The gathered mourners were done sharing memories. The moving eulogy was over and the choir’s hymn reached its final “amen,” echoing a dozen times through the streets of Mantua. Now, the waiting excavator reared back, its giant claw raised against the blue sky hovering over the two-story rowhouse at 3711 Melon Street. The Funeral for a Home had reached the moment where ceremony was about to give way to reality. The claw gently picked up the blanket of flowers placed above the cornice and brought it down to the street. The next bite would be a chunk of the 142-year old cornice.
Most of the hundreds in attendance considered this ceremony as something unusual and new. And it was unusual. But the event wasn’t entirely without precedent. Another Philadelphia rowhouse was celebrated before its demolition in February 1907, although the speeches then didn’t deal with memory or community.
In the Fall of 1907, inspired by a grandiose vision of civic progress, the city served notice to more than 700 property owners whose homes stood in the way of The City Beautiful. The idea of a grand boulevard connecting City Hall and Fairmount Park had been talked about for more than thirty years. Now the Parkway was a project with a timeline. In January, contractor Howard E. Ruch signed a contract with the city to demolish everything between Callowhill to Hamilton Streets that stood in the way. He had 95 days to complete the job, even though the majority of the residents were still in place.
Director of Public Works John R. Hathaway decided if eggs were going to break, he might as well make an omelet. Hathaway cast displacement and demolition as historic “improvement” and commandeered George Washington’s birthday to choreograph a ceremony around the start of demolition.
The first house to come down would be one of the few emptied rowhouses. On February 22nd, officials dressed for the occasion gathered at Ruch’s nearby office and then, just before noon, held a procession to 422 North 22nd Street, the first residence “marked for demolition.”
“The party… entered the house and one by one [climbed] up a rickety ladder…onto the roof. There, just as the clock struck 12, the Director raised his silver pick and began loosening a brick on the chimney. … Several hundred persons on the street below gave a cheer as the first brick was pecked out and held aloft.”
At a luncheon following the ceremony, City Councilman John W. Ford, presented Hathaway with the silver pick in its custom-made, satin-lined case. Accepting it, Hathaway proclaimed: “I regard this as an era in Philadelphia’s history, and I shall cherish this souvenir to my dying day.”
A contrasting scenario was playing out around the corner at 2223 Hamilton Street. John Kelley and his wife were attempting to keep their bricks, their home, in place. While Hathaway and his “Parkway Group” conducted ceremonial street theater, Kelley, who had previously believed “there was a chance of his home escaping demolition,” realized all hope was lost. Already ill and now grieving “over the fact that the house which he and his family occupied was to be dismantled,” he soon received a final notice to vacate. Within days, Kelley died. Grieved to Death over Loss of Home, read the newspaper headline.
Walking from the Melon Street ceremony, I overheard a conversation between two Mantua neighbors.
“What’s this all about?” asked one resident.
“They’ve come to bury the neighborhood,” was the response.
This time, there wasn’t a silver pick to take home. But there were lots of questions about the history, meaning, and future of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.
[Consulted newspaper articles, all from the archives of the The Philadelphia Inquirer, include: “Working on Parkway Property Owners Are Notified to Vacate,” October 23, 1906; “Contract Awarded for Parkway Work,” January 1, 1907; “Parkway Started by Razing of First Building,” February 23, 1907; “Parkway Progress Opposed by Tenants, “March 1, 1907; “Grieved to Death over Loss of Home,” March 3, 1907.]