2601 Parkway was designed by Paul Philippe Cret in collaboration with his student and assistant, Aaron Colish. Cret is considered one of the most influential architects of the first half of the twentieth-century, and his buildings include landmarks that contribute to Philadelphia's essential character, including the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the Rodin Museum, and the original Barnes Foundation in Merion. He collaborated on the layout of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1913, and he redesigned Rittenhouse Square, which remains one of the country's most elegant public spaces. Additionally, Cret designed campus plans fro the University of Pennsylvania, located in Philadelphia, Brown University, located in Providence, Rhode Island, and the University of Texas at Austin, located in Austin, Texas.
Cret was born in Lyon, France, in 1876, was educated at the the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and in 1903, was invited to join the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania's architecture program. Cret's addition to the faculty helped to revolutionize the university to become one of the country's most influential design schools. Cret was considered an architectural peacemaker, carving out a middle-ground between the avant-garde radicalism of the early twentieth-century modernists, and the stodginess of the traditions of the die-hard classicists. His vision was to transform Philadelphia from a crowded colonial city into a modern metropolis as grand as Paris. Cret's Beaux-Art principles became the foundation for the City Beautiful Movements, which sought to transform America's cities from the ravages of the Industrial Revolution into modern places of beauty.
In 1928, Cret began working with developer Joseph Greenberg to create a grand residential building on the site of the former Baldwin Locomotive Works on Pennsylvania Avenue, between 26th and 27th Streets. Both men were determined to create an urban environment to meet the highest standard of living for Philadelphians, that would reflect the latest in architectural and engineering design. The location was ideal, next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and adjacent to Fairmount Park. Over the next twelve years, Cret developed more than seventy architectural design concepts for the building.
In 1936, the heart of the Depression, Cret was called upon to defend the creation of one of the largest luxury buildings ever built. He cited, "a location in the heart of the city abutting the largest municipal park in the United States, close to the Art Museum and other municipal buildings that will forever maintain the highest standard of environment. To have a location that is foolproof against deterioration is essential and not a luxury." Fifty years later, in the early 1990's, Aaron Colish, Cret's assistnat, served as a consultant on the building's restoration.
When it opened in 1939, 2601 Parkway was a premier place to live. Archtectural Forum Magazine reported that with over 500 units, it was the third-largest apartment building in the United States under one roof - only New York's London Terrace and Knickerbocker Village were larger - and the first large residence of this scale in Philadelphia. The thirteen-story, three-tiered building featured a variety of floor plans with panoramic view, terraces on the eleventh and twelfth floors, an elegant restaurant, a beauty parlor, a florist, and other "hotel amenities."
2601 Parkway's vast marble lobby is adorned with an exceptional tile mural created by ceramicist Francis Serber, and painter Nicholas Marsicano. Both were members of the U.A.A., a historic union formed in 1934 by artists employed under the Federal Art Project of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
The tiles run the length of the lobby from Tower A to Tower C, and depict the history of mankind from early civilizations through the Classical, Middle, and Renaissance Ages, to present day, and with a glimpse of the future. This motif of "progress" had precedents at several World's Fairs of the 1930's.