Edmund N. Bacon

Carolyn L. Johnson
Jennifer A. Allcock

Edmund Norwood Bacon was born in Philadelphia to conservative Quaker parents and had ancestors who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. His father was a medical editor at the J.B. Lippincott publishing firm. As a child, Bacon stood on the observatory platform at City Hall and surveyed the city. “He told me that [even at that early age] …he understood the plan William Penn laid out,” said Alexander Garvin, a member of New York City’s planning board, “From that point on, his plan was very clear how the city should progress.”

B acon graduated from Cornell University’s School of Architecture in 1933. With the economy in the grips of the Great Depression, Bacon used a $1,000 inheritance to travel around the world. While in Egypt, Bacon learned that there was a building boom in Shanghai, China. He obtained employment designing public and private projects in Shanghai. After his stint in China, Bacon studied city planning at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was a city planner in Flint, Michigan, and then director of the Housing Association of the Delaware Valley, before serving in the Navy during World War II.

In 1946 he began working for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, a new agency which he had helped create. Bacon was appointed executive director in 1949. Advising four mayors who won and lost elections, Bacon remained a fixture with the planning commission until his retirement in 1970. He remained active as a planning consultant. The Philadelphia Award was presented to him in April 5, 1984 for being “a pioneer in urban revitalization, a person with a creative mind and spirit and one who has earned the gratitude of the people of Philadelphia and its environs.”

The city planning commission did not wield political power, so Bacon used persuasion and savvy to bring his ideas to fruition. His planning involved the center, west and northeast sections of the city, but he is best known for a residential neighborhood, an office development, and a retail commerce site – namely, Society Hill, Penn Center, and The Gallery and Market East, respectively. Under Bacon’s direction a low-income neighborhood with deteriorating colonial and Victorian era housing was transformed into what became known as Society Hill; a massive stone viaduct, a.k.a. the Chinese Wall, was torn down, and replaced with the office buildings of Penn Center; and businesses (via Market Street East and The Gallery) were introduced to the rundown area east of Market Street. He was also instrumental in the creation of Independence Mall.

A nationally influential figure, his vision for the city is captured in his essay, “The City Image,” published in Man and the Modern City (1963). Bacon argued that the city image must be sharp and clear but, above all, consider the human beings populating the area. Creating a humane city is achievable, Bacon believed, if city planning avoids abstraction and focuses on the environment that real people inhabit. He envisioned a city (with the focus on Center City) that would be clean, appealing, and symmetrical, with thriving businesses and offices, historic architecture, and plenty of open spaces. Blueprints for designing post-industrial cities were not available to him, so his hypotheses were based on his “field experiences in city rebuilding.”

Bacon had his critics—community activists decried the gentrification of Society Hill as unjust to the poor; historic preservationists charged that he had historic buildings torn down for his projects; advocates of “mixed use” design criticized his planning for being overly formal. Yet however imperfect, Bacon was a pioneer in the continuing revitalization of Philadelphia from a declining, deteriorating post-industrial city into a renewed, vital, modern metropolis.

James J. Copeland

Sources: Edmund N. Bacon, “The City Image,” Man and the Modern City, ed. Elizabeth Green, et al (Pittsburgh, 1963); Gregory L. Heller, “Salesman of Ideas: The Life Experiences That Shaped Edmund Bacon,” Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City, ed. Scott Gabriel Knowles (Phila., 2009); Tom Cooney, “Highly Upset, Bacon Resigns,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 7, 1984; Thomas Hine, “Bacon Wins Philadelphia Award,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 6, 1984; Joann Loviglio, “Edmund N. Bacon; planner transformed Philadelphia,” Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 2005; Stephen Salisbury and Leonard W. Boasberg, “Edmund Bacon 1910-2005 – Visionary planner behind city’s renaissance,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 15, 2005; Inga Saffron “Flaws and all, Edmund N. Bacon molded a modern Philadelphia,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 16, 2005.