If you like to experience real Philadelphia, you’ll have to venture outside the Independence Mall area, and you will be rewarded with great sights and LOVE. The famous LOVE Park next to City Hall is a must-see! The park was formerly known as the JFK Plaza, which is the grand entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, crowned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Rocky’s Steps). Countless tourists will pose in front of the sculpture and it’s a popular spot to propose, too! In addition to the scenic setting, there is tons of history about the park as well. Read on!
Creation of the Plaza
The plaza’s creation was unintentional circumstance due to struggle over traffic patterns caused with cutting a diagonal boulevard into William Penn’s original 1682 grid city plan. In 1917, the French urban designer Jacques Gerber was contracted to create this diagonal grand Beaux-Art Boulevard inspired by Champs Elysse in Paris. The boulevard would end at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (or the former water reservoir) on one side, and City Hall on the other end. The boulevard’s creation had a flaw: it created a challenging five-way traffic intersection on the city hall side for which the city needed to find a solution.
Philadelphian native and Cornell University graduate Edmund Bacon (yes that is Kevin Bacon’s Dad) proposed a drastic plan in his university thesis that involved demolishing City Hall and placing a park at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. When in 1952 Mayor Joseph Clark helped clean out the corruption of the previous Republican administration and appointed a stronger City Planning Commission, Ed Bacon became its director. Bacon reviewed his former Cornell thesis and saw the drastic errors of his youthful analysis, though he was able to see the potential of a park at the end of the Parkway to break up the five-way intersection. Thankfully he did not pursue the demolition of City Hall!
In 1962, the City Planning Commission invited Jacques Greber again to review the proposed plan and he approved. Sadly he died shortly after providing his approval. Construction was completed on the Plaza in 1965 and dedicated in 1967 as the JFK Plaza in honor of President John F. Kennedy.
In the 1960s the Plaza became a gathering place for the city’s kids to gather and play. The decision was made to better service the public by adding a round visitor center to the Northwest edge. Today, it is a location for many food trucks to gather, serving the local offices and business. The park frequently host food truck events today.
Bringing the LOVE
The Love Plaza got its nickname "LOVE Park" thanks to the famous "LOVE" sculpture that was lent to the City of Philadelphia in 1976 by artist Robert Indiana to celebrate the Bicentennial of the nation. Robert Indiana credits growing up in a Christian Science Church and seeing a sign “God is Love” as an inspiration and influence for the piece of art. Indiana got fame in the Pop Art movement of the 1960s and being featured in a 45 minute film by Andy Warhol. The Museum of Modern Art asked him to design a Christmas card that LOVE was first seen in. Never anticipating its huge success, Indiana never copyrighted the image. Many major cities have a LOVE sculpture today as well, but the original and most well-known is located in Philadelphia’s LOVE Park. The City of Philadelphia officially bought LOVE in 1978 and it has lived in the JFK Plaza ever since and thereby changing the Plaza’s name.
Bacon’s design of LOVE Park included a swooping circular staircases around a central fountain and various stone benches and ledges. In the 1990s, the skateboarding scene in Philadelphia exploded since those features made it a perfect setting for skateboarding and jumps. Skateboard pioneers like Ricky Oyola and Roger Browne, Fred Gall and Matt Reason began to explore the park. Then the city of Philadelphia let Skaters use LOVE Park as they would like. Top skaters had received much less coverage in videos and magazines than spots like these in California, and by using Love Park, Ricky Oyola and other original skateboarders were able to put Philly on the map. Extensive parts of the videos of world renowned boarders like Bam Margera, Stevie Williams, Josh Kalis and Philadelphia's own Kerry Getz contain footage of them at LOVE Park.
Unfortunately as the skateboarding community grew and LOVE Park gained a respected reputation for boarding the City’s Managing Director in 1994 passed a ban on skateboarding in the park. This was loosely enforced. In 2000, then Councilman Michael Nutter passed a provision to expand the ban on skateboarding to all Philadelphia public spaces.
Almost in an act of defiance, in 2001 ESPN XGames hosted the skateboarding competitions in Philadelphia LOVE Park. This was a center piece of the whole games and brought global attention to Philadelphia, LOVE Park and the skateboarding community. Based off the success of the games they chose to host the XGames in Philadelphia the next year in 2002, making it the only city to host the games twice. The fall of 2002 the city closed LOVE Park for a renovation to add features that would reduce the “skateability” of the Park. City youths hosted a massive protest against the renovation. Even the designer of the Park, Ed Bacon joined in the protest and skated in LOVE Park. He is was 92 at the time!
LOVE Park to this day still has skateboarders that define the rules. A skate park called Paine Park, next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was built since and many of the features of LOVE Park that make it perfect for skateboarding were reproduced. Another renovation is planned for 2014/2015 that will further remove the ideal skateboarding conditions. It is set to add more green space and cafes. LOVE Park is frequently the location of protests and in the winter a German Christmas Village with shops and crafts for the holiday shopping season.
+++Visit LOVE Park on our Real Philly tour and get a sample of the colorful and vibrant history of modern “City of Brotherly Love.”+++
Written/edited by Jennifer Hensell