Back when big fish like Frank Sinatra, Elisabeth Taylor, Joe DiMaggio or John Wayne dined at Bookbinders, Philadelphia was still a W.C. Fields joke, rich in history and starved of self-esteem. The restaurant was more about fine spin than fine cuisine, but there weren’t many choices back then. So, again and again, from the 50s through the 80s, Bookbinders got to call the shots when it came to its many expansions, often at the expense of the very history it claimed to serve up as a side dish.
The first example: the 200-year-old Drinker-Krider building at 2nd and Walnut Streets. Soon after Bookbinders bought it, they demolished it.
Legend has it, John Drinker built this house in 1751, many years after having been born in a log cabin on the same site. (Legend also has it that Drinker witnessed William Penn’s arrival in the 1680s.) In the middle of the 19th century, a gunsmith named John Krider bought the place and operated what became a famous gun shop and taxidermy business there. Hunters and fisherman found everything there, from Krider’s hand-crafted guns and bamboo rods to his hunting books and dog biscuits. The building at 2nd and Walnut became one of those anecdote-rich, go-to sites for artists, documentarians, and, of course, tourists.
Now, with a new owner in July 1952, this historic building itself was about to fall prey.
“Nowhere in the country is there a comparable collection of early buildings, wrote architect Grant Miles Simon in 1953, noting losses from “ruthless destruction…in the name of modern progress.” These survivors, wrote Simon, “constitute an invaluable part of the documentation of American history. They were lived in by, and were familiar sights to, the many great figures of the Revolutionary and the Federal eras. Their days are few unless a tardy appreciation makes a permanent place for them in the City plan.”
When push came to shove, would Simon stand up for the lowly Drinker-Krider place? We’d like to think he saw it bordering the grand, Beaux-Arts, shrine-studded greensward he proposed eastward from Independence Hall in 1947. We’d like to think he imagined a role for near-shrines and even for non-shrines.
But the Drinker-Krider building was found to be flawed. A report by the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) found “the brick bearing walls…in poor structural condition…the south end of the party wall was extremely weak…the timber framing was badly deteriorated in spots and was in a generally weakened condition.” But instead of strengthening the walls and the framing, the building’s new owners chose to have the building condemned. They allowed HABS in for thorough documentation, then they pulled it down.
Wanting to have history both ways, Bookbinders hired Simon, who in 1956 was freshly appointed to chair the Philadelphia Historical Commission, to design a “meticulous copy” of the Drinker-Krider building, one that would allow them to expand their restaurant. On December 20, 1960, Mayor Richardson Dilworth, Mrs. Bookbinder and another official used a three-handled shovel to break ground for the new wing. With a new presence on this historic corner, across from the new Independence Historical National park, the restaurant would be able to open two new venues: the “Signers’ Dining Room” and the “Hall of Patriots Banquet Room”.
As it turned out, the reconstruction wasn’t meticulous. The new brick color lacked the hue and richness of the original; its fresh patina wasn’t anything like what had been demolished. By comparison, the plaster cove cornice wasn’t as gutsy (HABS documented the orignal) and the shutters seemed soulless. Character and authenticity were gone. The reconstruction introduced a sad whiff of mid-20thcentury uncertainty to the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district.
The past isn’t about great shrines or grand vistas. Real historic cities grow over time, and they grow unpredictably. They can’t be intentionally made, and they certainly can’t be remade. At its fleeting best, Philadelphia is always about its many modest, authentic gems. Each has its own story, texture, character, and distinctiveness. Kind of like a great meal.
So far as authentic history was concerned, Philadelphians would go hungry at 2nd and Walnut. That banquet would have to be found elsewhere.