Fatal Collapse at 5th and Clearfield

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield, August 2, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield, August 2, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

“My God, it’s Reiss!” shouted Alfred Haggerty. The patrolman had noticed something at the bottom of the gaping pit at the intersection of 5th and Clearfield and stared at it for minutes before realizing it was the body of the missing police officer.

A week before, Joseph A. Reiss and his partner, patrolman Joseph Cheplick, responded to a call to investigate a street cavein. Within minutes of their arrival, Reiss had “plunged into a 20-foot-deep, water-filled hole that suddenly opened beneath him.”

“Policeman Vanished in Huge Cavein,” read the headline on August 2, 1959.

Gunner’s Run, one of the many creeks buried by the city in the 1880s, still flowed in a 12-foot brick conduit more than 20 feet below. This creek-turned-sewer was out of sight and out of mind until the rains. Then came the caveins, again and again.

As Cheplick told what happened that fateful Saturday night, he and Reiss “got out of their car for a closer look. Chelplick was about 20 feet behind his partner when Reiss reached the hole and peered over the edge.  “I saw dirt crumbling away under the pavement where Joe was standing,” Cheplick said. “I yelled, “For God’s sake, Joe, get back!” Then I saw his spotlight fly up in the air and Joe disappeared in to the hole.”

“The edge crumpled and he was flung into the hole. He disappeared from sight.”

Cheplick ran back to their squad car, “got a rope and worked his way back to the crater. He tried to lower the rope into the hole. “But when I got back all I could see was swirling water. Joe was gone…” Cheplick “was forced to retreat as the ground on which he stood fell away.”

At the missing officer’s home in Bustleton, Marie Reiss, prayed “in her living room and…begged God to keep her husband alive in the pit that swallowed him… She wept because she realized the chances were slim. Mayor Richardson Dilworth told her so. Her friends have told her the same—in an effort to soften the blow… But Marie Reiss clung to the thread of possibility.”

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield Sts., August 11, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield Sts., August 11, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

In the light of day, Cheplick returned to the scene and choked back tears as he showed exactly where Reiss had fallen in. “It was here,” he told the Water Commissioner, pointing to one edge of the pit, “that’s where he disappeared.” The rescue team “descended into the sewer and penetrated to within fifty feet of the collapsed wall, but saw no sign of the missing patrolman.” As hopes of rescue turned to recovery, few expected that Reiss’s body remained close to the cavein. The sewer overflow emptied out in the Delaware two miles downstream. That’s where a Harbor Patrol boat idled in the Delaware River, just off the foot of Somerset Street and Port Richmond.

After a week of waiting and watching, that patrolman Alfred Haggerty spotted Reiss’s body in the the crater at 5th and Clearfield turned out to be the only break. Immediately, “police and firemen erected a platform in the pit about 15 feet from the bottom and then began lowering a ladder to the bottom… A crane was swung into position to recover the body.” Then, “suddenly, the water fed by the afternoon’s heavy rains swirled up over the body” and carried it away.

A mile and three-quarters downstream, beneath the pavement at Richmond Avenue and Somerset Street, Water Department workers Anthony DiNicola and Edward Potts had been maintaining a watchful vigil. And it was there, less than an hour after Haggerty spotted Reiss, that they would recover his body from a 12-foot square, concrete interceptor chamber.

Two days later, after the viewing, the Police and Firemen’s bands lined up along Cottman Avenue and played “Nearer My God To Thee.” At the Requiem Mass that followed at the Church of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, near Bustleton Avenue and Welsh road, “a detail of 100 policemen representing all branches of the department stood at attention” as the pallbearers, including Joseph Cheplick, passed by. In the front of the church, that sad Wednesday, as city and police leaders filed out after the Mass, stood Marie Agnes Reiss and her two children.

Now, only Marie alone knew she was carrying a third child.

[Sources consulted at the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Newsclipping Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University: “Policeman Vanished in Huge Cavein,” August 2, 1959; “Caveins Slow Rescue at Street Pit,” August 3, 1959; “That’s Where he Fell In, Officer Cries at Cavein,” August 4, 1959; “Policeman’s Wife Clings to Hope,” August 4, 1959; “Divers Recover Body of Policeman in Cavein,” August 9, 1959; “Mayor Attends Rites for Reiss,” August 12, 1959;  “Cave-In Widow Has A Daughter,” March 2, 1959. Also see "In Memory of Patrolman Joseph A. Reiss #2672."]

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Wrong Turn, Wrong Street, Wrong Day

Break in Sewer - Thompson Street West of 8th, 9/19/ 1913 - 7012 (PhillyHistory.org)

Break in Sewer – Thompson Street West of 8th, September 19, 1913. (PhillyHistory.org)

That morning, just like any other Thursday, John Connor stepped out of his family’s two-story rowhouse, near 13th and Moore Streets, and made his way up Passyunk Avenue to his job in Center City. Summer still lingered in the sunny September air, and the 23-year-old Connor looked forward to another day behind the wheel of Merchant & Evans’ new, custom-made delivery truck.

Merchant & Evans had just about outgrown their building at 517 Arch Street. They’d done quite well since the Civil War, when Clark Merchant retired from the Navy and built a business in brass, bronze, copper and tin. Over time, he aligned the company with the building trades. And by now, 1913, with Powell Evans, of International Sprinkler Company fame at the helm, success was only the beginning. Under Evans, the firm had expanded its offerings. Their fireproof products would soon be standard everywhere, if the insurance companies had their say about it—and they did. Soon, few large structures rose without sprinklers, fireproof metal doors and shutters. But more: Evans saw potential in the automobile market and turned the company’s talents to the manufacture of clutches, alignment joints, rear axles, jackshaft transmissions, grease cups and metal tire cases. Before long, Merchant & Evans would even build their own “motor trucks,” not too unlike the models they assembled for deliveries and pickups in Philadelphia. The company was widely recognized as “one of the premier metal houses of the United States” with plants in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Wheeling, West Virginia and offices from New York to Kansas.

As Connor approached Merchant & Evans’ loading dock on Cuthbert Street side of the building, his delivery truck was already packed. This September morning, just as he did every day, Connor headed out from company headquarters with a full load of metal products that just about doubled the weight of his 3-ton truck.

Connor navigated the grid Philadelphia making stops and gradually unburdening some of his heavy load. In Northern Liberties he skirted the well-known stretch near 2nd and Germantown, where a cave-in of the Cohocksink, rumors had it, nearly claimed at horse-drawn streetcar in the 1880s. But Connor knew this wasn’t a rumor, he knew this wily underground creek-turned-sewer had nearly claimed a trolley car filled with passengers only one year before. And it would grab him too, if he made the wrong turn, on the wrong street, on the wrong day. Especially in a truck weighing more than two-and-a-half times what a Model-T Ford did—standing completely empty.

By late afternoon, Connor trundled through the busy traffic of North 9th Street, stopping, as his work orders dictated, at building sites, mills, wagon works, machine shops and hardware factories. As he approached the Girard Avenue Farmers Market and the new Girard Avenue Train Station, Connor knew from experience he had to avoid the intersection of 9th and Girard. And so he made a left turn onto Thompson Street.

Heading east to quieter quarters, with Seyferts’ Foundry and the American Smelting Company fading in his rearview mirror, Connor passed narrow Darien Street and glimpsed two church steeples straight ahead, at Thompson and Franklin. Then, in front of Heickhaus’s Groceries and Provisions, Connor saw out of the corner of his eye a “hump in the cobblestone paving.” He swerved; but too little, too late. With no further warning, Connor “felt the street suddenly sinking beneath him” and “plunged head-on into a collapsing mass of cobblestones and dirt.” As the truck dropped, Connor didn’t have time to think, he just “threw himself backward.” Then, as the debris-covered front of the truck shuttered and steamed, he saw water shooting from both front and back of the chasm. Worse, he smelled natural gas. Connor “clawed his way upward along the tilting surface” of the truck. “The odor of escaping gas was so powerful Connor had barely enough strength to climb over the edge…and stagger to safety.” But stagger he did, and safe he was. Connor escaped “scarcely a minute” before a great explosion echoed throughout the neighborhood.

As for Merchant & Evans, they survived, too, and rolled onward. Within a few years, Powell Evans moved the entire Philadelphia operation to a new plant near 20th Street and Washington Avenue. And the company proclaimed in advertisements that “rapid motor trucks” of their “own manufacture” were “used daily to make free delivery in all parts of the city.” No word as to whether John Connor ever got behind the wheel again.

[Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, September, 19, 1913. “Huge Truck in Sewer Cave-In, Large Vehicle Falls Through Street When Old Cohocksink Collapses.”]

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Cohocksink: The Northern Liberties Cover-Up

Break in Cohocksink Sewer – Germantown Avenue above 2nd Street, May 29, 1894. (PhillyHistory.org)

Break in Cohocksink Sewer – Germantown Avenue above 2nd Street, May 29, 1894. (PhillyHistory.org)

With an investment of $100,000—the equivalent of millions in today’s dollars—City Fathers assured Philadelphians that the “noisome” Cohocksink, the creek that drained much of North Philadelphia, had finally been contained. No longer would its “fetid and polluted waters” meander in plain sight, sluggishly making their way to the Delaware. It was 1871, and this country-creek-turned-urban-sewer would forever be “closed from view…shut off from further sight and further mischief.” City life could continue, unimpeded, above.

Or so they thought.

In spite of the best of intentions, this “work of magnitude and importance”  would not tame the Cohocksink. With runoff from the expanding grid of North-Central Philadelphia, this underground “solution” gained power as it flowed to the Delaware. By the time its “fetid and polluted” waters got to Northern Liberties, the Cohocksink could become much more mischievous, especially when swollen with storm water.

Time and time again, the Cohocksink dramatically carried away bits and pieces of the city. In November 1888, the horses and delivery wagon of wholesale grocer Henry Graham were saved only by tremendous efforts on the part of driver and a handful of pedestrians, who managed to pull a half-swallowed horse onto solid ground at Germantown Avenue near 2nd Street.

Before workmen could repair that gaping hole, another storm opened it up even more just as a horse-drawn streetcar passed over. The driver, “realizing their peril” as “the ground was rumbling and sinking,” lashed his horses into a gallop, and…got onto firm ground” before “the earth beneath the tracks gave way.”

Engineer Frank Seaville, slipped into the “yawning chasm.” If not for the efforts of fellow workmen, Seaville would have “fallen into the malodorous and swift rushing waters” to certain death. William F. Keppler wasn’t so lucky. When another storm caused a collapse over the Cohocksink, Keppler was swept away.

The gorge at Second Street soon extended “from curb to curb,” compromising homes and ruining businesses. Clothier P. Ostheim & Sons lost their Christmas trade. Store-keepers along nearby Girard Avenue: a baker, a butcher, a tobacconist and a pair of saloon keepers lost goods and customers. Rising waters extinguished cellar furnaces as far away as 4th and Girard.

Sinkholes opened in nearby streets with increasing frequency. “A mighty stream of water poured through the Cohocksink sewer last night,” reported the Inquirer in January 1889, “and near the big break at Germantown and Second Street masses of earth and masonry were heard giving way as the torrent swept toward the river.” That rainy summer the Inquirer reported yet “Another Big Cave In.” The waters “carried away sidewalks, and threatened to undermine houses.”

Frustrated residents above the Cohocksink pleaded with City Council “to take immediate measures to prevent further breaks.” Repairs would take years.

As work continued, so did the storms. In September 1894, a nighttime deluge led to another, familiar “deep rumbling” heard throughout Northern Liberties. Everyone knew what happened: the Cohocksink claimed yet another chunk of the city.

(Sources in The Inquirer: “Municipal Improvements,” January 4, 1871; “Work of the Storm,” November 12, 1888; “Like a Yawning Chasm,” December 18, 1888; “Another Break in the Cohocksink Sewer,” January 10, 1889; ”Snow, Rain and Slush,” January 21, 1889; “Cohocksink Sewer Again,” March 22, 1889; “Another Big Cave-In,” July 31, 1889; “Cohocksink Sewer,” May 23, 1894; “City Deluged By Heavy Rain,” September 9, 1894; “The Earth Dropped,” July 29, 1899.)

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Liberty Unveiled

Liberty Statue, South Penn Square, April 16, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

Liberty Statue, South Penn Square, April 16, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

Little “blue-eyed, pink-cheeked” Nona Martin, the five-year-old from Chestnut Hill, stood motionless, “awed by the numberless masses that stretched away before her vision down Broad Street, as far as the eye could see.” By her side, on the platform, was her grandfather, William G. McAdoo, the “tall, gaunt, commanding” Treasury Secretary. Behind them loomed the giant statue, draped in white.

The parade had started as the the clocks struck noon. Twelve hundred schoolgirls “dressed as Goddesses of Liberty,” escorted by the Police Band, marched northward from Broad and Jackson Streets. Each held in her uplifted hands torches of Liberty and the flags of France, England, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Japan, Poland, and, of course, the United States. Behind the “procession of the goddesses” marched 5,000 marines and sailors. The pageant was great; the crowd greater; the music spectacular.

Bands played “Over There.” Then Clarence Whitehill, baritone of the Metropolitan Opera Company, stepped forward. “A hush fell over the multitude. His voice rang out the first words of the hallowed ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’” (recently recorded by another baritone, Reinald Werrenrath, at Victor in Camden.) As Whitehill’s voice echoed over the silent crowd, “it was as though an electric current had been sent through the solid masses of humanity.”

According to the plan, at the conclusion of the singing, at the moment the words “Sweet land of liberty… wafted to the crisp Spring air from many thousands of throats,” McAdoo would pull the cord allowing “the veil to fall from the Statue of Liberty.” He then would announce the start of the Third Liberty Loan Campaign to finance The Great War.

But McAdoo had another idea. As “the last strains of patriotic song still were echoing down Broad street, over the heads of thousands upon thousands of men, women and children, between the walled land made by skyscraper office buildings,” he handed the cord, “the other end of which ran to the top of the white drapery” to his granddaughter.

The crowd fell silent in anticipation as the time had come to unveil Philadelphia’s plaster Statue of Liberty, a 29-foot replica of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s 151-foot monument in New York Harbor.

This Liberty-lookalike, mounted on a 22-foot base designed by architect John T. Windrim, had been the work of sculptor Max Voight, himself once an arrival from Germany among the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Voight’s international, hand-picked team of sculptors included an Italian, a Frenchman and a Russian: Salvatore Morani, Armand Maeme and Nathan Adelman. Their work on the statue had been followed in the newspapers and documented “by moving picture films,” as was increasingly the custom. Towering, 51-feet above Broad Street, Liberty’s flaming torch lit up Philadelphia’s nights and served as beacon, booth and site of symbolic gesture.

Unveiling the Statue of Liberty at start of Third Liberty Loan Drive, April 6, 1918. William H. Rau, photographer. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Unveiling the Statue of Liberty at start of Third Liberty Loan Drive, April 6, 1918. William H. Rau, photographer. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

“Each subscriber will be entitled to ascend the stairway to the foot of the statue and drive into the pedestal a large headed tack bearing his initials. This will transform the pedestal gradually from a wooden to a metal surface.”

As the gathered crowd stood in silence that April afternoon, Nona Martin “seemed for a moment lost as to her exact part of the affair. Her famous grandfather leaned over, spoke a word or two, and the child responded.  She gave a sudden, vigorous tug at the rope, while the draperies opened and fell, and Liberty—the personification of that for which America and most of the civilized world is now waging—stood revealed.”

“As the white sheeting fluttered to the base of the statue, the massed band struck up ‘America.’ … No less than 100,000 men, women and children joined in lifting the air as though in message to the Nation” that Philadelphians would soon part with another $136 million to fund a bloody war “in civilization’s and humanity’s cause.”

 (Sources from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Copy of Famous Liberty Statue Rising in Phila.,”February 10, 1918; “M’Adoo To Open Loan Drive Here; To Unveil Statue,” March 31, 1918; “Huge Crowd Electrified With Patriotic Fervor at Statue’s Unveiling,” April 7, 1918.)

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1918: Death on the Home Front

Philadelphia Deaths from Influenza, 1890-1930.. February 17, 1931 (PhillyHistory.org)

Deaths from Influenza in Philadelphia, 1890-1930.. February 17, 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

September had been tough, especially the middle of the month, when more than a quarter of the soldiers at the Frankford Arsenal had been hospitalized with the “Spanish Flu.” On October 1, as the deaths were counted, the Inquirer grasped for a positive tone, pointing out the number of new cases had actually fallen off toward the end of the month. Commander R.W. Plummer of the Fourth Naval Reserve District also tried to offer hope, that maybe, just maybe, “the crest of the epidemic of Spanish Influenza has passed.”

“Talk of cheerful things instead of disease,” urged the Inquirer on October 5, why close down “public schools, theatres, churches, and many other places. … The authorities seem to be going daft. What are they trying to do, scare everybody to death?” The Inquirer took a position even more reckless than that of Dr. Wilmer Krusen, head of the City’s Department of Public Health and Charities. Until two days earlier, Krusen had insisted citizens were in no danger.

In October 1918, Philadelphians had little time for public health; there was a fundraising parade to put on. Citizens had been ordered to do their share and buy half a billion dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds in support of the war effort, and to do so before the end of October. No way would this be possible in a city scared and shuttered. On September 28th the parade on Broad Street took place as scheduled; 200,000 turned out for it.

Symptoms of this strain of influenza began as soon as a day after exposure. On September 30th and October 1st the city hospitals found 466 new cases on their hands. Twenty-four hours later, on October 2nd, the Inquirer reported an additional 635 cases.

“Within seventy-two hours after the parade” writes John Barry, in The Great Influenza,“every single bed in each of the city’s thirty-one hospitals was filled. And people began dying. Hospitals began refusing to accept patients. … On October 3, only five days after Krusen had let the parade proceed, he banned all public meetings in the city-including, finally, further Liberty Loan gatherings—and closed all churches, schools, theatres. Even public funerals were prohibited.”

Too little; too late. From October 4th through the 20th, the city recorded 22,051 new cases. More than 3,900 died during those 17 days. During its most virulent four-week stretch, 47,094 cases of influenza were reported, writes James F. Armstrong. Due to combined denial of city officials and the Press—an Inquirer article from October 9th  carried the headline “Signs Of Epidemic Wearing Itself Out”—the 1918 influenza pandemic and the related complication of pneumonia, cost Philadelphia something like 1% of its entire population, nearly 12,200 citizens.

“In its 10-month duration between 22 and 40 million people perished worldwide,” writes Armstrong, “estimates place the death toll in the United States at over 675,000 with over 22 million becoming ill.”  That death toll was more than five times the total number of American casualties in World War I. Bad all around, but no American city had it harder than Philly.

Life on the home front? In 1918 Philadelphia, it was more like stubborn ignorance and needless death.

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Censoring Philly Street Dance after the Shimmy Ship had Sailed

Police Band, City Hall Tower, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

Joseph Kiefer and the Philadelphia Police Band, City Hall Tower, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Those moaning saxophones,” fretted John R. McMahon in the Ladies’ Home Journal, “call out the low and rowdy instinct.” And with degrading names like “the cat step, camel walk, bunny hug, turkey trot,” McMahon figured jazz dance mocked the dignified traditions of social dance. Most insidious of all was a move they called the shimmy. “The road to hell is too often paved with jazz steps,” McMahon wrote in an article titled, “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!”

The shimmy rode in with Spencer Williams’ popular song, “Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble,” from 1917. Within a few years, the shimmy had just about taken over White America’s dance halls and cabarets; thriving on stage, in recordings, all the while shaking America’s sense of decency.

“With hardly any movement of the feet,” described singer and actress Mae West, dancers “just shook their shoulders, torsos, breasts and pelvises.” West introduced her version of the shimmy to New York in the Fall of 1918, and a year later her image appeared on the sheet music for “Ev’rybody Shimmies Now.” While the shimmy amused people, its boldness also shocked them. Even West conceded there was “a naked, aching sensual agony about it.”

By 1919, the shimmy dominated American music publishing, recording and performing. The Ziegfeld Follies featured it that year on Broadway. Gilda Gray introduced the shimmy to Philadelphia in the “Shubert Gaieties” at the Chestnut Street Opera House, suggesting that if she hadn’t exactly invented the move, she owned it on stage. “I don’t know whether my shoulders were made to express the shimmy,” Gray told the Inquirer, “or whether the shimmy was made for my shoulders to express.”

America danced to “an explosion of shimmy tunes” and “everyone seemed to jump on the shimmy bandwagon” writes Rebecca A. Bryant in “Shaking Things Up: Popularizing the Shimmy in America.” The most famous, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” would be joined by the “Shimmie Waltz,” “Let Us Keep the Shimmie,” “Shimmying Everywhere,” “You Cannot Shake That Shimmie Here.” Irving Berlin’s “You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea,” worried that Prohibition might kill the shimmy. But banning alcohol didn’t slow the shimmy. Philadelphia soon shook to its own song: “All the Quakers Are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker Town).

Others joined the scandalized Quaker on the cover of “Shoulder Shakers,” chiming in with their opinions about the shimmy. “Dancing Masters Join Clergy to Purify Dance,” read one headline, “International Association Blames Wave of Vulgar Dancing on Song Writers.”  Before long, from New York to San Francisco, moral authorities wanted to, and sometimes managed, to ban, restrict or censor the shimmy.

All the Quakers are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker town). (Duke University Libraries - Historic American Sheet Music.)

“All the Quakers are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker town).”  (Duke University Libraries – Historic American Sheet Music.)

Gilda Gray performs her famous Shimmy, 1931. (YouTube)

Gilda Gray performs the Shimmy, 1931. See 9:02. (YouTube.)

“The insidious thing,” wrote the Inquirer in an article confirming “the shimmy dance has been barred from Philadelphia,” is that “when one dancer starts the whole place must start, until the room rocks with the shimmy dance. It is more insidious than champagne, it is more insidious than drugs.” In the suburbs, the Lansdowne Club designated chaperones as “shimmy sleuths” assigning them to break up “the bunny-hugging and too affectionate ‘toddling.” In the city, the task of policing the city’s 4,000 licensed dance halls proved more challenging.

The solution? Dancing—and censoring—in the streets.

“Police Dance Censor Taboos Street Shimmy,” read the headline before the first Philadelphia street dances of 1919. Sergeant Theodore S. Fenn, assured that dancers “will do nothing ‘suggestive’ by way of street dancing while I am around…Philadelphia will dance with her feet, and her feet only. The Quaker City…will not be disgraced by the ‘shimmy’ dance.”

But the dancers had other ideas. When 15,000 jammed the Parkway to dance to the Police Band, reported the Inquirer, they were “happy in jazzing and shimmying…in…one jostling, swaying mass of sweltering humanity, in which a censor, if there had been one, would have had about as much change of imposing his ideas as the proverbial snowball.” Dancers “toddled and shimmied, dipped and slid to their hearts content….”

Someone needed to train police in anti-dance tactics and prevent “cheek-to-cheek dancing, abdominal contact, [the] shimmy [and the] toddle.” Enter dance master Miss Marguerite Walz, who would instruct 54 officers “to keep their eyes peeled for violators of the “No Shimmy” rule” while the Police Band played on. During their first outing, just “a few couples drew the attention of the censors, but policemen would step forward and touch one of the offenders on the shoulder and that was the end of it.”

Or so it seemed. The very next year, the “Hip-Dip” “wiggled its way into local terpsichorean circles,” complained Miss Walz. During a visit to South Philadelphia High School, she noticed the “Hip-Dip” and other “new and very undesirable dances,” including the “Flapper Flop,” the “Debutante Slouch” and the “Windmill Stride.”

Dance censorship, it turned out, would be a never-ending game of “whack-a-mole.”

 (Articles consulted: “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!” by John R. McMahon, Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1921; In The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Philadelphia Sneezes at Shimmy Dance,” January 18, 1919, page 3; “Police Dance Censor Taboos Street Shimmy,” May 7, 1919, p.3; “Dancing Masters Join Clergy to Purify Dance,” June 13, 1919, p. 16; “Another Creator of the Shimmy,” October 19, 1919, p. 8; “’Sedate Dancing Only’ Lansdowne Club Edict,” January 15, 1921, p. 19; “18,000 at City Dance Miss Walz, Censor, Finds Few Violations of ‘No Shimmy’ Rule,” July 29, 1921, p. 3; “New Dances Banned. South Phila. High Girls Promise to Eschew Latest Steps,” March 29, 1922, p. 16; “’Hip Dip’ Appears Here at City’s Public Dance,” July 14, 1922, p.3.)

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The Rittenhouse Club: Henry James’ Favorite Perch

Rittenhouse Club 10.8.1924

The Rittenhouse Club, as shown in 1924. 1811 Walnut Street.

Only the discreet letters “RC” on the brass doorplates identify 1811 Walnut Street as the former home of one of Philadelphia’s most prestigious clubs. The Beaux-Arts facade remains, but the building behind it is gone. Paneling from the club still survives in the bar of Rex 1516 restaurant on South Street. The remaining furniture — much of it designed by member Frank Furness — as well as the extensive collection of artwork — was scattered to the winds following the club’s sale of the building in the early 1990s. The lower two floors now house a Barney’s. The upper three floors, with their commanding views of Rittenhouse Square, are part of the 10 Rittenhouse condominium complex. They are vacant, but have most recently been listed at $15 million.

For nearly a century, the view from those bow windows was considered the finest in the city.

At least in the eyes of one famous author.

The Rittenhouse Club was founded in 1874 by a group of Philadelphia gentleman who originally named it the “Social Art Club.”  According to Philadelphia social chronicler Nathaniel Burt, its membership had “more literary and less sporting tastes” than the membership of the older Philadelphia Club.  This trend continued well into the club’s existence. According to one still-living member: ”At the Rittenhouse Club, one would find Latin commentary scribbled in the margins of the library’s books. At the Philadelphia Club, the members would be most concerned with the latest racing news from Saratoga.”

1815-1819 walnut street 1925.ashx

Greek-revival houses at 1815-1819 Walnut Street, demolished in the 1960s and replaced by a high-rise. The Rittenhouse Club is on the far right.


During the last decade of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia was big and rich enough to support two major men’s clubs, plus the distinctly political Union League. The Main Line and Chestnut Hill were still largely weekend and summer retreats — most wealthy families still lived and worked in town. The Rittenhouse Club’s membership eventually purchased the home of Congressman James Harper on the north side of Rittenhouse Square, which by the 1880s was arguably the most fashionable address in Philadelphia.  By 1900, the club raised funds to purchase an adjoining townhouse to create an even larger structure fronting the square.

If the Philadelphia Club was an annex for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Rittenhouse Club served a similar function for faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and the gentlemen architects of the T-Square Club. Here, members of the business elite mixed with architects, clergymen, and professors.  Among the members during the club’s Gilded Age heyday were steamship magnate Clement Griscom, architect Frank Furness, his Shakespeare scholar brother Horace Furness, University of Pennsylvania provost Dr. William Pepper, his nephew Senator George Wharton Pepper, and financier E.T. Stotesbury.

Perhaps the club’s most famous admirer — if not member — was the novelist Henry James, who although born in New York, had moved to London and became a British subject.  In The American Scene, James described his view from a soft leather chair of the Rittenhouse Club as that of “the perfect square.”  His host was the pistol-wielding Dr. J William White, chief surgeon of the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry and director of athletics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rittenhouse Square 4.18.1913 ashx

Rittenhouse Square on April 18, 1913.

James was an inveterate snob, but he wasn’t the only one content with the view. As Nathaniel Burt quipped, “there do not seem to be many stories of hearts being broken because of a failure to get into the Rittenhouse Club; nonetheless, those that are in it are sufficiently pleased.” To be a member, one had to have the means and the time for leisurely wet lunches.  The cuisine was Edwardian in its richness, the wine list extensive. Membership depended heavily on family, college, and private school connections. Talking business was strictly prohibited.  And like other urban clubs of its type, its membership committee generally excluded those who did not come from the “right” background.

The opening number to the Disney musical film “The Happiest Millionaire,” set at Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr.’s townhouse at 2014 Walnut Street in the 1910s. “Fortuosity” is sung by an Irish immigrant (played by Tommy Steele) who had just been hired to work as the Biddle family’s butler. Elated, he struts through Rittenhouse Square on his way to meet his new employers. Ultimately, “The Happiest Millionaire” proved less enduring than Walt Disney and the Sherman brothers’ previous collaboration: “Mary Poppins.”

Following World War II, the Rittenhouse Club suffered a long decline, in which the building slid from elegance into genteel decay. Funds ran low, and the membership roster dwindled.  Businesses moved out of town, and the three martini lunch became a relic of the past.  In addition, the federal tax code no longer allowed individuals to write off their club dues on tax returns.  As a result, many of the city’s clubs disbanded. Those that did survive opened up their membership rolls to previously excluded religious and ethnic groups. In the early 1990s, the Rittenhouse Club sold its building and found new quarters in the city.

The building sat vacant for a decade. Finally, the developers of 10 Rittenhouse purchased the structure and demolished everything except the limestone facade, which was restored to its full glory.  Today, anyone can go up to the second story of Barney’s and look through the same bowed windows that Henry James did a century ago.


Portrait of Henry James (1843-1916) by John Singer Sargent. James was the author of classics such as “The Portrait of a Lady” (1881) and “The Ambassadors” (1903).

The comfy leather chairs are gone, as is the rich wood paneling on the library walls, but the view is still the same, and the square is still as close to perfect as an urban space can be.

To see a menu from a March 1903 luncheon at the Rittenhouse Club, click here


Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999),, p.264.

Nancy Heinzen, Perfect Square: A History of Rittenhouse Square (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009)p.95.

Liz Spikol, “Comcast CEO Brian Roberts Buys at 10 Rittenhouse,” CurbedPhilly, October 19, 2012.  http://philly.curbed.com/archives/2012/10/19/comcast-ceo-brian-roberts-buys-part-of-10-rittenhouse.php

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Powelton Avenue: The First Stop on the Main Line?

Footage of the last steam trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1954.

For those who regularly ride the Main Line trains: have you ever wondered why there are no stops between 30th Street Station and Overbrook?  After Overbrook, however, the train stops nearly every two minutes. There’s an old  – and very politically incorrect — mnemonic device for memorizing the towns on the Main Line: “Old Maids Never Wed and Have Babies. Period.”  Overbrook, Merion, Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr. Paoli.

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The bridge spanning the Schuylkill River in 1876, which connected Center City with the now-vanished Baltimore and Ohio station at 24th and Chestnut, designed by Frank Furness.

Thankfully, this phrase has fallen out of popular use.  As the Philadelphia Inquirer quipped in a 1988 article that quoted it: “But let’s not forget what the Main Line, at the bottom line, really is. The term is so ingrained in our local patois that we tend to detach it from the real meaning. The Main Line is – well, the main line. Tracks and sidings. Signals and stations. Switches, whistles.”


The demolished Baltimore & Ohio station at 24th and Chestnut, designed by Frank Furness. Source: HABS/HAER


The 44th and Parkside ballpark, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad YMCA. Source: Wikipedia.

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s development of its right-of-way was a shrewd real estate deal.  Rather than haggle with Philadelphia city government and acquire parcels piecemeal, they could buy up huge swaths of farmland outside of the city limits and develop it as they saw fit.  Until the turn of the twentieth century, there were two other stops before the Main Line trains chugged from 30th Street, through West Philadelphia, and across City Avenue: Powelton Village and Parkside.   According to architectural historian Robert Morris Skaler, Powelton became a popular residence for executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad and Baldwin Locomotive Works, and “even had a special railroad stop at Powelton Avenue for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s executives to travel by train to their offices.”  The Pennsylvania Railroad also had a stop at 52nd Street and Lancaster Avenue, labeled as the Hestonville Depot in an 1872 map. This stop later grew into a sprawling rail yard that cast a sooty, noisy pall over much of the adjacent Parkside neighborhood. Nearby was the 44th and Parkside ballpark, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad YMCA in 1903 and home of the African-American league Philadelphia Stars.

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The intersection of Lancaster Avenue and 52nd Street, the location of the now-closed 52nd Street depot and passenger stop. Photograph taken February 21, 1949.

Therefore, it could be argued in fact that Powelton Village was the first stop on the Main Line, the stretch of track connecting Philadelphia with Pittsburgh.

Much of the grand residential architecture that survives in Powelton today is a harbinger of the grand suburban development that grew up around the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line tracks in the 1890s and early 1900s. Powelton is a hybrid of streetcar and railroad suburban development: for the second half of the nineteenth century, it was serviced by both horse drawn (later electric) streetcars and by Main Line trains.  The surviving freestanding mansions on Powelton Avenue, Baring Street, and Hamilton Street are large and ornate,  yet they are set within walking distance of each other rather than being secluded on larger lots as they were on the Main Line. They are also located within a few minutes walk of the former Powelton Avenue stop.  Unlike the Main Line developments, there are also a significant number of twin houses and row house blocks intermingled with the free-standing houses.

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The Henry Cochran mansion at 36th and Baring Street, built in the 1890s by architect Wilson Eyre Jr. Photograph dated December 12, 1962

Several well-known Philadelphia architects got in on the act of building up Powelton.  Wilson Eyre Jr., designer of many large houses in Rittenhouse Square and the Philadelphia suburbs, also worked on at least two houses in Powelton Village.  One was a substantial freestanding mansion for wine merchant Henry Cochran, located on the corner of 36th and Baring Streets.  Another was a renovation of a narrow twin house on the 3500 block of Hamilton Street.  In both of these projects, Eyre displayed his characteristic sense of whimsy and invention, much of it medieval in inspiration. He also avoided the gaudy grandeur that characterized so much late Victorian architecture.  Among other commissions, Eyre was responsible for the University Museum, the Mask & Wig clubhouse, and suburban estates such as Horatio Gates Lloyd’s “Allgates” mansion in Haverford. In the words of the Historic Commission’s Diana Marcelo: “Eyre detested an overload of ornamentation. He had a feeling of proportion, and a tendency toward extended horizontal planes. His buildings had crisp lines and much expression, achieved by a careful blend of varying materials.”  The Cochran house bears more than a passing resemblance to the early residential work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In many ways, Eyre’s Powelton and Wright’s Oak Park were similar suburban communities.

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St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (now St. Andrew and St. Monica’s Episcopal Church) at 36th and Baring Streets. This was the location of Max Riebenack’s funeral in September 1903. Photograph dated December 14, 1962.

The neighborhood prospered for a few decades thanks to the station stop and the infusion of railroad money. From the 1870s until the early 1900s, because of its proximity to the old 30th Street depot, Powelton Village was a neighborhood of choice for Pennsylvania Railroad executives.  Max Riebenack was perhaps  the most prominent of the PRR executives who lived in West Philadelphia. Riebenack was an American success story: a German immigrant whose parents brought him to America as a six year old boy in 1850. By 1895, he had risen to the position of comptroller of the Pennsylvania Railroad, working alongside executives like Alexander Cassatt, mastermind of New York’s Pennsylvania Station and its tunnels.  Yet rather than move to Rittenhouse Square or the Main Line, Riebenack preferred to live “North of Market” in West Philadelphia, close to fellow German immigrants such as brewer Frederick Augustus Poth. With his newfound wealth, Riebenack purchased a plot of land for $14,000 (the equivalent of about $300,000 today)  at the corner of 34th and Powelton Avenue.  He then commissioned architect Thomas Preston Lonsdale to build a spiky roofed Queen Anne style mansion that rose high above the street.

As a high-ranking executive of one of the largest corporations in the world, Max clearly liked living large, joining many clubs during his time on North 34th Street, both in town (the Union League) and in the suburbs (the Merion Cricket Club). The house, now Drexel University’s Ross Commons, was built for grand entertaining. The Philadelphia Inquirer breathlessly described the Riebenack’s silver wedding anniversary as follows:

“A largely attended reception was given last night at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Max Riebenack, at Thirty-fourth and Powelton avenue, on the occasion of the silver anniversary of their wedding.  The house was handsomely decorated and an orchestra furnished music in the spacious hallway from behind a fern-covered nook.  The house was lighted up throughout with electric lights and crowded with guests. Mr. and Mrs. Riebenack were assisted in receiving their guests by Mrs. Conrad T. Clothier.  Many of the presents were handsome and valuable.”

Max Riebenack

Max Riebenack, Comptroller for the Pennsylvania Railroad and builder of the mansion that now serves as Drexel University’s Ross Commons. Source: Findagrave.com

Unfortunately, Max and Eleanor Riebenack suffered two terrible personal tragedies. In 1903, their thirty year old son Max Jr. died of typhoid fever in the family home on Powelton Avenue.  Five years later, another son, Henry  - an inventor and former track star at the University of Pennsylvania —  also died of disease, this time at the family’s beach house in Atlantic City, New Jersey. By the time Max Riebenack himself died in 1910, the neighborhood’s most fashionable days had past. When the Powelton Avenue stop closed, the neighborhood became much less accessible to Center City and the PRR’s offices at Broad Street Station.  Many of those with money moved to the Main Line towns past City Avenue, and the large mansions they left behind were converted into boarding houses.

So ended Powelton’s short reign as the “first stop” on the Main Line.


Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.77.

“West Philadelphia: The Basic History, Chapter 2: A Streetcar Suburb in the City: West Philadelphia, 1854-1907,” West Philadelphia Community History Center. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/wphila/history/history2.html

“227. N. 34th Street, Philadelphia,” http://poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/files/227n34th.htm

Sally Downey, “Tracking the Main Line from Overbrook to Paoli: The World from the 17 Stops of the R5 Local,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 5, 1988. http://articles.philly.com/1988-02-05/entertainment/26241651_1_train-station-signals-and-stations-bottom-line

Diana Marcelo, “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Wilson Eyre Home” (Philadelphia, PA: The Philadelphia Historical Commission, April 1976.) https://www.dot7.state.pa.us/ce_imagery/phmc_scans/H001363_01H.pdf


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The Quaker City and the Second Empire


“Dinner at the Tuileries” by Henri Baron, 1867. Emperor Napoleon III hosted many such grand affairs at the Tuileries Palace during the so-called Second Empire. Source: University of Indiana Bloomington.

In 1851, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had the audacity — some might say hubris — to crown himself Emperor of France, just as his uncle had done half a century earlier.  He took the title of Napoleon III.

French progressives such as author Victor Hugo despaired.  They had just overthrown another king — this time the bumbling, pear-shaped Louis-Philippe of the House of Orleans.  In the monarchy’s place, they had installed a republican style of government, and Louis-Napleon had successfully won the presidential campaign in 1848.  But Louis-Napoleon had no intention of remaining a mere elected official.  His lifelong dream was to reestablish the Bonaparte dynasty, and supposedly finish the work that his family had began during the French Revolution. To do that, he had to be not president, not king, but emperor.  So only three years after his election, Louis-Napoleon engineered a coup d’etat to overthrow the Second Republic.  After much bloodshed and rioting in the streets of Paris, Louis-Napoleon and his partisans won the day.  The Bonaparte family was back in power.


Alexandre Cabanel’s portrait of Emperor Napoleon III.

Victor Hugo himself was forced into exile, where he wrote three damning indictments of the new regime: Napoleon Le Petit (Napoleon the Small), Histoire d’un crime (A History of a Crime), and his poetry collection Les Châtiments (The Punishments).

Victor Hugo, "Imperial Reveles" from Les Châtiments, 1852
     Cheer, courtiers! round the banquet spread—
       The board that groans with shame and plate,
     Still fawning to the sham-crowned head
       That hopes front brazen turneth fate!
     Drink till the comer last is full,
     And never hear in revels' lull,
     Grim Vengeance forging arrows fleet,
           Whilst I gnaw at the crust
           Of Exile in the dust—
     But Honor makes it sweet!

     Ye cheaters in the tricksters' fane,
       Who dupe yourself and trickster-chief,
     In blazing cafés spend the gain,
       But draw the blind, lest at his thief
     Some fresh-made beggar gives a glance
     And interrupts with steel the dance!
     But let him toilsomely tramp by,
           As I myself afar
           Follow no gilded car
     In ways of Honesty.

     Ye troopers who shot mothers down,
       And marshals whose brave cannonade
     Broke infant arms and split the stone
       Where slumbered age and guileless maid—
     Though blood is in the cup you fill,
     Pretend it "rosy" wine, and still
     Hail Cannon "King!" and Steel the "Queen!"
           But I prefer to sup
           From Philip Sidney's cup—
     True soldier's draught serene.

     Oh, workmen, seen by me sublime,
       When from the tyrant wrenched ye peace,
     Can you be dazed by tinselled crime,
       And spy no wolf beneath the fleece?
     Build palaces where Fortunes feast,
     And bear your loads like well-trained beast,
     Though once such masters you made flee!
           But then, like me, you ate
           Food of a blessed fête—
     The bread of Liberty!


Why did the new emperor take the title Napoleon III? The reason was that Napoleon I’s infant son by Marie-Louise of Austria — his only legitimate heir — had technically reigned as Emperor of France for a few days after his father abdicated in 1814.  After his father’s defeat at Waterloo, little Napoleon Jr. was sent to live with his mother at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.  He died at 21.  He never saw his father again.

“Le Grand Galopp de chemin de fer” by Emile Waldteufel (1837-1915), a popular dance music composer during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. A celebration of the railroads connecting Paris to the rest of the country. Translation: “The Railroad Galop”

“Minuit” (Midnight) by Emile Waldteufel. The chimes supposedly represent the clocks in the Tuileries ballroom striking midnight.

Now the leader of the Second Empire and ensconced in the grandeur of the Tuillieries Palace (the former Paris home of star-crossed predecessors Napoleon I and Louis XVI), Emperor Napoleon III started to refashion the old city of Paris into a modern, imperial city.  He hired city planner Baron George-Eugene Haussmann to lay out grand boulevards and oversee the construction of beautiful new apartment buildings to line them.  To accomplish this, Haussmann demolished huge swaths of the cramped medieval city, displacing thousands of residents.  He also built several new lavish railway stations, which connected Paris to the rest of the country.  Architect Hector-Martin Lefuel renovated both the royal residence at the Tuileries Palace and the Louvre museum, added grand new apartments in a neo-Baroque style. The crowning achievement of Napoleon III’s building program was the new opera house. Designed by Charles Garnier, the Paris Opera could seat 2,000 patrons in marbled, gilded splendor. The “Exposition Universelle de 1867″ was arguably the high-water mark of the Second Empire — the world’s fair attracted nearly 10 million visitors from around the world.  Although its purpose was to allow nations to exhibit their artistic and industrial achievements, its real goal was to showcase Paris as the cultural capital of the world.Its success inspired a group of Philadelphia businessmen to mount a similar grand world’s fair in Fairmount Park nine years later.


A bird’s eye view of Napoleon III’s dream project:; L’Exposition universelle de 1867. Source: Wikipedia.


The Tuileries Palace illuminated for the June 10, 1867 gala celebrating the world’s fair. Nine years later, Philadelphia would host its own exposition, attracting millions of visitors and entertaining heads of state in a similarly grand fashion. The palace itself, built by Queen Marie of France in the early 1600s, had been the official Paris residence of the Bourbon kings and the Bonaparte emperors. Napoleon III renovated it lavishly during his reign. Set afire by radical members of the Paris Commune in 1871, its ugly ruins stood for another ten years before they were cleared.  The Tuileries Gardens remain a popular gathering space for Parisians today.   Painting by Pierre Tetar Van Elven. Source; Wikipedia.

Napoleon III might have had superb taste in architecture, but he did not possess his uncle’s military genius.  In 1870, he made the mistake of underestimating Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia.  The Franco-Prussian War was sparked by disputes by succession to the Spanish throne and control of the Southern German states. This ill-advised war caused the Second Empire to collapse like a house of cards.  German troops captured Emperor Napoleon II at the Battle of Sedan, and besieged the city of Paris itself, starving the residents into submission.  In the mayhem that followed, Communard mobs burned down the Tuileries Palace, Hotel de Ville, and other symbols of imperial power. The Louvre itself almost burned down when flames spread from the adjoining Tuileries Palace. The incomplete Opera House was spared.

France’s humiliation at the hands of Prussia and Bismarck sowed the seeds of another, deadlier conflict — one that would engulf all of Europe — forty years later. As for the former Napoleon III: he was released from captivity and exiled to England, where he died a few years later. The Bonapartes were gone for good.

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The Union League, designed by John Fraser in the Second Empire style. Opened in May 1865, one month after the Treaty of Appomattox Courthouse, which ended hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy. Photograph: c.1975.

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Family resemblance to the Union League. Second Empire twin houses at 37th and Baring Streets, dating from c.1870. Note the surviving iron filigree work on the roofline. Photo dated December 14, 1962.

Despite the Second Empire’s wretched end, its grand aesthetic fascinated American architects and designers. Richard Morris Hunt, who studied at at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Lefuel in the 1840s, brought French formalism back to his American practice. The primary mentor of the young Frank Furness, Hunt designed mansions for wealthy Americans families such as the Vanderbilts — most notably the Breakers for Cornelius Vanderbilt II — as well as grand public buildings such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  During Napoleon III’s reign, Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) trained an entire generation of American architects artists whose work would transform American culture: Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Chester Holmes Aldrich, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Alexander Stirling Calder (son of the sculptor of the William Penn statue atop City Hall), and Thomas Hastings, to name a few. Paul Philippe Cret, a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania and designer of the Parisian-style Benjamin Franklin Parkway, was also a Beaux-Arts graduate.


The grand staircase of the Paris Opera. Its palatial interiors inspired the public rooms of Philadelphia’s City Hall. Source: Wikipedia.com

In the decade following the Civil War, Gilded Age Philadelphia threw Quaker modesty out the window. The city was richer than ever, with fortunes made in railroads, manufacturing, and (in the case of future streetcar plutocrat Peter Widener) provisioning the Union Army. The Union League, designed by John Fraser and completed in 1865, was perhaps the first large-scale Second Empire structure in the city. Housing developers caught the French bug, as well.  Starting in the 1870s, row houses in Philadelphia adopted the mansard roof, a favorite architectural device of Second Empire architects.  The term “mansard” was a corruption of Jules-Hardouin Mansart, a baroque architect who popularized the hipped gambrel roof during the reign of Louis XIV.  This architectural device became  a French trademark. It was not only used on royal palaces, but also on the apartment blocks built by Baron Haussmann in Paris during the 1850s and 60s. A wood-and-slate “mansard roof” not only made a house look more imposing on the outside, but also made the attic story  habitable while minimizing construction costs. Because a mansard roof is set back from the cornice line, it use also allowed builders to comply with setback restrictions while maximizing rents.

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A Second Empire style house at 4407 Baltimore Avenue, dating from the 1870s. Photo dated August 24, 1951.

The grandest testament to the Second Empire style’s cultural impact in Philadelphia is City Hall.  In 1871, the same year as the fall of Napoleon III’s regime, Scottish-born architect John McArthur Jr. began construction of this grandiose and expensive essay in the Second Empire style.  Modeled heavily on the Lefuel’s additions to the Louvre in Paris and smothered in allegorical statues, the stone structure took thirty years to complete, by which time it was out-of-step with the cleaner lines of the neoclassical style.

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The new Philadelphia City Hall illuminated on Founder’s Day, October 1908.

Although the largest municipal building in the world at the time of its opening in 1901, critics did not herald it as an American Louvre. Rather, it was greeted as a monument to hubris, corruption, and expensive bad taste.

Much like the excesses of Napoleon III’s regime three decades earlier. In the 1950s, city planner Edmund Bacon proposed tearing the vast edifice down, sparing only the clock tower, which was crowned by Alexander Stirling Calder’s statue of William Penn. Only the cost of demolition saved City Hall from destruction.


The destruction of the Tuileries Palace during the revolt of the Paris Commune, 1871. The Louvre Palace, which housed France’s priceless collection of art, was saved by hardworking firefighters and Paris citizens. Source: University of Indiana at Bloomington.


Jean-Bertrand Barrère, “Victor Hugo,” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 12, 2014.


“The Project Gutenberg EBook of Poems, by Victor Hugo”


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Taking to the Streets with the Philadelphia Police (Singing and Dancing)

Police Band in Philadelphia Ball Park, 1912 (PhillyHistory.org)

Police Band in Philadelphia Ball Park [Baker Bowl, Broad and Huntingdon Streets], 1912 (PhillyHistory.org)

Philly’s Finest got into the big band business while the getting was good. Only three years after 1912, when bandmaster Lieutenant Joseph Kiefer (formerly of the U. S. Navy) started up his talented squad, he expanded its ranks to 72 musicians. He then spent the better part of the next decade riding the rising tide of American popular music.

In its first ten years, Kiefer’s band raised enough to cover their expenses and to pay $200,000 into the Police Pension Fund Association. There were the annual ticketed benefits, but the majority of the Police Band concerts were free. That unlikely business model had been in effect since 1917, when the City brought in Kiefer’s group to replace another band, whose contract officials let expire. “The Philadelphia Police Band will hold a series of open-air concerts on the northeast plaza of City Hall,” read the announcement. The new concerts would also inaugurate community singing.

“Over night the project has taken on gigantic propositions,” project leaders bragged. I all, more than 50,000 attended to hear the Police Band’s brass quartette give a brief concert before the Community Singing Association “helped to ring out the patriotic hymns and familiar songs which make up the nightly programme.”

Philadelphia’s Fire Department jumped aboard the bandwagon starting up their own group with 27 players and Kiefer moonlighting as leader. It “bids fair to become vigorous rival of celebrated police institution,” teased the Inquirer. But Kiefer’s main focus remained with the Police Band, which grew ever-busier raising funds for pensions while performing a full schedule of free concerts.

How did they do it? Whenever and wherever they played—in neighborhoods throughout the city, at the Baker Bowl at Broad and Huntingdon Streets, at the bandstand north of City Hall, or helping Philadelphians singing in the New Year on City Hall’s south apron—audiences already knew the music, they knew the words to the songs. The listening public was familiar with the Police Band’s music, and their greater repertoire having already bought, played repeatedly and memorized popular music.

Police Band, July 25, 1921 (Temple University, SCRC)

Joseph Kiefer and the Police Band, July 25, 1921. Detail. (Temple University, Special Collections Research Center)

Philadelphians owned phonographs—record players. And on them they spun copies of Kiefer’s compositions in Vocalian red-vinyl: On the Campus and Comrades of the Legion. From Aeolian (Vocalian’s parent company) they played his Buckeye State and The Iron Division March (dedicated to the Pennsylvania-based division nicknamed by General Pershing for valorous service in World War I.)

Kiefer and company also included in their repertoire longtime classics, also available as records: F.W. Meacham’s  popular American Patrol (1885); W. H. Myddleton’s Down South. American Sketch (1901). And they performed the more contemporary, and no less antiquated, Swanee River Moon. For young folks wanting to dance a lively Fox Trot, they included Dan Sullivan’s Stealing (the chorus of which, “Stealing, stealing with your eyes appealing…Stealing, stealing, at your shrine I’m kneeling,” made clear this was not a song about pickpockets.)

In 1921, the City added free weekly dances on the Parkway to the long-popular sing alongs and concerts. These Thursday evening soirees turned out to be a smashing success. For the inaugural dance, July’s muggy weather didn’t deter 15,000 from turning out on the stretch of the Parkway between 17th and 18th, still decorated as a “Court of Honor” for an Odd Fellow convention.

“To Dance on the Parkway,” read the headline after the first magical evening. Philadelphians danced to Police Band tunes and transformed themselves into “one jostling, swaying mass of sweltering humanity.” Young dancers wanted nothing to do with the “old style Virginia reel by four couples in rural garb” intended to show “dancers what they have been missing.” They wanted live jazz, just like the recordings they owned and danced to at home.

Kiefer and the Police Band accommodated everyone as best they could throughout the free Parkway dances, performing “everything in [their] repertory, from a sedate waltz for the benefit of the older folk to the latest jazz turn for the enjoyment of the flappers.”

Not everyone would be as tolerant.

(Articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer consulted: “Police Band Will Give Daily Concerts,” August 26, 1917; “’Sing’ at City Hall to Attract Many,” September, 2, 1917; “Police Band to Give Concerts on Plaza,” September 2, 1917; “Great Community Sing Will be Held Tonight,” September 15, 1917;  “Firemen’s Band out for Laurels,” September 23, 1917; “Concert Series Will Aid Police,” March 10, 1918; “To Sing New Year In,” December 31, 1918; “To Dance on Parkway, June 14, 1921; “15,000 Crowd at First Dance on Parkway,” July 8, 1921; “Police Band Concerts,” May 16, 1922.)

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