Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part II)

After spending several years in the Navy, Joe Sweeney came back to Philadelphia in the late 1950s to go to college on the GI Bill. His widowed mother continued to work as a nurse, rising to become the head of Student Health Services at the University of Pennsylvania. The day he started his freshman year […]
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Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part I)

Gray, lanky, and serene-faced, Joe Sweeney is now 80 years old.  The former Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy grew up in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. His father was a prominent physician at Pennsylvania General Hospital, his mother a nurse.  His mother, born into a well-to-do North Carolina family, converted to her husband’s […]
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Campo’s and Our Lady of Loreto (Part I)

The oldest surviving cookbook, De re coquinaria (On Cookery), was compiled by Marcus Gavius Apicius in the first century A.D., the high water mark of the Roman Empire.  Each region of Italy has been reveling in its own favorites ever since: “pane con la milza” (open-faced pork spleen sandwich) from Sicily, coretello (minced lamb and lamb innards) […]
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A Brief History of St. Francis de Sales – The Cathedral of West Philadelphia (Part II)

St. Francis de Sales was formally dedicated and opened for worship on November 12, 1911. Originally consisting of about 600 families, the parish swelled to 1,500 by the mid-1920s. Pastor Michael Crane’s power and influence grew so great in the Philadelphia archdiocese that in the early 1920s Pope Benedict XV elevated him monsignor to auxiliary […]
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A Brief History of St. Francis de Sales – The Cathedral of West Philadelphia (Part 1)

In 1980, Eugene Ormandy was ready to retire from his long tenure as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.  For his last recording with the “Fabulous Philadelphians,” the octogenarian conductor decided to make a big splash with a rendition of the Symphony #3 in C major, opus 78 by Camille Saint-Saens. Instead of using Academy […]
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Philadelphia’s Central High School in Perspective (Part 2)

This past January, I spent an hour speaking with Ron Donatucci, a native South Philadelphian and long-time Register of Wills. He has been a fixture at City Hall for the past three thirty-five years.    Before that, he was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a Democratic ward leader, and a lawyer in […]
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Tony Drexel Goes for a Walk (Part I)

Anthony J. Drexel was one of the wizards of late 19th century finance.  He also had big shoes to fill. His Austrian-born father Francis Martin Drexel emigrated to America at the dawn of the 19th century to seek his fortune as a portrait painter.  The elder Drexel found that he was more skilled at bond […]
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The Curious “Afterlife” of the Chicago World’s Fair

Chicago’s “World’s Columbian Exposition” closed its doors in October 1893 . Its magnificent neoclassical buildings, designed by McKim Mead and White and recently made infamous in Erik Larson’s narrative history The Devil in the White City, quickly vanished.  For all its grandeur, the “White City” was a mirage of plaster and lathe. For a few […]
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The Butler Family Feud (Part III)

Part I and Part II The Virginian was a tremendous success, selling 1.5 million copies during Wister’s lifetime, and became a template for countless Western novels and movies to follow. Despite his newfound fame, Wister found subsequent literary success elusive. Like most authors, he did not want to become a one-hit wonder. Once he was back in […]
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Gentlemen and Wise Guys in Girard Estates

  Stephen Girard, the French-born Philadelphia shipping tycoon, was famous for his hard driving work ethic.  He came to America as a teenager, an orphaned cabin boy from the city of Bordeaux, and quickly established himself as a merchant who sent his ships to China and the Caribbean.  Along with John Jacob Astor of New […]
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