Philadelphia and the Countryside - Press Room

Releases: Expanded View

Aug 27 2012

Backgrounder: Architecture

Classic And Modern Architecture Stand Side-by-Side In Philadelphia

Philadelphia’s more recent architectural additions—including the country’s tallest green building, the Comcast Center—and other modern constructions blend with Colonial-style buildings as well as structures from eras in between to give the city a distinguished look. The architectural heritage of more than 300 years is visible throughout the city and region with outstanding examples of every type of building and virtually every architectural style found in the United States. Almost 100 buildings have been designated National Historic Landmarks. More than any other city in the country, Philadelphia illustrates the history of American architecture.

A New Nation Finds Its Own Style:
As the leading city of the colonies and the nation’s first capital, Philadelphia was the center of cultural, scientific and civic leadership in the 18th century. It was a principal channel through which changing architectural tastes in England were introduced to the United States. The oldest sections of the city—Old City and Society Hill—contain a concentration of authentic Georgian and Federal architecture. Within these neighborhoods are houses of average citizens along Elfreth’s Alley, as well as the homes of wealthy civic leaders like the Powell House and the Physick House. Distinctive religious buildings like Christ Church, St. Peter’s Church, Old St. Joseph’s Church and the Arch Street Friends Meeting House reflect Pennsylvania’s leadership in religious toleration, and civic buildings such as Independence Hall and Carpenters’ Hall played key roles in the formation of the nation.

Philadelphia Sets The Tone:
In the early 19th century, Philadelphia architects introduced Greek and Roman forms that became the basis for architecture throughout the United States. Thomas U. Walter, architect of the U.S. Capitol Building, and William Strickland created the Greek revival style, some of the finest examples of which can be found at the Second Bank of the United States and Founder’s Hall at Girard College.

Throughout the century, Philadelphia’s important scientific community placed the city in the forefront of industrial change. At one time, Philadelphia was the largest manufacturing center in the country. New building types and thousands of houses for the rapidly growing population made the 19th century one of the richest periods in the city’s architectural history. Civic, commercial and residential architecture drew on a variety of styles ranging from High Victorian Gothic to Renaissance, Gothic and Romanesque revivals and Italianate villas. The result was innovative commercial buildings such as the Victory Building and Reading Terminal Headhouse and Train Shed; a wealth of extraordinary private houses in North and West Philadelphia and Chestnut Hill, including Gaul-Forrest House, Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion and Woodmere Art Museum; monumental religious buildings like the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the Church of the Gesu, Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, the Church of the Advocate and the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields; and extraordinary civic buildings such as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Library of the University of Pennsylvania. This century of monumental building culminated with Philadelphia’s City Hall, the largest municipal building in the country and the finest example of the Second Empire style.

Easily the century’s most prolific Philadelphia architect, Frank Furness designed more than 600 buildings, including banks, office buildings, churches and synagogues. Considered one of the finest surviving examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in America, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) was completed in 1876 and still stands as a Furness masterpiece, complete with fanciful floral motifs and a bas-relief frieze depicting famous artists on the outside and Gothic arches, gold-rosette studded walls and dramatically tiled walls and floors on the inside. Other notable Furness-designed buildings include: the University of Pennsylvania’s Anne and Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library, the First Unitarian Church and Parish House, the Philadelphia Zoo gates and gatehouses, the Centennial National Bank (now Drexel University’s Paul Peck Alumni Center) and the Girard Trust Company Building (now The Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia).

2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Furness’ death. From October through December, the citywide Revolutionary Philly: Making Buildings Out of His Head celebrates his accomplishments, his influence on other architects and his role in shaping Philadelphia’s streetscapes. Eight organizations take part with their own displays and exhibits—all honoring Philadelphia’s favorite genre-busting architect.

Moving Into Modern Day:
The early 20th century saw Philadelphia grow to be the third largest city in the country. The downtown was transformed by City Beautiful, a national city beautification movement to improve urban living, and by the growth of transportation and commerce. The new Benjamin Franklin Parkway followed the Beaux Arts influence of Paris with handsome civic buildings like the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Horace Trumbauer and his associate, Julian Abele, one of the country’s first African American architects. Buildings for business and commerce reflected the emergence of new technologies that would lead to late

20th-century skyscrapers. Daniel Burnham’s Land Title Building and John Wanamaker Building and George Howe’s landmark PSFS Building—the first International Style skyscraper in the country—contributed to the changing character of the city.

In the later half of the 20th century, Philadelphia was an acknowledged leader in urban renewal, architectural design and education. The School of Fine Arts of the University of Pennsylvania attracted outstanding teachers and graduated architects who would become both locally and nationally prominent. Louis I. Kahn and Robert Venturi, both associated with the university, produced their first significant buildings in Philadelphia with the Richards Medical Research Building and the Guild House. I.M. Pei and Frank Lloyd Wright added to their accomplishments with the Society Hill Towers and the Beth Sholom Synagogue. By the end of the century, striking skyscrapers, like One Liberty Place, had surpassed the height of City Hall, and a new generation of architects was adding to Philadelphia’s collection of American architecture.

Shaping The Skyline:
Since 2000, Philadelphia has gained two distinct additions to its skyline. The most playful feature of the city’s new skyline is the Cira Centre, with four glass sides that dance with colorful light shows every evening. The 28-story office tower, designed by César Pelli, is connected to Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, making it an ideal location for conducting business on the East Coast. The tower’s light-filled lobby served as the setting for scenes from the film Rocky Balboa.

In 2007, Philadelphia aspired to go even higher with the construction of the Comcast Center, world headquarters for the nation’s largest cable company. At 57 stories, the glass curtain-walled building, designed by Robert A.M. Stern, boasts the designation of tallest building between New York and Chicago. More importantly, it’s LEED certified, with a sustainable building design.

Philly sports fans were hopeful that the building would erase the city’s fabled curse—no team had won a world championship since Liberty Place in surpassed William Penn atop City Hall. To break the curse, Comcast (owner of the 76ers and Flyers) and building owner/manager Liberty Property Trust placed a small statue of William Penn on the top beam of the building. And in October 2008, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.

Building A Cultural Avenue:
Philadelphia’s cultural powerhouse, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway carries enough clout to have its own architecture tours—and it does. Paul Philippe Cret, a émigré from Lyon, planned this wide avenue lined with statuary, trees and museums, while French landscape architect Jacques Greber designed it. Constructed from 1917 until the 1930s, much of the Parkway was modeled after Paris’s Champs-Élysées. The design duo also includes the Rodin Museum, located on their grand boulevard, on their collective resume. Outside the Parkway, Cret designed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge National Historical Park and the original Barnes Foundation in Merion, among other impressive projects, and he fine tuned Rittenhouse Square, transforming a wild tangle of trees and brush into a beautiful urban park.

The most recent addition to Cret and Greber’s Parkway is the Barnes Foundation in 2012. The new home suits its treasured art holdings. Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien designed a building that duplicates Barnes’ original gallery layout, while adding classrooms and an interior garden space. The 93,000-square-foot Barnes Foundation enables the world’s most important collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings and African sculpture to be viewed as intended.

The With Art Philadelphia™ collaborative is a first-of-its-kind partnership to position Philadelphia among the world’s great art destinations and to increase visitation to the region from around the world. The groups contributing financial and other resources to the campaign are: the City of Philadelphia, Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Philadelphia International Airport, Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, The Lenfest Foundation, William Penn Foundation, Knight Foundation, Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia, PNC and PECO.

For more information about travel to Philadelphia, visit or, where you can build itineraries; search event calendars; see photos and videos; view interactive maps; sign up for newsletters; listen to HearPhilly, an online radio station about what to see and do in the region; book hotel reservations and more. Or, call the Independence Visitor Center, located in Historic Philadelphia, at (800) 537-7676.

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