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Edmund N. Bacon, 95; Urban Planner Reshaped Philadelphia

October 15, 2005|From Associated Press

Edmund N. Bacon, a renowned city planner whose vision transformed postwar Philadelphia and whose influence continued to shape the look and feel of the nation's fifth-largest city, died Friday. He was 95.

Bacon died of natural causes at his home in Philadelphia, according to a statement from the family.

"He told me when he was a little boy, he went to the top of City Hall and looking out on the city, he understood the plan William Penn laid out," said Alexander Garvin, a Yale University professor and member of New York City's planning board.

"From that point on, his plan was very clear how the city should progress," Garvin said.

Bacon's work landed him on the cover of a 1964 issue of Time magazine, which called Philadelphia's redevelopment "the most thoroughly rounded, skillfully coordinated of all big city programs in the U.S." His 1967 book "Design of Cities" remains a key text for architecture students.

Bacon, born in Philadelphia to a staunchly conservative publishing family, maintained his influence long after his retirement as the city's chief planner in 1970.

At 90, he lashed out at city leaders for banning skateboarders at a park adjacent to City Hall, saying: "Show me a skateboarder who killed a little old lady and I'll reconsider."

He also recently railed against a new waterfront hotel, plans to reconfigure the Benjamin Franklin Parkway leading to the city's art museum and the impending redesign of Independence Mall plaza, created in the 1950s with his oversight.

Bacon also vehemently contested the lifting of a "gentlemen's agreement" in 1984 that skyscrapers couldn't be taller than the pedestal of William Penn's statue atop City Hall.

"He's not just significant in Philadelphia; he's significant as a national figure," said Garvin, who interviewed Bacon for a 1996 book on city planning.

In 1933, as a 23-year-old graduate of Cornell University's architecture school, Bacon used a $1,000 inheritance from his grandfather to travel the world. His visit to China led to him working for a year there with an American architect. The experience influenced his style for the rest of his career.

Beijing's groupings of black- and purple-roofed buildings leading to the red and golden buildings of the emperor's Forbidden City "taught me that city planning is about movement through space, an architectural sequence of sensors and stimuli, up and down, light and dark, color and rhythm," Bacon said.

After returning from China, he studied city planning at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan. He worked as a city planner in Flint, Mich., but his push for public housing brought criticism, and that led him back to Philadelphia.

Bacon became managing director of the Housing Assn. of the Delaware Valley, a nonprofit group advocating low-income development, and led efforts to create a commission that would oversee and guide city planning.

He served in the Navy during World War II, then joined the commission's staff in 1946 and became its chairman three years later.

Bacon's renewal ideas gained momentum after reformers took control of City Hall in the early 1950s. His first major plan was Penn Center -- a complex of high-rise office buildings, shops and restaurants to replace a railroad yard.

The idea was considered so radical at the time that when Bacon introduced it to the city Chamber of Commerce, then-Mayor Joseph S. Clark "was so scared he refused to sit at the speaker's table," Bacon said.

The complex was not executed exactly as Bacon and architect Vincent Kling envisioned -- more space was devoted to offices and less to aesthetics -- and it was criticized by some as bland. But it marked the birth of the city's urban renewal.

"The landscape of this city would have been measurably different and decidedly poorer had Ed Bacon not chosen to be a Philadelphian," Gov. Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor, said Friday.

Bacon oversaw projects including the demolition of the decrepit wholesale fruit-and-vegetable market, which was relocated and replaced by a trio of I.M. Pei-designed high-rise apartment buildings called Society Hill Towers. After the work, people began renovating the rundown 18th century row houses in the area, now one of downtown's wealthiest neighborhoods.

Bacon is survived by sons Kevin, a leading Hollywood actor, and Michael, a musician and composer; and daughters Karin, Elinor and Kira. Survivors also include several grandchildren. His wife died of cancer in 1991.

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