Penn and CHOP are likely to develop some sites of the historic buildings just southeast of campus. In its 94-year history, the Philadelphia Civic Center has hosted one of the widest ranges of political, cultural, religious and animal figures imaginable: from the pope, the Beatles and Nelson Mandela to Hillary Clinton, George Bush and a bunch of dinosaurs. Now, more than two years after it stopped hosting regular public events, the set of five buildings near the southeastern edge of Penn's campus is about to enter a new phase. Last Thursday, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell introduced a bill that would turn most of the center over to Penn and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for the creation of a world-class cancer-research and -treatment center. Under the terms of the bill -- which City Council could pass by the end of the year -- Penn and CHOP will jointly develop 10.7 acres of the 19.2-acre site into research laboratories, patient-treatment facilities, office space, three large parking garages and commercial venues. Developing the property will cost an estimated $450 million, most of which will come from Penn. The new plans for the structure are fitting for something that included "the wrong buildings in the wrong place at the wrong time," according to George Thomas, a Penn lecturer in historic preservation and urban studies. "It has always been an on-again, off-again place," Thomas said. "It would have a big convention, then do nothing for a while." Turbulent Start The first building in the modern Civic Center complex dates back to around the turn of the century. In three ordinances from 1895-1897, City Council transferred to the Board of Trustees of the Commercial Museum, 56 acres, which would become the site of the current center, according to Sarah Zurier's 1997 Penn master's degree thesis entitled Commerce, Ceremony, Community: Philadelphia's Convention Hall in Context. The Commercial Museum, originally containing industrial-type exhibits such as new machinery, opened on the site in 1904. The next step was the construction of a convention hall. A committee created by Philadelphia Mayor John Reyburn to find locations for a convention hall identified two sites in 1910. However, conflicts among various city interests and lawsuits by Philadelphia residents stymied construction of the hall for 20 years, according to Zurier. On January 7, 1930, Mayor Harry Maceky led the groundbreaking on the hall, after years of debate and political maneuvering about the location. It was completed on June 8, 1931, and welcomed its first convention, of the American Medical Association, soon after. When it first opened, the structure was often referred to as a "white elephant" because of its large size and its perceived opulence during the Depression, according to Zurier. The Convention Hall would be the site of many important political moments in its first decades of existence. The Democrats held their 1936 national nominating convention at the site, which became famous after 1928 Democratic presidential nominee Alfred Smith walked out following the renomination of Franklin Roosevelt. The Republican Party held their national nominating convention there in 1940. Philadelphia and the Convention Hall became the center of American political life in 1948. Both major parties held their national nominating conventions at the site, as did the Progressive Party, which had split from the Democratic Party earlier in the year. However, in the years following its grand opening, the Convention Hall and the Commercial Museum suffered from 30 years of bad management, according to Zurier. In the early 1950s, the governing board installed new leadership and adopted a substantial renovation campaign of what was then called the Trade and Convention Center of Philadelphia. In 1967, after having substantially renovated the Grand Exhibition Hall and the South Building, the entire complex was renamed the Philadelphia Civic Center and the museum was rechristened the Civic Center Museum. Pennsylvania Hall, the last of the five buildings in the complex, opened in 1978. The Civic Center again became a focus of American politics in 1984 when it hosted the debate between vice presidential candidates George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro. But political events were far from the only ones held at the center. The nationally known Flower Show and shows of homes, boats and cars were among the events that called the Civic Center home over the years. The Civic Center also hosted some of the most popular musical acts of the day during its long history. The Beatles made their only Philadelphia public appearance ever at the Civic Center in 1964. The Grateful Dead played a series of shows there in the summer of 1984. More recently, the Beastie Boys performed at the complex. In addition to its impressive music roster, the center has also been the venue for many famous speakers. Pope John Paul II and the Reverend Billy Graham have spoken there, as did Nelson Mandela during his 1993 Independence Day tour of Philadelphia and Hillary Clinton in 1994. None of the these speeches, however, caused as much controversy as the Louis Farrakhan speech in 1995. The city's Commission on Human Relations initially denied the Nation of Islam a permit to rent the center on the ground that the event would only allow men. The Commission eventually allowed the controversial organization to rent the facility when the group's leaders promised to let women in. Beginning of the End The beginning of the end for the Civic Center came in a 1982 study produced by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. The study identified six potential sites for a new convention hall, all of which were in Center City, according to Zurier. The study's recommendation became a reality in 1993 when the city celebrated the opening of its new $522 million, 1.3-million-square-foot Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City. The Civic Center suffered from a steady loss of some of its marquee events following the opening of the Convention Center. The Civic Center Museum was dismantled on July 1, 1994. In 1996, the Flower Show moved downtown after 30 years at the Civic Center. And, also after 30 years, Temple University moved its graduation exercises from the center to its campus. The Civic Center finally closed after hosting a professional wrestling match in June 1996. But the Civic Center did not go out with a whimper. The state spent $650,000 to renovate the center and a warehouse in Pittsburgh into a soundstage for movie productions. In 1997, part of the recently-released Beloved was filmed at the center and it is currently being used for The Sixth Sense, an upcoming film starring Bruce Willis. And the Civic Center reopened last March to the public with the launch of Dinofest. The month-long event, the largest dinosaur exhibit in the world, featured lifelike re-creations of dinosaurs and attracted 444,870 visitors. It was the last large-scale event held at the complex.Comments powered by Disqus
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