A Gorilla in the Gallery

German Society Building - Northwest Corner - Marshall and Spring Garden Streets, ca. 1890 (PhillyHistory.org)

German Society Building – Northwest Corner – Marshall and Spring Garden Streets, ca. 1890 (PhillyHistory.org)

There’s a lovely little installation about the German Society of Pennsylvania at the Philadelphia History Museum. In addition to books and manuscripts and steins and photographs and Revolutionary War pistols and Civil War swords, there’s an 800-pound gorilla. Unlike the other artifacts, the giant gorilla has no label.

The German Society of Pennsylvania has been around for 250 years, which means there’s plenty to say and to show—and plenty more that must be left out. But some chapters in history just can’t be left unwritten.

Sure, we must hear about the founding in 1764, when German settlers, feeling a need to circle the wagons, met for the first time in a charming Lutheran schoolhouse at 4th and Cherry Streets. (See the picture, below.) In the 19th century, Philadelphia’s German community built a serviceable place on 7th Street, just across from the Philadelphia History Museum. In 1888, a day after Christmas, the Society moved into the three-story palatial clubhouse by architect William Gette at 7th and Spring Garden Streets. The hope was to get closer to the heart of the booming Philadelphia-German community. After all, in 1890, 28 percent of the foreign-born Philadelphians were German. How German they would remain was the question.

Participation didn’t take off; in fact, membership would never again surpass 1,000, where it stood in the late 1870s. For the balance of the 19th century, the numbers would fall to as few as 700. By 1914, at the start of World War I, it dwindled to 624. By 1940 there were 411 members and in 1945, only 350. “With reduced membership contributions and low investment returns,” by the mid-20th century, according to Birte Pfleger in Ethnicity Matters: A History of the German Society of Pennsylvania, “the GSP was more or less ruined financially.”

Zion Lutheran School, 325 Cherry Street, May 1, 1859. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards. (PhillyHistory.org/Library Company of Philadelphia)

Zion Lutheran School, 325 Cherry Street, May 1, 1859. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards. (PhillyHistory.org/Library Company of Philadelphia)

Decimated membership was only a symptom. But of what? The story of the Society’s near demise was about something other than money.

What was it about? World War I. The rise of the Third Reich. World War II. Conflicted loyalties. Diplomatic disasters. Bombs thrown; board members attacked, detained, tried and even imprisoned. This was as toxic a stretch of time as an organization might ever encounter. It’s the 800-pound gorilla, essentially left untouched since 1944 when Harry W. Pfund’s History of the German Society of Pennsylvania referred to this time as the  organization’s “most tragic.” But instead of facing it head on, Pfund advocated a collective willingness “to bear this grief in silence.”

Except silence and history aren’t compatible. About sixty years after Pfund, Pfleger finally took a step to shed the long silence in a chapter entitled: “Hitler’s Shadow In Philadelphia: The GSP From The 1930s Through the 1960s.” (Download a pdf here.)

As mentioned last time, the 250th anniversary of German settlement Philadelphia coincided with Hitler’s rise in 1933. The society took five more years to publicly disavowal its Nazi sympathies and join with other German-American associations in Philadelphia to create the anti-Nazi German-American League of Culture.

In February 1938, only one month after the anti-Nazi declaration, the Society displayed a swastika flag at the Society’s annual charity ball. And a month after that, according to Pfleger, “as many as 1,500 German Americans gathered” at the Society’s building…to celebrate Hitler’s annexation of Austria.” Sigmund von Bosse, “a Lutheran pastor and prominent GSP leader, gave a rousing speech, and almost everyone in the audience gave him the Hitler salute at its conclusion.”

Old habits die hard. Old loyalties die harder.

For its library, the GSP had bought copies of Hitler’s speeches as early as 1924. They added Mein Kampf in 1930 and ordered “books by Joseph Goebbels and subscribed to pro-Nazi periodicals.” They acquired Julius Streicher’s “notoriously anti-Semitic weekly Der Sturmer,” and the SS publication Das Schwarze Korps. Nazi propaganda arrived “through the Volksbund fur das Deutschtum in Ausland (League for Germandom Abroad) and  whatever the Nazis published and sent abroad to their Volksdeutsche, ‘Germans outside of the Reich.’” All of it, and much more, was available in the reading room of the library at 7th and Spring Garden.

After the war, the Society finally became less German and more American. Meetings and programs were held in English, then the Society’s “official language.” As years passed, the scholarly range and value of the GSP’s library—more than 60,000 books—became increasingly apparent. After all, many books made rarer by wartime losses in Europe were here and accessible in Philadelphia. Something to be proud of.

What would become of the cache of Nazi literature?

In the post-war period, according to Pfleger, the German Society “decided to keep all Nazi periodicals and books in a dark and dirty storage room on the third floor of the building.” This closet, known as the “Giftschrank” or “poison cabinet” was a way to “bestow a general amnesia on the organization.”

An amnesia that, even as the Society presents its history, continues to this day.

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Monumental Complications in Germantown

Pastorius Monument, Vernon Park, Germantown, February 3, 1921. Julius Rosenberg, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

Pastorius Monument, Vernon Park, Germantown, February 3, 1921. Albert Jaegers, sculptor; Julius Rosenberg, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

German-Americans found 1933 to be a very tricky year. An elaborate 250th anniversary celebration of Philadelphia’s Germantown settlement would again converge at the Pastorius monument. And just as Philadelphians with German ties had done ever October since the 1880s, they celebrated German Day with marches, speeches and song. But for the 15,000 paying respects in 1933, the future loomed as large as the past.

Adolf Hitler had come to power.

For this German Day, Chancellor Hitler and President Hindenburg sent celebratory telegrams. And Ambassador Hans Luther had been invited to speak. But when Luther learned that the swastika flag wouldn’t be raised—a decision the German Society of Pennsylvania apologized for as lacking in “decency and tact”—he cancelled his appearance.

Exuberant and extravagant displays by German-Americans in Philadelphia had long generated large crowds, and overwhelming pride, and they also raised hackles. Back in 1891, an Inquirer editorial urged German Day participants to “keep the celebration an American one, as it ought to be kept.” They acknowledged “the tendency to make this celebration a German celebration is a natural tendency, but, as far as possible, ought to be resisted.”

But it wasn’t resisted.

If the Peter Muhlenberg statue dedicated in 1910 at City Hall evolved as an example of contested public art, the monument to Daniel Francis Pastorius in Vernon Park would become a flash point—even before it existed. At the 225th anniversary of Germantown’s settlement in 1908, 20,000 marched in a parade leading to the site joining another 30,000 already gathered to hear 800 “united voices” of Philadelphia’s German-American singing societies and speeches in both English and German. The crowd also witnessed the unveiling of a cornerstone for the newly-commissioned monument. But the unveiling of the finished monument would be delayed twelve years. First, the commission was taken from sculptor J. Otto Schweizers, and assigned to Albert Jaegers. Then one of Jaegers’ large panels cracked in transit. Finally, dedication was put off until after the First World War.

“A wise move,” agreed one editorial.

“The Protest of the Germans of Germantown Against Slavery on February 18, 1688,” Western facade of the Pastorius Monument in Vernon Park. Albert Jaegers, sculptor.

In 1920, when the public finally got to see the Pastorius monument, critics had a field day. Its regal figure, “Miss Civilization,” looked too much like traditional Germania and not enough like known allegories of “American Independence and Progress.” The Germantown Historical Society would advocate for its removal as “crude, gross and meaningless as art or history.” During World War II, the Pastorius monument was boxed in to again remove it from public view.

Meanwhile, Germany borrowed back the name for ”Operation Pastorius,” a plan to sabotage strategic American industrial sites, including at least one in Philadelphia.

In its appropriation and obfuscation of 17th-century Pastorius, the 20th century effectively forgot the historical figure’s actual contribution. The real Pastorius – the lawyer, poet and leader—was one of the most intelligent, talented and compassionate settlers in the New World—a quality Jaegers attempted to convey in one of the monument’s four panels.

In 1683, Pastorius and others followed the Quakers to Pennsylvania and even joined the Society of Friends, fully intending to create a colony where basic human rights were understood and respected. What they found was very different: a society accepting—and an economy based on—slavery. More than 175 years before the 13th Amendment, Pastorius and three other enlightened Germantowners composed a thorough and carefully reasoned protest and presented it to the Quaker leadership.

Interesting how a monument that’s been censored, delayed and boxed in to keep it out of the public eye becomes more potent when we become aware of the whole story.

[Sources consulted, all from The Philadelphia Inquirer, include: “The Celebration of German Day,” October 11,1891; “Bronze Tablet Will Honor Memory of German Pioneers in America To be Set into Corner-Stone,”  September 23, 1908; “50,000 See Unveiling at Vernon Park” October 7, 1908; “Pastorius Statue Design Accepted,” June 8, 1913; “The Germantown Monument,” April, 27, 1917;  “Monument Repaired,” June 30, 1920; “To Speed Acceptance of Pastorius Statue,” September 26, 1920.] 

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When Public Art Becomes a Hot Potato

City Hall Plaza - Muhlenberg Statue, January 10, 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

City Hall Plaza – Muhlenberg Statue, photographed January 10, 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

In a day of “impressive” and “picturesque” celebrations, and “probably the most elaborate demonstration ever undertaken by the Germans of this city, Philadelphians unveiled a monument to Major General Peter Muhlenberg, Colonial Preacher and Revolutionary hero, statesman and scholar, on the south plaza of City Hall.”

“Preceded by a monster parade,” with “detachments of marines from League Island, cadet corps, regiments of the National Guard of Pennsylvania and other military bodies, their arms and flags glistening in the sunlight, the ceremonies attracted more than thirty thousand persons as spectators.”

The highlight of the dedication on October 6, 1910 took place when orator, Judge William H. Staake, recalled the dramatic scene from 1776 in the Virginia country church. The Pennsylvania-born preacher, Peter Muhlenberg, in his customary black robe delivered what at first appeared “his usual Sunday sermon” concluding: “There is a time for all things. A time to preach and a time to fight. And now is a time to fight!” And with those words he removed his preachers’ gown—the same gown held aloft by Judge Staake as he related the account— to reveal an officers uniform. So inspiring was Muhlenberg’s transformation, the story goes, that he then and there recruited 300 troops for the American cause.

Heck of a story. But it’s not really true.

Peter Muhlenberg was a minister. And the gown is for real. And Muhlenberg did bid his congregation farewell before leaving to serve as an officer in Washington’s army. But an embellishing, enthusiastic descendant, Henry Augustus Muhlenberg, added his own hyperbole in 1849:

“A breathless stillness brooded over the congregation. Deliberately pulling off the gown, which had thus far covered his martial figure, [Muhlenberg] stood before them a girded warrior; and descending from the pulpit, ordered the drums at the church door to beat for recruits. …  His audience, excited in the highest degree by the impassioned words which had fallen from his lips, flocked around him, eager to be ranked among his followers. Old men were seen bringing forward their children, wives their husbands, and widowed mothers their sons, sending them under his paternal care to fight the battles of their country.”

Tablet on Muhlenberg Statue, January 10, 1913. (PhillyHistory.org)

Tablet on Muhlenberg Statue, photographed January 10, 1913. (PhillyHistory.org)

Originally popular among new German arrivals hoping to prove their patriotism, this account became known as the “Muhlenberg Myth” to be adopted and defended or mocked and debunked. The provocatively titled Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History dissected and disproved the story. In 2007, PBS’s History Detectives produced a segment confirming its myth status.

For reasons other than historical inaccuracy—and other than the rising queasiness celebrating a German-American War Hero in the midst of America’s engagement in the First World War—city officials removed J. Otto Schweizer’s Muhlenberg statue within a few years of the unveiling. This and other statues (John Christian Bullitt, Joseph Leidy, Stephen Girard and President William McKinley) were in the way of the Broad Street Subway construction project.

“Anti-German sentiment does not enter into the removal of the Peter Muhlenberg statue, read the Inquirer headline on October 10, 1918, the day after the statue’s departure. “There is enough hysteria going the rounds, without our adding to it,” offered a city official. The plaza around City Hall “seems to have been a favorite dumping ground for statues in the past, but we expect to use them now to adorn our Parkway” or perhaps “along the new road to Hog Island” where U.S. Naval ships were being launched as fast as they were built. That location might be a “fitting place” for Muhlenberg, the official suggested. After all, wouldn’t “the likeness of that famous German who fought in the Revolutionary War… inspire Hog Islanders and other Americans to make greater efforts to defeat the Germans?”

Sounds more like exile.

The war years proved difficult for many German-Americans and for German-American statuary in Philadelphia. Only one year earlier, the installation of a long-planned statue honoring Francis Daniel Pastorius, one of the founders of Germantown, had been postponed indefinitely. That artwork remained in storage until the war faded into memory.

As it turned out, Major General Peter Muhlenberg wasn’t exiled to Hog Island. His statue appeared for a time on Reyburn Plaza until the construction of the Municipal Services Building began in 1961. It remained in storage before landing at its current—and perhaps final location—behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[Sources from the Inquirer include: “Monster Parade Precedes Unveiling at City Hall,” October 7, 1910; “Would Move Statues - Mayor Favors Placing Plaza Memorials on Parkway,” July 13, 1916; “Muhlenburg Removal Not Anti-German Act,” May 10, 1918.]

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It’s a Gas! Mayor Dilworth Extinguishes Philadelphia’s Last Municipal Gas Streetlight

Richardson Dilworth extinguishing gas lamp 4.1959 46th and Osage.ashx

Mayor Richardson Dilworth extinguishing the last gas lamp in Philadelphia on April 15, 1959. Location: 45th Street and Osage Avenue.

On April 15, 1959, Mayor Richardson Dilworth, resplendent in a three piece suit, mounted a ladder and extinguished Philadelphia’s last gas streetlight.  The frilly fixture, dating from the early 1900s, was located at 45th and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.

Residents smiled and applauded, glad that this vestige of the Victorian era was gone.  In postwar Philadelphia, there was little room for Gilded Age nostalgia. The city had suffered greatly since the stock market crash of 1929.  Streets were crumbling, water and gas mains constantly breaking, and the housing stock dilapidated and overcrowded.  Federal money was flooding into the city, and government officials were happy to use it to tear down the old and build anew, especially new housing developments and highways.  Dilworth was also planning the revitalization of the 18th century fabric of Society Hill, arguably the first residential historic preservation initiative in a major American city.  Under city planner Edmund Bacon’s supervision, Society Hill’s streets would be marked by lampposts modeled on those from the Early Republic, only lit by electricity.

When it was first introduced in the mid-19th century, however, gas lighting was on the cutting edge of technology.  Before gas, whale oil candles provided the best source of light after dusk, especially those made from the precious “spermaceti” oil found in the heads of sperm whales. In their relentless, around the world pursuit of home lighting fuel and industrial lubricants, the men of Nantucket and New Bedford hunted many species of whales to the brink of extinction.

Mayor Joseph Sill Clark introduces the 1950s documentary “Philadelphia: Our Changing City.”

Unlike natural gas, coal gas is manufactured rather than drilled, the byproduct of the so-called coking process, in which bituminous coal is “destructively distilled” in beehive ovens into a porous, low-sulfur product in a process similar to how charcoal is created from wood.   Coke became the essential fuel in iron and steel production, which was why the “steel king” Andrew Carnegie of Pittsburgh went into a star-crossed business partnership with the “coke king” Henry Clay Frick.  A harsh, uncompromising, and utterly humorless man, Frick did not much think of his workers.  After a public row with Carnegie following the Homestead Strike of 1892, Frick — who had survived an assassination attempt — supposedly wrote his cheery, library-building former partner, “Tell him I’ll meet him in Hell.”


A depiction of the coke process from 1879, showing rows of beehive ovens used to distill coal into coke. Source: Wikipedia.

Mining and coking coal it was a brutal business — conditions were appalling, deadly, and completely unregulated.  Yet coal its byproducts built many a great Philadelphia family fortune. It was the energy boom of the 19th century, and formed one part of what social historian Nathaniel Burt called the “iron triangle” of Philadelphia’s industrial economy: iron, coal, and railroads. Some business owners became increasingly intransigent as labor unrest festered.  As George Baer, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad put it when the miners went on strike in 1902:

“The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of this country.”

Such language made President Theodore Roosevelt foam at the mouth, and caused Baer to be called “Divine Right” George behind his back.

For most of the 19th century, Philadelphia’s middle and upper class families illuminates their homes from top to bottom with coal gas, which came from mains under the streets and piped directly into houses. Each sconce had to be lit manually, and chandeliers had to be lowered from the ceiling using a weighted pulley.  If gas offered relatively convenience compared to the candles of the past: it did have one significant drawback: the quality of the light.  Rather than the warm glow of whale oil candles, the light from gas sconces and chandeliers  had a rather grayish, ghostly hue. Many women of the era disliked how they looked at a gaslit ball or house party.  And if a gas flame flickered out while the valve was still on, the occupants of a house could be asphyxiated in their sleep.

A look inside a gas lit home.

By the 1880s, however, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb had arrived, and those that had the means ripped open the walls of their homes and installed electric wiring.  The discovery of petroleum in Western Pennsylvania in 1859 led to another energy boom, as kerosene became a preferred home lighting fuel, especially in smaller communities that did not have a gas works. Yet coal gas continued to light Philadelphia homes well into the twentieth century.

The United Gas Improvement Company, a trust created in 1882 by streetcar magnate and developer Peter Arrell Brown Widener and his cronies, held a near-monopoly of the city’s gas business for many years, and wielded vast power in City Hall. Photograph of suburban West Philadelphia in the 1910s shows upper-middle class housing developments following the gas lines westward into what was previously bucolic farmland. The gas lights may be gone, but to this day, many old Philadelphia homes still have gas lighting lines buried behind their plaster walls.  Then as now, the source of our home energy is usually kept out of sight, and out of mind. 

Gas Lamps 46 and Larchwood 1.14.1913 ii.ashx

The intersection of 46th Street and Larchwood Avenue, looking west, January 14, 1913. The large twin houses on the left were completed only a few years earlier. Note the newly installed street gas lamps.


Mary L. Knapp, An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65 (New York, NY: Girandole Books, 2012), pp.48-49.

Les Standiford, “Excerpt: Meet You In Hell,” NPR Books, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4717704


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“Who will put the ball in motion?”

Teachers Examination - Recreation Center - 26th and Jefferson Streets, April 1, 1930. Photograph by Charles L. Howell. (PhillyHistory.org)

Teachers Examination at the [Athletic] Recreation Center, 26th and Jefferson Streets,
April 1, 1930. Photograph by Charles L. Howell. (PhillyHistory.org)

In their very first season, the Pythians proved themselves on the fields of Philadelphia, Camden, West Chester and Harrisburg. Later that same year—1867—when the National Association of Base Ball Players met in Philadelphia, the Pythians applied for membership and soon heard the unanimous decision: “Any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons” could not join. And so, this all-African-American team led by Octavius Catto, would be excluded from organized baseball.

The decision didn’t sit well with baseball organizer, journalist and reformer Thomas Fitzgerald. As mentioned in a recent post, at the start of the 1869 season Fitzgerald proposed going “against the rules” and called for “a game between one of our white clubs and the Pythians.”

“Who will put the ball in motion?” he challenged.

Working out the details took most of the season, but the Pythians and the Olympics arranged to play and Fitzgerald agreed to serve as umpire on September 3, 1869 at Jefferson Street Ball Park.

“Perhaps the first base ball game of the kind was played yesterday afternoon at Twenty-fifth and Jefferson streets reported the Inquirer. The Pythians “acquitted themselves in a very creditable manner, especially their outfielders, who made several very fine catches.” The crowd was one of the largest that has been on those grounds for years…”

“A Novel Game in Philadelphia—A Negro Club in the Field…” read a page-one headline in The New York Times. “The novelty of the affair drew an immense crowd of people, it being the first game played between a white and a colored club.” Word of this “novelty” spread as far as Utah.

The game between the Pythians and the Olympics was, it turned out, curiously off kilter.

Above: Olympic vs. Pythian, September 3, 1869.  Below: The Boston-Athletic Game April 22, 1876.

Two Historic Firsts
Above: Olympic vs. Pythian, September 3, 1869.
Below: Boston Red Caps vs. Philadelphia Athletics, April 22, 1876.

The Pythian strategy was to not challenge any calls. The Olympics, on the other hand, didn’t hold back at all. And by the third inning, when the Olympics scored 14, including two home runs, the tone of the game was set. According to the Inquirer, the Pythians then suffered “their first whitewash, their men going out in rapid succession.” They held up better in the fourth inning, when the Pythians scored one more run than did the Olympics. And, “to the astonishment of all,” according to the Inquirer, “the whites were treated to a blank” in the 7th inning.” But the Pythians were only able to add four runs during their turn at bat. And they went scoreless in the 8th. In the final inning, the Pythians made “a desperate effort…to reduce the disparity” but only came up with two more runs than did the Olympics.

The Olympics defeated the Pythians in that game, 44 to 23.

A few weeks later, Fitzgerald’s white team from The City Item played the Pythians at another field on Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore) near 17th. That game the Pythians won, 27–17.

The New York Clipper appreciated the breakthrough, but worried about the showmanship. “The prejudices of race are rapidly disappearing.” First “we chronicled a game between the Pythian (colored) and Olympics (white) clubs, of Philadelphia. This affair was a great success, financially and otherwise.” They noted the second game with The City Item and a third between white and black teams in Washington, D.C. But there’s more to baseball than displays of inter-racial gamesmanship, suggested the writer from Brooklyn. ”The Unique Club, of Williamsburgh, composed of colored gentlemen, is anxious to get on a match with the Pythians. What say the Quakerdelphians?”

27th and Master (Google)

The Historic Field, from 27th and Master Streets (Google Street View)

As Jerrold Casway points out, the field where the Pythians and the Olympics met in 1869 could, in its earliest years, be described as fitting into the angle of two country roads: Turners Lane and Mineral (or Market) Street. By the 1870s, these roads disappeared, giving way to the city’s ever-expanding grid. We may not be able to know the exact, original location of home plate, but one thing is for sure: the Jefferson Street Grounds (as it was first known) or Athletic Field (at it became known for the team that made its home there) or the Athletic Recreation Center (so named in the early 20th century) has been a baseball venue since May of 1864—more than 150 years. Is there a field with a more venerable vintage?

And there’s more: On April 22nd and 24th 1876 the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Caps played two games there. (Boston won the first, 6 to 5: Philadelphia won the second, 20-3.) The former was the first game of the National League played in Philadelphia, and, thanks to rainy weather elsewhere, the first National League game played anywhere.

Is there a historical place with more awesome associations?

Walking the field today, we ask: Is there a reason this place is so understated? Now that we know a few of its secrets, the field itself is stirring. But there’s nothing to remind, to inspire or to help us celebrate: no historical marker, no public art, no mural, no monument. Shouldn’t we make something more of this place? It’s time to again challenge ourselves with the big questions:

“What say the Quakerdelphians?”

“Who will put the ball in motion?”

[Sources include: “Base Ball - Olympic vs. Pythian,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 4, 1869;  “A Novel Game in Philadelphia,” The New York Times, Sunday September 5, 1869; “White vs. Colored Clubs,” New York Clipper, September 25, 1869; “The Boston-Athletic Game,” The Philadelphia Inquirer; April 24, 1876; and “Athletics vs. Boston—The Latter Badly Whipped,” The Philadelphia Inquirer; April 25, 1876.]

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Want a Better Philadelphia? “Look for it in The City Item.”

The Item, 7th and Ranstead Streets, 1889. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

The Item, 7th and Ranstead Streets, 1889. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Thomas Fitzgerald jumped into Philly journalism and never looked back. He liked to write; loved to lead, and insisted on challenging the status quo.

The name of the “racy and spicy” newspaper Fitzgerald started as a weekly in 1847 and soon grew into a daily changed again and again: The City Item, Fitzgerald’s City Item, The Philadelphia City Item, The Evening Item. Everyone always knew it as The Item—and that it stood for the little guy. Fitzgerald promised to be “constantly aggressive in all that relates to the equality of Man before the Law and ever striving to break down barriers of Prejudice and Caste.”

“If a house is burnt in this city, or a store robbed, or an omnibus upset, or a fiddler hissed, or an actor applauded, look for it in The City Item. If a poor fellow goes in two with a railroad car on Market Street, or a gentleman of aldermanic rotundity falls down in his own street in a quiet, comfortable, respectable fit of apoplexy, look for it in The City Item. If a fair maiden is lured from the pathway of peace to the pathway of vice by a fellow with a huge pair of moustaches, look for it in The City Item. If an elopement takes place between one man’s wife and another wife’s husband, look for it in The City Item.”

Fitzgerald, who very much looked the part, had, demanded reforms aimed at improving the common good: removing gates from public squares, reforming the street numbering system, upgrading the police and fire departments with telegraphs, building public baths and establishing a city morgue. He fought to demolish the sheds that ran up the center of Market Street since the 17th century and to replace them with modern market buildings. He “ridiculed the red-brick monotony of the city’s architecture” and campaigned for music in the schools.

In June 1869, Fitzgerald called for mixed-race baseball. “Such a game would be interesting and well patronized,” he argued, asking “Who will put the ball in motion?” and signing off as “A Lover of the Game.” (A few months later, Fitzgerald got his wish, serving as the umpire of the game—the first of its kind– between the African-American Pythians and the Caucasian Olympics.)

Circulation of The Item grew until it hit its stride in the 1880s “as a crusading penny paper with a press run that sometimes reached 200,000 copies.” By 1890, nearing the age of 70, Fitzgerald retired handing the operation over to his sons. Harrington Fitzgerald became managing editor.

In 1894, Inquirer editor Charles H. Heustis described The Item as a successful afternoon paper with a Sunday edition that “especially reaches the working classes.” He observed that “Item boys are seen in every quarter of the city, and when the Item wagons are drawn up in a line on Seventh Street, at the hour of publication, they form an extended procession.” That procession led to circulation that bypassed Heustis’ own paper.

As we said in an earlier post, no less than a dozen dailies started up in the city between the mid-1830s and 1880, and all were in the same neighborhood. Next door to The Item was The Call. Just across Ranstead was The Evening Star. Diagonally across 7th Street was The Daily News. The Evening Bulletin, The Public Ledger and the Philadelphia Demokrat, a German-language newspaper were found within a  block to the east. Half a block to the south at Chestnut were The Press, and The North American. (The Press Annex still stands at 7th and Sansom.) Further to the west on Chestnut was The Times Printing House.

Seventh and Ranstead Streets, 1970. (PhillyHistory,org)

Seventh and Ranstead Streets in 1970. (PhillyHistory.org)

Competition was stiff. But by 1901, John Henry Hepp notes, The Item had them all beat every day of the week. The Sunday Item surpassed The Philadelphia Inquirer by more than 17,000 copies with circulation of 184,009.

But winning wasn’t enough for the feisty, fastidious Harrington Fitzgerald. The following year, in a full-page advertisement in N.W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual Fitzgerald boasted “THE ITEM LEADS; OTHERS FOLLOW” and presented his own, higher circulation numbers for each day of the entire previous year. Fitzgerald challenged his competition to join in on a bet worth as much as $40,000 for the newspaper with the highest circulation in Philadelphia.

By 1911, with the bet still untouched, Fitzgerald increased the stakes to $120,000. Still, no takers came forward.

Behind the bluff, The Item was losing ground. After Thomas Fitzgerald’s departure, the paper gradually lost its spirit, its talent, its focus and its popularity. Circulation plummeted from 200,000 to a paltry 10,000 and in 1914, it folded. Harrington Fitzgerald went from bragging in print to selling at auction. On January 12, The Item’s two buildings, five Hoe presses, 12 linotype machines, its fittings and furniture—all of it went to the highest bidder.

(Additional sources include: American Newspaper Journalists, 1873-1900. Perry J. Ashley, ed. (Gale Research Co., 1983); “Executor’s Sale, Estate of Thomas Fitzgerald, Deceased,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 1914; “Fitzgerald Estate,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1914.)

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All We Need is Love at LOVE Park?

Looking Northwest from City Hall Tower, April 10, 1929. Photograph by Charles L. Howell.  (PhillyHistory.org)

Looking Northwest from City Hall Tower, April 10, 1929. (Detail.) Photograph by Charles L. Howell. (PhillyHistory.org)

In order to succeed in its grand ambitions of City Beautifulism, the Parkway had to overcome a handful of awkward design moments. The first, at the base of City Hall, got the boulevard off on the wrong foot. Instead of elegance and clarity, we see Broad Street Station’s tower poking and jutting into what should have been an open vista. A second awkwardness appeared at Logan Square, where the Parkway sliced through on the diagonal. And the Parkway’s third clumsy challenge was at the rocky base of Fairmount itself.

Jacques Gréber brilliantly addressed the last two awkward moments. His solution at Fairmount employed a giant set of steps to extend the Parkway’s axis to the entrance of the “Greek Garage.” At Logan Square, Gréber introduced an off-center traffic circle disguised as a Beaux-Arts fountain.

And so two of the Parkway’s design problems were solved.

The remaining problem at the base of City Hall, was at the site with the greatest demands and conflicting responsibilities. As early as 1911, a proposed plaza design for the start of the Parkway got loaded up with a host of additional functions in as many new buildings: a headquarters for the Free Library, a Franklin Institute, and a massive court house. Fortunately, these projects were soon moved to Logan Circle. But by 1920, the expanse at the start of the Parkway still felt and looked unfinished, a pleasant jumble, as depicted by Salvatore Pinto, of cars, towers and citizens.

Enter Edmund N. Bacon, who spent at least some of his adolescence wondering what this awkward space could become. Bacon worked on the problem for his architecture thesis at Cornell in 1932 and his plans, which introduced a giant, circular terminus for the Parkway vista would simmer for another three decades.

According to Greg Heller, as head of the City Planning Commission, Bacon worked with Vincent Kling to advance a version of his earlier idea for a plaza. In the Spring of 1962, the aged Gréber even gave the idea his thumbs up. The soon to be named JFK Plaza featured a giant, 90-foot wide fountain, large and symmetrical enough, on this burdened, little square, to strongly punctuate the beginning (or the end) of the Parkway.

Detail, Plan Showing Relation of the Proposed Parkway Development to the Present Street System. Philadelphia, March 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

Detail: Plan Showing Relation of the Proposed Parkway Development to the Present Street System. Philadelphia, March 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

Aspirations called for something more for JFK Plaza than the giant geyser fountain we’ve come to accept. But a design competition turned up nothing winnable, not even Robert Venturi’s proposed giant, seemingly NASA-inspired fountain that would provide much-needed scale,  dimension (and wit) to the Bacon/Kling idea. As Venturi explained his solution in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture: “The form is big and bold so that it will read against its background of big buildings and amorphous space and also from the relatively long distance up the Parkway. Its plastic shape, curving silhouette, and plain surface also contrast boldly with the intricate patterns of the buildings around….  This fountain is big and little in scale, sculptural and architectural in structure, analogous and contrasting in its context, directional and nondirectional, curvilinear and angular in its form, it was designed from the inside out and the outside in.” Venturi recognized what the site demanded: a hyperlegible feature, a bold solution.

Which brings us to the recently announced redesign for JFK Plaza, aka LOVE Park. Hargreaves Associates and Kieran Timberlake allowed competing demands to have their way with the space. It has become many things to many interests, at the expense of being big and bold (in spite of one review claiming the contrary). The fountain survives, though shrunken; the beloved Visitor Center is offered a new life; a greensward dominates as it might in a suburban office park. A century later, we find ourselves rediscovering the plaza’s original awkward complexity.

LOVE Park is again bereft of much needed boldness, or as Bacon would put it, a powerful “design idea.” Unless LOVE is enough to carry the day.

Maybe, just maybe, the relatively small (but big-hearted and extraordinarily popular) LOVE statue can save the square? Long ago, William Penn urged: “Let us try what love will do… Force may subdue but love gains.” Penn was talking about his policy of peace with Native Americans. More than 330 years later, we’d like to think that we, too, believe in the power of love to solve all kinds of problems, maybe even our most demanding design challenges.

So, taking Penn’s lead: “Let us try what Love will do.” Maybe, by some miracle, love is all we need at LOVE Park.

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Preservation to Demolition: Why Lancaster Mews Matters

11.17.47 3600 Lancaster Aveneu. ashx

36th and Lancaster Avenue, looking south down 36th Street towards the Market Street elevated line station. The line was placed underground in the 1960s. A corner of Lancaster Mews appears on the right — it now the terrace of the Aloosh Hookah Bar. The station stop and Queen Anne homes on the west side of 36th Street were demolished in the 1970s to make way for University City High School, now also under demolition. The “Old Quaker Building” on the left survives as apartments. The intersection of 36th and Market Street was the heart of the so-called “Black Bottom” area. Photograph dated November 17, 1947.

Yet another high rise student housing complex going up, billed as “luxury” apartments? At a community meeting last night,  residents of the area expressed their concern at the possible loss of an historic anchor structure at the corner of 36th and Lancaster Avenue.  The building entered the spotlight a few weeks ago, when Inga Saffron wrote in her “Changing Skyline” Inquirer column that the 1870s Second Empire building at 3600 Lancaster Avenue may be yet another victim of University City’s “frenzied real estate market.”

The recent demolition of the Boyd Theater near Rittenhouse Square has bothered many Philadelphians — for a city with so much well-preserved building stock, it now seems that anything is for sale.

Powelton’s homeowners are particularly on edge.  Despite its wealth of historic Italianate and Queen Anne architecture, the neighborhood is  almost completely unprotected by local historic ordinances. Over the past few years, several Victorian row houses and twins have been torn down and replaced by boxy, bland student apartment houses.

According to resident and local property owner Hanley Bodek, 3810 Hamilton Street is the latest house under threat. Over the past three decades, Bodek  – along with his business partner John Lindsay — have carefully restored dozens of abandoned Victorian structures in the neighborhood. Until last year, Bodek taught a hands-on class at PennDesign about historic renovation called “Entrepreneurial Inner City Housing Markets,” in which a group of students renovated an abandoned Philadelphia row house and sold it to a low-income family.

Now, there are few vacant lots left in Powelton.  Bodek owns 3808 Hamilton, the adjacent twin to the house now under threat.  He restored the brick house at a time when “nobody wanted these houses.”  Now, there are few vacant lots left in Powelton.

Glamorous, Lancaster Mews definitely is not, but it does have character and its own kind of utility, and houses a variety of local businesses that have thrived catering to students and Powelton Village residents alike: Aloosh hookah bar, Dr. Cycles bike repair, and Lemongrass Thai restaurant.  They do not offer the sanitized predictability of the chains that occupy the lower levels of the latest crop of West Philadelphia student high rises, but they do offer character and a sense of place, and they provide a place for local, “basic needs” entrepreneurs.

“Such blocks are what make Philadelphia, well, Philadelphia,” Saffron astutely declared.  And it was not built to be transient.

At least one local business owner feels threatened by the loss of the building. “Pure evil,” wrote Bodyrock Boot Camp owner Nate McIntyre in a Facebook post. “From the perspective of a small business owner on Lancaster Ave. that’s exactly what I call these plans by an outside developer and the city council woman to tear down this 150 year old historic, and thriving block of business and residences in my neighborhood.”

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509 N.40th Street, which housed an automobile repair shop and a tailor’s shop, with apartments on the second and third floors. April 17, 1950.

Not a bad considering that two decades ago, the entire block now known as Lancaster Mews was largely abandoned, as was much of the Lancaster Avenue commercial corridor.  After a thorough renovation, it now serves the same purpose as it did in the 1870s.

Lancaster Avenue, which branches out diagonally at the intersection of 30th Street and Market and continues all the way to Lancaster City, is the oldest turnpike in the country, opening for business in 1792.   It was the starting point of Lewis and Clark’s  journey west.  After the Civil War, its right of way was the object of a fierce battle between the trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the trolleys of the Philadelphia Traction Company.

Despite its storied history, Lancaster Avenue and the buildings that grew up around it were comparatively hum-drum — most of its structures are mixed-used buildings erected in the second half of the 19th century.  Aside from a cluster of grand houses in the Powelton neighborhood, this part of West Philadelphia was never an especially fancy part of town. According to architectural historian Robert Morris Skaler, it was an “economically diverse community,” mostly middle class, comprised of “old stock Americans, as well as more recent immigrants of German, Irish, and Italian descent,” who lived in modest three story row houses located within walking distance of shopping on Lancaster Avenue.

Queen Anne twins at 66. N. 36th Street, September  1948. Demolished.

Queen Anne twins dating from c.1890 at 66. N. 36th Street, September 26, 1948. Demolished.

Not that the commercial buildings in the area were completely without flair. The now vanished William Penn Theater at 4063 Lancaster had an auditorium just as glamorous as the (now half demolished) Boyd’s near Rittenhouse Square.  It was a favorite gathering place for Penn students, who in the 1920s had no qualms about crossing Market Street (and cutting class) to catch a movie.  The curved face Hawthorne Hall, located just up the street from Lancaster Mews at 39th Street, is an Art Nouveau fantasy in red brick, terra cotta, and pressed tin.  It once housed a drug store, theater, and other small businesses. A former apothecary shop catty-corner from Lancaster Mews boasts an elaborate pressed tin storefront that is a riot of Louis Sullivanesque plant forms.

Today, such design whimsy is largely confined to the ephemeral  images that flash across the screens of our smart phones and tablets.

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The street fronts of Lancaster Mews, 3612 Lancaster Avenue, December 12, 1951.

Some of Lancaster’s buildings have been butchered by modern signage or punctured by garage doors.  Others are abandoned or in poor repair, with wood trim and cornices stripped.  These once viable neighborhoods were victims of multiple forces: the rise of the automobile, redlining by banks and insurance companies, white flight, and government policies that favored new construction versus preservation.

Lancaster Mews, which still has its gingerbread trim and historically appropriate windows, represents a successful blending of historic preservation and redevelopment, in which a building is restored to much of its former appearance while still being viable from an economic standpoint.  We have learned a lot since the 1960s, when mass demolition — i.e. Philadelphia’s “Black Bottom” — was rampant in American cities and old buildings were seen as disposable.  Trouble still occurs when a neighborhood goes from grassroots historic preservation mode to big money demolition mode — hopefully Powelton Village and the Lancaster Avenue corridor will be revitalized without being sterilized.  Philadelphia may rejoice in its economic resurgence, but new construction in a city as historic and well-preserved as this one should should be mindful and measured rather than frenzied.

Hawthorne Hall, built in the 1890s on the site of the former McIlvaine lumberyard.  This photograph dates from c.1970.  The pressed tin cornice on the second floor has been partially removed, but most of the terra cotta statuary and ornament remains.

Hawthorne Hall, built in the 1890s on the site of the former McIlvaine lumberyard. This photograph dates from c.1970. The pressed tin cornice on the second floor has been partially removed, but most of the terra cotta statuary and ornament remains.


Inga Saffron, “Changing Skyline, Frenzied Real Estate Market Makes Any Building a Teardown Target,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2015.

Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia, University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, SC: The Arcadia Press, 2002), pp. 95,97.



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Thinking about the 21st-Century Monument

"The Thinker," by Auguste Rodin, March 4, 1927  (PhillyHistory.org)

“The Thinker,” by Auguste Rodin, March 4, 1927 (PhillyHistory.org)

A lot of folks have given a lot of thought as to who The Thinker is and what he’s thinking about. Not everyone agrees on a single interpretation, not even the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who imagined many and wouldn’t say for sure which one he intended. Anyway, Rodin believed works of art should speak for themselves.

So everyone else got to have their thoughts about The Thinker, which made it very, very popular—and gave it its staying power.

That power is why this cast of the Thinker migrated from Paris and landed temporarily on Logan Square in 1927, awaiting completion of Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum. The Thinker had spoken, as it were, to Philadelphia motion picture magnate and philanthropist Jules Mastbaum, who went on a Rodin buying binge in 1925 and 1926. Mastbaum returned home from Paris with a cache of 106 Rodin bronzes. The Thinker would have the place of honor; he’d be the first to welcome visitors. All the more important to know what he was thinking.

Since Rodin first modeled the figure in 1880 as a central element for his monumental, complex Gates of Hell, it made some sense that The Thinker might be the artist himself. Or, possibly it could be Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, which inspired the sculpture. But by 1904, Rodin freed The Thinker from his Gates project and “conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated upon a rock, his feet drawn under him, his fist against his teeth” …dreaming.

This larger, muscular stand-alone Thinker did more than dream, explained Rodin. “The fertile thought slowly elaborated itself within his brain.” He is “no longer a dreamer, he is a creator.” A romantic idea, and a popular one.

Rodin cast and re-cast his thinkers in monumental forms—dozens of times. They proliferated in public places from Paris to Louisville, Dresden to Detroit, guaranteeing The Thinker unfortunate fate as a visual cliché, but also assuring that thinking about The Thinker was anyone’s game.

“With his worn body and face of a primitive man,” The Thinker is, speculated critic Octave Mirbeau, the image of a cave man, looking at the unfolding below of the crimes and passions of his descendants.” He is “austere nudity, in his pensive force.” He is “the same as a wild Adam, implacable Dante, and merciful Virgil…but he is above all The Ancestor, the first man, naïve and without conscience, bending over that which he will engender.”

Cast in monumental scale, made of bronze to endure the ages and installed in civic settings, The Thinker became everyman for everyone, nearly everywhere.

Our public art, our memorials and our monuments are part of a civic cultural collective, or they should be. They should be ours to help us consider, recognize and remember, ours to help us organize the past and shape future memory.

It didn’t work that way in the 1920s. For all of his generosity, Jules Mastbaum usurped civic power acquiring Rodins for exhibition at the Sesquicentennial Exposition and as a subsequent gift for the City. It’s hard to fault Mastbaum for his philanthropy, but we could fault him for his presumptions. Mastbaum crossed a line thinking The Thinker was an appropriate idea of a monument for the 20th century city.

What would other Philadelphians in Mastbaum’s time rather have seen cast in bronze and displayed in public? They weren’t consulted.

Nearly a century later, the tables are turned. Now, thanks to Monument Lab, an innovative project taking place in Philadelphia between May 15 and June 7, 2015, we all have a shot at becoming Mastbaums. We get to propose monuments appropriate for the 21st century city. We get to say what they are, what we expect of them, and where they’d have the most meaning.

When imagination is at work, there are no limits.  So what will it be?

Visit Monument Lab in City Hall courtyard and submit your ideas, your inspirations.

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The Search for an American Art in “Gallery C”

Memorial Hall - American Department, Centennial Photographic Company, 1976. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

“Gallery C” in Memorial Hall – American Department, Centennial Photographic Co., 1876. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Construction delays scuttled the original plan to open the Centennial in April 1876, in time for the 100th anniversary of the battles at Lexington and Concord. Just as well. The nation’s first world’s fair wasn’t looking to the past so much as the American present and, even more, its future.

On May 10, 1876—139 years ago yesterday—the bell at Independence Hall signaled the opening of the Centennial. Four miles from the city’s historic center more than 186,000 gathered for a heady celebration of stuff in a temporary Centennial City in West Fairmount Park. In all, more than 9.8 million visitors would visit over the summer months to celebrate the growth of America from idea to flourishing nation.

At its symbolic and ceremonial center, Centennial planners built a place where America would be represented by the nation’s artists. Inside, surrounded by an array of other galleries filled with art from around the world, was America’s “Grand Salon,” aka “Gallery C,” the place for the nation’s artists to be and be seen. Here would be the best of the best in American art, works expressive of what this nation had become, or as Kimberly Orcutt put it: “…the first officially sanctioned, full-scale reckoning of the nation’s art.”

It wouldn’t be easy to present what the organizers hoped for: “a unified ‘American school.’” As it turned out, by the 1870s, America’s artists were more divided than united. New York landscapists conflicted with European-trained cosmopolitans from Philadelphia and Boston. And Philadelphia artist John Sartain, appointed chief of the Art Advisory Committee only eight months before opening day, created a top-heavy bureaucracy, a Committee on Selection and a Committee on Arrangement, to “help.” The ever-political Sartain, Orcutt writes, “was careful not to place himself on the Committee on Selection” but after the committee reviewed more than 1,000 works of art in early April, rejecting some interesting newcomers like the still-young and little-known Thomas Eakins and others who also trained abroad, Sartain carried out a notorious series of end runs around his committees, soliciting works he thought merited display, particularly from artists who were longtime friends and allies, including Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran.

In all, Sartain and his committee assembled far more than could possibly fit in Gallery C. Americans would be hung in the long, narrow  connecting gallery at Memorial Hall as well as in a handful of small, square  rooms in the one-story, wooden annex built directly behind Memorial Hall to accommodate overflow.

Installed, “Gallery C” spoke more to the contested state of American art than anything like a hoped-for American School. In the center stood two sculptures by P.F. Connelly’s, Ophelia and Death and Honor and another by Howard Roberts Le Premier Pose, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Visitors witnessed John Vanderlyn’s Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos, now at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Albert Bierstadt’s Entrance into Monterey (The Settlement of California, Bay of Monterey, 1777), now in the U. S. House of Representatives. They saw Eastman Johnson, Catching the Bee, 1872  and Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip. They took in Peter Rothermel’s gigantic (16’ x 32’), bloodless, Battle of Gettysburg, and Thomas Eakins’ Portrait of Dr. Rand, now the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Of course, they didn’t see Eakins’ very bloody Portrait of Dr. Samuel Gross which the Selection Committee passed on. That refusée made an appearance in the far-flung Army Medical Department Exhibition.

Opening Day at the Centennial Exhibition, May 10, 1876. Centennial Photographic Co. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Opening Day at the Centennial Exhibition, May 10, 1876. Centennial Photographic Co. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Eakins’ Gross Clinic, according to Sylvan Schendler, had been been dumped for a cow painting entitled The Return of the Herd by Peter Moran, Thomas Moran’s younger brother. (In a twist of history, the Peter Moran recently sold for sum of $38,025, minuscule compared to the $68,000,000 sale price for The Gross Clinic in 2006.)

In 1914, nearly four decades after doing his best to define an American art, the mature Eakins, who embodied the best of the conflicting approaches, reflected on the American art dilemma that had shaped his entire career: “If America is to produce great painters and if young artists wish to assume a place in the history of the art of their country, their first desire should be to remain in America to peer deeper into the heart of American life, rather than spend their time abroad obtaining a superficial view of the art of the Old World.”

When Eakins was in his early 30s in 1875 and painted The Gross Clinic, American artists were  nowhere near ready to speak in one clear, creative voice that might be considered an “American School.” Many decades later, the dust still hadn’t settled. If anything, the international influences on American art were stirred up even more by the Armory Show in 1913 and collector Albert Barnes, who focused intensely  on what made good art, rather than what made good American art.

It could be the impossible search for a pure, distinctive and exclusively American art is what stymied success at the Centennial’s “Gallery C.”

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