“The Quintessential Object of Industrial Philadelphia”

Looking East on McKean Street from South Second Street, July 20, 1901. Photo from PhillyHistory,org

Philadelphia’s most effective tool in its industrial transformation during the late 19th century wasn’t a tool at all, although it could be considered a machine for living. As architectural historian George Thomas put it, the rowhouse was “the quintessential object of Industrial Philadelphia.”

But the Philadelphia rowhouse had far older roots. In 1800, Scottish-born “architect and house-carpenter” Thomas Carstairs took the idea of a row and stretched it out for a full city block on Sansom between 7th and 8th Street, turning real estate into revenue and meeting the city’s ever-growing appetite for housing. Over the next several decades, as the city grew across its 17th-century grid, the rowhouse evolved into an upscale solution for urban living. Architects John Haviland and Thomas U. Walter demonstrated how the repeated form could also become something chic and generous. But as the city’s population soared past one million in 1890, the rowhouse was effectively reclaimed for the working class. By the end of the century, Thomas writes, “as far as the eye could see, there were some fifty square miles of row houses and factories, most of which had been built in the previous generation.”

The two-and three-story rowhouse had become part the city’s successful mix of immigration, employment, coal, real estate and banking. Between 1887 and 1893, no fewer than 50,288 rowhouses were built, enough for a quarter million people. Rowhouse construction had seen a boom before, with more than 50,000 built between 1863 and 1876. But now, in the last decade of the 19th century, the Philadelphia rowhouse had grown more compact, more simplified and even more adapted to the lives of  the working family. With the help Philadelphia’s 450 savings and loan associations, a two-story  “Workingman’s House,” as it became known, could be had for about $3,000 and paid off in about a decade.

Sure, other cities—New York, Boston, Brooklyn and Baltimore—had rowhouses, but Philadelphia’s were more efficient, plentiful and affordable. More than anything else, the late-19th century Philadelphia rowhouse propelled Philadelphia to become the Workshop of the World.

2801 Brown Street, January 6, 1932. Andrew D. Warden, photographer.

In 1893 the world took notice. The Columbian Exposition in Chicago exhibited a single specimen, a two-story “Workingmen’s House” designed by Philadelphia architect E. Allen Wilson. Other models of American housing on display included an Eskimo house and a logger’s cabin. The Philadelphia exhibit in Chicago was so popular, legend has it, that curious visitors wore out the floorboards.

The Philadelphia model was more than a mere solution to a housing problem; it became an effective tool for a modern society. “The two-story dwellings of this city are, beyond all question, the best, as a system, not only owing to the single family ideas they represent, but because their cost is within the reach of all who desire to own their own homes,” glowed a rowhouse proponent in the early 1890s. “They have done more to elevate and to make a better home life than any other known influence. They typify a higher civilization, as well as a truer idea of American home life, and are better, purer, sweeter than any tenement house systems that ever existed. They are what make Philadelphia a city of homes, and command the attention of visitors from every quarter of the globe.”

Between 1890 and 1910 Philadelphia grew from a city of a million to 1.5 million and added miles more rowhouses with ever greater repetition and monotony. Variations of one sort or another added to the city’s grammar of forms. Over time, some rows would be demolished to make way for new schools, while others would have their brick facade veneered with permastone, a literal interpretation of the romantic idea that even in a modern industrialized city, home is castle.

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Collapse of The South Street Bridge

South Street Bridge-Looking West Across Ruins, 1878. Photo from PhillyHistory.org.

When poet Beth Feldman-Brandt wrote Taking Down the South Street Bridge in 2009, she had no idea how powerfully her final line, “We are used to finding our way among ruins,” resonates in PhillyHistory.

The original South Street Bridge was supposed to be a marvel of Philadelphia’s Iron Age. Giant iron columns, versions of a design innovated by the Phoenix Iron Company of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, supported sections spanning the Schuylkill River. The manufacturer had hoped for more of a splash in Philadelphia at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. For the grounds of the first American world’s fair, they proposed a 1,000-foot observation tower. If built, this would be about twice the height of City Hall, then under construction, and about as tall as the Eiffel Tower, started a decade later. Metaphorically, the Phoenix Tower would rise from the ashes of the bitter, bloody Civil War. Had the proposal been approved, the Phoenix Tower would literally have been cast from recycled government military canon. But it wasn’t approved. Instead, the biblical sentiment of beating swords into plowshares would play out at the South Street Bridge, which opened for traffic months before, and miles away, from the Centennial grounds.

Just a few seasons later, the bridge’s columns began to crack. Engineers diagnosed the cause as moisture in the rubble fill packed inside, expanding as it froze. They strapped on a series of iron belts that kept the cracks from spreading, but there wasn’t anything engineers could do to retrofit a design flaw at the bridge’s western approach. Beneath the roadbed, brick arches resting on granite piers which, in turn, rose from hundreds of wooden piles driven into the muddy riverbed. Problem was, in critical places, the piles had been driven down through only fifteen feet of mud, as far as packed gravel.

When the gravel shifted, piles slipped, piers tipped and arches cracked. Then, early one February Sunday morning in 1878, “the crippled arches gave way at the haunches and fell,” as assistant project engineer David McNelly Stauffer later put it. Like dominoes, “arch after arch went down, and the bridge was not much more than a wreck.”  There had been no casualties, but the two-year-old South Street Bridge was now useless.

South Street Bridge, Looking West, 1877. Collection of the Wagner Free Institute of Science Library & Archives.

Having died a year before the bridge was completed, project engineer John W. Murphy wasn’t around to present his side of the story. Stauffer stepped in, blaming “the tremor produced in the piles by travel on the bridge” allowing “percolation of water down their sides.” Stauffer admitted “the ground underlying this approach is an alluvial deposit, treacherous and unstable in character” but defended the project’s construction. “It is a matter of record that the piles under pier No. 2 were from 28 to 30 feet long,” he wrote. Possibly so, but that wasn’t enough to compensate for the fact that the piles under the pier that failed first were only half that length.

Stauffer’s reputation didn’t seem to suffer much, if at all. Before and even after the collapse, he had capitalized on his bridge expertise. He had written of the innovative construction technique (the Plenum-pneumatic process in sinking the cast-iron columns) in the Journal of the Franklin Institute. After the collapse, in a markedly different tone, Stauffer promoted his services for City Council’s investigations in order that “the public may be enabled to form a correct judgment as to the methods actually pursued by the builders.” Later, he continued to boast about the bridge’s successful arches at its eastern approach. Decades later, Stauffer was still in the business, having included tunnels in his repertoire. But he also pursued another passion, collecting historical prints and compiling a four-volume dictionary of their artists. Stauffer’s American Engravers Upon Copper and Steel, published in 1907, soon became a classic research tool.

In all of the discussion of the new, new, South Street Bridge, the collapse of the first South Street Bridge in 1878 drifted from memory. Today, we find some comfort in the claim made of Street Department’s chief engineer and surveyor, that here is “the largest and most complex project in the history of the Streets Department.” It’s bicycle-friendly, pedestrian-friendly and has a wild lighting scheme. But history compels us to ask: does all of this rest on a foundation of solid rock?

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Philadelphia Phillies: the Movingest (not the Losingest) team in baseball

Citizens Bank Park from a Wikipedia photo

By Yael Borofsky for PhillyHistory.org

The thing about October is that the weather is like the baseball — sometimes it’s hot for most of the month, and sometimes it’s very, very cold. After quite a few years of some very “hot” Octobers for the Philadelphia Phillies, this year’s tenth month seems like it will be a chilly one.

But even if the Phillies miss out on a chance at the national title this year, they may deserve another title: the Movingest Team in Baseball.

Although the Cincinatti Reds and a few other legacy baseball teams may be close runners-up, the Phillies have switched major home parks at least five times within the same glorious city throughout their tenure.

The superlative illustrates their unique legacy and could, by way of a jaunt through history, distract from what will otherwise be a decidedly disappointing October.

The Parks

Recreation Park, also known as Centennial Park (among other monikers), was adopted as the first true home of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1883.

A shot of the Baker Bowl Police Annual Review taking place
on the Phillies’ field.

Recreation Park was outlined by 24th Street, 25th Street, Columbia and Ridge Avenue, in what baseball author Rich Westcott described as “the most irregularly shaped piece of land imaginable,” in his book Philadelphia’s Old Ballparks. To add to its physical oddity, though the park was previously called Columbia Park — it had been used as a baseball field by other teams since 1860 — it was also briefly occupied by a cavalry of the Union Army in 1866. One can only assume that they didn’t squeeze a few recreational innings in. The spot was renamed again in 1871 when the Philadelphia Centennials improved the baseball facilities and named it Centennial Park after the team.

Albert Reach, formerly a hot shot second baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics credited with taking that team to the 1871 pennant, brought major league baseball and the Phillies to the bizarre spot he renamed Recreation Park.

But, according to Westcott, the fans and the Phillies outgrew the park quickly and the team moved to a new home park, the Philadelphia Base Ball Park (eventually known as the Baker Bowl), in 1887.

Philadelphia Park met its untimely demise in 1894 when a fire killed 12 fans and injured more than 200 others, according to Westcott.

An aerial view of Connie Mack, which opened in 1909, but was
razed in 1976.

In the aftermath, the Phillies played in a couple other city parks until making their next big move to Columbia Park, the original home of the Athletics and first American League stadium in Philadelphia. In addition to hosting both the Phillies and the Athletics, the wooden park managed to contain the City Series, in which the two Philly teams went head to head. Coincidentally, in 26 total City Series match-ups, each team won an even 13 times.

After Philadelphia Park was reincarnated as the Baker Bowl, the Phillies stayed put for until 1938. Despite the fire and the new park’s infamously low, tin right field wall, it’s no surprise they stuck around – the Phils went to their first World Series there in 1915, not to mention sustained a run of nine consecutive first division finishes.

Westcott writes in his book of the Phillies’ success in the park: “Between 1911 and 1938, Phillies players led or tied for the National League in most home runs hit at home 19 times.”

In total, the Philles hit 1,314 home runs in nearly 52 years at their odd little hitter’s park at Broad Street and Lehigh.

You can read a fuller history of the infamously weird Baker Bowl at PhillyHistory.org by clicking here.

The dedication of Veterans Stadium. The stadium was demolished
in 2004.

The Phillies next set up shop at 21st and Lehigh. Shibe Park, known as Connie Mack after 1953, housed the team for nearly 33 years. The park, named after former catcher and A’s manager Cornelius McGillicuddy, was also a nesting ground for the Philadelphia Athletics for 46 years and the Philadelphia Eagles for 17 years before being razed in 1976.

After Connie Mack closed in 1970, the Phillies moved on to Veterans Stadium where they finally claimed their first World Series title in 1980.

They wouldn’t see another national victory like that until 2008, after moving to their current home, Citizen’s Bank Park, in 2004.

Over the course of more than five different home stadiums, the Phillies traveled from North to South Philly, nabbing themselves a title as unusual as their journey and one that tells a story of adaptability, determination, and maybe, just a little bit of faith.


Wescott, Rich, Philadelphia’s Old Ballparks, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

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“A building that should be treated tenderly and remain undisturbed”

521 Spruce Street, just before restoration in 1964.
Photo from PhillyHistory.org.

“Immediately south of Independence National Historical Park,” wrote historian Louis Mumford  in 1956, “down as far as Lombard Street…is a district that should not be left to time, change and the conflicting aims of real-estate operators. This district has become nondescript—a mixture of seedy residences, lunchrooms, factories, lofts, tombstone-makers’ sheds, old burial grounds and historic churches… This part of Philadelphia is still known as Society Hill, and it still contains many houses that justify the name… rows of elegant dwellings of impeccable craftsmanship, which only need a little loving care to be nursed back to life.”

Mumford imagined more of what was already underway—a sweeping and positive transformation of an inner city when the very term was synonymous with decay.  Philadelphia had discovered its lightning-in-a-bottle solution, the key to Center City’s turnaround and Society Hill’s success. It wasn’t so much about historic landmarks or landmark developments, although these would be part of the mix, but hundreds (and thousands, city wide) of residential properties with age and character where Philadelphians could  make history theirs.

The city planner behind Philadelphia’s array of projects, including this calculus, knew he was onto something. And by November 1964, Edmund Bacon had parlayed success into fame with a TIME magazine cover story featuring his own façade framed by old and new icons of Society Hill. “Renewers of the city want not only to bring people back from the suburbs to shop, but back to town to live,” wrote TIME. “Society Hill is studded with 18th-century houses and historic landmarks, and Bacon opened up vistas around them by chopping out the factories and dingy warehouses, threading greenery through them and building new houses in harmony with the 18th-century beauties.”

By the fall of 1964, Ford and Mary Jennings had snagged their diamond-in-the-rough at 521 Spruce Street and were well on their way to a state-of-the-art renovation and restoration. As Bacon held forth for TIME, the Jennings’ held hopes that their plans would be approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Construction began shortly after, and soon 521 Spruce was awarded the city’s 289th historic plaque. The Jennings installed it with pride beside their brand new front door.

If the door wasn’t historic, the doorway was. Five-twenty-one Spruce seemed liked any many other houses in Society Hill—but this one carried an extra-added association with its first resident, John Vallance. In 1792, the year the house was built, Vallance, Philadelphia’s leading artist/engraver was at work on illustrations for America’s first encyclopedia and the famous L’Enfant plan of the soon-to-be-new national capital in Washington D.C.

Renovated and ready for its historic plaque.
Photo from PhillyHistory.org.

Twentieth-century Philadelphians had come to expect as much of their past. Everywhere you turned in Society Hill stood something remarkable, but just as remarkable was the success of the neighborhood’s revival. The sheer scale of this turnaround was one of the main reasons why Society Hill earned a place on the National Register as “the first large-scale urban renewal project to plan for historic preservation.”  No single project, or even collection of developments, could have surpassed the crowd-sourced community building achieved in Society Hill in the third quarter of the 20th century.

But in all this renewal, something special about these gems was getting lost. It had tugged at Mumford in the 1950s when he wrote of the nearby Headhouse at 2nd and Pine Streets: Here was “a building that should be treated tenderly and remain undisturbed.” An appreciation of the nuances of patina and accrued features  had fallen by the wayside. Now something harsh and hard had replaced it. In the rush to restore, preservationists purged all but the distant past, or a facsimile of it, anyway. Evidence of intervening time, and, by default, the building’s sense of itself—its very authenticity, was compromised. That’s the irony of Society Hill: buildings that had survived in spite of preservation were suddenly being “saved” at the hands of it.

Nuance didn’t have much of a chance as this dynamic played out. At the Headhouse, which underwent restoration as well, a feel for the complex past gave way to a simpler, cleaner, and ultimately less interesting interpretation. At 521 Spruce, and at hundreds of other properties, the elusive patina and the authenticity of acquired age wouldn’t–and didn’t—stand up to the untender restoration aesthetic that came to define Society Hill.

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Why We Love Frank Furness

Chestnut Street from Third, looking West, with Frank Furness’ National Bank of the Republic (right) and Guarantee Trust and Safe Deposit Company (left). Both are demolished.

We didn’t always. Love Frank Furness, that is.

“The man came out of the [Civil War] a swearing, swaggering, bewhiskered figure of martial bearing, a bulldog personality ready to challenge the architectural status quo,” James O’Gorman tells us in a review of Michael Lewis’ book, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind. “He organized his office like a military unit. Having waged war, Furness would now ‘wage architecture,’ charging headlong at building programs, competitors, and critics alike. The impact of his war experiences coursed through his professional life.”

“But there was more to his work than militaristic fury,” O’Gorman assures us. For those same late-19th century decades when technology, industry and railroading dominated Philadelphia on its own terms, Furness’ work connected truth and beauty. His buildings, according to George Thomas, had “the raw impact of giant machines, even as they transcended their materials.” All of his buildings, certainly his railroad stations, but also his libraries and schools, operated as grand mechanical-aesthetical projects. Furness’ library at the University of Pennsylvania, Lewis tells us, “has been called a collision between a cathedral and a railroad station;” his Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts “a laboratory for experimenting with new technology” with machine-like balusters working their eccentric charms.

We are reminded that Furness’ clients were engineers in a world newly-refashioned by their innovations, folk who relished “visible iron trusses or riveted iron girders, the industrial repertoire.” Furness gave them that, and more. He considered the interlocking elements of his buildings “legible pieces of machinery” and he moved them, as Lewis put it, “from the train shed to the lobby and the salon.” But these buildings didn’t feel like machines. Exuberant expression was the heart and soul of Furness. As the 17-year old Louis Sullivan, a “father of modernism” put it after his first encounter with a Furness building: “Here was something fresh and fair…a human note, as though someone were talking.”

But Furness’ individualistic work, his “overscaled and willfully distorted details,” his “clashing colors,” his decorative “wry comments on mechanical details, exposed industrial materials, muscular massing, top-heavy loading, dizzying compositional juxtapositions” soon became too much exuberance for an age of rising restraint. Furness not only grew out of style, he grew to be despised—and demolished. “He  was  for  all practical  purposes consigned to  the junk  heap of history for  the  first  half  of  the  twentieth century, wrote Ian Quimby, because he embodied the worst of Victorian excess in the eyes of modernists.”

One early 20th-century critic wrote off Furness’s buildings as “the low-water mark in American architecture.” Another damned his work as a corrupting influence, citing the Provident Life and Trust Building for “meretricious ugliness.” Robert Venturi remembered “loving to hate those squat columns as my father drove me past the Provident Life and Trust Company on Chestnut Street in the thirties”–not long before its demise. No matter that this building and the nearby National Bank of the Republic were two of Philadelphia’s most interesting, most compelling structures. Public opinion had swung against “strident individualism” and the kind of “directness of expression” that would later come to define the best architecture of the late 20th century. No matter, as Lewis put it, that Furness “aspired to truth as much as beauty.”  No matter that Venturi and others would soon find Furness’ forms “tense with a feeling of life and reality” and develop an “absolute unrestrained adoration and respect for this work.” In mid-20th century Philadelphia, the days of buildings audacious enough to “echo mannerism and predict postmodernism”—buildings that fit “somewhere between Michelangelo and Michael Graves”—were numbered.

But the days when Furness’ ideas and the memory of his masterpieces, both extinguished and extant, mean something are not numbered—nor will they ever be again. We now know what Furness achieved. Like Walt Whitman, “he turned the process around.” Writes Lewis: he “looked for the poetry in the vital forces of the modern age, and sought the flower in the machine.”

A century later, Philadelphians find confidence in the truth and a healthy appetite for such poetry. Today we celebrate the genius of Frank Furness.

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Landmark or Not: The Musical Fund Hall is a Site of Conscience

The Musical Fund Hall, 808 Locust St. Designed in 1824 by William Strickland, renovated in 1847 by Napoleon LeBrun and again by Addison Hutton in 1891.

Philadelphia’s got a raft of National Historic Landmarks, the crème de la crème of historic sites. The list is long here: 65 in all, from Independence Hall to Eastern State Penitentiary to the John Coltrane House. And it would have been longer had the National Park Service let stand their original, 1974 ruling in favor of the Musical Fund Hall. But they didn’t, and it isn’t. In 1989, shortly after developers converted the hall’s auditorium into condominiums, the feds withdrew the coveted designation. In America’s most historic city, the Musical Fund Hall is the only site to hold such a dubious distinction.

No matter. Violated or not, this building stands as a genuine American site of conscience, and that’s something that can’t be taken away. Sure, the building was home to one of the nation’s earliest musical organizations and the preferred performance venue of soloists including Jenny Lind (“The Swedish Nightingale”), lecturers including Charles Dickens and political events including the first Republican National Convention. Maybe we’ve been spoiled, jaded even: in a city chock full of the past, this seems like everyday history. What makes us want to take a good, hard, second look at the Musical Fund Hall is an account revealed by Scott Gac in a book entitled Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Reform.

The New Hampshire -based Hutchinson Family performed 12,000 concerts across the United States and abroad, effectively morphing abolitionism into popular culture. In their concerts, the Hutchinson’s performed original and provocative songs, including Get Off The Track of 1844 which warns: “Jump for your lives! Politicians, / From your dangerous false positions.” (Listen here.) Wherever they went, the Hutchinsons attracted a large following, and an interracial one.

Three years after their first popular performances in Philadelphia and a few months after their successful tour in England (with their friend Frederick Douglass) the Hutchinsons returned in the Spring of 1847. After several performances before “amalgamated” audiences at the Musical Fund Hall, Philadelphia Mayor John Swift stepped in and demanded the singing stop. (This is the same Mayor Swift who was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to stop rioters who destroyed the Abolitionist’s new Pennsylvania Hall in 1838.) Swift assured Musical Fund Hall management that more shows would certainly result in rioting there, too. Starting immediately, the Hutchinsons (and all future lessees) had to agree to two conditions: “That no Anti-Slavery lecture shall be delivered” and” That no colored person may form a portion of any audience.”

Silence followed. No riot. No performance. “The Hutchinson Family Singers refused to play for white patrons alone,” writes Gac. Never again would America’s original group of protest singers hear applause in the City of Brotherly Love. Never again would Philadelphians hear the Hutchinsons’ sing:”Men of various predilections, / Frightened, run in all directions / Merchants, Editors, Physicians, / Lawyers, Priests and Politicians. / Get Out of the Way! Get Out of the Way! / Get Out of the Way! Every station / Clear the track of ‘mancipation.

But a dozen years before the Civil War and 15 years before Black and White together, fifteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Philadelphians did hear, and rejoice in these prophetic lines – at the Musical Fund Hall.

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Frankford’s Fate in Post-Industrial Philadelphia

Well-intentioned officials pose at the start of the flood mitigation project on Frankford Creek in 1950.

Once upon a time it didn’t matter that the Frankford Creek flooded. But that was before people lived and worked in Frankford Creek’s flood plain.

Then Frankford got its mills and its mill workers, thousands of them. Overwhelmingly, these were textile mills built during the 19th century with immigrant know-how and operated by immigrant labor. Frankforders combed, carded, spun, winded, wove, warped, bleached, dyed, starched and produced. First came woolen blankets and calico printing, then felt, then carpet, and more. In the 1820s, at least eight textile firms operated in or near Frankford. By mid-century, thirty mills produced textiles in Frankford. By the 1890s, there were no fewer than 38 employing more than 3,100 workers. Several mills were situated squarely in the floodplain.

Just about every year and ofttimes many  more, floods threated the health and welfare of Frankford’s citizens and impeded the productivity of its mills. At the turn of the 20th century, the Pennsylvania Department of Health took a hard look at the situation, realized that “Frankford Creek is in a foul and insanitary condition” and something had to be done. Harrisburg officials agreed to consider a “comprehensive sewage plan for the collection and disposal of the sewage of the entire Frankford Creek drainage district.”

Those were dry times, in 1912, when a city photographer made this charming view from Powder Mill Road past the perennially water-logged Frogmoor Street down to Frankford Creek. The early round of improvements had been made, but proved not aggressive enough. In 1946, another study found that “in 17 years only three years passed without flood damage.” Something serious had to be done.

This time, City Fathers took more drastic measures. In 1950, they chose to widen the path of the creek, forfeit any hope of the reestablishing natural banks and build a dedicated, concrete channel. The idea was to relieve the drainage problem, protect the water supply and enable unfettered production in the mills.

North Wall at Tremont Mills before modification.

The Fates had other ideas. From the mid-20th century and into the 21st, manufacturing employment in Philadelphia tumbled from 365,500 jobs to 29,800. (And that was before the Great Recession.) Just as the Frankford Creek was being transformed into the Frankford channel, mill owners were starting to abandon Frankford’s century-and-a-half tradition in textiles. Victims of the global economy, Frogmoor Mills, Frankford Hosiery, Frankford Dye Works, and Hughes Spool Cotton, La France Textile, and others sold, left town, or simply shut down. The oldest building at Tremont Mills (and possibly the first textile mill in Frankford: Samuel Pilling’s Calico Print & Dye Works of the 1820s ) was still in operation. As the city widened Wingahocking Street during the flood mitigation project someone thought to document and preserve, rather than demolish, Tremont’s (and possibly Frankford’s) oldest mill . At least two-thirds of it, anyway.

More than sixty years later, the abbreviated ruins of Tremont await their fate, boarded up above, biding time as a car parts shop, below. And like the picturesque ruins of Rome, Tremont is a survivor with a growing and appreciative following.

The time is right. Tremont is one of ten structures and the only mill in Frankford recommended for historic designation in the Philadelphia’s 2035 District Plan for the Lower Northeast. The Draft Plan was released for public comment on August 21. And the comment period ends October 1st. Now’s the time to speak up and secure Frankford’s post-industrial fate.

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Keeping Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Names Honest

12th and Spring Garden Streets in 1916, before the neighborhood became known as The Eraserhood.

Want to start an argument? Ask a Philadelphian (any Philadelphian, a new one, a longtime one – it makes no difference) how many neighborhoods there are in the city. It’s one of those questions that stirs primal juices. Want to turn the heat up on that argument? Ask folks to pin down the borders between one neighborhood and another – especially if it means something to them.

It’s a centuries-long game of push and pull that culminates in a heady sense-of-place-ness that grows over time and defies resolution. It’s part of a powerful, human/hierarchical/historical process that’s gone on since the first and goes on to this day. And let’s hope it’s not resolved any time soon. The day Philadelphians happily join hands over neighborhood-identity issues is the day you can take me out of the city, never to return.

The names and numbers of neighborhoods vary dramatically depending on whom you ask. The last edition of The Bulletin Almanac published in 1976 listed 42 neighborhoods. More recently, when Metropolis reported the “Percent of Individuals Living in Poverty,” Tom Ferrick used the acceptable breakdown of 56 city neighborhoods. But the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development has listed 97; this archive (PhillyHistory.org) uses a robust 155 names and the Philadelphia Neighborhoods page at Wikipedia has crept up to 182. When The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen’s Manual published its final edition in 1995, a dogged editorial team reported 395 neighborhood names, both current and defunct. And since then, the Philadelphia Department of Records built on that to arrive at a compilation that tops off at 449.

We should welcome Philadelphia’s web of place-ness and the ever-present arguments it spawns as evidence of life. And in those arguments we’ll find stories of places that left behind boring names (the citizens of Flat Rock rejected Bridgewater and Udoravia before adopting the more colorful Manayunk). We’ll find names that simply disappeared, as did Rose of Bath, aka Bathtown, swallowed up by Northern Liberties. And then there were those places simply lost in the mists of time: Goat Hill, Good Intent, Goosetown and Grubtown. But the one thing we know for sure is that each and every one of these places had its following and had its day.

Which is why, when it comes to Philadelphia neighborhood names, we should welcome the idea that after the city’s 20th century decline, less can be more. And our honest embrace of that lesser, as is, Philadelphia is a rare and admirable thing. Which is why we should welcome the idea that the heavily-patinated, “nightmarish post-industrial landscape” along the streets defined by this map to the north of Center City, should be known as “The Eraserhood.”

Having hit bottom, the Divine Lorraine Hotel is well-positioned as the iconic northwestern outpost of the rising sense-of-place-ness that celebrates Philadelphia’s misfortune and moodiness. The entire neighborhood was a ready-made noir set for the short, loving video by Shawn Kilroy. And PhillyHistory offers up about 1200 photographs and about 90 maps of the place, many close to the time when David Lynch lived across from the City Morgue at 13th and Wood Streets and studied painting at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He stored up experiences and impressions in Philadelphia that fueled his film Eraserhead.

Lynch found Philadelphia “horrible, but in a very interesting way. There were places there that had been allowed to decay, where there was so much fear and crime that just for a moment there was an opening to another world. It was fear, but it was so strong, and so magical, like a magnet, that your imagination was always sparking in Philadelphia…I just have to think of Philadelphia now, and I get ideas, I hear the wind, and I’m off into the darkness somewhere.” The Eraserhood name is a deft act of preservation – preservation of the spirit that made Philadelphia what it is, for better and for worse. Either way, both ways, it’s our Philadelphia – but we’re richer for coming to terms with the bitter (and compelling) truth, just as it is being erased from memory.

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Photo Gallery: Dilworth Plaza through the years

Former Mayor Richardson Dilworth (1956-1962) in 1957. Dilworth died
in 1974, three years before Dilworth Plaza was completed.

Dilworth Plaza is currently a hollowed-out pit of fenced-in concrete on the west side of City Hall, but soon it should be so much more. Center City District’s plans for the new plaza are modern, chic and supposedly practical in a way that the original construction, which took more than a decade and spurned plenty of controversy, was not.

You can see an EarthCam photo of Dilworth Plaza’s progress here.

But even before Dilworth Plaza was named for the man on the left, former Mayor Richardson Dilworth, the location had served a wide range of purposes throughout the years. Until construction began earlier this year, the plaza was most recently made nationally famous as the site for Philadelphia’s Occupy Protests.

While we anticipate what the new Plaza will do for Center City, let’s take a brief photo tour of the purposes the space has served in the past.

Dilworth Plaza Photo Tour


A pre-event for Take our Daughters to Work Day in Dilworth Plaza.


A show of Christmas festivity on Dilworth Plaza in 1981.


Redevelopment of Market Street including a view of the construction at Dilworth Plaza.
A second view of the redevelopment and construction progress.


Two photos (above and below) of a 1961 car crash that occurred right on the spot that would become Dilworth Plaza.


A shot of the Department of Streets booth during Employees Week in 1959 on what would become Dilworth Plaza.

A shot of the Fairmount Parks Commission booth during Employees Week in 1959 the eventual Dilworth Plaza.

A look at the City Commissioners Employee Week booth.


An indirect view of the western side of City Hall which would one day be Dilworth Plaza.


A 1903 view from the west side of City Hall, which would eventually become Dilworth Plaza.

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When Guion Bluford, the first African American in space, came home

November 1983: Guion Bluford speaks at a press conference in City Hall upon his homecoming
after his first successful space mission.

By Yael Borofsky for PhillyHistory.org

Guion Bluford — he goes by Guy — is the man at the center of all that attention in the photo to the left. Nearly thirty years after becoming the first African American to go to space, he doesn’t exactly remember what he said in that City Hall press conference, but given that the event marked his homecoming, he probably doesn’t need to.

“It was so long ago,” Bluford told PhillyHistory. “I do remember it was exciting and I was happy to be home.”

Bluford also remembers that being in Philadelphia was a whirlwind. After completing the successful STS 8 mission in September of 1983 and spending a whole month on the road doing public relations events all over the country, Bluford was finally back home for four days, though he was staying at the Four Seasons downtown, not his childhood home in West Philly.

In addition to the City Hall press conference, then-Mayor Bill Green, III, presented him with the Philadelphia bowl (Bluford still prizes it in his trophy case, he says), he met with then-Governor of Pennsylvania Dick Thornburgh, and soon-to-be Mayor Wilson Goode. He visited with sick children at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, and he’s not entirely certain, but thinks he may have also spoken one other time in Society Hill. To cap it all off, Bluford served as grand marshal of the 64th annual Thanksgiving Day parade.

The city had every reason to celebrate the man. Bluford would go on to complete three more successful space missions — the STS 61-A, STS-39 and STS-53. But the city could have treated him as a public hero and role model even before that. After graduating from the Air Force ROTC with a degree in aeronautical engineering from Penn State University in 1964 — his dream since at least high school — Bluford decided to join the U.S. Air Force as a pilot.

“I was going to go into the Air Force as an engineer and spend three to five years and decide, at that point, if I was going to stay in the Air Force or go work in industry,” Bluford recalled. “Between my junior and senior years, I went to ROTC summer camp… and at the end of the four weeks I took a physical and the doctor asked me why I didn’t want to be a pilot. So I decided to go in as a pilot. I thought I’d be a better engineer if I knew how to fly airplanes.”

According to Bluford’s NASA biography, he flew a total of 144 combat missions, including 65 over North Vietnam.

While in the Air Force he received two degrees from the Air Force Institute of Technology and eventually became a NASA astronaut in 1979. As if space flight was not enough, during his time working for NASA he also received his MBA from the University of Houston, Clear Lake.

Bluford says that when he began working for NASA in 1979 he was aware that an African American had never before traveled to space, he just wasn’t focused on being the one to do it. When it turned out that he was the man to assume that role, he says he was both honored and humbled by the privilege.

“I realized I was setting an example not only for African Americans, but also African American astronauts, and letting people know that African Americans can be astronauts and do just a good a job as everyone else,” Bluford said. “When I went into the astronaut program my goal was to make a contribution and I’m proud of the one I made.”

During his NASA career, Bluford confirmed that he logged 688 hours in space.

Today Bluford lives in Cleveland, Ohio and is the President of the Aerospace Technology group, having begun what he considers to be his “third career” in “industry” after retiring from NASA and the Air Force in 1993.

Though he and his family currently have no plans to move back to Philadelphia, Bluford says that then as now, he will always think of Philadelphia as home.

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