The Bernsteins Move to Wynnefield

This is a continuation of the story of the Slifkin family, which had settled in Parkside in the early 1900s. 

By the end of the 1920s, many upwardly-mobile Jewish families were leaving Parkside-Girard and moving to the Wynnefield neighborhood, nestled to the south of City Avenue.  Unlike the rambling (and increasingly outdated) Victorian mansions and rowhouses of Parkside, most of Wynnefield’s homes were more compact and easier to maintain. There was also a broad spectrum of housing types, from inexpensive rowhouses to bona fide mansions, such as the one occupied (and modified) by famed Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer.  The newer houses also had rear alleys and garages, a welcome change from increasingly car-congested Parkside, with housing stock that dated from the “horse-and-buggy” era.

Another reason why affluent Jews chose Wynnefield was that many communities along the Main Line had discriminatory housing covenants.*

Among the Jewish families that moved to Wynnefield in the 1930s were Louis and Pauline Bernstein, and their son Albert (known as Sonny).  Pauline’s immigrant father Jacob Slifkin had become rich in garment making and real estate, and had housed his large family in a brooding Flemish revival mansion on Memorial Avenue, just a stone’s throw away from Fairmount Park.  Yet after Jacob’s death, the Slifkin family scattered and the “patriarch’s” house sold.

The back alley of homes of the 5400 block of Woodcrest and Wyndale Avenues.

Sometime in the mid-1930s, Louis and Pauline Bernstein purchased a spacious house on 5638 Wynndale Avenue.  At first, not everyone appreciated the move. Upon seeing the greenery of their new neighborhood, Pauline Bernstein burst into tears and exclaimed, “You’re moving me to the countryside!”

It was here in Wynnefield that their son Sonny (1924-2011) spent most of his childhood.  He graduated from Overbrook High School, which by then was drawing a large contingent of African-American students from Haddington and Lower Overbrook. Shortly after the war, he married Sylvia Weinberg, a native of South Philadelphia, at Har Zion synagogue at 54th and Wynnefield Avenue.

5424 Woodbine Avenue in 1959. These were the sorts of twins popular with upper-middle class families like the Bernsteins.

Wynnefield remained a predominately Jewish community for two decades after the end of World War II. It had strong community organizations, several synagogues, and good public schools.   Louis Bernstein, a former professional boxer and veteran of the First World War, would frequently meet up with members of his extended family at the Jewish War Veterans Association,  located on 54th Street. His son Sonny Bernstein (who worked as a bandleader and jazz pianist) purchased his own spacious house on the 5400 block of Woodbine Avenue after the death of his father, and mother Pauline moved in with him and his wife.  During the 1940s and 50s, Sonny Bernstein would head to Atlantic City during the summer, where he would play at the Traymore and the President.  While in town, he played with society band leader Meyer Davis, and also wrote vocal arrangements for an up-and-coming singer named Bobby Rydell.

Sonny and Sylvia’s son Michael Bernstein remembered that back then, the alleys behind Wynnefield’s houses were fun and safe places to play.  There were pharmacies and candy stores on the corner of almost every numbered street.  One day, Michael found a pair of Victorian bronze statuettes in a trash can and sold them to an antiques store on 52nd and Lancaster for $27.00.  As an adult, he would open his own antiques business on Montgomery Avenue.

A large turn-of-the-century mansion at 54th and Overbrook Avenue, 1953. Some of the homes in Wynnefield were as imposing as those found on the Main Line.

The Bernsteins remained in Wynnefield until 1966, when they moved across City Avenue to a new house in Merion Station.  By then, towns along the Main Line allowed Jews to purchase homes, and as a result a growing number of prosperous Wynnefield families jumped across City Avenue and moved to Merion, Bala Cynwyd, and Wynnewood.  By then, Wynnefield was transforming into an almost-completely African-American neighborhood.  The racial tension was there, although apparently not as strong as in other communities. As one African-American resident recalled at the time, “The Jew did not want to take on the role of oppressor. Being an oppressed people themselves, they did not want that.**

Yet by the 1980s, with the exception of a small Orthodox community, most of the Jewish residents of Wynnefield were gone, and the synagogues moved: Beth David to Gladwyne and Har Zion to Penn Valley.

*David P. Barady, “Wynnefield: Story of a Changing Neighborhood,” Murray Friedman, ed., Philadelphia Jewish Life, 1940-1985 (Ardmore, PA: The Seth Press, 1986), p.167.

**Newsletter, Wynnefield Residents Association), November 1969, p.3, as quoted by David P. Barady, “Wynnefield: Story of a Changing Neighborhood,” Murray Friedman, ed., Philadelphia Jewish Life, 1940-1985 (Ardmore, PA: The Seth Press, 1986), p.168.

*** Interviews and email correspondence with Matthew Marcucci, Michael Bernstein, Bonnie Bernstein, and Louis Bernstein, June 20-29, 2012.

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More Hamburger History: When White Tower #1 Became Blue

White Tower #1. East side of Germantown Avenue between Allegheny Avenue and Roy Street, 1961

After burger battles flared in courtrooms and White Tower lost to White Castle, the struggle returned to the streets. In only a few years, both chains had successfully dispensed burgers from ubiquitous crenellated cubes. But now, in the midst of the Great Depression, the White Tower chain had been forced to abandon its crenellated design in more than a hundred restaurants.

Finding fresh architectural ideas would be the least of their problems. In November 1935, as Hirshorn and Izenour tell us, “White Tower advertised for an architect in the New York newspapers.” Here was not only the promise of design work, but the opportunity to reinvigorate an expanding national restaurant chain with locations in dozens of American cities. The menu would remain the same, but the package—White Tower’s restaurants—needed complete transformation.  Architects Charles L. Johnson and Barnett Sumner Gruzen were among those who answered the call.

“White Tower energetically experimented with reflective sheet materials – Vitrolite and porcelain enamel, writes Phillip Langdon. “Roofline crenellations disappeared. Leaded glass no longer appeared in the windows. Buttresses along the walls assumed an expression more Art Deco than medieval. … In 1935, B. Sumner Gruzen of New York produced a curving restaurant in the streamlined Art Moderne style. Others tried designs that combined the flowing lines of Moderne and the ziggurat effects of Art Deco. … Considerable experimentation was still going on in 1937, but by then … the Tower had left the Middle Ages and landed confidently in the Modern World.”

White Tower embraced the Modern World through design—and by seeking out the busiest sites in Philadelphia. Between 1930 and 1954, seven of the city’s White Towers had opened at stops along the Broad Street Subway. Commuters bought burgers at a third of the 19 stops (not half, as has been repeatedly claimed by hamburger historians). But the principle was clear and consistent: from the first location on Germantown Avenue near Allegheny Avenue in 1930 to the seventeenth at Broad and Hunting Park Avenue in 1954, every one of Philadelphia’s White Towers would be situated along public transportation lines in centers of high employment.

Philadelphia’s First White Tower, as is in 2012. Photograph by Betsy Manning.

Philadelphia #1 lit up a trolley stop near factories and mills that processed everything from milk to coal and produced everything from lace to steel tubing. White Tower had its go-to-solution, its multi-pronged formula: consistent, inexpensive, fast food; locations convenient to public transportation; proximity to workplaces; and 24/7 access. And it worked whether across from the Tasty Baking Company, atop the subway stairs at Broad and Race, under the Frankford El at Margaret Street, or opposite the Reading Terminal.

The formula worked when hamburgers were dispensed from crenellated restaurants and it worked even better after the restaurants were re-designed. In 1939, only nine years after Philadelphia’s #1 White Tower first appeared, architects re-cast it in sleek porcelain steel and Vitreolite.  They replaced battlements with an Art Deco clock tower—a premature Postmodern wink to the workers from nearby factories which had their own, dominating, dead-serious clock towers.

By the 1950s, the day of the urban burger had passed. Manufacturing declined or migrated away. Workers turned to the automobile. Fast food got faster, bigger, and moved beyond the city limits. And as for the architecture of fast food—White Towers gave way to Golden Arches—and Philadelphia’s #1, a barely-remembered survivor, turned blue.

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Parkside Revisited: The Slifkin Family

42nd and Parkside Avenue, April 26, 1954.

The Brantwood Apartments (4130 Parkside Avenue), October 4, 1945.

To see my original article on the development of Parkside, click here.

During the early 1900s, Parkside-Girard evolved from being an upper-class German and Protestant neighborhood to a middle-class Eastern European Jewish one.   The neighborhood’s first synagogue opened in 1907 at 3940 Girard Avenue.* Many of the Jewish families who purchased the large Victorian twin homes fronting Parkside Avenue, as well as the smaller ones on Viola Street and Memorial Avenue, were originally from the immigrant neighborhoods of Northern Liberties and South Philadelphia. They often owned hat and dressmaking shops. Those in the garment trade described themselves as being in the “schmatte” business, Yiddish for “rag.”

Parkside was definitely an upgrade from stifling, congested old neighborhoods on the other side of the Schuylkill River — the ornate Victorian houses were big and roomy, offering plenty of space for large families, boarders, and servants for those who could afford them.  The verdant lawns and groves of West Fairmount Park offered plenty of green space for picnicking, baseball games, and sledding. For those seeking cultural attractions, the Philadelphia Museum of Art was housed in Memorial Hall, a glass-domed behemoth that was the last surviving major building of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  Until the museum moved to its new home in Fairmount in 1929, the world-class collection of Old Masters was within walking distance of the stoops of Parkside’s residents.

Then there was the Richard Smith Civil War Memorial, completed in 1912 and adorned with bronze statues of Generals Meade, McClellan, and Hancock. Its twin columns guarded the entrance to West Fairmount Park. Sunday strollers discovered that if they sat on benches on one side of the memorial, they could hear conversations from people on the other side. These seats became known as the “Whispering Benches.”

Memorial Hall, 1960. After the Philadelphia Museum of Art left in 1929, it became a community gymnasium, then a police station. It has recently been renovated as the new home for the “Please Touch” Museum.

Parkside was one of a few comfortable Philadelphia neighborhoods for Eastern European Jews who had transitioned to a more suburban lifestyle. Those who really achieved the American dream migrated from Parkside to Wynnefield, a nearby West Philadelphia neighborhood that boasted Tudor and Georgian houses as grand as those on the Main Line.

One such Jewish immigrant was Jacob Slifkin, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1885 from Dvinsk in modern day Latvia and eventually settled at 900 N. Marshall Street in Northern Liberties.   By the early 1910s, Slifkin had done well enough in the needle trade to purchase a seven bedroom, Flemish Revival home at 1726 Memorial Avenue, located just off Parkside Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets.  The house was large enough not just to house daughters Anna, Pauline, Ida (and their respective husbands and children), but also Slifkin’s second wife’s parents, a set of live-in servants, and a family of borders.

During the Roaring Twenties, Slifkin invested his earnings from garment making in real estate, purchasing additional properties in West Philadelphia.  The man who had arrived in America with only a few dollars in his pocket was now a well-to-do businessman, the “patriarch” of a big family ensconced in a fine home.  Yet not all was idyllic in Parkside.  One summer evening young Sonny Bernstein, the son of Slifkin’s daughter Pauline, lay tossing and turning his bed, fighting the intense Philadelphia heat.  As he glanced out the window, a luxury car purred up the street and parked near the Slifkin home. Sonny remembered two sharply-dressed gangster types entering the house across the street. Two gunshots sounded, the men ran out, and the car screeched off into the night.

The Great Depression, triggered by the stock market crash of 1929, proved devastating to many of Parkside’s prosperous families. The Slifkins weathered the Great Depression better than most, but by the 1930s Jacob’s children moved out of their father’s house on Memorial Avenue to their own places in Wynnefield.

In the 1990s, Sonny Bernstein would take his grandson Matthew Marcucci to the “whispering benches” of the Smith Civil War Memorial, just as his parents Louis and Pauline Bernstein had before him.

“That might be Parkside’s only real legacy in my family,” Marcucci remembered.

1726 Memorial Avenue (center, with green trim), a c.1900 Flemish Revival house probably designed by architect H.E. Flower for brewer-developer Frederich Poth. During the 1920s, it was the home to three generations of the Slifkin family. Photograph: Steven B. Ujifusa

Eastern European Jewish families like the Slifkins often welcomed a “Landsman” family (Yiddish for a fellow Jew from the same village or province) as boarders in their houses. Sometimes husbands felt like boarders in their own homes. Listen to legendary Jewish entertainer Fyvush Finkel complain about this situation (in Yiddish) in this vintage recording. To listen, click HERE.

*Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.117.

**Phone interviews and email correspondence with Matthew Marcucci, June 15-18, 2012.

Special thanks to Matthew Marcucci and members of the Bernstein family for making this article possible.

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How White Tower Restaurants Lost Their Crenellation and Joined the Modern City

Southeast Corner of Broad and Race Sts., January 10, 1944. Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess.

White Tower opened its ninth location at Broad and Race Streets in 1932, only two years after expanding into Philadelphia. The Milwaukee-based company founded in 1926 by the father-son team John E. and Thomas E. Saxe produced restaurants at a fast-food pace. By the middle of the 1930s, the griddles of more than 120 White Tower restaurants in eleven American cities had forever changed the American foodscape. Day or night, so long as there was a nickel in your pocket, you were never far from a “pure beef” hamburger.

White Tower built their business model copying that of White Castle, a chain launched out of Wichita, Kansas in 1921. No detail went unnoticed as the Saxes studied and then replicated restaurants. They adopted the name, menu and pricing. The Saxes lured away White Castle staff to replicate operations. They even the co-opted the slogan: White Castle urged customers to “Buy ’em by the sack;” White Tower told  theirs to “Take home a bagful.” From Boston to Norfolk, Minneapolis to Philadelphia, both companies populated intersections with whitewashed crenelated clones—or, in the case of White Tower, clones of clones.

By the time bags of burgers started flying out of Broad and Race, White Tower and White Castle were three years into a lengthy court battle that would determine which company had the right to do what, and where they could do it. Two years later, the decision from a Michigan Court came down: White Tower’s copying would have to come to an end. In Detroit, where the chain had 46 restaurants, White Tower had to “change its name, architecture and slogan.”

Emboldened by this win, the founder of White Castle offered White Tower conditions for a settlement. According to David Gerard Hogan in Selling ‘em by the Sack, White Tower could continue using the name if the Saxes would pay a sizable lump sum, but they had to lose the crenellated, castle-like battlements.  The Saxes’ agreed to an immediate payment of $65,000 plus a subsequent payment of $17,000 – a total worth more than $1.3 million in today’s dollars. Plus, they would document their compliance in photographs.

In its transformation, White Tower abandoned its attachment to the ancient building style. Crenellations didn’t particularly say much about purity and service, anyway. But what would?

As Paul Hirshorn and Steven Izenour observed in their book, White Towers, this corporate quandary called for a “strong architectural idea.” And, as it turned out, the 1930s offered up potent choices. American architects and their corporate clients were in the midst of experimentation with the sleek, streamlined Art Deco and the newly-arrived International Style. Perfect. Without missing a beat, White Tower turned the American urban intersection into a proving ground for its reinvigorated image of cleanliness, consistency and modern service. One by one, the crenellated White Towers, including the one at Broad and Race, were replaced with moderne towers and clean cubes of white porcelain enamel, pristine billboards lit with goose-necked lamps deftly announcing that “hamburgers” were to be had.

So far as White Tower was concerned, the American embrace of its modernized hamburger was complete. By the 1950s, the chain had expanded to 230 restaurants, including seventeen in Philadelphia.

Next Week: More Philadelphia White Towers.

Southeast Corner of Broad and Race Sts., Oct. 23, 1951. Photograph by Francis Balionis.

 

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June 11, 1923: Fiery Destruction at Broad Street Station

The Conflagration at Broad Street Station, 15th and Market Streets, June 11, 1923.

Legend has it that a hapless Bulletin reporter overslept the Monday morning of June 11, 1923 and telephoned his editor from home. The conversation went something like this:

“Just got into Broad Street Station. The train was late. I’ll be in as soon as I’ve grabbed a cup of coffee.”

“You’re in Broad Street Station, huh,” said The Bulletin’s city editor as he glanced out of the newsroom window at the smoky chaos across Penn Square. “Well, I’ll tell you something – you’re going to have the hottest damn cup of coffee you’ve ever tasted.

The fire at Broad Street Station that started in the wee hours that morning would continue for nearly three days. It would interrupt the flow of more than half a million daily commuters destroy the icon of Philadelphia’s Iron Age.

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s first, relatively modest, 160-foot-wide shed had been surpassed in 1891 by the Reading Railroad’s, 256-foot structure at 12th and Market. Not to be outdone, and to meet the needs of their expanding ridership, the Pennsy hired the same engineers, Wilson Brothers & Co., to provide a new shed as massive as their busy site would allow. This 300-foot-8-inch-wide, 589-foot-2-inch-long, 108-foot-tall, 7,000,000 pound structure (but who’s counting) earned the title of the world’s largest single-span—and held it for decades. Broad Street’s shed rose as a symbol of the most extensive transportation infrastructure known—until, and even beyond, the fire of June 11, 1923.

Temples fall and icons fail, but they can then also thrive in the imagination. “Among the cloudy memories of early childhood it stands solidly, a home of thunders and shouting, of giant engines with the fiery droppings of coals and sudden jets of steam,” wrote Christopher Morley. Broad Street Station “was a place in which a delighted sense of adventure was closely mixed with fear.” Morley found Joseph Pennell’s rendering from 1919 a “perfect record of Broad Street’s lights and tones that linger in the eye—the hurling network of girders, the pattering of passengers, the upward eddies of smoke.” The shed linked regional and national, suburban and urban power for Philadelphians and visitors who felt in it an excitement akin to that of a world’s fair. In fact, the station, a symbol and anchor of the entire consolidated system, resonated with the worship of industry expressed at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

Morley was completely serious in his Elegy in A Railroad Station of 1952. “I preserve in pure imagination my memory of Broad Street Station,” he wrote, as the last of the place was knocked down to make way for Penn Center.

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Woodland Terrace and the Natchez Connection

S 41st St & Woodland Ave, 1963.

Houses on Woodland Terrace, 1963.

In light of the impending demolition by the University of Pennsylvania of the David Porter Leas mansion at 40th and Pine, it is a good time to revisit the life and work the man who designed it….

Longwood Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi sits just as it did in 1861, when scores of carpenters laid down their tools and fled to their homes up  North.  The largest and grandest of this summer colony’s mansions, Longwood is a bizarre blend of styles: an octagonal Italianan Renaissance palazzo crowned by a Byzantine onion dome.   The houses’s owner, cotton planter Dr. Haller Nutt, died one year before the Civil War ended, and his impoverished family moved into the basement.  Right out of a William Faulkner novel, it was known simply as “Nutt’s Folly.”

The career of Longwood’s designer followed a similar trajectory: astonishing success and extravagance followed by decline and neglect. Samuel Sloan (1815-1884) was not a Southerner, but a Philadelphian.  A native of Chester County, Sloan was trained as a carpenter, a common vocation for up-and-coming architects before formalized training was available in the United States.  Sloan was an artist to a certain extent, but he was also a very practical and aggressive businessman, described by a biographer as, “brash, opportunistic, inventive, a quick learner and a driving worker who was hungry for success and who had, throughout his life, an abiding belief in America’s destiny.”*

During his peak in the 1850s, Sloan specialized in speculative suburban twin homes for the upper-middle class and mansions for the wealthy.  Sloan’s blue ribbon commission was Bartram Hall, a veritable castle for railroad baron Andrew Eastick that included the grounds of the old John Bartram estate. It was probably the Eastwick palace that attracted the attention of the eccentric Dr. Haller Nutt, who probably instructed Sloan to outdo his Philadelphia counterpart.

Bartram Hall is long gone, but his residential designs are still extent in the Philadelphia “Streetcar Suburbs” of Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and West Philadelphia. Perhaps his most famous surviving commission  is Woodland Terrace, erected in the early 1860s for developer Charles M.S. Leslie.  Woodland Terrace occupies a small side street near the intersection of 40th and Baltimore Avenues (immediately to the north of scenic Woodlands Cemetery)  and consists of several four-story Italianate twins and detached houses.  This gem of a development is one of the last expressions of the “picturesque” suburban movement that reached its height before the Civil War.

Sloan’s signature Italianate style is a romantic interpretation of the Tuscan villas of the Renaissance.  According to James C. Massey and Shirley Maxwell, the Italinate style was “every bit as romantic as the Gothic Revival but infinitely better adapted to the freer (and more family-oriented) lifestyle of an increasingly large and prosperous middle class.”* It is defined by flat roofs, large overhanging cornices supported by elaborate brackets, and as well as whimsical features such as campanile towers, conservatories, and cupolas.  Cross ventilation was important in Philadelphia’s humid summers: these houses boasted large floor-to-ceiling windows and generous porches overlooking tree-shaded streets.  The exterior walls were either exposed random-cut ashlar or stuccoed.

During the late nineteenth century, most of the big twin houses on Woodland Terrace were owned by Center City merchants who commuted to work on the horse-drawn trolleys.*** Because of its proximity to the University of Pennsylvania, Woodland Terrace and the immediate area also became a favorite address for faculty and for the city’s early twentieth century “creative” class.  Paul-Phillipe Cret (professor of architecture and designer of Rittenhouse Square, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Rodin Museum, and the original Barnes Foundation) lived with his wife in a large twin at 516 Woodland Terrace and frequently hosted dinners for students in true French fashion.  Just to the north, artist Adolph Borie occupied a Sloan-designed villa at 4000 Pine Street, which included a walled garden and a modern studio addition. During the 1920s, the Bories hosted salon-style parties where artists, writers and the city’s moneyed elite could freely mingle.****

After the Civil War, Sloan’s picturesque but relatively restrained style fell out of favor, and was replaced by the “baroque” grandeur of the Second Empire a and the cool classicism of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  The once-prosperous Sloan fell on hard times, and supported himself by publishing a series of architecture books and a magazine entitled The Architectural Review.  He died forgotten in 1884.

David Leas Porter mansion. Designed by Samuel Sloan in the 1860s, it is now heavily-altered and slated for demolition.

The Adolph and Edith Borie mansion, 4000 Pine Street, 1963.

Andrew Eastwick’s “Bartram Hall.” Designed by Samuel Sloan. Source: University of Pennsylvania Archives (click on image to be directed to the original site).

Longwood, Natchez, Mississippi, designed by Samuel Sloan. Often known as “Nutt’s Folly.” Construction halted in 1861 and the interior of the upper floors were never completed. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

*Samuel Sloan (1815-1882), Architect, Philadelphia Architects and Buildings.  http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm?ArchitectId=A1287

**James C. Massey and Shirley Maxwell, “Architectural Styles: Italianate,” Olde House Journal, http://www.oldhousejournal.com/architectural_styles_italianate/magazine/1565

***WEST PHILADELPHIA: THE BASIC HISTORY, Chapter 2: A Streetcar Suburb in the City: West Philadelphia, 1854-1907. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/wphila/history/history2.html

****Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 339.

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Lewis & Clark in Philadelphia (Part II): The Map’s the Thing

Portrait of William Clark by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1810

When last we checked in with Meriwether Lewis, he had just stormed the shops of Philadelphia, buying anything and everything his “corps of discovery” might need as they made their way across the North American continent. With more than a ton and a half of “portable” soup, calico ruffled shirts, tomahawks, fishhooks (and much more) packed in a Conestoga wagon headed to Pittsburgh, Lewis went back to Washington, D.C. one last time. From there, he invited his old friend, William Clark, to share in the leadership of the expedition.

Clark couldn’t have responded with more enthusiasm: “…I will chearfully join you in an ‘official Charrector’ as mentioned in your letter, and partake of the dangers, difficulties, and fatigues, and I anticipate the honors & rewards of the result of such an enterprise, should we be successful in accomplishing it.  This is an undertaking fraited with many difeculties, but my friend I do assure you that no man lives whith whome I would perfur to undertake Such a Trip &c. as yourself.”

The expedition took 28 months, far longer than expected. Lewis and Clark and their “Corps of Discovery” covered 8,000 miles and determined that the Pacific was about 1,200 miles farther away than previously thought. No Northwest Passage existed, after all, and the mountains were taller than anyone had possibly imagined. Lewis and Clark identified and recorded everything and everyone along the way: mountains, rivers, prairies and scores of Native American tribes. They collected 178 previously unknown plants and 122 previously unknown animals.

In his annual message to Congress in December 1807, President Jefferson proclaimed the expedition “has had all the success which could have been expected.” But Jefferson knew the ultimate success would be publication of the expedition’s discoveries.  And that’s what brought Lewis back to Philadelphia in 1807. He met with a printer, issued a prospectus, and promised three, illustrated volumes that would “open views of great and immediate objects of national utility.” Lewis sat for one portrait by Charles Willson Peale and another by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevre de Saint Memin, proudly wearing his expedition outfit and the treasured ermine-skin robe given him by a Shoshone chief.

Writing the book, it turned out, was more challenging than crossing the continent. Processing the expedition’s scientific and geographic discoveries proved overwhelming for Lewis. The coordination of artwork depicting specimens, charts, and maps based on the expeditions stacks of journals proved too much for a man also burdened with alcoholism and depression. One delay led to another and two years passed when a frustrated and angry Jefferson wrote Lewis that “I have so often promised copies to my literary correspondents in France, that I am almost bankrupt in their eyes.”  Lewis, who had not yet completed even a single chapter, committed suicide a few months later.

Detail of "Map of Lewis and Clark's Track, Across the Western Portion of North America," 1814. (Wikimedia Commons)

After Lewis’s death, the project fell into the hands of a reluctant William Clark, who visited Philadelphia to find a more experienced author. As Charles Willson Peale painted Clark’s portrait (illustrated here) he urged Clark to stick with the project, but Clark knew that Philadelphia had more willing and more able literary talents. Nicholas Biddle and his associate Paul Allen were the ones for the job.

Lewis’s stumbling block had become Biddle’s stepping stone. But Biddle wanted nothing to do with the scientific findings, which guaranteed the narrative would be of limited value. Clark knew the publication would suffer in the hands of an ambitious cosmopolitan far removed from the expedition (Biddle, the Princeton graduate, was destined for a career in banking and finance), but he also knew the plagued publication would finally be over with. And while many other discoveries could come out over time, here, finally, was the chance to publish his manuscript map, the first of the American West.

By the Spring of 1814, when The History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the Source of the Missouri, Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the Columbia River to the Source of the Pacific Ocean finally appeared, the words had passed through the hands of at least seven writers and two publishers and taken six years to write. The book’s map, on the other hand, had remained relatively unscathed.

Like Lewis, Clark had written extensive diary entries, and they would prove valuable, but the map was a graphic, first draft of the entire expedition. Along the way, Clark had transcribed information drawn in dust by tribal elders. Back in Washington D.C., he had witnessed Jefferson’s excitement as the President knelt on the floor of the White House inspecting his unfurled map. As far as Clark was concerned, Biddle’s text didn’t much matter. He put his faith in his map of the American West, a map which, inch-for-inch, had it all over any hand-me-down written account.

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Furness and Ivy

The “Little Quad” dormitories, 37th and Spruce, 1961. Designed by Cope and Stewardson.

The Quadrangle dormitories, 37th and Spruce. 1961. Designed by Cope and Stewardson. 

The Memorial Tower, the Quadrangle dormitories, 1961. Designed by Cope and Stewardson.

 

The popular image of American collegiate architecture — majestic Gothic halls “with ivy-overgrown” to quote an old Penn song– was born in Philadelphia, the vision of two Quaker architects: Walter Cope (1860-1902) and John Stewardson (1858-1896).

Ironically, neither of them completed college.  Cope took drafting classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, while Stewardson dropped out of Harvard and then apprenticed himself to Frank Furness. During their brief lifetimes, they transformed the look of American universities — their elegant buildings still grace the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr, Princeton, and Washington University in St. Louis.  They popularized a style that became known as “Collegiate Gothic,” inspired by the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Ralph Adams Cram, a Boston-based architect who was the leading proponent of Gothic Revival church architecture in America, wrote admiringly of Cope & Stewardson in 1904: “The Philadelphia group has stood and is standing for nationality, for ethnic continuity, and for the impulses of Christian civilization.”*

During the late nineteenth century, college administrators debated on whether American universities should follow the British model — one that focused the undergraduate experience and knowledge for its own sake — or the German one — which emphasized graduate studies and “practical” scientific research. The University of Pennsylvania, which moved it its West Philadelphia campus in 1872, was firmly in the “German” camp.  Its law and medical schools were nationally well-regarded, but its liberal arts undergraduate program was comparatively neglected by donors and administrators.

As America’s Gilded Age “Silicon Valley,” industrial Philadelphia was in the business of “facts and things.”  The city needed engineers, architects, corporate lawyers, bankers, and medical professionals, not philosophers or artists. There was little room for the sentimental (and frankly indolent)  good cheer that defined college life on the other side of the Atlantic. Penn needed laboratories and classrooms, which had to be clean, modern, and efficient.  Students lived in boarding houses or commuted from home.

Dr. William Pepper Jr., an eminent Philadelphia surgeon, took Penn’s helm in 1883 and embarked on a massive fundraising and building campaign, founding the School of Engineering, Architecture, and the Wharton School of Business.  He then hired acclaimed architect Frank Furness to design the world’s most modern university library.  The enormous brick edifice (known today as the Fisher Fine Arts Library) had the cruciform footprint of a Gothic cathedral, but otherwise was unashamedly modern in its detailing and construction.  As historian Michael J. Lewis wrote in his biography of Frank Furness: “There was nothing serene or contemplative in this building of higher learning but, rather a kind of vulgarity and loudness…No temple of passive contemplation, Furness’s library was a running engine, where knowledge was stored as latent energy to be applied to active pursuits.”***

The cosmopolitan Furness did not romanticize the past.  Rather, he celebrated the present and the future. Furness might have used historical motifs, but freely distorted them as he saw fit. Industrial materials and modern construction techniques were not to be plastered or paneled over, but to be left exposed, and celebrated.

The new library, dedicated in February 1891, was only the first part of a monumental expansion program.  Furness also sketched plans for an enormous Alumni Hall, which would be located cheek-by-jowl with the Library.****

The University of Pennsylvania was not alone in following the “practical” German model.  In 1873, railroad tycoon Johns Hopkins donated $7 million (the largest philanthropic gift in American history at the time) to start a university in Baltimore that focused on graduate programs in the arts and sciences.** For his part, Harvard president Charles William Eliot took little interest in shaping the experience of his undergraduate population, preferring a laissez-faire approach that resulted in socially-stratified student body

Sadly, Furness never got the chance to build the rest of Penn’s campus.  Provost Pepper, his greatest champion, worked himself to exhaustion, retiring in 1894 and dying four years later.  His replacement, the sugar baron Charles Custis Harrison, felt that the best course of action was to model a new set of dormitories along “Oxbridge” lines.  The fiery modernist Furness, Harrison decided, was not the man to design buildings in “ye olde English” manner, with historically-correct gargoyles, turrets, and oriels.******  Harrison was  not only was well-connected — he was rich enough to pay for many of the university’s initiatives out of his own pocket.*******

Furness and Harrison probably had a clash of egos — the provost described the mercurial architect as being “intensely interested in his own architectural views.”******* Furness left the project in 1894 — his Alumni Auditorium was never built.

Under Harrison’s leadership, Penn shifted away from the German model towards the English one, with its greater emphasis on undergraduate education and socialization. Harrison hired the firm of Cope & Stewardson to design a new group of dormitories that became known as The Quadrangle.   Along with a growing number of college administrators, Harrison concerned with the lack of community in the undergraduate population.  These dormitories would also allow more students from outside Philadelphia to enroll at Penn.   There were also political and racial undertones in the aesthetic shift towards the academic Gothic style.  Gothic, unlike Furness’s modernism, was the language of  “throne and altar.”   In Victorian England, architects such as A.W.N. Pugin (designer of the Houses of Parliament) and critics such as John Ruskin (author of the influential The Seven Lamps of Architecture) were champions of its revival as the British national style.

During the 1890s and early 1900s, there was growing hostility among native-born Americans against the waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants settling in big industrial cities like Philadelphia. This fear was particularly acute among the upper classes. Administrators such as Abbott Lawrence Lowell at Harvard and Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia worried about how these new arrivals could be assimilated, if at all, into America’s educated elite.   Lowell, who served as president of Harvard from 1909 to 1933, had the dubious distinction of being an honorary vice president of the Immigration Restriction League.

As beautiful as they were, the buildings were a kind of reassertion of English Protestant culture in American higher education. Ten years later, Ralph Adams Cram wrote of these groundbreaking buildings: “[T]hey are what they should be: scholastic in inspiration and effect, and scholastic of the type that is ours by inheritance; of Oxford and Cambridge, not of Padua or Wittenberg or Paris.” Of the tower erected to the memory of the alumni killed in the Spanish-America War, Cram mused: “American heroism harks back to English heroism; the blood shed before Manila and on San Juan Hill was the same blood that flowed at Bosworth Field, Flodden, and the Boyne. Therefore the British base of the design is indispensable, for such were the racial foundations.”********

As a result, the finicky Cram complained that much of the Quadrangle’s Elizabethan decorative detail had been “Germanized,” a “mistake” he declared that Cope & Stewardson did not repeat with their later buildings at Princeton.  Ultimately, by the 1920s Collegiate Gothic spread to colleges and universities throughout the nation, and it did not fully die out until the advent of the International Style in the 1950s.

The Quadrangle and the Library survive to this today, and are among the most beloved landmarks on the Penn campus.

Yet there still is a nagging question: what if Frank Furness had designed more of this great university’s buildings?

John Stewardson (left) and Walter Cope. Source: http://www.brynmawr.edu/library/exhibits/thomas/gothic.html

Frank Furness. Source: Wikipedia Commons

*Ralph Adams Cram, “The Work of Messrs Cope and Stewardson,” The Architectural Record, Vol. XVI, No. 5, November 1904. p.413.

**The John Hopkins University: Facts at a Glance.  http://webapps.jhu.edu/jhuniverse/information_about_hopkins/about_jhu/facts_at_a_glance/index.cfm

***Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), p. 183.

****Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), p. 186.

*****Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia, University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p. 26.

******Charles Custis Harrison Society. http://makinghistory.upenn.edu/giftplanning/harrisonsociety

*******As quoted by George E. Thomas, Jeffrey A. Cohen, and Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: The Complete Works, Revised Edition, (Princeton, NJ: The Princeton Architectural Press, 1996). p.115.

********Ralph Adams Cram, “The Work of Messrs Cope and Stewardson,” The Architectural Record, Vol. XVI, No. 5, November 1904. p.417.

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Winning the Game of History: Doug Heller, USHistory and the Truth at Sixth and Market Streets

The Intersection of Sixth and Market Streets, Looking East, 1902.

Until Doug Heller stepped forward about a decade ago, the real meaning of Sixth and Market Streets had been lost to historical background noise. As webmaster of USHistory.org at the Independence Hall Association, a unique perch for building online content and public understanding, Heller learned the story of The President’s House in Philadelphia, which stood at Sixth and Market, and created a dedicated page. Then, over the next decade in a thousand updates, Heller expanded the page into an authoritative, exhaustive encyclopedic account.

Heller rewrote the rules of play and literally changed history, online and on the street.

He restored to public memory the long-lost President’s house, where George Washington and John Adams conducted their presidencies in the 1790s during the nation’s infancy.  He saved from oblivion the stories of Washington’s servants and slaves who worked and toiled in a city that history had wrongly assured us was free of slavery. And once he moved the truth from the abyss of history into the foreground of American consciousness, Heller shed light on the efforts to represent this narrative in brick and mortar. If ever there was a case of the internet bending the arc of the American historical narrative, this was it.

Of course, Heller didn’t do it alone, and that’s the whole point. First came Ed Lawler’s scholarly articles, The President’s House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark. Then came the advocacy of a group calling itself the ad hoc historians, the debate over the facts with Independence National Historical Park, the introduction of ATAC (Avenge the Ancestors Coalition), and the key role of journalists producing news stories.  Heller posted hundreds upon hundreds of articles, before and after Stephan Salisbury and Inga Saffron’s pivotal, page one account in The Philadelphia Inquirer of Sunday March 24, 2002: Echoes of slavery at Liberty Bell site. What followed, from Boston to Atlanta, Chicago to Los Angeles, NPR to The International Herald Tribune assured that the truth, with all its contradictions and complexities, had finally been embraced.

Heller augmented the site with Lawler’s biographies of Enslaved persons of African Descent, with documentation of the work of INHP archeologists, with anything that might help build the ephemeral into reality.  In his role, from his perch, Heller understood that all of this would add up to something greater, much greater, than their sum of its moving parts. It took the better part of a decade, but Sixth and Market Streets is now reinterpreted, forever reconnected to its deep and complicated past.

Douglas J. Heller died last week. He is remembered and celebrated—see his obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer and a post at The New York Times’s Wordplay blog. Doug Heller, the ultimate puzzle master, took on the real-life puzzle of transformation on the street—and won.

He showed us how to play. Now it’s our move.

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Traitor’s Nest: Mount Pleasant

 

Mount Pleasant, as depicted in a 1761 print.

Mount Pleasant, 1957.

 

The painful crucible of the Revolution transformed George Washington from an land-grabbing, status-obssessed Virginia planter into a charismatic, measured leader of men.  Although a mediocre military strategist, Washington’s strength was his ability to keep his rag-tag army together. He wore down the enemy not by dazzling displays of generalship, but by attrition (The Battle of White Plains) and occasional surprise (The Battle of Trenton).

Like many great leaders, Washington surrounded himself with men of greater abilities than his own, tapping their resources while struggling to maintain their loyalty.  General Nathaniel Greene, who led Cornwallis’s army on a wild goose chase around the American South before cornering it on the Yorktown peninsula, was a brilliant military tactician who remained loyal to Washington through thick and thin.

General Benedict Arnold, a self-made merchant from Connecticut, was another trusted subordinate.  In addition to organizing a heroic but unsuccessful raid on Quebec at the start of the war, Arnold led a fierce charge at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, suffering a bullet wound to the leg which left him crippled for life.   The victory at Saratoga was pivotal in convincing France to pledge her financial and military support to the American colonies.

Yet despite Washington’s praises, Arnold was prickly and embittered after Saratoga, feeling that a lesser military strategist, his superior General Horatio Gates, received all the public glory. Arnold, like Washington, relished living the high life, and the war ravaged his financial interests.  “Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood and become a cripple in the service of my country,” he snarled to Washington, “I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen.”*

Tragically, Arnold, unlike Washington, never gained control of his darker, selfish side.

After the American victory at Saratoga, Congress finally granted Arnold a promotion to Major General. Washington then appointed Arnold to the plum position of Military Governor of Philadelphia, which had just been evacuated by the British Army.   As soon as he assumed office in 1778, the convalescing general was assiduously courted by the city’s social and political elite.  Many, of course, remained loyal to the British Crown. The battle-soured Arnold must have welcomed such diversions: as social historians Harold Eberlein and Horace Mather Lippincott wrote of the era: “Society was gayer, more polished, and wealthier in Philadelphia than anywhere else this side of the Atlantic…”**

One frequent social caller was 18 year old Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, the daughter of jurist Edward Shippen IV and his wife Margaret Tench Francis.  Young Peggy was not only highly-intelligent and charming, but ravishingly beautiful.  She was also a die-hard Loyalist, and embittered by her father’s refusal to let her attend the infamous “Mischianza” ball organized by fun-maker Major John Andre in honor of British General Sir William Howe.  Following Howe’s departure, Arnold’s house on Market Street became the center of power in Philadelphia, and Peggy had no intention of remaining on the political sidelines.

Arnold and Shippen were married in April 1779. The 37-year-old widower was head-over-heels in love with his beautiful young bride.  She also had everything the deeply-indebted Arnold craved: position in society, beauty, brains, and a big bank account.  By then, the one-time hero of Saratoga felt that independence was a lost cause, and was looking for a way to save his skin in the event of British victory.

Shortly after the wedding, Arnold purchased a new home for Peggy: Mount Pleasant, a grand Palladian mansion overlooking the Schuylkill River.  It was built in the early 1760s by Scottish-born sea captain John McPherson, who spared no expense in decoration and furnishings.  Mount Pleasant bore a striking resemblance to Chief Justice Benjamin Chew’s famous Cliveden in Germantown: a symmetrical Georgian composition (most likely based on British pattern books of the era) with two flanking outbuildings.  John Adams, who had mixed feelings about Philadelphians and the finer things in life, described Mount Pleasant as the “most elegant country seat in Pennsylvania.”**

The Arnolds lived at Mount Pleasant for a year, entertaining lavishly.  But the restless Benedict Arnold was still short of cash, and in 1780, Washington offered him command of the strategically-vital fortress at West Point, New York. Anyone who controlled West Point controlled the colonies: its guns made it impossible for British ships to sail unimpeded up and down the Hudson River.

General Henry Clinton, commander of British armed forces in America, reasoned that if he could get his hands on West Point, he could cut the colonies in half and end this stubborn rebellion once and for all.  In an arrangement brokered by Major John Andre and Peggy Arnold, Benedict Arnold would receive a handsome bribe of 20,000 pounds sterling and a commission in the British army in exchange for turning over West Point. Not only would this sum save Arnold from his financial woes, but would allow him to escape the hangman’s noose waiting for Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Greene.

The rest, as everyone knows, is history.  Benedict Arnold’s plot failed when American militiamen captured Major John Andre on September 23, 1780, the plans of West Point’s fortifications in his boot.

Upon finding out that the jig was up, Arnold hightailed it across enemy lines, leaving his wife and young child behind.  When General Washington showed up at West Point, Peggy Arnold feigned ignorance and madness so successfully that he allowed her to slip away.  When he found out that Peggy had used to her guile to hoodwink him, Washington’s rage knew no bounds.  He assumed (quite naively) that a woman of Peggy Shippen Arnold’s breeding could only be a victim of her husband’s treachery, not a willing accomplice in espionage.

Savvy Peggy was well aware of this weakness, and exploited it to the hilt.

For the rest of the war, Washington was obsessed with getting his hands on his former confidante.  After British troops under Arnold’s command sacked Richmond, Virginia, an enraged Washington ordered the Marquis de Lafayette to capture and “execute [him] in the most summary way” to “make a public example of him.”***

The next best thing Washington could do was make an example of Major John Andre. Obsessed with chivalry, Andre pleaded to be executed by firing squad, as befitting an officer. Washington was unmoved.  The man who masterminded the Philadelphia “Mischianza” ball (which Peggy sulked at not being able to attend) was hanged as a spy.

The wily Benedict Arnold evaded Washington’s wrath, and reunited with Peggy in New York.  Following General Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781, the couple fled to England for their lives.  In London, Arnold never received the warm welcome he expected, and ended up a social outcast.

The exiled former hero of Saratoga and squire of Mount Pleasant died in 1801, a broken and impoverished man.

As for Peggy Arnold, she may have been a Loyalist femme fatale of sorts.  Yet to her credit, she remained “loyal” to her husband to the end.  She died in 1804.

General Benedict Arnold. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Margaret “Peggy” Shippen Arnold, with one of her children by Benedict Arnold.  Source: Wikipedia Commons

*As quoted in Ron Chernow, George Washington: A Life (New York: NY: Penguin Press, 2010), p.380.

**Horace Mather Lippincott and Harold Donaldson Eberlein, The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and Its Neighborhood (Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1912), p.113.

***Edward Teitelman and Richard W. Longstreth, Architecture in Philadelphia: A Guide (Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1974), p. 121., http://www.quondam.com/17/1761.htm

****As quoted in Ron Chernow, George Washington: A Life (New York: NY: Penguin Press, 2010), p.387.

 

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