A man with light-colored hair and a small bald spot walks through Philly, wearing a white shirt and pants. He’s upright and unhurried, arms at his sides. The camera is behind him, so we can’t see his face. He strides directly toward Swann Memorial Fountain and the pillars of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; through streets and passages of Old City; and across Thomas Paine Plaza—all clearly recognizable, even though the pictures are decades old. In a rare side-view, his face still hidden, he gets into a yellow taxi at what looks like Head House Square.
Who is he? What is he doing?
No-one knows, but that’s one of hundreds of questions that the Fisher Fine Arts Library hopes to answer with the Ed Bacon Photo Project, now online and open for comments from any Philadelphia enthusiast who might be able to tell us more about an extraordinary collection of images from a man sometimes called “the father of modern Philadelphia.”
West Philly native Edmund Norwood Bacon (1910-2005), a world-famous city planner, gave his collection of research and lecture slides to the Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania the year before he died. “We knew this would be a really important research collection for Penn, but also for Philadelphia,” says Fisher Fine Arts Library director Hannah Bennett. There’s just one problem. Very few of the images have any sort of identification. Bennett says she initially thought the man in white was Bacon himself, but on closer examination, it’s not.
The library has digitized about 5,000 of Bacon’s images, 1,000 of which are now available for the public to view online. “We knew this would be a really important insight into how he thought, and how he was looking at buildings and cityscapes,” Bennett says, calling the collection a visual “master class in city development.”
“It is a little unusual,” she adds of the avalanche of unlabeled images, most of which come from every corner of Philadelphia, though some are from cities overseas. Most scholars who donate this kind of collection at least have some kind of shorthand annotation to go along with it, but no such luck from Bacon. He did give the library a document that Bennett says “kind of looks like a ransom note” listing years from 1959 through 1988, identifying months and places visited. “I’m guessing that these correlate to the slides somehow,” she says—but no-one is sure how.
Born in West Philly into an old Quaker family on both sides, Bacon graduated from Swarthmore High School in 1928. He went on to study architecture at Cornell, but the Great Depression raged by the time he graduated. Thanks to a $1000 gift from his grandfather, he decided to backpack through Europe. With his funds almost exhausted, he got a one-way ticket to China.
According to Philly’s Center for Architecture, Bacon found work with American architect Henry Killam Murphy in Shanghai, and traveled throughout the country. Its aesthetics would influence him throughout his career. He came back to the States in 1934, and by age 26, he was at the helm of an attention-getting WPA traffic survey in Flint, Michigan. He became secretary of the Flint City Planning Board and developed into a vocal advocate for affordable housing—but met so much opposition from the Flint City Council and business community that he and his wife, Ruth Holmes, left the city in 1939. A disconsolate tour of Europe landed them in Philly, and here’s where Bacon’s career really took off.
He helped to found the Philadelphia City Planning Commission in 1942, but left the city the following year to enlist in the Navy, serving in the South Pacific in World War II (the first military member in his Quaker family). After his return to Philly, Bacon became the executive director of the Planning Commission in 1948, a job he held through 1970—and the tenures of four Philly mayors. The Philly Planning Commission drew nationwide attention at the time, including major features in Time and Life magazines. In the mid-1960s, President Johnson appointed Bacon to the White House Conference on Natural Beauty, where he reported directly to the president.
You can still see Bacon’s mark throughout the city today. He had a critical role in the design, planning, or implementation of landmarks from the Schuylkill River Park to Penn’s Landing, like the underground mass transit pathway from Jefferson Station to 30th Street, the Market East transit and retail complex (now undergoing another reinvention), Philly’s Independence Mall, and the Vine Street Expressway (which fell short of Bacon’s original vision, and remains a controversial legacy, with a disruptive footprint dividing the Chinatown community to this day). He was instrumental to the Penn Center complex as we know it, as well as the transformation of Society Hill. He also helped to plan Yorktown, America’s first neighborhood for middle-class black homeowners.
He also penned an urban design text that remains a foundation of the field today: 1967’s Design of Cities. (And, yes, in case you’re wondering—he and his wife had a son named Kevin who became an actor.) So it’s no wonder that Ed Bacon’s slides were an exciting gift to the library at Penn.
The pictures show Philly in the snow and in the summer. You can see the Municipal Services Building and Thomas Paine Plaza under construction. There’s some kind of outdoor dog show with a hulking, abandoned industrial building behind it, scarred by fire, with smokestacks on the river in the distance. Mobs of square-dancers reel around Head House Square; the Mummers march (can you help figure out which years Bacon captured?); sculptures loom out of urban alcoves.
In many cases, we don’t know where the photos were taken. And as Bennett notes, even clear subjects like shots of the Parkway still have mysteries if you look closer. “Even the real obvious ones are a bit of a puzzle, because if you want to identify buildings or monuments beyond the focus of the photo, it gets complicated.” When was it taken? If there are people in the photo, who are they? Are the buildings in the photo still there today? What is their architectural style?
“The city has changed so much over the course of the last several decades,” Bennett says. “It’s great to see the snapshots of this visual history. People love responding to that.”
Like anyone with work as prolific and influential as Bacon, he’s not without dissenters and detractors, and that’s part of what comes from opening a collection like this up to the public. But Bennett likes the opportunity to crowd-source information, and says that institutions shouldn’t be afraid to do it. “Some libraries might have been a little hesitant to take this approach, because you do open yourself up to the world,” Bennett says of putting the Ed Bacon Photo Project live on Flickr. “But I do think it’s a really important way to unlock a collection and engage with the community.”
If you want to try your knowledge on the project, you can get started here.
All photos courtesy of Project and the Fisher Fine Arts Library.