A Biography of Edmund N. Bacon (1910-2005)

A Biography of Edmund N. Bacon (1910-2005)
Edmund N. Bacon is recognized as one of the most significant city planners of the 20th century. As Executive
Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949-1970, his design concepts shaped the physical
landscape of the post-World-War-II city. Bacon’s work had such national significance that he was featured on the
cover of Time magazine in 1964, and brought Philadelphia into the national spotlight as a city that was ambitiously
planning for its future.
Early Years and Education
Edmund Norwood Bacon was born on May 2, 1910 in West Philadelphia. His parents Ellis and Helen (Comly)
Bacon came from deep-rooted Quaker families. His grandfather and father both worked for the Philadelphia
publishing company of J.B. Lippincott. Bacon had two older brothers and a younger sister. While still young, his
parents moved the family to the Philadelphia suburb of Wallingford. Bacon graduated from Swarthmore High
School in 1928.
Bacon attended college at Cornell University, where he graduated in 1932 with a degree in architecture. His senior
thesis was a design for a new civic center for Philadelphia. The formalized Beaux-Arts design included a park at
the terminus of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, an idea that was later implemented in the 1960s when JFK Plaza,
popularly known as LOVE Park, was constructed.
After graduating from Cornell, faced with a shortage of architecture jobs during the Great Depression, Bacon used
a gift of $1,000 from his grandfather to travel overseas. He traveled by boat, train and bicycle through England,
France, Egypt, Turkey, and Greece. Bacon heard there were architecture jobs in China, and on a whim, boarded a
ship with very little money in his pocket, and no concept of what opportunities would await him.
From China to Flint
In China, Bacon found a job working for American architect Henry Killam Murphy in Shanghai, supervising a
crew of Chinese draftsmen. He traveled the country and was struck by the Chinese sense of design and
movement. He was especially influenced by the Forbidden City in Beijing. Bacon later commented that his
experiences in China greatly influenced his planning of spaces like Penn Center and Society Hill in Philadelphia.
In the summer of 1934, Bacon returned home from China and worked briefly for William Pope Barney, a
Philadelphia architect and family friend. In 1936 he was admitted to the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he
studied with an intimate group of artists, sculptors, and architects under renowned Finnish architect/planner Eliel
Saarinen had been working with government and business officials in nearby Flint, Michigan (at the time a major
auto manufacturing center), helping them with city and traffic planning efforts. Saarinen sent Bacon to Flint to
spearhead a Works Progress Administration (WPA) traffic survey, where at age 26, he supervised nearly 150
men. The survey received significant attention in national news outlets, by the Society of American Planning
Officials and the WPA.
Bacon was joined by Eliel Saarinen’s son, Eero (who of course went on to have a celebrated career of his own),
and the two of them worked together on planning and architecture projects. While in Flint, Bacon met Catherine
Bauer, the founder of the modern American housing movement. He also witnessed the famous United Auto
Workers strike of 1937. In Flint, Bacon also met Ruth Holmes, the daughter of a wealthy Long-Island family,
visiting with a group of her peers. Ed and Ruth were married in 1938.
Bacon went on to become the Secretary of the Flint City Planning Board, and a member of the Flint Junior
Chamber of Commerce. Over time, Bacon became an advocate for affordable housing, and an active member of
the Flint Housing Council. Partly through his efforts, Flint procured nearly $4 million in federally earmarked
funds for affordable housing. However, Bacon’s emerging influence brought suspicion from the Flint City
Council and the business community, who opposed the housing reform efforts. In 1939, Bacon was effectively
run out of Flint, and his major efforts were defeated in Council. Bacon and Ruth traveled to Europe, then returned
home to Philadelphia in despair, and without future direction.
The City Policy Committee
During one of his visits home, while in Flint, Bacon met a young man named Walter Phillips -- a Philadelphia
native and Harvard Law student, who was interested in civic reform. Phillips joined Bacon in Flint for a summer,
and when Bacon returned to Philadelphia, Phillips helped Bacon get a job as the Director of an independent
advocacy organization called the Philadelphia Housing Association. Phillips also invited Bacon to join his newly
formed City Policy Committee, a group of young reformers focusing on the city’s future.
Since the late 19th century, Philadelphia had been governed by what muckraker journalist Lincoln Steffens called
the “corrupt and contented” Republican machine. Phillips was involved in an earlier charter reform effort that
failed, and he saw his new City Policy Committee as a longer-term solution to engendering civic and political
reform. Bacon led the group to focus on planning, attracting the 1941 national planning conference to Philadelphia.
Following the conference, the group received support from Mayor Robert E. Lamberton to develop a new
planning commission with professional staff. However, before the group had a chance to move the issue forward,
Lamberton died in office and was replaced by City Council President Bernard Samuel, who was opposed to the
planning reform effort.
Bacon and Phillips’ group had a bill brought before City Council, and engaged the support of a diverse group of
stakeholders from across the city, to testify in favor of it. Importantly, their testimony also included influential
Philadelphia businessman Edward Hopkinson, Jr. The bill passed in 1942, and the modern Philadelphia City
Planning Commission was born. Transportation planner Robert Mitchell became its first Executive Director and
Hopkinson became its first Chairman.
World War II and the Better Philadelphia Exhibition
Bacon left his job at the Housing Association in December of 1943 to enlist in the U.S. Navy in World War II.
Coming from a strict pacifist Quaker heritage, he was the first in his family to serve in the military. By this time,
he and Ruth had two children. The family traveled to various stationing locations, and then Bacon was sent to the
South Pacific, where he served as Quartermaster Second Class aboard the U.S.S. Shoshone.
Back in Philadelphia, Bacon’s friend, architect Oskar Stonorov, and Robert Mitchell came up with the idea to
develop a major exhibition to educate the public about what city planning is, and what it can achieve. Stonorov and
Louis Kahn worked together at the time, and Kahn soon became part of the project. Stonorov invited Bacon to be
co-designer, while still in the Navy. When Bacon was discharged and returned home in 1945, he joined the team
to design the exhibition.
The Better Philadelphia Exhibition opened in September of 1947, and during its two-month display attracted over
340,000 visitors. The exhibit took up two floors of Gimbel’s department store. The climax was a model of Center
City Philadelphia, 33-feet by 14-feet in size. The model first showed Philadelphia as it was in 1947. Then, narrated
by a speaker’s voice, one section of the model lifted up and rotated to reveal a future vision for the site. One-byone, 13 sections rotated until the entire model changed to that of Philadelphia’s future in 1982 (the city’s 300-year
anniversary). Then all-at-once the panels rotated back to the familiar present.
City Planning Director
Robert Mitchell hired Bacon to the staff of the Planning Commission while he was working on the exhibition.
After its close Bacon stayed on staff as a Planner III, working on physical design projects. Mitchell left the
Commission in 1948 to teach at Columbia University. Raymond Leonard became director briefly before dying of
Leukemia. Bacon was next in line, and though at first hesitant, he eventually agreed to become Executive Director.
Bacon assumed his new position in 1949, and moved his family into the city to the home where he lived the rest of
his life on the 2100 block of Locust Street. By this point the family included five children (their sixth and final
child would come ten years later). The family also retained their home in Chester County, where on the weekends
they had a wonderful private relationship with two other families -- the Stonorovs and the Crowells. Oskar
Stonorov became one of the major voices in the field of architecture and urbanism, and his home became a center
of art and design, with regular guests like Bacon, Louis Kahn, and Le Corbusier.
At the Planning Commission, Bacon began developing and promoting a number of major plans for the city. He
was much more than an administrator; with the assistance of a talented staff of architects and planners, Bacon
conceived design concepts, and worked to communicate them to the public. His forceful personality, emphasis on
vision, and the energy he brought to the staff, led political and business leaders as well as the general public to
support new plans for important sections of Philadelphia. Bacon’s major contribution was not necessarily the
creation of individual plans, rather his ability to synthesize these ideas and inspire people with this vision.
Bacon’s work was advanced by the election of Joseph S. Clark, Jr. in 1951, as Philadelphia’s first Democratic
mayor in over half a century. Clark spearheaded the drafting and adoption of the City’s Home Rule Charter,
creating requirements for civil service, restructuring the government, and creating tools for greater transparency
and accountability. Clark was succeeded as mayor by Richardson Dilworth who gave even greater priority to the
importance of planning.
Bacon served under four mayors -- Samuel, Clark, Dilworth and James H.J. Tate. He also served under four
Commission Chairmen: Hopkinson, real-estate mogul Albert M. Greenfield, G. Holmes Perkins (Dean of the
University of Pennsylvania’s School of Fine Arts), and William B. Walker.
In 1964, Bacon was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and that issue called Bacon’s work, “the most
thoughtfully planned, thoroughly rounded, skillfully coordinated of all the big-city programs in the U.S.” In 1965,
Life magazine devoted a major section of its issue on urban America to Bacon’s work. During this period, the
Philadelphia City Planning Commission was considered one of the finest in the nation, attracting the best and the
brightest in the field.
In 1965 Bacon was appointed by President Johnson to serve as a member of the White House Conference on
Natural Beauty, where he was one of four panelists who reported directly to the President. In 1967, Bacon wrote
Design of Cities, still considered an important urban design text.
Major Projects and Concepts
A great number of projects were planned and carried out during Bacon’s administration. Perhaps more than most
administrators of the time, Bacon actually conceived of physical concepts, while managing the agency. However,
his talented staff and numerous consultants were the ones who put these ideas to paper and developed them.
Bacon’s work was done in concert with the City’s active Redevelopment Authority, as well as powerful business
and civic groups. The following projects are some of those most closely associated with Bacon.
Penn Center
In 1952, the Pennsylvania Railroad committed to act on its long-standing plan to demolish its enormous “Chinese
Wall” railroad viaduct that cut through Center City, and redevelop the land. Bacon worked with architect Vincent
G. Kling to create plans and models for developing the site. Although it was a private real estate transaction,
Bacon convinced the Railroad to adopt the Bacon/Kling vision for “Penn Center” of a transit-connected office and
retail environment, with a sunken, open-air concourse. In 1952, the City Planning Commission produced the Plan
for the Penn Center Redevelopment Area, with Kling as a consultant. This plan addressed the Railroad’s property,
as well as proposed additional development for the surrounding blocks.
The Railroad brought in a private real-estate consultant (Robert Dowling), developer (Uris Bros.), and architect
(Emory Roth) from New York. The City established a committee that included Louis Kahn to review the
developer’s proposals. Penn Center was changed dramatically from the original Bacon/Kling plan -- with the
below-ground level covered over, and the buildings enclosing, rather than straddling the concourse. Despite these
changes, Penn Center serves today as the core of what has become the city’s downtown business district. In
connection with Penn Center, the city built several adjacent developments and plazas, including LOVE Park,
Dilworth Plaza, and the Municipal Services Building.
The Far Northeast
In the early 1950s, the Far Northeast section of the city, north of Pennypack Creek, was over 16,000 acres of
sparsely developed property and farmland. Seeing development pressure to build on this land, Bacon created a
design concept for a new type of urban neighborhood that used dense rowhouse blocks, but sited them along a
curved street network, based around retail and recreation hubs, connected with bus lines. The intent was to
maintain the existing streams and open space. The planning of the Far Northeast was accompanied by City
Council enacting the City’s Subdivision Ordinance, and the adoption of a new zoning classification, specifically
for this new development. Irving Wasserman of the Planning Commission was responsible for the subdivision
planning of the Far Northeast, and working with developers.
Due in part to Bacon’s delegation of the parcel planning, constraints of the land, and development pressures, again
this plan turned out very differently from its original form. The commercial hubs were never built, and today while
the Far Northeast is a cohesive residential environment, it is auto-oriented with suburban, strip-malls. Nonetheless,
looking at a map of the city’s remaining waterways, it is striking how the Far Northeast plan preserved dozens of
streams and adjacent open space.
Society Hill
Society Hill is often considered Bacon’s crowning achievement. A rundown and disinvested area in the 1950s,
this neighborhood in the southeast of Center City contains a remarkable collection of Colonial homes. Called at the
time the Washington Square East Urban Renewal Area, Bacon created the preliminary plans, and the
Redevelopment Authority worked with the business community’s Old Philadelphia Development Corporation to
invest Urban Renewal dollars into brick sidewalks, period lighting, and streetscaping, while creating a process for
transferring properties to new owners who could afford to rehab and live in these homes. Bacon designed a
network of pedestrian walkways, called the Greenway System, to tie the neighborhood together. In 1957, the
Planning Commission issued its Washington Square Redevelopment Plan, based on the work of Wilhelm von
Moltke from the Commission staff, with Stonorov and Kling as consultants.
While most of the 18th and early 19th century houses were restored, late 19th century buildings were not valued
as much as they are today, and many were demolished. The Redevelopment Authority held a national competition
for developers to build several high-density parcels. New York developer William Zeckendorf won, with a plan
by architect I.M. Pei. Pei’s Society Hill Towers and surrounding townhouses are today an iconic element of the
restored Society Hill neighborhood.
Market East
In the 1950s Bacon conceived the idea of creating a new retail center on Market Street, east of City Hall, connected
with transit, parking, and a bus facility. At the time, five department stores lined this corridor, but the business
climate was seen as declining. In 1958, the Planning Commission released its first plan for the area, called Market
East Plaza. This concept was treated skeptically by the business community, and three different plans were created
by the City Planning Commission staff before a fourth, designed by Commission staff and consultant Romaldo
Giurgola, was endorsed by the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation’s Market East Committee.
The Redevelopment Authority retained Skidmore Owings and Merrill to develop the urban renewal plan, and
obtained federal funds for the project’s implementation in 1969. In 1975, after nearly 25 years and after Bacon had
retired from the Planning Commission, the Rouse Company partnered with the Redevelopment Authority to break
ground on the Gallery at Market East. The first phase was completed in 1977 and the second phase in 1983. The
Gallery became and still is one of the most successful inner city shopping malls in the U.S.
Other Major Projects
Bacon is largely associated with the conception of Penn’s Landing, the City’s waterfront development and
esplanade. Much of the city’s highway system was planned and built during Bacon’s tenure, including the
Delaware Expressway (I-95), the Schuylkill Expressway, the Roosevelt Boulevard Expressway, and the Vine
Street Expressway. Bacon pushed for the Commuter Rail Tunnel, that in 1978 connected the lines of the thendefunct Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads, giving Philadelphia a unified commuter system running
underground through Center City. Bacon acknowledged that this project was originally the idea of Damon Childs
of his staff.
Bacon conceived the idea of Schuylkill River Park, included in the 1963 Center City Plan, and released as a
Redevelopment Area Plan in 1964. However, that project was not developed until the late 1990s. He also
proposed closing Chestnut Street to automobile traffic and creating a pedestrian mall and transitway. The idea was
implemented, though again differently from Bacon’s concept, in the late 1970s, and was considered a major
failure. Bacon is often credited with Independence Mall; however, that project was planned in the 1930s, and was
largely a fait accompli by the time Bacon became planning director, with enormous support, as well as allocated
federal and state funding. Nonetheless, the development of the mall and other buildings as part of the
Independence Mall Redevelopment Area were implemented during Bacon’s tenure.
Bacon and his staff worked with the Redevelopment Authority on over two dozen redevelopment area plans for
neighborhoods across the face of the city, including East and West Poplar, Eastwick, Germantown, Mill Creek,
Temple University, and Queen Village. Bacon was involved in the planning of Yorktown, the first community in
America developed for middle-class African-Americans. He led the creation of the highly visual 1963 Center City
Plan, and also oversaw the drafting of the City’s Comprehensive Plan in 1960.
Mondev, Teaching, and Retirement
Bacon left the Planning Commission in 1970, at the age of 60, having worked under four mayors, both
Republican and Democrat. He went on to serve as Vice President for the private planning firm Mondev U.S.A.,
where he worked in a number of cities. During this time, he began lecturing and writing articles prolifically. He
taught in several capacities at the University of Pennsylvania for nearly 20 years. He also taught as a visiting
lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champlain, where he had his students design a new gateway
development for the area near Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.
Bacon narrated a series of city planning films in 1982-83. The Understanding Cities series includes films on the
planning of Rome, Paris, London, the American Urban Experience, and the City of the Future. Bacon won
numerous honors including the American Institute of Planners Distinguished Service Award and the Philadelphia
Long after his retirement, Bacon continued to actively assert his vision for Philadelphia’s future. In the 1980s,
Bacon opposed developer Willard Rouse over a proposed skyscraper that would break the Gentlemen’s
Agreement height limit that Bacon enforced while at the Planning Commission -- where no building would exceed
the buckles on the shoes of the William Penn statue atop City Hall. However, in 1985, Liberty Place broke
ground, opening the floodgates for other skyscrapers to follow.
In the 1990s Bacon proposed new concepts to improve Independence Mall, Penn’s Landing, and the Benjamin
Franklin Parkway. These efforts included clashes with major new civic leaders, and were instigated, in part, by his
desire not to see his work altered by subsequent generations. In 2002 Bacon rode a skateboard in LOVE Park, as
a protest against the City’s ban of the use of the park for skateboarding. At age 92, this act re-introduced Bacon to
a whole new generation.
Asked once in an interview what was his greatest achievement, Bacon answered simply, “Philadelphia.” Bacon
continued to stay active and in the news, fighting for his city until the very end of his life. Bacon passed away on
October 14, 2005. He is survived by his six children, six grandchildren, and one great grandchild. In September of
2006, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission honored Bacon with a State Historical Marker by
LOVE Park.