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.

But 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.

caption

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 added 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 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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Taming the Fight in Philadelphia Firefighting

Caption

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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

 

 

Posted in Entertainment, Snapshots of History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.]

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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.] 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.]

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s a Gas! Mayor Dilworth Extinguishes Philadelphia’s Last Municipal Gas Streetlight

Richardson Dilworth extinguishing gas lamp 4.1959 46th and Osage.ashx

Mayor Richardson Dilworth extinguishing the last gas lamp in Philadelphia on April 15, 1959. Location: 45th Street and Osage Avenue.

On April 15, 1959, Mayor Richardson Dilworth, resplendent in a three piece suit, mounted a ladder and extinguished Philadelphia’s last gas streetlight.  The frilly fixture, dating from the early 1900s, was located at 45th and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.

Residents smiled and applauded, glad that this vestige of the Victorian era was gone.  In postwar Philadelphia, there was little room for Gilded Age nostalgia. The city had suffered greatly since the stock market crash of 1929.  Streets were crumbling, water and gas mains constantly breaking, and the housing stock dilapidated and overcrowded.  Federal money was flooding into the city, and government officials were happy to use it to tear down the old and build anew, especially new housing developments and highways.  Dilworth was also planning the revitalization of the 18th century fabric of Society Hill, arguably the first residential historic preservation initiative in a major American city.  Under city planner Edmund Bacon’s supervision, Society Hill’s streets would be marked by lampposts modeled on those from the Early Republic, only lit by electricity.

When it was first introduced in the mid-19th century, however, gas lighting was on the cutting edge of technology.  Before gas, whale oil candles provided the best source of light after dusk, especially those made from the precious “spermaceti” oil found in the heads of sperm whales. In their relentless, around the world pursuit of home lighting fuel and industrial lubricants, the men of Nantucket and New Bedford hunted many species of whales to the brink of extinction.

Mayor Joseph Sill Clark introduces the 1950s documentary “Philadelphia: Our Changing City.”

Unlike natural gas, coal gas is manufactured rather than drilled, the byproduct of the so-called coking process, in which bituminous coal is “destructively distilled” in beehive ovens into a porous, low-sulfur product in a process similar to how charcoal is created from wood.   Coke became the essential fuel in iron and steel production, which was why the “steel king” Andrew Carnegie of Pittsburgh went into a star-crossed business partnership with the “coke king” Henry Clay Frick.  A harsh, uncompromising, and utterly humorless man, Frick did not much think of his workers.  After a public row with Carnegie following the Homestead Strike of 1892, Frick — who had survived an assassination attempt — supposedly wrote his cheery, library-building former partner, “Tell him I’ll meet him in Hell.”

Coke_burning

A depiction of the coke process from 1879, showing rows of beehive ovens used to distill coal into coke. Source: Wikipedia.

Mining and coking coal it was a brutal business — conditions were appalling, deadly, and completely unregulated.  Yet coal its byproducts built many a great Philadelphia family fortune. It was the energy boom of the 19th century, and formed one part of what social historian Nathaniel Burt called the “iron triangle” of Philadelphia’s industrial economy: iron, coal, and railroads. Some business owners became increasingly intransigent as labor unrest festered.  As George Baer, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad put it when the miners went on strike in 1902:

“The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of this country.”

Such language made President Theodore Roosevelt foam at the mouth, and caused Baer to be called “Divine Right” George behind his back.

For most of the 19th century, Philadelphia’s middle and upper class families illuminates their homes from top to bottom with coal gas, which came from mains under the streets and piped directly into houses. Each sconce had to be lit manually, and chandeliers had to be lowered from the ceiling using a weighted pulley.  If gas offered relatively convenience compared to the candles of the past: it did have one significant drawback: the quality of the light.  Rather than the warm glow of whale oil candles, the light from gas sconces and chandeliers  had a rather grayish, ghostly hue. Many women of the era disliked how they looked at a gaslit ball or house party.  And if a gas flame flickered out while the valve was still on, the occupants of a house could be asphyxiated in their sleep.

A look inside a gas lit home.

By the 1880s, however, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb had arrived, and those that had the means ripped open the walls of their homes and installed electric wiring.  The discovery of petroleum in Western Pennsylvania in 1859 led to another energy boom, as kerosene became a preferred home lighting fuel, especially in smaller communities that did not have a gas works. Yet coal gas continued to light Philadelphia homes well into the twentieth century.

The United Gas Improvement Company, a trust created in 1882 by streetcar magnate and developer Peter Arrell Brown Widener and his cronies, held a near-monopoly of the city’s gas business for many years, and wielded vast power in City Hall. Photograph of suburban West Philadelphia in the 1910s shows upper-middle class housing developments following the gas lines westward into what was previously bucolic farmland. The gas lights may be gone, but to this day, many old Philadelphia homes still have gas lighting lines buried behind their plaster walls.  Then as now, the source of our home energy is usually kept out of sight, and out of mind. 

Gas Lamps 46 and Larchwood 1.14.1913 ii.ashx

The intersection of 46th Street and Larchwood Avenue, looking west, January 14, 1913. The large twin houses on the left were completed only a few years earlier. Note the newly installed street gas lamps.

Sources:

Mary L. Knapp, An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65 (New York, NY: Girandole Books, 2012), pp.48-49.

Les Standiford, “Excerpt: Meet You In Hell,” NPR Books, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4717704

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Who will put the ball in motion?”

Teachers Examination - Recreation Center - 26th and Jefferson Streets, April 1, 1930. Photograph by Charles L. Howell. (PhillyHistory.org)

Teachers Examination at the [Athletic] Recreation Center, 26th and Jefferson Streets,
April 1, 1930. Photograph by Charles L. Howell. (PhillyHistory.org)

In their very first season, the Pythians proved themselves on the fields of Philadelphia, Camden, West Chester and Harrisburg. Later that same year—1867—when the National Association of Base Ball Players met in Philadelphia, the Pythians applied for membership and soon heard the unanimous decision: “Any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons” could not join. And so, this all-African-American team led by Octavius Catto, would be excluded from organized baseball.

The decision didn’t sit well with baseball organizer, journalist and reformer Thomas Fitzgerald. As mentioned in a recent post, at the start of the 1869 season Fitzgerald proposed going “against the rules” and called for “a game between one of our white clubs and the Pythians.”

“Who will put the ball in motion?” he challenged.

Working out the details took most of the season, but the Pythians and the Olympics arranged to play and Fitzgerald agreed to serve as umpire on September 3, 1869 at Jefferson Street Ball Park.

“Perhaps the first base ball game of the kind was played yesterday afternoon at Twenty-fifth and Jefferson streets reported the Inquirer. The Pythians “acquitted themselves in a very creditable manner, especially their outfielders, who made several very fine catches.” The crowd was one of the largest that has been on those grounds for years…”

“A Novel Game in Philadelphia—A Negro Club in the Field…” read a page-one headline in The New York Times. “The novelty of the affair drew an immense crowd of people, it being the first game played between a white and a colored club.” Word of this “novelty” spread as far as Utah.

The game between the Pythians and the Olympics was, it turned out, curiously off kilter.

Above: Olympic vs. Pythian, September 3, 1869.  Below: The Boston-Athletic Game April 22, 1876.

Two Historic Firsts
Above: Olympic vs. Pythian, September 3, 1869.
Below: Boston Red Caps vs. Philadelphia Athletics, April 22, 1876.

The Pythian strategy was to not challenge any calls. The Olympics, on the other hand, didn’t hold back at all. And by the third inning, when the Olympics scored 14, including two home runs, the tone of the game was set. According to the Inquirer, the Pythians then suffered “their first whitewash, their men going out in rapid succession.” They held up better in the fourth inning, when the Pythians scored one more run than did the Olympics. And, “to the astonishment of all,” according to the Inquirer, “the whites were treated to a blank” in the 7th inning.” But the Pythians were only able to add four runs during their turn at bat. And they went scoreless in the 8th. In the final inning, the Pythians made “a desperate effort…to reduce the disparity” but only came up with two more runs than did the Olympics.

The Olympics defeated the Pythians in that game, 44 to 23.

A few weeks later, Fitzgerald’s white team from The City Item played the Pythians at another field on Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore) near 17th. That game the Pythians won, 27–17.

The New York Clipper appreciated the breakthrough, but worried about the showmanship. “The prejudices of race are rapidly disappearing.” First “we chronicled a game between the Pythian (colored) and Olympics (white) clubs, of Philadelphia. This affair was a great success, financially and otherwise.” They noted the second game with The City Item and a third between white and black teams in Washington, D.C. But there’s more to baseball than displays of inter-racial gamesmanship, suggested the writer from Brooklyn. ”The Unique Club, of Williamsburgh, composed of colored gentlemen, is anxious to get on a match with the Pythians. What say the Quakerdelphians?”

27th and Master (Google)

The Historic Field, from 27th and Master Streets (Google Street View)

As Jerrold Casway points out, the field where the Pythians and the Olympics met in 1869 could, in its earliest years, be described as fitting into the angle of two country roads: Turners Lane and Mineral (or Market) Street. By the 1870s, these roads disappeared, giving way to the city’s ever-expanding grid. We may not be able to know the exact, original location of home plate, but one thing is for sure: the Jefferson Street Grounds (as it was first known) or Athletic Field (at it became known for the team that made its home there) or the Athletic Recreation Center (so named in the early 20th century) has been a baseball venue since May of 1864—more than 150 years. Is there a field with a more venerable vintage?

And there’s more: On April 22nd and 24th 1876 the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Caps played two games there. (Boston won the first, 6 to 5: Philadelphia won the second, 20-3.) The former was the first game of the National League played in Philadelphia, and, thanks to rainy weather elsewhere, the first National League game played anywhere.

Is there a historical place with more awesome associations?

Walking the field today, we ask: Is there a reason this place is so understated? Now that we know a few of its secrets, the field itself is stirring. But there’s nothing to remind, to inspire or to help us celebrate: no historical marker, no public art, no mural, no monument. Shouldn’t we make something more of this place? It’s time to again challenge ourselves with the big questions:

“What say the Quakerdelphians?”

“Who will put the ball in motion?”

[Sources include: “Base Ball - Olympic vs. Pythian,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 4, 1869;  “A Novel Game in Philadelphia,” The New York Times, Sunday September 5, 1869; “White vs. Colored Clubs,” New York Clipper, September 25, 1869; “The Boston-Athletic Game,” The Philadelphia Inquirer; April 24, 1876; and “Athletics vs. Boston—The Latter Badly Whipped,” The Philadelphia Inquirer; April 25, 1876.]

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment