Author Archives: Ken Finkel

Philadelphia’s Spiral Standpipe: A Monument to Industry, Innovation and . . . History

In a quirky burst of engineering, aesthetics and memory in the middle of the 19th-century, Philadelphia built itself a great, 130-foot spiral column. The idea was complicated and ambitious: provide water pressure for the emerging neighborhood of Mantua with a standpipe wrapped in an ornate, circular staircase topped off with a 17-foot wide public viewing […]
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Beyond Brinksmanship: Questioning our Urge to Preserve

About a year ago, we drew attention to the heyday of the “exuberant stylistic storm,” the “eclectic boom” of Philadelphia firehouses. So many were designed by so many talented Philadelphia architects. Yet so few survive. And that was the second wave of firehouse building, after 1871, when the city had an official fire department. (If you […]
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The Rise and Fall of PhillyPalladian

Some say Andrea Palladio invented it. Others claim it was first published by Sebastiano Serlio who had borrowed it from one or another master of the Italian Renaissance: Raphael, Peruzzi, Bramante or Scamozzi—or maybe all of them. The architectural feature that’s been called the Palladian Window, the Venetian Window and the Serlian Motif went viral […]
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July 14, 1948: Convention Hall’s Most Historic Moment

Of all the things that happened here—appearances by Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela; performances by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead; boxing matches featuring Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier (his pro debut); Atlantic Ten Conference and Big Five basketball games; and concerts […]
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The Randolph Mill Fire: Disaster, Indignation and Recognition

The two front doors on Randolph Street were locked tight. They said this was “partly to keep intruders out, and partly to keep the male hands in” during work hours. You know, to “prevent their slipping around the corner to get a drink.” Worst of all, in spite of the three-year-old law requiring fire escapes, […]
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A Would-Be Disaster Design Solution: The Iron Skeleton Fire Escape

How to safely exit a building on fire? The fire escape, of course. But what about before law required the familiar “iron skeleton fire escape”? In the greater part of the 19th century, when fire struck in the rising city, urbanites were at the mercy of fate. On more than one occasion, Philadelphia’s garret sweatshops […]
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Philadelphia’s Deadliest Fire

Walls of the Hunt, Wilkinson & Company furniture emporium came tumbling down the morning of October 25th, 1901. By lunchtime, firefighters declared the conflagration of the 8-story, 14-year-old building at 1219–1221 Market Street under control. Twenty-two were dead, ranking this as Philadelphia’s deadliest fire. Yet it’s missing from the top “25 Most Deadly Building Fires […]
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Saving Souls on Hell’s Half Acre: The Inasmuch Mission

“Born and brought up a true son of the tenderloin,” George Long survived as a child pickpocket in Madison Square Park in New York City. At the age of 14, having “been thoroughly schooled in the ways of the underworld, he launched himself upon his career as a ‘grafter.’” Long became addicted to cocaine and […]
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Chestnut Hill: Recognizing and Remembering the Real Legacy

Chestnut Hill is celebrating its legacy. The party’s on for what Henry Howard Houston and his son-in-law, George Woodward, started in the 1870s. Houston spent some of his fortune from the Pennsylvania Railroad on tracts of land for his envisioned community of Wissahickon Heights. Woodward continued the development of Chestnut Hill—that name stuck—designing, defining and […]
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The Zigzag Drama of a Memorial Day Monument

“All monuments have a message,” writes Dell Upton in Commemoration in America, “they direct us not simply to remember, but to remember in a certain light. That’s the first of Upton’s “three rules of thumb for monument-building,” principles especially useful in explaining the zigzag drama of Philadelphia’s All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, […]
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