Edmund Bacon, 95, the brilliant, irascible city planner who spent much of the first part of the 20th century reinventing Philadelphia and the American city and much of the latter part defending his achievements, died yesterday of natural causes at his Center City home, according to family members.
He suffered in recent years from a variety of what were, to him, mostly annoying ailments and infirmities that got in the way of doing things.
Whether Mr. Bacon was pushing for the demolition of the city’s infamous Chinese Wall to make way for the modern commercial downtown, arguing for selective redevelopment of a shabby river ward that became known as Society Hill, conceiving of a central city mall anchored by big department stores – the future Market East – or sketching out plans for what became iconic spaces such as Independence Mall and JFK Plaza, he kept one thing foremost in his mind: Philadelphia could be at the top of contemporary American cities, boasting a vibrant center, muscular public design, housing for the middle and upper classes, and rejuvenated green spaces.
“Philadelphia has lost one of its greatest citizens,” Gov. Rendell said in an interview. “The landscape of this city would have been miserably different and decidedly poorer had Ed Bacon chosen not to be a Philadelphian.
“The example and high standards that Ed Bacon set should be a constant reminder to all of us involved in planning for the expansion and future of our city.”
“Philadelphia mourns the loss of the noted city planner,” Mayor Street said in a statement. “His quiet dignity and longevity of public service set a standard for all city employees.”
An almost heroic, if not maniacal, force of will guided Mr. Bacon, a man born and raised in Philadelphia, a city that he viewed on the eve of World War II as “the worst, most backward, stupid city that I ever heard of.”
But almost in the same breath, he resolved then “that come hell or high water, I would devote my life’s blood to making Philadelphia as good as I could.”
Like Robert Moses, his sometimes rival in New York, Mr. Bacon shaped the urban landscape with grand – and sometimes grandiose – schemes. But unlike Moses, who controlled hundreds of millions of dollars and wielded the authority conferred by such wealth, Mr. Bacon achieved his stature and power from the force of his ideas and rhetoric, the clarity of his vision, the support of powerful reform-minded political patrons, and sheer stubbornness.
A tall, lanky man with a shock of white hair who was a familiar figure on the streets around his yellow-doored house near Rittenhouse Square – he even hopped on a skateboard a couple of years ago while urging the city to rescind its ban on skating in JFK Plaza – Mr. Bacon was capable of scathing put-downs as well as slicing sardonic humor.
While not usually characterized as unduly modest, in later years he sometimes said he was best known as “the father of Kevin Bacon,” the movie star, not to mention his five other children, whom he said were all “doing very interesting things.”
But Mr. Bacon’s fame and legacy firmly rest on his service as executive director of the City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970, a time in which he saw the development of Society Hill, Independence Mall, Penn Center, University City, Penn’s Landing, Market East, and the Far Northeast.
His office was considered so visionary and effective that Time magazine put him on its cover in 1964.
He was “largely responsible for the rebirth of Philadelphia as a vital city,” declared the American Institute of Planners in announcing Mr. Bacon as recipient of its 1971 distinguished-service award.
The citation of the prestigious Philadelphia Award, which Mr. Bacon received in 1984, paid homage to his public role as “a pioneer in urban revitalization.”
Architect Vincent Kling, who worked with him on Penn’s Landing and Penn Center – which replaced the Chinese Wall, a monumental stone railroad trestle that blockaded Center City from the Schuylkill to City Hall – described Mr. Bacon as “the brightest, most energetic city planner we’ve had here since William Penn.”
Mr. Bacon’s plans did not always become reality, for better or worse, and he often ignited controversy. And while Mr. Bacon may have preferred to get his way without controversy, he did not shun it and was hardly afraid to use it to his advantage.
In the spring of 1970, two months after he resigned as city planner and development coordinator, Mr. Bacon replied to a special grand jury investigating the 1500 Market St. development. In its presentment (which did not implicate him in wrongdoing), the jury accused him of having given “evasive” testimony.
Mr. Bacon angrily replied, in a speech to the Rotary Club of Philadelphia, that the presentment was a “big lie.”
“The only evasiveness involved was my evasion of punching him [a deputy district attorney who had questioned him] in the nose,” he declared.
Mr. Bacon was also a proponent of the Crosstown Expressway, which would have linked the Schuylkill and Delaware Expressways by cutting a swath along South Street. After years of controversy, the idea was rejected, and South Street became the site of its own renaissance.
Some neighborhood groups and preservationists criticized him for razing more than necessary. Mr. Bacon insisted that he tore down only what was necessary to preserve and enhance the city.
The restoration of Society Hill was a case in point.
In the 1950s, urban renewal usually meant destroying blighted neighborhoods in order to save them. Mr. Bacon, however, began calling for the restoration of the neighborhood, with its 18th- and 19th-century houses, even before becoming Planning Commission director in 1949.
Society Hill was transformed from the slum neighborhood it had become to a prestigious area of expensive homes and thriving businesses during his long tenure as city planner.
That said, much was torn down, and Mr. Bacon was constantly butting heads with Charles Peterson, the noted preservationist who served as architectural historian for the National Park Service and essentially designed Independence National Historical Park.
Peterson, who died last year, never forgave Mr. Bacon for the scope of demolition.
Nevertheless, the two men were jointly honored this year as Society Hill’s “founding fathers” with a historical marker on Spruce Street.
Mr. Bacon could be spectacularly wrong, without question. He once called for tearing down City Hall (except the tower) – a proposal that was, he would later ruefully admit, “one of my terrible mistakes.” He also disclaimed credit for the idea of the Crosstown Expressway, and expressed fervent thanks that it was never built.
Throughout his tenure and after leaving his post, Mr. Bacon resisted attempts to build buildings higher than William Penn’s statue atop City Hall.
There had always been, he argued, an unwritten rule, based on a gentleman’s agreement, against exceeding the height limit of 491 feet. Anyone who sought to break this “marvelous agreement,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of this newspaper in 1984, would have “to answer the age-old question, ‘Are you a gentleman?’ “
After Willard Rouse’s development of the two Liberty Place towers broke the agreement, Mr. Bacon remained unreconciled.
Mr. Bacon served as Planning Commission director under four mayors: Bernard Samuels, the last Republican to hold the office; Joseph S. Clark; Richardson Dilworth; and James H.J. Tate.
Since the commission is primarily an advisory body rather than a center of real authority, Mr. Bacon exerted his power through persuasion, through the respect in which he was held, and, many felt, through political astuteness.
“People always think I exercised political power,” he once told an interviewer. “They’re wrong. I had a personal policy that I would always support the policies of the administration I was working for.”
Mr. Bacon could be astringent in his criticism of architects, who, he maintained, could be so preoccupied with the surface features of a building that they missed the setting in which it was placed.
“Great cities are not great because of individual buildings. They’re great because of the way things fit together,” he said.
When he first proposed the concept of Penn Center, he said, “I was chastised by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects because I presumed to make a plan where there was no client and no program. You’re not supposed to do a design for a building unless someone engages you to do it. Everything I did was unconventional.”
Edmund Norwood Bacon was born May 2, 1910, in Philadelphia, the descendent of Quakers who had come to Pennsylvania in 1682. He grew up in West Philadelphia – his father was medical editor for the publishing firm J.B. Lippincott. He graduated from Cornell University with a degree in architecture in 1932, the depth of the Great Depression, and promptly took off for Europe. From there, he made his way to Shanghai, China, where he spent a year working with an American architect.
Back in the United States, he worked for Philadelphia architect W. Pope Barney, then went to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to study under the celebrated Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. The architect assigned him to work with the Flint, Mich., Planning Council. He started in 1937 and stayed two years, long enough to receive the town’s Young Man of the Year Award and, two weeks later, to get ousted for having tried to push through a public-housing project over the objections of powerful local real estate interests.
Even the middle-class automobile workers who would have benefited most from the project voted against it in a referendum he had organized, he would recall years later.
“I was thrown out of Flint in disgrace,” he said. “But I had learned that city planning is a combination of social input as well as design.”
Returning to Philadelphia, he was taken under the wing of Walter Phillips, an energetic and visionary lawyer with close ties to the city’s increasingly restive and assertive political reform movement led by Clark and Dilworth. Phillips lured Mr. Bacon into a job as managing director of the city Housing Authority.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, Mr. Bacon returned to Philadelphia in 1946. The following year, he codesigned the Better Philadelphia Exhibition, a show of models and plans that foretold what came to be called the “Philadelphia renaissance.” He joined the Planning Commission that year, taking over as executive director in 1949. The next year, he also began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania as adjunct professor.
After retiring from public life in 1970, Mr. Bacon became vice president of the Montreal-based development company Mondev International Ltd., worked on downtown renewal programs, and organized the 1993 World Congress on the Post Petroleum City – an idea he had proposed the year before in his keynote address at a United Nations symposium on metropolitan development and conservation.
He spent much time in the last decade or so seeking to fend off what he considered poorly conceived plans to alter or obliterate some of his planning efforts. He fought vocal, losing battles to block the National Park Service from carving up the expanse of Independence Mall with new buildings. And he was incensed by the recent redesign of JFK Plaza, also known as LOVE Park, with its attendant ban on skateboarding.
Asked a few years ago what he thought his greatest achievement had been, Mr. Bacon replied: “Philadelphia.”
His wife, the former Ruth Holmes, whom he married in 1938, died in 1991. He is survived by their children, Karin, Elinor, Hilda, Michael, Kira and Kevin, and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, 15th and Cherry Streets.
Donations may be made to the Ruth Holmes Bacon Scholarship Fund at Community College of Philadelphia or the Ed Bacon Foundation, both in care of 2117 Locust St., Philadelphia 19103.