Trolley Barns and Grand Hotels: A Brief Look at the Widener Empire


41st and Haverford Avenue, looking east, c.1900. The Philadelphia Traction Company’s trolley barn is the gable roofed structure on the right.

At the corner of 41st Street and Haverford Avenue, amidst the rowhouses of West Powelton, stands a cavernous brick building with a pitched roof. Looming over its neighbors, it is one of the few surviving structures of the Widener trolley car empire.

Originally, the Philadelphia Traction Company had three massive trolley sheds in West Philadelphia, each equipped with a blacksmith shop and other repair facilities. Another one survives at 41st and Chestnut Street, which was once able to house up to 300 horses.

During Philadelphia’s Gilded Age, the trolley car was the ubiquitous symbol of the Widener family’s power.  With the exception of the very rich, who had private coaches, almost every city dweller gave the Philadelphia Traction Company conductors his or her nickels and dimes while en route to work or running errands.  The trolley infrastructure is imprinted on the city’s urban landscape. Many of the rails and overhead wires have not been used in years, the bane of cyclists and drivers alike.  A century ago, the trolley shaped Philadelphia on a grand scale: it allowed the city to grow outward (a city of homes), as opposed to upward (a city of tenements and skyscrapers) like its rival New York.

The humble trolley also built one of the largest fortunes in the United States.

Peter Arrell Brown Widener (1836-1915), like the salty-tongued Cornelius Vanderbilt before him, knew the power of cold, hard cash. Widener was a believer in technology and progress, not propriety and tradition.  What mattered to him was harnessing a regular cash stream which flowed from the everyday needs of the masses.  Born poor and trained as a butcher, Widener made his first small fortune by supplying meat to the Union Army during the Civil War.  Like many so-called “war profiteers,” he rose from poverty to what the New York Herald smugly dismissed as the nation’s “Shoddy Aristocracy.”  The New York Tribune, for its part, defined shoddy as:  ”poor sleezy stuff, woven open enough for seives [sic], and then filled with shearman’s dust. … Soldiers, on the first day’s march or in the earliest storm, found their clothes, overcoats, and blanket, scattering to the wind in rags or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain.”

Shoddy or not, Widener was shrewd.  After Appomattox, Widener took his $50,000 (about $700,000 today) and began investing in his native city’s transportation network.  Rather than trying to break into the  railroad business — the Pennsylvania Railroad was a state-chartered old boys club — Widener invested in the construction streetcar lines and developing the surrounding real estate.  A street-smart young man who loved shirt-sleeve poker and politics, he knew how neighborhoods worked. He also knew how to muscle his way into City Hall by briefly serving as City Treasurer.

Peter Arrell Brown Widener (1836-1915). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In the boom years that followed the Civil War, the city had plenty of room to expand.  The 1854 Act of Consolidation expanded the city from a mere 2 square miles to nearly 130.  Much of this new territory was undeveloped farmland and woods. Trolley cars, unlike capital-intensive railroads, were relatively cheap to build and operate.  They were ideal people movers, as long as the city’s population and manufacturing economy continued to grow. And for a while, they did. The burgeoning factories and mills of late 19th century Philadelphia not only provided thousands of manufacturing jobs, but also plenty of white collar managerial ones.  As noted by historians Philip Scranton and Walter Licht: “At its peak in the 1920s, our setting was the third largest metropolis in the United States, an expanse of 128 square miles occupied by two million residents, and a visitor to the city could hardly overlook the industrial base that supported this complex.”

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.

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

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.

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, Walnut and South Broad Streets, December 18, 1913. Parked in the foreground are two Ford Model Ts. The automobile would ultimately help unravel the old streetcar neighborhoods.


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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#WilliamPennWednesday: How Philadelphia Got Its Quaker Zeus

William Penn on City Hall Tower. (PhillyHistory,org)

Edward Hicks, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, ca 1830-40. (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Even though the statue of William Penn would be bolted in place more than 500 feet above the sidewalk and seen much farther away by most Philadelphians, it really mattered that the statue on City Hall make a good first and lasting impression. After all, at 36 feet 8 inches, here would stand the tallest figure on a building anywhere in the nation, nearly 17 feet taller than the statue of Freedom on the U.S. Capitol.

“Notwithstanding its great height,” explained sculptor Alexander Milne Calder in 1886 as he worked on the figure, Penn “will be quite plainly visible from the street, therefore every care has to be taken with regard to the features and every other detail.” What Calder had in mind was a statue facing South Broad Street, its bronzed expression bathed in sunlight. When the sculptor’s plans were scrapped by a new architect who turned Penn’s face away from the sun to gaze to the Northeast, and Penn Treaty Park, the scorned sculptor quipped that his greatest work had been “condemned to eternal silhouette.”

In fact, Calder had a number of reasons to turn his Penn’s back on the past, especially the place where he and the Native Americans may have signed a treaty. In his modernized redo of Penn, Calder wanted to pull away from the old image (and the myths they rode in on) to create something entirely new. “What we want is William Penn as he is known to Philadelphians, not a theoretical one or a fine English gentleman.” And as he worked, Calder admitted he felt conflicted. “I have not absolutely settled upon the final figure,” he added.

Calder also felt the heat. Ever since 1872, when John McArthur, City Hall’s original architect, proposed to replace the first idea an allegorical figure of Justice with a statue a real person, there had been no shortage of opinions as to how this giant Penn might be made to look. This image would dominate the city’s skyline immediately and, presumably, forever.  What it might suggest about Philadelphia, Philadelphians (and Philadelphia history) mattered then, and Calder knew it would matter now.

He hadn’t gotten any real pushback on the hundreds of statues he created for City Hall closer to the ground—figures people could actually see, but didn’t care all that much about. After working 13 years on the massive project, when he finally got to the tower groupings and to the largest sculpture of all, Calder planned on going for a “manly beauty,” something different than the Rotund, Bejowled Founder painted by Benjamin West in the 18th century or the Jolly Penn reinforced ad nauseum by Edward Hicks’ paintings in the 19th.

City Hall Tower-Statue Penn’s Head ca. 1892 (

Historians really had nothing to go on, there were no portraits of Penn at that time to serve as a guide, but that didn’t stop them from insisting on accuracy and authenticity. They argued at length about Penn’s clothing and the style of his hat. City Fathers, who had seen the project take far longer and become far more expensive and controversial than they had ever dreamed, just wanted building and sculpture done—with no further embarrassments.

What could possibly be embarrassing in 1886? A roly-poly Founder-figure defining the skyline, perhaps. Or a statue reminiscent of the corrupt, Gilded Age politician (see Thomas Nast’s caricature of Boss Tweed). This was the year Philadelphia politician Boies Penrose, aka “Big Grizzly,” a man of massive appetite (he was known to have a dozen eggs for breakfast and a turkey for lunch) and great girth (he’d reach 350 pounds) took his seat to the State Senate.

What could be embarrassing atop the white-marble frosting of City Hall? A figure recalling President Grover Cleveland’s White House wedding from the previous June. Cleveland stood firm in his wedding picture as the heaviest American president to date. (In time, only Taft would outweigh him.)

So it did matter—a lot—what this new Penn looked like. And as he worked through a series of maquettes, Calder would come to give his Penn a complete makeover, figure and face. He’d lose the gut and the double chin, acquiring a dimple. He’d get fancy ruffles, buckles and curls. Most of all, Calder made a figure that could stand almost joke-free. He gave the city a Quaker Zeus—if such a thing was possible.

Something to celebrate this #WilliamPennWednesday.

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Philadelphia Trivia (Workshop of the World Division)

Disston Saw Works, New State Road and Knorr Street, June 25, 1901. (

No question about it: Philadelphia’s WOW is greatly diminished. (And by WOW, we mean the city’s claim to the title “Workshop of the World.”) In the middle of the last century, just under half of the city’s workers made things. Now only one in twenty does.

With very few exceptions (like the surviving DisstonPrecision in Tacony, the subject of a recent post at AxisPhilly) the city’s sprawling industrial complexes are gone. And with the departure of the likes of Baldwin Locomotive Works, Stetson Hats, Quaker Lace and hundreds more smaller mills and factories, we can barely imagine what the city was like before it ran, literally, out of steam. What we have in their place are echoes of pride about all that once was Philly-made, a level of bluster and noise that rings as true with the city’s character and soul that 1776 does—and, come to think of it, maybe even truer. But what’s gone is gone.

How did Philadelphians celebrate their WOW factor when they still had it? With as much pride and bluster as the facts might convey. Apparently, there’s a long tradition of finding solace in the scale of what Philadelphia made.

Looking, for instance, at a printed bird’s eye-view of the city from 1908, The Philadelphia Of To-Day, The World’s Greatest Workshop, we see that the margins packed with what might be considered, for lack of a better word, trivia:

Philadelphia with only one-sixtieth of the population of the Republic, produced one-twentieth of all its manufactures.

Philadelphia has 16,000 manufacturing plants, employing 250,000 skilled laborers, each year consuming $400,000,000 of raw material and producing $700,000,000 of manufactures.

Philadelphia manufactures 8 locomotives every working day, or 2,663 in the year. These locomotives on a perfectly level track would haul 168,000 loaded cars of 50 tons capacity.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 45,000,000 yards of carpet, enough to put a belt around the earth and leave a remnant long enough to reach Cincinnati.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 12,000,000 dozen hose and half hose, enough to allow 2 pairs for every man, woman and child in the United States.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 4,800,000 hats. The bands, end to end, would reach from Philadelphia to Denver.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 180,000,000 yards of cotton piece goods, enough to make a pair of sheets for every family in the United States.

Of course, that’s all in the past, unless we’re talking about DisstonPrecision, the successor to Henry Disston’s Keystone Saw, Tool, Steel & File Works, which started in a cellar near 2nd and Arch Streets in 1840. They no longer make handsaws at the factory, which moved to Tacony in 1872, and the place is a shadow of its former self. But the making goes on at New State Road and Knorr Street, as it has continuously since 1872. And so with Disston, (thanks to Scranton and Licht, Silcox twice, and TIME) the numbers resonate less abstractly, and even a bit more sweetly.

Henry Disston Keystone Saw, Tool, Steel & File Works, interior, ca. 1910. (DisstonPrecision)

The number of steps to manufacture a handsaw blade: 82.

Disston’s marketshare of the American handsaw business in 1940: 75 percent.

Disston’s annual usage of coal in the mid 1870s: ten thousand tons.

Order placed by the country of Afghanistan in the mid-1930s: 10 Disston Tractor Tanks.

The number of Disston saws sold annually to amateur and vaudeville musicians: about 500.

In 1918, 3,600 men and women worked in 58 Disston buildings. Those who had been employed for a decade or more: 1,400.

The number of cross-cuts through four-foot hemlock logs in an 8 hour shift made by Disston’s 9’ 2” diameter saws: 900.

And today?

How long it takes the 600 teeth of DisstonPrecision’s 6’ 10″ circular saw to cut through a steel I-beam: two seconds.

Philadelphia’s WOW lives on, after all.

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Campus Clearance: A Look Inside UPenn’s Lost Houses

4045 Walnut Street, c.1955.


Apartment building on the corner of 40th and Locust, May 8, 1953. Demolished.

It’s hard to believe that before the 1960s, adaptive reuse was an alien concept to architects and city planners.  To universities, the planning ethos of “out with the old, in with the new” was especially potent.  Disciples of Le Corbusier and other modernists were in control of the University of Pennsylvania and American schools. The classical Beaux-Arts tradition as taught by Paul-Philipe Cret was largely replaced by the Bauhaus creed of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.  There was little interest in fixing up old buildings. They represented an unenlightened past — the gloomy “horse-and-buggy era” — out of sync with modern life, technology, and especially the automobile.

3910 Walnut Street, c.1955.

The former Comegy mansion at 4203 Walnut Street, photographed on April 20, 1959. Built originally in the 1850s as a streetcar suburban villa, a century later it was in the heart of inner-city West Philadelphia.

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, of course.  As is nostalgia.  In Penn’s defense, the GI Bill and the general “opening up” of American universities to the sons and daughters of the middle class caused serious strain on the old campus infrastructure.  Once largely the preserve  of the sons of the wealthy, an Ivy League education in the 1950s was well within the reach of young men and women from middle income families.  Penn president Gaylord P. Harnwell realized that in order to satisfy growing demand for classrooms and beds, the Penn campus would have to expand upward and westward. He built the massive new Van Pelt Library, and closed the trolley lines that ran down the middle of Locust Street, creating a new pedestrian greenway through the center of campus known as Locust Walk.  Most importantly, Penn leveled the four blocks bounded by 38th, 40th, Spruce, and Walnut Streets, replacing them with three concrete high-rise skyscraper dormitories designed by Penn Design dean G. Holmes Perkins, as well as several low-rise student housing structures. All of these were surrounded by lawns and walkways.The clean lines and smooth surfaces of the International style represented something striking, modern, and optimistic, a break with the dreary years of the Great Depression and World War II.

The Professor Henry C. Lea mansion at 3903 Spruce Street, November 9.1967. Originally built in the 1860s, this Italianate house served as the suburban residence of Penn professor Henry Lea (1825-1912). After serving as a fraternity house, it was pulled down in 1967.

The former dining room of the Lea mansion, just prior to demolition in 1967.


Fraternity paddles in an upstairs bedroom of the Lea mansion, just prior to demolition, November 1967.

Interior plasterwork, the Henry C. Lea mansion, just prior to demolition in November 1967.

Most of the houses on these blocks dated to the mid-to-late 19th century, and were built for middle class, white collar commuters. There was also were truly grand suburban residences built for the Drexels and other wealthy families.  Few people saw these grungy old homes as having much architectural value in the 1960s: what had once been a fashionable suburb had become a slum to be cleared. Critics derided Victorian architecture as decadent, ugly, and functionally obsolete.  From a practical standpoint, the buildings were old and run down, serving as ad hoc classroom space, student housing, fraternity houses, low-rent apartments, retail, and restaurants.  Their electrical and plumbing systems were at the end of their useful lives.  There was also a human cost to this expansion: scores of families, mostly African-American renters, were displaced. In fact, Penn’s expansion ignited tension in the surrounding neighborhood that lasted for years.

The destruction wasn’t total. Penn adapted a few houses for new uses: the Eisenlohr mansion became the president’s residence, while the Fels mansion housed the Fels Institute of government.  Two of the Drexel family houses survive as fraternity houses, while the Potts mansion survives largely intact as the headquarters of the Penn Press. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church also escaped the bulldozer.  Yet almost every other structure came down to make way for the “Superblock,” which stands in stark contrast to Penn’s historic, compact campus to the east.

Miraculously, city photographers documented many of these homes before the wreckers arrived and smashed them to pieces. These photographs give a rare glimpse into these homes, which appear remarkably intact despite decades of neglect and alterations. During this mass demolition, scavengers picked through these homes, salvaging paneling, piping, leaded glass, and other examples of fine 19th century craftsmanship.  The carved wood and plasterwork dated from a time when labor was cheap and rich materials plentiful: solid walnut pocket doors, for example, were common in West Philadelphia houses.  After the Civil War, machines could cheaply churn out elaborately ornamented furniture and fittings that previously could only have been laboriously made by hand.

Much of what is seen here in these pre-demolition shots had been dismissed not only as out-of-date, but just plain hideous.  Who wanted a monstrous Frank Furness fireplace in their home, anyway?  Most of these houses were simply smashed to smithereens and hauled off to the nearest landfill.

The remarkably well-preserved library of the Comegy mansion in April 1959: the paneling is most likely either walnut or mahogany. It is doubtful that any of this fine 19th century craftsmanship survived the wrecker’s ball.

39th and Locust Street, looking east, February 11, 1930. The Drexel mansion on the left is still standing, while the Second Empire rowhouses on the right are gone, replaced by Harnwell College House, one of three skyscrapers designed by G. Holmes Perkins.

It took a new generation of urban pioneers, real estate investors, and preservationists to realize the aesthetic (as well financial) value of historic structures, no matter how tired, in urban areas such as West Philadelphia.

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National History Day Philly Coming Soon!

National History Day is a year-long program that enables students to investigate and explore historical events while building critical thinking, research, analysis, and presentation skills. Here in Philadelphia, the competition begins with National History Day Philadelphia in March, when hundreds of middle and high school students in Philadelphia present their research in the form of essays, presentations, websites, documentaries, and more. Winners progress to the state and perhaps even national level competition.

The theme for the 2014 National History Day is “Rights and Responsibilities,” and local cultural institutions like the National Archives at Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and many more have supported Philadelphia student researchers by compiling lists of resources, providing mentoring and research assistance, and creating professional development materials for teachers.

For many local students, however, finding the resources and supplies to be able to participate in National History Day can be a challenge. To help raise funds for presentation boards, paper, markers, glue, photocopies, CDs, DVDs, and more basic supplies, the National History Day Philly group has set up a fundraiser at Individuals interested in supporting students in gaining a love of history are encouraged to donate before February 2.

To learn more about National History Day in Philadelphia, check out the video below or follow NHD Philly on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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Looking back on the vision for the Ben Franklin Parkway

by Brady Dale

N 15th St & John F Kennedy Blv

Every month at countless large, public events, thousands of area residents are reminded that the Ben Franklin Parkway is a place that provides amenities other than a quick route out to the Schuylkill from Center City. That common sentiment complements a recent vision articulated by PennPraxis in its report, “More Park, Less Way.” In it, Praxis suggest strategies to make the Eakins Oval and other parts of the Parkway more of a space for people than commuters. A plan that appears to be moving forward.

The Parkway as we know if was first articulated in 1917, by Jacques Gréber, though the concept officially entered the city’s overall plan a decade before that. Construction began on the parkway that year. In a book digitally preserved by The University of the Arts Internet Archive, The Fairmount Parkway: a pictorial record of development from its first incorporation in the city plan in 1904 to the completion of the main drive from City Hall to Fairmount Park in 1919 (1919), there’s a photo of what stood where the parkway now stands. It was a neighborhood. Here’s the photo, shot from the tower in City Hall before construction began.

View from City Hall out onto where the Parkway would go.

To help orient a reader familiar with the city, the domed building is Logan Circle’s Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. Here’s a photo of one of the houses that’s now gone, along with a tiny park. Not so long after, a photo documents the Parkway under construction. You can again see the Basilica in this photo, which helps provide orientation.

The Ben Franklin Parkway, under construction. View from City Hall.

The book also includes a topical view of Jacques Gréber’s final plan, which served as the original vision for the Parkway, though it has seen some hefty revisions since then. Look closely at Eakins Oval, depicted below, to see how that space has changed.

Much of the green space along the northern edge of the plan above is now parking for a few high rises that have gone in on the north edge since then. Another major change to the space has been the replacement of the trees that line its boulevards. In 1989, the 219 red oak trees lining the boulevard were removed because they had all become too unhealthy, due to repeated collisions from automobiles, disease and nails used to post notices. In their place were planted red oak, red maple and sweet gums, so that the space would no longer be an arboreal monoculture.

The Parkway began roughly contemporaneously with the construction of the Art Museum, which broke ground in 1919, but took until 1928 to complete.

The design, as shown in “The Fairmount Parkway: A Pictorial Record.”

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Celebrating January 20th: America’s First Day of Peace

Fireworks in front of the Art Museum, July 4, 2004 by Link Harper. (

Declaring Independence, you have to admit, was Founding Father bluster—a grand and gutsy act of defiance. Before the colonies could actually and truly claim independence, there’d be a whole lot of bloodshed and years of uncertainty.

So maybe, come the next 4th of July, when folks celebrate the anniversary of this declaration with parades, picnics, concerts and (of course) fireworks, they might consider that there’s another day in the American calendar equally worthy of patriotic revelry. That’s the day America could claim the trifecta: independence, liberty and, most important of all, peace.

Today, January 20th, is that day.

What? No fireworks?

For all intents and purposes, the Revolutionary War ended when the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781. But there’d be no lasting or meaningful peace until the players: Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, as well as the would-be United States of America, agreed to all kinds of arrangements, concessions and processes. Until that delicate, negotiated moment, Britain withheld recognition of American sovereignty and maintained military forces on American soil.

In Paris, “two months of hard bargaining” by negotiators (including Americans John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, William Temple Franklin, John Adams and Henry Laurens) “resulted in preliminary articles of peace in which the British accepted American independence and boundaries.” We’re told by the State Department’s official historian that the terms of this agreement also resolved “prewar debts owed British creditors… restitution of property lost during the war by Americans loyal to the British…and provided for the evacuation of British forces from the thirteen states.” On January 20, 1783, six-and-a-half years after July 4, 1776, Americans could finally stop holding their breath and get on with the job of becoming a free nation. The “Definitive Treaty of Peace” would be signed formally the following September.

Eleazer Oswald’s broadside declaring peace had broken out. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Imagine Eleazer Oswald’s relief and excitement upon hearing the news on March 23, 1783, shortly after the Triumph docked at the port of Philadelphia. Oswald, a Revolutionary War veteran, had paid his dues as a lieutenant colonel of artillery and, for a time, as prisoner of war. More recently, he had set himself up as a printer above the London Coffee House at Front and Market Streets.

Not only was the war finally and officially over, but the United States was, in the eyes of its former enemies, a free and sovereign nation. No matter that the day was Sunday. As soon as Oswald heard the news, he ran to his print shop and set his headline in the largest font he could find.

“Peace, Liberty and Independence,” it screamed. Oswald’s broadside hit the streets the following morning, scooping the newspapers. “Yesterday arrived, after a passage of 32 days from Cadiz, a French Sloop of War…with the agreeable Intelligence of PEACE.” There was little more to add, other than to list the “particular Articles respecting this happy and glorious Event….of January 20, 1783,” which included the long awaited words: “Great-Britain acknowledges the Sovereignty and Independence of the Thirteen United States of America.”

No better a reason to light up the sky over Philadelphia this January 20th. It’s nothing less than the 231st anniversary of the First American Peace.

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Frederick A. Poth: Red Bricks and Gold Beer (Part 2)

 Construction and surveying work in front of the former Frederick and Helena Poth mansion at 216 N.33rd Street, May 20, 1927. The Roeschs had vacated the house around this time, and it had become a Drexel Institute dormitory supervised by Dean of Women Ruth A.L. Dorsey.

In 1887, the brewer Frederick A. Poth purchased a large corner lot at N.33rd and Powelton Avenue from Quaker industrialist John Sellers Jr.  Sellers was one of Philadelphia’s richest men, a manufacturer of machinery and investor in West Philadelphia real estate.  Along with the lumber merchant John McIlvain, Sellers was also a stalwart of West Philadelphia’s Quaker community.   The Powelton Quakers tended to be a reserved, insular, and tech-savvy group. They were also usually shrewd business people, and often vocally anti-slavery. True to his faith’s “plainness” doctrine, Sellers lived in a boxy Italianate house at 3300 Arch Street. His cousin and mechanical polymath Coleman Sellers II — hydroelectric engineer for Niagra Falls and arguably the inventor of the first moving picture camera (the kinematoscope) — lived a few blocks to the north on Baring Street.

Industrialist and inventor Coleman Sellers II (1827-1907).

As they grew in wealth and prominence during the Industrial Revolution, Philadelphia Quakers struggled to balance their financial success with the trappings of weath.  The older generation before the Civil War continued to wear gray and black broadcloth, address people in the non-hierarchal “thee” and “thou,” and avoid intoxicating beverages.   The “frivolous” material temptations of the Gilded Age, however, proved too great for many members of the Society of Friends after the Civil War.

Few Philadelphian tycoons could be more quintessentially Gilded Age than the portly brewer Frederick A. Poth.  When he bought the corner lot from Sellers in 1887, the self-made German immigrant was one of the city’s biggest brewers, owner of F.A. Poth & Sons at 31st and Jefferson Street, located in the section of North Philadelphia still known as Brewerytown.  Poth — who still spoke in the gutteral accent of the “old country” — was many things: a tough businessman, an amateur singer in German musical societies, gentleman farmer (at his country property in Norristown), dedicated Mason, bon vivant clubman, and sharp real estate investor.  Soon after purchasing the Sellers lot, he immediately commissioned the relatively obscure architect Alfred W. Dilks Jr. to build a new family home.

Why Poth selected Dilks is a bit of a mystery, especially when he could have chosen the likes of the colorful Frank Furness (then hard at work on the University of Pennsylvania’s new library) or the buttoned-up Theophilus Parsons Chandler Jr. (a distinguished professor at the University and also Dilks’ mentor). Just before he started drafting designs for the Poth mansion, Dilks finished a speculative rowhouse development for Poth and his fellow brewer Edward Schmidt on the 3300 block of Arch Street.  The new houses were cheek-by-jowl with the sober John Sellers mansion. The 1985 National Register nomination of the Poth-Schmidt rowhouses sums up Dilks’s design approach: “As a consequence of Dilks’ training, and his understanding of contemporary taste, the buildings that he designed for Arch Street are among Philadelphia’s most important examples of the Queen Anne style, showing all of its essential features. Those include the Japanese influenced porch details, which alternate with the Mediaevalizing knee braces of other porch details; the empathetic use of brick detail to describe architectural weight; and the multiple textures from painted wood to smooth brick, to shadow catching hung tile. The buildings were further enlivened by formal variation within the group that adds to the richness of the ensemble. There are few equals to the Dilks achievement in the generally plain Quaker City.”

The F.A. Poth and Company brewery at 31st and Jefferson Streets, designed by Otto Wolf. Almost all of these buildings have been demolished. Source: The Hagley Museum and Library. Click on the image to go to the original source.

Definitely not plain, and very un-Quaker, indeed.   And a strange choice of architect for a man a later biographer would eulogize as being “a man of simple tastes.” Yet it was also industrial mechanization that had made the increasingly use of ornament not only possible, but affordable.  Although Dilks specialized in the so-called Queen Anne style, the house he designed for the Poth family at 216 N. 33rd Street can best be described as German “Beer Baron” baroque, a Rhineland castle transported to the banks of the Schuylkill River.  Compared to the flat surfaces of the surrounding Italianate  houses, Poth’s brick mansion is ornate and exuberant.  To trolley riders and pedestrians, its jagged roofline, protruding turrets, and fiery terra cotta details must have screamed for attention. The irony was that all of this historicist ornament in brick, wood, and metal was made possible — and economically feasible — by the mass-production celebrated at the city’s 1876 Centennial Exposition.  Mechanical jigsaws, for example, could churn out intricate gingerbread wood trim in minutes.  Mechanized presses could transform tin sheets into cornices and bay windows just as quickly.

The Powelton Club, located on the 3500 block of Powelton Avenue. It was in operation from 1894 until 1906. Poth and many of the neighborhood’s businessmen were members. Here is a description from the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated November 15, 1894:
“The building is 50 feet front by 100 feet deep, and stands on a plot 89 x 212 feet. It has been entirely renovated and rearranged, so as to insure all the conveniences and comforts of club life. The wide hallway is one of the striking points of the interior arrangements that give the building a quaint and yet pleasant effect. On either side of the hallway are the reception room and library, with accommodation for those who may want to either read or write. In the basement is a fine gymnasium, with all the modern appliances, together with shuffleboard, billiard and pool room and bowling alleys. Close beside these are the bath rooms, lavatories, etc.
“The second floor rooms are devoted to whist parlors, elegantly furnished. The third story is devoted entirely to apartments of the steward and store rooms. All the rooms have the old style of grate. The lighting throughout is by electricity and the building is heated by steam. The outside grounds will be used in summer for tennis and other sports.” Click on image to go to the original source.

To complete his urban ensemble, Poth commissioned fellow German-native Otto Wolf (the same architect who designed his brewery) to build another set of speculative rowhouses directly across the street from 216 N.33rd Street.   He then turned his sights north and west to the old Centennial district of Parkside. Here, he commissioned Willis Hale and other young architects to built a series of enormous, three-story Flemish revival twin homes fronting the old fairgrounds.

3301-11, 3315 Powelton Avenue, built for Frederick A. Poth on speculation by architect Otto Wolf. The houses remained in the Poth family real estate portfolio until the 1950s. Source: University City Historical Society. Click on image to go to original source.

By 1900, the Victorian streetcar suburb of West Philadelphia had reached its stylistic and economic peak.  The houses had evolved from simple suburban Italianate villas into full blown semi-urban mansions.  The man who had dreamed up the 19th century suburban ideal, the landscape architect Alexander Jackson Downing (1815-1852), had warned in his book The Architecture of Country Houses against castle architecture: “There is something wonderfully captivating in the idea of a battlemented castle, even to the apparently modest man, who thus shows to the world his unsuspected vein of personal ambition, by trying to make a castle of his country house. But, unless there is something of the castle in the man, it is very likely, if it be like a real castle to dwarf him to the stature of a mouse.”

The italics are Downing’s own.

Maybe Poth and his wife Helena did feel like a family of “Mäuse” in their Powelton “schloss,” for they did not live for long at 216 N. 33rd Street. About only about ten years, they gave their house to their daughter Mathilde and son-in-law George Roesch (a beef wholesaler), and moved to a new city residence in the middle of their Parkside Avenue development, which they called “Brantwood.”  Here, Frederick Poth died on January 21, 1905.  His sons inherited F.A. Poth & Sons, which like most of Philadelphia’s beer empires fell victim to the Prohibition in the 1920s.

“The Brantwood” at 4130 Parkside Avenue (October 5, 1945), a series of six large twin houses Poth built in the 1890s on Parkside Avenue. He and his wife Helena moved into one of them after giving their house on North 33rd Street to their daughter and son-in-law. After Poth’s death, the six houses were converted into apartments.

Although no longer conducted on the same scale as a century ago, the ancient art of making beer (ale as well as lager) is undergoing a renaissance in Philadelphia.  Although the Poth brewery has vanished, most of his residential buildings in Powelton and Parkside have survived, the legacy of a German immigrant who wanted to bring a bit of his native Rhine Valley to his adopted home.


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Fifty Years Before the War on Poverty

531 Delancey Street Lodging House – 2nd Floor Front. February 27, 1912. (

Mayor J. Hampton Moore knew better when he remarked, in 1933, that “Philadelphia was too proud to have slums.” Indeed, the city had some of the worst housing conditions anywhere in America. Philadelphia’s labyrinth of courts and alleys were lined with tenements that went back a long, long time—despite the best efforts of those who didn’t deny their existence.

Ignoring slums had been just about impossible since 1909, thanks to a citizens’ action group that called itself the Philadelphia Housing Commission. The Commission (which later became the Philadelphia Housing Association) “recruited an army of volunteer housing inspectors” who “combed the city’s courts and alleys looking for noxious heaps of manure… fouled privies, structurally unsafe houses, and other threats to public health and safety.” They filed complaints by the thousands. And more: they spread the word about the city’s slum conditions, advocating for reform in lectures, leaflets, meetings and, maybe most effective of all – in photographs.

Then it should have come as some relief to the city’s thousands of slum tenants and their allies when, in 1913, the state legislature passed an act creating a Division of Housing and Sanitation in the Department of Health and Charities. But the signed bill would have no impact, thanks to the inaction of City Council. The city’s slums remained intact; housing reform in Philadelphia would have to wait.

“Better government in Philadelphia is being slowly strangled,” editorialized The Evening Public Ledger in October 1914. The “cold fingers” of “Philadelphia’s Tammany twisting dexterously through a pliable majority in Councils” are failing to require landlords “to keep their properties in such repair as to make them healthy places to live in. By refusing to appropriate funds necessary to put the law into effect the majority members completely nullified it. It is now as good as dead, killed by Councils.”

840 Lombard Street, September 4, 1914. (

Without funding, tenement occupants without water would continue to have no water; those without connections to sewers would have no sewers. Their unsafe stairways would continue to be unsafe; their broken plumbing, leaky roofs, flooded cellars and windowless rooms would remain intact.

Housing reform wasn’t only the right thing to do for the poor, largely immigrant families “caught on the treadwheel of life.” Removing slums was also about improving the overall health of the city. “Many of the future inmates of blind asylums, tubercular hospitals and prisons are made from a childhood spent amid defective living conditions,” argued The Evening Public Ledger. “Darkness, impure air, dampness, dirt and dilapidation are public enemies.”

If the lack of funding of hard-won legislation was killing reform, the Philadelphia Housing Commission would have to get back to work. No matter that the city’s slum conditions were out of sight and out of mind. Photographers documented them; and the Commission commandeered a storefront window on one of the city’s busiest streets to show how bad slum conditions were.

In November 1914, the Philadelphia Housing Commission’s sidewalk display in the window of the Sharswood Building, 931 Chestnut Street, opened eyes of those who would never otherwise see slums themselves. In the center of the window, the Commission mounted The Evening Public Ledger’s editorial demanding reform. Surrounding it, they hung pictures that attracted the attention of hundreds of “shoppers, merchants, ministers, physicians, lawyers, laborers and visitors” passing by. They were “surprised to see that conditions such as pictured… actually existed in the 20th century in this city;” they were disturbed that the conditions “told by the camera” were of homes lived-in only a few blocks away from the storefront exhibition.

Slums – 1225 Pine Street, August 14, 1914. (

“Welfare Workers Charge Councils with Responsibility for Evil Conditions” read The Evening Public Ledger headline about the display. And in 1915,the Philadelphia Housing Commission would prevail with the passage and the funding of the city’s first comprehensive housing code. But, as housing advocates knew so well, implementation would require monitoring: ongoing data collection, filing of complaints and vigilant public information campaigns.

Despite laws, agencies and advocacy, the rising number of poor residents in Philadelphia resulted in more, not less, one-room tenements. In 1922, the Philadelphia Housing Commission filed more than 8,000 complaints with the city and wrote of the ongoing problem: “The City knows that families, like rats, have taken to cellars to cook, eat and work… The City knows that the 4,837 tenements and the 2,465 rooming houses recorded are far below the actual number… The City knows there is a teeming population … in narrow alleys and courts and minor streets, approximating 60,000 persons…”

Philadelphia’s first housing code was not nearly enough. More powerful, comprehensive and systemic interventions would be needed to mount an effective war on poverty. Yet, the citizens campaign of 1914 had been a start. And in time, government would again follow their lead.

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Aesthetics in the Archives

Water Main Break at Spring Garden Station, December 1895 (

The massive water main break at Frankford and Torresdale Avenues last month inspired yet another one of our fishing expeditions at PhillyHistory. And one photographic treasure we hooked offers a bit of perspective on the 23 million lost gallons—and then some.

A December 1895 monster break between the Spring Garden Water Works and Brewerytown washed out a swath 18 feet wide and 11 feet deep. It obstructed the Reading Railroad tracks with debris and pushed tons of gravel where it wasn’t welcome.

But this water main from 1895 was only half the diameter of the one that broke last December. That broken 60-inch pipe allowed water to gush across neighborhoods, affecting residents in eight zip codes. To emphasize how much water 23 million gallons is, newsfolk reported it was the equivalent of 34 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Olympic swimming pools? Sorry, that’s too obtuse a reference for this sedentary city dweller. And translating it into 920 suburban pools isn’t much better. What we need is an illustration that’s more down to earth.

Like bathtubs. At 36 gallons per bath, we calculate that the 23 million gallons of water that cascaded through city streets might have meant a good scrub up for 638,889 people—or 41% of the city’s population.

Reminds us of the cartoon by Jerry Doyle from 1937, when The Philadelphia Record editorialized against the city’s recent purchase of Paul Cezanne’s painting, The Bathers. A proud William Penn, descended from his City Hall pedestal, steps across the threshold of a squalid tenement and shows off his new Cezanne to a poor, single mom. “Lookit!” declares the smiling Penn, “I bought you a pretty picture.”

The $110,000 price for the Cezanne, which has hung in the Philadelphia Museum of Art ever since, was enough, The Record editors pointed out, to install bathtubs in half of the 40,000 Philadelphia homes that lacked proper plumbing.

PhillyHistory’s men-at-work photograph, which dates five years before the Cezanne, is a powerful and telling composition in its own right. And it represents a compelling new idea about modern beauty. Nothing against Cezanne, mind you. He has a place in the history of art, at Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Barnes Foundation (where another version of The Bathers resides).

Not too many decades before the 1890s, “a gentle brook purled” and the “dogwood-tree bloomed most abundant” where the Spring Garden Waterworks stood.  Historians Scharf and Westcott noted that industry had “obliterated” this “charming little valley” and those searching for its “wild beauties” would “wander in vain amid the ponderous and immense buildings of Brewerytown.”

What would they find there? An entirely new species of wild beauty, an urban aesthetic, a reality made of iron, mud and men. It echoed neither the natural past nor the classical past. This gritty beauty was derived from and thrived on the industrial city—an appreciation of the here and now.

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