of the planning profession, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs damned Bacon with faint praise, writing that "Philadelphia's planning commission is widely admired as one of the best in the country, and it probably is, considering."
The better-known Robert Moses did get her poison pen going (even though, of course, he wasn't a planner), but it was Bacon who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1964. Positioned against a backdrop of one of Pei's towers, the Philadelphia planner with the vivid blue eyes had become a poster child for what the article, in an echo of its title, "The City: Under the Knife, or All For Their Own Good," referred to as the "emergency surgery" being performed on desperately sick American cities.
"He had vision and a strong personal presence," says Greenberger, the former chief planner. "He could command a room and could eloquently describe a very different Philadelphia from the one he started planning in 1949. He was also a natural showman. Just take a look at his theatrics in Form, Design, and the City."
In that 1962 short film, an expanded version of a highly choreographed presentation to the Philadelphia convening of the American Institute of Architects a year earlier, Bacon, Pei, and architect Vincent Kling take turns meticulously but determinedly chalking up an enormous blank sheet of paper. The densely built-up and expertly connected new vision of Center City that emerges is remarkably familiar to one current residents see every day.
"If anyone in planning hasn't watched it, they need to," Heller says. "Bacon was quite good at selling his ideas to others in a way that got them excited. In many ways, this was his most important skillset, and it's one that more planners need to learn and practice."
6. The legacy: Philly planners today
Shortly after Bacon's death in 2005, the city's Center for Architecture established the annual Edmund N. Bacon Urban Design Award. Winners of the Bacon Prize, as it's popularly known, are drawn from around the world and have included luminaries like Denise Scott Brown, Jan Gehl, Janette Sadik-Khan, and Theaster Gates. But Bacon's legacy live on inthe streets of his hometown.
"Bacon's tenure reminded us that we in Philadelphia are capable of espousing and executing big ideas," says Greenberger. "Under Bacon, the downtown transformed itself into a modern commercial entity with people also residing there. That was and still is an inspiration to me."
Sharpe, the city's current planning chief, sums it up: "If people know one thing about city planning, it's quite likely that the second thing they know is Ed Bacon."