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Philadelphia’s skyline rising: From a colonial church spire to glassy blue Comcast 2

To build higher than Billy Penn felt like a slight to the city's founder. Some feared it would make Philadelphia's skyline just like every other big city. What it's become is modern and distinct.

The skyline of center city Philadelphia, Pa.
The skyline of center city Philadelphia, Pa.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

As the story goes, when developers went to Edmund Bacon asking whether any law prohibited building higher than William Penn's hat atop City Hall, the legendary Philadelphia city planner would tell them, "No, it's a gentlemen's agreement."

Then he would add, "The question is, are you a gentleman?"

Bacon defended Penn's perch by employing this very Philadelphia guilt trip while heading the city's Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970.

In the years that followed, most of the buildings constructed were squat flat-tops, designed to maximize office space below. Philadelphians largely supported the unofficial cap, according to accounts in the Inquirer; to build higher felt like a slight to the city's founder. Some feared tall buildings would make Philadelphia just like every other big city. This, coupled with scant market interest in high-rise office buildings, kept the skyline quaint and stunted until 1985.

That's when Willard Rouse III, with support from Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. and City Council, broke ground on One Liberty Place. The building, blue glass and steel, with a top that resembled the Chrysler Building in New York City, would rise almost twice the height of City Hall and put Philadelphia on course for a building boom in the early 1990s.

"It was a pivotal maturing event in the city's history," said Barbara Kaplan, chief city planner from 1983 to 2000. "It's interesting, because a lot of this tracked sort of the psyche of the city changing. I think people felt for the city that we had arrived at a point that someone wanted to do this and that it was a confidence-builder for the city."

Now, with the Comcast Technology Center set to be completed by mid-2019, the city's skyline has nine skyscrapers that eclipse City Hall and dozens that have risen nearly as high as Penn's hat (548 feet). The Technology Center, a 60-story, 1,121-foot tower, will be the ninth-tallest building in the United States and the tallest outside of New York and Chicago. A second skyline of silver glass along the Schuylkill has sprouted in West Philadelphia.

"The skyline reflects the momentum of the city at various points," said Greg Heller, executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, who wrote Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia, a biography. "It represents the development pattern … that's now gone past Center City and into University City."

Christ Church

Before the Comcast Technology Center — before electricity — the highest point in Philadelphia (and indeed in the American colonies) once was the steeple of Christ Church, near Second and Market Streets. George Washington, Betsy Ross, Robert Morris, and Absalom Jones all sat in its wooden pews. With the steeple rising to 196 feet in 1754, the brick and stone church put Philadelphia on the map, literally. It is the prominent structure in one of the first renderings of the city, drawn by Nicholas Scull and George Heap.

"It was just sort of a remarkable thing," said the Rev. Timothy B. Safford, the rector. "It made Christ Church the most significant building in all of the colonies. It was the skyscraper of its day, so to speak."

Safford sometimes likes to climb the wooden ladders and narrow beams to the top of the steeple, tracing the steps John Adams used to take after a night of drinking at City Tavern to get some fresh air. (Or so he told Abigail in letters.)

The church, which dates to 1744, was the tallest structure in North America for 56 years. It is still considered one of the finest Georgian buildings in America.

When money dried up to pay the bricklayers and stonemasons working on the steeple, architect Robert Smith turned to parishioner Benjamin Franklin, who is buried in the church's burial ground. Franklin organized three lotteries to raise money for the work.

The steeple, originally topped with a crown for the king of Britain, was struck by lightning during the Revolutionary War. That made for a providential opportunity to swap the crown for a symbol of a bishop, as the church was no longer under the rule of the king.

Today, the steeple leans about two feet toward Trenton, and a $3.2 million fundraising campaign and restoration project is underway to fix it. "Unfortunately in 2018, churches can't run lotteries anymore," Safford said.

A new skyline

About a mile west and 147 years later, City Hall was finished in 1901 after 30 years of construction. The building remains the world's tallest masonry structure (made of brick, marble and granite — no steel or iron). The statue of Penn, by Alexander Milne Calder, was installed in 1894 and stands 37 feet high, facing Northeast, toward Penn Treaty Park.

When Rouse presented his plans to build One Liberty Place nearly a century later, public reaction ranged from wary to panicked.

"People said crazy things, like, if we build this building, there won't be enough water for the rest of Center City, the water pressure will be drawn off," said Kaplan, the former city planner. "There was a guy who said, 'Well, if I climb a tree, I can see City Hall from my backyard in Fishtown.' "

Kaplan's staff would visit dozens of locations (including some backyards) to evaluate and protect some sight lines of City Hall.

She thought Rouse's skyscraper could be a boon for Center City, then dotted with empty lots.

"Some of the reaction was … 'I don't know why you're so worried about what happens in the skyline. What you should be worried about is the squalor below.'"

Liberty Place prompted a new zoning plan for Center City and paved the way for a dozen other skyscrapers like the BNY Mellon Center, Commerce Square, and Three Logan Square.

"In just a few years, Philadelphia went from having no skyline to this skyline," Kaplan said. "And all the public outrage went away."

That is, until our sports fans got involved.

The Curse of Billy Penn

In the lead-up to the construction of Liberty Place, Philly sports teams were winning big. All four major sports teams made it to their championship game in 1980, and the Phillies won theirs. The 76ers swept the NBA Finals in 1983 after making the Finals in 1977, 1980, and 1982. The Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cups in '74 and '75 and appeared in four more finals between 1976 and 1987 — the same year Liberty Place broke the height barrier.

Then Philadelphia went 25 years without a championship. With every devastating loss, fans shook their fists at the skyline. (The curse received national attention in 2004 when ESPN aired a segment on it after the Boston Red Sox won the Word Series and broke their own Curse of the Bambino.)

When the Comcast Center was nearly finished in the summer of 2007, David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president of the company, suggested putting a statuette of Penn at the top. Construction workers affixed a small figurine to a beam on the city's highest building. The next October, the Phillies won the World Series.

Not one to tempt fate, Cohen suggested a second figurine be attached to the Comcast Technology Building in November 2017.

"I think I said simply, 'Anyone in here want to take responsibility for building a building over Billy Penn and re-instituting the curse, when we know we can take care of this in 15 minutes?'" Cohen said.

A figurine was attached to a beam last November. Three months later, the Eagles won their first Super Bowl.

"The curse," Cohen said, "remains lifted."

The Comcast Technology Center is 147 feet taller than its neighbor, due mostly to its narrow spire of three long rectangles, the middle one the highest. Some Philadelphians have said it resembles a middle finger.

Cohen doesn't see that. But he gets how a city that rallied around a "no one likes us, we don't care" mantra might. "I think it is only because of our attitude that someone would say it looks a little bit like a middle finger," he said.

Most architects and urban planners agree that a skyscraper's connection to the sidewalk and the people who pass by it every day is just as important as how it looks in the sky. William Hankowsky, president of Liberty Property Trust, which was previously Rouse's company, noted how Liberty Place and both Comcast towers have ground-level lobbies, restaurants, and stores to bring in the public. The Vernick Coffee bar in the new tower is open to the public, and the Four Seasons hotel and bar are scheduled to open next year on the top floors.

That Philadelphia's skyline sprouted later than some of its peer cities makes it unique, Hankowsky said.

"The Comcast Center, I think … represents the first of a next generation of high-rise in the city, as does the Comcast Technology Center. They're distinctly different buildings, and yet they complement each other," he said. "It's sort of unusual, because you had this artificial cap on the skyline until 1985, so you basically only have new buildings. … It's distinctive, modern, diverse, and part of the vibrancy of Philadelphia."