A Classical, Papier-Mâché Gas Station at the Sesquicentennial

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlantic Refining Company Exhibit at the Sesquicentennial, 1926. (PhillyHistory.org)

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

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

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

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

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A Philadelphia Quaker and Fabric Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“The Red Star Line: Changing America’s Face and Place in the World,” The National Archives at Philadelphia. http://www.archives.gov/philadelphia/public/red-star-line/index.html


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An Expressive Gateway at Broad and Fairmount

Broad Street, Ridge Avenue and Fairmount Avenue, 1892. (PhillyHistory.org)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kahn’s Kind of Skyline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Philadelphia Zelig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Temple to the Gasoline Gods at Broad and the Boulevard

The Atlantic Refining Company Gas Station at Broad Street and the Roosevelt Boulevard opened in 1917. (PhillyHistory.org)

Forget all you know about gas stations: the self-service pumps, the lifts, bays, stretches of oil-stained concrete, bright signage and bad coffee. Imagine a time before all that, from a century ago, when the widespread sale of gasoline was inevitable but the solution as to how and where was not yet known. In an earlier post, we saw how Gulf Refining Company figured out a way to meet the logistical challenge of filling empty tanks. Gulf succeeded in selling lots of fuel, and it did so with a minimum of flair and imagination.

By the 1910s, the expression of stability, permanence and civic responsibility, aka City-Beautiful Classicism, had been put to work on behalf of railroads, power plants, and movie theaters—so why not put it to work for the oil industry?  At a time of uncertainty, flux and extraordinary profits, why wouldn’t rich companies go on the charm offensive building palaces where sheds would suffice?  Executives at the Atlantic Refining Company knew full well theirs was a dirty business. They had known it back in the 1860s when the company first stored and spilled oil and spun a positive corporate image on the banks of the Schuylkill River. Now, in the new century, the automobile was the big new thing. It seemed this might be as big as the railroad had been in the last century. The automobile would take over and transform the city, for better or worse. If ever there was an need to deploy the full persuasive powers of architecture, this was that time.

Detail of the frieze. (PhillyHistory.org)

Responding to Gulf’s success, the Atlantic Refining Company’s marketing task force turned to the ideas of Charles Mulford Robinson. In his new book, Modern Civic Art: Or, The City Made Beautiful. Robinson considered the urban boulevards and bridges built to accommodate the automobile and wrote: “It is the triumph of modern civic art, to transform these necessary girdles and girders of the structure of the city into ways of pleasure and beauty. Here the whirr of the electric car, there the rush of swiftly passing motor cars—these are elements of the scene that may count not less distinctly in the total power to please than does the verdure.” Really? Millions of cars might offer as much as parkland? The man who inspired the City Beautiful Movement just wouldn’t allow himself to have an ugly thought.

The Atlantic Refining Company Gasoline Service Station, Broad and Lycoming Streets. (Google Books)

Atlantic seized the opportunity and brought in an architect to leverage these new and positive thoughts about the automobile. Between 1917 and 1922, Joseph F. Kuntz of the Pittsburgh firm W. G. Wilkens and Company designed for Atlantic a handful of gas palaces in Pittsburgh and no less than 16 in Philadelphia. These polychromatic terracotta “temples” appeared like beacons on the boulevards. They flattered and pandered to the new urban driving breed. Atlantic set out to appeal to “automobilists, who find considerable pleasure touring over its smooth and well-kept roadways and bridges.” While Gulf staffed its utilitarian stations with men, Atlantic populated their temples with women outfitted in dark blue woolen uniforms, riding breeches and black leather accessories. With seventeen pumps, Atlantic advertised, “there will be absolutely no waiting” for service.

Atlantic Refining Co. Station opened in April 1918, 40th & Walnut. (University City Historical Society)

The gasoline was basically the same as Gulf’s product, but the experience was very different. Atlantic became widely known and admired for its “Greek temple effects.” Architect Kuntz developed a unique design for each new location which he refined in drawings and tested in miniature plaster models. Knowing customers would be buying gasoline day and night, and that they were concerned about the possibility of electric lights igniting fuel, Kuntz concealed electrical lights to outline the buildings and their colonnades. By 1922, sixteen busy Philadelphia intersections had unique gas temples by Kuntz, including 40th and Walnut, Cobbs Creek Parkway and Ludlow Street, Walnut and Fifty-fifth and just a few blocks south of the first success, at Broad and Lycoming.

What would Gulf do to keep its customers happy? They did the only thing a modern gas station could do: they kept their prices competitive and offered road maps and oil changes—for free.

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When Biddle Met Duesenberg

The 1200 block of Frankford Avenue in 1959. The Biddle Motor Car Company was located just to the south of these houses.  The site is now occupied by the Frankford Hall beer garden.

The early twentieth century was the Wild West of the American automotive era.  Hundreds of manufacturers sprung up in cities and towns across the nation. Most failed within a year, usually after producing only a dozen machines.  In 1915, Philadelphia auto enthusiasts opened their magazines to see advertisements trumpeting a new American luxury car.  The car looked suspiciously like a Mercedes-Benz: a sharp, V-shaped radiator; a low-slung chassis; wire-spoked wheels; curved bicycle-style fenders.  Unlike bulky, lumbering American luxury cars in its price-range — such as Packard and Pierce-Arrow — the Biddle was nimble and sporty looking, built on a mere 120 inch wheel base, with step plates instead of running boards.

The company claimed that the Biddle was “neither a studied copy of European models, nor moulded to suit the limitations of American’s quantity production.”


Advertisement for the Biddle Motor Car Company. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The namesake of the car was one Robert Ralston Biddle, who apparently loved cars but contributed little else to the machine’s development other than his storied last name of Second Bank of the United States fame.  According to the 1910 Philadelphia Social Register, Biddle lived with Misses Catherine and Sarah Biddle (presumably his sisters) in a brick townhouse at 1326 Spruce Street.

Philadelphia’s car was attractive but hardly revolutionary. In the judgement of automotive historian Beverley Ray Kimes, “what the Biddle did best was look good.” The Biddle was a so-called “assembled” car.  Rather than making their parts from scratch like Ford or General Motors, the company purchased pre-assembled engines, axles, and other components from outside suppliers and then assembled them into an attractive, sleek package.  Not that the Biddle was a slipshod job.   Its components were all of the highest quality.  The car’s price started at $1,650 for the chassis alone, and a variety of custom Fleetwood bodies could be ordered (limousine, town car, roadster, touring car) for an additional $2,000 to $4,000. In today’s money, a well-outfitted Biddle would cost about $65,000.  By comparison, a Ford Model T cost about $850, or about $18,000 today.

Yet what really made the Biddle stand-out was its four-cylinder engine, manufactured by the Duesenberg brothers of Indianapolis and able to crank out 100 horsepower, five times more than Ford’s Tin Lizzie.  Fred and August Duesenberg were American originals.  They immigrated to America from Germany with their widowed mother in 1885, and grew up tinkering with machinery on the family farm in Iowa.  After racing bicycles for a few years, the brothers started a company that manufactured race car and marine engines. Fred proved to be a mechanical genius, and by 1914 Duesenberg-powered cars were garnering trophies at the Indianapolis 500.

The success of the four-cylinder Duesenberg racing engine attracted the attention of Arthur Maris, president of Biddle, and of Charles Fry, the company engineer.  The year after production started, Biddle removed the original Buda powerplant from its cars and installed the more powerful Duesenberg one instead.

The R. Ralston Biddle house (left) at 1326 Spruce Street, 1930.

Unfortunately, Biddle arrived on the scene at exactly the wrong time. America’s entry into World War I in 1917 squashed demand for luxury cars, and the brief, post-war recession that followed made matters even worse.  The automotive industry was also undergoing structural changes and consolidation. President Alfred Sloan of General Motors purchased a clutch of independent companies (Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac) and integrated them into a consortium that could corner all segments of the market.  General Motors also purchased suppliers and integrated their products into an in-house supply chain.  The company purchased Fleetwood, for example, so that the distinguished “carriage trade” body maker could supply custom bodies for the prestigious Cadillac marque, not Biddle and other smaller luxury makes. In the meantime, Henry Ford perfected his assembly line, which could churn out dozens of cars an hour.  As a result, the price of a Model T dropped from $850 in 1908 to a mere $260 by the early 1920s.

In this new economic landscape, there was no room for niche companies like Biddle to compete.  At its peak in the late 1910s, Biddle was only building 500 cars a year at its expanded Frankford Avenue plant. Philadelphia’s Biddle Motor Car Company closed its doors in 1922, just as the economy began to take off and America, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, entered “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.”  Company president Maris went to Wilmington, Delaware to launch a new car company  backed by E. Paul du Pont. Like the Biddle, the du Pont was also an “assembled car” with a fancy name and glamorous coachwork, but relatively conventional mechanical guts.

Yet Biddle’s choice of engine supported a company that would become the biggest automotive star of the Roaring Twenties.  In early 1929, Fred Duesenberg and his partner E.L. Cord unveiled the Duesenberg Model J: the fastest, most powerful, and costliest production car in the world.  Under the hood was a Duesenberg-designed 6.9 liter straight eight, able to develop 265 horsepower — twice as powerful as the closest European competitor. It had so much torque that it could supposedly do 60 miles per hour in second gear, at a time when a good car topped out at that speed.

Sadly, Fred Duesenberg was one of those unfortunate geniuses killed by his own creation.  He died in 1932 after flipping a supercharged Model J on a slick road near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

The site of the Biddle Motor Car plant at 1210 Frankford Avenue is now occupied by the Frankford Hall beer garden.

Little is known about the fate of Robert Ralston Biddle.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7XNCRC5wpk?rel=0&w=480&h=360]

In the passenger seat of a 1929 Duesenberg Model J. The car’s straight eight engine developed 265 horsepower, or 325 in the supercharged version, and able to propel the three ton car at up to 115 miles per hour. A much smaller, four-cylinder Duesenberg engine powered the Biddle during its 1917-1921 production run.  A well-equipped, coach-built Duesenberg sedan sold for about $12,000 ($8,500 for the chassis alone), or about $170,000 today.


Beverly Rae Kimes and Harry Austin Clark, Jr. The Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942 (Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1989), p. 116-117.

“Duesenberg, Frederick and August,” Des Moines Register, September 20, 2004.

Motor Record (The Ferguson Publishing Company, 1919), p. 44

Social Register, Philadelphia, Including Wilmington (New York, New York: Social Register Association, 1910), p.17.

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Round One: The Battle for Gasadelphia

The First Gas Station on Broad Street, ca. 1915. Broad Street and West Hunting Park Avenue. Photograph from 1926. (PhillyHistory.org)

“The ideal filling station has never been built,” scoffed a big oil executive in 1922. “I don’t think it ever will be built. But we are trying to get it.” Quite an admission from a man whose company (Standard Oil of Indiana) operated 1,400 stations of its own. The idea of the gas station had been around for nearly a decade, but the form was still very much evolving. By 1920, 15,000 had cropped up across America; by 1929 more than 120,000 littered the landscape. Other than dispensing gasoline to a burgeoning number of vehicle owners, no two oil companies could agree what a gas station ought to look like. And with money to be made, there was no time for debate. So, in the name of gasoline sales, and the bottom line, the city’s streets, boulevards and highways became a living laboratory of asphalt, brick, tin and flashing electric signage.

The experiments that ultimately gave us the American Gas Station took many forms: sheds and shacks, pyramids and pagodas, cottages and castles, wigwams and windmills. Some even led to extravagant structures modeled on mosques and temples. Design diversity would be about right, the oil executive would admit. “I would not want them all alike,” he said. “But I would demand of them a family resemblance—a Hapsburg chin, so to speak.” Selling gasoline wouldn’t be about gasoline, so much as consistency, service and branding. The oil exec didn’t know what he wanted his stations to look like, but he did know he wanted them all “recognizable at a distance.”

When did the question of what a gas station might look like first get answered? The year was 1913. That’s when William M. Burton patented his process for the “Manufacture of Gasolene,” acknowledging a “great and growing demand.” That’s the year Henry Ford dropped the price of his Model T to $550 and sold more than 308,000 cars. And that’s the year Gulf Refining Company opened the first of its purpose-built, drive-in gas station in Pittsburgh.

A century ago, fuel-hungry drivers could finally abandon the pharmacy’s ad hoc pail and funnel. Now they could drive past the lines at the tank wagon’s garden hose or the curbside pumps standing like afterthoughts outside grocery and hardware stores. In 1913, for the first time, motorists could pull up to paved stations devoted exclusively to servicing the nation’s new fleets. Gulf’s first station, an octagonal brick kiosk with a cantilevered pagoda-style roof bore the words “Good Gulf Gasoline” spelled out in lights. Need air, water, crankcase service, and tire and tube installation? Just drive up to your nearest Gulf octagon.

Shortly after the model proved itself in Pittsburgh, Gulf built another in West Philadelphia, at 33rd and Chestnut Streets. On a good day, attendants pumped 3,000 gallons from ten 550-gallon underground tanks. “The liberal patronage of our West Philadelphia Service Station… and the number of requests from the North Broad Street District have prompted us to build another service station,” read the advertisement in The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The new station at Broad Street and Hunting Park Avenue opened April 17, 1916. “Courteous attendants will supply you—cheerfully pump your tires or fill your radiator…free of charge.” Need a road map? They were now free, too. Gulf had found its solution for design and for service—and would stick with this formula for the next decade and a half.

How did the competition respond? The Philadelphia and Pittsburgh-based Atlantic Refining Company formed a committee to brainstorm. How could Atlantic outdo Gulf in a  “new marketing offensive?” The committee toured stations throughout the state, and beyond, and decided this challenge needed the talent of an architect. Joseph F. Kuntz of the Pittsburgh-based W. G. Wilkens and Company got the unusual commission. Gas stations were about to be ramped up to a new level of design—the likes of which had never been seen before—or since.

The battle for Gasadelphia on North Broad Street was about to take off.

NEXT TIME: Round Two

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When City and Car First Collided

Parking on South Broad Street. Sansom Street to City Hall, 1910. (PhillyHistory.org)

The automobile’s traction in the city started 100 years ago, but this centennial we don’t necessarily want to celebrate.

In 1899, after the first Philadelphian (Junker, Jules Junker) imported his French vehicle, it was a fast uphill ride. By 1907, there were 142,000 motors on American roads. From 1909 to 1910, when Henry Ford’s new factory began producing 1,000 Model Ts each and every day, national car sales jumped more than 4,500%. The invasion had begun.

2213-2219 Callowhill Street, before demolition to build the Parkway, May 10, 1912. (PhillyHistory.org)

By the end of the 20th century’s second decade, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported that 1,600 cars careened around Philadelphia’s City Hall every hour. That’s 26 per minute. Center City’s rush hour was born.

This scale and pace concerned city planners, even one from Detroit, who fretted in 1916: “When the streets of the cities were laid out it was never contemplated that there would be about two million automobiles operating on the highways of this country.” Yet, “it is estimated that the number of motor vehicles is rapidly going up to five million.” Actually, by the end of that decade, there were more than 6.1 million vehicles on America’s roads.

As the number of cars increased, so did the debate about their impact. Henry Ford assured that everyone who wanted a car might buy one, but a planner from New York believed proliferation was having the opposite effect. “The coming of the private automobile suddenly divided your population practically into two classes…the barons, riding not horseback, but in automobiles, forming a kind of superior stratum, and the other class, the common people, dependent upon the common carriers.”

Parkway from 20th Street, February 17, 1928. (PhillyHistory.org)

The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin worried the abundance of cars advanced no purpose in particular. “Automobiles have become an important utility. Soon, we are told, everyone will have a motor. The difficult question remains: What shall he do with it when he gets it?”

In 1916, city planners from around the United States met in Cleveland to consider these questions and how to best help cities welcome  the automobile’s takeover. (By mid-century, Philadelphia’s Edmund Bacon still insisted the car was “an honored guest” in the city.) Planners discussed the ideal width of the urban roadbed, the ideal turning radius of the intersection, and the ever growing problem of city parking.

1915-1917 Arch Street, April 8, 1929. Andrew D. Warden, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

“The number of private pleasure vehicles left standing on the street is far greater than was the case with horse-drawn vehicles,” said Nelson P. Lewis of New York in his address “The Automobile and the City Plan.” “The motor car needs no hitching and will stay where left and it is not an uncommon sight to see the entire space along the curb occupied by motor cars for hours at a time.  …the number of them so left in the streets is much greater and is increasing at an extraordinary rate.”

Lewis called for “regulations governing the parking of such cars.” He laid out the classic urban parking dilemmas.  “If they stand in a line parallel with the curb and immediately adjacent to it, it is impossible for a particular car to leave its position unless there is sufficient space between them to allow them to turn out. If they are placed at right angles to the curb, the space occupied by them is so great as to seriously decrease roadway capacity.” Lewis identified Philadelphia as an exception: “Where the roadways are sufficiently wide, as in Broad Street…the automobiles are parked in the middle of the roadway in a position at right angles to the curb, thus permitting any vehicles to leave it position without interference.” But not every city had a Broad Street and not every street in Philadelphia was broad.

Ford collision with Park booth, Broad Street and Pattison Avenue, 1926. (Phillyhistory.org)

“There is going to come a time when this congestion of motor vehicles will be so much more serious than it is now,” warned a Boston planner, “there will be no practicable way of controlling it, except by encroaching upon existing parks and parkways.” Others at the conference bubbled with comments and ideas, hoping for “the designation of certain streets for the exclusive use of automobiles… the designation of certain streets for fast and slow automobile traffic … The establishment by the city of open spaces where automobiles may be left for the day.” One planner suggested “the city establish subway parking stations under public open spaces…” Another imagined “manufacturers producing a car that could be telescoped or at least stood on end in order that it may occupy less space when left in the public streets.”

Philadelphian Andrew Wright Crawford of the City Parks Association attended the proceedings and added his two cents as to what might come and what should: “The automobile in its best result is causing the diffusion of population.” But, “the motors must, in the center of the city be made to fit the city plan that is in existence, rather than the city plan should fit the motors.”

Sage and impossible advice from a tireless advocate of The City Beautiful.

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The Night Philadelphia Met Mahler

The Academy of Music, 1892. Completed as an opera house in 1857 and designed by Napoleon LeBrun and Gustavus Runge.

When the wild-haired Leopold Stokowski took command of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912, his theatricality was greatly at odds with his proper Philadelphia patrons.  Tall, dapper, charming with the ladies, and more than a little vain, he was the epitome of European cosmopolitanism.  The London-born son of a Polish father and an Irish mother, Stokowski received his education at Britain’s Royal College of Music and Queen’s College, Oxford, where he had the good fortune to study under Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, respectively.  Spurning the traditional baton, Stokowski used his hands alone to lead the orchestra.  He also used them to grab Philadelphia by the scruff of its neck and drag its musical taste into the twentieth century.

Architectural cross-section of the Academy of Music.

Since its founding in 1900, the Philadelphia’s Orchestra specialized in the classicism of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Beethoven, with occasional forays into the chromaticism of Wagner.  The Quaker City’s elite dutifully listened from their plush seats.  Or at least some did.  Many prattled or even knitted.  Fritz Scheel, the Orchestra’s first conductor, went apoplectic when one patron suggested that he should add a Strauss waltz to sweeten his solemn, Teutonic programs.  Scheel eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and died in a sanitarium.  His successor, Karl Pohlig, lasted only a year before resigning under the cloud of a sex scandal.

Stokowski was not only a superb musician, but also fearless confronting this lack of respect from the audience, especially from those who left early. During Friday matinees, some left their seats in middle of the concert to catch the 4:00pm train back to the Main Line.   One Friday, Stokowski was fed up.  Just before conducting the opening bars “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, he heard the typical chatter and the rustling of shopping bags.

Stokowski turned around, faced the audience, and intoned:

Try as hard as we can, we cannot make a divine music amid so much untranquility. There is constant walking in and out. You know you cannot live the material life alone. You must have something else. All the rest of the week you are immersed in your worldly affairs. On Friday you come here. Will you not say to yourselves: ‘I will give to the other side of life the two hours or less that the music requires?’ You will gain enormously, and so shall we.

Some welcomed Stokowski’s standing up to his own audience. Others thought him extremely impertinent and disrespectful. Yet Stokowski was not intimidated.  He had the support of many members of the Orchestra’s board, including the powerful and very wealthy Alexander van Rensselaer. A frequent traveler, Stokowski was entranced by the revolutionary music of Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Scriabin, and Claude Debussy.  He also created his own  lush, unashamedly Romantic orchestrations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ works.

Only three years into his tenure, Stokowski decided to really shock his audience by introducing one of Europe’s most progressive composers to the American stage.   He asked the Orchestra board to front $140,000 for the production of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #8, popularly known as the “Symphony of a Thousand.”  An Austrian Jew who had converted to Catholicism, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) had been famous as the conductor of the Vienna Opera, but his compositions languished in relative obscurity.  Stokowski, who had heard the Eighth Symphony’s premiere in Munich, proclaimed it was “one of the greatest compositions of the twentieth century.”  He also assured the skittish board that Philadelphians would passionately embrace Mahler’s music if they gave it a chance.

On March 2 , 1916, over 2,000 people packed the sold-out Academy of Music, anxiously awaiting what promised to be the greatest musical event in the city’s history.  Among the luminaries in the audience were pianist Josef Hoffmann. According to The Public Ledger: “The scenes at the Academy set the nerves tingling…The curtains rose and the audience gasped. The 958 singers filled the great stage from footlights to roof and the orchestra was upon the an apron which had been built into the house. The first twelve rows of singers were women, dressed in white. Above them were twelves rows of men, with a gardenia-like spot of girls, members of the children’s chorus, pinned, it seemed in their midst.”

Stokowski stepped onto the stage, bowed, and flung his arms. The string basses growled, a mighty organ chord sounded, followed by the chorus singing “Veni, Creator Spiritus!” fortissimo, and then a mighty blast of the brass section.

For the next hour, Stokowski bathed his audience in waves of sound they had never heard before: gripping, transcendent, awe-inspiring, tender enough to draw tears from even the most hardened listener.  Nearly a century later after that memorable night, Joseph Horowitz of The New York Times compared the orchestra under Stokowski to a great pipe organ: “its soft-edged attacks and majestic swells and recessions, its smooth textures and lavish colors were all derivative of the Romantic organ of Stokowski’s youth. Its ‘rolled’ chords (at different speeds!) even fabricated a reverberant cathedral acoustic.”

There was no talking, knitting, or rushing out to catch the next Paoli local. So transfixed was the audience by Mahler’s music.

When the last chords died away in the Academy of Music that evening, a new age for the Philadelphia Orchestra had dawned.


Stokowski on the stage of the Academy of Music with the ensemble of over one thousand instrumentalists and singers needed for the premiere of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” Library of the University of Pennsylvania.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSulGXYkn08?rel=0&w=480&h=360]
An historic recording of Leopold Stokowski conducting the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.”

The applause after the performance of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” was so great that it could be heard in the foyer of the Hotel Walton across Broad Street.


Marc Geelhoed, “A Thoroughly Modern Orchestra,” Great Performances: Carnegie Hall Opening Night, 2004. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/shows/carnegie04/essay1.html

Marjorie Hassen, “American Premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (‘Symphony of a Thousand’) Leopold Stokowski Conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, Academy of Music, Philadelphia 2 March 1916.” Leopold Stokowski: Making Music Matter. Otto E. Albrecht Music Library, University of Pennsylvania. http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/stokowski/mahler.html

Joseph Horowitz, “Spring Music/Orchestras: A Window on Stokowski’s Greatness,” The New York Times, March 5, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/03/05/arts/spring-music-orchestras-a-window-on-stokowski-s-greatness.html?ref=leopoldstokowski

Joseph Kupferberg, Those Fabulous Philadelphians: The Life and Times of a Great Orchestra. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969). pp. 20, 31, 25 ,42-44, 54.


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