Ever since its grid plan was first imagined by founder William Penn, imaginative architecture and urban planning have been part of Philadelphia's DNA. It is no exaggeration to say the city doubles as an open-air museum with contributions from almost all periods of American architecture and important buildings by key talents including William Strickland, Frank Furness, Louis Kahn, IM Pei and Norman Foster.
17th- & 18th-Century Architecture
The Old City, Society Hill and Germantown are the main repositories of the Georgian-style of architecture, as it was known in the colonies. Famous examples can be seen in Elfreth's Alley, originally created in 1703 (although most of the houses lining America's oldest continually inhabited residential street date to later in the century), and the State House, better known as Independence Hall, designed by Alexander Hamilton and Edmund Woolley and completed in 1748. Christ Church is equally fine, demonstrating the high level of accomplishment among these frontier builders.
Toward the latter part of the 18th century, after the Revolution, the prevailing fanciness of Georgian design gave way to the lighter touch and more limited decoration of Federal style. Physick House is the last survivor in Society Hill of the many freestanding mansions in this style that once peppered the neighborhood. Note the beautiful fanlight over the front door. Also compare and contrast the lighter window frames of Congress Hall, completed in 1789, compared to the heavy ones in the earlier State House.
It worth noting that architecture as a profession didn't really exist in the colonies; instead master craftsmen and gentlemen dabblers split the duty of architectural design. A good example of this is Cliveden, believed to have been designed by the original owner, Benjamin Chew, in conjunction with a talented local carpenter Jacob Knor.
The Carpenters Company, a local guild, had almost complete control of Philadelphia's building into the early 19th century – you can see their handiwork clearly in Carpenters' Hall, the houses of Society Hill, including Powel House, and the 18th-century mansions preserved in Fairmount Park.
The early 1800s, just after Philadelphia had served as the nation's capital, saw the city become a test ground for the new Greek Revival style pioneered by Benjamin Latrobe and Robert Mills. Little of their work still stands in Philadelphia but their style can be seen in Frederick Graff's Fairmount Waterworks, which Latrobe probably helped design.
Another student of Latrobe's was William Strickland, whose Second Bank of the US and Merchants' Exchange show his mastery of creating monumental buildings in the Greek Revival tradition. Also dating from this period are John Haviland's forbidding Eastern State Penitentiary and Thomas Walter's Portico Row, a fine block of early-19th-century row houses on the south side of Spruce St between 9th and 10th Sts.
By the 1840s the Gothic Revival and other romantic styles were becoming popular. John Notman was a master of designing this type of building with an example being his Athenaeum (1845). Notman's design for Laurel Hill Cemetery, considered a forerunner to the American Parks Movement, was based on Kensal Green Cemetery in London and includes a gatehouse, gazebos and lookout points.
After the Civil War, one figure loomed over all architecture in the city: Frank Furness. His vivid, frenetic and muscular architecture was unique for its time. His masterpieces include the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Anne & Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Building at the University of Pennsylvania. Only one other building of this period in Philadelphia can stand comparison: John McArthur Jr's City Hall, a monumental and highly personalized version of the French Second Empire style – a building so large it took 30 years to complete.
20th & 21st Century Architecture
Around the turn of the 20th century Philadelphia took part in the national flowering of academic and Beaux Arts architecture. McKim, Mead and White built the stately department store John Wanamaker's, today Macy's. Two of the city's most important museums – Penn Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art – also date from this period and remain among the city's most treasured pieces of architecture.
Among the notable buildings from the 1920s and '30s are Simon and Simon's Rodeph Shalom Synagogue; Ritter and Shay's Drake Hotel, which remains one of the city's most distinctively shaped high-rise buildings; and one of the grandest railroad stations in the US, 30th St Station. An important example of the International style that took hold in the 1930s is George Howe and William Lescaze's Philadelphia Saving Fun Society (PSFS) building, today occupied by Loews Philadelphia Hotel. This 1932 building was one of the first office skyscrapers in the US.
In the 1950s Louis Kahn was making his name as an architect. His design for the Richards Medical Research Laboratory, completed in 1961, is considered one of the most significant in modern American architecture. A few years later IM Pei made his first major design statement with the rectilinear Society Hill Towers, part of a project to revive what was then a down-at-heel area of town.
Center City began to reach for the skies in the 1980s when One Liberty Place began construction. Among more recent contributions to the city's skyline are Rafael Viñoly's Kimmel Center; the 58-story, 975ft Comcast Center; and Norman Foster's Comcast Innovation & Technology Center, Philly's tallest building.
Feature: The Grid & Row Houses
Philadelphia has long been recognized as the prototype of the grided cities that have become a trademark of American urban planning. It isn't that Philly's was the first grid in the colonies – New Haven, Connecticut, for instance, was planned on a grid some 40 years earlier. But New Haven had only eight blocks and a central common. In contrast, William Penn's far more ambitious plan accounted for 176 blocks with five park squares.
During the 19th century many major American cities, such as New York, decided to adopt the European Continental model of multiple-dwelling apartment houses as a solution to growing housing demand. However, Philadelphia rigorously stuck to its original British plan of building continuous rows of individual homes. As such, row houses remain an emblem of the city's streetscape.
As you look around Philadelphia you'll notice three distinct types of row houses: old individual and double houses, such as those found in Old City and Society Hill; the monumental rows of mansion houses that are prominent around Rittenhouse and Fitler Sq; and, as you move to the city's edges, the smaller, simpler and – crucially – more affordable late-19th- and early-20th-century row houses built for workers. Not for nothing did Philadelphia become known as the 'City of Homes'.
Sidebar: Louis Khan documentary
My Architect: A Son's Journey is a 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary about the great Philadelphia-based architect Louis Khan, by his son Nathaniel Khan.
Sidebar List: Architecture Books
- Philadelphia Architecture: A Guide to the City (John Andrew Gallery)
- Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Joseph Elliott, Nathaniel Popkin & Peter Woodall)
- Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia (Roger Moss & Tom Crane)
Arts & Literature
Philadelphia's arts scene is a rich and varied one, with deep roots going back to the city's Colonial times. This is the home of the 18th-century portraitist Charles Wilson Peale, the painter Thomas Eakins and the sculptor Alexander Milne Calder. Musicians from Dizzy Gillespie to DJ Jazzy Jeff hail from Philly, and the city has also produced some fine contemporary literature.
Visual & Fine Arts
In the pre-photographic age Philadelphia's wealthy and powerful commissioned portraits and helped fund the work of artists such as Benjamin West (1738–1820), Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) and Charles Wilson Peale (1741–1827).
Together with the sculptor William Rush and others, Peale founded the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in 1805, making this the oldest art school and museum in the US. Among this illustrious school's alumni is Thomas Eakins, who became PAFA's director in 1882. Many of Eakins' works hang in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which first opened its doors in Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park in 1876 as part of the Centennial Exposition.
Alexander Milne Calder (1846–1923) created the 250-plus marble statues adorning City Hall, as well as the giant bronze of William Penn that stands atop its clock tower. He was the father of Alexander Stirling Calder and the grandfather of Alexander 'Sandy' Calder – both significant artists in their own rights. Stirling Calder created the Swann Memorial Fountain at the center of Logan Sq, while Sandy Calder's Ghost mobile hangs over the Great Stair Hall of the Museum of Art.
Contemporary artists are well represented across the city, not least in the thousands of pieces of street art created as part of the hugely successful Mural Arts Program. Look for works by Meg Saligman (www.megsaligman.com) and David Guinn (www.davidguinn.com). You also won't be able to miss the distinctive mosaic mural art of Isaiah Zagar especially prevalent on the streets of South Philadelphia where the artist has been based for over 50 years.
Music has long been in Philadelphia's blood – witness the famous New Year's Day Mummers Parade, a centuries-old tradition featuring marching bands. The city was the birthplace of Mario Lanza, home of jazz legends such as John Coltrane, as well as where Dick Clark's legendary music TV show American Bandstand originated in 1950. In the late 1960s and early '70s the city pumped out its distinctive brand of soul music to huge popular acclaim, while in the 1980s and '90s it was hip hop that came to the fore.
Philly has nurtured jazz talents since the genre's earliest days. Two of the scene's earliest notables include guitarist Eddie Lang, who sometimes accompanied Bing Crosby (there's a big mural of Lang opposite the Fitzwater Cafe in Bella Vista), and violinist Joe Venuti.
Post WWII Philly saw scads of greats emerge, particularly African Americans associated with the bebop movement. Dizzy Gillespie, Philly Joe Jones, John Coltrane and Grover Washington Jr represent only a partial list but give insight into the city's significance in the development of jazz. The legacy lives on in programs of jazz concerts at the Kimmel Center and Clef Club, as well as numerous other venues throughout the city.
In the 1960s music producers, most notably Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff of Philadelphia International Records and Bunny Sigler at Sigma Studios, created what became known as 'The Sound of Philadelphia' (TSOP) or Philly Soul. Groups and performers, including the Temptations, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the O'Jays, Patti LaBelle, the Delfonics and Hall & Oates, had hit after chart-breaking hit. What differentiated Philly Soul from other types of R&B was complicated layering of vocals, stirring melodies and complex instrumentation that often involved several dozen musicians. It was this sound that David Bowie was after when he hunkered down in Philly's Sigma Studios in 1974 to record his classic Young Americans album. TSOP was also an inspiration for Elton John's Philadelphia Freedom.
When hip hop rose to prominence in the 1980s and '90s, Philly was very much in on the act. The city's most well-known and influential hip-hop and neo-soul act is The Roots, formed in 1987, whose jazzy approach to the genre includes live instrumentals. Other luminaries include DJ Jazzy Jeff, who teamed up with a young Will Smith (aka The Fresh Prince and future Hollywood movie star) in 1986; Schoolly D, who's hailed as the creator of gangsta rap; South Philly rapper Beanie Sigel; and the hugely influential underground hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks, whose catalog dates back to 1996.
Benjamin Franklin's yearly Poor Richard's Almanack is indicative of publishing in the early days of Philadelphia. While not literature per se, it did include poems and many proverbs and aphorisms that endure today. Philadelphia native Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810) is considered one of the most important early American novelists and wrote in a variety of genres. Edgar Allen Poe also lived in the city for a year, during which time he wrote The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Gold Bug.
More recent Philadelphia writers of note include Fran Ross, whose 1974 satire Oreo retells the Greek myth of Theseus through the unlikely lens of modern African American and Jewish culture. Its early chapters are set in the city and it's an incredibly funny and intellectually clever read, notable for its sassy Yiddish speaking heroine.
John Edgar Wideman is the author of Philadelphia Fire, a novel based on the firebombings of the MOVE cult, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction in 1990. Much of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, a National Book Award winner from 2001 about a mother's attempts to gather her dysfunctional family together for Christmas, takes place in Philadelphia.
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson is a 2002 historical novel for young adults about the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the city in 1793 seen from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl. A couple more books set in contemporary Philly – both made into movies – are Matthew Quick's Silver Linings Playbook (2008) and Jennifer Weiner's In Her Shoes (2002).
Feature: Philadelphia on Film
Need we say that the most famous Philadelphia-set movie is Rocky? The city features so heavily in the series' eight episodes and counting that it's a character in its own right. Philly's start in the Hollywood's spotlight, however, dates several decades before the 1976 Oscar winner.
In 1940 the city was the setting for not only George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story, with an Oscar-winning performance by James Stewart, but also the tearjerker Kitty Foyle, for which Ginger Rogers took home the golden statuette. In 1959's The Young Philadelphians Paul Newman plays a local lawyer who takes on a controversial murder case. It's a heady melodrama involving class, suicide and illegitimate pregnancy. More of a jolly romp than a historically accurate piece of cinema is the 1972 musical 1776 in which some of America’s most illustrious Founding Fathers sing their way through the Revolution to Independence.
In 1981 director Brian De Palma set his thriller Blow Out in Philly. It stars John Travolta as a movie sound engineer who records a car crash that kills a political candidate. Peter Weir's 1985 thriller Witness also gets off to a cracking start with a murder scene shot in 30th St Station, before moving to Lancaster County.
Tom Hanks bagged an Oscar for his performance as a gay lawyer dying from AIDS in Jonathan Demme's 1993 Philadelphia. Two years later Terry Gilliam teamed up with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, set in a dystopian future version of the city – scenes were filmed at Eastern State Penitentiary. Bruce Willis was back in the city of brotherly love for M Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, this time playing a child psychologist. Raised in the Penn Valley, Shyamalan has set several other movies in and around the city.
The whole family can have fun spotting the many Philly locations in the 2004 Nicolas Cage movie National Treasure. And the city pops up again as a location in a couple of more recent dramas – In Her Shoes (2005), starring Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz as sisters with a troubled family past, and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), with Bradley Cooper's bipolar character romancing Jennifer Lawrence.
Sidebar: Jazz Festival
Part of the Jazz Appreciation Month is the day-long Center City Jazz Festival (http://ccjazzfest.com) in April.
Sidebar: Public Art
One of the reasons Philadelphia has so much public art is that since 1959 the city has pioneered the Percent for Art model requiring the inclusion of site-specific public art in new constructions or major renovation projects.