The Paris Inspiration
Artists flocked from all reaches of the globe racing to be a part of Paris’ artistic movements in the early 20th century – but at the same time creative minds from France made their mark on Philadelphia with the realization of our grand boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Conceived as early as 1871 and substantially completed by 1929, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway stands as a major triumph in urban planning with unmistakable French influence. Among its notable designers were the French architect Paul Philippe Cret and the French landscape architect and planner, Jacques Gréber, who modeled the Parkway in the early 20th century after the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Like the Parisian boulevard, the Parkway is broad, lush with greenery, and brimming with grand buildings, fountains, and monuments. Its dramatic end point at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is notably reminiscent of the Champs–Élysées terminus at the Arc de Triomphe.
Well aware of the Parkway’s resemblance to Paris, Gréber declared, “I am glad to say that, if by this work the city of Paris may be enabled to bring its sister in America the inspiration of what makes Paris so attractive to visitors, it will be the first opportunity of Paris to pay a little of the great debt of thankfulness for what Philadelphia and its citizens have done for France during the last three years.” (Quoted in Department of the Art Jury, Eighth Annual Report (1918), p. 8.)
A Civic Movement of International Proportion
Prompted by the “City Beautiful” movement of the late 19th century, prominent Philadelphians at the time began lobbying for a broad boulevard that would run diagonally from the heart of the Center City to its natural surroundings at Fairmount Park. Such a boulevard would ease congestion, beautify the city, and provide some needed relief for William Penn’s 17th century grid-street layout. The first serious proposal emerged in 1891, yet the realization of the Parkway faced years of political, social and economic obstacles that prolonged its development. Since the Parkway was not included in William Penn’s original city plan, many residences and businesses would need to be cleared for its path, which stirred much public and legal outcry.
Though preliminary proposals for the Parkway had been produced and even added to the City Plan in 1906, it was not until the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) commissioned a comprehensive plan for the “Fairmount Parkway” in 1907 that the project would finally launch. (Its name was officially changed to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1937.) The Art Association gathered a team of architectural experts – Horace Trumbauer, Clarence Zantzinger and his partners, and Paul Cret – who created a detailed parkway design that was added to the City Plan in 1909. Ground officially broke on the project in 1907, with the demolition of approximately 1300 properties that the city had acquired for the project. Construction on the Parkway did not begin until ten years later in 1917, when French landscape architect Jacques Gréber submitted a revised plan to the Commissioners of Fairmount Park.
Cret and Gréber
Having both been trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Paul Cret and Jacques Gréber were strong proponents of the Beaux-Arts style, and like much of American architecture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their work greatly reflects the French architectural approach. Cret was a French born architect who introduced the Beaux-Arts method of instruction at the architecture school of the University of Pennsylvania, where he headed the Department of Architecture for over 30 years. He went on to design the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial along Kelly Drive. Gréber was a famous French landscape architect and city planner, perhaps best known for being chief architect and planner for the World Exposition of 1937 in Paris.
A number of well-known architects contributed to the development of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, but it was largely planned and brought to completion by Paul Cret and Jacques Gréber. Though Cret was involved in developing the initial 1907 proposal commissioned by the Art Association, Gréber was engaged in 1917 by the Fairmount Park Commission to create a more formal Parkway plan – one that would improve upon the Cret-Zantzinger-Traumbauer version. The decision was of course met with resentment from Cret, who saw Gréber as taking credit for a project that he largely considered his own.
Gréber’s Parkway design was largely based on Cret’s proposal, but departed from it in several key ways. In Gréber’s plan, two linear segments of the Parkway were added with Logan Square designated at the center point: The wider segment runs from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to Logan Square, and the narrower from Logan Square to City Hall. Logan Square was an open square at the time, but Gréber envisioned it as Logan “Circle” – a large traffic circle that would emulate the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Gréber also proposed two buildings near Logan Square in his plan – the Free Library and Municipal Court – suggesting the Hôtel de Crillon and the Hôtel de la Marine of the Place de la Concorde in Paris. He also advocated creating a proper terminus by relocating the Washington Monument to a site below the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In Gréber’s design, the Parkway became less an urban boulevard and more like a “wedge of park.”
The Parkway is a Tour de Force!
In 1919, Gréber’s plan was approved by a city-appointed Art Jury – the forerunner of The Art Commission. Gréber’s office in Paris had produced elaborate sketches and watercolor renderings of his Parkway designs, and in 1919, the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) published a pictorial documentation of the Parkway that included his drawings. Art Association President Charles J. Cohen affirmed, “…the Trustees take pleasure in presenting this pictorial record of its growth and development…designed to furnish, a direct, dignified and interesting approach from the heart of the business and administrative quarter of the city, through the region of educational activities grouped around Logan Square, to the artistic center to be developed around the Fairmount Plaza, at the entrance to Philadelphia’s largest and most beautiful park.”
Cret and Gréber collaborated on the design of The Rodin Museum. Commissioned in 1926 by movie magnate and philanthropist Jules E. Mastbaum, it was completed in 1929 and contains the largest collection of works by French sculptor August Rodin outside of Paris. Rodin’s Thinker sits in front of the entrance to the museum, a gate modeled after the 18th-century façade at Château D’Issy, which the artist had installed at his property at Meudon, France, where he is buried.
Over the following years, Cret and Gréber’s vision of a Philadelphia Champs-Élysées would begin to take shape. A number of cultural and civic buildings were erected along the Parkway, including the Franklin Institute, The Rodin Museum, the Free Library and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Philadelphia Museum of Art – a major feature of the Parkway proposals – was completed in 1928 by the Fairmount Park Commission appointed architects Borie, Trumbauer, and Zantzinger. As Gréber had envisioned, a fountain, Swann Memorial Fountain, was installed at Logan Square in 1924, and the Washington Monument was relocated in 1928 to front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
As strong supporters of the “City Beautiful” movement, the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) has continued to advocate for good civic design and the commissioning and placement of outdoor sculpture along the Parkway, including The Shakespeare Memorial (1926) in front of the Free Library at Logan Square, the acquisition and installation of The Lion Fighter and The Amazon at the base of the steps leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and more recently the placement of Mark di Suvero’s Iroquois and Roxy Paine’s Symbiosis near 25th and the Parkway. Continuing the French theme, Joan of Arc by French artist Emmanuel Frémiet was relocated to the Parkway at 25th Street in 1948. Frémiet was invited to create the sculpture because he had completed a similar work for the Place des Pyramides in Paris.
Over the past few years the Association for Public Art has worked with the Center City District to light and sign the sculptures along the Parkway, and in 2010 launched the Museum Without Walls: AUDIO program to further interpret the public artworks located there. To access information about the sculptures along the Parkway, Museum Without Walls: AUDIO is available for free via cell phone, mobile app, and streaming audio on the web.
The Benjamin Franklin Parkway continues to develop and evolve, including recent landscape and streetscape improvements by the City and Center City District. The French connection was further strengthened with the relocation of the Barnes Foundation collection in 2012, with its renowned collection of French impressionist and post impressionist artwork.
The Association for Public Art (aPA) recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (1918-2018) with this commemorative Museum Without Walls: AUDIO program, Parkway at 100: Dreams into Reality, featuring aPA Executive Director Penny Balkin Bach and historian David Brownlee: