One Liberty Place is beautiful — and I was wrong.
It was shortly after I moved here in 1966 that a controversy erupted over Philadelphia’s “gentleman’s agreement” (so sexist!) that no building could be higher than the statue of Our Founder © William Penn atop City Hall.
A lot of forward-looking Philadelphians made the case that skyscrapers would redefine the city — it would — and that we couldn’t be a “world-class city” as long as we had a height limitation.
My friends, knowing I had moved here from New York, for generations defined by its skyscrapers, were surprised that I did not agree.
You can’t be a “world-class city” without skyscrapers, I asked?
Have you ever heard of Washington, D.C.? Better yet, have you ever heard of Rome, of Paris? All ban skyscrapers in the heart of the city.
All are “world class.”
There are different reasons for height restrictions. In the case of Philadelphia, I liked the idea of a city showing such respect to its founder it would allow nothing to top him.
And there it remained another 20 years until along came developer Willard Rouse, and his architect, Helmut Jahn, who died recently.
Rouse was rough-hewn, his head looked like a chopping block. He made the usual case to the usual suspects, and would have gotten the usual results, I believe, until he pulled out Jahn’s sketches of One Liberty Place.
That slim, shimmering blue tower with its neo-Deco design and stepped chevrons, its needle spire poking the clouds, seemed like a modernized version of New York’s iconic Chrysler Building.
It was drop dead gorgeous.
It was approved and the rush was on. A clutch of other inspired buildings joined Liberty Place, including the pyramid-topped BNY Mellon Center, Two Liberty Place, the IBX Tower, and two Comcast towers.
Even the traditionalists, such as me, STFU.
There was one drawback.
Breaking the height limit created the Billy Penn Jinx, which held that no Philadelphia team would ever win a championship because the city had dissed its founder.
That held true for a number of
years decades, as we suffered with teams that stunk up the place.
But Philadelphia had a skyscraper skyline. It looks great, and I was wrong to oppose it.
Footnote: Because the Comcast people are local, and smart, they installed a statue of Billy Penn in the top of their first tower, so the founder was again the highest point in Philadelphia. The tower opened in June 2008. The Phillies won the World Champions in October. So stop complaining about your cable bill.