Remembering the Unbuilt Centennial Tower in Fairmount Park, West Philadelphia

The Centennial Tower. Image from Clarke, Reeves and CompanyThe Centennial Tower. Image from Clarke, Reeves and Company

During the planning for the Centennial Exposition of 1876, expo organizers put forth a bold proposal for an incredibly tall structure called the Centennial Tower in Fairmount Park, where two buildings still remain from the expo. The tower was planned at 1,000 feet tall, well before any skyscrapers were built in the city. The tower would have risen as large cross-braced tube that slims down at the top, capped with a short cone top and lightning rod, and would have featured four observation levels. The metal structure was designed by Clarke, Reeves and Company, which had also designed an older bridge that stood at then site of the current Girard Avenue Bridge.

1876 Centennial Exposition map. Image via National Gallery of Art

1876 Centennial Exposition map. Image via National Gallery of Art

The tower would have been seen from many miles away. At this time, the City Hall was well under construction, with the lower floors being erected. City Hall would share the skyline with church steeples and the Masonic Temple, which was the tallest building in the city. The Centennial Tower would have possibly stood where one of the two foundations currently exist today, which are the Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain and the John Welsh Memorial Fountain.

Philadelphia from a balloon 1893. Photo by W.N. Jennings

Philadelphia from a balloon 1893. Photo by W.N. Jennings

Located to the west of the Schuylkill River, the ground at the site is significantly elevated above sea level, which would have made the structure appear even taller. If built, the tower would have become Philadelphia’s analog of the Eiffel Tower, though the latter did not start construction until 11 years after Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition. The observatory would have become the exposition centerpiece, soaring high above the top hats and fancy bonnets of the fair-going public and the 200 other structures that were built for the event. Though the proposal was not realized, three other observatories were erected around Fairmount Park in time for the exposition.

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4 Comments on "Remembering the Unbuilt Centennial Tower in Fairmount Park, West Philadelphia"

  1. And what have we done to prepare for the 250th year celebration of our country here in Philadelphia during 2026?

    Virtually nothing and it’s only five years away!

    Loved that 1893 picture of Philly!

    • The bicentennial celebration of 1976 was supposed to be huge in Philadelphia and planning was actually done by former mayor Frank Rizzo and former president Richard Nixon way back around 1972. Philadelphia at the time was the fourth largest city and there was a lot of planning for the 1976 celebration, however once Nixon got his hands caught in the cookie jar during the Watergate scandal, the Philadelphia celebration got downsized and the main celebration got moved to NYC, and the rest is history.

  2. Andrew Porter | April 20, 2021 at 11:11 am | Reply

    Unbuilt? Surely you jest, sir! Why I remember it well. In later years it was used as a mooring mast for the Transatlantic Zeppelin which connected our great country with the Prussian and British Empires!

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