Two Decades of One Liberty

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1987 . . . let's see. Baby Jessica fell into a well. Ronald Reagan popped into Berlin and offered a suggestion to Mikhail Gorbachev on what to do with the wall. Hair metal was peaking with Hysteria, Slippery When Wet and some upstart out of LA whose debut Appetite for Destruction sold 26 million records. Jim Bakker, uh, launched Jessica Hahn's career. PA State Treasurer Budd Dwyer ended his own on live tv. Basketball was still the Magic and Bird show.

Me? I was reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in Mrs Strong's sixth grade class at Adams Elementary in Tyrone. It was a few years before the Philly Skyline came onto my radar, but 'round these parts it was the topic of discussion.

As we well know, William Penn's unofficial but respected reign as the king of the Skyline was ever-controversially coming to an end, at the hands of a man named Willard Rouse and his ambition called One Liberty Place. The gentleman's agreement debate raged between visionaries who wanted to pull Philadelphia out of a funk and the nostalgic who wished to preserve Billy Penn's high view as the highest. The former was led by Mayor Wilson Goode, whose official portrait, at right, in the Mayor's Reception Room at City Hall has One Liberty Place in it; the latter was led by former Planning Commission head Ed Bacon, who derided his former organization for allowing it and called the building a "monstrous thing" a number of times in a February 1987 Inquirer editorial.

The forward thinkers prevailed, and One Liberty Place officially opened its doors twenty years ago this month: November 1987. It's hard to argue what one skyscraper has come to represent for the city, regardless of your side of the gentleman's agreement coin: a city's rebirth.

After the Thanksgiving parade this past Thursday, I was making my rounds over to Comcast Center when I saw several people standing at the corner of 17th & Cuthbert marveling at the Borofsky sculptures in the atrium. As I framed up a photo, a woman of the soccer mom variety turned to me and said "it's something isn't it? We moved here 25 years ago and it was really the biggest dump of a city you ever saw . . . coming here now is actually great." As I nodded, she walked off exclaiming "there's hope for us all!" No doubt.

The building that would be 12th tallest in the world was nowhere near my own radar in 1987. Nor was the city this hockey fan would eventually call home, for that matter, even as its hockey team took Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers the full seven before bowing out in the Stanley Cup Finals. Perhaps One Liberty's displacement of Billy Penn's position had something to do with the outcome?

Fortunately for me, a fellow named Arthur Petrella was here, and he was fully aware of the significance of One Liberty Place, so much so that he photographed its construction and graciously donated the results to this web site.

From Arthur:
Today's architectural excitement in Philadelphia is clearly at Comcast Center, the nearly 1000 feet tall behemoth at 17th St and JFK Blvd. But twenty years ago it was One Liberty Place, designed by Chicago's Helmut Jahn and developed by Liberty Property Trust (then Rouse and Company), who of course are also building Comcast Center.

One Liberty Place was unique in two respects. Firstly it rose 400 feet above the statue of William Penn atop City Hall tower banishing the so called "gentleman's agreement" not to build higher than William Penn's statue. Maybe more importantly, it raised the aesthetic bar for skyscraper design in a city that had seen buildings of as much as 1,000,000 square feet squeezed into an artificial hight limit of 500 or so feet.

Helmut Jahn was the darling of the 1980s building boom, at least in the USA. At the time it was being built it was the tallest building under construction in the United States and garnered critical analysis almost everywhere from the local papers to papers around the country as well as professional architectural magazines and even National Geographic.

I've been obsessed with architecture all my life, even though I've made my living as an Information Technology professional. Having such a building project in my backyard, so to speak, compelled me to chronicle its construction over the two and a half years it took to build (May 1985 to November 1987). Philly Skyline generously offered to scan the dozens of prints and bring them to its audience, some of whom had expressed interest in seeing such photos if they existed.
Turns out they do. It's fun to pick out things that don't exist today, some twenty years later, like the Greyhound Bus Terminal where Mellon Bank Center is now and the old Sheraton Hotel where Comcast Center is now. The photo prints look quite good -- the colors here are as close to the originals as possible through the means of a scanner-copier-fax-printer. Many thanks, Arthur.

Without further ado, One Liberty Place under construction.