Philadelphia Architects on Fire(houses)

CAPTION (PhillyHistory.org)

Fire Engine Company No. 47. 3035-37 Grays Ferry Avenue. Charles E. Oelschlager, architect, ca. 1899. (PhillyHistory.org)

As the city heated up, pushing outward in all directions, so did its fire department. As we’ve seen in more than one post, architect John Windrim stepped in and supplied an array of new and eclectic designs for the expanded municipal footprint, making up for lost time. As director of Public Works Windrim had a natural advantage getting commissions, but there was more work, and a broader appetite for design diversity, than any one office could handle. As projects went to bid, many other architects and contractors responded. What resulted might be called Philadelphia’s Fin-de-siècle Firehouse Boom.

This post introduces a six-pack of additional architects and handful of their firehouses, as well as a spattering of their kin, police stations. In all, the city put an estimated 50 or so fire houses and police stations on the streets between 1890 and the 1910, a prodigious display of design finesse.

Have we ever heard of such a demonstration in municipal architecture? We have, in a way. On NPR a few years back, Susan Stamberg presented the case of Columbus, Indiana. In the mid-20th century, Columbus commissioned more than 60 buildings “by a veritable who’s who of modern masters” including I.M. Pei, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, and Philadelphia’s Robert Venturi (who, in 1967, created Fire Station No. 4).

The Philadelphia’s six are not big names, but the civic design frenzy that took place at the turn of the 20th century, long before Indiana’s, occurred at the intersection of demand and indigenous talent. Where Columbus lured starchitects from far and wide and funded their arrival with philanthropy, Philadelphia’s homegrown creative burst took place in its own space, on its own time—on its own terms.

Firehouse, 1322 West Cambria Street. (Google)

Firehouse (Engine 50; Latter 12) 1325 West Cambria Street. Charles E. Oeschlager, architect, 1900. (Google)

So who’s rushing out for a Philadelphia firehouse tour? Unfortunately, much of this work got lost in the shuffle over the last century. In truth, we barely even know the extent of what once was. A few private efforts at compilation hope to fill the yawning information gap. (See Mike Legeros’s List of Historic and Former Philadelphia Firehouses.) You can’t just dip a toe in the complicated and (early on) violent history of the Philly firefighting, certainly not in a few blog posts. It’s a steep, slippery and, so far, largely silent slope. But who and what you’d encounter along the way makes it a ride well worth the price of admission.

Here are a few of the architects and buildings you’d see along the way:

Charles E. Oelschlager’s listed projects include churches, theatres (both moving picture and vaudeville) and even early gas stations. His “new three story fire house…at 31st and Grays Ferry Road,” from 1899 (illustrated here) didn’t survive. What did is still in use: his three-bay-wide firehouse from 1900 on Cambria east of Broad (also illustrated). Behind its terra cotta, red brick façade, beneath its green, slate-covered mansard roof were nine horse stalls, sleeping quarters, four sliding poles and all the latest “appliances…electric bells and buzzers.”

Joseph M. Huston (1866-1940) generated more impressive projects, like the Pennsylvania State Capitol, but that job proved to be a show stopper. Scandal and conviction led to a residency at Eastern State Penitentiary. Before all that, in 1899 and 1900, Huston designed several firehouses that have yet to be documented and none of which survive.  In addition, his stationhouse for the Sixth Police District at 11th and Winter Streets was a lovely, long gone, Georgian Revival design.

Engine Company #13, 1529-39 Parrish Street. Phillip H. Johnson, architect. Photographed by Vince Feldman in 2001.

Engine Company #13, 1529-39 Parrish Street. Phillip H. Johnson, architect, 1901. Photographed by Vincent D. Feldman in 2001.

E. V. Seeler (1867-1929) is known for 65 projects including Curtis Publishing Company on Washington Square, the nearby Penn Mutual Life Insurance Building and the Philadelphia Bulletin Building on Filbert Street, once just to the northeast of City Hall. His breakthrough took place with the First Baptist Church in 1901, at the corner of 17th and Sansom Streets. It’s not far from the extant fire house at 1528- 1530 Sansom, which he completed two years before that.

Hazelhurst & Huckel – Way back in the early 1880s  Edward P. Hazlehurst and William Samuel Huckel, Jr. started a long and prolific partnership generating 326 projects. Their combination police station, patrol station and fire house stood at the northwest corner of Seventh and Carpenter Streets until it was demolished in 1962.

W. Bleddyn Powell’s (1854-1910) projects include the completion of City Hall. His combined fire/patrol houses including one at 4th and Snyder, now long gone. He also turned out a police station at 19th and Oxford that later served as the first Opportunities Industrialization Center.

Phillip H. Johnson (1868-1933) is not to be confused with another architect: Philip Johnson. The Philadelphian was more notorious than famous. Through some skill and sheer connectedness he landed a lifetime contract with the City Health Department that earned his office more than $2 million in fees over three decades. Johnson’s projects include the Philadelphia General Hospital, Philadelphia Hospital for Contagious Diseases and buildings at the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases aka Byberry. He also designed City Hall Annex.  Johnson cut his teeth on several firehouse projects: at 1016-1018 South Street, 50th and Baltimore Avenue, 1529-39 Parrish Street (illustrated here from Vince Feldman’s aptly named book, City Abandoned) and 2936-38 Ridge Avenue. All of these survive except the last, which was demolished in 1994.

No, we’re not quite ready yet for the Philadelphia’s Fin-de-siècle Firehouse Boom tour. Heck, we’re not even sure what we have—or if we really even want to keep it. 

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John Windrim and the Eclectic Engine House Boom

Fire House #2, Southwest Corner Warnock and Berks Streets.March 23,1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

Fire House #2, Southwest Corner Warnock and Berks Streets.
March 23,1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

The newspaper headline confirmed what everyone already suspected. Philadelphia’s “Boom in Building” of 1889 had more structures going up than during any other year in the entire history of the city. On the streets, that translated into the city pushing noisily in every possible direction. On the books, that meant 70 new factories, 65 additional shops and foundries, 65 stores, 30 warehouses, five freight stations, three market houses, and as many hospitals. The spires of 18 new churches reached heavenward between the factories, punctuating more than eleven miles of new brick rowhouses. In North Philadelphia alone, just west of Broad Street, more than 1,800 homes extended the city’s grid monotonously to the north. Five hundred eighty new houses pushed the city to the south. And in West Philadelphia, developers obtained building permits for no less than 1,500 additional houses.

Everyone expected 1890 to be an “even more prosperous” year. After all, open land in the vicinity of 29th and Susquehanna that had been selling for $1,000 per acre. Now it fetched up to $30,000. “Everything points to success” claimed an optimistic developer, “if we build 10,000 houses a year we are only supplying the demand of our growing population.”

Thing is, the city’s own role in the phenomenal growth of 1889 was seriously stunted. Only one fire station and three patrol houses were built that year. Politicians scrambled to close the gap. Dancing in their heads were visions of something new, not the same old kinds of firehouses and police stations, those had been outgrown in so many ways. Here was the chance to fix the problem while crafting a newer image for the expanding metropolis. And who could disagree with more and better services based in newer, more and better facilities?

In May of 1890 the first one opened. “A Model Station House, the first combination fire engine house, police station and patrol house in the country,” proclaimed officials gathered at 20th and Long Lane (now Point Breeze Avenue). Mayor Edwin Fitler addressed the crowd at the ribbon cutting as Councilman Edwin S. Stuart stood proudly by. Director of the Department of Public Safety William S. Stokley praised the new, “elegant” 3-story, “Roman” design as “the ideal station house of the city” regretting only that “it was not in a more central position, as nobody but people from the Neck” might see it for inspiration. Officials believed this building, which cost the hefty sum of $58,000, was nothing less than “the finest station house in the country.”

Engine # 45, 26th and York Streets, 1908. (PhillyHistory.org)

Engine Company  #45, Northeast corner, 26th and York Streets, 1908. (PhillyHistory.org)

The election of Edwin S. Stuart to the mayor’s office in 1891 allowed him to extend his construction campaign citywide. As the Bureau of City Property looked ahead, they allocated more than half of their next annual budget for “new stations and new engine houses” specifically earmarking $25,000 for a new station house at Twentieth and Berks Streets. Many more were on the way.

To carry out Stuart’s vision in style, he brought in architect James H. Windrim as Director of Public Works. But Windrim had too much work from other clients and turned his partner and son, John T. Windrim, loose on the fresh streets of the city. Over the next several years, the younger Windrim expanded the city’s footprint in a string of gem-like fire stations. By 1913 the list had grown quite long.

More than a century later, a few remain in various stages of threat and preservation. Others have been lost to time. Below, Windrim’s extant buildings are presented in bold; each is linked to contemporary street views. Two of the major causalities in North Philadelphia, Engine Companies # 2 and #45, are illustrated with the only things that remain: rare archival images from the City Archives.

1892 – Engine Company #42, Front and Westmoreland Streets.

1893 – Engine Company #2, Berks and Warnock Streets.

1894 – Engine Company #43, 21st Street near Market Street.

1894 – Engine Company # 45, 26th and York Streets.

1894 – Engine Company #46, Reed and Water Streets.

1894 – Engine Company #37, West Highland Avenue and Shawnee Street (Chestnut Hill)

1895 – Engine Company # 16, Belmont Avenue near Wyalusing Avenue (Mill Creek)

1895 – Engine Company #29 , 1225 North 4th Street near West Girard Avenue.

[Sources in the Philadelphia Inquirer include: “The Boom in Building. More Structures Erected in 1889 than during Any Previous Year,” November 9, 1889; “A  Model Station House. Opening of the New Seventeenth District Fire, Police and Patrol Station,” May 13, 1890; “A New Style of Station Houses.”  (Front and Westmoreland), September 29, 1892; “A New Police and Fire Station,” (Chestnut Hill), October 4, 1894; “A New Engine House. Fourth Street above Girard Avenue, February 28, 1895; “New Fire Station. It Will be Opened for Use in a Few Days,” March 7, 1895; “New Fire House: West Philadelphia Boys Will Occupy It To-Morrow,” June 21, 1896.]

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Firehouses Acting Out: An Exuberant, Stylistic Storm in the 1890s

Engine House #29 - Truck "G", Chemical Engine #2 N 04th St and W Girard Ave. 11-17-1896 (PhillyHistory.org)

Engine House #29 – Truck “G”, Chemical Engine #2
North 4th Street and West Girard Avenue, November 17, 1896 (PhillyHistory.org)

“The most intriguing element” on the façade of Engine #29 on 4th Street near Girard,” Inga Saffron wonders, is “the vaguely Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs embedded between the handsome truck doors and the German-style pattern in the ribbon of flowery tiles just below the cornice. Why those motifs?”

Yes, we agree: What the hex?

Might this be “an attempt to reflect the heritage of the German immigrants who worked in the neighborhood’s breweries and mills,” Saffron pondered. Or “was it just the fancy of the architect?”

Fancy indeed.

Philadelphia firehouses took off in an exuberant stylistic storm in the 1890s, and John T. Windrim, the likely designer of Engine #29, was the creative at its center. We can see the broad eclecticism on 4th Street; it’s one of the factors that led to the building’s listing by the Philadelphia Historical Commission in 1989. We see something similar at Windrim’s Engine #37, on Highland Avenue in Chestnut Hill, completed about the same time. (The Commission recently added that structure, “the oldest active fire hall in the city” to their list, reported Newsworks.) Two happy survivors, but many more gems by Windrim got lost along the way.

Back to our original question: What the Hex? How, in the 1890s, did firehouses become places for expressions of opulence, eclecticism, and outright design rowdyism? Not only did Windrim draw from the German vernacular, he dipped into all kinds of historical and contemporary design sources that added up to a wild ride in architectural design. More than “Richardsonian Romanesque,” the firehouse on 4th Street takes strides toward the even wilder, contemporary work by Frank Furness which Michael Lewis refers to with an apt and revealing subtitle: “Architecture and the Violent Mind.”

What was it about firehouses at the end of the century that made them so susceptible to architectural expression? Did the culture of rowdyism, which played out so vividly in firefighting’s earlier years, somehow become channeled into its architecture? Or, as Rebecca Zurier suggests in The American Firehouse, could it be that there was “no prevailing ‘proper’ style for a fire station, [so] architects tried nearly all of them.” In firehouses, she wrote, they executed designs “considered too outlandish for another type of building.” Zurier, who conducted her own Grand Tour of American firehouses concluded: “no one ever complained about a fire station being undignified.”

In recent times, observed historian John Maass, “municipal officials generally want inconspicuous fire stations lest they be accused of wasting taxpayers’ money.” But in the 1890s, “political bosses used to glory in building the showiest firehouses.”

“Opulent fire stations,” said Zurier, “constituted political as well as architectural statements. Responsibility for commissioning a particularly extravagant fire station” was often “traced directly to the wishes of the mayor.”

Purposeful extravagance resulted in “a wondrous variety of architectural styles,” wrote Maass, from “Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Richardsonian Romanesque” to “French Chateauesque, Castellated, Half-timbered Tudor, Prairie Style, Spanish Colonial, Pueblo Adobe, Art Deco, Ugly & Ordinary Venturian.” The American firehouse had become, and would remain, a genre all its own.

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Detail: Engine House #29 – Truck “G”, Chemical Engine #2. North 4th Street and West Girard Avenue, November 17, 1896 (PhillyHistory.org)

Fire House #2 - Southwest Corner Warnock and Berks Streets.  March 23, 1931. (PhillyHistory,org)

Detail: Fire House #2 – Southwest Corner, Warnock and Berks Streets. March 23, 1931. (PhillyHistory,org)

“Up-Town Firemen Move to Better and More Modern Quarters,” reported the Inquirer on February 28, 1895. Contractor Frederick J. Amweg had turned Engine #29, his project in “terra cotta and Pompeian brick,” costing $39,611, over to the City Department of Public Safety. Philadelphia had added yet one more creative interpretation in the firehouse genre to its ever-more exuberant, ever-growing collection.

But do we really know that Windrim came up with this particular design? The hex sign offers a possible confirming hint. The very same feature also appears in another, documented example of Windrim’s work: Fire House #2, which opened in 1894 at the southwest corner Warnock and Berks Streets. That building had a similar hex pattern, applied in a similar way, as does the Engine #29 on 4th Street.

Except that Windrim building is long gone, its site now occupied by Temple University’s mammoth Montgomery Avenue Parking Garage.

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Taming the Fight in Philadelphia Firefighting

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Engine House #15 – Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Howard Street., November 17, 1896, detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

Philadelphia endured six riots in the 1840s. The city’s streets were seething and dangerous. But they also could be glorious.

“Grand beyond description,” is how the Inquirer described the May Day display put on by the city’s sixty-six volunteer fire companies in 1849. “The gorgeous banners of every hue and shade, the beautifully decorated engines and hose carriages, the unnumbered fire horns, the wreaths, bouquets, and different emblems of the respective fire company, were showered from nearly every window, added greatly to one of the most grand and lovely spectacles that has ever taken place in the Quaker City. [It] is an occasion that will doubtless be remembered for years to come.”

Especially excited were members of the city’s newest group of firefighters, the General Taylor Hose Company, who were assigned to bring up the rear of the procession. The Taylor Hose men were last, but not least. Each of the 34 members in this Kensington-based brigade were dressed in their new uniforms with gaudily painted hats—standard firefighter processional regalia of the day. The top hats featured portraits of Zachary Taylor, whose battlefield prowess in the Mexican-American War had won him the White House. Only a few months before, Taylor had been inaugurated as the 12th President of the United States.

As the parade snaked up and down the city streets, marchers attracted attention from “notorious rowdies,” gangs known as The Stingers and The Killers. At 6th and Fitzwater they disrupted the procession. And at 8th and Catherine, just as the Good Will Hose Company passed, they initiated “a brutal attack” with stones. Pistol shots were heard over the music of marching bands.

Guilty or not, ready or not, the General Taylor Hose Company joined the city’s culture of street violence that day. It would be a rough ride for the next two decades, until the volunteer fire companies were replaced by a professional fire department. How did it play out for the men of Taylor Hose? Here are few incidents culled from the Inquirer:

March 19, 1850: “Another Fire Apparatus Destroyed.—On Saturday night, the carriage of the Taylor Hose Company of Kensington, was captured by a party of rioters, ran out Ninth street, a considerable distance, and there nearly demolished. The hose was unreeled, and the screws cut off both ends. The apparatus was a borrowed one. It is only a month or so since the Taylor Hose had their own carriage destroyed in a similar manner.”

January 17, 1854: “Narrow Escape.—In the course of the riot on Saturday night, in the vicinity of Second and Jefferson street, between two rival gangs of ruffians attached respectively to the Hibernia and Taylor Hose Company, a ball from one of the pistols which was discharged on the occasion, entered an upper window of a house in the neighborhood, a struck near the spot where an infant was lying. How long are these disgraceful proceedings to continue?”

August 16, 1854: “More Ruffians.— A number of rowdies, said to be adherents of the Taylor Hose, assailed the house of Wm. Henry Haverkemps, on Monday afternoon, broke his windows and assaulted several citizen residing in the vicinity. Officer Clemens arrested two of the assailants…”

Third time - Engine House #15 - Columbia Avenue and Howard Street. 11-17-96 (PhillyHistory.org)
Engine House #15 – Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Howard Street., November 17, 1896. (PhillyHistory.org)

August 31, 1858: “Fireman’s Riot. About one o’clock on Sunday morning, the quiet of the Eighteenth Ward was disturbed by the Globe Engine and Taylor Hose Companies engaging in a desperate riot, in which horns, spanners and stones were freely used. Officer Ketcham, of the 19th Ward, was struck in the face by a brick, and severely cut: two or three other officers were struck by the flying stones. During the fight, Robert Squibb, a prize fighter and notorious bully, was arrested by officer John Watt, of the 128th Ward, and held to bail for his appearance at Court.”

By 1864, when the state incorporated Taylor Hose as the General Taylor Steam Forcing Hose Company, its members were long part of the established demonic, heroic underworld of Philadelphia firefighting. Seven years after that, on March 15, 1871, their brick and marble building at Howard Street and Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, would be designated Philadelphia Fire Department’s Engine No. 15.

Six of the charter members showed up for a reunion of “The Taylor Hose Boys” in May, 1891. According to the Inquirer, “the Taylor Hose Company, of the old Volunteer Fire Department, celebrated their forty-fourth anniversary last evening by a banquet at their hall, Columbia avenue and Mascher street. About 100 members and their friends sat down to a splendid collation, followed by several speeches and music.”

We’ll never know the stories shared that evening.

The 19th century firehouse remained in service until the 1920s when it was replaced by an undated facility by city architect John Molitor. That firehouse, decommissioned in the 1960s, remains a Kensington curiosity to this day.

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Vanna Venturi House: Inspirations from Philadelphia of the 1930s

Southeast Corner Juniper and Locust Streets, January 10, 1917. (PhillyHistory.org)

Dr. Casper Wister Residence, 1322 Locust St., Southeast Corner Juniper and Locust Streets, January 10, 1917. Furness & Evans, Architects, ca. 1883 (PhillyHistory.org)

“The city is the place of availabilities,” declared Louis Kahn. “It is the place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.”

If the small boy was Robert Venturi and the city was Philadelphia in the 1930s, that something would be architecture.

What the young Venturi saw and heard on the streets of Philadelphia confounded him, at first, and then it inspired him. As noted here a while back, he later remembered the Provident Life and Trust Company on Chestnut Street and “loving to hate those squat columns as my father drove me past.” Those columns were the work of Frank Furness. And in time, Venturi would develop an “absolute unrestrained adoration and respect” for Furness.

Before Venturi learned from Las Vegas, he contemplated on Chestnut Street, leered on Locust and became fortified by what he saw on Fairmount Avenue. Philadelphia was Venturi’s formative architectural learning lab. What he studied on the city’s streets in the 1930s helped him forge a unique architectural identity.

Philadelphia in the middle third of the 20th century burgeoned with finely-wrought buildings that had grown out of style—and many more of less distinguished parentage. For an emerging visual talent such as Venturi, a creative who would come to take pride in theoretical and design perversity, that Philadelphia was nothing less than an inspirational smorasborg. Not only could Venturi learn from the bold expressions of self-assured, industrial Philadelphia, he’d translate their vocabulary into buildings that would become his masterpieces.

Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania photographed by Carol M. Highsmith. (The Library of Congress)

Vanna Venturi House, 1964. Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Photographed by Carol M. Highsmith. (The Library of Congress)

Take Mothers’ House, aka the Vanna Venturi House (which has recently been placed on the market). Here’s a building modest in scale with an outsized reputation, a manifesto for Post Modernism. Consider its billboard of a façade, an element with playful wit using flawed symmetry, a gratuitous arch and boldly-arranged negative spaces. Then look at the (now-butchered) façade of Dr. Casper Wister’s residence at Juniper and Locust Streets. See the parallels: a cave-like quality to both entrances; the use of compressed arches and blockish jutting of forms, in and out. But they are more like far-flung cousins than siblings.

Somewhat closer might be the industrial vernacular found in the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company’s car barn on Fairmount between 24th and 25th. Here stood a structure with significantly less provenance, but, it seems, with a closer familial tie.

Yet neither of these examples has been mentioned as part of the design parentage for Mothers’ House.

Old Car Barn - Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company - South Side Fairmount Avenue between 24th and 25th Streets. (PhillyHistory.org)

Old Car Barn – Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company – South side of Fairmount Avenue between 24th and 25th Streets. July 10, 1930. (PhillyHistory.org)

What has been mentioned? Stanislaus von Moos, the Swiss architectural theorist, suggests inspirations as far away in time and place as Michelangelo’s Porta Pia and Palladio’s Nymphaeum at Villa Barbaro. He noted, as did Venturi himself, a relationship with Luigi Moretti’s Roman Il Girasole (The Sunflower) house of 1950.

But Venturi left wide open the possibilities for more influences and inspirations—more ways of finding and creating meaning. “I include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality,” he stated in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. “I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning…I prefer ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or,’ black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white.”

“A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus,” he continued, “its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once.” This “architecture of complexity and contradiction…must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.”

“More,” Venturi famously put it, “is not less.”

He likens Mother’s House to “a child’s drawing of a house” adding “the front in its conventional combinations of door, windows, chimney and gable, creates an almost symbolic image of a house.” But there was nothing childlike about it. “The varying locations and sizes and shapes of the windows and perforations on the outside walls, as well as the off-center location of the chimney, contradict the overall symmetry of the outside form: the windows are balanced on each side of the dominating entrance…but they are asymmetrical. …”

“These complex combinations,” Venturi observed, “achieve the difficult unity of a medium number of diverse parts based on inclusion and on acknowledgement of the diversity of experience.”

That diversity of experience, we imagine, acknowledged inspirations from many times and places. Among them were the ample “availabilities” in the city where Venturi was born and raised.

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10th Anniversary of Live 8

Ten years ago this month, the Live 8 benefit concerts (organized by Live Aid founder Bob Geldof) were held in G8 countries around the world and one of the cities chosen for the concerts was Philadelphia. Here are several photos of Stevie Wonder performing on the Ben Franklin Parkway. In one of the photos, he is joined by Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20. Will Smith and members of Maroon 5 and Matchbox 20, along with Dave Matthews Band, The Kaiser Chiefs, Kanye West and Destiny’s Child were among the other performers featured in Philadelphia.

The G8 concerts were held in conjunction with the UK’s Make Poverty History campaign and the Global Call for Action Against Poverty. The Philadelphia concert was one of ten simultaneous Live 8 concerts that was held on July 2nd, 2005. They were held with the goal that the G8 nations would increase their support for aid to Africa and on July 7th, the G8 nations agreed to double aid from $25 million to $50 million. The concerts were also held approximately 20 years after Live Aid and Philadelphia was one of the first cities chosen to participate since it had been one of the sites of the Live Aid concerts.Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder with Adam Levine

Stevie Wonder with Adam Levine

 

 

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Seafood Scandal in Society Hill

North side of Dock Street, between Front and Water Streets, November 5, 1955. (PhillyHistory.org)

North side, Dock Street between Front and Water Streets, November 5, 1955. (PhillyHistory.org)

All Don and Peggy Kleinschmidt wanted was a nice family dinner. The last thing they wanted was for their three-year-old son, Dale, to become the poster child in a frenzied food-tainting scandal.

On Tuesday March 24, 1959 Peggy went shopping at her local supermarket in Haddon Heights, New Jersey and arrived home with two pounds of flounder fillets. As her four children played nearby, Peggy unwrapped the fish, slathered it with breadcrumbs, salt, and pepper and set about cooking. Dale, the Kleinschmidt’s three-year-old, loved fish couldn’t wait. As soon as Peggy fried the first fillet, she gave it to him, with a glass of milk. Dale scarfed down his meal and ran off to visit with his grandmother, who lived nearby. The rest of the Kleinschmidt family then sat down to eat.

Almost immediately, Dale’s grandmother sensed something wrong. At first, she attributed it to Dale having missed his usual nap. But within a few minutes he was crying and vomiting. Then he started turning blue. The Kleinschmidts called their family physician, who arrived quickly. By the time the doctor arrived, according to an account of the incident, Dale Kleinschmidt was “lying on a chair with no detectable blood pressure, eyes rolled back, and absent reflexes.” By the time he arrived at Cooper Hospital in Camden, Dale was dead. And other family members were also suffering symptoms of food poisoning.

What could it be? “The fish didn’t taste quite right,” observed Don Kleinschmidt. But for more than 24 hours, no one knew for sure.

(PhillyHistory.org)

Northwest corner of Dock and Water Streets, November 5, 1955. (PhillyHistory.org)

The local police ordered the flounder removed from the supermarket fish counter. And as word spread, and reports came in, local, state and national health officials and the Food and Drug Administration investigated. The next morning, the Inquirer reported several women becoming ill after eating fillet of flounder “in a well-known restaurant in Philadelphia“. The city health department “issued a warning on a teletype service” that reached “newspapers, radio and televisions stations.” By 5 PM on Wednesday March 25th, every last radio announcer in the Philadelphia area cautioned: “All flounder purchased yesterday and today is poisonous.” Don’t eat it; Destroy it.

Throughout the city and suburbs, flounder-lovers crowded emergency rooms requesting antidotes and pleading to have their stomachs pumped. And the alarm spread up and down the East Coast. “Poisoned Fish Hits East; Baby Dies,” read one headline. “Boy’s Death Sparks Poison Food Search,” declared another.

Quickly, the investigation pointed to a single source, Dan DiOrio’s Universal Seafood Company, a fish processor at Water and Dock Streets on the Philadelphia waterfront. And investigators identified the additive that killed Dale Kleinschmidt: sodium nitrite.

But just as the warnings were going out, DiOrio himself stood in front of news cameras denying the fish industry “had or would use sodium nitrite.” And even after his firm was identified as the likely processor, DiOrio held firm to his denial: “sodium nitrate is not used in his plant operations.” DiOrio felt “just as sorry as anyone” about the loss of life.

At first, Food and Drug Administration District Director Robert C. Stanfill found nothing to contradict DiOrio’s repeated denials. But upon further investigation, Stanfill’s team found “evidence of nitrites … on the concrete floor, and on the cutting table.” Digging deeper, they traced several transactions. The day before Dale Kleinschmidt’s death, a nearby chemical supply house made “an early-morning delivery of 400-pounds of sodium nitrite” to DiOrio’s facility. He “personally authorized the order and personally accompanied” the clearly labeled drum “from the truck to the filleting room” where 1,800 pounds of fish that would kill one and sicken at least 40 others were treated.

Three-year old Dale Kleinschmidt died after consuming an estimated 460 milligrams of sodium nitrite, more than 2.5 times the amount that would  “induce hypotension, pallor, sweating, nausea, dizziness, and loss of consciousness” in an adult.

Dan DiOrio pleaded nolo contendre. Sentenced to a month in jail, and served 16 days and remained on probation for three years.

Burdened by scandal and lawsuits Universal Seafood soon closed.

 [Additional sources consulted: Thomas L. Singley, III,  M.D,  “Secondary Methemoglobinemia Due to the Adulteration of Fish with Sodium Nitrite,” Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 57, No. 5, November 1962; Obituary of Margaret Kleinschmidt, 1931-2008.]

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A Gorilla in the Gallery

German Society Building - Northwest Corner - Marshall and Spring Garden Streets, ca. 1890 (PhillyHistory.org)

German Society Building – Northwest Corner – Marshall and Spring Garden Streets, ca. 1890 (PhillyHistory.org)

There’s a lovely little installation about the German Society of Pennsylvania at the Philadelphia History Museum. In addition to books and manuscripts and steins and photographs and Revolutionary War pistols and Civil War swords, there’s an 800-pound gorilla. Unlike the other artifacts, the giant gorilla has no label.

The German Society of Pennsylvania has been around for 250 years, which means there’s plenty to say and to show—and plenty more that must be left out. But some chapters in history just can’t be left unwritten.

Sure, we must hear about the founding in 1764, when German settlers, feeling a need to circle the wagons, met for the first time in a charming Lutheran schoolhouse at 4th and Cherry Streets. (See the picture, below.) In the 19th century, Philadelphia’s German community built a serviceable place on 7th Street, just across from the Philadelphia History Museum. In 1888, a day after Christmas, the Society moved into the three-story palatial clubhouse by architect William Gette at 7th and Spring Garden Streets. The hope was to get closer to the heart of the booming Philadelphia-German community. After all, in 1890, 28 percent of the foreign-born Philadelphians were German. How German they would remain was the question.

Participation didn’t take off; in fact, membership would never again surpass 1,000, where it stood in the late 1870s. For the balance of the 19th century, the numbers would fall to as few as 700. By 1914, at the start of World War I, it dwindled to 624. By 1940 there were 411 members and in 1945, only 350. “With reduced membership contributions and low investment returns,” by the mid-20th century, according to Birte Pfleger in Ethnicity Matters: A History of the German Society of Pennsylvania, “the GSP was more or less ruined financially.”

Zion Lutheran School, 325 Cherry Street, May 1, 1859. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards. (PhillyHistory.org/Library Company of Philadelphia)

Zion Lutheran School, 325 Cherry Street, May 1, 1859. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards. (PhillyHistory.org/Library Company of Philadelphia)

Decimated membership was only a symptom. But of what? The story of the Society’s near demise was about something other than money.

What was it about? World War I. The rise of the Third Reich. World War II. Conflicted loyalties. Diplomatic disasters. Bombs thrown; board members attacked, detained, tried and even imprisoned. This was as toxic a stretch of time as an organization might ever encounter. It’s the 800-pound gorilla, essentially left untouched since 1944 when Harry W. Pfund’s History of the German Society of Pennsylvania referred to this time as the  organization’s “most tragic.” But instead of facing it head on, Pfund advocated a collective willingness “to bear this grief in silence.”

Except silence and history aren’t compatible. About sixty years after Pfund, Pfleger finally took a step to shed the long silence in a chapter entitled: “Hitler’s Shadow In Philadelphia: The GSP From The 1930s Through the 1960s.” (Download a pdf here.)

As mentioned last time, the 250th anniversary of German settlement Philadelphia coincided with Hitler’s rise in 1933. The society took five more years to publicly disavowal its Nazi sympathies and join with other German-American associations in Philadelphia to create the anti-Nazi German-American League of Culture.

In February 1938, only one month after the anti-Nazi declaration, the Society displayed a swastika flag at the Society’s annual charity ball. And a month after that, according to Pfleger, “as many as 1,500 German Americans gathered” at the Society’s building…to celebrate Hitler’s annexation of Austria.” Sigmund von Bosse, “a Lutheran pastor and prominent GSP leader, gave a rousing speech, and almost everyone in the audience gave him the Hitler salute at its conclusion.”

Old habits die hard. Old loyalties die harder.

For its library, the GSP had bought copies of Hitler’s speeches as early as 1924. They added Mein Kampf in 1930 and ordered “books by Joseph Goebbels and subscribed to pro-Nazi periodicals.” They acquired Julius Streicher’s “notoriously anti-Semitic weekly Der Sturmer,” and the SS publication Das Schwarze Korps. Nazi propaganda arrived “through the Volksbund fur das Deutschtum in Ausland (League for Germandom Abroad) and  whatever the Nazis published and sent abroad to their Volksdeutsche, ‘Germans outside of the Reich.’” All of it, and much more, was available in the reading room of the library at 7th and Spring Garden.

After the war, the Society finally became less German and more American. Meetings and programs were held in English, then the Society’s “official language.” As years passed, the scholarly range and value of the GSP’s library—more than 60,000 books—became increasingly apparent. After all, many books made rarer by wartime losses in Europe were here and accessible in Philadelphia. Something to be proud of.

What would become of the cache of Nazi literature?

In the post-war period, according to Pfleger, the German Society “decided to keep all Nazi periodicals and books in a dark and dirty storage room on the third floor of the building.” This closet, known as the “Giftschrank” or “poison cabinet” was a way to “bestow a general amnesia on the organization.”

An amnesia that, even as the Society presents its history, continues to this day.

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Monumental Complications in Germantown

Pastorius Monument, Vernon Park, Germantown, February 3, 1921. Julius Rosenberg, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

Pastorius Monument, Vernon Park, Germantown, February 3, 1921. Albert Jaegers, sculptor; Julius Rosenberg, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

German-Americans found 1933 to be a very tricky year. An elaborate 250th anniversary celebration of Philadelphia’s Germantown settlement would again converge at the Pastorius monument. And just as Philadelphians with German ties had done ever October since the 1880s, they celebrated German Day with marches, speeches and song. But for the 15,000 paying respects in 1933, the future loomed as large as the past.

Adolf Hitler had come to power.

For this German Day, Chancellor Hitler and President Hindenburg sent celebratory telegrams. And Ambassador Hans Luther had been invited to speak. But when Luther learned that the swastika flag wouldn’t be raised—a decision the German Society of Pennsylvania apologized for as lacking in “decency and tact”—he cancelled his appearance.

Exuberant and extravagant displays by German-Americans in Philadelphia had long generated large crowds, and overwhelming pride, and they also raised hackles. Back in 1891, an Inquirer editorial urged German Day participants to “keep the celebration an American one, as it ought to be kept.” They acknowledged “the tendency to make this celebration a German celebration is a natural tendency, but, as far as possible, ought to be resisted.”

But it wasn’t resisted.

If the Peter Muhlenberg statue dedicated in 1910 at City Hall evolved as an example of contested public art, the monument to Daniel Francis Pastorius in Vernon Park would become a flash point—even before it existed. At the 225th anniversary of Germantown’s settlement in 1908, 20,000 marched in a parade leading to the site joining another 30,000 already gathered to hear 800 “united voices” of Philadelphia’s German-American singing societies and speeches in both English and German. The crowd also witnessed the unveiling of a cornerstone for the newly-commissioned monument. But the unveiling of the finished monument would be delayed twelve years. First, the commission was taken from sculptor J. Otto Schweizers, and assigned to Albert Jaegers. Then one of Jaegers’ large panels cracked in transit. Finally, dedication was put off until after the First World War.

“A wise move,” agreed one editorial.

“The Protest of the Germans of Germantown Against Slavery on February 18, 1688,” Western facade of the Pastorius Monument in Vernon Park. Albert Jaegers, sculptor.

In 1920, when the public finally got to see the Pastorius monument, critics had a field day. Its regal figure, “Miss Civilization,” looked too much like traditional Germania and not enough like known allegories of “American Independence and Progress.” The Germantown Historical Society would advocate for its removal as “crude, gross and meaningless as art or history.” During World War II, the Pastorius monument was boxed in to again remove it from public view.

Meanwhile, Germany borrowed back the name for ”Operation Pastorius,” a plan to sabotage strategic American industrial sites, including at least one in Philadelphia.

In its appropriation and obfuscation of 17th-century Pastorius, the 20th century effectively forgot the historical figure’s actual contribution. The real Pastorius – the lawyer, poet and leader—was one of the most intelligent, talented and compassionate settlers in the New World—a quality Jaegers attempted to convey in one of the monument’s four panels.

In 1683, Pastorius and others followed the Quakers to Pennsylvania and even joined the Society of Friends, fully intending to create a colony where basic human rights were understood and respected. What they found was very different: a society accepting—and an economy based on—slavery. More than 175 years before the 13th Amendment, Pastorius and three other enlightened Germantowners composed a thorough and carefully reasoned protest and presented it to the Quaker leadership.

Interesting how a monument that’s been censored, delayed and boxed in to keep it out of the public eye becomes more potent when we become aware of the whole story.

[Sources consulted, all from The Philadelphia Inquirer, include: “The Celebration of German Day,” October 11,1891; “Bronze Tablet Will Honor Memory of German Pioneers in America To be Set into Corner-Stone,”  September 23, 1908; “50,000 See Unveiling at Vernon Park” October 7, 1908; “Pastorius Statue Design Accepted,” June 8, 1913; “The Germantown Monument,” April, 27, 1917;  “Monument Repaired,” June 30, 1920; “To Speed Acceptance of Pastorius Statue,” September 26, 1920.] 

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When Public Art Becomes a Hot Potato

City Hall Plaza - Muhlenberg Statue, January 10, 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

City Hall Plaza – Muhlenberg Statue, photographed January 10, 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

In a day of “impressive” and “picturesque” celebrations, and “probably the most elaborate demonstration ever undertaken by the Germans of this city, Philadelphians unveiled a monument to Major General Peter Muhlenberg, Colonial Preacher and Revolutionary hero, statesman and scholar, on the south plaza of City Hall.”

“Preceded by a monster parade,” with “detachments of marines from League Island, cadet corps, regiments of the National Guard of Pennsylvania and other military bodies, their arms and flags glistening in the sunlight, the ceremonies attracted more than thirty thousand persons as spectators.”

The highlight of the dedication on October 6, 1910 took place when orator, Judge William H. Staake, recalled the dramatic scene from 1776 in the Virginia country church. The Pennsylvania-born preacher, Peter Muhlenberg, in his customary black robe delivered what at first appeared “his usual Sunday sermon” concluding: “There is a time for all things. A time to preach and a time to fight. And now is a time to fight!” And with those words he removed his preachers’ gown—the same gown held aloft by Judge Staake as he related the account— to reveal an officers uniform. So inspiring was Muhlenberg’s transformation, the story goes, that he then and there recruited 300 troops for the American cause.

Heck of a story. But it’s not really true.

Peter Muhlenberg was a minister. And the gown is for real. And Muhlenberg did bid his congregation farewell before leaving to serve as an officer in Washington’s army. But an embellishing, enthusiastic descendant, Henry Augustus Muhlenberg, added his own hyperbole in 1849:

“A breathless stillness brooded over the congregation. Deliberately pulling off the gown, which had thus far covered his martial figure, [Muhlenberg] stood before them a girded warrior; and descending from the pulpit, ordered the drums at the church door to beat for recruits. …  His audience, excited in the highest degree by the impassioned words which had fallen from his lips, flocked around him, eager to be ranked among his followers. Old men were seen bringing forward their children, wives their husbands, and widowed mothers their sons, sending them under his paternal care to fight the battles of their country.”

Tablet on Muhlenberg Statue, January 10, 1913. (PhillyHistory.org)

Tablet on Muhlenberg Statue, photographed January 10, 1913. (PhillyHistory.org)

Originally popular among new German arrivals hoping to prove their patriotism, this account became known as the “Muhlenberg Myth” to be adopted and defended or mocked and debunked. The provocatively titled Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History dissected and disproved the story. In 2007, PBS’s History Detectives produced a segment confirming its myth status.

For reasons other than historical inaccuracy—and other than the rising queasiness celebrating a German-American War Hero in the midst of America’s engagement in the First World War—city officials removed J. Otto Schweizer’s Muhlenberg statue within a few years of the unveiling. This and other statues (John Christian Bullitt, Joseph Leidy, Stephen Girard and President William McKinley) were in the way of the Broad Street Subway construction project.

“Anti-German sentiment does not enter into the removal of the Peter Muhlenberg statue, read the Inquirer headline on October 10, 1918, the day after the statue’s departure. “There is enough hysteria going the rounds, without our adding to it,” offered a city official. The plaza around City Hall “seems to have been a favorite dumping ground for statues in the past, but we expect to use them now to adorn our Parkway” or perhaps “along the new road to Hog Island” where U.S. Naval ships were being launched as fast as they were built. That location might be a “fitting place” for Muhlenberg, the official suggested. After all, wouldn’t “the likeness of that famous German who fought in the Revolutionary War… inspire Hog Islanders and other Americans to make greater efforts to defeat the Germans?”

Sounds more like exile.

The war years proved difficult for many German-Americans and for German-American statuary in Philadelphia. Only one year earlier, the installation of a long-planned statue honoring Francis Daniel Pastorius, one of the founders of Germantown, had been postponed indefinitely. That artwork remained in storage until the war faded into memory.

As it turned out, Major General Peter Muhlenberg wasn’t exiled to Hog Island. His statue appeared for a time on Reyburn Plaza until the construction of the Municipal Services Building began in 1961. It remained in storage before landing at its current—and perhaps final location—behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[Sources from the Inquirer include: “Monster Parade Precedes Unveiling at City Hall,” October 7, 1910; “Would Move Statues - Mayor Favors Placing Plaza Memorials on Parkway,” July 13, 1916; “Muhlenburg Removal Not Anti-German Act,” May 10, 1918.]

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