In the 19th Century the area between Vine Street and Spring Garden Streets in northwest Center City was an industrial zone with foundries, the Baldwin Locomotive Works, the US Mint and other manufacturers. The area immediately around Matthias Baldwin Park was cleared as part of urban renewal in the 1960s and the Franklin Town Corporation was formed to redevelop the area. The plan for a park at the current location was made and financed by that now defunct corporation in cooperation with the Redevelopment Authority. The park was originally named Franklin Town Park, but the name was officially changed in 2011 to Matthias Baldwin Park, after the founder of the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Today the most visible reminders of the original plan are the park and Franklin Town Boulevard, which was created to connect the area south of Vine Street with the grand development anticipated north of Vine Street in the 1970s. The Franklin Building (formerly Glaxo Smith Kline) and the Sheraton Hotel are the southern anchors of the old plan. Because of slow real estate demand in the 1970s thorough early 2000s, Community College of Philadelphia was able to expand over much of the area starting in the late 1970s when they moved into the building on Spring Garden Street that formerly contained the US Mint.
In 1959, Philadelphia was the first city to require that a project utilizing public funds would need to include a permanent work of art. Redevelopment of the area presently around Matthias Baldwin Park, spearheaded by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority with federal, state and local money, was subject to the “One Percent for Art” requirement.
In 1981, Athena Tacha, who had completed several earthworks and other outdoor sculptures, was hired to develop the current area of the park to meet the One Percent for Art requirement. Her original plan was canceled after several years when the project budget was significantly reduced. That original plan included an amphitheater facing south with a staging area and a water feature. Athena submitted a revised plan, which was approved by the Franklin Town Corporation and dedicated in 1992. The park was deeded to the Fairmount Park Commission and is now part of the City Department of Parks and Recreation.
Tacha named the work “Connections,” and she wrote this after the dedication (Dancing in the Landscape: The Sculpture of Athena Tacha, by A Tacha 2000):
“Commissioned and conceived in 1981, this is perhaps the first park designed as an environmental sculpture… The final design consists of a central group of curvilinear planted terraces, surrounded by paths with benches, and lawns with tree clusters. The terraced planters, rising in one-half to two-foot intervals, reach a maximum height of seven feet from the south, forming a gentle stepped irregular mound. The curves of the terraces converge into nine clusters of primeval vertical rocks, which rise from the rocks like giant fingers and function as nodes of energy…
The retaining walls of the gardens are built with large, roughly quarried pieces of Pennsylvania brown stone, meeting at (and encircling) the nine clusters of granite boulders. The planters will be covered by carpets of mostly evergreen groundcovers that are relatively easy to maintain in the city’s polluted atmosphere. Clumps of yuccas and rows of seasonal lilies (along higher planter edges) will accent the otherwise united fields of color and texture.
I selected the plantings meticulously, in order to provide a variety of effects and colors during every season, even at wintertime. The park’s fifty trees were also chosen and positioned to offer in every area of the park, shade, evergreen foliage, blooms in spring or summer, berries or colorful foliage in the fall and a variety of size, shape and leaf texture.
I hope the park will offer a quiet atmosphere for relaxing picnicking, jogging and playing. More than that, I hope it will offer a magical and healing environment within the stressful fabric of the inner city.”
authored by Sandra Owens April 2018
See the speech by Friends of Franklintown Park President Seamus Kearney at the rededication of Franklintown Park as Matthias Baldwin Park.
The name of the park was officially changed from Franklintown Park to Matthias Baldwin Park on January 5, 2011. The plaques at the Park show the intended name as Franklin Town Park, not Franklintown Park.