Trolley Barns and Grand Hotels: A Brief Look at the Widener Empire (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of “Trolley Barns and Grand Hotels.”
Part I can be viewed here.

Market Street, looking east from 10th Street, 1907. Note the Widener streetcars running along Market Street.

Market Street, looking east from 10th Street, 1907. Note the Widener streetcars running along Market Street.

The Philadelphia Traction Company, founded by Widener and his business partner William Lukens Elkins (1832-1903), held an iron-grip on the city’s horse drawn and electric trolleys.  As a monopolist, Widener not only sold transportation, but he also sold dreams to the city’s upwardly mobile.  Members of this aspiring, confident middle class were eager to purchase the ornate, modern houses developed by Widener in North or West Philadelphia. By capturing the nickels and dimes of Philadelphia’s Victorian commuters, Widener had harnessed a mighty river of cash.  This cash flow gave him strong leverage to invest in other business enterprises: U.S. Steel, American Tobacco, International Mercantile Marine. Widener also created other companies connected with real estate development, most notably the United Gas Improvement Company (UGI), which supplied utilities to his new streetcar residential developments.

As the city spread outward along Widener’s trolley lines, even the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad felt threatened.  In 1876, the year of the Centennial Exposition, the PRR bought up the trolley rights on Lancaster Avenue from 52nd Street all the way to Paoli.  Lancaster Avenue ran parallel to its “Main Line” right-of-way. It was a smart move, as it prevented Widener and his cronies from building more middle-class rowhouse neighborhoods that would compete with the Pennsy’s decidedly upscale, exclusive plans for the Main Line suburbs.  With the exception of Overbrook Farms, these communities would be located outside of the city limits, away from Widener’s political power base.

The Peter Arrell Brown Widener mansion (left) and the William Lukens Elkins mansion (right), at the intersection of North Broad Street and Girard Avenue, c.1900. Both structures have long since been demolished.

The Peter Arrell Brown Widener mansion (left) and the William Lukens Elkins mansion (right), at the intersection of North Broad Street and Girard Avenue, c.1900. Both structures have long since been demolished.

By 1900, Peter Arrell Brown Widener was worth over $100 million, making him the richest man in Philadelphia and putting him in the same class of plutocrats as New York’s Astors and Vanderbilts. His son George Dunton Widener, who had married Eleanor Elkins (daughter of William Lukens Elkins) shifted the family’s real estate focus to the heart of downtown Philadelphia.  His three grandest commissions were all the work of architect Horace Trumbauer: the Widener Building at 12th and Chestnut, the Racquet Club at 16th and Locust, and finally the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Walnut and South Broad Streets.

In the spring of 1912, as the Ritz was in under construction, George, Eleanor, and their book collecting son Harry (a close friend and protege of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach) left town for a European vacation.  They booked their return passage on the RMS Titanic.  Only Eleanor returned to Philadelphia. She promptly commissioned the family’s favorite architect Horace Trumbauer to build a new library at Harvard, dedicated to her son’s memory.  Peter Widener, who had been an investor in the White Star Line’s parent company, died rich but heartbroken three years later in his cavernous Elkins Park mansion.

The city’s growth proved unsustainable, indeed. In the years that followed Widener’s death, the city’s population contracted and its economy de-industrialized. The trolleys could not compete with buses and automobiles.  Many of the comfortable neighborhoods surrounding the old trolley routes succumbed to decay and abandonment, in part because they were ill-suited to the demands of the automobile.  Today, much of the former Widener trolley empire has been absorbed by SEPTA.  The former Ritz-Carlton Hotel serves as classroom space for the University of the Arts.  Further to the west, the one surviving West Philadelphia trolley shed is the studio of artist Jordan Griska, creator of the “Grumman Greenhouse” sculpture on Lenfest Plaza at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Construction an addition to the Widener family's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, December 18, 1913.

Construction an addition to the Widener family’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, December 18, 1913.


Brian Butko. The Lincoln Highway: Pennsylvania Traveler’s Guide (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2013). pp. 50–51

Andrew Heath, “Consolidation Act of 1854,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia,, accessed February 21, 2014.

Stephen Salisbury, “Sculptor Turns Bomber into a Greenhouse,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 2011.

Philip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986), p.5.

Ron Soodalter, The Union’s Shoddy Aristocracy, The New York Times, May 9, 2011.

Preston Thayer and Jed Porter, “Philadelphia Traction Company Barn & Stable,” Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

David Whitmire, “The Wideners: An American Family,” Encyclopedia Titanica, January 11, 2008. 

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“Doctor, Dear Doctor!”: Echoes from the Mask and Wig Club, Part III

Broad and Spruce 1.12.1928

The intersection of South Broad and Spruce Street, with part of the Shubert Theater (now the Merriam) on the left. It was built in 1918, and it has hosted performers such as Helen Hayes, Sammy Davis Jr., Katharine Hepburn, and John Barrymore.

This is the final article in the series “Echoes from the Mask and Wig.” Click to read Part I and Part II.  

Doctor, Dear Doctor! premiered at Philadelphia’s Shubert Theater in November 1951. Grandpa and his fellow scriptwriters apparently left Moliere’s original plot alone, as the gags about the dimwitted, dissolute woodchopper Sganarelle turned doctor proved just as funny then as they were during the “Grand Siecle.”  The show received a glowing review from Henry T. Murdock in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 21: “This reviewer wasn’t around in 1889 when Lurline launched the Wiggers’ history,” he wrote, “nor for a few years after that, but taking the standard of the last 25 years, few shows have been so attractively staged, so colorfully staged, or so swiftly danced as the current enterprise at the Shubert.”

Glancing through the program book, I found a big surprise: among those in the show’s cast are a senior named Sydney T. Fisher and a sophomore named Barry E. Knerr, both of whom I would one day sing with in the Orpheus Club of Philadelphia.

Sydney T. Fisher fIFTH FROM left

The Glee Chorus of the 1951 Mask and Wig production “Doctor, Dear Doctor!” Sydney T. Fisher is fifth from the left. The Mask and Wig Club Archives.

knerr doctor

Partial cast photo for “Doctor, Dear Doctor!” Barry E. Knerr is in the first on the right, top row.  The Mask and Wig Club Archives.

That was the last year Grandpa contributed songs and his time as a rehearsal pianist to the Mask and Wig Club.   Perhaps, by then, he had realized that, despite his prodigious musical talent, making it big in show business was not in the cards for him.  By then, his career as an insurance executive was taking up more and more of his time. Despite the fine reviews, Doctor, Dear Doctor! was his last hurrah, and he knew it.  Within a few years, he had moved to New York, was widowed, married his second wife — my grandmother — and adopted her two small children — my uncle and mother.  He enthusiastically supported my mother’s studies as a classical violinist — the two of them spent many hours playing piano and violin sonatas in their Manhattan living room.

Yet my guess is that despite the local success of Doctor, Dear Doctor?, Grandpa then realized that American musical theater was destined to be his pastime rather than his livelihood.  He continued to attend shows and remain active in the Graduate Club — my  New York-born grandmother said that back then, there was no where to eat in Philadelphia except Bookbinders (of course) — but it seems that he cut back on his musical contributions.

Grandpa Joe died in 1989, aged 81. I was ten at the time.I now live in West Philadelphia, not far from where he grew up and only a few blocks from the University.  It is only now that I am asking questions that I wish my ten-year-old self could as he gleefully played the theme from “Peter and the Wolf” for my brother and me.  But for now, I must be content with these old images and what others remember of him, as well as the whoosh-clang of the Lancaster Avenue trolley that runs along the line that probably once took Granda Joe to college and a better life.

It’s not just “Peter and the Wolf” that I associate with Grandpa, but a wistful Mask and Wig tune from the 1937 show Fifty/Fifty that for so long sat unplayed in my family’s record collection: “I Live the Life I Love.

The  program cover for "Doctor, Dear Doctor?" The Mask and Wig Club Archives.

The program cover for “Doctor, Dear Doctor?” The Mask and Wig Club Archives.


The author and Grandpa Joe at 310 S. Quince Street, before attending the 2014 annual production “Wishful Sinking.”

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“I Live the Life I Love” – Echoes from the Mask and Wig (Part II)

M and W 5.9.1962

The Mask and Wig Club at 310 S. Quince Street, May 9, 1962.

Note: this is a sequel to “Echoes from the Mask and Wig” published on May 2. 

Two weeks ago, I received a phone call from Don Fisher, who graduated from Penn in 1975 and was sort of a Tommy Lee Jones type: as an undergraduate, he balanced working on the Mask and Wig crew/ business staff with breaking through the opposing football team’s defensive line at Franklin Field.  The former president of Mask and Wig’s graduate club, he had read my piece “Echoes from the Mask and Wig,” and told me that he had more information about my step-grandfather Joe Follmann, who was pianist and music director for the collegiate song-and-dance troupe in the late 1920s.

“I believe Grandpa Joe was a scholarship student,” I told him. “And I know that today, the audition process for Mask and Wig is extremely difficult.”

“The Club was a lot harder to get into in those days,” Fisher told me. “And I will tell you this: he must have been hot stuff in his time.”


The undergraduate members of the Mask and Wig Club, Joseph F. Follmann Jr. is in the center of the third row. The University of Pennsylvania Record, 1930. The Mask and Wig Club Archives.

Here’s what I did know: my grandfather  was an excellent pianist, equally at home playing Beethoven and jazz standards His parents were working class German-Americans from West Philadelphia — according to my mother (his step-daughter) his mother was a Bavarian Catholic and his father a Prussian Protestant who may have worked as a coal miner in his youth.  There’s a photograph in my parents’ house showing him around the age of 10, with long blonde hair and dressed in a sailor’s suit. He is standing at the knee of a grizzled looking old man reading a book —  most likely his own grandfather.

Grandpa Joe’s obsession with economy — served up with  stereotypical Teutonic severity  – continued into his adulthood, even after he had achieved financial stability.

Leaving the lights on in an empty room was a pet peeve.

Many of his fellow students at the Wharton School were being groomed for leadership in tightly-held businesses.  In those days, there were many such family concerns in Philadelphia, from manufacturers (Disston and Baldwin) to magazines (Curtis) to banks (Philadelphia Savings Fund Society) to railroads (the Pennsylvania).   In those heady years just before the stock market crash, Grandpa had no desk at a family business waiting for him after graduation.  Studying finance was a practical route; what he really wanted was to be a professional musician. Perhaps Grandpa was dreaming of following in the footsteps of Ted Weems, who had also graduated from West Philadelphia High and Penn seven years ahead of him and had cut a big figure in the American “collegiate” hot jazz scene during the booming Roaring Twenties.

Mask and Wig dorm undated

University of Pennsylvania quadrangle dormitories, designed by Cope and Stewardson, showing the Mask and Wig wing. 36th and Spruce Streets. undated.

The Mask and Wig — which so was so prosperous that it had donated money to build a quadrangle dormitory — was a particular preserve of the “Old Philadelphia” elite, who had the time and the funds to indulge in such musical skylarking.  Their show program books were chock full of advertisements from prominent — and now largely vanished — Philadelphia businesses. The clubhouse, a converted church a long trolley ride from campus, had been lavishly renovated by Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre Jr. in the 1890s, and its first-floor bar adorned with murals by celebrated artist Maxfield Parrish.  In those days, one did not formally join the Mask and Wig Club until senior year,  after a year or two of working as a choral alternate…little more than a grunt. According to the show programs, Grandpa was listed as a choral alternate his sophomore and junior years, and he was not formally elected to full membership until his senior year.

Grandpa’s eagerness comes across in the photograph of The Mask and Wig undergraduate club in the 1930 University of Pennsylvania Record — amidst his stone-faced, bolt-upright compatriots, a fresh-faced Grandpa Joe looks alert as he leans jauntily to one side, his eyes sparkling.  His ears stick out from his head, just the way I remember them when he was older. He had made it, his hard work at the piano and at his composer’s desk had paid off, and he was proud.  He had been the music director and co-writer of that year’s show  John Faust, Ph.D, a comic spoof on the German legend popularized by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

faust cover

The program cover for “John Faust, Ph.D,” 1930. The Mask and Wig Club Archives.

This was a time when songs from Mask and Wig and other collegiate groups became national hits, covered by the likes of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra.  Perhaps Grandpa hoped that one of his songs would hit the big time. Grandpa continued to contribute to the club well after graduation.  In fact, he contributed songs to Mask and Wig shows for the next two decades — most notably in the 1937  production Fifty/Fifty – and culminating in the show Doctor, Dear Doctor! of 1951.  By then, the Club’s roster of undergraduate members had diversified considerably from the blue-blooded old days. Grandpa conceived the book and produced the show,  basing it it on Jean-Baptiste Moliere’s 1666 play Le Médecin malgré lui (A Physician in Spite of Himself).  A photograph from the show’s program shows Grandpa Joe — looking a bit more as I knew him, balding and with more pronounced jowls — smiling with delight as he pours over a set of scenery mock ups with a colleague.

“You know those ancient bronze busts of Roman senators?”  my grandmother once said. “Well, he looks just like them.”

Click for Part III

Follmann show co writer 1951

Grandpa Joe (left) looking at scenery sketches for “Doctor, Dear Doctor.” The Mask and Wig Club Archives.


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Manayunk: a place to drink

If you’ve only been up to Manayunk to see the Philly Cycling Classic, it may seem a little too apt that people believe the name of the place is derived from a Lenape word for “a place to drink,” but that’s the story. Originally known as Flat Rock, after a rock alongside one of the bridges, Manayunk received its modern name in 1824, an anglicized version of the word “manaiung,” which is believed to mean, “where we go to drink”—referring to the Schuylkill River as a source of water.

#7 Green Lane Over Schuylkill River - Schuylkill Navigation Canal and Reading Railroad - Looking Northwest From Canal Bank.

#7 Green Lane Over Schuylkill River – Schuylkill Navigation Canal and Reading Railroad – Looking Northwest From Canal Bank.

The name of the town is important, because for a while, during the years when Philadelphia was known as “The Workshop of the World,” the denizens of Manayunk were there own breed of people. There are still some left, but once upon a time it was a blue collar community with a distinctive character. People from Manayunk were called “Yunkers.” Odds are, you just read that word wrong. If you were from there, you’d know “Yunker” is pronounced “yoonker” and “Manayunk” is pronounced “Manayoonk” to its old timers.

Leverington Avenue Bridge-Looking Southwest from Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Bridge. Simister Mills Company

Leverington Avenue Bridge-Looking Southwest from Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Bridge. Simister Mills Company.

The original Lenape word could also mean “raging waters.” According to Deborah Del Collo’s Roxborough, the Schuylkill was, in those days, a raging river. It’s hard to imagine the ambling water way that way now, but it had to be calmed down. The story of Manayunk’s development is dependent on navigable waters.

Manayunk was a sparsely populated, bucolic farming settlement of only a few dozen people until the the Schuylkill Navigation Company began selling waterpower in 1818 or 1819 (accounts differ). From the beginning of power from the dam, however, things began to change rapidly in the area and the town began to grow as quickly. The first census of the area was conducted by a local pastor in 1827. He found 1,098 people living in the town, most of them working for textile mills.

The growth would continue. If you think of the textile industry before the Civil War at all, you probably think of the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. In Workshop of the World—A Selective Guide to the Industrial Archeology of Philadelphia, the writers argue that Manayunk differed from Lowell in that its various mills were all privately held by families. This gave the families much more leeway in how to conduct their business, so that the Mananyunk mills were making a greater diversity of cloths, dyes and patterns. They were also ploughing much of their profits back into the business, so that in time the mills would dominate the banks of the Manayunk Canals.

Leverington Avenue Bridge-Down Stream View. S. Keely and Sons Lumber and Millwork. 1929.

Leverington Avenue Bridge-Down Stream View. S. Keely and Sons Lumber and Millwork. 1929.
This photo tells a little more of a story than it may immediately appear to. By 1929, the canals were all but completely out of use. In 1870, the canal industry had been defeated by the railroads and had sold the Philadelphia and Reading Railroads 110 year leases to their property.

At first, Manayunk’s mill owners were more inclined to invest in their plants than in housing for workers. Workers had to find their own places to live or build their own homes. As the 19th century wore on, that would change. More and more mill owners owned real estate and began to build cheap tenement housing further up the hill, away from the homes of the more prosperous nearer the mills and the rivers.

Stairway Connecting Upper and Lower Levels of Dupont Street at Silverwood Street. 1932.

Stairway Connecting Upper and Lower Levels of Dupont Street at Silverwood Street. 1932.

In 1854, the township would be annexed into Philadelphia and officially be part of the city forever more.

The town would have three industrial cycles. Shipping on the canal would peak in 1859 and end in 1917. At the end of the Civil War, Manayunk would be recognized as a major textile center, but that would unravel with the Great Depression. However, Manayunk would remain important as an industrial center, primarily by way of paper mills, up through the 70s to early 80s. Then it would go into a period of decline.

In the 2000s, Manayunk started to come back, but primarily as a residential area. Today, Main Street Manayunk is a social and shopping destination and a gathering place for the new denizens of the neighborhood. There’s been some tension in the neighborhood as longtime residents grapple with gentrification. Even as the Bike Race and the Manayunk Arts Festival bring a decidedly different sort of traffic to what has become something of a bedroom community within the dense Southeast Pennsylvania region,  some vestiges of an older Manayunk hang on, such as the Hi-Spot Lanes bowling alley on Hermit Street.




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Mother Jones and the Fight Against Child Labor in Kensington’s Textile Mills

Second Street, North From Cambria Street, 1898 (

Second Street, North From Cambria Street, 1898, with Kensington Labor Lyceum at right. (

“During the Philadelphia textile workers’ strike in 1903,” wrote reformer John Spargo in his 1916 book, The Bitter Cry of the Children, “I saw at least a score of children ranging from eight to ten years of who had been working in the mills prior to the strike. One little girl of nine I saw in the Kensington Labor Lyceum. She has been working for almost a year before the strike began, she said, and careful inquiry proved her story to be true.”

Spargo was trying to do something about the fact that, in the second half of the 19th century, urban industrialization had turned cities into giant child labor pools and the American textile industries employed more than 80,000 children. As historian Walter Licht explains in Getting Work in Philadelphia, between 1860 and the end of the century, the percentage of 14 year olds at work jumped from eight percent to more than 40 percent. Pennsylvania was among the worst offenders. And in Philadelphia, the mills of Kensington were ground zero for child labor.

It hardly mattered that the employment of children less than twelve years of age had been illegal since the 1840s. State officials, mill owners, and parents all figured that 50,000 working children was simply an economic necessity. Even if it meant there’d be no education. Even if it meant the very lives of children were in danger. “Children who work in the dye rooms and print-shops of textile factories, and the color rooms of factories,” wrote Spargo, “are subject to contact with poisonous dyes, and the results are often terrible.”

“Progressive era reformers quickly singled out Pennsylvania as the worst offender,” writes historian Joseph M. Speakman.  As early as 1890, Florence Kelley noted that child labor in Pennsylvania, “flourishes almost unchecked.” And Jane Addams pointed to Pennsylvania, in 1905, writing “that there were more children employed in manufacturing industries in the state than in all of the cotton states of the South.”

“The high point of publicity on the issue,” writes Licht, came in late 1906, when “more than 25,000 Philadelphians crowded into the city’s Horticultural Hall,” (on Broad Street adjacent to the Academy of Music) to see “’An Industrial Exhibit,’ which dramatized with shocking photographs the use and state of child labor in Philadelphia Industry.” Advocacy organizations were embarrassing Philadelphia, the city promoting itself as the “Workshop of the World,” with the equally well-earned and dubious title: “The Greatest Child Employing City.”

"Juvenile Textile Workers on Strike in Philadelphia," From John Spargo, The Bitter Cry of the Children, 1916 (Google eBook)

“Juvenile Textile Workers on Strike in Philadelphia,” in 1903. From John Spargo, The Bitter Cry of the Children, 1916 (Google Books).

But it took a special effort to move the issue child labor to the forefront, ahead of the other pressing concerns. In April 1903, wrote Philip Scranton, “all the unions in the textile industries of Philadelphia met in convention at the Kensington Labor Lyceum” and agreed that they would strike for better pay and a reduction from a 60-hour to a 55-hour workweek. Within a few months, more than 90,000 textile workers had walked off the job. Twenty-five percent of this striking workforce was less than 15 years of age.

Enter Mary Harris, aka Mother Jones, who once claimed: “I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hell-raiser.”

Knowing full well that at least ten thousand of the textile strikers were children, Jones imagined the power of a spectacle: an army of children in protest. She quickly organized one in the center of Philadelphia.

“A great crowd gathered in the public square in front of the city hall,” wrote Mother Jones in her autobiography. “I put the little boys with their fingers off and hands crushed and maimed on a platform. I held up their mutilated hands and showed them to the crowd and made the statement that Philadelphia’s mansions were built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts and drooping heads of these children. That their little lives went out to make wealth for others. That neither state or city officials paid any attention to these wrongs. That they did not care that these children were to be the future citizens of the nation.”

“The officials of the city hall were standing the open windows. I held the little ones of the mills high up above the heads of the crowd and pointed to their puny arms and legs and hollow chests. … I called upon the millionaire manufactures to cease their moral murders, and I cried to the officials in the open windows opposite, “Some day the workers will take possession of your city hall, and when we do, no child will be sacrificed on the altar of profit.”

“The officials quickly closed the windows, as they had closed their eyes and hearts.”

Soon after, Mother Jones and her sign-carrying “children’s army” embarked on a 92-mile March of the Mill Children, to the Long Island, New York vacation home of President Theodore Roosevelt. The trek, which had little immediate impact (not until 1909 did the state raise the minimum age of employment to 14 and reduce the work week to 58 hours) started on July 7, 1903 from the physical and spiritual home of organized textile labor in Philadelphia: the Kensington Labor Lyceum at 2nd and Cambria Streets.


For more on Philadelphia’s Labor Lyceum Movement, see this post.

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PhillyHistory Now Available on Field Trip

2014_05_16_FieldTripApp_PhillyHistoryWe’re excited to announce that select materials from PhillyHistory will now be accessible from your smartphone through the Field Trip app developed by NianticLabs at Google. Field Trip is designed to help you find and explore interesting locations in the world. With information on historical places and events, architecture, art and museums, and much more, Field Trip serves as a guide to the hidden history and culture all around us.

Want to learn more about the many historical events that have occurred in Philadelphia?  Curious about the history of the buildings and places that you walk by every day? The tens of thousands of images on have long provided a view into the city’s past with the stories behind the images told through posts on the PhillyHistory Blog. The Field Trip app includes selected images and articles from the PhillyHistory Blog that are connected to specific locations throughout the city. If you have the Field Trip app on your phone, you can read content from the PhillyHistory Blog about the history of locations near you. If you have notifications and location services turned on, you’ll even receive alerts when you pass a building or intersection connected to a story on PhillyHistory.

The Field Trip app is available for both iPhones and Android devices at no cost. After downloading the app, users can select from several fields of interest and view stories and images connected to that topic by clicking on the markers on the map. PhillyHistory falls under the “Historic Places & Events” category which are shown as pale orange square markers on the map. Click on a marker to see an overview of the story of that location and then click the top bar to view the full article and images. If you’d like to read more from the PhillyHistory Blog, click the “Full Article” button at the bottom of the page to view more info on the blog or click “PhillyHistory” to visit the website.

We hope you’ll explore PhillyHistory on the Field Trip app and discover the amazing history surrounding us here in Philadelphia!


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The History and Background Behind The World’s First Statue of Charles Dickens

Although I have lived in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Cedar Park since 2006, I have not really given too much thought to the history of the Charles Dickens statue in the “Park A” part of Clark Park at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue. In fact, the statue is of not only Dickens but his character “Little Nell” (i.e. Nell Trent, a character from his 1841 novel The Old Curiosity Shop). I had heard that it is the world’s only statue of Dickens, but this is technically not true, as there is another one in Sydney, Australia and a very recently erected statue of his likeness in his birth city of Portsmouth. Still, I found it quite odd that of all the places on earth where a statue of Dickens could possibly exist, one was here in Philadelphia and not in London, which at least in theory would make much more sense. Thus, I decided to do some investigating.

Photo of statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in 1910.

Photo of statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in 1910.

As it turns out, the statue was commissioned in 1890 by Washington Post founder Stilson Hutchins to be completed by New York City-based artist Francis Edwin Elwell. Initially, the idea was that it would indeed be placed in London. When Hutchins backed out of the deal, Elwell finished it anyway. The statue was then shipped to London and put on display with the hope of finding a buyer. However, this was unsuccessful namely because Dickens expressed a strong desire to not be depicted in such form. In fact, his will does not allow any “monument, memorial or testimonial, whatever. I rest my claims to remembrance on my published works and to the remembrance of my friends upon their experiences of me.”

The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park circa 1959.

The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park circa 1959.

After Elwell shipped the statue across the Atlantic and back, it won two gold medals at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892-3. Despite the awards it received, the work failed to find a buyer and so it was then sent to languish in a Philadelphia warehouse.

Then in 1896, the organization that became the Association for Public Art (back then it was called the Fairmount Park Art Association) negotiated to keep the work in Philadelphia. In 1900, the FPAA purchased it for $7,500 (about $213,000 today) and in 1901, it was placed in its current location and it has stayed there since then despite numerous failed requests to move it to a more prominent location. In November 1989, the sculpture was vandalized but ultimately fully restored.

The entrance to Clark Park circa 1927.

The entrance to Clark Park circa 1927.

Every year in February, Dickens’ birthday is celebrated in Clark Park. In 2013, the celebration included Morris dancing, sampling of Victorian-era desserts, readings from his books and other events.

The statue of Dickens and Little Nell is the only statue that is placed in Clark Park and while we’re not exactly sure of how it got there in the first place, the likely answer is due to Clark Park’s namesake Clarence H. Clark himself. Clark was a wealthy financier and developer who sat on the artworks committee of the FPAA committee. Thus, it was purchased by the FPAA in 1900 and placed at 43rd and Chester in 1901.

In addition to the statue of Dickens and Little Nell, the park also contains a large stone from an area called Devil’s Den in the Gettysburg Battlefield during the Civil War. The stone was placed in the park in June of 1916 and was set up there to remember Union soldiers who were treated at the site, which was once Satterlee Hospital, and “services of the patriotic men and women” who cared for them.

Another example of public art in Clark Park is an initiative set up by the University City District called Heart and Soul. Last summer, 4 decorated pianos were set up all over the park with the goal being spontaneous, random piano performances by whoever wandered by and sat down to play.

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What Became of Them


Joseph Ida, John Avena and Luigi Quaranta (left to right) in a police lineup after the Zanghi-Cocozza murders, May 1927. (

What became of the perpetrators of the Zanghi-Cocozza Memorial Day murders after Anthony “Musky” Zanghi named names and Piero Francisco testified?

At first, city officials thought they might have come to the end of the gangster wars in South Philadelphia. In a sweep the Saturday night following the Memorial Day murders, police raided seven “sore spots” and “disorderly houses” between 5th and 11th, Christian and Federal Streets“all the places where men and women of questionable character congregate” and hauled in more than 100 suspects. “We are going to keep up the raids until all habitual criminals have fled from the city,” they declared, “the death dealing warfare must come to an end.”

But of the six arrested: John Avena and Salvatore Sabella (two of the gunmen on foot) Dominick Sesta and Luigi Quaranta (who fired shotguns from a car), driver John Scopoletti and Antonio Dominic Pollina, aka Mr. Miggs, all but Quaranta were soon back on the street. Despite hopes for law and order, more witnesses than perpetrators went to prison—for their own protection, of course.

Innocent bystander Piero Francisco saw more of Philadelphia from behind bars than anywhere else, during his visit to the city. Francisco briefly worked for Zanghi and had the misfortune of witnessing the murders. After his court appearance and several attempts on his own life, Francisco spent 20 months in protective custody. Finally, in the Spring of 1929, he left City Hall under armed guard to return to Italy on an unnamed steamer, never to seen or heard from again.

After his release from protective custody, “Musky” Zanghi returned to his usual gangland ways and met his end in New York City late one August night in 1934. Zanghi left behind a widow. Antoinette, seven children, and apparently a stash of counterfeit one dollar bills with which Antoinette augmented the earnings at her 8th and Montrose Streets fruit stand.

Instead of being the beginning of the end, the arrests in 1927 were more like the end of the beginning of the Philadelphia Mob. The arrests read more like a Who’s Who of the emerging Philadelphia mob. From left to right in the illustrated lineup we have:

Joseph Ida: Zanghi could not place Ida at the murder scene and he was quickly released. Ida would head up the South Philadelphia family in the 1940s and much of the 1950s, only to flee to Sicily after having escaped arrest, though not indictment, after the famous raid of the Apalachin Meeting in 1957. Ida’s successor was Antonio Domenic Pollina (“Mr. Miggs”), also arrested for the 1927 murders. Pollina briefly led the Philadelphia Family before the start of Angelo Bruno’s reign, which came to a conclusion with his own murder in 1980.

9th Street at Ellsworth Street, Looking South, February 7, 1937. Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory,org)

9th Street at Ellsworth Street, Looking South, February 7, 1937. Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory,org)

John Avena: “The biggest numbers man in South Philadelphia,” whose crime interests were as deep as they were wide, Avena took charge after Sabella “retired” in 1931. Avena had repeatedly been a target and on August 17, 1936, he was the first mob boss in Philadelphia to be killed, along with Martin Feldstein, another racketeer. They were standing at Passyyunk and Washington Avenues when drive-by shooters, thought to be from the rival Lanzetti brothers, killed both men. Avena left behind a widow, Grazia, two children, a diamond-encrusted wrist watch and $8,000 in safe deposit box. Pius Lanzetti, who ordered the killing, was himself gunned down the following New Years Eve.

Giuseppe Quaranta: Despite all hopes and plans for the end of mob domination with the Zanghi-Cocozza arrests, this “dapper little man,” as newspapers described him, was the only one to be convicted. In court, Francisco had testified that “Quaranta and Sesta fired the shotguns.” Quaranta claimed he was in his “chicken store” at the time of the killings, to no avail. He found himself quickly sentenced to life in prison. In 1935, on the eve of his own execution for the murder of a policeman, William “Mollyooch” Deni scribbled a note that Quaranta had gotten a “bum rap,” that Zanghi had set him up in an extortion attempt. It was enough to throw Quaranta’s life sentence in doubt. In 1938, he was pardoned and released.

Not only did no one else spent time in prison for the Zanghi-Cocozza murders, a few lived long and healthy lives. After retirement, Sabella lived out his life in Norristown, Pennsylvania and died of natural causes in 1962.  And Antonio Domenic Pollina, “Mr. Miggs,” died in 1993, not long after his 100th birthday.

(Newspaper articles consulted at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center in files for John Avena and Luigi Quaranta include “Quaranta Guilty in First Degree,” June 19, 1927; “‘Big Nose’ Avena Slain by Gunmen in South Phila.” August 17, 1936; and “Executed Convict Frees Life Termer,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, December 20, 1935.)

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Venice Island Recreational Facilities: Coming Soon! (Again)

In the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, between the Schuylkill River and the canal, there is a small patch of land, under two miles long, referred to as Venice Island. With the exception of a new apartment building, it has been somewhat of an eyesore for the neighborhood in recent decades, with leftover buildings and equipment from when the canal was still in use as late as the 1940s. However, the Philadelphia Water Department, along with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Manayunk Development Corporation, have spent the last few years planning and fighting the elements in order to make the lower part of Venice Island something more than a parking lot used when grabbing brunch on Main Street.

In preparation for the upcoming Lower Venice Island Park and Performance Center’s grand opening, coming later this year, here is a look back at the area and its evolution from being part of a working canal in an industrial neighborhood.

Lock Number 68’s sluice house

Lock Number 68’s sluice house

In the early 19th century, coal usage was rising in the United States. With regions towards the middle of Pennsylvania having large coal reserves, easy transport was needed in order to get the coal to the major cities. As a result, the Schuylkill Navigation system came about: a 108-mile system of locks and dams that carried thousands of ships from the coal-mining cities of Pennsylvania, starting with Port Carbon, down to Philadelphia and further. The Schuylkill Navigation Company allowed areas along the route to purchase the energy thanks to water through turbines or similar equipment. This includes Manayunk, which saw a rise in its textile industry and neighborhood population during the 19th century as mills began to build along the canal.

Finished in 1819, the Manayunk section of the Schuylkill Navigation system contained three locks: 68, 69, and 70. Lock Number 68 was found on the upper section of Venice Island and pictured here.

With the rising use of railroads to transport coal, use of the canal dwindled and it eventually closed to commercial and recreational boats in the 1940s, leaving equipment abandoned on Venice Island. These photographs taken on the lower side of Venice Island provide a look into the Manayunk daily life in the 1950s, around a decade after the canal was no longer in use. It was purchased by the City of Philadelphia and incorporated into the Fairmount Parks Systems.

Lock tender's house on the side of the mainland (left) with the sluice house (right).

Lock tender’s house on the side of the mainland (left) with the sluice house (right).

Close up on the canal Lock 68.

Close up on the canal Lock 68.

Recreational areas have been a popular aspect of Venice Island and the surrounding area. There were playgrounds there as early as the 1950s (seen below) and the tow path on the Manayunk side of the canal is currently part of the Schuylkill River Trail that extends ten miles. Luckily, the new plans for the space also include such public areas like basketball courts and a children’s area! For more information on the Lower Venice Island Park and Performance Center, head to the project’s official page on the Philadelphia Water Department website.

Venice Island Playground

Venice Island Playground


Venice Island Playground


Peters, M. & Smith, K. (1993). The Manayunk Canal. Retrieved from

Levine, A. L. The Manayunk Canal and the Schuylkill Navigation System: A Brief History. Retrieved from

Philadelphia Water Department. (2014).Venice Island. Retrieved from

Elk, Sara Jane. (1990). Workshop of the World. Oliver Evans Press. Retrieved from


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Echoes from the Mask and Wig Club

The Mask & Wig Club, 310 S. Quince Street, October 5, 1956.

The Mask & Wig Club, 310 S. Quince Street, October 5, 1958..

Many years ago, when I was helping my grandmother decide which records to donate to the New York Public Library from her extensive collection, I found a set of fragile shellac discs protected by  brown paper sleeves.  They were old dance records from the 1920s that had belonged to my grandfather Joseph Follmann Jr., who passed away in 1989.

The record of the 1927 production of "Hoot Mon."  Ujifusa family.

The record of the 1927 production of “Hoot Mon.” Ujifusa family.

A recording by the Mask & Wig pit orchestra of "I Live the Life I Love," probably with my grandfather conducting. Note the record label: the Pennsylvania Athletic Club Building is now the Parc Rittenhouse on the east side of Rittenhouse Square.  Ujifusa family.

A recording by the Mask & Wig pit orchestra of “I Live the Life I Love,” probably with my grandfather conducting. Note the record label: the Pennsylvania Athletic Club Building is now the Parc Rittenhouse on the east side of Rittenhouse Square. Ujifusa family.

These were 78s, and thus could fit only one song on a side.  The songs included “Say That You Love Me” by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians and “Old Man River” by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra.  All were recorded at the Victor Studios in Camden, New Jersey.  Among them were two discs of songs from old Mask & Wig productions.

My grandmother had a 78 setting on her record player  – or as she called it, a “victrola.”  We put on a record of “Gems from ‘Hoot Mon,’” from the 39th annual production of the Mask & Wig Club, which included the foxtrot “We’ll Paddle Our Canoe” recorded by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra and the Mask & Wig Glee Chorus.  Then there was  ”I Live the Life I Love” from a record labeled “50/50,” the name of the 1937 show. According to alumnus Don Fisher, my grandfather was credited as the conductor and rehearsal pianist — he loved the Club so much he came back seven years after graduation to assist with the show.

The sound was scratchy and thin, the voices high pitched and nasal.

We saved the records.

I was only ten when Grandpa died, yet I knew that he loved the Mask & Wig Club, that legendary theatrical troupe started by a group of University of Pennsylvania students in 1889 and whose song-and-dance antics have been delighting Philadelphia (and American) audiences ever since.  Among the group’s notable alumni was Bobby Troup, who composed the jazz standard “Route 66.”  

Among the pictures in my parents’ home is a photograph of Grandpa Joe seated with the West Philadelphia High School orchestra.  He was a pianist, so unlike the other members who are proudly holding their flutes, violins, and trumpets, he is sitting hands folded next to the portly, mustachioed conductor.  There is also a framed certificate of his election to the Club dated May 1, 1929, and his Club rosette sits in an old Penn shot glass.  ”Made in France,” the rosette’s brass clasp reads.

West Philadelphia High School, 48th and Walnut Streets, from an architectural rendering date December 1910.

West Philadelphia High School, 48th and Walnut Streets, from an architectural rendering dated December 1910.

Grandpa served as music director of the Club his senior year, composing many of the songs and the pit band. In those days, the Club toured around the country in a special Pullman train, graciously provided by the Pennsylvania Railroad. He graduated from the Wharton School in 1930 with hopes of becoming a professional musician. According to family lore, he even played piano at the Folies Begere in Paris and recorded with dance bands such as Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, whose most famous song was “Collegiate,” a hot jazz riff on the carelessness of Roaring Twenties college life: “trousers, baggy, all our clothes look raggy, but we’re rough-and-ready. Yay. Rah Rah. Very, very, very, seldom in a hurry. Real collegiate are we.”

Members of the Mask & Wig Club rehearsing at 310 S. Quince Street in 1930, my grandfather's senior year.

Collegiate. Members of the Mask & Wig Club rehearsing at 310 S. Quince Street in 1930, my grandfather’s senior year. Source: Wikipedia.

Yet the life of a professional musician is always tough, and during the Depression it was nearly impossible to be  ”seldom in a hurry” to make ends meet.  He went into the insurance business and married a stage actress, dividing his time between New York and Philadelphia.  He became close friends with a number of people in the Philadelphia arts scene through his involvement with the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, befriending actors such as Richard Basehart (who played Ishmael in the classic movie Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab) and Eleanor “Siddy” Wilson (an actress and artistic polymath from the Wetherill paint family, who created abstract canvases well into her 90s).

Grandpa Joe lost his first wife to cancer in the 1950s, and took a cruise on the Holland-America liner Maasdam. It was onboard this ship that he met my grandmother, tragically widowed at a young age with two children — my uncle and mother. The two were married shortly afterward, and Grandpa Joe moved permanently to New Rochelle, New York.   Grandpa retired from his job as an insurance executive in the 1960s, taught as an adjunct at NYU’s Stern School of Business, wrote a few business books,  and continued to play the piano, both jazz and classical.

My brother Andrew and I spent a lot of time as young children at our grandparents’ Upper East Side apartment.  The piano was at the center of the living room, a 1926 Steinway that Grandma and Grandpa had purchased together. A two foot high statue of Beethoven, painted to look like bronze, sat on the piano case, along with two brass candlesticks.  Grandpa loved playing the Peter’s theme from Serge Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” for my brother and me, and we could not get enough of it. Sometimes, he would put my hands over his as he ran his fingers over the keys.

I never learned how to play.  I tried the oboe instead.  ”That’s one difficult instrument,” Grandpa scoffed.  He was right.  After I had braces put on, I got lazy, stopped practicing, and that was the end of that.

In his early 80s, Grandpa Joe began suffering from memory problems.  One day, he sat down at the Steinway and started to play a piece he had composed many years ago, according to my grandmother a short “filler” piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Yet he could not remember it.  My grandmother said he closed the piano, walked away, and never opened it again.  He died soon after from a heart attack.

The Mask & Wig records are now at my parents house, locked away in a case along with other records from Grandpa Joe’s extensive classical library that did not get donated to the New York Public Library.  Yet there is no turntable  to play them now, either at 33 or 78 RPM.

Beethoven is there too, standing with his arms folded amidst a forest of houseplants.  He did, after all, like taking afternoon walks in the Vienna woods.

Grandpa Joe's caricature at the Mask and Wig Club house, directly behind the piano in the ratskeller. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Grandpa Joe’s caricature at the Mask and Wig Club house, directly behind the piano in the ratskeller. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

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