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. (

“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. (

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. (

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. (

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. (

“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. (

“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.

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.

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.

Joseph Horowitz, “Spring Music/Orchestras: A Window on Stokowski’s Greatness,” The New York Times, March 5, 2000.

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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What Deserves Preservation Awards? [Hint: It’s not about buildings; it’s about community.]

Detail: Southwest corner, 15th and South Streets, December 27, 1937. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory)

It’s more than fair to say that, once again, the Royal Theater is not in line for a Preservation Achievement Award. (Nominations for 2013 are due this week to the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.) At this stage of the game, after languishing for 43 years, pretty much only wreckage remains behind the façade of the South Street institution that opened in 1920 and closed in 1970.

The entire South Street corridor had fallen victim to the proposed Crosstown Expressway. That ill-conceived and controversial project would eventually be removed from the city plan. But while blocks of South Street nearest the neighborhoods of Society Hill and Washington Square benefited from their proximity to revival and investment, those nearer to Broad Street would continue to decline. For the Royal Theater, high hopes wouldn’t be enough to overcome decade after decade of false starts, neglect and vandalism.

Royal Theater. Detail of “15th and South Streets, December 27, 1937,” by Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory)

Today, what remains of the Royal Theater’s exterior is a handsome façade that’s little more than a canvas for murals echoing fifty years of faded memory. From the 1920s through the 40s, the Royal called itself “America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House” and hosted live performances with Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Pearl Bailey and Count Basie. That was then. What remains inside now is damaged almost beyond recognition, a hardhat site for even the most hopeful displays of hipster creative culture.

15th and South Streets, December 27, 1937. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (See details enlarged above, left and below.)

Decades of optimism, good will, vision and nostalgia have kept a dream alive, though they haven’t added up to enough to wake the Royal Theater from its longtime coma. Money might have made a difference. And great sums were lined up to arrive for the Royal revival at the end of Rendell’s second term as Governor. Just a few years ago, this project promised a haul of $31 million from Harrisburg for music producer-turned developer Kenny Gamble to create the “Royal Theater and Universal Commercial Complex.”

Funding can do a lot, but in the end, money is not fungible with well-earned, authentic preservation success. We sometimes convince ourselves to the contrary, but money is no substitute for community.

Community is what made the Royal an original and enviable success. Three-quarters of a century ago, when photographer Wenzel J. Hess visited 15th and South Streets, the Royal Theater stood at the heart of a vibrant, thriving community. The glue that worked for the Royal Theater was the same glue that held together all of the other enterprises on that stretch of South Street: drug stores, hardware stores, pawnshops, diners and Chop Suey joints, dentists, tailors, barbers, bicycle shops and bars. It was about life—the lives of the folks who made  this community and the places they lived them. People and community made South Street. And when  community declined, so did the possibility of preservation success for the Royal Theater.

The inevitable has been coming, if in slow motion. Twenty-one years ago (1992) The Philadelphia Inquirer reports the Royal’s owner is seeking a demolition permit. Five years later (1997) the city Law Department sets out to sue that same owner for code violations that allowed the building to deteriorate. The following year (1998) the Preservation Alliance acquires the building to buy more time but sells the building two years later with no preservation guarantees. And two years ago, the Alliance puts the Royal Theater on its “Endangered Properties List” as the owner considers demolition and then, last year, possible sale.

How long are the statutes of limitations for wishful thinking? If this slow-motion slipping into oblivion continues for another seven years, the Royal Theater will have been empty and abandoned as long as it was open and thriving. Maybe that’s long enough to find a new reality.

Detail: Northwest corner, 15th and South Streets, December 27, 1937. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory)

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The Rise of Balloon Photography in Philadelphia

“Balloon View of Philadelphia from about one mile high, July 4th, 1893.” By William Nicholson Jennings. (PhillyHistory)

Jean-Pierre Blanchard wanted to make a splash, figuratively, not literally. He arrived  from France, 220 years ago, planning a display of showmanship that would, if successful, be the first balloon ascension in Americaand his 45th.

On January 9, 1793, the French aeronaut and inventor readied his balloon in the prison yard at 6th and Walnut Streets, accepted best wishes from President George Washington and other luminaries, and floated skyward. Blanchard metaphorically lived his motto: Sic itur ad astra—to the stars. More precisely, he went to Deptford, New Jersey.

If not made useful, such feats of technology, skill, daring and luck were of little value. Blanchard made use of his time aloft conducting a variety of measurements and experiments, the results of which were recorded in a small book published in Philadelphia with a pleasant illustration of his balloon. Engravings were all they had in Blanchard’s time; it would be nearly half a century before photography allowed aeronauts to dream of returning to earth with “you-are-there” documentation.

The first successful aerial photographs in America,” taken above Boston in 1860, were made from Samuel A. King’s balloon, the “Queen of the Air.” And President Lincoln’s war machine soon put aerial photography to work against Confederate troops. But King didn’t much care for sharing his basket with photographers. Another three decades passed before he went aloft with Philadelphia photographer William Nicholson Jennings.

In the early 1890s, King, brought the “Eagle Eyrie” up from his home in Tinicum to Fairmount Park for annual July 4th ascensions. In 1934, Jennings reminisced about their partnership in “Snapshots from Cloudland,” published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute.

William Nicholson Jennings’ view to the east: Girard College, Eastern State and North Philadelphia. July 4, 1893. (PhillyHistory)

As King prepped, Jennings found a moment to approach “the genial aeronaut to make a bid for a place in the basket for the purpose of making aerial snapshots.” King stared back “with an eye blue as the sky he loved to sail in; stroked his long beard, fleecy as any cloud he had passed through, and remarked: ‘My charge for a passenger is fifty dollars; but if you expect to make good photographs on your first balloon trip … you will be wasting your time and money.’” A first-time passenger would succumb to nerves and produce double exposures, blurred images, use erroneous settings, and on top of all of that, the summer’s “blue haze between balloon and landscape” would result in “thin,” “washy” negatives. Plus, King added, “escaping coal gas from the balloon would create a chemical fog.”

Undeterred, Jennings conducted experiments from the top of the Washington, Monument and devised a combination of orthochromatic plates and a light yellow lens filters and got him “bright, snappy” negatives. He made a “gas-tight” camera, and showed both to King.

Re-enactment of the Nation’s First Air Voyage, in “La Coquette.” January 9, 1968. (PhillyHistory)

On the Fourth of July, 1893, as “the Municipal Band struck up ‘My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon,’ all Jennings had to do was to “forget nerves, wait until the desired section of landscape came into view” hold his breath and press the button.” He “made several exposures while passing over Philadelphia at the height of about a mile…securing sharp, crisp, clear-cut negatives, from which I afterward made a number of 40” x 50” enlargements for exhibition at the Crystal Palace, London.”

King and Jennings would continue to collaborate, but their demise (King in 1914; Jennings in 1946) would hardly mark the end of the Philadelphia balloon story.

In 1956, when Hollywood adapted Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, producer Mike Todd lined up an all-star cast including David Niven and the young Shirley McLaine. The film, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, also featured appearances by Noel Coward, Buster Keaton, Peter Lorre, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich and Frank Sinatra. For the all-important role of the balloon, Todd turned to his friend; the self-described Philadelphia “balloonatic” Constance Wolf, who lent  her beloved “La Coquette.” The first woman to cross the Alps in a balloon, Wolf would promote the film by piloting “La Coquette” over London and Paris after its release. No surprise that, in 1959, she would replicate Blanchard’s first American ascension, and would inflate “La Coquette” again for another re-enactment, seen here, in January 1968.

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Before the Academy: Classical Music in the Quaker City

338 Spruce Street in 1961, home of Francis Hopkinson, the composer of “The President’s March,” otherwise known as “Hail, Columbia!”

During the late eighteenth century, Philadelphia’s Quaker elite had a dim view of the performing arts.  For a sect that prized plainness, industry, and silence, European high culture represented frivolity and unnecessary “fanciness.”  Having a harpsichord or fortepiano in one’s house could mean being “read out” of meeting, and Friends schools forbade keyboard instruments until the 1900s. As theater was banned in the city proper,  the town of Southwark (today’s Queen Village) became the de facto entertainment district for colonial America’s most populous city.

Yet things changed when President George Washington took up residence on Market Street in 1790.  Washington could not play an instrument or carry a tune.  The extremely image-conscious Washington loved the theater.  His favorite play was Joseph Addison’s play about the Roman Republican hero Cato.  He loved dancing even more. During the 1790s, when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, a coterie of musicians organized performances of orchestral music by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and other European masters. They also sprinkled their own compositions into the programs.  These American pieces were written in the  classical style but frequently quoted patriotic songs such as “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail, Columbia,” as well as Irish and Scottish folk songs.  And then there was Benjamin Franklin, who loved music so much that he invented a new instrument that became all the rage in Europe and America: the haunting, ethereal “glass harmonica.”

Mozart: Adagio & Rondo for Glass Harmonica & Quartet – Adagio

This stylistic pastiche shamelessly played on the cultural insecurity of Philadelphia’s literati, who yearned for sophistication but did not want to be seen as un-Republican British imitators.  During the French Revolution, composers would also insert bars of controversial, anti-aristocratic songs such “La Marseillaise” and “Ca Ira” into their works, provoking either wild applause or hissing from the audience.  Although Americans had recently ridden themselves of a king, not everyone was sure that the violent overthrow of Louis XVI was such a good idea.

“A Toast” by Francis Hopkinson, starting at 2:00.

One American in this coterie was Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson, a renaissance man of means who dabbled in writing plays and political satire, as well as playing the harpsichord and organ. He even composed a short revolutionary propaganda opera, entitled American Independent or The Temple of Minerva. Shortly before his untimely death in 1791, Hopkinson published “Seven Songs for Harpsichord or Piano Forte,” dedicated to George Washington.  Hopkinson seems to have thought rather highly of himself,  declaring in the dedication: “I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition.”

“The Federal Overture” by Benjamin Carr, c.1795. The French Republican sympathies of Carr’s Philadelphia audience are pretty obvious in this piece.  Note also the inclusion of the famous Irish gig “Mother Hen” and Francis Hopkinson’s “The President’s March” (aka “Hail, Columbia!”).

The most famous of President Washington’s “court composers” was Alexander Robert Reinagle.  The son of a Hungarian father and a Scottish mother, he immigrated to America from Edinburgh in 1786.  By the 1790s, Reinangle was writing concert music for professionals and amateur ensembles, holding concerts at the City Tavern’s Assembly Room and the Chestnut Theatre.  Compared to British and Viennese ensembles, Reinangle’s players were doubtless rather rough-and-ready.  Reinagle’s compositional style had its roots in the classicism of Haydn and C.P.E. Bach, which perfectly matched the simple, well-proportioned “Federal” style of architecture.

The Chestnut Theater itself, opened in 1794, was the work of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the mastermind of the Fairmount Waterworks.  Able to seat around 1,100 people on four levels, its stage was crowned by a sculpture of a soaring eagle in the clouds. George Washington was a frequent, enthusiastic attendee of Reinagle’s concerts; he even entrusted the composer with the musical education of his stepdaughter Nellie Custis.

Benjamin Carr: Rondo on “Yankee Doodle” (1804)

Another Philadelphia composer was London-born Benjamin Carr, who arrived in the city in 1793 as a voice and keyboard teacher.  In addition to teaching and composing, he served as organist and choirmaster at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church and then St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Carr’s most famous work is the “Federal Overture,” written for full orchestra in 1794.

The Musical Fund Hall, 1959, after being sold to a labor organization. The Victorian facade was added in the late 19th century.

Yet Carr’s most important contribution to the musical life of the city was co-founding along with artist Thomas Sully of the Musical Fund Society in 1820. Its charitable board sponsored the city’s first symphony orchestra. Headquartered in a magnificent auditorium designed by William Strickland, the Musical Fund Society was the forerunner of The Philadelphia Orchestra. The Society’s purpose was “first, to cultivate and diffuse musical taste, and secondly, to afford relief to its necessitous professional members and their families.” Designed by William Strickland, the Musical Fund Hall was a Greek Revival structure with an auditorium on the second floor.  Playing host to such distinguished guests as singer Jenny Lind and author William Thackeray, it was the city’s grandest concert hall until the Academy of Music opened on South Broad Street in 1857.


E. Digby Balzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1979), p.319.

Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres A-Z (New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1986), pp.84, 172.

Philadelphia Scrapple: Whimsical Bits Anent Eccentrics & the City’s Oddities (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, 1956), p.141.

Philadelphia Composers: Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809),

Francis Hopkinson, 1737-1791.

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Happy Holidays from PhillyHistory Blog

The first public tree goes up in Independence Square in 1913.

Lists reflecting on the bests and worsts of the waning year are nearly as abundant as egg nog and cardboard-flavored cookies in the weeks leading up to the holidays. But unlike the transience of yearly in memoriams, Philadelphia’s rich tradition of holiday decorations is long and vibrant.

We hope you’ll think of this collection of holiday photos in Philadelphia not as a list, but as ongoing documentation of the persistence of cheer and lights and, sure, brotherly love, in a city that has kept the holiday spirit alive even in times of hardship.

As PhillyHistory and PlanPhilly have explained, the tree pictured right in front of Independence Square marked the city’s first public Christmas tree and seems to have heralded a tradition of “civic Christmas trees” that has subsequently lit the city during the darkest winter days.

But everyone knows the city doesn’t just celebrate with trees. A collection of carolers gathered in Reyburn Plaza in 1958, with two children sitting, apparently enchanted, in the foreground. In 1956, the city installed a live Santa and a child-sized train set in Reyburn Plaza, but according to the St. Joseph Gazette, no children arrived to ride the train or convey their Christmas lists to Santa. Our guess is that they were relying on the “real” Santa at the Wanamaker Building.

Today we know the holiday seasons would be incomplete without the audiovisual familiarity of jingling bells and red kettles from the Salvation Army. That was true in 1962, too. Below, volunteers celebrate the unveiling of the Salvation Army Christmas billboard that year.

Although the red kettle tradition actually began in San Francisco, Philadelphia was the site of the first Salvation Army meeting in 1879, nearly a century before this photo was taken.

Mayor John Street, looking festive, took a ride in a carriage at the city’s annual tree lighting and holiday festival in 2002. Since Street’s tenure, the yearly ceremony has expanded to include a Christmas Village. This year, due to the construction on Dilworth Plaza, the celebration took place at Love Park across the street.

And with that look at the holidays through years, here’s a graceful, 1962 holiday message that means the same today as it did then:

A lit sign carrying warm wishes over the frozen water at Kelly and Girard.

As a holiday bonus, here is a smattering of trees from 1959, 2002, and 2004:

The 1959 Christmas Tree display at City Hall.

Christmas in Love Park (2002).

The city’s 2004 tree at twilight.

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The First and Only to One of Many: How a Coffee Shop Helped Transform Spruce Hill

Excavation in front of 4239 Baltimore Avenue on June 18, 1912. The building housing the Green Line Cafe was originally a pharmacy with the owners living upstairs. Note the striped shades meant to keep the rooms cool during the hot spring and summer months.

Soon after moving to West Philadelphia in 1995, Douglas Witmer joked with his brother-in-law Dan Thut that one day they would open up a coffee shop in the Spruce Hill section of West Philadelphia.

Neither had business experience. Douglas studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His wife’s brother Dan had a background in history and had run a language school in Guatemala. After graduating from PAFA, Douglas realized that real estate was a great way to supplement his income as an artist and curator.  In the late 1990s, he and his wife purchased a multi-unit building at 44th and Osage.  Prices were low, and there was a healthy demand for student housing.

Witmer and his family loved Spruce Hill neighborhood.  Its Victorian architecture, academic flavor, and socio-economic diversity appealed to his creative sensibilities. “There’s no other place in America like this neighborhood,” Doug maintains.  “Take any spectrum you want – income, race, you name it – it’s really heterogeneous. It’s a walkable community, and it’s also a very green neighborhood. All these elements that make it unique.”

The longer they stayed in Spruce Hill, Douglas said, “the joke about starting a coffee shop became serious.”

Despite the bustling student scene, there was no coffee neighborhood in Spruce Hill, no where art could be displayed, residents mingle, and people could study, read, or just converse.

“We did it out of wanting to create something in the neighborhood that we wanted for ourselves,” he recalled.

In 2001, a three story brick building came up for sale at the corner of 43rd and Baltimore, on the northeast corner of Clark Park.  A florist shop occupied the ground floor, and apartments on the upper two stories.  Built around 1900 when Spruce Hill was a prosperous, upper-middle class neighborhood, it was originally a pharmacy, with the owners living above the store.

The structure was quite run down when Witmer and Thut purchased it from a large local property owner.   An underground creek running under 43rd Street had weakened its foundations, as well as those of several of the other houses in the area.  A dropped ceiling, boarded -up clerestory windows, and other alterations had compromised the original interiors.  Yet what really captivated Witmer and Thut was the bow-front window that commanded a view of Clark Park, visually connecting the future coffee shop to the bustling street and urban green space.

It was right across the street from a Green Line trolley stop. A century ago,  It was the streetcar that made West Philadelphia a desirable commuter suburb. So Witmer and Thut named their new coffee shop “The Green Line Cafe.”

Renovation of the coffee shop space in progress. The mirror on the left is the only original furnishing from the c.1903 pharmacy.  Photograph courtesy of Douglas Witmer.

The gun-renovation of 4239 Baltimore Avenue took about a year to complete. Douglas and Dan let their creative sensibilities make this space one-of-a-kind. “We don’t come from business backgrounds,” Douglas said.  “We were thinking more in terms of a space for the neighborhood to come together.”  The contractor removed the rotted floor and replaced it with salvaged, honey-hued pine boards, and sheathed the coffee bar with antique pressed tin.  Light from stained-glass windows streamed into the brightly-lit room.  A large mirror, topped by an egg-and-dart cornice, was the only surviving piece from the early 1900s.

The Green Line Cafe opened its doors in 2003.  It quickly became a home for neighborhood art shows and concerts, as well as a haven for families, writers, and cramming graduate students.  When the Clark Park Farmer’s Market set up shop on Saturdays, scores of people flooded into the cafe every hour, including many of the Amish farmers.

The coffee shop became financially successful enough for Witmer and Tuth to open up two more branches: one at 45th and Locust and another in Powelton Village. Penn’s massive redevelopment of the area, most notably the construction of the nearby Penn Alexander School at 42nd and Locust, gave a massive boost to adjacent property values. Soon, local real estate agents were using “Close to the Green Line Cafe” as a selling point in their apartment listings.

Green Line Cafe co-founder holding up the “Philadelphia Weekly” special on his establishment. Click on the picture to read the feature. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Witmer feels very lucky that a running joke with his brother-in-law turned into a successful business proposition.  The Green Line has provided an indoor “public” space complementing Clark Park, a gathering place for the diverse residents of Spruce Hill.  He just hopes that his coffee shop does not become a victim of its own success: “After 2005, we had five other businesses competing with us.  It’s a challenge from being the first and only to being one of many.”


The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park, April 10, 1910.


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The Skeleton Man, the Jersey Devil and a Multitude of Other Attractions

C. A. Bradenbaugh’s Museum, Northwest corner of 9th and Arch Streets, 1890 (Free Library of Philadelphia).

Admission cost a dime at the 9th and Arch Museum. Indeed, dimes ruled the for-profit world of Victorian-era museums.  But in the end neither the entertainment, nor the dimes, were enough.

For more than half a century, the corner of 9th and Arch sustained Philadelphians with opportunities for diversion, education and voyeurism. The public came and went—and so did the owners. First was Colonel Joseph Wood, fresh in town having been burnt out of his Chicago emporium. The Colonel opened the doors on a relatively simple affair: menagerie plus performance space. By 1883, the venue re-launched under the new ownership. Hagar, Campbell & Co. Dime Museum advertised “Entertainment Designed Expressly for Ladies and Children,” and claimed they had the “only great show in town.” It featured everything from “Barnum’s Original Aztecs,” the “Che-Mah Chinese Dwarf,” the “Cannibal Fan Child,” the “Living Skeleton” and “the “White Moor.” Hagar and Campbell piled on the attractions, adding “Dens of Serpents,” “the Merry Monkeys” and Punch and Judy, Johnson’s Original Tennessee Jubilee Singers, and “a multitude of other attractions.”  (.pdf)

Even so, audience demands, and museum costs, proved too high. The Dime Museum soon changed hands again. This time, Charles A. Bradenbaugh re-invented the destination as the “9th and Arch Museum.” And this time, place and the public connected. Bradenbaugh kept the audiences coming from 1885 to 1910.

What would a visitor see behind Bradenbaugh’s colorful façade? “On the first floor,” Joseph Jackson tells us, “there were numerous forms of apparatus for testing grips, lungs, lifting power, etc. “On the second floor were cages of monkeys, a prairie dog ‘Village,’ and a few other menagerie specimens.”  The third floor provided a lecture hall packed with a series of platforms, with living “human freaks.” Regulars came to know “The Skeleton Man,” “The Fat Woman,” the “Real Zulus,” “The Human Bat,” “The Bearded Lady,” “The Elastic-Skin Man,” “The Glass Eater,” and “The Dog-Faced Boy.” Every hour, the gawking public would be invited back down to the main auditorium where they’d sit for a popular play that, no matter the length of the original, was condensed into forty minutes, give or take.

In the 1890s, Bradenbaugh dabbled in movies, allowing his visitors to enjoy that emerging medium. But the Dime Museum’s array of 19th-century offerings remained a complicated and layered activity for the public. The simpler experience of the 20th century movie house required, and got, a venue all its own.

A decade into the new century, Bradenbaugh saw the writing on the wall and sold out. Soon enough, the new owners of the 9th and Arch Museum recognized the same reality and did their best to turn it into an opportunity. In 1911, the museum’s new manager, T.F. Hopkins, and his press agent, Norman Jeffries, engineered (literally) a favorite local legend: the Jersey Devil.

After giving birth to her 12th child, the story goes, “Mother Leeds” declared that the 13th, if she had it, would be the Devil. Lo and behold, one dark and stormy night in 1735, Mrs. Leeds gave birth to her 13th. As promised, it immediately transformed into “a creature with hooves, a horse’s head, bat wings and a forked tail.” The newborn “growled and screamed, then killed the midwife before flying up the chimney. It circled the villages and headed toward the Pines.”

According to Andrea Stulman Dennett in Weird & Wonderful: the Dime Museum in America, the headlines screamed: “The Fabulous Leeds Devil Reappears after an Absence of Fifty Years.” A “monster with long hind legs, short forelegs, a tail, horns on its head and short wings” had reportedly been captured by a farmer in New Jersey “after a terrific struggle” and would soon be “placed on exhibition at the Ninth and Arch Museum.”

“Caught!!!  And Here!!!!  Alive!!! THE LEEDS DEVIL, read Hopkins and Jeffries posters. “Swims! Flys! Gallops! … Exhibited securely chained in a Massive Steel Cage. A LIVING DRAGON more famous than the Fabled Monsters of Mythology. Don’t Miss the Sight of a Lifetime.”

In fact, the museum’s short-lived center of attention was a kangaroo with wings attached. And the audiences this mutant marsupial drew to 9th and Arch kept the doors open for only a few more weeks. The day of the Dime Museum had passed. Frank Dumont soon bought the building for his thriving troupe of minstrels.

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The Rise and Fall of Blackface Minstrelsy in The City of Brotherly Love

Dumont’s Minstrels. Northwest Corner of 9th and Arch Streets, May 7, 1914. (

A century before one of the last gasps of American blackface minstrelsy played out at the corner of 9th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia lawyer-turned-cartoonist Edward Williams Clay pioneered his art of stoking white ridicule. Clay’s racist “Life in Philadelphia” caricatures targeting  African Americans quickly grew into an international success. And while Clay was adding insult to injustice in Philadelphia, white actor and playwright Thomas D. Rice adopted African-American vernacular speech, song and dance to build audiences in New York. In both cases, and during the very same years, art appropriated, exaggerated,  entertained, and suppressed. Blackface minstrelsy was born.

“Minstrelsy is the one American form of amusement, purely our own,” wrote a proud Frank Dumont in 1899. “It has lived and thrived even though the plantation darkey, who first gave it a character, has departed.” Dumont’s career in minstrelsy before the Civil War culminated by the turn of the century with two off-stage achievements: the  publication of his Witmark Amateur Minstrel Guide and Burnt Cork Encyclopedia, and a massive scrapbook now at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (.pdf finding aid). Dumont’s troupe then performed at the Eleventh Street Opera House, near Ranstead Street. By 1911, when Dumont’s name had become synonymous with blackface minstrelsy, he relocated to Ninth and Arch.

Dumont learned how to keep his material fresh with monologues, sketches and burlesques adapted to “current fads and follies.” His “Scenes at Wanamaker’s,” “Broad Street Station,” “Atlantic City Storms,” and “The Trolley Car Party” allowed audiences to mock themselves and, with the help of blackface minstrelsy, to mock others.

How, exactly, did Dumont’s Minstrels “black up” for every show? One evening, Dumont allowed a reporter to witness the nightly ritual. A written account made its way into Dumont’s Burnt Cork Encyclopedia (and this photograph made its way into the archives at Temple University):

Make a paste of burnt cork and water and take some, “into your left hand, rub it over the palms as if about to wash your face; then smear it over the features as if applying a cosmetic. Carefully apply it around the eyes and about the lips … when you have applied the cork and left the lips in the natural condition, they will appear red to the audience. Comedians leave a wider, white margin all around the lips. This will give it the appearance of a large mouth, and will look red to the spectator.”

Dumont’s Minstrels in 1917.

Readers of The Burnt Cork Encyclopedia did exactly that and followed Dumont’s stage instructions and scripts for burlesques he shared on the following pages. They became proficient lightening eyebrows with chalk, affixing woolen chin whiskers and finishing off their stage faces with “large brass rimmed spectacles” on their blackened noses.

With the face complete, Dumont continued: “I take a small soft brush…to rub off the particles of cork from my features to prevent them from falling on my white shirt front and white vest …I put on my creamy white shirt… a paper or celluloid collar, a small black tie… my white vest… my swallow-tail coat with a flashy flower or ‘boutonniere’ in its lapel and I resemble a perfect Beau Brummel.… We wear black satin knee pants, black stockings and low cut patent leather shoes. This is very genteel, dressing and in keeping with minstrelsy.”

Also in keeping with the minstrelsy was the nightly ritual of removing the costume, and the burnt cork. “No hard rubbing is necessary. Plenty of lather and a sponge. Then go over the face once more and … rinse your ‘features’ in a bucket of fresh water—if you can get it—and once more you are a Caucasian ready to take up the ‘white man’s burden’…”

Frank Dumont died in 1919, at work in his box office at 9th and Arch. Dumont’s Theater went up for sale in 1928 and burned in 1929. Live blackface minstrelsy on stage in Philadelphia had come to an end, although the screen version, thanks to Hollywood, was only getting started. Philadelphia’s mummer tradition of “blacking up” would continue until 1964, when the courts finally declared that the practice had, after nearly a century and a half, finally run its racist course.

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