More Hamburger History: When White Tower #1 Became Blue

White Tower #1. East side of Germantown Avenue between Allegheny Avenue and Roy Street, 1961

After burger battles flared in courtrooms and White Tower lost to White Castle, the struggle returned to the streets. In only a few years, both chains had successfully dispensed burgers from ubiquitous crenellated cubes. But now, in the midst of the Great Depression, the White Tower chain had been forced to abandon its crenellated design in more than a hundred restaurants.

Finding fresh architectural ideas would be the least of their problems. In November 1935, as Hirshorn and Izenour tell us, “White Tower advertised for an architect in the New York newspapers.” Here was not only the promise of design work, but the opportunity to reinvigorate an expanding national restaurant chain with locations in dozens of American cities. The menu would remain the same, but the package—White Tower’s restaurants—needed complete transformation.  Architects Charles L. Johnson and Barnett Sumner Gruzen were among those who answered the call.

“White Tower energetically experimented with reflective sheet materials – Vitrolite and porcelain enamel, writes Phillip Langdon. “Roofline crenellations disappeared. Leaded glass no longer appeared in the windows. Buttresses along the walls assumed an expression more Art Deco than medieval. … In 1935, B. Sumner Gruzen of New York produced a curving restaurant in the streamlined Art Moderne style. Others tried designs that combined the flowing lines of Moderne and the ziggurat effects of Art Deco. … Considerable experimentation was still going on in 1937, but by then … the Tower had left the Middle Ages and landed confidently in the Modern World.”

White Tower embraced the Modern World through design—and by seeking out the busiest sites in Philadelphia. Between 1930 and 1954, seven of the city’s White Towers had opened at stops along the Broad Street Subway. Commuters bought burgers at a third of the 19 stops (not half, as has been repeatedly claimed by hamburger historians). But the principle was clear and consistent: from the first location on Germantown Avenue near Allegheny Avenue in 1930 to the seventeenth at Broad and Hunting Park Avenue in 1954, every one of Philadelphia’s White Towers would be situated along public transportation lines in centers of high employment.

Philadelphia’s First White Tower, as is in 2012. Photograph by Betsy Manning.

Philadelphia #1 lit up a trolley stop near factories and mills that processed everything from milk to coal and produced everything from lace to steel tubing. White Tower had its go-to-solution, its multi-pronged formula: consistent, inexpensive, fast food; locations convenient to public transportation; proximity to workplaces; and 24/7 access. And it worked whether across from the Tasty Baking Company, atop the subway stairs at Broad and Race, under the Frankford El at Margaret Street, or opposite the Reading Terminal.

The formula worked when hamburgers were dispensed from crenellated restaurants and it worked even better after the restaurants were re-designed. In 1939, only nine years after Philadelphia’s #1 White Tower first appeared, architects re-cast it in sleek porcelain steel and Vitreolite.  They replaced battlements with an Art Deco clock tower—a premature Postmodern wink to the workers from nearby factories which had their own, dominating, dead-serious clock towers.

By the 1950s, the day of the urban burger had passed. Manufacturing declined or migrated away. Workers turned to the automobile. Fast food got faster, bigger, and moved beyond the city limits. And as for the architecture of fast food—White Towers gave way to Golden Arches—and Philadelphia’s #1, a barely-remembered survivor, turned blue.

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