The beloved Parkway Central Library, celebrating its 90th birthday this year, is a defining building in our city. It seems natural that the Free Library of Philadelphia’s flagship location would sit along the city’s boulevard magnifique, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway—which is in the midst of its centennial celebration. Both of these city icons came of age together, being planned at the turn of the 19th century, and both share the elements of Beaux-Arts design that elevated the city’s central cultural corridor.
Dating back to the Civil War, city planners dreamed of a diagonal roadway running from City Hall to Fairmount Park—modeled on Paris’s prime promenade, the Champs-Elysées—dotted with cultural institutions, gardens, and shops. These dreamers sought not only to bring beauty to the city, but to alleviate urban congestion and uplift the city as a whole. This mindset was inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, which aimed to instill a sense of pride and belonging in residents through beautiful public spaces and monumental buildings.
This movement was marked by an embrace of Beaux-Arts design, which emphasized the French neoclassical architectural principles of symmetry, balance, and grandeur. Indeed, two Frenchmen led the way in designing Philadelphia’s thoroughfare: architect Paul Philippe Cret and landscape architect and planner Jacques Gréber. Both trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and they aimed to shape the American urban landscape with clear ties to European Classical traditions.
With this aim, Gréber transformed the original Logan Square into a circle, much like how the Place de la Concorde opens to Paris’s Champs-Élysées. The chief designer of the Parkway Central Library, Julian Abele—one of the first university-trained African American architects—also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, and in 1911 he unveiled a striking Beaux-Arts design for both the library and the neighboring family court, based on the twin façades of the Place de la Concorde’s Hôtel de Crillon and Hôtel de la Marine.
The planners took great pride in the Parkway’s French roots. Gréber at one point declared, "I am glad to say that, if by this work the city of Paris may be enabled to bring its sister in America the inspiration of what makes Paris so attractive to visitors, it will be the first opportunity of Paris to pay a little of the great debt of thankfulness for what Philadelphia and its citizens have done for France."
In celebration of Parkway Central’s splendid history of art and architecture, the Free Library invites you to kick up your heals at the Beaux Arts Bash on Saturday, December 9. This gilded event and its rooftop Moulin Rouge After-Party are the Free Library’s most important fundraising events of the year, supporting everything we do in all of our city’s 54 neighborhood locations.
Join us as we celebrate our mission with style and fun!