How Philly got skyscrapers, and a World Championship

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.

One Liberty Place, Philadelphia

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. 

Holy crap!

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. 

12 thoughts on “How Philly got skyscrapers, and a World Championship”

  1. Philadelphia, PA

    Dear Stu,

    Its all fine and well to honor William Penn as the city’s founder. I have a genuine fondness for Penn –who set Pennsylvania on the great “holy experiment” of religious pluralism: no state religion and openness to religious freedom. That was little less than revolutionary at the time (the 1680s). Massachusetts was still (more or less) a theocracy with an official religion, and Virginia remained officially committed to the Church of England until the time of Jefferson and Madison –a hundred years later.

    But on the other hand, given that Penn was the founder, Benjamin Franklin was the re-founder, and he led the revolution which overthrew the colonial government of PA and made it possible for the 2nd Continental Congress to meet in the State House (now Independence Hall) where independence was declared in 1776. He also became the first head of the new PA government of 1776 –a radically democratic affair. Franklin had very considerable conflicts with the Penn family and the Quaker led colonial government, and thinking of Franklin as “re-founder” he opened the state up for business –he was after all a very successful businessman– and moved it away from the more communitarian social configuration of the Quakers.

    From this perspective, it is actually somewhat strange that the City fathers of the Gilded Age (1870-1901) would have placed a statue of Penn on top of City Hall. They were closely tied to big business and big money. Penn, I suspect, looking down at the Gilded Age, French Empire splendor of City Hall, could (in his dedication to simplicity) only be embarrassed. Its one of the paradoxes of Philadelphia’s history.

    Franklin, as a man of the Enlightenment was no less dedicated to religious pluralism and tolerance.

    H.G. Callaway

    1. Franklin is my favorite colonial, but (slave owner) Penn created the city where Independence was born and was the sole founder.
      Franklin, btw, was slow to come to the idea of revolution. He favored diplomacy, until that proved hopeless.

      1. Philadelphia, PA

        Dear Stu,

        Well, of course, it is also known that Wm. Penn himself held slaves at his estate up on the Delaware. That was part of the reason for the famous protest of the Germantown Friends.


        Franklin spent a considerable part of his life in Europe. He represented PA and several of the colonies in London, and later he was U.S. minister to France during the Revolutionary war. French engagement with arms and money was largely due to Franklin. It is true that he once owned a slave and that he long worked with the idea of improving the British empire. So, did most of the other patriots. “No taxation without representation” actually derives from the politics of the British Whigs –opponents of George III–who were later favorable to America at the time of the crisis leading to the Revolution. PA passed “gradual emancipation” during the Revolutionary war. No one was thereafter born into slavery.

        Franklin as re-founder was a leading revolutionary against the PA colonial government –often dominated by economic interest in trade with the mother country–the original meaning of “Society Hill.” The old Quaker establishment at the time was none-too-happy with a revolution; and Franklin had first fallen out with the colonial establishment when he raised armed forces to defend western settlers in PA during the French and Indian wars. Representing PA in London, afterward, he aimed to undo the Penn family proprietorship (ownership) over PA.

        So, Franklin was a businessman (printer), re-founder of PA–often allied with various other small business people in the city. That’s why there has long been some sentiment for placing a statue of Franklin up in one of our skyscrapers (above Penn!)

        H.G. Callaway

    You have impeccable timing ! This past weekend, PBS ran their Penn enlightenment program. I’m telling ya ! Do away with PBS . It’s dangerous to the “woke”, racist and those that want to stay in the dark !
    My memory is often clouded, but I believe that the “gentleman’s agreement” ( actually a law, me thinks ) stated that the buildings would stay below the feet of Penn. Me, like you was and still is against tall buildings. That’s strange for the both of us. You, coming from the Big Apple. Me, a lifetime in construction.
    Like you, I said the obvious. “Look around the world to the cities without skyscrapers”. I think highrises make for a cold city. Sure, beautiful skyline. BUT ! Cold streets, always in the shadows.
    Never giving it much thought. I played a hand in building Philly and helping to change the skyline. It was ineveitable, so goes the argument, that the value of the property would continue to to grow. Either because of lack of space for building or because of real estate pricing. So be it.
    As we “Topped Out” the facade on the Blue Cross building, I flew my father’s coffin Flag from the highest point – the top of the “A” framed roof, on a 20 feet pipe. As my company was bringing all of the crew up to the roof for a group photo, a small private plane ( cessna ? ) circled the building ( FLAG ) in salute to my father. A WW II Veteran. A Navy SeaBee, who took the “South Pacific” tour, courtesy of Uncle Sam.


    1. Speaking of PBS and your Dad (a proud moment that must have been Tony) and all who served:
      This Sunday May 30 WHYY 8PM in my opinion the best hour and a half TV each year… Patriots Gary Sinise and Joe Montegna hosts. They will be especially remembering the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Set your dvr’s.

      As to skyscrapers I agree. I never liked when active as a FFer. Duh!


      PS: my Grandfather was known as the fastest bricklayer in Germantown.

  3. I couldn’t disagree more.Skyscrapers are cold and hideous and every 3 td rate city in the world has em.Whenever I’m on market I can’t wait to get over to the old and real part of Philly. This is why I don’t live in Houston let alone Manhattan.

  4. To me, the beauty of Paris came from two decisions city planners made many years ago: (1) No skyscrapers, and (2) trees… trees everywhere in the city. The concrete jungle of Philadelphia needs greenery to break up the monotony of concrete, glass, and macadam.

    1. HAPPY THURSDAY Vinnie & Stu,
      You two are probably aware that Philly USED to have many trees. By the mid ’60s, the button wood tree was prety much gone from disease or just because the roots picked up the side walks.
      I know that when I was with the city, back in the around ten years ago, the city planers found trees that more suitable to city living conditions. How far that plan for re planting got, I don’t have a clue.

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