Historic Movie Theaters of Center City

Shawn Evans, Atkin Olshin Schade Architects


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Boyd Theatre, 1934.

Few recent historic preservation struggles have captured the public’s attention in Philadelphia as dramatically as the Boyd Theatre.  Since 1928, this art-deco movie palace has graced the 1900 block of Chestnut Street and entertained millions of Philadelphians in its nearly 2,500 seats.

The theater closed in 2002 and remains vacant.  The Friends of the Boyd successfully fought off a demolition permit and continue to advocate for an authentic restoration and viable business approach that will return the theater as a vibrant entertainment venue.[i]  The Boyd stands as the last movie palace (a grand theater with more than 1,000 seats) and serves as a stunning reminder of a time when it became common to erect extraordinary architecture for the entertainment of the masses.[ii]   A stroll through the history of Philadelphia’s movie theaters demonstrates the importance of saving the Boyd.


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B.F. Keith’s Bijou Theatre, seen here as the renamed New Garden
Theatre in 1938.

The first public showing of a motion picture (perhaps the first in the world) occurred in Philadelphia at B.F. Keith’s Bijou Theatre at 209 North 8th Street in 1895.[iii]   These films were brief silent experiments of the moving image.  Within a year, this new form of entertainment was regularly shown at the Bijou.  The 1,200 seat theater was built as a variety theatre in 1889 to the designs of New York theater architect John Baily McElfatrick.[iv]   The Bijou was at the heart of a long-vanished theater district along 8th Street, now home to the Gallery Mall, Police Headquarters, and the former Metropolitan Hospital.


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Fairyland Theatre, 1319 Market, seen here in 1911.

Public demand for motion pictures increased quickly and Center City’s commercial streets were soon home to hundreds of store-front nickelodeons.  136 of these small theaters opened in Philadelphia between 1905 and 1917, most of which were only open a few years.  Seen here in a 1911 photo is the Fairyland, a nickelodeon that operated at 1319 Market Street from 1909 to 1913.  The sign above the elaborate entrance reads, “No pictures in the city compare with films shown at Fairyland – They are the newest, cleanest, and most interesting produced.  Admission 5¢.”[v]


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The Stanton, 1620 Market Street, seen here in 1935.

The advent of full-length feature films in the 1910s brought the downfall of nickelodeons, as bigger theaters were now needed that were capable of comfortably seating larger audiences for longer periods of time.  275 movie theaters were opened in Philadelphia through 1932.  The finest of the movie palaces were located in Center City, although many were built in the outlying neighborhoods.[vi]   One of the first palaces was The Stanton, erected in 1914 at 1620 Market Street to the designs of W.H. Hoffman.  Hoffman later partnered with Paul J. Henon Jr. in the Hoffman-Henon Co., one of America’s most prodigious theater designers.  They designed over 100 theaters, including the Boyd Theatre and 46 others in Philadelphia.  The 1,457 seat Stanton was originally named The Stanley, for Stanley Mastbaum of the Stanley Corporation, who by 1920 was the largest theater operator in the country.  During the era of silent pictures, the Stanton featured a full orchestra.  The theater was renamed The Milgram in 1968 and was demolished in 1980.[vii]


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The Stanley, 19th and Market, seen here in 1935.

The second theater named the Stanley opened at the southwest corner of 19th and Market in 1921.  The 2,916 seat movie palace was designed by the Hoffman-Henon Co.  The new Stanley was also host to musical offerings and had its own renowned orchestra.  While the building’s exterior and interior were designed in pure classical traditions, a tremendously exuberant illuminated sign covered much of the Market Street façade.[viii]  The most famous event at the Stanley had nothing to do with film –Al Capone was arrested here in 1929.  The Stanley was demolished in 1973 and the Philadelphia Stock Exchange opened on this site in 1982.


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The Aldine Theatre, seen here in 1928.

One of the few movie palaces that still embellishes Center City sidewalks is the Aldine Theatre, at the southeast corner of 19th and Chestnut, although it stopped operating in 1994 and is now a CVS.  Designed by William Steele & Sons, Architects, this 1,341 theatre later cycled through a series of names such as the Viking, Cinema 19, and finally Sam’s Place in 1980 when its ornate interior was divided into two separate theatres.[ix]  This theater is the subject of another PhillyHistory Blog entry, “See and Hear the World’s Greatest Entertainer,” which focuses on the nature of blackface seen so prominently on the theater’s exterior.[x]


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The Karlton Theatre, 1412 Chestnut Street, seen here in 1935.

The Karlton Theatre, 1412 Chestnut Street, was another Hoffman-Henon Co. theater that opened in 1921.  Constructed behind a c.1880 second-empire style façade, the elaborate interiors were decorated in the classical style and featured extensive use of marble, murals, tapestries, and gilding. Renamed the Midtown Theatre in 1950, the historic façade was concealed behind plastic siding and its interiors stripped.  The 1,066 seat theater was eventually twinned and in 1999 was renovated as the Prince Music Theatre.[xi]


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The Fox Theatre, 16th and Market, seen here in 1959.

Several of Philadelphia’s finest movie theaters were built within larger commercial structures.  The Fox Theatre opened in 1923 next door to the Stanton at the southwest corner of 16th and Market.   Designed by the noted New York theater architect, Thomas W. Lamb, the 2,423 seat Fox was home to both film and elaborate stage shows, featuring an in-house orchestra.[xii]   Demolished in 1980, the Fox inspired an ultimately unsuccessful preservation fight as it was recognized that the Fox was the last of the grand neoclassical movie palaces.


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The Erlanger Theatre, 21st and Market, seen here in 1938.

The Erlanger Theatre occupied the northwest corner of 21st and Market Streets from 1927 to 1978.  Built primarily for legitimate theatre, it also showed film.  The 1,890 seat Erlanger was another Hoffman-Henon theater, and featured eclectic interiors in Spanish, French, and English styles.[xiii]   The photograph below documents illegal signage.  During the 1930s, the Philadelphia Art Jury, the predecessor to the Art Commission, enforced strict standards on commercial signage which resulted in the loss of many extraordinary marquees and signs, including the 30’ tall vertical blade sign on the Boyd Theatre, which was removed around 1935.


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The Boyd Theatre, 1908 Chestnut, seen here in 1934.

The Boyd Theatre was the next major movie palace to open in Center City in 1928 and the only downtown movie palace designed in the Art-Deco style.  While eclectic styles such as Spanish and North African had been used for theaters in outer neighborhoods, the previous downtown theatres had all been built in more rigid classical styles.  The Boyd represents the acceptance of more “modern” styles.   This 1934 image captures a happenstance that reinforces the modernity of the Boyd – a horse-drawn wagon selling milk and ice cream passes by the marquee advertising that the theatre is closed for the summer for the introduction of air-conditioning.  The letters B-O-Y-D have been replaced with C-O-O-L on the corners of the marquee.  While the Boyd was designed to accommodate “talkies,” it was still equipped with a small stage and orchestra pit, needed for the presentation of silent films.


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The Mastbaum Memorial Theatre, 20th and Market, seen here
in 1929.

The last and largest of Philadelphia’s downtown movie palaces was the Mastbaum Memorial Theatre, built at 20th and Market in 1929.  This 4,700+ seat (!) theater was another Hoffman-Henon design.[xiv]    It was an outrageously expensive anachronism from the moment it opened.  The end of silent films made presenting films much simpler and the audience could more easily be transported to another place or time without need for such elaborate architecture.  After only 29 years of entertainment, this palace met the wrecking ball – one of the first of these grand theaters to go.


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The Trans-Lux Theatre, 1519 Chestnut Street, seen here in 1935.

For the most part, the era of these elaborate buildings was over even before the Great Depression began.  The economy would dry up both financing for construction and the growth of expensive forms of popular entertainment like legitimate theater, but film remained a good business as ticket prices were so low.  Smaller theaters continued to be built.  Perhaps the last dramatic theater building in Center City was the Trans-Lux Theatre, erected in 1935 at 1519 Chestnut Street. [xv]  Designed by Thomas Lamb (architect of the Fox as well), this 493 seat theater was a vibrant expression of the new through its Art-Moderne style.  The Trans-Lux survived as a theatre until 1993, then operating as Eric’s Place.  Perhaps this remarkable façade lies underneath the 1970 white and black siding of the building, now occupied by the Finish Line sporting goods store.

The economics of the motion-picture business today make it unlikely that the few surviving structures will be restored solely for film, yet these buildings retain a powerful hold on the collective imagination.  We are unwilling to let them go.  Like the damsels in distress tied to the railroad tracks in so many of the movies that played inside, their future is momentarily uncertain.  We await creative rescue plans that can return these buildings to the public.

Thanks to Howard B. Haas for reviewing this and making helpful comments.

References

[i] BOYD: See the Friends of the Boyd website for more information, history, and photos: http://www.friendsoftheboyd.org/index.html Additional information on the building can be found here: http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/12550 and http://cinematreasures.org/theater/1209/

[ii] Irvin Glazer (1922-1996) documented the history of Philadelphia theaters in two books:  Philadelphia Theaters: A Pictorial History (Dover Publications, 1994) and Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z: A Comprehensive, Descriptive, Record of 813 Theatres Constructed Since 1724 (Greenwood Press, 1986).  His collection of photographs, clippings, and research files is housed at The Athenaeum of Philadelphia.  Most of the photographs have been scanned and are available online in a format that permits zooming.  http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/co_display.cfm/483480?CFID=60415619&CFTOKEN=31750787

[iii] Glazer, Philadelphia Theaters: A Pictorial History, p.xxii.

[iv] BIJOU: http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/8126

[v] FANTASYLAND: A similar zoom-able image can also be found at http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm?RecordId=AFA0B8B0-5A85-4AE6-8880AC8D08FDE994

[vi] The neighborhood theatres are different in character and just as interesting, but this blog entry focuses on the theaters in Center City.

[vii] STANTON: Glazer, p.17. See also: http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/5907 and http://cinematreasures.org/theater/3393/

[viii] STANLEY: Glazer, pp.26-27.  See also: http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/19220 and http://cinematreasures.org/theater/4526/

[ix] ALDINE: Glazer, p.27.  See also: http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/8622 and http://cinematreasures.org/theater/3358/

[x] http://phillyhistory.org/blog/index.php/2006/06/see-and-hear-the-worlds-greatest-entertainer/

[xi] KARLTON: Glazer, pp.28-29.  See also: http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/6878 and http://cinematreasures.org/theater/1803/

[xii] FOX: Glazer, pp.31-33.  See also:  http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/5520 and http://cinematreasures.org/theater/1177

[xiii] ERLANGER: Glazer, pp.42-45.  See also: http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/12547 and http://cinematreasures.org/theater/22732/

[xiv] MASTBAUM: Glazer, pp.70-78.  See also: http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/6244 and http://cinematreasures.org/theater/1207/

[xv] TRANS-LUX: This photo shows the site just three months earlier: http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/Detail.aspx?assetId=14907.  See also: http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/7212

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Public Education in Philadelphia: Philadelphia High School for Girls

The history of the Philadelphia High School for Girls, known by most Philadelphians as simply Girls’ High, can be traced back to 1848 when the city built what was called the Girls’ Normal School at the intersection of Chester Street and Maple Street, an intersection long since paved over and now covered by a parking lot at 8th and Arch Streets. It was a strange name for a school indeed and may cause one to wonder if there was also a Girls Abnormal School, but the name was somewhat misleading. “Normal” schools were schools that educated future teachers to work in primary and secondary education. When the Girls’ Normal School was established, it was not only the first secondary public school for women in the state of Pennsylvania but also the first municipally supported teacher’s school in the United States. Opened in February 1848, there were 149 students enrolled by June, a rather large number of students for any one school to have at the time. The continuing enrollment over the next few years meant that by 1854 the Girls’ Normal School needed a bigger building. In 1854 a new building was erected on Sergeant Street, now called Spring Street, between Ninth and Tenth Streets.

In 1859, the name of the school was changed to the more familiar sounding Girls’ High School of Philadelphia. However, this name change did not last long as the name was changed again one year later to The Girls’ High and Normal School in order to better emphasize that the school trained teachers but also offered classes in purely academic subjects.

As one of the few public educational institutions for women, enrollment continued to grow until the school once again needed a bigger building. In 1876, a new building located at 17th and Spring Garden Streets was erected. This building was designed to be a showcase of all the major comforts and conveniences of the day. The new building had forty classrooms, terraced lecture halls, and an auditorium capable of seating 1200 people, almost double the school’s student body of 640 at the time. The new building was so large that when it was completed, only Girard College and the University of Pennsylvania surpassed it in terms of land area used in Philadelphia.

In 1893, the High School and Normal School were separated into two distinct institutions with the Normal School moving to a building at 13th and Spring Garden Streets. It was also at this time that the building at 17th and Spring Garden was officially renamed the Philadelphia High School for Girls. In addition to the standard 3-4 year curricula, Girls’ High also instituted a three year curriculum that focused on business classes. This was unusual for the time as “business” was still very much a male-dominated sphere. In 1898, the school made another unusual choice when it started offering courses in Latin and science which were designed to prepare its female graduates for college and university-level education.

By the 1930s, the school had once again outgrown its facilities and in 1933 work began on a new building at the same location at 17th and Spring Garden Streets. This building was even larger than the last, but it was only twenty-five years later that the school had once again outgrown its facilities. Girls’ High moved to its current location at Broad Street and Olney Avenue in 1958, with the old building on Spring Garden Street becoming the Julia R. Masterman School. The Spring Garden Street building was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Today, Girls’ High remains one of Philadelphia’s preeminent educational institutions. As one of the city’s magnet schools, the school attracts academically gifted young ladies from all over the city. The school’s competitive admissions process and rigorous academic curriculum are not only meant to prepare its students for further college education (98% of Girls’ High graduates go on to college or university) but also to “equip students with the academic, social, emotional, and cultural foundations for success in an ever changing society.” This is evidenced by both the Code of Honor and the school’s motto “Vincit qui se vincit” – He (or in this case, she) conquers who conquers himself. The code and the motto were both adopted by the school in the early 20th century and remain a large influence on the school’s philosophy to this day. It is without a doubt that the Philadelphia High School for Girls will continue to play a major role in public education in Philadelphia for many, many years to come.

Sources:

Alumni Association of the Philadelphia High School for Girls.  http://www.ghsalumnae.com/index.html. (11 January 2011).

Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network (1858-1860 Philadelphia Atlas). http://www.philageohistory.org/geohistory/. (18 January 2011).

M’Elroy, A. Philadelphia Directory1839: Containing the Names of the Inhabitants, Their Occupations, Places of Business, and Dwelling Houses; also A List of Streets, Lanes, Alleys, etc.; and The City Officers, Institutions, and Banks, and Other Useful Information. Philadelphia: Isaac Ashmead & Co., 1839.

The Philadelphia School District – Philadelphia High School for Girls. http://webgui.phila.k12.pa.us/schools/g/girlshigh/about-us. (11 January 2011).

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Philadelphia at the Movies

As the film industry’s annual awards season gets underway, Philadelphia’s connections to Hollywood and the movies is a fascinating topic to explore through the various entertainment-related photographs available on PhillyHistory.org.

For Philadelphians and film buffs alike, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 film Rocky exemplifies the intersection of Hollywood storytelling and the spirit of the city more than any other.   The story of a small-time boxer from Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood who rises to fight for the world heavyweight championship, Rocky won the 1976 Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director and spawned five sequels over the next thirty years.  In that time, the film’s connection to Philadelphia became undeniable, epitomized by the famed scene in which Rocky triumphantly runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and looks out over the Ben Franklin Parkway.

Among the most enduring and referenced moments in entertainment, the scene has made the Art Museum a prime pop culture destination and inspired passionate debate about Rocky’s place in Philadelphia’s cultural heritage.  For the filming of Rocky III in 1982, Mr. Stallone commissioned a bronze, 8-foot statue of the character to sit atop the celebrated steps and, once filming was complete, left the statue as a gift to the city.  Viewed by the Philadelphia Art Commission as more of a movie prop than a piece of art, the statue was moved to the Spectrum at the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, leaving only a pair of footprints at the top of the stairs to mark the scene of Rocky’s illustrious climb.  Nonetheless, the association between Rocky and the Art Museum endured and, over the next twenty years, the statue was re-installed on the steps for the filming of Rocky V, Philadelphia, and other films before permanently returning to the Museum in 2006.  By a 6-2 margin, the Art Commission voted to install the statue on a granite pedestal just off Kelly Drive, about thirty yards north of the Museum steps.  A public dedication ceremony was held on September 8, 2006 and featured a screening of the first Rocky, a film and character that, as Mr. Stallone told the crowd of approximately 3,000 spectators, “could only come from the City of Brotherly Love.”

Beyond Rocky, countless movies have been filmed in Philadelphia, including The Sixth Sense, In Her Shoes, Invincible, The Lovely Bones, and Marley and Me. A Philadelphia-native and graduate of Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, legendary filmmaker Brian De Palma has filmed a number of movies in the city, including Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981).  While filming Dressed to Kill in 1979, Mr. De Palma and actress Angie Dickinson were honored at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which serves as the setting for a scene in which Ms. Dickinson’s character encounters a mysterious stranger at a museum.  Likewise, key scenes from Blow Out, which starred John Travolta and Nancy Allen, were filmed in and around such Philadelphia landmarks as Independence Mall, 30th Street Station, and City Hall.  Perhaps most notable is the climatic chase scene in which John Travolta’s character drives a Jeep through the City Hall courtyard before crashing into a display window at Wanamaker’s Department Store.  After filming was complete, Blow Out premiered at the Budco Regency Theater at 16th and Chestnut Streets on July 23, 1981.  Welcomed back to Philadelphia by a crowd of enthusiastic fans, Mr. Travolta received an Independence Hall replica from City Representative Richard A. Doran, while Ms. Allen received a replica of City Hall.

If Rocky is the quintessential Philadelphia film, Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, is perhaps the most illustrious native among the many actors and actresses who hail from the City of Brotherly Love.  The Kelly family resided in Philadelphia’s East Falls neighborhood and Grace’s father, John Brendan “Jack” Kelly, was a prominent Democrat who ran for Mayor in 1935 and later served on the Fairmount Park Commission. The future Princess Grace graduated from Stevens School in Germantown in 1947 and went on to become an Academy-Award winning actress best known for her roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. She left Hollywood to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956 and visited Philadelphia several times in the years following her marriage.  In April 1963, the royal couple was on-hand to inaugurate the Monaco pavilion at a travel and vacation exposition in the city and was welcomed by both Mayor James H.J. Tate and Miss Philadelphia, as seen in the photographs from their visit.  During that same trip, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier were also the guests of honor at a ball at the Philadelphia Museum of Art sponsored by the Philadelphia Fashion Group, which honored the Princess for her “leadership in fashion.”

Incidentally, Princess Grace was not the only Kelly family member to become the stuff of Philadelphia legend; her brother, John B. Kelly, Jr., was an Olympic rower who won a bronze medal at the 1956 games and subsequently became the namesake of Kelly Drive.  This bit of trivia is just another instance of how entertainment and celebrity have been woven into the fabric of the city throughout its history and allowed Philadelphia to continually captivate audiences and filmmakers alike.

References

“IMDb: Most Popular Titles With Locations Matching ‘Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.’”  The Internet Movie Database. <http://www.imdb.com/search/title?endings=on&&locations=Philadelphia,%20Pennsylvania,%20USA> (Accessed 14 January 2011).

“Princess Grace is honored at Philadelphia Fashion Ball.”  The New York Times, April 23, 1963.

“Rainiers Coming to United States.”  The New York Times, February 27, 1963.

Ronberg, Gary.  “They Came, They Saw, and Travolta Conquered.”  The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 24, 1981.

Vitez, Michael.  “‘Rocky and I thank you:’ Statue unveiled; Stallone unbridled.”  The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 9, 2006.

Vitez, Michael.  “Rocky statue ready to hit the steps: With a win, the fictional pugilist is back at his old haunt- The Art Museum.”  The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 7, 2006.

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Augmented Reality Coming Soon to PhillyHistory.org

North Broad Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard in 1916 and 2010.

Have you ever wanted to time travel? Discover what Philadelphia looked like in the past and compare it to the present landscape? At PhillyHistory.org, we’re working on a way to do just that. In 2010, the Department of Records received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities to investigate the possibility of developing a prototype augmented reality application for PhillyHistory.org. Augmented reality refers to the ability to view digital data on a view of the current world. Utilizing a combination of the GPS and camera technologies available on contemporary smart phones, this mobile phone application will enable users to view historic photographs from PhillyHistory.org as overlays on the current urban landscape.

The above photo is a mock-up of how those overlays might work. We’re still in the development stage so the final results may differ dramatically, but we wanted to give you a sneak peek of what’s in the works. For more information on the project, read our announcement at http://www.phila.gov/Records/Archives/pdfs/Grants_NEH_Augmented_Reality_April_2010.pdf.

You don’t need to wait months though for mobile access to PhillyHistory.org. The images are always available on your smartphone at http://phillyhistory.org/i/.

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“Sleigh Bells Ring…:” Philadelphia’s Winter Wonderland

Even as a winter chill descends upon the Northeast, Philadelphians have always known how to keep the season fun and festive with a variety of recreational activities and events. From ice skating on Reyburn Plaza to sleighing through Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia region has historically provided residents and visitors with myriad opportunities to lift their spirits and make the most of winter’s frosty days and nights.

Throughout the years, Philadelphia has traditionally welcomed winter with a mix of holiday displays and decorations, from the famed light show at Wanamaker’s department store to the Christmas trees and menorahs erected across the city at such sites as Independence Hall, Dilworth Plaza, and Rittenhouse Square. Notably, Philadelphia held its first-ever community tree-lighting in 1913 after New York City popularized a new tradition when it erected a municipal Christmas tree in Madison Square Park the year before. The Philadelphia tree was erected in Independence Square between the Commodore Barry statue and Independence Hall and was decorated with 4,200 red, white, and blue lights. A crowd of approximately 20,000 people witnessed the spectacle and Mayor Blankenburg’s wife Lucretia had the honor of lighting the Star of Bethlehem that topped the tree. Evoking the significance of the tree’s location, the tree-topper was made up of fifty-six little stars, which represented the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Prior to the tree-lighting, two bands led about 200 children down Twelfth Street to Independence Square, where they gather around a grandstand. Candles were lit in every window of Independence Hall, while the area immediately surrounding the tree remained cloaked in virtual darkness until it was illuminated at the stroke of 6 o’clock. A program of music by the Moravian Trombone Choir of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and the United Singers of Philadelphia followed the lighting of the tree, which remained on display until New Year’s Day.

While Christmas trees and holiday lights enhance Philadelphia’s seasonal atmosphere, recreational activities are ongoing sources of amusement and celebration throughout the winter months. Perhaps the quintessential winter sport, ice skating is an enduring popular amusement that, over the years, has been enjoyed at many locations across the Philadelphia region. Situated just north of the Queen Lane pumping station, man-made Gustine Lake was a popular destination for ice-skaters in the early to mid decades of the twentieth century until the lake was converted to a swimming pool in the 1950s. In the post-World War II era, a renewed focus on city planning and urban renewal brought an ice-skating rink to Penn Center near 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, later John F. Kennedy Boulevard. However, as the office complex surrounding City Hall grew and evolved, the skating rink was eventually shut down and replaced by 8 Penn Center in the 1970s. Nonetheless, ice-skating enthusiasts could still hone their skills at rinks in Reyburn Plaza and recreation centers around the city, including the Simons Playground near Woolston Avenue and Walnut Lane and the Tarken Ice Rink at Frontenac and Levick Streets.

In the winter months, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park has also proved to be a popular recreational destination for seasonal diversions such as tobogganing, sledding, and sleigh riding. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, winter carnivals in Montreal and other Canadian cities popularized toboggan slides, which consequently popped up in many Philadelphia-area parks, including Fort Washington State Park and Willow Grove. In the 1880s, William M. Singerly, a member of the Fairmount Park Commission, gave Philadelphia a toboggan slide to be erected in Fairmount Park. The slide, which measured 2,200 feet and had a fall of 132 feet, opened to the public on February 2, 1887, though the exact location of the slide and how long it remained in the Park is unknown. Accessible on PhillyHistory, a group of photographs from the Office of the City Representative show youngsters trying out a toboggan slide in Fairmount Park in 1968, but this toboggan slide may or may not be the same slide that Mr. Singerly gifted to the city. Also of note, tobogganing was popular enough in the 1880s to even inspire a fashionable “winter sporting costume.” An 1885 article from The Philadelphia Inquirer describes a “charming design for a toboggan dress,” with folds that drape artistically over the hips and a plush jacket, cloak, and wrap that are a “showy and rich” costume for those who “engage in outdoor merry-making.” Fortunately, those merry-makers who preferred to skate or sleigh were not left out, as the article also details dainty skating costumes that were “wonderfully attractive, far more so than toboggan outfits,” and hats and furs that perfectly complemented a winter sleigh ride.

For fashionable winter revelers Philadelphia’s famed department stores were also a historic source of recreation and amusement, particularly during the holiday shopping season. In terms of holiday spectacle, little rivaled the Wanamaker’s light show, in which seasonal shapes and figures such as snowflakes, nutcrackers, and the like were outlined in colorful lights above the store’s world-renowned pipe organ. At Strawbridge’s department store, the fourth floor was devoted to a life-size walk-through of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, while just east of Strawbridge’s at 8th and Market Streets, Lit Brothers drew people with its Christmas Village display. And across from Lit Brothers, Gimbel’s winter holiday “Toyland” was highlighted every year by the arrival of Santa Claus at the conclusion of the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day parade. At each department store, such indoor attractions were a warm and welcome counterpoint to the city’s outdoor recreation activities. Ultimately, whether admiring festive retail displays, caroling at a tree-lighting, or sledding down a snowy hill, Philadelphians past and present have celebrated the season with a variety of winter traditions that will likely endure as long as Jack Frost continues to make his annual pilgrimage to the region.

References

Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. http://www.newcolonist.com/phil_xmas.html Accessed December 17, 2010.

Alfred L. Shoemaker and Don Yoder. Christmas in Pennsylvania: A Folk-Cultural Study. (Kutztown: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1959).

“Bethlehem Star in Great Spruce Shines on 20,000.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 25, 1913.

“The Fashions: Novelties in Outdoor Winter Sporting Costumes.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 14, 1885.

“Tingling Weather Increases the Park’s Popularity.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 29, 1912.

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Floats, Balloons, and Celebrities, Oh My!: Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

By Timothy Horning and Hillary Kativa

Since 1920, Philadelphia’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a city tradition. Although the Macy’s parade in New York City is perhaps better known, Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is recognized as the oldest in the country and was originally the brainchild of Ellis Gimbel, one of the founding brothers of the eponymous department store. Ever the industrious capitalist, Gimbel imagined the parade as a clever marketing tool for his store, which would not only signal the start of the holiday shopping season, but also remind Philadelphians that Gimbels department store could serve all of their holiday needs.

The first parade in 1920 was made up of only fifty Gimbels employees but quickly grew into a festival of floats, balloons, and high school marching bands that draws thousands of spectators each year. Traditionally, the parade began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and moved down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway before concluding at Gimbels department store on Eighth and Market Streets. A float featuring a costumed Santa Claus and his sleigh typically closed the parade as Santa Claus, upon reaching Gimbels, would scale a fire truck ladder to the store’s eighth floor, conveniently the home of Gimbels “Toyland.” Over the years, the parade became immensely popular and other cities and stores, including Macy’s in New York City, quickly instituted their own annual Thanksgiving Day parades based on Gimbels’ prototype.

The parade continued for sixty-five years until the Gimbels department store was taken over by Allied Stores Corporation and renamed “Stern’s” in 1986. The new company had no interest in continuing the annual parade and, without its chief creator and sponsor, the fate of the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Parade was very much in doubt. Ultimately, local television station WPVI, an ABC affiliate who had broadcast the parade since 1966, took on the costs of producing it and eventually convinced other corporate sponsors to join. WPVI partnered with Reading-based department store chain Boscov’s for several years and, seeking to compete with the ever-popular Macy’s spectacle, organizers decided to expand the parade by adding more floats, balloons, and bands as well as feature celebrities in the parade. The 1986 parade boasted twenty bands, twenty floats, and forty-eight balloons, as well as 4,500 people assisting with the production. 76ers basketball star Julius Erving served as the parade’s grand marshal and was joined by such illustrious pop culture figures as Fred Flintstone, the Care Bears, and Mickey and Minnie Mouse. In 1986, the parade, freed from its long-standing association with Gimbels, also reversed its route and ran from 20th and Market Streets to City Hall before turning onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and concluding on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

From 1986 forward, Boscov’s and WPVI/6ABC continued to sponsor the Thanksgiving Day Parade until Boscov’s filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Swedish furniture maker IKEA, whose U.S. corporate headquarters are located in nearby Plymouth Meeting, stepped in to co-sponsor the parade following Boscov’s bankruptcy. The 2010 6ABC/IKEA Thanksgiving Day Parade, now in its 91st year, will begin at 8:30 AM at 20th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard and follow the route begun in 1986, moving up to City Hall, then the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and finally the Art Museum steps. Special guests include Sam Champion from “Good Morning America,” singer and “Dancing with the Stars” contestant Brandy, Miss America 2010 Caressa Cameron, and the Philadelphia Eagles Cheerleaders. For those who are not able to attend in-person, the parade will be broadcast live on 6ABC and, of course, the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade’s illustrious history is also chronicled in the fun and festive photos on display here at PhillyHistory.org.


Sources:

“2010 6ABC IKEA Thanksgiving Day Parade.” 6ABC.com. <http://dig.abclocal.go.com/wpvi/html/wpviThanksGivingParade.html>(18 November 2010).

Detjen, Jim. “Wet Walk in Showers, the Annual Parade Heralds Shopping Season Start.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 November 1985. Newsbank. Accessed 16 November 2010.

Gillin, Beth. “A Glorious Day, A Grand March the Sun Shines and City Spirits Glow for the Thanksgiving Day Parade.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 28 November 1986. Newsbank. Accessed 16 November 2010.

Kadaba, Lini. “Thanksgiving Parade Draws 500,000.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 November 1987. NewsBank. Accessed 16 November 2010.

Nunnally, Derrick. “Tradition Marches On At Thanksgiving Parade.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 November 2008. NewsBank. Accessed 18 November 2010.

Woodall, Martha. “The City is Set to Let Loose a Parade of Thanksgiving.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 November 1987. Newsbank. Accessed 16 November 2010.

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Cliveden: An Historic Germantown Mansion Redefines its Mission


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Photograph of Cliveden taken by James McClees in
February, 1857.

In 2008, three men made a pilgrimage from Philadelphia to Frisby’s Prime Choice plantation in Cecil County, Maryland. The first was Phillip Seitz, curator of the Cliveden estate, a National Trust historic site in Germantown and the long-time home of the Chew family.  The second was John T. Chew Jr., a member of Cliveden’s board and a descendant of the original owner.  The third was John Reese, chef and former employee at Cliveden, who is captivated by the untold stories of those who lived and worked at the estate.

What prompted their visit were discoveries in the Chew family papers, recently archived by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These documents not only provide a rich record of seven generations of one of Philadelphia’s most eminent legal families, but also names and descriptions of the slaves that worked the various Chew plantations two centuries ago.

After driving through endless fields of wheat, Reese asked if they were getting close to Frisby’s Prime Choice. Seitz responded that they had been driving through the former Chew plantation for the past 20 minutes.  According to Chew family records, about seventy enslaved African-Americans farmed over 1,000 acres of land during the late 18th century.

After visiting the plantation house, they drove 40 minutes due east to the river landing, where two hundred years ago, the slaves loaded the produce they harvested by hand onto waiting ships.

As he stood on the river bank, Reese was convinced he could see ghosts of these men rolling barrels down to the dock.

Chew was deeply moved as he watched Reese tear up. “When I saw John visibly moved, looking out over fields of long grass, stretching to the horizon,” he remembered, “I was overcome with a deep sadness for enslaved people, and their plight. John – and the moment – helped me feel in a way I never had before the sorrow, the anger, and the frustration of people held against their will.”

* * * *


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Early sketch of plans for Cliveden c.1760, possibly drawn
by master carpenter Jacob Knor and Benjamin Chew.

Cliveden’s original owner, Benjamin Chew (1722-1810), was the son of Maryland Quakers.  He received his training in London’s Middle Temple, making him one of the most highly-trained lawyers in the Colonies. The Penn family recognized his talent, and he became their principal legal advisor.  Unlike other lawyers of the time, who had a penchant for flowery and wordy opinions, Chew’s writing was defined by brevity and clarity.[i] Chew’s crowning appointment was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Province of Pennsylvania – he was the last man to hold that position before America declared independence from Great Britain. In addition to his legal prowess, Chew was a shrewd land speculator. Much of the wealth that supported the family’s lavish Philadelphia lifestyle flowed from several tobacco and wheat plantations in Maryland and Delaware.

In 1767, Benjamin Chew completed a summer retreat in Germantown he called Cliveden, built in the highest Georgian style.   The estate had manicured gardens, wooded groves, and several outbuildings, including a large carriage house.  The inside of the stone mansion boasted elaborate woodwork and furnishings imported from England.  Although he possessed no architectural training, it appears that Chew had a hand in designing the house.


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Cliveden under assault by Washington’s troops
during the Battle of Germantown, 1777.

During the American Revolution, the pacifist Chew sided with the Crown and his principal clients, the Penn family. As a result, the Continental Congress placed him under house arrest in New Jersey.  After the Revolution, Chew returned to his successful legal practice. Despite questions about his loyalty, George Washington and John Adams had immense respect for him, and friendships such as these allowed Chew to reclaim his position in the Philadelphia power structure. Back on his feet, Chew repurchased and restored his beloved summer house, badly damaged by artillery fire during the 1777 Battle of Germantown.

The Chews continued to own Cliveden until 1972, when they donated the house and its contents to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today, the house is filled with antiques and family heirlooms, some dating all the way back to the time of Benjamin Chew.  But hidden away in Cliveden’s nooks and crannies were thousands of pages of letters, journals, account books, and other correspondence that the family maintained over the past two centuries.  Like the Adamses of Massachusetts, the Chews kept everything they wrote, making the collection a boon for American historians. These documents brought the human story of the Chews back to life — they mourned the deaths of loved ones, squabbled over inheritances, and kept track of their expenditures.

The papers also revealed in vivid detail about how much of the Chew’s early wealth had come from slavery. Correspondence between the Chews and their overseers demonstrated that the slaves on their plantations were far from compliant. During the Revolution, when Benjamin Chew was briefly imprisoned, a number of his slaves ran away.  Those that remained on the plantations developed their own unwritten social and work rules.  One time, the overseer at one of these plantations wrote Benjamin Chew pleading for back-up. Two slaves named Aaron and Jim had badly beaten him after his brutal treatment of the work force during the harvest season.  It took three weeks for Chew to send reinforcements and bring order to the plantation. Aaron and Jim submitted to the whipping, sacrificing themselves for the good of their fellow slaves.


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Illustration of Cliveden c.1850.

After the American Revolution, Pennsylvania abolished slavery, but the Chews continued to hold onto their properties in the slave states of Maryland and Delaware.  But by the early nineteenth century, the Chews saw the writing on the wall. They decided to divest themselves of their family plantations and put their capital in Pennsylvania industry and land speculation. Benjamin Jr., who served as his father’s principal plantation manager, was put in charge of this task for his extended family.  In 1809, Benjamin Jr. traveled south to settle the estate of an uncle who had died in debt.  In his letters home, he was clearly torn between family financial obligation and the fate of his uncle’s slaves, who had been denied the freedom their master had promised them.

“I found it absolutely necessary to return to this Place which I did last Evening and tomorrow sell off the Remains of any poor Uncle John’s Remnants,” Benjamin Jr. wrote his father on November 15, 1809. “I have fortunately succeeded in providing Homes for all but 7 or 8 of the Black People—a Task indeed of the most conflicting Difficulty—I have I believe succeeded in giving the poor Creatures as much Satisfaction as they could have, under a disappointment in not having their Freedom bequeathed to them—they generally thank me for what I have done for them—the Stock of all kinds I have also sold except what is necessary to retain to secure the Crops.”[ii]

* * * *

The Chew family papers — donated by the family to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1982 — were opened to the public last year.  A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities paid for the meticulous archiving and conservation process.  At the opening ceremony on October 14, 2009, representatives from N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) demanded that the legacy of slavery play a prominent role in shaping the presentation of these documents.  The meeting at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania at times grew heated. According to the N’COBRA website, “reparations are needed to repair the wrongs, injury, and damage done to us by the US federal and State governments, their agents, and representatives.”[iii]

As a result of discoveries in the papers, Cliveden found itself in the public spotlight.  Those interested in the future of Cliveden—people like Phillip Seitz, John Reese, and John T. Chew Jr.—decided the best approach was to face the controversy head-on.  It also could be an opportunity to revitalize what had previously been a rather traditional house museum that focused on the lives of its wealthy occupants.


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Artist’s sketch of the Main Hall.

“Cliveden was not afraid to face what the papers reveal,” curator Phillip Seitz said. “What we realized was that the grandeur of Cliveden was the very top layer of a very complex onion, an onion that needed to be peeled back.”

Since the release of the Chew family papers, Cliveden’s management has engaged the surrounding community in a number of meetings and dialogues.  This past fall, Cliveden sponsored a series of four well-attended lectures entitled “Cliveden Conversations” in the former carriage house.  Speakers included Phillip Seitz, who discussed the Chew family’s involvement with slavery; Dr. Erica Dunbar-Armstrong of the University of Delaware, who gave a broad overview of slavery in the Mid-Atlantic region from a woman studies perspective; Ari Merretazon of N’COBRA, who discussed his organization’s goal of reparations for the descendants of slaves; and Dr. David Young, Cliveden’s executive director, who framed the house in the context of 20th century race relations in Germantown.[iv]

Cliveden’s management hopes not only to bring about racial healing, but to more fully integrate their house museum into the predominately African-American Germantown neighborhood, making themselves “a catalyst for preserving and reusing historic buildings to sustain economic development for historic Northwest Philadelphia and beyond.”[v]


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Photograph of Cliveden, 1957. The Chew family owned the
mansion until 1972.

“We are giving people what they want,” Seitz said. “They don’t want more exhibits. They want story tellers, news articles, and they need affirmation that things happened here…not just bad stories, but also stories of survival.”

John Reese agreed. “Let’s have the courage to confront this.”  For his part, Reese sees Cliveden in a positive light, now that a more complete story is being told.  Exploring the house’s history was also a catalyst for friendships with curator Phillip Seitz and board member John Chew Jr.

“I love the house,” Reese said, sitting on a picnic table in the shadow of the craggy stone mansion. “That banister in the main staircase is solid as a rock. You look at how flimsy houses are today, and I have a hard time ever seeing Cliveden getting blown down.”

Special thanks to Philip Seitz, John Reese, and John T. Chew Jr. for their time and insights.  The interviews were conducted on October 8, 2010 at Cliveden.


[i] “Legends of the Bar,” The Philadelphia Bar Association. http://www.philadelphiabar.org/page/AboutLegends?appNum=4 Accessed October 18, 2010.

[ii] Benjamin Chew Jr. to Benjamin Chew Sr., November 15, 1809. The Chew Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/c/Chew2050.xml#series2 Accessed October 16, 2010.

[iii] “N’COBRA Information” http://www.ncobra.com/ncobra_info.htm Accessed October 18, 2010.

[iv] ‘Cliveden Conversations,” Cliveden: A National Trust Historic Site in Philadelphia.” http://cliveden1767.wordpress.com/visiting-cliveden/calendar-of-events/ Accessed October 18, 2010.

[v] “Mission Statement,” Cliveden: A National Trust Historic Site in Philadelphia.” http://cliveden1767.wordpress.com/mission-statement/ Accessed October 18, 2010.

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The City that Might Have Been: Edmund Bacon’s Philadelphia

Heralded as the father of modern Philadelphia, famed city planner Edmund Bacon was the man behind many of the city’s most notable post-WWII redevelopment projects, from Penn Center and Market East to Penn’s Landing and Society Hill. While these projects are well-known and have become essential parts of the Philadelphia landscape, the plans and projects that never came to fruition are also a compelling part of Bacon’s legacy.  As outlined in his 1959 essay on urban planning and redevelopment, Bacon envisioned a new golden age for Philadelphia in the postwar years, one that would reinvigorate community investment and development to ensure “no part of Philadelphia is ugly or depressed” in fifty years time.  While some of Bacon’s projects succeeded and others never came to pass, both outcomes provide a window into the evolution of city planning and the city itself in the post-industrial age as well as the ongoing struggles to navigate Philadelphia’s future in a new era.

A Philadelphia native and Cornell-educated architect, Edmund Bacon served as Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970. Under Bacon’s direction, the Planning Commission sought to capitalize on postwar optimism and looked to the future with coordinated, comprehensive plans to eliminate blight and liberate Philadelphia from its now obsolete industrial clutter. Whereas urban renewal projects in cities like New York and Chicago meant the wholesale demolition of unsavory neighborhoods, Bacon and his colleagues emphasized small-scale demolition and often restored older structures so that new features like shops and parks were interwoven with the existing landscape.  Best exemplified in the redevelopment of Society Hill, these design principles were also publicly showcased at the Better Philadelphia Exhibition in 1947.  The Exhibition, which Bacon as a Planning Commission staff member co-designed with Oskar Stonorov and Louis Kahn, took up two floors of Gimbel’s Department Store at 8th and Market Streets and attracted 385,000 visitors between September 8th and October 15th.  Following the theme “What City Planning Means to You and Your Children,” the exhibition contained movies, murals, dioramas, and, most spectacularly, a 30-by-14 foot model of Center City that boasted 45,000 buildings, 25,000 cars and buses, and 12,000 trees.  Notably, as a recorded narrator highlighted various parts of the model, segments flipped over to reveal the planners’ future vision for the site, which frequently included open space, planning for pedestrians, and efforts to work within the original landscape.

The Better Philadelphia Exhibition effectively paved the way for Bacon’s ascension to the Executive Director position and pushed his vision for transforming Philadelphia into a competitive world center to the forefront of urban planning.  Bacon presented many of the projects and guiding tenets of his approach to redevelopment in his seminal 1959 essay “Philadelphia in the Year 2009,” which specifically outlined plans for a transportation center at East Market Street, development along the Delaware Riverfront, and a 1976 World’s Fair to showcase the city.  For Bacon, the World’s Fair was the project around which all other projects revolved, providing an impetus for urban redesign and the construction of buildings and transportation hubs with long-term benefits.  While Bacon proposed that most of the Fair’s structures be erected in Fairmount Park, he nonetheless envisioned the Fair as a city-wide event where a variety of attractions, from the “Lights of Freedom” spectacle on Independence Mall to outdoor performances of Shakespeare and Kabuki theatre in the City Hall courtyard, were all easily accessible through underground streets and moving sidewalks linked to the proposed Crosstown Expressway.  In terms of transportation, Bacon also conceived of an overhead cable car system that ran from Fairmount Park to the west bank of the Schuylkill and out across the river to Chestnut Street, which would be equipped with an electric tram system.  In these plans, Bacon simultaneously saw the 1976 Philadelphia World’s Fair as a showcase for American culture and technology that would also spur civic activity and development and ultimately have long-lasting implications for the city’s renewal.

Initially, Bacon’s World’s Fair proposal was warmly received, especially since a 1976 Fair would coincide with America’s Bicentennial Year.  A committee was formed to seek federal funding and petition the Bureau of International Expositions to reserve 1976 for Philadelphia, but as early as 1960 Bacon was dissatisfied with the committee’s progress.  By 1964, the plan had encountered several additional stumbling blocks, including the failure and widespread criticism of the 1964 New York World’s Fair and skepticism about Bacon’s assertion that the Fair’s building and structures could be re-purposed later for private development.  In the coming years, political and community resistance to the Fair arose, as did competing proposals from activist groups like the Young Professionals.  With the so-called “World’s Fair” concept itself increasingly criticized as antiquated, the Young Professionals argued that a modern Philadelphia Fair should be more socially conscious and work to alleviate racial and social problems like the disconnect between Center City and outer-lying ghetto neighborhoods such as Mantua and Powelton Village.  To this end, the group proposed holding the Fair in a megastructure to be built over the rail yards at 30th Street Station that would enhance transportation and access to all parts of the city.  The megastructure idea dominated plans into the late 1960s, but struggles over the rights to the area and control over the design ultimately defeated it. Afterwards, organizers briefly resurrected Bacon’s proposal to locate the crux of the Fair in Fairmount Park, while alternately suggesting Penn’s Landing, Port Richmond, Byberry, and Fort Mifflin as additional options.  However, no viable site was ever agreed upon and the 1976 Philadelphia World’s Fair eventually succumbed to inertia, as well as President Nixon’s reluctance to endorse any urban renewal project associated with former President Johnson’s Great Society agenda.

Even without the impetus of a World’s Fair, several of Bacon’s key redevelopment projects, such as the Market East transportation center and improvements to the Far Northeast, were eventually realized, albeit with alterations to Bacon’s original designs.  In many ways, both projects sought to provide suburban amenities in an urban context, as Bacon aimed to draw middle-class families back to the city following the population dispersal of the postwar years.  To this end, Bacon’s plans for the Far Northeast included family-friendly residential homes positioned in loop streets that echoed the area’s natural topography and preserved open spaces for children to play.  In addition, retail centers with connections to downtown transit would serve as the central hubs of these communities, though in the end retail centers were eliminated in favor of strip malls and the loop street design evolved into cul-de-sacs.

Interestingly, the Far Northeast was not the only area to see alternations to Bacon’s original street plan; as detailed in Bacon’s 1959 essay, Chestnut Street was to be a pedestrian-only thoroughfare of open-air, bazaar-style storefronts with a trolley at its center.  As with so many other elements of Bacon’s vision for Philadelphia, Chestnut Street never fully evolved to meet his expectations, but those expectations still offer a compelling snapshot of the plans and possibilities that captured Philadelphia’s imagination in the postwar years. And in the end, whether in Philadelphia’s physical landscape or the photographic history presented here on PhillyHistory, Ed Bacon’s vision lives on, a legacy demonstrated by both the city that might have been and the city that came to be.

References:

Edmund N. Bacon.  “Philadelphia in the Year 2009” aka “Tomorrow: A Fair Can Pace It.“  Greater Philadelphia Magazine, 1959.

The Ed Bacon Foundation. 28 September 2010. http://www.edbacon.org/index.htm (Accessed 13 October 2010).

Scott Gabriel Knowles, ed.  Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

Nathaniel Popkin.  “The Future is Now.“  Philadelphia Citypaper, December 16, 2009.

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Mummers in the Winter (and Summer)

A long-standing tradition in the city of Philadelphia has been the Mummers Parade, which is held every year on New Year’s Day, and is attended by close to 10,000 people. The history of the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia dates back to the mid 17th century, and the Mummers tradition worldwide can be traced as far back as 400 BC to the Roman Festival of Saturnalias. Mummers are not just found in the city of Philadelphia but also in Ireland and England where similar performances and parades are held. Their history in Philadelphia originated with the celebration of Second Day Christmas, a holiday brought by the Swedes that was drawn into the start of the New Year. The merriment of the Mummers Parade was famous even its early days, and George Washington continued the tradition of calling out New Year’s Day during his years in office. The first “official” parade in Philadelphia was January 1, 1901, and since then, the parade has been held every year, with a few exceptions. The first cancellation was in 1919, due to World War I, and then seventeen years later, in 1934, due largely in part to the depression and lack of funding. Since 1922, there have been twenty-two weather related postponements, but the parade would still be held at a later date.

Today, the Philadelphia Mummers Parade is comprised of four divisions: the Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades. Each division or club’s title is reflective of the dress and performance of its members. The Comics parody politicians and current issues, and the Fancies adorn themselves with outrageous costumes and are often accompanied by floats. The String Bands perform routines with only string instruments and the Fancy Brigades, like the Fancies, wear elaborate costumes and also play instruments. The earliest known Mummer club was formed in 1840 and was called the Chain Gang. Throughout the years the names of clubs, specifically the comics, held rather amusing titles such as The Energetic Hoboes and The Red Onions.

While the Mummers may best be known for their performance on the first day of the year, they have often appeared during the Philadelphia Freedom Festival. The Philadelphia Freedom Festival, also known as Freedom Week, is another annual celebration held every year in Philadelphia during the first week of July to commemorate Independence Day.  Throughout the week, there are various programs and events such as fireworks, parades, concerts, and most notably, the appearance of the lively and entertaining Mummers. Unlike the Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day which stretches over two miles from South Philadelphia to City Hall, the Freedom Festival is held along the Ben Franklin Parkway in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and similarly, continues to City Hall. During the year, Mummers can also be found at events, celebrations, and private parties in the area.

The deeply seeded tradition of the Mummers Parade is held dear to the hearts of the residents of Philadelphia. Each year the unofficial theme song for the Mummers Parade, “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” written in 1879 by James Bland, an African American songwriter, can be heard throughout the parade.

“Oh, dem golden slippers
Oh, dem golden slippers
Golden slippers I’se goin’ to wear
Because they look so neat
Oh, dem golden slippers
Oh, dem golden slippers
Golden slippers I’se goin’ to wear
To walk the golden street”

- excerpt from Oh, Dem Golden Slippers, by James Bland

References:

Dubin, M. (1996). South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kennedy, E.A. (2007). Life, Liberty, and the Mummers. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

“Mummers Parade.” City of Philadelphia – Recreation 10 August 2010 http://www.phila.gov/recreation/mummers/Mummers_History.html (Accessed 10 August 2010).

“Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.” City of Philadelphia – Recreation 10 August 2010 http://www.phila.gov/recreation/Golden_Slippers.html (Accessed 10 August 2010).

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Risen from the Ashes: St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and the Gesu Church, Part 2

As the Gesu parish flourished, so did St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. By 1927, the University moved from North Philadelphia to a new campus on City Line Avenue, giving the secondary school much more space. It was also in the 1920s that the school became known as “The Prep” and its students as “Preppers.” Because of its high academic standards, easy access to public transportation, and relatively low tuition, it attracted students from all over Philadelphia and its suburbs. Some hailed from as far away as Trenton, Phoenixville, and Cape May. Some of their fathers were doctors and lawyers; others were factory workers and shop owners. Most parents were upwardly-mobile and very involved in their children’s education. Above all, the school was a Philadelphia melting pot. As Preppers, students could form friendships outside of their respective economic classes and neighborhoods.


Old St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and University,
c.1910. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.

The Marble Staircase, the old St. Joseph’s
Preparatory Building, c. 1925, Collection of
St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.

According to a school history, the Jesuits impressed upon their charges that they should be “polite, as that is the surest sign of a gentleman and therefore they should diligently observe all the little customs prescribed by their teachers.” The students were also told to be “friendly with their peers and avoid quarreling, fighting, and language of low-breeding.” iii



Classes began at 9am and continued until 2:30pm. Students then participated in extracurricular activities and sports, with football being the most popular. Coach Frank Caton of the Fairmount Rowing Club started the crew team in the late 1920s. A dramatic club put on Shakespeare plays, and those interested in debate participated in the Barbelin Society — talented Jesuits advised both groups.iv

Sandy MacMurtrie, class of 1945, commuted to The Prep from his family’s home at 912 S. 49th Street. His family, parishioners at St. Francis de Sales Church on Baltimore Avenue, sent three sons to the Prep. Sandy and a few of his West Philadelphia classmates would catch the Number 70 trolley to Girard Avenue, and then hop the Number 15 to 17th Street. Mass would be said at 8am every day, with prayers offered to the alumni in the service — including Sandy’s brother Francis who was tragically killed in the Pacific.

The situation in Europe cast a shadow over school life, but the students still pulled old fashioned hijinks. In September 1941, The Prep scored a major football victory over South Catholic High School. The following morning, students held a celebratory pep rally in the auditorium. No one knows who walked out the door first, but scores of Preppers (including MacMurtrie) paraded down Broad Street, cheering and singing at the top of their lungs. The headmaster met the students at Rayburn Plaza and ordered them to turn around. To no avail. By the time the students reached South Catholic at 8th and Christian, the Prep’s headmaster had sent several squad cars there to meet them. The administration punished the offending students accordingly: for the next 2 days after school, they had to walk in circles around the schoolyard for 3 hours.v

* * * *

Within days of the fire of 1966, the Prep was back in business. Classes met in the one surviving building on Thompson Street. In spite of crowded and primitive conditions, enrollment did not decline. Most importantly, the administration decided the school would remain in North Philadelphia.

For teacher Gus Kueny Jr. ‘53, the decision to stay was a reaffirmation of the school’s social mission. “So many businesses and schools are closing up and leaving the city,” Kueny said at the time. “What could we accomplish by moving out? Kids come here from every neighborhood, from every suburb. For kids like this, just coming into this neighborhood shows them something they wouldn’t see out in the suburbs. It’s part of their education.” vi

The new school building would be built just south of the Church of the Gesu, on land acquired from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Ground was broken on May 29, 1967, and Cardinal John Krol consecrated the modern, $4.5 million structure a year and a half later.vii


Exterior of the old St. Joseph’s Preparatory Building
and Church of the Gesu, c. 1960, Collection of
St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.

Interior of Church of the Gesu, photograph by
Steven B. Ujifusa.

In the 1990s, due to falling parish membership, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia deactivated the Church of the Gesu as a parish. But St. Joseph’s Preparatory stepped in to save Father Villiger’s dream church. This remarkable structure now serves as the school’s chapel, hosting student masses several times a year. Its attached independent school, the Gesu School, is a model for inner city elementary education.

Today, The Prep has about 800 students, and continues to draw in students from all over the Philadelphia area. Despite its urban location, the Prep has found that more and more of its students are from the suburbs. Naturally, this has led to some tensions with the surrounding neighborhood, especially as the student body became more affluent. At the same time, the Prep opportunities for community service not possible in a suburban location, such as tutoring low-income elementary students at the Gesu School.

“We’ve been struggling to keep a base in the city,” said current headmaster Father George Bur S.J., ’59. “When I was there as a student, between 60 and 70 percent the students were from the city, now it’s only about 20 percent, and we are working to reach out to the Latino and African-American communities.” viii

A recent alumnus, Richard Pagano ’98, recently mused on the meaning of the school’s motto “Men for Others”: “Community service,” he said, “and the idea of commitment to aiding and providing for not only those less fortunate, but the community as a whole, is such a big part of that school. The school imbues in you a desire to succeed, to achieve, to make a name for yourself, and not to be complacent…the school’s location, and Jesuit ideals, cannot be discounted for doing that.”

Note: Special thanks to Bill Avington, Bill Conners, Father George Bur S.J., James Hill Jr., Gus Keuny, Sandy MacMurtrie, and Richard Pagano for their invaluable assistance.

References:

[iii] Rev. James J. Gormley, S.J., Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, A History 125 Years, 1851-1979, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1976, p.12. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[iv] Rev. James J. Gormley, S.J., Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, A History 125 Years, 1851-1979, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1976, pp.46, 65, 105.

[v] Interview with Sandy MacMurtrie, August 27, 2010.

[vi] James Smart, “In Our Town: A Sentimental Alumnus Busy Rebuilding the Prep,” The Evening Bulletin, November 8, 1968. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[vii] Rev. James J. Gormley, S.J., Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, A History 125 Years, 1851-1979, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1976, pp.155-156. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[viii] Interview with Father George Bur, S.J, August 27, 2010.

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