Le Corbusier Dynamites the Drexel Block

The intersection of 40th and Locust Streets, 1953.

Locust Street, looking east from 40th Street to 39th Street, 1953. Almost all of these structures were demolished.

39th and Spruce in 1912, when Hamilton Village was a prosperous commuter neighborhood.

In his writings on architecture and city planning, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1967) was fond of using the “royal” we:

We must create a mass-production state of mind:
A state of mind for building mass-production housing.
A state of mind for living in mass-production housing.
A state of mind for conceiving mass-production housing.

In the 1930s, Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) devised a plan to level the center of Paris and bring “reason” and “order” to what he saw as complete urban chaos.  Baron Haussmann’s 19th century low-rise apartment buildings and triumphant boulevards would be replaced by tall, concrete cruciform towers set in green, wooded parks.

Le Corbusier had nothing but disdain for historic architecture, lambasting Gothic cathedrals as hideous to behold.  In his view, commercial, residential, and industrial districts had to be separated from each other, eliminating multi-use structures that housed both apartments and “mom-and-pop” stores.  Enamored with the automobile, he argued that cities needed to be reoriented around arterial expressways, and that people should surrender the street to the car.

“We must kill the street!” he declared.

He called this vision “The Radiant City.”  He hoped it would not only bring order to the urban form, but would also eliminate class distinctions by having everyone occupying “machines” for living.

In fetishizing the urban form, the collective, and the machine, Le Corbusier had little regard for individuals, especially those in the way of what he saw as progress.

His plans for the rebuilding of Paris were never carried out, but his gospel was taken up not just by  forward-thinking architects and theorists, but also by the automobile industry and real estate developers, who loved the prospect of building new superhighways and the demolition of older urban cores.

Present day critic Theodore Dalrymple has harsh words for Le Corbusier and his “Radiant City.” Comparing him to Pol Pot in the destruction his ideas wreaked, Dalrymple wrote:  ”Le Corbusier extolled this kind of destructiveness as imagination and boldness, in contrast with the conventionality and timidity of which he accused all contemporaries who did not fall to their knees before him.”*

But in the years following World War II, his starstruck admirers and disciples fanned out across America, occupying positions of power and influence in major universities and big city planning departments.  Robert Moses, New York’s all-powerful Parks Commissioner, was one.   Edmund Bacon, Philadelphia’s director of city planning and builder of the Society Hill Towers, was another.

One university president that fell under “Le Corbu’s” spell was Penn’s president Gaylord P. Harnwell, a physicist who presided over the gigantic expansion of the size of scope of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s, in which it grew into a truly national institution.  According to the Harnwell Papers website, during his term (1953-1970), “The campus was expanded, many new buildings erected, and all major areas and programs strengthened….a new milestone in the history of the development of the University.”**

Until the 1950s, the University of Pennsylvania had very little green space, and almost no room to expand in any direction.  Today’s Locust Walk was a busy urban street, with a trolley line that cut right through the middle of campus. According to a report from 1963, “Students were poorly housed; faculty established residences in suburbs and formed no campus connection; women students feared to be on the streets at night; traffic became a major problem and parking all but impossible. These ills were dramatized in 1956 by the senseless murder of a Korean student by a band of hoodlums who roamed the area.”***

It was the perfect time for Penn to adapt a new design philosophy that turned away from the neo-Gothic, Oxbridge aesthetic of the past and towards a modern, efficient one that reflected a cosmopolitan, modern university.  In the years following World War II, the GI Bill had led to a massive expansion at America’s universities, and prestige ones like Penn were especially popular with a growing, more socio-economically diverse student body.  Although historically Penn had a large population of commuter students, by the 1950s the old dormitories in the Quadrangle and private rooming houses were exploding at the seams.

Something had to be done.

Philosophical arguments aside, Le Corbusier’s urban high rise vision provided college administrators a way to cheaply house as many students as possible.

Soon after taking office, Harnwell instituted a bifurcated plan for the historic core of the Penn campus inspired by the vision of Le Corbusier.   East of 38th Street, it was pointless for Harnwell to tear down most of Penn’s historic buildings, as they were already occupied by academic departments and fraternities with powerful alumni who donated money to the University.   There was talk of tearing down Frank Furness’s main library — by then considered a monstrosity by most architecture critics — to make room for a more modern structure, but thankfully nothing came of it.  Locust Street was closed to cars, the trolley line running along it shut down, and it was transformed into a tree-lined pedestrian walkway that has since become a model for urban college campuses.

Penn then set its eyes on the blocks west of 38th Street.   The area known as Hamilton Village included ramshackle Victorian mansions that had once belonged to the Drexel banking family (they had long since left West Philadelphia) as well as numerous low-rise apartment buildings and 19th century rowhouses originally built for prosperous commuters.  In its salad days, Hamilton Village was simply called the “Drexel Block.”

To the followers of Le Corbusier, this one-time elite Victorian neighborhood known as “Black Bottom” represented the worst of the “old city”: dirty, cramped, riddled with blight, and bad for the circulation of cars.

The residents of Black Bottom had a much different perspective: ”It was a neighborhood of very active people, people who had very high standards for themselves and their families,” remembered Pearl Simpson in a Philadelphia Weekly interview.  ”Most people worked at the hospitals, on the railroad. Some people had their own businesses, like dressmakers, tailor shops, doctors, little stores and whatnot. They were very into culture and having a good neighborhood.”****

Rather than rehabilitate Black Bottom, Harnwell and his fellow members of the West Philadelphia Corporation (which included representatives from Drexel University, the University of the Sciences, and Presbyterian Hospital), decided on mass-demolition and slum clearance.  The city of Philadelphia quickly condemned Hamilton Village through eminent domain and gave it to the Corporation for redevelopment.

The residents did not leave without a fight.  During that watershed year of 1968, residents erected a barbed wire barricade on 38th Street to prevent the bulldozers from moving in, and cars were overturned and set on fire. It was, as one resident described, “urban warfare.”*****

But by the late 1960s, thousands of mostly African-American residents had been evicted from the Hamilton Village.  With the exception of a few old mansions and the Gothic St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the blocks bounded by 38th, 40th, Spruce, and Walnut were completely leveled.

Three high-rise concrete dormitories and several low rise student residences — built according to Le Corbusier’s design principles of towers in a park — now occupy a part of campus that students today derisively call “the Superblock” or “the Wind Tunnel.”

The mass-demolition not only destroyed dozens of historic structures, but also deeply scarred relations between the University of Pennsylvania and the surrounding community.

Le Corbusier would have been proud.

Former Drexel family mansion at 38th and Locust, now a fraternity house.

38th and Locust Street in 1953, before demolition and the removal of the trolley tracks.

A mansion converted into apartments and shops, at 40th and Walnut, 1963. This corner is now occupied by a McDonald’s.

Interior details of the former Lea mansion at 39th and Spruce, pre-demolition, 1967.

Le Corbusier waves his hand over his vision for “La Ville Radieuse,” 1964. Source: http://strates.revues.org/5573

*Theodore Dalrymple, “The Architect as Totalitarian,” City Journal, August 2009.  http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_4_otbie-le-corbusier.html

**Guide, Gaylord P. Harnwell Papers, University of Pennsylvania Archives. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/faids/upt/upt50/harnwell_gp.html

***”The Corporation,” The West Philadelphia Partnership, 1963.  http://www.uchs.net/Rosenthal/wpc.html

****Jeffrey Barg, “Black Bottom Blues,” Philadelphia Weekly, September 6, 2006. http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/black_bottom_blues-38418829.html

*****Jeffrey Barg, “Black Bottom Blues,” Philadelphia Weekly, September 6, 2006. http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/black_bottom_blues-38418829.html


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April 2, 1912: Barnes Unpacks His First Shipment of French Art

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos The now-demolished Youth Study Center and current site of the Barnes Foundation,
2020 Pennsylvania Avenue. Photograph by Francis Balionis, June 18, 1952.

“I know what you have,” William Glackens told Albert C. Barnes of his first stabs at art acquisition. It’s an “ordinary rich man’s collection.” You spent thousands of dollars and “they are stinging you as they do everybody who has money to spend.” Forget your “fuzzy Corots,” said Glackens, put them in the “attic” and “start over.”

Barnes, the chemist-physician-manufacturer of a medicine that prevented infant blindness had set out to cure another  blindness—the kind that afflicts rich collectors with no vision. Barnes tracked down Glackens, a former classmate from Central High School who had, only a few years before, broken into the New York City art scene as one of “The Eight”—a group of realists with a distinctly populist edge. In Glackens, Barnes had someone he could trust: not a dealer, but an old friend an “eye” who could help him unlearn his rich man’s collecting habits and start him assembling art that actually meant something.

What kind of a vision did Barnes have in mind? “I want to buy some good modern paintings,” he wrote Glackens early in 1912. And Barnes had the funds to set up an unusual experiment. He sent his old friend to Paris with $20,000 (the equivalent of almost half a million in today’s dollars) on an open-ended art buying trip. Glackens knew Paris a little, but he hadn’t been there for more than a decade, since he quit his job as an illustrator in Philadelphia to go on a bicycle trip through Northern France, Belgium, and Holland. So he turned to Alfred (Alfy) Maurer, an American painter living in Paris, who, as Glackens put it in a letter to his wife just after his arrival, “is going to introduce me to a Mr. Stein, a man who collects Renoirs, Matisse, etc.”

They got right to work. Three days later, Glackens wrote home: “I have been all through the dealers places and have discovered that Mr. Barnes will not get as much for his money as he expects. … Hunting up pictures is not child’s play. Poor Alfy is about worn out.” But less than two weeks later, by March 1, Glackens had completed his mission. “I sail tomorrow,” he wrote, “everything is settled up here and the pictures being boxed. I am mighty glad it is finished and I am sick of looking at pictures and asking prices. … I will have a devil of a time with the customs people over the pictures. I am loaded down with invoices and consular certificates.”

Was Barnes’ experiment a success? On the eve of his departure from Paris, Glackens wrote: “Everything has been finished up and the pictures are being boxed by a first class packer … I am bringing you a fine collection of pictures nearly everything I started for.” When the crates fresh from Paris arrived in  Barnes’s hands on April 2, 1912, he anxiously unpacked his 33 works of art.

Among the 20 paintings Barnes beheld “a little girl reading a book” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a “bargain” at seven thousand francs ($1,400) that Glackens was particularly proud of. Barnes unpacked his first Paul Cézanne: Toward Mont Sainte-Victoire (Vers la Montagne Sainte-Victoire) from the late 1870s; his first Pablo Picasso, Young Woman Holding a Cigarette (Jeune femme tenant une cigarette) painted in 1901, and his first Vincent Van Gogh The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin) from 1889.

“I have examined the paintings which you bought for me in Paris and I am delighted with them,” Barnes wrote Glackens. But  not entirely delighted. By outsourcing the task of buying, Barnes had forfeited the education of the search and the joy of the hunt. By June, he would go to Paris himself, to work with Alfy, to meet the Steins (Leo and Gertrude), to charm the dealers with his checkbook and build on what Glackens had started. But what Barnes unpacked in those crates one hundred years ago changed his vision and his confidence in collecting. Over time, Barnes would build a collection of 180 more Renoirs, 68 more Cézannes, 45 more Picassos and 6 more Van Goghs. And much, much more.

In Paris, Barnes would tackle something that Glackens did not—the world created by the new wave of modernists. “Art is in a strange state at present among the youth,” Glackens warned Barnes. “I confess that lots of things I have seen over here are incomprehensible to me as art.” Barnes took Glackens’ words as a challenge. In Paris, he made his way to those who created this “incomprehensible” art and bought some of that, too. Barnes would, in short order, make his way from art’s cutting edge to its bleeding edge.

In its own time, so would Philadelphia.

[Note:  For more on the Barnes Foundation at the site of the Youth Study Center, read another post at PhillyHistory published May 15, 2012: What’s Wrong With Philadelphia’s “Museum Mile”?


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The Germantown Cricket Club

Germantown Cricket Club, c.1900.

Hidden behind a high brick wall stands a forgotten masterpiece of American architecture, designed by the same firm responsible for New York’s Pennsylvania Station and the Boston Public Library.

The Germantown Cricket Club, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the few surviving structures in Philadelphia designed by McKim Mead & White.

It is a strange juxtaposition, indeed: one of the nation’s oldest country clubs situated in an dense, inner-city environment.

When Germantown Cricket Club was built in the 1890s, the surrounding area was a fashionable suburban district, popular with commuters and summer residents seeking clean air and green space.  What better place for traditional country sports?

Cricket is, of course, a British import, and an ancestor of modern American baseball. During the mid-19th century, Philadelphia was an American mecca of this quintessentially British game, and it’s “elevens” were competitive with the best teams from the other side of the pond. One of Philadelphia’s greatest cricketers was Germantown founder William Rotch Wister (1827-1911), who actively promoted the game to a broad American audience after watching English immigrant millworkers play it during their precious off-hours.  He was also the uncle (and father-in-law…) of novelist Owen Wister.*  Wister, along with a group of well-connected Philadelphia sportsmen, founded the Germantown Cricket Club in 1854.  The club first played on a crease in the Nicetown section of the city — conveniently close to the Wister family compound — until 1891, when the current clubhouse was constructed on Manheim Street.

The clubhouse is most likely the vision of Stanford White, the most creative and visionary of the McKim Mead & White partners.** White’s residential architecture, especially in New York, tended towards the theatrical, with plenty of rich materials and ornamentation.  He also had a hand in designing resort structures such as The Casino in Newport, Rhode Island, which used Japanese architecture for inspiration.  But perhaps in the spirit of appeasing his conservative Philadelphia patrons, White tempered his architectural language, giving Wister and his friends a staid, symmetrical, red-brick Georgian composition that harkened back to Philadelphia landmarks such as Independence Hall and Christ Church.

In the best Beaux Arts tradition, White created an efficient floor plan that revolved around a central axis, in this case a long hallway that ran the entire length of the first floor.  Since the club would be most heavily used in the warm-weather months, creating enough cross-ventilation in the fierce Philadelphia heat was a real design challenge.  White’s response was to place a double-tiered veranda in the center of the building. This feature not only allowed fresh air to circulate throughout the main public rooms (including the barrel -vaulted ballroom on the second floor), but gave members a shaded viewing stand for watching the matches on the crease below.  Brightly-colored striped window awnings, fixtures on homes throughout the city during the summer, also helped keep the building cool.

At Germantown, Wister’s cricket boosterism worked for a while — in the first decade of the twentieth century, thousands of people took the train out to the suburbs to watch the matches. Yet there were some fundamental problems with American cricket, especially as the pace of life quickened with industrialization and corporate consolidation.  First, it was a slow game, and matches could last for days.   Few spectators, let alone players, had the time to devote to such a leisurely sport.   Second, women were excluded by custom from elevens teams.  Above all, more Americans found cricket just plain boring, especially compared to collegiate football and nascent professional baseball teams.

By the 1910s, a new sport took over the grass creases of Germantown Cricket: lawn tennis. It not only provided vigorous exercise in a short period of time, but also allowed female participation.  It was at Germantown Cricket that William T. “Bill” Tilden II honed his skills as a boy and became America’s greatest tennis player. The tennis craze even spread to the White House.  President Theodore Roosevelt, America’s greatest exponent of physical fitness in the early 1900s, frequently played with a group of advisors that came to be known as the “Tennis Cabinet.”  Yet as an advocate of contact sports such as football and jujitsu, Roosevelt adamantly refused to be photographed in what he considered to be effete tennis whites.

During the middle of the twentieth century, cricket declined as Philadelphia became a tennis mecca. The city produced not just Bill Tilden, but also Wimbleton champion E. Victor Seixas Jr.  In the early 1920s, Germantown hosted the U.S. Open.  So great was Philadelphia’s place in tennis lore that Penn sociologist E. Digby Baltzell wrote an entire book about it – Sporting Gentlemen – in which the author lamented the supplanting of amateur players by professionals.***

Today, Germantown Cricket has been carefully restored and modernized, and its membership has diversified considerably since the days of Tilden.  It  now boasts programs not just in tennis and squash, but also an outdoor swimming pool and bowling alley.  And occasionally, the tennis nets are removed and two sets of “elevens” engage in a cricket match on the close-cropped grass courts.

Yet Philadelphia’s most active cricket field is not surrounded by a high brick wall, but is open to all.  During the summer, on the fields in Fairmount Park, teams composed largely of immigrants from the Caribbean and Pakistan play every weekend, keeping a distinctly Philadelphia tradition alive and well.

*Obituary for William Rotch Wister, Wednesday, August 23, 1911: “The Philadelphia Press.”  The former William Rotch Wister estate is now the site of La Salle University.

**In 1906, Stanford White was shot to death by Harry K. Thaw on the rooftop garden of New York’s Madison Square Garden.  Thaw’s wife Evelyn Nesbit had once been White’s mistress.  The murder (and all its salacious details) was dubbed the “Crime of the Century.”

***E. Digby Baltzell was godfather to Whit Stillman, director of Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona, and Damsels in Distress.

1893 watercolor of the Germantown Cricket Club by A.L. Church. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Bill Tilden. Image: Wikipedia Commons

William Rutherford Mead, Charles F. McKim, and Stanford White.  Image: www.fineartamerica.com

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The Centennial Effect: When Photography Replaces Memory

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos The Centennial Photographic Company’s Studio and Employees. The Centennial Photographic
Company, 1876.

On America’s 97th birthday an army of workers put up three miles of fencing around a tract in West Fairmount Park. By the time the 100th birthday rolled around, these  fields, swamps and ravines had been transformed into a polychromatic city of 249 buildings. More than 185,000 came for the ceremonies opening day; by the time the Centennial Exhibition closed in November more than 10 million had visited.

For decades, the Centennial resonated in the national memory. Philadelphia’s World’s Fair was a declaration of its own sort, rivaling for its day the events of 1776. The city expected success, but seemed almost taken aback by its scale and scope. Philadelphians would try to leverage the next two anniversaries of Independence in 1926 and 1976 into World’s Fairs. But the historical moment at the 150th and the 200th anniversaries of the nation paled by comparison with that of 1876.

The Centennial’s success was a matter of tone, timing and orchestration and it seemed almost too good to be true. And as the real memories of this temporary installation faded, the event’s photographic legacy began to take over and re-cast its success with images serving as a kind of a public memory bank. And since the Centennial Photographic Company produced and disseminated more images than Americans had ever seen for any other event, the national memory found a partner in photography. Thousands upon thousands would propel the Centennial forward into the American historical imagination—forever.

Just as the Centennial rose up from the ground, so did the Centennial Photographic Company. It went from zero to 200 employees; from zero to producing more than 150,000 photographic souvenirs in a single month. A team of photographers made 2,820 negatives; its printers printed, cutters cut, mounters mounted, and salespeople sold in a room lined with “pigeonholes” filled and re-filled them every day. It was a 24/7 operation. Through the night, the building resounded with the snap of fresh prints being trimmed. The next day, the crew of women pasted them—as many as 6,000 per day—onto buff-colored cards. Visitors bought stereographs for a quarter each; the largest prints (17 ” x 21”) sold for $5.

Photographer John L. Gihon shared what it was like working for the Centennial Photographic Company. In his “Rambling Remarks” published in The Philadelphia Photographer, we get a sense the pressure on Gihon from  anxious bosses and jostling crowds. He described his work: “Standing upon tiptoe on the topmost step of your ladder, arranging and rearranging probably a mammoth box, stifled and sweating under the confinement of a heavy head cloth, peering on a ground glass, out of the obscurity depicted on which you could barely trace the outlines of some object unusually bright, confused by the talking, laughing and uncomplimentary remarks of the people, and the incessant shuffling of their feet in what you knew to be dangerous proximity.”

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos “Agricultural Hall from the South Gallery,” The Centennial Photographic
Company, 1876.

Glass cases “gave rise to reflections and counter-reflections that dodged in upon” back-to-back exhibitions. “Each plane, when looked at superficially,” he wrote, “would show equally as well as the goods of its opposite neighbor as those which it protected.” When he could, Gihon got exhibitors to open the doors of their cases and unfurled black cloth to screen distractions and reflections. But there were always more problems. The marble floors in Memorial Hall offered no grip for the metal-tipped tripod legs. Often, exhibitors wouldn’t let photographers rope off areas to work in. On those occasions, Gihon and his colleagues came in as maintenance crews mopped. They’d avoid the hoards of visitors, but bright, raking, early morning light streamed in, compromising their images.

Even so, photographing on deadline and in tight quarters, Gihon and his fellow photographers captured the sense of excitement as to all what America produced and sold, from shirts to gas apparatus; oil cloth to wind turbines; locomotives to calculating machines. And with their wide-angle lenses and high-up perspectives, the photographs conveyed, again, again and yet again (in Gihon’s favorite building, Agricultural Hall, illustrated) the Centennial’s huge scale and impact.

No matter how convincing they seem, these photographs—and there are 1,351 here—are not the Centennial but rather a substitute for that lost reality. At best, they provide a manipulated simulation of real events. As a foreign dignitary observed Centennial’s opening day: “Nobody can see anything, nobody can do anything, all rush, push, tear, shout make plenty noise, say ‘damn’ great many times, get very tired and go home.” Reality is precious and fleeting, but it’s also often oppressively mundane. Photography filters the everyday out of reality and leaves the viewer with something that’s real, but that something projects its own unique message.

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The Wrong Side of the Tracks

The Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct (the “Chinese Wall”) at 22nd Street, looking south. 1929.

The end of the “Chinese Wall” at 22nd and Commerce, 1929.

Broad Street Station, designed by Furness, Evans & Company, looking west from City Hall, 1889. The “Chinese Wall” was situated on what is today John F. Kennedy Boulevard.

by Steven B. Ujifusa

In the spring of 1921, a young man named John J. McCloy returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, eager to start his law career.  A poor boy who had grown up in a small house at 20th and Brown streets, he had just completed Harvard Law School, graduating at the top of his class.  His determined mother Anna, a widowed hairdresser of Pennsylvania Dutch origin, had scrimped and saved to send her beloved son to prep school and Amherst College.

McCloy called on one of the city’s most eminent lawyers, George Wharton Pepper, hoping to land a job at one of the city’s top law firms.

Pepper took the aspiring Philadelphia attorney aside.

“I know Philadelphians,” Pepper told McCloy. “It is a city of blood ties. You have good grades, but they don’t mean anything here. Family ties do. Even when I started out here it was difficult and slow. It would be impossible for you. You were born north of the Chinese Wall, and they’ll never take you seriously in this town. In New York, however, your grades will count for something.” *

A disappointed John took the older man’s advice.  He left Philadelphia for good.

Although most of Frank Furness’s buildings have sadly been lost to the wrecker’s ball, one of his Philadelphia monuments is happily gone: the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct, otherwise known as the “Chinese Wall.”  As part of his expansion of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station in the  1880s, Furness, Evans & Company designed a titanic, ten-track wide stone viaduct that ran from City Hall to the Schuylkill River.  Although adorned with a few token sculptures by Karl Bitter, it was by-and-large hideous. Much like the interstates that ripped through the hearts of American cities in the mid-twentieth century, the PRR viaduct severely hindered physical access from Center City to North Philadelphia.  Each one of its archways was a dark, stinking cavern, usually filled with refuse. At night, the prospect of crossing the wall, especially on foot, must have been terrifying. Surrounding real estate, especially on Market and Arch streets, suffered.  The steam trains belched black smoke at all hours of the day and night, soiling surrounding buildings with soot and choking the air with fumes.

Despite this massive stone wall blocking access to the city’s main commercial district, the blocks north of the viaduct blossomed into thriving middle and upper class neighborhoods.  Newly-wealthy industrialists built mansions on North Broad Street, while prosperous German Jews lived in substantial brownstones in Fairmount and Strawberry Mansion.  Artist Thomas Eakins lived and painted in his father’s big brick rowhouse at 17th and Mount Vernon. And then there were  families like the McCloys, who lived in small but well-kept homes on the side streets, making ends meet as best they could and hoping for a better future.

Yet the division on Market Street was more than physical: it was psychological and social, as well.  To the city’s insular, snobbish business and social elite, the only “proper” place to live in Center City was Rittenhouse Square. Not south of Pine Street. And definitely never north of Market Street.  In fact, “North of Market” was a pejorative expression.**  To men of George Wharton Pepper’s ilk, who sat on the boards of the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Railroad, it was used as a euphemism for nouveau riche, not part of the “in crowd,” not mattering. And in the case of John J. McCloy, the discrimination was very real, indeed.

Philadelphia’s “Chinese Wall” may also have given rise to an expression that has entered the American vernacular: the wrong side of the tracks.

After the rebuff from Pepper, McCloy went to New York and took a job with a law firm run by the hard-driving Paul D. Cravath. He would eventually become Assistant Secretary of War under President Franklin Roosevelt, president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, and earn the nickname of “Chairman of the Board of the American Establishment.”***

In 1953, Broad Street Station was demolished, and the “Chinese Wall” came tumbling down with it.  A new street, christened John F. Kennedy Boulevard replaced the viaduct.  New skyscrapers shot up on the site of the old barrier, forming a new commercial backbone to the city and soaring high above Billy Penn’s hat atop City Hall.  The Pennsylvania Railroad — once the biggest corporation on earth and the financial Gibraltar of Pepper’s Philadelphia elite  – declared bankruptcy in 1970 after a failed merger with the New York Central.

Ironically, a new barrier — sunken, rather than raised — was constructed just as the Chinese Wall came down: the Vine Street Expressway.

The viaduct at 22nd and Cuthbert, looking north, 1929.

Underneath the viaduct at 22nd and Cuthbert, 1955.

*Interview of John J. McCloy by Kai Bird, June 23, 1983.  Kai Bird, The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 57.

** Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963), p. 529.

***As Assistant Secretary of War, McCloy clashed with Attorney General Francis Biddle (another Philadelphian, from the “right” side of the tracks) regarding the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.   Biddle protested the constitutionality of Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, but ultimately McCloy and others in the administration prevailed.  The episode haunted Biddle to the end of his life, while McCloy vigorously defended internment to the end of his.

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A Holdout from the Heyday of the American Daguerreotype

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos View of the south side of Chestnut Street between 6th and 7th Streets
showing the daguerreotype studio of McClees & Germon in 1855.

Philadelphia in the 1850s was much about giving and getting face time. You couldn’t take more than a few steps on Chestnut Street without bumping into a choice of daguerreotype studios. The photographic process arrived from Paris  late summer in  1839;  Philadelphians had grown up with the silvery science from the first. Robert Cornelius experimented, perfected, and then sold his first commercial portrait to his lens supplier, John McAllister, Jr., who was savvy enough to insist on being the first in line. Today, McAllister’s face lives on at the Library of Congress.

What made daguerreotypes so appealing? They literally reflected reality using a blend of skill and science that looked like magic but was really an art. From the first, they stunned those who saw them and left in their wake believers convinced these affordable, luminous images would change the world.

By the 1850s, on a walk down Chestnut Street you’d encounter a dozen Daguerreans, whose bold signs, brimming sample cases, and wide-open glass windows invited in both sunlight and paying visitors. From 1846 to 1856, as Prints and Photographs curator at the Library of Company of Philadelphia Sarah Weatherwax points out in a map made for the online exhibition Catching A Shadow: Daguerreotypes in Philadelphia, 1839-1860 the number of Philadelphia studios grew from a mere 20 to an amazing 150.

You’d find the studios of McClees & Germon (illustrated here before the fire of 1855 and above after reconstruction). You’d see a stunning daguerreotype panorama of the Fairmount Waterworks at T.P. and D.C Collins’ (it’s found at the Franklin Institute today). You’d take in the images of Montgomery P. Simons, Samuel Van Loan, Frederick DeBourg Richards and Marcus Aurelius Root, whose daguerreotype of Anthony Pritchard recently broke records when it sold at auction for more than $350,000.

Root liked to brag he captured “the shadow of the soul” on silvered plates, skillfully coaxing the sun to do to its work for him. Popularity led Root to double his annual production in the late 1840s; he produced his share of the 3,000,000 daguerreotypes made in America in the middle of the 19th century. When cheap paper prints from negatives rendered the daguerreotype process obsolete on the eve of the Civil War, Root chose obsolescence, too. He couldn’t stomach the “new and improved” photography and missed the day when you’d walk along Chestnut Street, Market Street or Second Street, smell the iodine wafting from the studios and pass customers proudly holding their palm-sized, glassed-fronted, image-bearing cases.

But as many daguerreotype studios as there once were, there’s not a single one left today. Or is there? With all of the one-time activity, you’d think there’d be some surviving evidence on the streets of the city that made the daguerreotype an American institution. So much of Philadelphia is a collection of proud and mundane remnants from the past. Is it too much to ask that one of these remnants be a holdout from the day of the Daguerreotype?

Maybe we need to search just a little bit harder.

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The Cartoon Nearly Nobody Got

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Newsstand – Northwest Corner of Broad and Snyder Streets. Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess,
November 29, 1949.

In the middle of the 20th century, The Bulletin seemed to be everywhere. Blue newsstands with gold lettering had grown familiar at intersections throughout the city: in South Philadelphia (illustrated), North Philadelphia, East Falls, West Oak Lane, Wynnefield and here and there throughout Center City. In Philadelphia, nearly everybody could read The Bulletin, and many did.

In 1947, when the paper turned 100, circulation stood at the highest its owners had seen before or after. Peter Binzen described the party thrown at the Convention Center. Management ordered a six-foot-tall cake for the paper’s 1,700 employees and read congratulations (sort of) from President Harry Truman (“I have never known it to hit below the belt”) and TIME Magazine (“The Bulletin may be unspectacular, but it is a good newspaper.”)

Backhanded compliments mattered little to The Bulletin’s approximately three-quarters of a million daily readers. For generations, “interior life was what counted in Philadelphia,” wrote John Lukacs. The city had not outlived the “corrupt and contented” tagline given by Lincoln Steffens in 1904; it had embraced it. For every registered Democrat there were two registered Republicans, with politics Lukacs labeled “a kind of Business-Biblical Americanism of the Old Protectionist Dispensation.”

But things were changing. Soon after 1950, Philadelphia forfeited its rank as the third largest American city to Los Angeles (of all places!). The city hovered at the brink of a political and civic reform that would tear down all kinds of walls, not least of which was the so-called Chinese Wall that cut the western half of Center City in two.

Riding high, The Bulletin sought to secure its position with advertising that played on the soul of what would become known as “the private city.” This campaign turned into one of the longest-lived in advertising. For 28-years, Americans awaited the next illustration by Richard Decker over the slogan that quickly became famous: “In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.” Decker, the son of Chestnut Street stationers, had a prolific career as a cartoonist for the New Yorker. Ben Yagoda describes him as “a virtuoso of the panoramic full-page gag” with a brand of humor that “sprang from the one key element that was unexpected or out of joint.” Each of these Bulletin ads worked from the same premise: while a scene of some drama unfolds, everyone in the crowd, except one excited, skinny, balding fellow, is complacently reading their copy of newspaper.

Newsstand at "the Chinese Wall, " Northeast corner of 17th and Market Streets. Photograph by Francis Balionis, July 25, 1952.

Each would be a cartoon, except for the fact that it was really an advertisement. That their humor came at the expense of nearly every Philadelphian gave a few cultural critics reason to take offense. According to Nathaniel Burt, the ads speak to “the Philadelphia lack of curiosity, the inability and unwillingness to observe the unknown, no matter how spectacular.” They project “Philadelphia’s enormous self-satisfaction, the delight in the status quo; above all, the intense groupiness, the cheerful conformity …  their complete exclusion of the oddball, the intense, the enthusiastic and the alarmed—no matter how proper his concern.” Burt concluded the message conveyed that “Nearly everybody reads the Bulletin, nearly everybody, that is, except the peculiar.”

Philip Stevick considered Decker’s ads “uncompromisingly derogatory,” especially  in light of the fact that Philadelphia had long been the butt of national jokes as “a sleepy town.” When “faced with the unexpected, or the dramatic, or the exciting, or indeed the life threatening, Philadelphians, the ads seem to say, cannot be roused from their daily papers. . . . Experience itself is simply not interesting.”

Burt’s observations date to the 1960s, when the Philadelphia of W.C. Fields still lived large in the national imagination. And even in the 1990s, when Stevick considered the campaign, Philadelphia had not yet shaken its historic self-depreciation. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, the city no longer has The Bulletin, or even a robust newspaper with healthy circulation, but Philadelphia is comfortable in its own skin.

Sometimes it’s the artist, rather than the historian, who is the first to hold a light up to the truth. Philadelphia-born and raised singer, dancer Joan McCracken found fame in the original 1943 production of Oklahoma! and then in this politically incorrect period piece Pass That Peace Pipe from the film Good News. Instead of taking umbrage with the campaign, McCracken, herself the daughter of a Philadelphia newspaperman, found inspiration in a Decker ad for The Bulletin set in a theater—and used it for an original dance sequence. McCracken got Decker’s joke, and played into it. She chose herself for the role of the “oddball” in “Paper!” On stage in New York, she was the only Philadelphian, and the only dancer in touch with reality.

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The Apotheosis and Caffeination of George Washington

Purchase Photo Creamware Jug with the Apotheosis of George Washington, photographed
May 17, 1918.

Death, not birth, was the source of George Washington’s lasting fame. Whatever Washington had done right or wrong during his time on earth, when the Father of His Country passed on at Mount Vernon in December 1799 he also ascended to a special place in the American imagination. Grieving Philadelphians provided a mock funeral procession for an empty, draped casket led by a riderless horse. Even folks who didn’t know much care for the man while he was general or president joined Washington’s true and lasting following that continued in monuments all the way to the end of the new century.

No resting in peace for George Washington. Shortly after his burial at Mount Vernon, John James Barralet, an Irish-trained artist who arrived in Philadelphia during Washington’s second term in office (when the Capital resided in Philadelphia) imagined the restless scene in this commemorative engraving. It may as well have been real: the late President in his fresh burial clothes seems only a bit taken aback being met by allegorical figures of Immortality and Time. They lift Washington from his tomb while America mourns at his feet and Faith, Hope, Charity—behind an enthusiastic Bald Eagle—look on. This elevation, if not deification, came with the heady name of apotheosis, a treatment reserved only for very, very special characters since the days of ancient Greece and Rome.

Barralet’s print proved popular, so popular that British manufacturers of souvenir creamware in Liverpool and Staffordshire put aside the fact that they had been defeated by the late General and used their transfer printing process to put his image on a line of jugs for their United States market. Grieving Americans snapped them up.

The appetite for all forms of commercial and civic expressions in honor of the late President would include everything from statues to cities.  Sculptor William Rush’s full-length figure in pine from 1815 was noble enough, but only a gesture compared with what Congress commissioned on the occasion of Washington’s 100th birthday in 1832. Sculptor Horatio Greenough was asked to carve a great statue in stone for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and delivered a 30-ton “Enthroned Washington” based on Zeus at Olympia. This seated, sandal-wearing and bare-chested Washington was relinquishing his god-like powers to the American people, but so many were shocked by the half-naked President they made sure he never made it into the hallowed halls of the Capitol.

Not until 1865 did a classical and monumental depiction of Washington find its way into the Capitol dome, now a fresco apotheosis inspired by another of Hercules. This time, a fully-clothed Washington rises in glory, surrounded by thirteen maidens (one maiden per each original state) and flanked by allegories of Liberty and Fame.

Did the apotheosis, that ever-reliable, classical rebuff of death appeal to Americans deeply stung by the losses of the Civil War? Absolutely. After Lincoln’s assassination, souvenir makers came to rescue once again with a carte-de-visite image of this late President’s arrival in heaven. This time, instead of being guided by god-like allegories, Lincoln arrives into the waiting arms of George Washington’s heavenly self, who places a laurel wreath on Lincoln’s head.

Times and tastes changed, of course. After enough time residing in heaven, a Sesquicentennial reenactor stationed at Independence Hall brought Washington (and the Liberty Bell) back to life on earth. Meanwhile, visitors to the nation’s 150th anniversary exhibition in South Philadelphia stayed awake sipping “George Washington’s Delicious Instant Coffee” suggesting that there’s really no end to the ways Americans can, and will, remember.

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“This Scale Will Give Your Accurate Weight — Free!”

Why does this woman look so happy to be weighing herself in public? Those of us accustomed to taking our weight within the privacy of our own homes would probably avoid a public weighing scale like this one, sponsored by the Philadelphia’s City Commissioners Office during the 1959 Municipal Services Fair.

But, as historian David Lowenthal reminds us, the past is a foreign country. For people in the first half of the 20th century, public weighing scales were not only commonplace, they were a major draw–and a lucrative business venture!

Weighing scales were a novelty in the late 19th and early 20th century America. Like moving picture machines, personal weighing scales were a major technological innovation–a development so exciting, and so profitable, that manufacturers quickly marketed them as a kind of coin-operated vending machine. Drop in a penny, and you got to see your weight.

The earliest such machine arrived in the U.S. from Germany in 1885. Four years later, the National Scale Company manufactured the first coin-operated scale in the U.S., a device that weighed in at 200 pounds. By the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of thousands of these scales dotted street corners, department store vestibules, movie theaters, public restrooms, and other locations throughout the United States. These machines proved a lucrative investment, even in the depths of the Depression. Costing as little as $50 a unit, these coin-drop scales could provide owners with dividends in the thousands. As Kerry Segrave records in his book Vending Machines: An American Social History, “With 40,000 weighing machines distributed across America, [one scale operating company] said they took in 450 million pennies, or $4.5 million, in a year. That averaged out to $112 a year per machine, $9 to $10 a month, 31 cents a day.”

Beginning in the 1940s, improvements in mechanical scale technology enabled companies to produce smaller, more affordable personal weighing scales for private home use. The increasing affluence, upward mobility, and suburbanization of the postwar years increased average Americans’ access to these machines, and the popularity of the penny scale began to decline. Operators and manufacturers, in last-ditch efforts to revive the popularity of these vending machines, tried new gimmicks, including a two-cent machine that provided a print-out of the user’s weight (rather than just a reading). Nevertheless, their popularity continued to decline.

With the domestication of the personal weighing scale came the idea that one’s weight should be taken in the most private of all private places: the bathroom.

Even though bathroom scales gradually became the norm across the U.S., early iterations were far from perfect. Accuracy was a major issue–and one that companies used to market their products. A 1954 ad for the Detecto bathroom scale proudly proclaimed that this machine was “the most TRUTHFUL bath scale ever!” Because of their larger size, public scales–vending and non-vending alike–contained more precise mechanisms, and could advertise a more accurate reading. Thus, even as late as 1959, patrons could be wooed to a public scale like the one at the Municipal Services Fair simply because of its more exact results.

Rohde, Jane. “History of Bathroom Scales.” ArticleAlley.com.

Segrave, Kerry. Vending Machines: An American Social History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2002. (The quoted material comes from page 24.)

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Looking for Love at the Centennial

"Love Blinds," by Donato Barcaglia (Milan, Italy) from the Art Annex at the Centennial Exhibition. Photograph by the Centennial Photographic Co., 1876. (The Free Library of Philadelphia.)

Americans just weren’t feeling it. Emotions ran high at the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, but these were more along the lines of patriotism, pride and progress than anything like love. Ten million enthusiastic visitors toured buildings packed with the latest machinery and encountered little in the way of old-fashioned romance. Even in the art galleries at Memorial Hall, Americans shied away from feelings of the tender sort. Those who strolled in (according the catalogue) found portraits, landscapes and battles—but little love. The closest things? A statue of Hamlet’s doomed Ophelia. Or a painting (Love’s Melancholy) by Constant Mayer, a New Yorker originally from France.

When it came to love, Europeans seemed in their element and ready to approach the full, ripe experience. The French shipped over Divine Love and also Venus led by Love. Brussels sent Motherly Love and Love is Conqueror. England hung The Poet’s First Love.  The Germans presented Love Conquers Strength.

But no one at the Centennial did love like the Italians. Their unabashed display of sentiment (supported and facilitated by John Sartain, the Chief of the Bureau of Art at the Centennial, who the Italian Government later knighted for his trouble) covered thousands of square feet in gallery after gallery. In Memorial Hall, Cararra marble stood on 85 pedestals.  The neighboring Art Annex packed in an astounding 236 more. These 321 works must be “the largest collection of sculpture ever displayed at any Exhibition” wrote one art critic.

Sentiment reigned and love themes prevailed in the Italian displays. No less than nine cupids had been sent in: The Birth of Cupid, Cupid on the Lookout; Venus and Cupid, Cupid Begging; Sleeping Cupid and Cupid Flying. To popular (though not critical) acclaim, Italian artists lavished upon visitors the entire amorous range in fresh marble: Lurking Love, Angelic Love, Birth of Love, Love’s First Whispers, Innocence Playing with Vice, and A Jealous Sweetheart.  A painting in the same gallery might have served as a label for the place: The School of Love.

Visitors dallied in the Italian galleries, which Sartain located near the entrance of the Art Annex. They studied Brotherly Love, The Mirror of Love, Love’s Net, Love’s Messenger, and The Rebuke, among dozens of other examples, which slowed foot traffic. And the works of Donato Barcaglia, a young artist from Milan, brought it to a halt.  Again and again, the sculptor demonstrated his facility in “works which trifled and toyed with the difficulties of the material” according to another critic. Barcaglia’s “barocchismo” captured the feel of fabric in The First Call, playful movement in Children Blowing Bubbles and dynamic tension in Flying Time. In Love Blinds (illustrated left), Barcaglia gave marble the appearance of flesh that was so close to real, prudish Americans reminded themselves as they stared: “It is only marble.”

True enough.  As true as is the cliché Barcaglia carved in stone.

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