The Uncertain Future of Germantown High School

It’s been a little over two years since wrote The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Public Schools. In that time, 23 underutilized schools have been officially slated for the chopping block and the Philadelphia School District has only fallen further. As Ken Finkel noted then, many of the institutions being shuttered were built before World War II. Now buildings which were once hopefully constructed to educate Philadelphia’s youth are meeting a far less aspirational end.

Germantown High School is one of those crestfallen schools. Just shy of it’s 100th birthday, the school at Germantown Avenue and High Street in Northwest Philadelphia was constructed during an era when there were at least as many horses at the build site as cranes.

Construction workers and horses begin construction on
Germantown High School in 1914.

At the time, the neighborhood was predominantly residential neighborhood with a smattering of textile mills. The school’s early offerings were heavy on trade-oriented training. A 1922 survey of public schools noted that the school potentially had one of the best machine shops in the city at the time, not to mention a host of other workshops, including a joinery shop, a patternmaking shop, and a forge shop.

The report, which details some of the curriculum standardization challenges facing Philadelphia schools at the time, later reveals that even in 1922 the school was underutilized. Though the school had two cookery units for home economics classes, only one was in use because there were not enough teachers to manage both, according to the document. Today, the report seems to offer eerie foreshadowing. Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports that Germantown High School is at least two thirds empty, with just a 31% utilization rate.

In 2011, the school became a Promise Academy — a model of “turnaround” school championed by then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who recently passed away. In 2012, the school had graduation rate of 47 percent and less than 20 percent of students in Germantown’s target neighborhoods attend the high school thanks to the rise of charter and magnet schools in the city. These factors, combined, with the age of the building, made it a ripe choice for the SRC.

Now the school has become a central focus of current students, alumni, and others in the community who have been fighting to keep it off the School Reform Commission’s shut down list, to no avail.

Germantown High School nears completion in 1914.

According to many recent reports, Germantown students will be sent to Martin Luther King High School, but a 40-year history of violence and mistrust between gangs hailing from the neighborhoods around the two schools has many concerned about the transition. In the early 1970s, the Philadelphia School District “paired” the two schools such that students attended King for 9th and 10th grades, then transferred to Germantown for 11th and 12th. It was a fated attempt to reduce crowding and extinguish the neighborhood rivalries, reported Philadelphia Public School Notebook, and the pairing quickly disintegrated.

Though the school gets national recognition for educating legendary comedian and actor Bill Cosby (who eventually dropped out), that’s not enough to prevent a shuttering that seems ever more inevitable.  What will become of Germantown High School? If you have an idea of a new use for this nearly 100-year-old institution, submit your idea at the Newsworks poll available here.

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The Cannonball House: Beyond Preservation Purgatory

The Cannonball House in the way at the Southwest Treatment Plant. July 18, 1956. (

Detail of the Lower Schuylkill from Thomas Holme’s map of Pennsylvania, 1687. (The Library of Congress)

Peter Cock couldn’t have picked a more off-the-beaten track location for his farmhouse. In the 1680s, and for a long time after, nobody coveted the swampy rise that broke the horizon near the Schuylkill as it meandered to the Delaware. Why would they? With so much rich, dry land in every direction and with William Penn’s ambitious “green Country Town” drawing folks six miles upstream, these brackish bogs were, literally, a Swedish-settler’s happy backwater. But the site proved good for farming, and provided well enough for the next owner to expand the farmhouse. That brick house stood quiet and alone for the better part of the 18th century.

Then all hell broke loose on the lower Schuylkill.

With the American Revolution in high gear and the British occupation of Philadelphia underway, control of the city’s port meant that the British would need to take the American-controlled fort built downriver at Mud Island, just below the mouth of the Schuylkill. At Fort Mifflin, as the installation would become known, several hundred American troops were garrisoned. And for weeks they foiled British attempts to reach the city by river. In a siege that would be the largest the largest bombardment of the Revolutionary War, six British ships bristling with 209 cannon would overwhelm the American’s ten. Over five days with an estimated 10,000 cannonballs flying, the fens of the Schuylkill were quiet no more.

Nor were they safe. On November 11th, at the start of the siege, a cannonball entered the rear wall of the old farmhouse, passed through and exited the front wall. From that day forward, old Swedish farmhouse would carry a new name: the Cannonball House.

And for the next 219 years, the Cannonball House, a survivor that would eventually come to be considered the oldest house in Philadelphia, would be treated with veneration, deference, and respect. Artists would sketch it; antiquarians would photograph it; and the Historic American Buildings Survey would document it.

By the start of the 20th century, as the city’s population expanded and its farmland shrunk, the now city-owned Cannonball House served as a “model farm” until the demand for sewage treatment overwhelmed the need for demonstrative agriculture. And the Cannonball House quietly accommodated as the Southwest Treatment Plant enveloped it. When operations started in December 1954, 100 million gallons of sludge passed through each and every day.

As the bicentennials of the battle of Fort Mifflin and the birth of the nation approached (and the 1950s sewage plant grew creaky) Philadelphia’s oldest house became its newest problem. Expansion demanded more land. “I wish the British had done a better job,” the Water Commissioner confided to a reporter.

The Cannonball House in preservation purgatory, September 3, 1976. (

In 1974, the Philadelphia Historical Commission decided that the Cannonball House wasn’t important enough to be listed on the National Register. But it was too important to be demolished. The Commission urged it be moved to a new site across from the entrance to Fort Mifflin. And in 1975, the main section of the Cannonball House was lifted from its foundations and wheeled slowly down the road. The Environmental Protection Agency, expecting local follow through to finish the job, picked up the $168,000 tab. And for next 21 years, the Cannonball House was a house without a home in preservation purgatory. And Fort Mifflin had a historic headache in its would-be parking lot.

In this uprooted state, deteriorated and on temporary cribbing, the orphaned Cannonball House was unable to charm its way into even the preservation-inclined heart of Inquirer’s architecture critic, Thomas Hine, who put it in December 1981: the “Cannon Ball Farm House has little claim to our minds and hearts…it requires some bravery to choose to forget it.”

Forgetting would take place, but it wouldn’t be brave. One day, in November 1996, what the British didn’t do, what sewage engineers wouldn’t do, the city, in violation of its own review requirements, did do. They demolished the Cannonball House. Raw sewage got treated; historic preservation got mistreated; and Fort Mifflin got its parking lot.

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1601 Locust Street and “The Perfect Square”

The Daniel Baugh mansion, designed by Hazelhurst & Huckel, 1900. Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church is in the background.

The imposing Daniel Baugh mansion, which once stood on the northwest corner of 16th and Locust, was one of dozens of grand residences built to last the ages but only lasted a few decades.  Its ephemeral presence is a contradiction: perhaps no American city is more conscious of its past and traditions.  Yet at the same time, Philadelphia could be just as quick as New York to destroy its architectural treasures.

The mansion, designed by Hazelhurst & Huckel, was completed in 1891.  Designed by the same firm responsible for Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, the Baugh mansion was a defiant rebellion against the brick-and-brownstone sobriety of its buttoned-up neighbors.  Its rounded turrets broke the square outlines of the Locust street scape, and let plenty of light flood into its upper-floor rooms. (As a comparison, it closely resembles the still-extant Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C., built about ten years later).

A native of Downingtown, Daniel Baugh (1836-1921) was one of those lucky Civil War veterans who returned from the killing fields of Virginia and found that the post-bellum Quaker City was the perfect place to make another kind of killing.  The war had been a boon to Northern manufacturers, and Baugh & Sons Company — a producer of chemical fertilizers located on the Delaware River — was no exception. A sampling from Baugh’s products in 1915 includes Excelsior Guano, High Grade Potato Grower, Export Bone with Potash, and “The Old Stand-By” (Dissolved Animal Base).  Factories like Baugh’s produced tens of thousands of jobs, but they were also noxious and dangerous by today’s labor and environmental standards.  Wealth from the toil and smoke of Pennsylvania’s factories, shipyards, steel mills, and coal fields flowed like a churning river into the placid reservoir that was “The Square.”  Rittenhouse Square was so sedate and proper that residents even complained about the tolling of the bells at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.  The novelist Henry James, who wrote in Portrait of a Lady that “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” rather smugly described the gated greenspace as “the perfect square.”

The contrast could not be starker.

Daniel Baugh, president of Baugh & Sons, was typical of the residents of Rittenhouse Square during its late 19th century glory.  The author of King’s Views of Philadelphia wrote of his residence in 1900: “Extremely and internally one of the finest of Philadelphia residences is that of Daniel Baugh, manufacturer of chemicals and fertilizers, director of many financial and philanthropic institutions, ex-president of the Art Club, ex-president of the Girard National Bank, director Commercial Museum, etc.”  For men like Baugh, their social, civic, and business energies were solidly focused in Center City.

Yet as Rittenhouse Square peaked in the 1890s, forces were already underway that ultimately would gut it.  Baugh’s house was one of the finest in the city, but he had also established a country residence in the Main Line suburb of Merion around the same time.  Baugh was simply following the lead of Pennsylvania Railroad executives, ordered by their employer to build homes there.  The Pennsylvania Railroad, at the time the largest corporation in the city, profited handsomely from this exodus, as they were the primary developers of the Main Line suburbs. By 1921, when Baugh died of a heart at attack while wintering at The Breakers in Palm Beach, the leafy, secluded suburbs had triumphed over the grandiose, visible Rittenhouse Square.  Private schools and other social institutions had followed suit.  A few years after Baugh’s death, his enormous mansion came tumbling down and was replaced by the high-rise University Club.  His house, which must have given the wreckers a hard time, lasted for a mere quarter-of-a-century.

In one respect, Philadelphia was ahead of its time: with the help of the railroad, the upper-classes had largely vacated Center City before the Great Depression. Detroit, which embraced the automobile with gusto around the same time, experienced a similar exodus of the affluent.   In New York, by contrast, saw an residential explosion on the Upper West Side and Park Avenue. With the rise of the expressway and the suburban office park in the 1950s, that trend only accelerated not just in Philadelphia, but was put into rapid motion in older cities across the nation.  The city’s post-World War II tax structure exacerbated the problem.  Many of the Philadelphia’s traditional social, business, and cultural institutions suffered as a result.

The stubborn city-suburb divide continues to plague Philadelphia to this day, although in recent years the city’s cultural resurgence has steadily drawn suburban residents back into Center City in general and Rittenhouse Square in particular. Although most of the large mansions like Baugh’s have disappeared, the area is still blessed with a treasure-trove of brownstones and brick townhouses on Spruce, Pine, and Delancey.  These houses survive because most of them have remained viable as rental apartments rather than single family homes.

The Baugh & Sons Company plant on the Delaware River, like the mansion it paid for, is a distant memory. So too is the iron fence that once shielded Henry James’s “perfect square” from the general public who now enjoys it today.

Baugh & Sons Company warehouse, S. Columbus Boulevard and Morris Street, 1958.


King’s Views of Philadelphia, 1900.

Obituary: Tuesday, 1 March 1921, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, PA, Volume 184, Issue 60, Page 13,1, Column 1.

List of Fertilizer Manufacturers and Importers and Brands of Their Fertilizers for Which License to Sell in Pennsylvania During 1915 was Taken Out Prior to February 26, 1915, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1915, p.11

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If Rudolph Koenig Attended the Philadelphia Science Festival & Philly Tech Week

Rudolph Koenig’s full “Philosophical Apparatus” demonstrated
at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

The Philadelphia Science Festival and Philly Tech Week 2013 presented by AT&T both return this week, for their coinciding 10-day-long homage to the thriving science and technology communities in Philadelphia. But Philadelphia’s excitement about new, sometimes oddball technology has precedent that reaches at least as far back as Ben Franklin and includes staples of our daily lives like the wired telephone.

So in honor of the more than 200 events taking place through the end of April, we decided to think back on who we might resurrect from the annals of history to attend these events and decided on a pretty unconventional figure; a Parisian, no less: (Karl) Rudolph Koenig (1832-1901).

Koenig, who is no Philadelphian, certainly seems an unlikely candidate. Originally from Koenigsburg, Prussia (now part of Russia), he made his career in Paris inventing musical oddities and theorizing about the science of acoustics. In addition to his acoustical research contributions, Koenig was best known for his finely crafted tuning forks and for creating a manometric flame and rotating mirror which proved that fire would follow the rise and fall of musical sound waves.

The siren “Telephone” component of the Koenig’s exhibit.

Koenig first came to Philadelphia for the international Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. There, Rudolph Koenig showed off a strange acoustical item called the “Philosophical Apparatus” (top). Part of the machine, a siren, was dubbed the “Telephone” and is pictured at left.

Another piece of the apparatus was a tonometer made of more than 600 tuning forks. While the object in the picture doesn’t look like anything most of us would call a phone, the jury was reportedly so taken with entirety of his creation, that one judge commented:

There is no other [exhibit] in the present International Exhibition which surpasses it in scientific interest.

Koenig claimed a gold medal at the Exhibition for his work.

Some reports indicate that the University of Pennsylvania might have been interested in purchasing the entire apparatus Koenig exhibited, however most sources note he struggled to sell his work in the United States and returned to Paris after the Centennial a bit put off. He did eventually sell the tonometer  to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Incidentally, Alexander Graham Bell was also at the international Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition that year, exhibiting his recently patented and ultimately more famous telephone.

With his passion for audio and penchant for invention, it seems like Koenig could make a strong showing at a PTW mobile hackathon, were it not for more than 100 years of technological advances in the way we record and transmit sound. Still, given the plethora of audio-oriented applications that will undoubtedly be demonstrated throughout the course of PTW, it seems likely that Koenig and his accoustic apparati could quickly fit right in.


Torben Rees, ‘Rudolph Koenig: the pursuit of acoustic perfection’, Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2009 [, accessed 24 March 2013]

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Silent Film; Outspoken Posters: When “The Sea Hawk” Came from Hollywood

Ludlow Street looking west from 20th, June 26, 1924. (

Click image for a clip of “The Sea Hawk.”

In 1967, when the late Roger Ebert was named film critic for The Chicago Tribune, he imagined rather large shoes to fill. After all—as he related the story in his 2011 autobiography, Life Itself: A Memoir—everyone at The Tribune and in Chicago, for that matter, knew reviews had been published under the byline Mae Tinee since 1915.

In 1915, when Hollywood released The Sea Hawk, the silent film directed by Frank Lloyd and based on an adventure novel by Raphael Sabatini, Mae Tinee had been on the beat for nearly a decade. By the time Ebert had been on the job that long, he had won a Pulitzer. Was it thumbs up for The Sea Hawk from his seasoned predecessor?

The Sea Hawk is more than just a motion picture!,” Tinee declared in a review of July 1, 1924. “It is the dream of the tired business man; it is the fiery secret ambition of romantic youth. It carries the wistful passion that, carefully concealed, lives in most of us—to be gorgeous, spectacular, abused, talked about with baited breath—a creature dominating a world of winds and waters and clothes that never, never came from the shops of “what men wear.” (Or women, either.)” It’s a “love story” of “a noble brother; weakling half-brother; pirate ships, duels, intrigue” presented “in kaleidoscopic fashion to the sway of music that warms the blood….”

“You may work at a regular job for a living,” added Mae Tinee, “but once inside this little theater you get aboard a Spanish galleon or a Moorish vessel or an English ship. Your mission, for a brief time, becomes either pirating or revenge. Jagged cliffs, Moorish castles, and the fair countryside of old England furnish you with picturesque background.”

America loved this expensive extravaganza that included a cast of thousands led by Milton Sills, Enid Bennett and Wallace Beery. They loved The Sea Hawk’s four, full-sized ships created just for this production. And they especially loved that no expense, no sentimentnothing whatsoeverwas spared.

The Sea Hawk “Sailed right into the heart of Los Angeles! And anchored there!” bragged a July 3rd advertisement in The Los Angeles Daily Times after the Hollywood premier. “Thousands! Thousands! Thousands!” reveled “in the glamour of the settings!” and were “swept away by the immensity!”

Great Northern Theatre – Broad Street Below Erie Avenue, March 25, 1925. (

That same issue featured a review by Edwin Schallert: “The grand old swashbuckling days are with us once again. The Sea Hawk visions them with rip roaring spirit of adventure. The picture is one of the ablest achievements in this history of the screen and in the current season it shines forth as a magnificent flare among a host of flickers. The premier … the first big gala…this season… took place at [Los Angeles’] Criterion Theater,” a classic movie palace on Grand Avenue which had opened in 1917 at the Kinema Theater. The “Criterion Audience Gives Enthusiastic Approval” for the cast of thousands declared yet another critic who called the lavish 12-reeler “brilliant.”

Frank Lloyd was well on his way to directing scores of films (IMDb lists 134) including Les Misérables (1917), Oliver Twist (1922), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Last Command (1955). In The Sea Hawk, Lloyd fully embraced Sabatini’s spirit in ships, scale, and sentiment.

The film had staying power.Five weeks after the premier, The Los Angeles Times headline reported “Action thrills and adventure on the high seas continue to please large audiences at the Criterion” under the headline: “Sea Hawk Packs ‘Em In.”

Philadelphians had been reading copies of the best-selling The Sea Hawk since the Washington Square publisher J.P. Lippincott introduced the first American edition in 1915. And Philadelphia movie-goers who had been looking forward to the film adaptation kept it in the theaters when it finally arrived in the summer of 1924. The following spring, The Sea Hawk was still up and running at the Great Northern Theater on north Broad Street.

The Sea Hawk was nothing less than a great Hollywood production. But Mae Tinee, it turned out, was something less than a great critic. In fact, she wasn’t a critic at all. Or even a reporter. Mae Tinee was a long-standing, all-purpose byline for reporters assigned, on slow news days, to spend their afternoons at matinees. And every once in a while, as in the case of The Sea Hawk, the diversion was worthwhile.

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A Classical, Papier-Mâché Gas Station at the Sesquicentennial

Constructing the Atlantic Refining Company Exhibit at the Sesquicentennial Exhibition, 1926. (

Pretty much anything might be found, past or present, at the Sesquicentennial International Exposition, the lesser of Philadelphia’s two World’s Fairs.  Mounted at the bottom of Broad Street in 1926, visitors passed under the giant, electrified Liberty Bell, famously lit with 26,000 light bulbs and plunged into a world that was familiar, but also oddly uncertain.

The “Tower of Light,” led through to a “Gladway” and scores of exhibit buildings, rides and restaurants. A recreated “High Street 1776” connected a giant new stadium to “Treasure Island” amidst a landscape of lagoons, a Japanese tea house and a Military Camp. At the southernmost end of the grounds, just before the exhibits gave way to the Navy Yard, stood the largest exhibit building of all, the “U.S. Government, Transportation, Machinery, Mines & Metallurgy” building, aka the Palace of Manufactures and Industries. At 11.5 acres, this building didn’t seem like an afterthought, but in mid-June, weeks after opening day, it was still only framed out in steel.

When the Palace of Manufactures and Industries finally did open, this 1,800-foot-long, V-shaped building was packed with everything from the “World’s Mightiest Electric Locomotive,” from the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, to Pullman cars, trolley cars, electric cars, gasoline cars, tractors, locomotives and fire engines. Wedged between exhibits of General Electric and the Miners Association of Bolivia, the Atlantic Refining Company fabricated a pavilion made by the Fine Arts Papier Mache Corporation of New York. Here would be a full-size facsimile of the classical gas station Atlantic Refining had opened with fanfare are Broad Street and the Boulevard nearly a decade earlier.

Its architect, Joseph Franklin Kuntz, of the Pittsburgh firm W. G. Wilkens and Company, had reason to believe his vision joining past and present in gas station design might still catch on. Since the middle of the last decade, Kuntz had designed temples to the gasoline gods, high-end, Greek-Revival stations. In 1923, in a vote of confidence, Atlantic Refining awarded Kuntz the commission for a classically-inclined headquarters at Broad and Spruce Streets.

The V-shaped building at the lower left is the U.S. Government, Transportation, Machinery, Mines & Metallurgy Building. Composite Map of the Sesquicentennial International Exposition from 1926, with street overlay from 2008. ( and Azavea)

Atlantic Refining Company Exhibit at the Sesquicentennial, 1926. (

In a 1922 article, “Greek Architecture and Gasoline Service Stations” Kuntz made the case that bad gas station design was bound to happen, but could be avoided. “In an infant industry that grew to gigantic proportions almost over night, certain makeshift arrangements were inevitable in preparing to cater to a constantly expanding volume of trade. In consequence, our automobile highways have been dotted by nondescript buildings which offended the eye of the beholder, and possessed but one solitary attribute as a justification for their existence—utility. Like the bill-boards, these structures threatened to become a permanent blot upon the landscape.”

But Kuntz believed bad gas station design wasn’t inevitable. “The Atlantic Refining Company,” he wrote, “decided to make a radical departure from established precedent and erect a series of ornamental service stations that would minister to the needs of its customers and at the same time served as an advertising medium for its product, combining the function of service and the quality of beauty in approximately equal proportions. Situated at various points in the cities and villages along the principal highways of Pennsylvania and New England, these beautiful little edifices delight the eye as well as they serve the public. … Constructed of terra cotta, in white or colors…and ornamental plaster in harmonizing shades, they afford a wide variety of types and sizes, with special designs to suit individual locations and space requirements.”

Kuntz was particularly proud of his “dainty little edifice” at 40th and Walnut Streets, “a reproduction, on an enlarged scale of the monument to Lysycraties, in Athens.” This gas station’s “perfect proportions will linger long in the memory,” Kuntz wrote, “striking contrast to the great majority of buildings erected for the purpose of supplying the wants of modern charioteers.” A didactic approach to “practical city beautification,” Kuntz believed, was the “only effectual method of preventing architectural monstrosities;” the only way of “applying esthetic interest to natural human needs in the building up of cities and towns.”

He was wrong, of course. As the papier-mâché dried at the Sesquicentennial, this anachronistic, historical-esoterical interpretation of the American gas station was about to be replaced by a thoroughly modern idea, that superior gas station design could be sleek, bright and contemporary. That gas stations could convey cleanliness, speed and be of this world. Within another decade or so, the modern gas station replaced Kuntz’s designs, would take over the service station industry—and, eventually, the American cityscape.

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A Philadelphia Quaker and Fabric Row

Clement Acton Griscom, as painted by Fedor Encke, 1899. Cecilia Beaux painted a portrait of his wife and daughter at about the same time. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

“He is genial, yet you take no advantage of it; he is kindly, but his eyes can grow hard upon necessity,” said one journalist about Philadelphia mover-and-shaker Clement Acton Griscom (1841-1912), the most powerful shipping mogul in 1900s America.

Clement Griscom was a birthright Quaker, but plain he most definitely was not.  He dressed in the finest English fashion — “kid gloves and an English cutaway” — and drank champagne with every lunch.  He lived in a Frank Furness-designed mansion in Haverford, Pennsylvania.  Related by marriage to the painter Celicia Beaux, he cut a big swath in Philadelphia’s business and social worlds. Yet Griscom was always something of a rebel, despite his solid place in the Philadelphia establishment.  He refused to go to college and become a doctor or a lawyer, preferring to enter the rough-and-tumble world of international shipping. Griscom loved making money and the good life his success brought him, but his real passion was to restore the dominance that American shipping had possessed in the years before the Civil War, when sailing packets and clippers flying the Stars and Stripes ruled the waves.  Yet in the age of steam, America fell behind its longtime rival Great Britain.

Clement Griscom was a member of many Philadelphia clubs, including the Rittenhouse Club at 1811 Walnut Street, on the north side of Rittenhouse Square. His favorite architect Frank Furness was also a member.

After putting in his time as a shipping clerk and office administrator, he partnered with the Rockefellers and the Pennsylvania Railroad to build four large steamships — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana — to carry cargo, passengers and petroleum to European markets. Yet Griscom had a hard time making his American shipping business pay.  High American labor and construction costs — as well as cumbersome congressional regulation —  made his International Navigation Company unprofitable, and it only survived thanks to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s erratic support.

The Pier 53/Washington Avenue Immigration Station on the Delaware River, December 29, 1919.

In 1871, Griscom shrewdly struck a deal with the Belgian government and founded an Antwerp-based subsidiary of his company.  The Red Star Line — supported by a $100,000 annual subsidy from the Belgians — allowed Griscom not only to build ships in European yards, but also to tap into the endless tide of immigrants fleeing Central and Eastern Europe.  As a port, Antwerp enjoyed extensive rail connections with the rest of Europe, and allowed Griscom’s ships to compete head-on with the German ones in transporting people to new lives in America.  Tens of thousands of Jews fleeing czarist pograms found their way to Philadelphia (as opposed to New York and Baltimore) by way of Antwerp and the Red Star Line.  Because of its proximity to the immigration processing station, South Philadelphia (east of Broad) had one of the largest Jewish populations in America, second in fact only to New York’s teeming Lower East Side.  According to the National Archives, “Some authorities have credited the Red Star Line for more than 40% of this Jewish immigration that came to North America between 1873 – 1934.”  For a $25 steerage berth in the bottom decks of a Red Star liner, immigrants usually spent their life savings and sold most of their possessions.

From the shtetl to South Street. The intersection of South and S.7th Streets in 1964. The Red Star Line brought tens of thousands of immigrants to Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of them settled in South Philadelphia, which became the second most populous Jewish neighborhood in America. Many Jewish immigrants worked in the garment industry, which centered on South Seventh Street, known as “Fabric Row.”

South Street between 7th and 8th Streets, c.1950. The Slifkin store was owned by the same family referenced in the article “Parkside Revisited: The Slifkin Family,” dated June 18, 2012.

Griscom’s involvement in the lucrative immigrant trade allowed him to build larger and faster ships, and increased his fortune many fold.  By the 1880s, he had taken over England’s moribund Inman Line and commissioned the two largest and fastest transatlantic liners in the world: the City of New York and City of Paris of 1889.  A few years later, Griscom and his allies strong-armed Congress into allowing these British-built ships to be registered under the American flag.  For the first time since the 1850s, American now was in possession of the fastest liners on the North Atlantic route.  He also used his influence to get a substantial mail subsidy for these two ships, as well as assistance for the construction of two new ones — the St. Louis and St. Paul — at Philadelphia’s Cramp Shipyard.

In addition to Cramps, Griscom also turned to the experienced (and cheaper) shipwrights of Harland & Wolff, located in the religiously explosive cauldron of Belfast, Ireland.  He admired the company’s ability to create solid but yacht-like liners that emphasized comfort and fuel-economy rather than breakneck speed.  In the 1890s and early 1900s, Harland & Wolff of Belfast and Cramps of Philadelphia turned out a superior series of moderate-sized liners for Griscom’s companies. These included the SS Kroonland, SS Lapland, SS Finland, and SS Belgenland. Yet by 1900, most of the Red Star Line’s ships sailed out of New York on their crossings to Antwerp.  Two smaller liners, the aptly-named SS Haverford and SS Merion, continued transatlantic passenger service out of Philadelphia.  Despite Philadelphia’s reputation as an industrial powerhouse, New York was attracting the lion’s share of European immigrants. Compared to the baroque grandeur of the U.S. Immigration Station at Ellis Island, the Washington Avenue facility was quite modest.

As his success continued to build, Griscom become more obsessed with passenger ship design.  Fueled by the desire to enlist “the art and skill of the most masterful minds,” Griscom was elected the first president of the American Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (S.N.A.M.E.), the first professional organization of its type in the United States.

Yet Griscom’s winning streak vanished when he partnered with his friend J.P. Morgan in an effort to gain a monopoly of all ships on the transatlantic route.  In 1901, Morgan and Griscom started cajoling — or threatening — major British, German, and French shipping lines into accepting buy-outs in exchange for joining a massive shipping trust called the International Mercantile Marine.  What the Pennsylvania did for the railroads, Griscom hoped the I.M.M. would do for Atlantic shipping: eliminate unnecessary competition with an efficiently-run trust that gave the traveling public and exporters regularly-scheduled fares and departures.

The SS “Merion.” Built in 1902, she and her sistership SS “Haverford” sailed the Liverpool to Philadelphia route. Small compared to other passenger ships of the period, she could carry 150 in second class and 1,700 in steerage. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Cunard fought off IMM’s advances.  As did the French Line.  North German Lloyd and Hamburg-America made profit-sharing agreements with the combine. Yet Griscom and Morgan’s biggest coup was snapping up Britain’s White Star Line for a whopping $32 million. Yet they had bitten more than they could chew; the trust floundered as a result of continuing rate wars and coal strikes, as well as a slump in immigration due to the Panic of 1907. Both men would regret investing millions more dollars in the construction of three White Star superliners at Harland & Wolff.  One sideswiped an iceberg, killing 1,500 passengers and crew.  Another, His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic, capsized after hitting a mine off the coast of Greece during World War I.  Her sinking claimed 30 lives.  Only the RMS Olympic died in bed — she was scrapped in 1935.

The first class lounge of the Red Star Line’s SS “Lapland,” completed by Harland & Wolff in 1909. Griscom and Morgan greatly admired the Irish shipyard’s work. Building ships in foreign yards was also cheaper than in American yards like Philadelphia’s Cramp. The grandeur of the “Lapland’s” first class quarters contrast with the steerage quarters, which were cramped, rank, and dark. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Griscom died of a stroke at his South Carolina winter home in the fall of 1912. Although Griscom’s health had been failing for years, many felt his death was  hasted by the Titanic disaster. Morgan passed away the following year.  “The ocean was too big for the old man,” The Wall Street Journal eulogized.

The Red Star Line ceased passenger operations in the 1930s, a victim of the Great Depression, as well as strict American immigration quotas that effectively barred people from Southern and Eastern Europe from America’s shores.

For more information, see the Red Star Line Museum, which is scheduled to open in Antwerp this year.


Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians (University of Pennsylvania Press), 1999. p.253.

Charles Cramp, as quoted by Cramp’s Shipyard (Philadelphia: The William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company) 1902, p.128.

William H. Flayhart III, The American Line: 1871-1902 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company) 2000, p.65.

Stephen Fox, Transatlantic (New York: Harper Collins), 2003, p.259, 267.

“The Red Star Line: Changing America’s Face and Place in the World,” The National Archives at Philadelphia.


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An Expressive Gateway at Broad and Fairmount

Broad Street, Ridge Avenue and Fairmount Avenue, 1892. (

Broad and Fairmount is no ordinary intersection. Look at the five vistas it offers: toward Center City or North Philadelphia, up Ridge Avenue or down or out toward Fairmount, and it’s clear: this is a gateway with a grand, if gritty, sense of self.

This is s an equal-opportunity provider, Broad and Fairmount is, offering a sense of place with a complex choice of message. It lets you know where you’ve been and where you’re headed. It’s a place that favors the public even more than it accommodates the private, something we’re inclined to forget with all of our recent focus on the proposed Divine Lorraine Hotel development project.

Consider the sheer longevity of Broad and Fairmount as a public place. Generations before Ridge Road was upgraded to Ridge Avenue and Plumstead Lane shed its country airs and became Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphians knew this intersection. Broad Street was still a half-mile the south, contained in its original grid. What a revelation, it must have been, when the rutted road that would become Broad Street ventured a mile north from Center Square and connected so neatly here, making a six-point intersection.

By the 1860s and 1870s, as the city continued on its decades-long tear building 100,000 rowhouses, Broad and Fairmount served as a hub for the construction trades. (See our earlier post on the rowhouse as the “quintessential object of industrial Philadelphia.”) Broad and Fairmount supplied building crews throughout North Philadelphia with whatever they might need: lumber, brick, marble, iron and coal. Here, precisely a mile north of the rising white-marble City Hall, Broad Street became a boulevard straighter, prouder and more urban than the old country roads ever could. And as North Philadelphia grew, the marble yards were replaced with homes, schools, churches, synagogues, clubs and hotels —buildings of the new bourgeoisie. Of course, to finance it all the new Broad Street Bourgeoisie also needed banks. These became as essential, even more so, than any other institution.

American Trust Loan and Guaranteed Investment Company, 648 North Broad Street, ca. 1895. Frank H. Taylor, photographer. (Free Library of Philadelphia)

The American Trust Loan and Guaranteed Investment Company, built at Broad and Ridge in 1890, wasn’t supposed to look like an ordinary bank. Architects Louis C. Baker and Elijah James Dallett had worked with Frank Furness, the most individualistic and eccentric of 19th-century bank architects. And when they went out on their own at the peak of the Broad Street boom, they brought with them an appetite for expression and innovation. No surprise then, as this building was finished, the American Architect and Building News gave it a full-page illustration.

The American Trust and Saving Fund greeted arrivals from all directions with engaging overstatement. Above was a bell tower and a roof line of stone columns. Below, rusticated brownstone arches set apart by masonry checkerboards held half-lunette windows proclaiming the golden words: “Bank,” “Bank,” “Bank.”  The architects wrapped the institution’s expansive name around its entire angled façade in giant, sans-serif letters. Plate glass windows proclaimed in gold: “Money for Homes on the Installment Plan.” Baker and Dallett designed more than a bank; they created a billboard for banking.

Today, the American Trust Loan and Guaranteed Investment Company is still living out its mission as both medium and message. The bell tower is gone, but the building is covered with billboards and advertising. And before the billboards, which date back to at least the 1940s, this building always prominently communicated whatever it offered the community: hardware, auto supplies, ice cream. This commitment to messaging confirms the psychology of this strategic intersection and validates the bank in its civic role as narrator of public space.

This communicative role is catching. It played out across Broad Street, where the owners of the Lorraine Hotel recognized the opportunity to proclaim its presence with prominent rooftop signage. And more recently, graffiti artists embraced and compounded the same idea. One day, the graffiti will be gone and the Divine Lorraine’s giant red-neon letters will be re-lit. But for that signage to make sense— for this place to make sense—we need to understand it as part of the venerable, gritty and glorious gateway that is Broad and Fairmount.

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Kahn’s Kind of Skyline

Cherry Street Chimney Grouping from Rear of 120. Carollo R. Widdop, April 9, 1931. (

On a sharp, clear summer evening in 1973, I found myself walking up 10th Street with Louis Kahn, listening to the architect talk about his city. Just before we approached Spruce, Kahn pointed above a one-story Laundromat on the west side of the street. There, a cluster of brick chimneys profiled against the western sky rearranged itself as we walked, accommodating every step with a fresh perspective. Before we passed by the last of these views, Kahn declared: “That is what a city should look like.”

I stared in silence. And every time I’ve passed by since, I stare again. In fact, any time I see a cluster of red-brick chimneys in this city of brick chimneys, I ask myself: What did Kahn mean?

We kept walking north, crossing Spruce, and Kahn’s tone about the city became less complimentary. Tenth Street is not really a street at all, he said, but a road. This time, I had the presence of mind to ask what he meant and Kahn explained: The traffic barreling by was a disconnecting force. Vehicles traveling from one distant, unrelated place to another added nothing to the life of this place, this community. In fact, they diminished it—and our experience there. That, he might have said, is what a city should not look like.

Actually, he did say that. “The street is a room of agreement,” Kahn said in his famous speech two years earlier, when he received the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal. “The street is dedicated by each house owner to the city in exchange for common services. … Through-streets, since the advent of the automobile, have entirely lost their room quality. I believe,” he continued, “that city planning can start with realization of this loss by directing the drive to reinstate the street where people live, learn, shop and work as the room of the community.”

Above the Laundromat on Tenth Street, South of Spruce Street in 2010. (Ken Finkel)

In his lifetime, Kahn had witnessed how the automobile had nourished, but also had ravaged the city. And now he believed that the very idea of the city street was at risk. “A city is measured by the character of its institutions…the street is one of its first… Today, these institutions are on trial…they have lost the inspirations of their beginning.” To this day, walking along that stretch of storefronts on 10th Street between Spruce and Locust, you can feel the tension; you can sense the loss.

In less than one city block, we had seen the best and worst of the city.

Decades later, the chimneys still appear to be in a silent dance with one another. There’s still as much life above those rooftops as there ever was. Maybe that’s what Kahn was telling me that day. If liveliness above the rooftops isn’t matched by life on the street, the city has failed.

A living city needs both: a dance above and below. It’s about life, movement, form and synchronicity up there, but we also need it down here. That is what a city should look like.

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A Philadelphia Zelig

John McAllister, Jr. posing outside the family business at 48 Chestnut Street. Detail of Daguerreotype by William G. Mason, June 17, 1843. (The Library of Congress)

John McAllister, Jr. May 6, 1840, by Robert Cornelius. The first daguerreotype sold in Philadelphia. (The Library of Congress)

New technology breeds new characters. Space travel, for instance, brought us super pilots who have “the right stuff.” Railroading created the conductor and the hobo. Digital technology gave us garage entrepreneurs and hackers. And when we go back to the origins of the telescope we find discoverers and heretics.

Photography expanded the human repertoire with the ham, the camera hog, or as Woody Allen would later depict it, the Zelig character. In 1839, when news of the daguerreotype’s ability to depict as-is reality arrived from Paris, it wasn’t at all clear what a camera hog should act like, or what this person might look like. In that brief, rare, uncompetitive moment of pre-photographic history, the notion of being the most-photographed held uncertain value. Anyone could step in to seek the uncontested title.

Who would enter this lopsided contest and become Philadelphia’s first camera hog?

The sole-entrant and hands-down winner was John McAlllister, Jr. (1786-1877), a son of Scottish immigrants born in Philadelphia more than half a century before anyone had heard of a daguerreotype. McAllister’s appetite for his own reflection had been whetted when Anna Claypoole Peale painted a miniature in 1817. (You can see it, online, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) By then, McAllister had taken over the family establishment on Chestnut Street, a business that specialized in whips and canes but had made a brilliant strategic segue to spectacles. The McAllisters claimed Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of bi-focals, as their company logo. In time, they’d mount a gilded bust of Franklin over the store entrance and built a solid reputation for quality and innovation.

John McAllister, Jr.’s family business, 48 Chestnut Street, after a daguerreotype by William G Mason, 1843. (FLP/

John McAllister, Jr. on the roof of 48 Chestnut Street. Daguerreotype by William Y. McAllister, 1843. (The Library of Congress)

By the dawn of the photographic age, McAllister also had a deeply cultivated respect for posterity. He had, as John Fanning Watson, wrote, “a strong liking for local antiquities [and] devoted himself to the collections of a library rich in works of all kinds, but particularly… old newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, essays, etc. connected with the history of Philadelphia.” As wonderfully authentic and evocative as these treasures were for McAllister, they paled in comparison with the stark honesty of the daguerreotype. These simply overwhelmed the imagination. History had nothing quite so potent to share.

If the past couldn’t be frozen in time in daguerreotypes, McAllister was bound and determined to make sure the present would be. The present, McAllister knew, would fast become history. And the business was well positioned as suppliers for the growing daguerreotype market. By 1856, Philadelphia would have more than 100 studios; the McAllisters knew them all.

In the Spring of 1840, when McAllister learned Robert Cornelius was getting ready to open the first portrait studio on Eighth Street, he made certain to be Cornelius’ first customer. Before most Philadelphians sat before a lens one time, McAllister had completed dozens of sittings. Any reason would do. The classic Chestnut Street storefront is being replaced with modern plate-glass? McAllister poses in front of his father’s paned window with top hat and cane. A new shipment of daguerreotype lenses and plates arrives? McAllister’s poses on the roof in a test image. No event, family or business, no new technology would be introduced without McAllister making another appearance before the camera. As his hair grew longer and his sideburns grew wilder (this was not a contest of vanity) McAllister would visit studio after studio. And when he ran out of photographers to visit, he had them come visit him at home, both homes, for that matter.

John McAllister, Jr. at home, 14 N. Merrick Street, facing Penn Sq., March 1, 1860. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards. (The Library Company of Philadelphia/

John McAllister, Jr., ca. 1860, attr. to William and Frederick Langenheim. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Fueled by success, the business moved to larger quarters at 728 Chestnut Street, In the last days of 1854, McAllister took one last opportunity to gather family and loyal employees to pose one last time. After the new shop opened, McAllister arranged himself among a collection of globes, astronomical models, and other scientific knickknacks as the centerpiece, the sole human specimen. This collector of historical stuff knew full well that we—the inhabitants of the deep future—would be looking at him, and looking after him for posterity. McAllister bet on what he knew as basic antiquarian logic: the winning collector is the one who is himself collected.

Photography offered McAllister excellent odds. And a century and a half later, we can see he clearly won his bet. McAllister came out ahead at the Library of Congress, at the Library Company of Philadelphia, at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, and, of course, here at

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