Alexander Johnston Cassatt: The Man Who Spanned the Hudson

The mansion of Alexander and Lois Cassatt, 202-206 S.19th Street/West Rittenhouse Square, 1971, just prior to demolition.

Alexander J. Cassatt (1839-1906) was not a Philadelphian.  He was a Pittsburgh transplant who had started his career as an engineer with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and proved himself to be a master of transportation logistics.  As vice president of “The Railroad,” Cassatt enjoyed the good life.  He was the proud owner of a Frank Furness-designed mansion on West Rittenhouse Square and bred hackney horses on the Main Line, which his company had developed in the 1880s.

Cassatt was first and foremost a workaholic — he received his academic training from the notoriously rigorous Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, the same school that produced Brooklyn Bridge designer Washington Roebling. In 1899, Cassatt came out of retirement to assume the presidency of the mighty corporation. “Mr. Cassatt is a man of wealth, independence, and social prominence,” The New York Times noted in 1899. “He is fond of the comforts and enjoyments which wealth enables its possessors to enjoy, and it was only a few years ago that he voluntarily retired from the post of First Vice President of the Pennsylvania system because the work had been too exacting. In his letter of resignation at that time he said, ‘My only object in taking this step is to have more time at my disposal than any one occupying so responsible a position in railroad management can command.”

It was a decision that ultimately cost Cassatt his life.

After assuming the presidency of the Pennsy, he started planning one of the greatest construction projects in the country, one that would push the limits of engineering and his emotional endurance: a new set of tunnels underneath the Hudson and East Rivers, crowned by a new railroad terminal in the heart of Manhattan. He would battle accidents, reversals, and the extortionist machinations of New York’s Tammany Hall.

During the second half of the 19th century, the Vanderbilt family’s New York Central had a monopoly on Manhattan railroad traffic.  Their Hudson River and Harlem lines leapfrogged into the city across relatively narrow river crossings on the northern end of the island and terminated at Grand Central Station at 42nd Street and Park Avenue.   The Pennsylvania Railroad, on the other hand, which approached New York from the southwest, was blocked by the mighty Hudson River, almost a mile wide at the line’s Weehawken terminus.  After disembarking from the train, passengers were herded into ferries that landed them in the midst of Manhattan’s “Tenderloin” district, which the New York Herald described as “Least wholesome spot in town, where vice and greed full many a man brought down…The iron horse has sent your dives to join the other nightmares of the Tenderloin.”  Even worse, freight had to be offloaded from cars and manhandled onto barges and pushed across the river by tugs. Most of the brothels and saloons paid protection money that flowed directly into the pockets of Tammany Hall and the police department.

For Cassatt, head of the largest corporation on the face of the earth, this was unacceptable for his passengers and shippers.  Excavation of the railroad tunnels under the Hudson River started in February 1904, under the direction of engineers C.M. Jacobs and George Gibbs.  Several blocks of brownstones, saloons, and wooden boarding houses were dynamited to make way for the new railroad station.  Oddly enough, Cassatt and the Pennsy board skipped over Frank Furness — designer of Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station and the president’s own Rittenhouse Square mansion —  and selected the august New York firm of McKim, Mead & White, whose most notable Philadelphia commission was the Germantown Cricket Club.  Perhaps Cassatt wanted to win political and cultural favor with New Yorkers by using a New York firm.  Moreover, by the early 1900s Furness’s wild, polychromed style was out-of-date compared to McKim Mead & White’s restrained, academic classicism. Charles Follen McKim, the firm’s most academic and tightly-wound partner, drew up an enlarged adaptation of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, built out  of solid pink granite and covering four square blocks of Manhattan.   The Pennsylvania Railroad declared that the designers of the station, “were at pains to embody two ideas.  To express in so far as was practicable, with the unusual condition of the tracks below the street surface and in spite of the absence of the conventional train shed, not only the exterior design of a great railway station in the generally accepted form, but also to give the building the character of a monumental gateway and entrance to a great metropolis.”

When New York’s Pennsylvania Station opened on September 8, 1910, it was heralded as the greatest railroad station in the world, “and the largest building in the world ever built at one time.”  Not only did trains arrive under the Hudson River from Philadelphia, but also from the recently-acquired Long Island Railroad.   The concourse, modeled on that of Paris’s Gare d’Orsay, was like the nave of a Gothic cathedral wrought of steel and glass rather than limestone.  And unlike Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station, trains did not have to pass over a hideous “Chinese Wall” viaduct. Rather, they ran silent and smokeless through tunnels, powered by electricity.

What Furness thought about his rival’s Pennsylvania Station is unknown.  What is certain is that by 1900, Furness had fallen upon hard times, and was struggling for commissions.   Thankfully, Cassatt did select Furness to design the 13-story Arcade Building at 15th and Market, cheek-by-jowl with his older (and increasingly soot-stained) Broad Street Station.

Broad Street Station, 15th and Filbert Streets, October 26, 1925.

Yet the project mastermind did not live to see his dream come true.  Cassatt died of heart failure 1906 at his home on Rittenhouse Square, one of several Pennsylvania Railroad presidents who dropped dead on the job due to stress and overwork.  A colleague eulogized Cassatt as “the only railroad statesman this country has ever produced.” The thousands of men slaving away in the tunnels battled mud, physical overexertion, and decompression sickness, otherwise known as “the bends.”  In addition, the residents of the area who did not lose their homes had to endure dangerous blasting; on November 19, 1904, Bridget Markey suffered severe lacerations to her face when a flying rock smashed through her window.  “Families living near that spot said yesterday that their houses might be on the same layer of rock,” The New York Times reported, “for whenever a blast when off it shook their pictures off the wall and shook everybody up.”
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDQY3JjX508?rel=0&w=480&h=360]
Excavating the Pennsylvania Station tunnels, 1905.

Cassatt’s above-ground architectural legacy did not fare well after his death.  Broad Street Station and the Arcade Building came down in the 1950s, replaced by the bland office towers of Penn Center.  In 1961, amid much public protest, the ailing and bog-bound Pennsylvania Railroad ripped down their New York terminal and replaced it with an office tower and sports complex.  Finally, in 1972, the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, owners of Alexander Cassatt’s mansion on Rittenhouse Square, tore down the old brick structure and replaced it with a high-rise hotel. By that time, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had merged with the New York Central in 1968, had collapsed into bankruptcy, never to emerge again.

Pennsylvania Station in 1911, a year after completion. The PRR boasted that although the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia was larger, their new station was the largest building ever erected at once. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The statue of Alexander Cassatt that once graced Pennsylvania Station now resides, lonely and out-of-context, at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Lancaster County.  It bears the following inscription:

Alexander Johnson Cassatt, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad 1899-1906. Whose Foresight, Courage and Ability achieved the extension of the Pennsylvania Railroad into New York City.

Four of the pink granite eagles that once adorned the facade of Penn Station are now perched on the Market Street bridge over the Schuylkill River.  The rest of the station’s remains ended up in the swamps of the New Jersey Meadowlands.

Today, the name Cassatt is usually associated with Alexander’s sister Mary, the famed Impressionist painter.  Penn Station might be a distant memory, but for the 300,000 people who travel through the Hudson and East River tunnels every day, Alexander Cassatt’s legacy has stood the test of time.

Even if they do, to paraphrase historian Vincent Scully, come and go like rats rather than gods.

Portrait of Alexander Johnson Cassatt by his sister Mary. Source: allpaintings.org.

Sources:

“Alexander J. Cassatt,” The New York Times, June 18, 1899.

“Houses Set A-Tremble from a Heavy Blast,” The New York Times, November 19, 1904.

“New Pennsylvania Station is Opened,” The New York Times, August 29, 1910.

Jill Jonnes, Conquering Gotham, A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels (New York, NY: Viking Press, 2007), p.129, p.244.

Noble, Alfred (September 1910). “The New York Tunnel Extension of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The East River Division.” Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 68. Paper No. 1152.

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When Rocks Talk: “The Boys of Mount Airy” and a Woman from Germantown

Mute Memorial Boulder at Germantown Avenue and Sedgwick Street. (Ken Finkel)

Bare rock makes a mute memorial. When a boulder loses a plaque once carried, it instantly loses voice, power, and a good measure of its dignity.

What to make of the boulder at Germantown Avenue and Sedgwick Street in front of the Lovett Memorial Library? It’s been missing two plaques for forty years. There it stands, mouth open, as it were, ready to say something that must be important, but no words come. They are long gone, stolen, sold for scrap and melted down.

Thank goodness for archives, where images of bronze have no scrap value whatever. A photograph “restores” the words from both missing plaques and gives the boulder back something of its long-lost voice.  We learn it was brought from Valley Forge and suddenly the situation has an extra dose of authority—or is it pretense? Whichever, the Valley Forge connection offers meaning to the main event: a list of local World War I casualties. The patriotic rock suggests the sacrifice of “THE BOYS OF MOUNT AIRY WHO FELL IN HEROIC SERVICE FOR THEIR COUNTRY AND HUMANITY” may indeed have been part of greater things.

With the singing of “America” and a prayer, this boulder with its plaque bearing 35 names, in a park of red oaks and dogwoods, was unveiled on Memorial Day weekend, 1924. No American neighborhood was without its own list to mourn and honor. This “Great War,” the first one to offer all the benefits of industrialization, would be the nation’s second bloodiest: 16 million deaths, an estimated 10 million of which were men in service. The numbers are staggering. Germany lost nearly 1.8 million soldiers; Russia 1.7; France 1.3; the British Empire lost more than 900,000. The list of American “boys” is 116,516 names long.

From one count, 1,448 were from the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Of these, 34 called Mount Airy home. Each left behind family, and memories that faded over time, and faster after the plaques disappeared. But again, archives tells us more than we knew.

Listed sixth is Mortimer P. Crane, baptized on July 1, 1894 at the church on McCallum and Tulpehocken Streets. The Cranes lived at 6440 Greene Street. Mortimer struggled to get into Yale, later found work at one of his father’s mining companies and when war and the rush of patriotic fervor came, Crane enlisted.

World War I Monument at Lovett Park, Mount Airy. Germantown Avenue and Sedgwick Street – March 11, 1927 (PhillyHistory.org)

While flying in formation during a maneuver on May 15, 1918, Crane’s airplane crashed near Amesbury, Wiltshire, not far from Stonehenge. He died instantly of a fractured neck. If we know it, so did those who dedicated this monument six years later: a Court of Inquiry found that Crane’s own “error in judgment” caused the accident. He turned, clipped another plane, tore away a part of his own wing, and crashed.

We know about Crane because he was an officer, and from a rich family. But each of these men had families, memories and stories. We don’t know much, but now we know their names:

Stanley H. Berry; Albert R. Bolay; John Breidenfield; George M. Brooks; Anthony Cimino; George A. Dawson; Herbert K. Dewees; James Duffy; Thomas B. Durrick; Frank C. Erb; George William Esher; Jacques A. Fiechter; Edward Fisher; William Fleming, Jr.; Earl S. Horsey; Charles Joseph Houston; Clement Cresson Kite; Harrison Knox; Harry Linaka; Edward Joseph Malone; Robert Joseph McCamman; William J. Merkle; Ralph Thurman Mills; Clark B. Nichol; John Potts; Alfred L. Quintaro; Herman P. Saylor; George P. Shepherdson; Harold J. Sheppard; William Sibel; Gerald G. Speck; George G. Whitson; and Jacob Zaun III.

The blank boulder echoes the spirit of their sacrifice.

From Evening Public Ledger, September 20, 1918. (The Library of Congress)

And the archival photograph tells us more. The long-gone plaque also spoke of “MARCIA MAXWELL BARTLE, U.S.M.C., FIRST WOMAN TO ENLIST IN PHILADELPHIA.” Bartle’s skills as an experienced switchboard operator were needed at the Philadelphia Marine Quartermaster’s Depot.

Good thing the planners for the renovated Lovett Park won’t be casting away this historic stone.

Or will they?

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The Wedding that Ignited Philadelphia

The Burning of Pennsylvania Hall on May 17th 1838. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Advocates of peace and freedom gathered in Philadelphia 175 years ago today. They had come to dedicate Pennsylvania Hall, “the first and only one of its kind in the republic,” according to abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld.

Three days later, this new building “consecrated to Free Discussion and Equal Rights” was reduced to ruins, burnt by an angry, rioting mob.

How could such a thing happen in the City of Brotherly Love?

It’s a question that has puzzled historians ever since—and plagued a few Philadelphians at the time. Days after the riot, the reverend William Henry Furness, agonized from the pulpit of his church: “Similar outrages have been perpetrated… in other parts of our country… but now the evil has come close to us—to our very doors. The whole city has been illuminated by the glare of the incendiary’s torch.” Furness feared Philadelphia was becoming a place where “savage delusions…will rule us with a rod of iron, destroying every feeling of security, and extinguishing among us the last spark of personal freedom.”

For years, the burned-out shell of Pennsylvania Hall remained on 6th Street, south of Race Street, in view of Independence Hall.  How could such a thing happen here, in Philadelphia? What, exactly, riled the crowd to respond with violence?  What, or who, would have been the catalyst for this catastrophe?

We look to Angelina Grimké. The most famous radical woman in America in 1838 was in town to address a packed Pennsylvania Hall. And when she spoke on May 16, the growing anti-abolitionist mob outside the hall reacted. “As the tumult from without increased, and the brickbats fell thick and fast,” recalled William Lloyd Garrison, her “eloquence kindled, her eyes flashed and her cheeks glowed.” This privileged woman of Southern society, who, with her sister Sarah had left behind plantation life and wealth to go on a speaking tour about the evils of slavery, had been energized and eloquent before large audiences throughout Massachusetts.

In Philadelphia, the mob outside the new Pennsylvania Hall interrupted Grimké ’s speech. She acknowledged their presence and challenged them: “What is a mob? What would the breaking of every window be? What would the levelling of this Hall be? …What if the mob should now burst in upon us, break up our meeting and commit violence upon our persons — would this be anything compared with what the slaves endure?”

Grimké ’s reputation as someone willing to question, to speak and to break society’s rules on behalf of her cause came to a head in Philadelphia that week. The very same day the Hall was dedicated, Grimké  and Theodore Dwight Weld, the man who encouraged and trained her to work the abolition lecture circuit, got married in Philadelphia. And because they Grimké  and Weld were both so public, so key to The Movement, the “wedding of the most mobbed-man and the most notorious woman in America” would be anything but a private matter.

The remains of Belmont Row (left) in 1929, 1300 block of Spruce Street. (PhillyHistory.org)

Detail of 3 Belmont Row, later 1330 Spruce Street, May 11, 1930. (PhillyHistory.org)

“I am told that my abolition friends here are almost offended that I should do such a thing as get married,” Grimké wrote Weld a few weeks earlier. “Some say we were both public property and had no right to enter into such an engagement. Others say that I will now be good for nothing henceforth and forever to the cause…”

Grimké and Weld had sent invitations to more than 80 friends and acquaintances, about half of whom would be in Philadelphia for Pennsylvania Hall’s opening week. The wedding list, a Who’s Who of American Abolitionism, Feminism and Social Progressivism, took place in the home of Angelina’s recently widowed sister, Anna Frost, at 3 Belmont Row, later renumbered 1330 Spruce Street.

William Lloyd Garrison, the “worst of men,” according to Angelina Grimké ‘s mother (who remained in South Carolina) was out of New England, but in his element. His posse: Gerrit Smith, James G. Birney, Henry B. Stanton, and Alvan Stewart, all attended. So did the Chapmans, Fullers, Westons, Philbricks and Tappans. Weld’s former classmates from seminary, known as the Lane Rebels, showed up. No one made more of an impression walking up Spruce Street to the wedding as did Charles C. Burleigh, who grew his beard as long as slavery lasted.

Practical Amalgamation. (The Wedding.) Caricature by Edward Williams Clay, ca. 1839. (American Antiquarian Society)

The wedding was designed to demonstrate, challenge and irritate. Grimké  “was getting married in a manner calculated to shock and dismay the pillars of Charleston society, among whom she had been raised,” wrote Gerda Lerner. She meant for it to be “a motley assembly of white and black, high and low.” (Sarah Grimké noted that among the guests were “several colored persons…among them two liberated slaves, who formerly belonged to our father.”) After a brief, homemade, and ad hoc ceremony, during which Weld denounced traditional marriage vows and Grimké refused to include the word “obey,” “a colored Presbyterian minister then prayed…followed by a white one,” possibly Rev. Furness, who lived at 11 Belmont Row. The “certificate was then read by William Lloyd Garrison, and was signed by the company.” Guests then shared good wishes and a wedding cake baked with “free sugar”–grown, harvested and manufactured without slave labor.

Accounts of the iconoclastic wedding spread throughout the streets of Philadelphia and then further, in the nation’s newspapers. Accounts morphed from fact to fiction. Grimké’s commitment to “white and black, high and low” led to rumors that this had been an interracial wedding. And in 1838, even in the city of Brotherly Love, that was enough to spark, and justify, a riot.

The experiment of Pennsylvania Hall failed, but the Grimké -Weld wedding turned out exactly as intended: a spiritual, social bond based on equality and respect—far different than traditional marriage. Those who witnessed the wedding at 1330 Spruce Street on May 14, 1838 were in a culture war, the first of many redefining the meaning of marriage in America.

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Lower Schuylkill: The Upside of Philly’s Underside

Penrose Avenue Bridge, October 4, 1951. (PhillyHistory.org)

It’s a shame no one has anything good to say about the drive from Philadelphia International Airport to Center City. It’s a gritty but grand entrance, this ride on PA 291, aka the Penrose Avenue Bridge, aka the Platt Memorial Bridge to US 76, aka the Schuylkill Expressway—a ride punctuated by the usual roadwork, billboards, questionable signage and occasional pothole. Those features are found just about anywhere. What makes this stretch truly special is the rich urban choreography visible from atop the viaduct of concrete pylons rising above the brackish marsh. That scene offers complex and meaningful drama.

I feel sorry for those who go out of their way to avoid Philadelphia’s gritty entrance. They miss the point.

Platt Memorial (formerly Penrose Avenue) Bridge – Underside. November 30, 1951. (PhillyHistory.org)

The Platt Memorial Bridge experience is considered an embarrassing nuisance. Hosts of out-of-town guests apologize for it. Hospitality hates it. The Inquirer has called it a “grimy industrial gateway … arching over sprawling oil tanks and… steaming stacks.” Most Philadelphians consider this entrance the worst of our worst, but it may actually be the best of our best.

Arriving via the Platt is a genuine and aesthetic Philadelphia experience. It’s an everyman, everywoman, everyday encounter for those in the 56,000 vehicles that pass over this 1.7-mile, 62-year-old bridge. Sure, as the Inky says, it “begins in weeds and ends by a junkyard” but that’s the beauty and the irony of it. By traversing the bridge in our cars, we’re threading a needle, that fragile zone in time and space between refined gasoline and crushed cars. Our reason for passing through breathes life into the scene and gives it a reason for being.

No, it’s not beautiful in the traditional sense, but we need this stuff. And isn’t Philadelphia at its best when it’s averse to pretense? We’re barreling along, there’s a sewage treatment on our right, an oil refinery on our left—plumes of smoke, gas flares burning effluent high above the natural no man’s land below. This scene is nearly entirely man made, taking place above the loneliest and least welcoming stretch of the meandering Schuylkill, two miles beyond the last bit of green at Bartram’s Gardens. This is about the automobile and its victory in the 20th-century city. As drivers, we’re offered a commanding straight shot to and from the city. Rising over the crest of the Platt Bridge may is among the most dramatic and authentic that Philadelphia ever gets. Why should we allow it to embarrass us? Why would we want to avert our eyes?

Philadelphians opened the bridge in 1951; twenty years after the idea was first proposed and just as the automobile had completed its win over the 19th-century city. (The Penrose Avenue Bridge was among the last works designed by architect Paul Cret.) With a ribbon cutting and a celebratory dinner hosted by AAA, the swing bridge from Philadelphia’s Iron Age had been reduced to fading memory. Sixty years later, in June 2011, PennDOT identified this bridge one of 5,000 in the Commonwealth that are “structurally deficient” and launched a three-year “rehabilitation project.”

SPC Corporation – Camden Iron and Metal, 2600 Penrose Avenue (Google)

There’s structural integrity and then there’s experiential integrity. What wakes up both citizen and visitor and puts them in the true Philadelphia frame of mind, what completes the whole Platt experience is the car shredder at the base of the bridge. But SPC Corporation which operates this Godzilla grinder, this Rockosauraus of rust, is planning to leave town. After abandoning a plan to relocate to Eddystone, Pennsylvania, SPC’s parent company, Camden Iron & Metal announced a plan to move back to the city of its namesake. They’re behind schedule a year or so, but “sooner or later” the company confirms, “we’re going to move.”

What a pity. Just as we’ve grown accustomed to Philadelphia’s most apocalyptic and ironic vision, just as we’ve become fully conscious of this 20th-century expression of unsustainability, we’re about to lose its most dramatic expression. As the song goes: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and then it says something about a parking lot. Exactly.

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The Uncertain Future of Germantown High School

It’s been a little over two years since PhillyHistory.org wrote The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Public Schools. In that time, 23 underutilized schools have been officially slated for the chopping block and the Philadelphia School District has only fallen further. As Ken Finkel noted then, many of the institutions being shuttered were built before World War II. Now buildings which were once hopefully constructed to educate Philadelphia’s youth are meeting a far less aspirational end.

Germantown High School is one of those crestfallen schools. Just shy of it’s 100th birthday, the school at Germantown Avenue and High Street in Northwest Philadelphia was constructed during an era when there were at least as many horses at the build site as cranes.

Construction workers and horses begin construction on
Germantown High School in 1914.

At the time, the neighborhood was predominantly residential neighborhood with a smattering of textile mills. The school’s early offerings were heavy on trade-oriented training. A 1922 survey of public schools noted that the school potentially had one of the best machine shops in the city at the time, not to mention a host of other workshops, including a joinery shop, a patternmaking shop, and a forge shop.

The report, which details some of the curriculum standardization challenges facing Philadelphia schools at the time, later reveals that even in 1922 the school was underutilized. Though the school had two cookery units for home economics classes, only one was in use because there were not enough teachers to manage both, according to the document. Today, the report seems to offer eerie foreshadowing. Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports that Germantown High School is at least two thirds empty, with just a 31% utilization rate.

In 2011, the school became a Promise Academy — a model of “turnaround” school championed by then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who recently passed away. In 2012, the school had graduation rate of 47 percent and less than 20 percent of students in Germantown’s target neighborhoods attend the high school thanks to the rise of charter and magnet schools in the city. These factors, combined, with the age of the building, made it a ripe choice for the SRC.

Now the school has become a central focus of current students, alumni, and others in the community who have been fighting to keep it off the School Reform Commission’s shut down list, to no avail.


Germantown High School nears completion in 1914.

According to many recent reports, Germantown students will be sent to Martin Luther King High School, but a 40-year history of violence and mistrust between gangs hailing from the neighborhoods around the two schools has many concerned about the transition. In the early 1970s, the Philadelphia School District “paired” the two schools such that students attended King for 9th and 10th grades, then transferred to Germantown for 11th and 12th. It was a fated attempt to reduce crowding and extinguish the neighborhood rivalries, reported Philadelphia Public School Notebook, and the pairing quickly disintegrated.

Though the school gets national recognition for educating legendary comedian and actor Bill Cosby (who eventually dropped out), that’s not enough to prevent a shuttering that seems ever more inevitable.  What will become of Germantown High School? If you have an idea of a new use for this nearly 100-year-old institution, submit your idea at the Newsworks poll available here.

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The Cannonball House: Beyond Preservation Purgatory

The Cannonball House in the way at the Southwest Treatment Plant. July 18, 1956. (PhillyHistory.org)

Detail of the Lower Schuylkill from Thomas Holme’s map of Pennsylvania, 1687. (The Library of Congress)

Peter Cock couldn’t have picked a more off-the-beaten track location for his farmhouse. In the 1680s, and for a long time after, nobody coveted the swampy rise that broke the horizon near the Schuylkill as it meandered to the Delaware. Why would they? With so much rich, dry land in every direction and with William Penn’s ambitious “green Country Town” drawing folks six miles upstream, these brackish bogs were, literally, a Swedish-settler’s happy backwater. But the site proved good for farming, and provided well enough for the next owner to expand the farmhouse. That brick house stood quiet and alone for the better part of the 18th century.

Then all hell broke loose on the lower Schuylkill.

With the American Revolution in high gear and the British occupation of Philadelphia underway, control of the city’s port meant that the British would need to take the American-controlled fort built downriver at Mud Island, just below the mouth of the Schuylkill. At Fort Mifflin, as the installation would become known, several hundred American troops were garrisoned. And for weeks they foiled British attempts to reach the city by river. In a siege that would be the largest the largest bombardment of the Revolutionary War, six British ships bristling with 209 cannon would overwhelm the American’s ten. Over five days with an estimated 10,000 cannonballs flying, the fens of the Schuylkill were quiet no more.

Nor were they safe. On November 11th, at the start of the siege, a cannonball entered the rear wall of the old farmhouse, passed through and exited the front wall. From that day forward, old Swedish farmhouse would carry a new name: the Cannonball House.

And for the next 219 years, the Cannonball House, a survivor that would eventually come to be considered the oldest house in Philadelphia, would be treated with veneration, deference, and respect. Artists would sketch it; antiquarians would photograph it; and the Historic American Buildings Survey would document it.

By the start of the 20th century, as the city’s population expanded and its farmland shrunk, the now city-owned Cannonball House served as a “model farm” until the demand for sewage treatment overwhelmed the need for demonstrative agriculture. And the Cannonball House quietly accommodated as the Southwest Treatment Plant enveloped it. When operations started in December 1954, 100 million gallons of sludge passed through each and every day.

As the bicentennials of the battle of Fort Mifflin and the birth of the nation approached (and the 1950s sewage plant grew creaky) Philadelphia’s oldest house became its newest problem. Expansion demanded more land. “I wish the British had done a better job,” the Water Commissioner confided to a reporter.

The Cannonball House in preservation purgatory, September 3, 1976. (PhillyHistory.org)

In 1974, the Philadelphia Historical Commission decided that the Cannonball House wasn’t important enough to be listed on the National Register. But it was too important to be demolished. The Commission urged it be moved to a new site across from the entrance to Fort Mifflin. And in 1975, the main section of the Cannonball House was lifted from its foundations and wheeled slowly down the road. The Environmental Protection Agency, expecting local follow through to finish the job, picked up the $168,000 tab. And for next 21 years, the Cannonball House was a house without a home in preservation purgatory. And Fort Mifflin had a historic headache in its would-be parking lot.

In this uprooted state, deteriorated and on temporary cribbing, the orphaned Cannonball House was unable to charm its way into even the preservation-inclined heart of Inquirer’s architecture critic, Thomas Hine, who put it in December 1981: the “Cannon Ball Farm House has little claim to our minds and hearts…it requires some bravery to choose to forget it.”

Forgetting would take place, but it wouldn’t be brave. One day, in November 1996, what the British didn’t do, what sewage engineers wouldn’t do, the city, in violation of its own review requirements, did do. They demolished the Cannonball House. Raw sewage got treated; historic preservation got mistreated; and Fort Mifflin got its parking lot.

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1601 Locust Street and “The Perfect Square”

The Daniel Baugh mansion, designed by Hazelhurst & Huckel, 1900. Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church is in the background.

The imposing Daniel Baugh mansion, which once stood on the northwest corner of 16th and Locust, was one of dozens of grand residences built to last the ages but only lasted a few decades.  Its ephemeral presence is a contradiction: perhaps no American city is more conscious of its past and traditions.  Yet at the same time, Philadelphia could be just as quick as New York to destroy its architectural treasures.

The mansion, designed by Hazelhurst & Huckel, was completed in 1891.  Designed by the same firm responsible for Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, the Baugh mansion was a defiant rebellion against the brick-and-brownstone sobriety of its buttoned-up neighbors.  Its rounded turrets broke the square outlines of the Locust street scape, and let plenty of light flood into its upper-floor rooms. (As a comparison, it closely resembles the still-extant Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C., built about ten years later).

A native of Downingtown, Daniel Baugh (1836-1921) was one of those lucky Civil War veterans who returned from the killing fields of Virginia and found that the post-bellum Quaker City was the perfect place to make another kind of killing.  The war had been a boon to Northern manufacturers, and Baugh & Sons Company — a producer of chemical fertilizers located on the Delaware River — was no exception. A sampling from Baugh’s products in 1915 includes Excelsior Guano, High Grade Potato Grower, Export Bone with Potash, and “The Old Stand-By” (Dissolved Animal Base).  Factories like Baugh’s produced tens of thousands of jobs, but they were also noxious and dangerous by today’s labor and environmental standards.  Wealth from the toil and smoke of Pennsylvania’s factories, shipyards, steel mills, and coal fields flowed like a churning river into the placid reservoir that was “The Square.”  Rittenhouse Square was so sedate and proper that residents even complained about the tolling of the bells at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.  The novelist Henry James, who wrote in Portrait of a Lady that “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” rather smugly described the gated greenspace as “the perfect square.”

The contrast could not be starker.

Daniel Baugh, president of Baugh & Sons, was typical of the residents of Rittenhouse Square during its late 19th century glory.  The author of King’s Views of Philadelphia wrote of his residence in 1900: “Extremely and internally one of the finest of Philadelphia residences is that of Daniel Baugh, manufacturer of chemicals and fertilizers, director of many financial and philanthropic institutions, ex-president of the Art Club, ex-president of the Girard National Bank, director Commercial Museum, etc.”  For men like Baugh, their social, civic, and business energies were solidly focused in Center City.

Yet as Rittenhouse Square peaked in the 1890s, forces were already underway that ultimately would gut it.  Baugh’s house was one of the finest in the city, but he had also established a country residence in the Main Line suburb of Merion around the same time.  Baugh was simply following the lead of Pennsylvania Railroad executives, ordered by their employer to build homes there.  The Pennsylvania Railroad, at the time the largest corporation in the city, profited handsomely from this exodus, as they were the primary developers of the Main Line suburbs. By 1921, when Baugh died of a heart at attack while wintering at The Breakers in Palm Beach, the leafy, secluded suburbs had triumphed over the grandiose, visible Rittenhouse Square.  Private schools and other social institutions had followed suit.  A few years after Baugh’s death, his enormous mansion came tumbling down and was replaced by the high-rise University Club.  His house, which must have given the wreckers a hard time, lasted for a mere quarter-of-a-century.

In one respect, Philadelphia was ahead of its time: with the help of the railroad, the upper-classes had largely vacated Center City before the Great Depression. Detroit, which embraced the automobile with gusto around the same time, experienced a similar exodus of the affluent.   In New York, by contrast, saw an residential explosion on the Upper West Side and Park Avenue. With the rise of the expressway and the suburban office park in the 1950s, that trend only accelerated not just in Philadelphia, but was put into rapid motion in older cities across the nation.  The city’s post-World War II tax structure exacerbated the problem.  Many of the Philadelphia’s traditional social, business, and cultural institutions suffered as a result.

The stubborn city-suburb divide continues to plague Philadelphia to this day, although in recent years the city’s cultural resurgence has steadily drawn suburban residents back into Center City in general and Rittenhouse Square in particular. Although most of the large mansions like Baugh’s have disappeared, the area is still blessed with a treasure-trove of brownstones and brick townhouses on Spruce, Pine, and Delancey.  These houses survive because most of them have remained viable as rental apartments rather than single family homes.

The Baugh & Sons Company plant on the Delaware River, like the mansion it paid for, is a distant memory. So too is the iron fence that once shielded Henry James’s “perfect square” from the general public who now enjoys it today.

Baugh & Sons Company warehouse, S. Columbus Boulevard and Morris Street, 1958.

Sources:

King’s Views of Philadelphia, 1900.

http://www.brynmawr.edu/iconog/king/main5.html

Obituary: Tuesday, 1 March 1921, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, PA, Volume 184, Issue 60, Page 13,1, Column 1.

List of Fertilizer Manufacturers and Importers and Brands of Their Fertilizers for Which License to Sell in Pennsylvania During 1915 was Taken Out Prior to February 26, 1915, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1915, p.11

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If Rudolph Koenig Attended the Philadelphia Science Festival & Philly Tech Week


Rudolph Koenig’s full “Philosophical Apparatus” demonstrated
at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

The Philadelphia Science Festival and Philly Tech Week 2013 presented by AT&T both return this week, for their coinciding 10-day-long homage to the thriving science and technology communities in Philadelphia. But Philadelphia’s excitement about new, sometimes oddball technology has precedent that reaches at least as far back as Ben Franklin and includes staples of our daily lives like the wired telephone.

So in honor of the more than 200 events taking place through the end of April, we decided to think back on who we might resurrect from the annals of history to attend these events and decided on a pretty unconventional figure; a Parisian, no less: (Karl) Rudolph Koenig (1832-1901).

Koenig, who is no Philadelphian, certainly seems an unlikely candidate. Originally from Koenigsburg, Prussia (now part of Russia), he made his career in Paris inventing musical oddities and theorizing about the science of acoustics. In addition to his acoustical research contributions, Koenig was best known for his finely crafted tuning forks and for creating a manometric flame and rotating mirror which proved that fire would follow the rise and fall of musical sound waves.


The siren “Telephone” component of the Koenig’s exhibit.

Koenig first came to Philadelphia for the international Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. There, Rudolph Koenig showed off a strange acoustical item called the “Philosophical Apparatus” (top). Part of the machine, a siren, was dubbed the “Telephone” and is pictured at left.

Another piece of the apparatus was a tonometer made of more than 600 tuning forks. While the object in the picture doesn’t look like anything most of us would call a phone, the jury was reportedly so taken with entirety of his creation, that one judge commented:

There is no other [exhibit] in the present International Exhibition which surpasses it in scientific interest.

Koenig claimed a gold medal at the Exhibition for his work.

Some reports indicate that the University of Pennsylvania might have been interested in purchasing the entire apparatus Koenig exhibited, however most sources note he struggled to sell his work in the United States and returned to Paris after the Centennial a bit put off. He did eventually sell the tonometer  to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Incidentally, Alexander Graham Bell was also at the international Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition that year, exhibiting his recently patented and ultimately more famous telephone.

With his passion for audio and penchant for invention, it seems like Koenig could make a strong showing at a PTW mobile hackathon, were it not for more than 100 years of technological advances in the way we record and transmit sound. Still, given the plethora of audio-oriented applications that will undoubtedly be demonstrated throughout the course of PTW, it seems likely that Koenig and his accoustic apparati could quickly fit right in.

References:

http://si-pddr.si.edu/jspui/bitstream/10088/2430/2/SSHT-0031_Lo_res.pdf

http://vlp.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/people/data?id=per325

http://sciencetech.technomuses.ca/english/collection/sound_analyser.cfm

http://acousticalsociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/echoes/v9n2.pdf

Torben Rees, ‘Rudolph Koenig: the pursuit of acoustic perfection’, Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2009 [http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/acoustics/rudolphkoenig/, accessed 24 March 2013]

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Silent Film; Outspoken Posters: When “The Sea Hawk” Came from Hollywood

Ludlow Street looking west from 20th, June 26, 1924. (PhillyHistory.org)

Click image for a clip of “The Sea Hawk.”

In 1967, when the late Roger Ebert was named film critic for The Chicago Tribune, he imagined rather large shoes to fill. After all—as he related the story in his 2011 autobiography, Life Itself: A Memoir—everyone at The Tribune and in Chicago, for that matter, knew reviews had been published under the byline Mae Tinee since 1915.

In 1915, when Hollywood released The Sea Hawk, the silent film directed by Frank Lloyd and based on an adventure novel by Raphael Sabatini, Mae Tinee had been on the beat for nearly a decade. By the time Ebert had been on the job that long, he had won a Pulitzer. Was it thumbs up for The Sea Hawk from his seasoned predecessor?

The Sea Hawk is more than just a motion picture!,” Tinee declared in a review of July 1, 1924. “It is the dream of the tired business man; it is the fiery secret ambition of romantic youth. It carries the wistful passion that, carefully concealed, lives in most of us—to be gorgeous, spectacular, abused, talked about with baited breath—a creature dominating a world of winds and waters and clothes that never, never came from the shops of “what men wear.” (Or women, either.)” It’s a “love story” of “a noble brother; weakling half-brother; pirate ships, duels, intrigue” presented “in kaleidoscopic fashion to the sway of music that warms the blood….”

“You may work at a regular job for a living,” added Mae Tinee, “but once inside this little theater you get aboard a Spanish galleon or a Moorish vessel or an English ship. Your mission, for a brief time, becomes either pirating or revenge. Jagged cliffs, Moorish castles, and the fair countryside of old England furnish you with picturesque background.”

America loved this expensive extravaganza that included a cast of thousands led by Milton Sills, Enid Bennett and Wallace Beery. They loved The Sea Hawk’s four, full-sized ships created just for this production. And they especially loved that no expense, no sentimentnothing whatsoeverwas spared.

The Sea Hawk “Sailed right into the heart of Los Angeles! And anchored there!” bragged a July 3rd advertisement in The Los Angeles Daily Times after the Hollywood premier. “Thousands! Thousands! Thousands!” reveled “in the glamour of the settings!” and were “swept away by the immensity!”

Great Northern Theatre – Broad Street Below Erie Avenue, March 25, 1925. (PhillyHistory.org)

That same issue featured a review by Edwin Schallert: “The grand old swashbuckling days are with us once again. The Sea Hawk visions them with rip roaring spirit of adventure. The picture is one of the ablest achievements in this history of the screen and in the current season it shines forth as a magnificent flare among a host of flickers. The premier … the first big gala…this season… took place at [Los Angeles’] Criterion Theater,” a classic movie palace on Grand Avenue which had opened in 1917 at the Kinema Theater. The “Criterion Audience Gives Enthusiastic Approval” for the cast of thousands declared yet another critic who called the lavish 12-reeler “brilliant.”

Frank Lloyd was well on his way to directing scores of films (IMDb lists 134) including Les Misérables (1917), Oliver Twist (1922), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Last Command (1955). In The Sea Hawk, Lloyd fully embraced Sabatini’s spirit in ships, scale, and sentiment.

The film had staying power.Five weeks after the premier, The Los Angeles Times headline reported “Action thrills and adventure on the high seas continue to please large audiences at the Criterion” under the headline: “Sea Hawk Packs ‘Em In.”

Philadelphians had been reading copies of the best-selling The Sea Hawk since the Washington Square publisher J.P. Lippincott introduced the first American edition in 1915. And Philadelphia movie-goers who had been looking forward to the film adaptation kept it in the theaters when it finally arrived in the summer of 1924. The following spring, The Sea Hawk was still up and running at the Great Northern Theater on north Broad Street.

The Sea Hawk was nothing less than a great Hollywood production. But Mae Tinee, it turned out, was something less than a great critic. In fact, she wasn’t a critic at all. Or even a reporter. Mae Tinee was a long-standing, all-purpose byline for reporters assigned, on slow news days, to spend their afternoons at matinees. And every once in a while, as in the case of The Sea Hawk, the diversion was worthwhile.

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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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