serveimage-2Last year was the centenary of the design of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. Designed by the Parisian landscape architect, Jacques Gréber in 1917, the avenue slashed diagonally across William Penn’s grid, connecting Logan Circle to Fairmount, a hill which would be the site of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gréber was a notable figure. He worked with Horace Trumbauer (the architect of the future museum) on several mansions, including the Versailles-like Whitemarsh Hall, and collaborated with Paul Cret on the Rodin Museum. (Trumbauer and Cret first proposed the idea of a parkway.) Gréber, who was the chief planner of the 1937 Paris International Exposition, was also responsible for laying out scenic drives in Ottawa.

serveimageThe Benjamin Franklin Parkway (originally the Fairmount Parkway) is said to have been based on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, but that is misleading. This is a parkway on the Olmstedian model. The highlight of Gréber’s Ottawa plan is a drive along the Ottawa River, not so different from Philadelphia’s Kelly Drive (named after Jack Kelly, a gold medal Olympic rower and the brother of the famous actress) that wends its way beside the Schuylkill River through Fairmount Park. That the Parkway is to be read as an introduction to this scenic drive is emphasized by the gatelike Civil War Soldiers’ Monument at its entrance.

Landscaped drives and parkways were a feature of an age when car ownership was on the rise, and people drove for recreation. Little did Gréber imagine that his parkway would become a commuter speedway, however. Another use that Gréber did not intend, but which has become a Philadelphia institution, is the Parkway as the setting for great public events—musical concerts, the beginning and end of the Philadelphia Marathon, a Papal mass, the NFL draft. On such occasions the traffic lanes are closed and the parkway becomes a pedestrian place. There have been recent proposals to permanently “boulevardize” the Parkway, but these plans have inevitably faltered. It would be better to concentrate on reinforcing the adjacent neighborhoods and let the Parkway be what it was intended to be—a place to experience from behind the wheel.

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