Recalling, and celebrating, the Avenue's beginnings

Posted: October 31, 2013

Ed Rendell didn't ask the hundreds gathered Tuesday evening at the Masonic Temple for the Avenue of the Arts Inc.'s 20th anniversary celebration to close their eyes and dream of a vibrant city in the future. That future is now.

But he did recall the early days of his mayoralty, and asked those in attendance to remember 1992, when "businesses were trying to get out as fast as they could." The city faced bankruptcy. Residents were leaving, companies were not moving in.

So Rendell grabbed hold of an idea that was percolating at the time and made it a key piece of his economic development plans: transform South Broad Street into an Avenue of the Arts.

"We did it," he said. "We achieved our goal big time. Is it perfect? No . . . but it certainly accomplished almost a miracle.

Rendell and his co-visionary, Bernard Watson, then-president of the William Penn Foundation, who had embarked on a parallel avenue "vision" before Rendell took office in 1991, were honored at the leather-appointed, fluted-columned Masonic Temple for their efforts in getting the avenue out of the dreaming stage and into reality.

But they didn't do it alone, and several lesser-known but still-critical people were cited by speakers noting the collective effort that went into transforming a declining commercial corridor into a different kind of street - one of music, dance, and theater, galleries, hotels, restaurants, and, most important, nightlife - people on the streets.

U.S. District Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, the then-mayor's wife and for 13 years chairwoman of Avenue of the Arts Inc., was away at a judicial conference but won praise for her efforts, planning, and organizing.

"If you want to say I had a vision, I turned it over to Midge and she made it happen. She made the decisions," Rendell said.

Also praised was Carol Haas Gravagno, who proposed combining a new orchestra hall and a recital hall in one facility, according to Joseph Kluger, former president of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, who called her "one of the unsung heroes."

While Rendell was painting the big picture for potential funders - including then-Gov. Robert P. Casey, who kicked in $74 million in 1992 - Watson was focused on saving and reusing the grand, decaying Ridgway Library at Broad and Christian Streets. He approached Rendell's predecessor, W. Wilson Goode, who agreed to support the project to turn the building into the High School for Creative and Performing Arts.

In the meantime, Watson focused William Penn on renovating the Arts Bank at Broad and South Street, creating the first new theater seats on Broad in years, and funding new homes for the Clef Club and the Brandywine Graphic Workshop. The Avenue was underway.

Looking forward, Paul S. Beideman, president and chief executive of Avenue of the Arts Inc., said a $14 million lighting and streetscape project for North Broad from Glenwood Avenue south to Spring Garden Street would begin in January.

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