In August 1987, the 945-foot-tall One Liberty Place officially opened at 1650 Market Street as Philadelphia’s tallest building, soaring above the long-held unofficial height limit of 548 feet, set by the tower of City Hall in 1901. This remarkable building ultimately led to a watershed of new skyscraper construction over the ensuing half decade, creating the skyline that defines the city today. In this feature, Philadelphia YIMBY explores the building’s progress from concept to reality, as well as its tenure as the city’s tallest skyscraper for 21 years.
In the early 1980s, developer Willard G. Rouse III of Rouse and Associates set his sights on a city block in Center City with low-rise buildings and a multi-level parking garage, next to the 491-foot-tall PNC Bank Building that was rising at 1600 Market Street. Rouse eventually won the bid in 1983 and selected noted architect Helmut Jahn to design two skyscrapers. Rouse originally planned to build a single tower, but by the time the project was submitted to the City Planning Commission on April 5, 1984, the plans revealed a pair of 65-story and 55-story skyscrapers placed diagonally from each other, with a shorter hotel situated along South 17th Street.
A large number of residents opposed the towers rising above the statue of William Penn atop City Hall, which would violate the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” protecting the supremacy of the city’s centerpiece. Poll results showed more than half of participants opposing the mega development, along with illustrations antagonizing the monoliths that were bound to transform the skyline. Nevertheless, phase one of the project broke ground on May 13, 1985, with development boosters lost among the NIMBY mob. Excavation and the foundation were completed by the end of 1985.
The first beams of the skyscraper were laid in the beginning of January 1986. Workers quickly put together the large base of the building, with the office floors beginning construction by April. Two months later, two tower cranes were popping out of the skyline, visible from a number of spots across the cityscape, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Belmont Plateau.
By August 1986, the structure had passed the halfway mark. In September, the tower finally breached the height of City Hall.
Over the next few months and for most of the following year, development supporters cheered as the skyscraper bolstered its mark on the skyline. Twelve days before Christmas, the final story was completed and a topping-out ceremony was staged, complete with fireworks and a laser light show.
Despite the ceremony, the crown still remained to be assembled, with work reaching the base of the spire by the end of January 1987. By the time of the building’s scheduled topping out date a few weeks later, the spire was just being painted at Colonial Processing Company in Camden, NJ.
Two major pieces of the bottom of the spire had been placed above the crown in April, with two more sections added by May. On May 11, the final piece was hoisted into place at the pinnacle, but welding problems delayed the topping out. Eventually Bethlehem Steel, the steel contractor, resolved the issues, and the tower was completely topped out on May 28, 1987.
Just under two months after the topping out, the crane was finally taken down from the northwest side of the of the building. At that point, the cladding was already assembled up to the crown, just floors below the angled portion.
The building’s first tenant was rail service provider Conrail, which moved in in August, filling one-third of the tower. The glass façade was zipped up by the start of winter and the crown and spire lights were turned on for the first time on December 2, 1987.
After the building broke the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” by surpassing the statue of William Penn atop City Hall, it was said to invoke “Billy’s Curse,” which prevented the city’s sports teams from winning any championships. The curse was lifted in 2008, when the Phillies won the World Series shortly after a small statue of William Penn was placed atop the 973-foot tall Comcast Center, which surpassed One Liberty Place as the tallest building in Philadelphia earlier that year.
One Liberty Place will forever be remembered as the building that broke through limits, ignoring both curses from the city’s founder statue and cursing from the citizens who opposed its construction. One Liberty Place paved the way for all of the skyscrapers that followed it, such as Two Liberty Place, Three Logan Square, and the Comcast Technology Center, currently the city’s tallest skyscraper, which YIMBY covered in a prior feature.
Below, Philly YIMBY presents exclusive photos, digitally altered to show how the skyline would have looked in 1987, upon the completion of One Liberty Place.