Listening to Lipchitz

 © Assoc for Public Art

Jacques Lipchitz, sculptor. “Government of the People,” 1976. (© Association for Public Art)

Jacques Lipchitz, sculptor. "Spirit of Enterprise," 1961. (PhillyHistory.org)

Jacques Lipchitz, sculptor. “The Spirit of Enterprise,” 1960. (PhillyHistory.org)

Ask Jacques Lipchitz to share his views on art. His response is curious. “You can’t verbalize art. I think when you start to do that you lose exactly your impact, because art is born from darkness, and if you start to clarify it, it goes away.”

Ask The Master about “freedom of expression” and he takes us down another interesting rabbit hole: “The important thing, you see, is to acquire some kind of a freedom in expression. And if you know something it becomes very difficult. Freedom is not given to us.  We have to conquer it, we have to conquer it by fighting, by working, very hard, and then a little bit more freedom comes every time. You know you are more free… and you have to learn how to be free. You have to let everything what is unknown, because what we know is very little… So these unknown forces you have to let them work for you. And, first of all, you have to be able to catch them. You know that’s the technique you learn. Things are coming, coming, you don’t know what it is, but you have to have a net to catch them. Then you have is see what it is, what you can use. You understand? That’s freedom for an artist. Because he works with things which are absolutely mysterious for him, unknown.  What he knows is very little.”

And when an artist does know something? “Rodin was telling that you have to know anatomy, but when you are working you have to forget about it.  It’s not easy to forget.  If you learn it, it’s with you. But relative freedom can be conquered; that comes only with age.  So as soon as you have freedom, everything changes for you. All your views are changed.”

At the end of his life, Lipchitz created a few monumental artworks. “Government of the People” is one of them, just across from City Hall.

“It was the architect Kling from Philadelphia who came to me and proposed to me this job. You know In Philadelphia I was very well known because the museum had a lot of pieces of mine, the Barnes collection, etc. and so I was somehow…the chosen son…I was the pet sculptor of Philadelphia. And so they came to me and of course I was very happy to do the job, because it’s a very responsible job. Kling built an annex to the municipal building, a modern…with a big plaza and he wanted to have me to make this sculpture for the plaza. It’s a very difficult thing because so many styles of arch are around. You know, the Municipal building of Philadelphia…is very interesting architecture, end of 19th century French architecture, a mixture of all these styles. And beside this you have this church with a steeple. And then you have a kind of a Masonic Temple, which is a mixture of all kinds of styles. It’s very different styles all around…”

Lipchitz died three years before the installation of “Government of the People” in 1976. But his recorded voice, Penny Bach tells us, echoed through the plaza at its dedication. “I believe in the capacities and potentialities of the human being,” proclaimed the sculptor, “and I would like the exalt them in every one of my works.”

Today, that and any of Lipchitz’s many other quips, quotes, anecdotes and advice can be heard, thanks to the internet. But what we’d really like to hear are the sculptor’s words bouncing, once again, off the facades of Center City, when and where they will really mean something. As luck would have it, the opportunity isn’t very far off. In a few months, when the new conservation project to clean and wax the “Government of the People” is complete, why not invite Lipchitz to its re-dedication? He never was at a loss for words worth listening to. And more than forty years after his death, he still isn’t.

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How Jacques Lipchitz Cheated Death

Jacques Lipchitz, Prometheus Strangling the Vulture, The Philadelphia Museum of Art,

Jacques Lipchitz, Prometheus Strangling the Vulture, 1953. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, (PhillyHistory.org)

“If Jacques Lipchitz is not the most overrated sculptor of the twentieth century,” sniped art historian Barbara Rose, “he is certainly in the running.” It was 1972 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective, Jacques Lipchitz: His Life in Sculpture seemed “to go on endlessly,” for Rose. Like so many “miles of stuffed kishka,” all the sculptor’s “bulges, lumps, nodules and protrusions” left her with “a bad case of esthetic indigestion.”

There had been a time when such words would have devastated Lipchitz. But the elder artist—Lipchitz turned 80 the year before—had learned long before even the most damning critical reviews had value. When starting out in Paris, another critic had written: “We have a newcomer by the name of Jacques Lipchitz, who is very promising, but [his artwork] looks too much like that of [Charles] Despiau.” Lipchitz hadn’t studied with Despiau and, in fact, had never even seen his work. Telling an older friend of this “injustice,” Lipchitz heard back: “My boy if you get such criticism every day for a year’s time, you will be famous.”

And so it was. By 1972, even through her indigestion, Rose admitted Lipchitz was “widely considered a major artist.” His role in the development of modernism had been undeniable. Lipchitz had seen the salons of Paris in the 1910s and 1920s. He had forged the avant garde with friends and acquaintances including Constantin Brancusi, Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau, André Derain, Ernest Hemingway, Max Jacob, Le Corbusier, James Joyce, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Juan Gris, Amedeo Modigliani and Chaim Soutine. He socialized with and sculpted Gertrude Stein. He sold his art to Albert Barnes.

To television producer Bruce Bassett, who had met the artist in 1967, Lipchitz’ life was a heck of a story, one worth telling in a documentary, but even more. “I wanted to share him with the future,” wrote Bassett in an unpublished essay, My Life with Jacques Lipchitz. “And since I was in media, I began to think of a way of doing it. One way was to do a film [Portrait of an Artist: Jacques Lipchitz] which ran on PBS. But what about the rest of the material? Another 400 hours was going to go on the shelf, and no one would see it.” Bassett envisioned “a machine,” a computer, that would allow Lipchitz to interact “with future audiences about his work, his ideas…”

He talked over the project with the artist. “There is a new machine coming,” said Bassett. “It is not here yet, Jacques, but it will be. I am conceiving your life as a mosaic of experiences. Each chip might represent a sculpture you created, pieces you collected, your relationships with your fellow artists, the tension in Europe that you survived, changes in the direction of your work, et cetera. Our new machine would instantaneously match people’s questions to the appropriate chips of your story. Our machine would make it possible for people to talk to our mosaic of your life.”

Jacques Lipchitz, Spirit of Enterprise,  The Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial, Kelly Drive, July 3, 1961. (PhillyHistory.org)

Jacques Lipchitz, The Spirit of Enterprise, 1960. The Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial, Kelly Drive, July 3, 1961. (PhillyHistory.org)

The idea “intrigued” Lipchitz, who, in his day, was no stranger to the cutting edge. “When we first came to Paris early in the century,” he responded to Bassett,” we looked around to see what was…happening in other fields. It was the machine age. Man was flying. … God did not give man wings on which he could fly, but man through his imagination found a way. … So we artists had to create monsters. But we had to create them so well that if Mother Nature looked over our shoulder to see what we were doing, she could say, ‘Look what man had gone off and done! He is cutting himself from my apron-strings to assume his own special adolescence.’”

The interviews, hundreds of hours of them, were completed not long after Lipchitz’s 80th birthday in 1971, just in time to include in the Metropolitan retrospective. The museum created “a special educational installation that makes use of the most up-to-date audio visual techniques.” Sculptures were “accompanied by Mr. Lipchitz’s own words, telling the story behind their creation, their place in the evolution of his style, and the ideas that inspired them.”

Critic Barbara Rose found the mix of artwork and video far from inspiring. As she saw it, the Met had concocted “some ghastly media experiment, ill-advisedly funded by IBM,” where “television sets with The Master in living color expounding on his art” littered the galleries. Rose found “the voice of Lipchitz resounding thought the show…an idiotic distraction.”

Lipchitz died the following May and Bassett spent the rest of his own life—he died in 2009—searching for a museum or a broadcaster to embrace his and Lipchitz’s creation. As computing evolved and the Internet grew up, the project seemed less futuristic and more plausible. Finally, in 2012, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, with its own collection of 153 Lipchitz sculptures, mounted what Bassett and Lipchitz had envisioned more than four decades before.

Go ahead. Ask Jacques Lipchitz a question. There’s nearly no end to the stories he’s ready to share with you.

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Balancing the Books for John Moran, Art Photographer

John Moran, photographer. "Nos. 114 & 116 N. Water St., 1868," (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

John Moran, photographer. “Nos. 114 & 116 N. Water St., 1868,” (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Despite John Moran’s best efforts, Mary Panzer told us, his “photographs were never considered to be art. His audience believed that art was historical and made by hand, whereas Photography was scientific and made by machine. In 1903, the year Moran died, Alfred Steiglitz won the battle to establish photography as a fine art, but by that time, Moran’s work was long forgotten, shelved as topography by the same audience who believed Moby Dick was a book about whales.”

What did they say about Moran, the photographer in a family of painters? His brief New York Times obituary confirmed Moran’s role as “one of the pioneer photographers of this country” but instead of crediting him with American art photography, it noted his role as chief photographer in “the work of the Coast Survey” and his having “made the first pictures of the original route of the Panama Canal” in 1871. It mentioned his participation in the federal expedition to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. And it mentioned his abandonment of photography and his turn, late in life, to landscape painting.

In 1865, when Alfred Steiglitz was in still in diapers, Moran had connected the ideas of photography and art. In February of that year, he addressed the Philadelphia Photographic Society on “The Relation of Photography to the Fine Arts,” declaring that photography “speaks the same language, and addresses the same sentiments.” Moran noted the need for the photographer’s “perceiving mind to note and feel the relative degrees of importance in the various aspects which nature presents.” Without that, “nothing worthy of the name of pictures can be produced.”

Moran had collected his small landscapes made in and around Philadelphia in the early 1860s and became known as “a young Nature artist.” In fact, he would make aesthetic choices with everything he touched. During the Civil War, Moran’s photographs of the Mower General Hospital were more than a record, they were expressive, lush and rich. By the end of the decade, images he and brother Thomas made in the Wissahickon Valley helped inspire the city of Philadelphia to add it to the expanding Fairmount Park.

In the late 1860s, Moran put his ideas of to work on the streets of historic Philadelphia. He searched for scenes that re-framed the past as an aesthetic, not merely as anecdote. At a time of great growth, massive industrialization and diminishing history, Moran relished the textures and sensibilities of the city’s oldest streets and alleys. Between 1867 and 1870, he and his 6-by-9-inch wet-plate camera and wooden tripod were picture-making fixtures. Again and again, Moran blocked out the modern and focused in on the past, offering it renewed life. The results were compelling. Moran mounted 78 of his prints in an album entitled A Collection of Photographic Views in Philadelphia & its Vicinity and sold it to the Library Company of Philadelphia. Their accession book confirms the purchase from “John Moran, artist.”

John Moran, photographer, "Water St. below Vine, 1868" (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

John Moran, photographer, “Water St. below Vine, 1868″ (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

There’s a goodly stash of Moran prints from this series at the Free Library Print Department and at PhillyHistory.org. The two gems illustrated here are only a tip of the iceberg. In one small part of town now-long obliterated by I-95 Moran photographed Queen Street, Swanson Street at Christian and the “Ship Joiner” shop at 757 Swanson.

In all, Moran probably made as many as 100 views of the city in the late 1860s. But that was it. He would soon be drawn into the life of an expedition photographer for the federal government. By the time he returned to Philadelphia, Moran’s ideas about art had been tested and his confidence was even more firm. In June and again in October of 1875, Moran shared with his colleagues at the Photographic Society his “Thoughts on Art Nature and Photography” and his “Reflections on Art.”

The photographer has “the power to see the beautiful,” declared Moran (his remarks appeared in The Philadelphia Photographer) but “good work cannot be produced unless the workman has the instincts, feelings and education akin to those of the artist.” The best photographs are “quickened to life by their own spirit and intelligence…speaking the universal language of art.” As “a realistic art” photography “is a translator…and we, the translators, ought to look to it that we take noble themes, not false and artificial subjects…” Moran observed: “art in all its forms if the form of thought, and the photographic work that rises to this plane, is the expression of the photographer.”

So, how is Moran’s “discovery” of expression in photography accounted for today? One measure, of course, is the art marketplace. A few years ago, Christie’s auction house sold a Moran of the Bank of Pennsylvania. Never mind that the cataloger misidentified the scene as construction (it’s a demolition). The sale, $32,000, broke the record for a Moran.

How does this compare with Stieglitz? At recent Christie’s sales, six Stieglitz prints fetched more than $200,000 each. The priciest of these, was a view from the back window of the 291 gallery, the place where Stieglitz successfully promoted photography as art. That print brought $363,750, more than ten times what Moran’s did, but hardly a record. “Top Stieglitz photographs have sold for more than $1 million,” shrugged The Wall Street Journal.

Looks like it’ll be a while before the books of photographic history get balanced properly.

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Philadelphia’s Sears Tower

When Americans are asked about the Sears Tower, they normally call to mind the recently renamed Willis Tower in Chicago, Illinois. However, if asked about a Sears Tower when in Philadelphia, you’re likely to get a different answer. In Northeast Philadelphia, where Adams Avenue meets Roosevelt Boulevard, the 14-story Sears clock tower stood for over 70 years.

Sears visible from Roosevelt Boulevard.

Sears visible from Roosevelt Boulevard.

Side of Sears building

Side of Sears building with the bottom section of tower visible.

In the 1900s, the Sears, Roebuck & Co. was still growing rapidly in the United States. With the company’s need to expand eastward from Chicago, Philadelphia was highlighted as a possible location for one of their mail-order houses and plants. With the city’s important railroad access, the Northeast Philadelphia section, along Roosevelt Boulevard was chosen as a location.

From 1919 to 1920, Sears, Roebuck & Co. constructed a large complex that consisted of a large 9-story building that included a 14-story clock tower. The neo-Gothic brick building was designed by George C. Nimmons, a Chicago-area architect who had worked for Sears, Roebuck & Co. previously, even designing the company president’s home.

The building opened October 18, 1920 even though parts of it were still unfinished. This was just one of the companies allowing the Northeast section of Philadelphia to grow. However, even with the success of the Roosevelt Boulevard building, the overall decline of mail-order shopping prompted the company to open up a nearby retail store there just a few years later, in 1925. It wouldn’t be the company’s only expansion as Sears would also add on an administration building and a power plant. They even paid for a miniature of their building, with its famous clock tower, to be constructed as a firehouse on a nearby block.

Engine Company Number 70 on 4800 Langdon Street.

Engine Company Number 70 on 4800 Langdon Street.

Through most of the 20th century, the Sears complex was a popular and well-known landmark in Northeast Philadelphia, It employed thousands of workers from the surrounding neighborhoods. In the 1960s, the area, still a popular hub, even had a subway station constructed. Although it was meant to be connected to the Broad Street Line, the plan never went through. Unfortunately, in the 1980s and 1990s, sales decreased and the building with its iconic tower was sold in 1993.

On October 31, 1994, the Sears Tower was imploded. It barely took 7 seconds for the building to go down, as seen in the 6ABC news broadcast from that day. 

 

With a 14-story tower and over 25 million square feet, the implosion was set to be the largest of its time.  Hundreds of Philadelphia residents came to watch as over 70 years of history was brought down in 7 seconds.

Today, the area is home to a shopping center full of different chain stores. However, it is also still home to the Sears power plant, which was visible in the above video and not imploded. Currently, the power plant building is not being utilized other than Home Depot advertising its logo on the smokestack. The power plant and the aforementioned firehouse are the only Sears buildings remaining in the area.

 

Miller, Bill. (1988, May 15). The Sears Tower. The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sitton, Lea. 1994, October 24. An Explosive Finale For Giant Sears A Landmark Will Go As It Came: In Record-setting Fashion. The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Phila PA Chronicles – Keeping Time By Sears Clocktower

 

 

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It All Comes Down to “Yo!”

Caption (PhillyHistory.org)

Pretzel Vendor, Stetson Junior High School, 3200 B Street, October 22, 1934. (PhillyHistory.org)

In the time before traffic, air conditioners, leaf blowers and the irritating like, the city’s streets were full of cries. Not cries for help, but calls of peddlers selling (in summer) peaches, watermelons, and ice cream and (during the cooler months) pepper pot soup, hot muffins and split wood.

Pretzels, of course, were sold all year round.

One 19th century observer admittedly “astonished at the variety of noises which assail his ears on every side” celebrated “the bawling cries of all sorts of petty traders and jobbers” in a fine, illustrated book. That was in 1850. Seventy years later, Kate Rowland worried about the “passing away of the old Philadelphia street criers,” and collected dozens which she “performed” at a meeting of the Philadelphia City History Society. Rowland demonstrated the city still had vendors with traditions, tireless lungs and occasional musical ability. From the publication that followed, we know the proper intonation for “Pretzels!,” as well as that for potatoes, strawberries, cherries, shad, cat fish, lavender, sweet corn, hominy cakes, umbrellas, brooms and soft soap, among many other goods and services.

Pretzels from Rowland

From Street Cries of Philadelphia, by Mrs. A. J. Rowland,Philadelphia City History Society, 1922. (Private collection.)

Philadelphia street culture at its best, you might say. Even though “Yo!” was conspicuously absent.

Where are we today with our street cry tradition? You might say it all comes down to that one generic expression—“Yo!”—a pronouncement powerful enough to go up against today’s traffic noise and flexible enough to mean whatever one might intend. Today, “Yo!” seems to work just about anywhere and is made to work for just about anything.

“Yo!” came into this world as an abbreviation of “gualione” which means “young man” or “kid” in Italian dialect. A Neopolitan song titled Gualione was a hit in the 1950s, especially Perez Prado’s excellent Mambo version.

If Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang can be believed, “gualione” was shortened to “walyo.” “Yo!” wasn’t far behind. In the 1970s, we witnessed “Yo’s” Rocky road from South Philadelphia to Hollywood. And more recently, it’s been adopted as Jesse Pinkman meta catchphrase.

But propelled by the media, “Yo!” forgot its roots.

In 1993, New York claimed as their own this “short and sweet” greeting and had the temerity to even suggest “there is no yo in Philadelphia.” What the writer really meant to say was “Philadelphia, once again, has provided the world with something of great value.”

The recent launch of a free app of the same name (available on iTunes) once again makes clear that this strong, accessible, and possibly elegant utterance has morphed, as the Yo people put it: into “the simplest & most efficient communication tool in the world.” At least that’s what their investors, who extended their faith to the tune of $1 million, fervently hope.

Thanks to this start up now based in San Francisco, what started on the streets of Philly is now, everywhere and is everyone’s. Not only is Yo (the app) available in English, it’s also offered in Arabic, Bokmål, Norwegian, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Traditional Chinese, Turkish, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.

What is there for a Philadelphian to say?

“You’re welcome” would be about right.

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Dog Days of Philadelphia

The majority of PhillyHistory.org photographs come from City of Philadelphia employees who were just doing their daily job to document the city, construction sites, and events. However, and luckily for us, they often captured the daily life of Philadelphia citizens. For the purpose of this blog entry and in honor of us being in the midst of the dog days of summer, we’ll focus on the furry, four-legged citizens. Here are a few times that dogs have gotten in the way of city officials. Of course, the leash law wasn’t added to the City of Philadelphia code until 1986 so these dogs were well within their rights to be wandering around their neighborhoods.

 

1957 - Dog in front of alleyway between Van Pelt and 22nd Streets.

1957 – Dog in front of alleyway between Van Pelt and 22nd Streets.

1957 - Dog behind the Manayunk Canal lock tender's house.

1957 – Dog behind the Manayunk Canal lock tender’s house.

1900 - A dog in front of Head House at 2nd and Pine.

1900 – A dog in front of Head House at 2nd and Pine.

1964 - Two girls and a dog on 2nd Street.

1964 – Two girls and a dog on 2nd Street.

1950 - Dog on alert.

1950 – Dog on alert.

1950 - Solly and Bustleton Avenues.

1950 – Solly and Bustleton Avenues.

1950 - A boy and a puppy sit on the curb in the July heat.

1950 – A boy and a puppy sit on the curb in the July heat.

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Stenton Park: Green, Historic and Minutes Away

Stenton Park. House in Stenton Park, April 12, 1910. (PhillyHistory.org)

Stenton Park. House in Stenton Park, April 12, 1910. (PhillyHistory.org)

James Logan needed to get out of town. At forty, William Penn’s secretary had grown “heartily out of love with the world.” Planning his escape, Logan bought 500 acres five miles from the center of Philadelphia. In a retreat built in the 1720s, this “bookman extraordinary,” (he amassed a library of astronomy, mathematics, physics, linguistics, botany, history and the Greek and Latin classics) would get some serious time to read, to reflect and, finally, some peace and quiet.

Despite Logan’s Quaker restraint, “Stenton” would become one of the most genteel homes in the colonies.

The place stayed in family hands for the better part of two centuries. In 1899, the Logan family offered The Society of Colonial Dames “the privilege of restoring and preserving the fine old house as a historic memorial” if they’d also cover the annual taxes. The Dames agreed. And this arrangement proved workable for a dozen years, before the family sold the house and property to the City.

What would become of the house and grounds, which was now in the center of a fast growing neighborhood of rowhouses, mills and factories?

(PhillyHistory)

Park Extension – As Suggested in Comprehensive Plans, 1911, indicating Stenton Park. (PhillyHistory)

As one of two dozen green, open spaces remaining in the built-up sections of Philadelphia, the City Parks Association proposed that “Stenton” be included in a network of spaces and boulevards knitting the growing city together. These small parks in neighborhoods, totaling about 130 acres, would offer breathing room for everyone, but especially, as advocates put it, for “children who have no place except the dirty streets to roam in…”

That might be a solution for the open space, but what would become of “the most perfect colonial building in America” where the Dames had spent more than $2,500 (equal to more than $60,000 today) for restoration and had been committed to an additional $800 per year (more than $19,000 today) for ongoing maintenance?

In 1910, a City ordinance gave permanent “custody and control” of “Stenton” to the Society of the Colonial Dames” who were to maintain the buildings “in their original condition as historic object lessons”—exactly what they had been doing over a decade of stewardship. Today, more than a century later, the Society still preserves and still interprets. (Earlier this year, they issued a new and informative 64-page guidebook: Stenton: A Visitor’s Guide to the Site, History and Collections.)

The 8-minute walk from SEPTA's Wayne Junction Station (Google)

The 8-minute walk from SEPTA’s Wayne Junction Station (Google)

There’s nothing like a good book (or guidebook), especially at a place designed for reading, unless, of course, it’s a visit to the real thing. This Friday, July 4th, provides the opportunity. Stenton’s Independence Day Celebration begins at 11:30 and continues to 1:30. It’s free, and RSVPs are requested: call 215-329-7312 or email programs@stenton.org.

Never been to “Stenton”? Getting to 18th and Courtland is more convenient than you’d think. The nearby Wayne Junction Station (itself recently restored and listed on The National Register of Historic Places) serves five regional rail lines, two bus routes and a trackless trolley. Even better: it’s only two stops (about 10 minutes) from SEPTA’s Market East Station, the station nearest the Liberty Bell. And from the Wayne Junction Station, it’s an 8-minute walk to a place of history, books, and on the Fourth, free hot dogs and ice cream.

(Sources include: “The Demand for Parks.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 3, 1895 and “City Ordinances,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 4, 1910.)

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Elfreth’s Alley

On Market Street, between 5th and 6th Streets and next to the Independence Visitor Center, there are plaques on the sidewalk dedicated to the families, artisans, and businesses who had shops on that very block during the 18th century. However, a mere ten minutes walk from that location, visitors are not only able to get similar historical information, but they’re also able to view the still-standing colonial houses which have been on the same alley since as early as 1728.

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Elfreth’s Alley in 1910

Elfreth’s Alley maintains the claim of being the oldest residential street in the United States. It dates back to 1702 when two blacksmiths surrendered portions of their land in order to create an alleyway that led to the river. The current Elfreth’s Alley houses were built between 1728 and 1836. Luckily, census records are able to provide insight into the changing lives of Philadelphia citizens for over 300 years. Through those centuries, the houses have usually held more than one family at once. The residences included dressmakers, silversmiths, ship builders, and more. For instance, in the 19th century Josiah Elfreth, whose grandfather was the alley’s namesake, lived at 137 Elfreth’s Alley for a period of time with his wife and children. Also, in the 18th century, German Adam Clampfer owned both 130 and 132 while he kept a tavern and store on 134 Elfreth’s Alley. According to records previously found on the association’s website, the Clampfer family owned the 132 Elfreth’s Alley property for over a century. With such a complex and long history, it is easy to see why preservation of such a street is important to the City of Philadelphia.

 

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Elfreth’s Alley in 1938.

It is not a surprise then, that preservation efforts for Elfreth’s Alley began in 1934. That was the year that the Elfreth’s Alley Association was founded. At that time, the City of Philadelphia had rebranded Elfreth’s Alley as the 100 block of Cherry Street and it was set to be destroyed. Not only did the organization save the street, but they were also able to turn the 100 block of Cherry Street back into Elfreth’s Alley. It is a credit to the Elfreth’s Alley Association that tourists from all over the country and the world are able to explore the cobblestone street and its history.

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Elfreth’s Alley in 1957

However, preserving the street and its buildings are not the only important jobs taken up by the modern, non-profit Elfreth’s Alley Association. They also promote conservation efforts in an attempt to research more about the history of alley’s residents. In 2012 and 2013, archaeological teams headed by Deirdre Kelleher from Temple University were able to dig into the rich history of the street, finding artifacts from both the professional and personal lives on the Elfreth’s Alley residents.

This year, the Elfreth’s Alley Association will receive a PA Historical Marker for their hard work in preservation, research, and education. It will read: “Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia County – Impeccably preserved vernacular neighborhood in the heart of Philadelphia – one of the nation’s oldest and a National Historic Landmark. There have been extensive studies of these homes, their owners, and the area’s transformation over its nearly 300 years of existence, shedding light on a very diverse working class community.”

Elfreth's Alley - now

Current view of Elfreth’s Alley – from the Elfreth’s Alley website

 

Resources

Elfreth’s Alley Archaeology 

Elfreth’s Alley Museum 

Visit Philly!

Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program

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From Classic to Electric: Art Deco and American Business

(PhillyHistory.org)

The Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Building, 26th and Pennsylvania Avenue. August 8, 1930. (PhillyHistory.org)

Every once in a while, art and life imitate one other, sometimes with interesting results.

Such was evident recently when the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission approved Comcast’s request to replace the GE logo atop 30 Rockefeller Center. In 2011, writers of the comedy TV series 30 Rock predicted as much. What they didn’t predict, and what Comcast isn’t proposing to change, is the permanence of the art at the entrance of the building in mid-town Manhattan. The bas-relief of Wisdom and Knowledge and the statue of Atlas have  long been popular—so much so that they are immovable.

They were the work of Lee Lawrie, a/k/aAmerica’s Machine Age Michelangelo,” a sculptor whose masterpieces are found from New York to Nebraska. In Philadelphia, Lawrie developed the sculptural program for Philadelphia’s Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Building, now part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That project dates from the late 1920s, when corporate America still aped civic America, representing business in classically-inspired allegories and virtues.

To transform the former site of a demolished locomotive roundhouse at 26th and Pennsylvania, Fidelity’s executives chose architects Zantzinger, Borie and Medary and sculptor Lawrie, who steeped the project in the language of legend and history. And in so doing, Fidelity Mutual managed to make the buying and selling of life insurance seem temple-worthy.

Up to then, this A-team of creatives hadn’t dabbled much in insurance. Institutions where civic and social purpose: museums, churches, universities, and government buildings were more their kind of thing. But this project and this company—under the spell of City Beautiful on Philadelphia’s new Parkway—was ambitiously different.

Caption

Fidelity

Frugality

Why not consider insurance in terms of civic duty? Why not dress up the corporate headquarters as a temple to coverage? And it wasn’t enough to carve messages in stone: “IN THE NOBLER LIFE OF THE HOUSEHOLD IS THE NOBLER LIFE OF MANKIND.” And “THE FINEST WORK OF A MANS’ LIFE IS TO OPEN THE DOORS OF OPPORTUNITY TO THOSE DEPENDENT UPON HIM.” But words were only a start. Lawrie made sure his project in buff Indiana limestone repeatedly confirmed that coverage was, indeed, heroic.

As Penny Balkin Bach put it in Public Art in Philadelphia, Lawrie spoke with “gilt squirrels and pelicans, huge stone reliefs of human figures, small suns and moons, and the classical Graces… At the main portal on Fairmount Avenue, two guardian dogs, emblems of fidelity and the company itself, watch sternly. Overhead, rising out of the limestone columns, are giant male and female forms: a father figure (Fidelity) on the left, with a spade as his token; a mother (Frugality) on the right, with a child in her arms. At the figures’ bases are smaller symbols: for the father, a sheaf of grain and a horn of plenty; for the mother, a cradle and a ‘gift tree.’ Elsewhere, friezes, reliefs, and mosaic panels present the ‘twelve labors’ and the ‘seven ages’ of humankind, the cycle of time and many symbols of ‘home and protection’ and the ‘hazards of life.’ Crowning the entrance tower is an ornamental gilt crest with marvelous figures of squirrels, opossums, owls, and pelicans, which represent, respectively, the virtues of thrift, protection, wisdom and charity.”

By 1928, the messages were all in place for those who happened to pass by 26th and Pennsylvania. But the very next year, a few other Philadelphia businessmen, this time architects hired by bankers from the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, envisioned another project that would simultaneously change corporate messaging and the skylines of urban America. In 1932, four, red, 27-foot-high initials in a new font called Futura light were lit up on the rooftop of the bank’s new headquarters at 12th and Market. Philadelphia’s PSFS sign, visible for miles, provided a streamlined, clarified, thoroughly modern message. By 1937, 30 Rock would also be topped by the initials of its owner, RCA. In time, that would change to GE. And now to Comcast. Doubtless, in the great chain of commerce, Comcast’s logo will someday be replaced as well.

Lawrie’s work, we can bet, will remain untouched.

The lesson learned? Ars longa, logo brevis.

Detail 1930 (PhillyHistory.org)

Ornamental gilt crest with owls (wisdom) and an opossum (protection).

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Say “Hallo” to Bart King, the Kingsessing Cricketer

The Belmont Cricket Club, which once stood at the intersection of 49th Street and Chester Avenue. The Kingsessing Recreational Center, built in 1918, now occupies the site. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The Belmont Cricket Club, which once stood at the intersection of S. 50th Street and Chester Avenue. The Kingsessing Recreational Center, built in 1918, now occupies the site. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

A slice of England in West Philadelphia? There was once a “Sherwood Forest” — a grove of trees that stood at the intersection of 58th Street and Baltimore Avenue. Nearby was the Belmont Cricket Club at the intersection of  S. 50th Street and Chester Avenue, which for a few short years competed against the still-extant Germantown, Merion, and Philadelphia clubs.

On hot, hazy summer afternoons in the 1890s, the residents of the surrounding brick twin houses — porches bedecked with striped awnings — would stroll to Belmont Cricket and watch the local and international legend Bart King (1873-1965) play on the crease.

Bart King at bat at the Belmont Cricket Club in 1906. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Bart King at bat at the Belmont Cricket Club in 1906. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the “Gentlemen of Philadelphia” were a juggernaut that mowed down the best teams from England and her colonies.  The Associated Clubs of Philadelphia proudly declared that “with the vast improvement made in cricket at Philadelphia (and in fact everywhere in the country) since the last team visited England, there is every reason to expect very different showings this year.  Since the last time crossed the Atlantic, the representatives of the Quaker City have laid claim to more than ordinary honors.  In 1891, Lord Hawke’s team suffered a defeat at their hands. The following year the Gentlemen of Ireland had to lower their colors when they met the Philadelphians. In 1893, the Australian team of that year lost in Philadelphia. In 1894, Lord Hawke’s team was again beaten. The visiting Cambridge and Oxford teams lost to home players in 1985. ”

Leading the charge during cricket’s brief golden age was  Bart King.  A star bowler and a hitter, King would later be known as the “Bob Hope” of the cricketing world, for according to one account he, “told his impossible tales with such an air of conviction … that his audiences were always in doubt when to take him seriously. He made their task doubly difficult by sprinkling in a fair mixture of truth with his fiction.”  When King died in 1966, his obituary noted that, “his 344 for Belmont v Merion B stand as the North American record: he scored 39 centuries in his career and he topped 1,000 runs in a season six times, in 4 of them also taking over 100 wickets.”

"Sherwood Forest, 58th  Street and Baltimore Avenue, September 29, 1906.

“Sherwood Forest,” 58th Street and Baltimore Avenue, September 29, 1906. The Sherwood Cricket Club, located at 60th and Baltimore, was Belmont’s more rustic neighbor. For an image of the Sherwood Club, click here.

In those days, watching a cricket match was just as popular a past time as going to a Phillies game.  West Philadelphia’s Belmont was the scrappy sibling of Philadelphia’s league.  The haughty Pennsylvania Railroad built the Main Line and Chestnut Hill, while Peter Widener’s humbler trolley lines built the more democratic suburbs of West Philadelphia. The Belmont Club, founded in 1874, was prosperous, its grounds and buildings beautiful, but it did not put on aristocratic airs. Neither did Bart King. What John B. Kelly was to rowing, King was to the even more rarified world of cricket  Unlike most of his peers, the middle-class King had to work for a living.  In those days, a Philadelphia cricketer did not play for money.  To support his amateur habit, King worked in his father’s linen business — there were many textile mills in West Philadelphia at this time, which drew their power from Cobb’s Creek.  To preserve his status as a “gentleman amateur,” wealthy friends secured him a low-stress job at a Philadelphia insurance company.

By the early 1900s, America lagged behind England when it came to compensating its best players. In fact, King was surprised to learn that British cricketers actually got paid for their sport.

“Hallo Mr. King,” said an English professional who ran into King in London.

“Hallo, call me Bart,” King responded.

“But you’re a gentleman cricketer, sir?” the professional queried.

“Aren’t you a gentleman too?” King asked.

“Oh no sir, I’m a professional,” was the reply.

Despite its aristocratic associations, cricket in America had proletarian origins.  English textile workers from Nottingham brought the game to American in the early 19th century, and played six hour matches with gusto on their precious days off.  Spectators drank ale and freely placed bets.  Many cricketers also tried their hand at baseball, a faster American variant of the game (also with runs and innings) which gained traction during the Civil War.  By the 1880s, the well-heeled Wisters of Germantown and the Clarks of West Philadelphia — developers of the Spruce Hill neighborhood — took up the British sport and transformed the game of the millworkers workers into the past-time of the wealthy. The local, blue-collar cricket clubs such as Tioga — which King played for as a young man — and Frankford closed their doors, their creases and clubhouses replaced by blocks of row houses.

Belmont held out longer but succumbed on the eve of World War I. The surrounding neighborhood was populated by comfortable factory managers and small business owners  – like King’s family — who could not afford to be “gentleman amateurs” or attend games that lasted three to five days.  More importantly, the rise of professional baseball teams — with their big stadiums and open seating — were a more democratic way to spend an afternoon for the industrial city’s growing population.  Philadelphia formed its first official baseball team in 1883. Soon, the Phillies attracted bigger crowds. Spectators could cheer from the stadium bleachers when their favorite players scored runs, rather than demurely clap behind ropes at private clubs.  The rules of baseball were also much less arcane, and the  ”seventh inning stretch” replaced leisurely breaks for lunch and tea.

Houses at 52nd and Springfield Avenue, near the site of the Belmont Cricket Club, March 21, 1960.

Victorian rowhouses at 52nd and Springfield Avenue, near the site of the Belmont Cricket Club, March 21, 1960.

Belmont Cricket Club closed its doors in 1914, but not before visiting English cricketer C. Percy Hurditch introduced its members to a more fast-paced field sport: soccer.  King saw which way the wind was blowing in West Philadelphia, and joined the Philadelphia Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, two years before Belmont went defunct.  He continued to play and tour internationally until his death at age 92.   The London Times eulogized: “Had he been an Englishman or an Australian, he would have been even more famous than he was.”

The Belmont Cricket Club was torn down in 1918 and was replaced by the fields and buildings of the Kingsessing Recreation Center, which continues to serve the neighborhood’s athletic needs to this day.

The railroad overpass at the intersection of S.49th Street and Chester Avenue, near the site of the Belmont Cricket Club, February 20, 1960.

The railroad overpass at the intersection of S.49th Street and Chester Avenue, near the site of the Belmont Cricket Club, February 20, 1960.

Footage of the Colin Jodah Trophy Match at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, with a mention of Bart King.

Sources: 

Barker, Ralph (1967). Ten Great Bowlers. Chatto and Windus. pp. 124–155.

P. David Sentence, Cricket in America: 1710-2000 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2006),  pp. 93, .278 .

 

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