Beyond Brinksmanship: Questioning our Urge to Preserve

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United States Hose, 423 Buttonwood Street, 1960. (


“View of the United States Hose House & Apparatus, Philadelphia.” Northwest corner of 5th and Buttonwood Streets. Detail of lithograph, ca. 1851. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

About a year ago, we drew attention to the heyday of the “exuberant stylistic storm,” the “eclectic boom” of Philadelphia firehouses. So many were designed by so many talented Philadelphia architects. Yet so few survive. And that was the second wave of firehouse building, after 1871, when the city had an official fire department. (If you are interested in an overview of the issue, see Extant magazine for the Summer 2016 online at the Preservation Alliance, or read it here at Hidden City Daily.)

It wouldn’t have amounted to as much without the earlier glory days, when volunteer firefighter companies built their own halls, and staked out their own styles. The city was full of examples. Far more than sheds, these were symbols of civic power, statements intended to radiate good will, patriotism and good intent—so much so that the companies adopted those names. (All the better to distance themselves from the city’s younger, grittier and violent street gangs, who adopted names, by contrast, conveyed ill will.)

Fire companies were only a few rungs above gangs in the city’s expansive hierarchy of street politics. The firefighters also had their colors, insignia and banners. But more than gangs, they had their own buildings, clubhouses that projected civic and patriotic ambition. When fire companies organized their parades, they filled the city’s streets with exuberant patriotism not riotous chaos.

“Yesterday was a proud day for our noble hearted, indomitable, FIREMEN. It was a brilliant civic holy day,” boasted the Inquirer in 1849. “At an early hour, the bold and daring fellows begin to prepare for the celebration of the day, and ever and anon they were to be seen wending their way, with elastic step and manly bearing, to their respective houses.” No matter that the weather was cold and stormy, these “gallant men, who are always ready to stop the progress of devastating flames” were ready to show themselves “to good advantage.” This triennial procession would be “a large, imposing and magnificent spectacle” the likes of which the city had not quite seen.

Firefighters carried white silk banners, wore elegant hats with painted allegories, black hats and black capes. Companies had their ornately painted equipment pulled by teams of grey horses, or black horses, done up with wreaths and garlands. Popular marching bands filled the air with music. One of the oldest companies, Assistance Engine, had its 49 members dressed in blue hats, capes and white coats followed by the engine “drawn by four black horses, led by four colored grooms in Turkish dress.” Right behind them marched the 60 sharply-dressed members and brand new carriage of United States Hose, the company founded on the nation’s fiftieth birthday in 1826.

“Gratitude was eloquent in the smiling welcome and the hearty admiration which greeted the Firemen on every hand and from every quarter, from the aged and the youthful, the beautiful and the gay.” Public and Press praised “the taste displayed in the adornment of the engines, hose carriages, banners, trumpets, & c.—the elegance of the rosettes” and flowers.

Even during the Civil War, amidst news of casualties that dampened spirits United States Hose couldn’t resist an Independence Day blowout. Their Buttonwood Street quarters “was splendidly decorated during the day and evening with flags and transparencies. Early in the morning a flag was raised on the house with some ceremony, during which a patriotic speech was made by Mr. Graff. A transparency containing the words: “the United States,” was erected on the roof of the house. Thirty-four small white flags, containing the names of all the states in the Union were flying from the front of the building. Banners, representations of American shields, and the large number of variegated lanterns, also adorned the front of the house. A large flag was stretched across the street.”

United States Fire Company, 1960. Detail. (

United States Hose, 423 Buttonwood Street, 1960. Detail. (

Beck’s Band was engaged and occupied the balcony of the Hose House from early in the morning until dark, enlivening the neighborhood with music. A silver horn, worth $150, was presented to the company during the day. The presentation speech was made by John P. Weaver. The company housed a new carriage in the morning, and had of fine collation spread during the whole day, of which some 1600 persons, including a large number of ladies, partook. During the evening the house was brilliantly illuminated.”

The headquarters of United States Hose lasted about another century, somewhere into the 1960s. By now, each and almost every last one of the city’s original fire companies and hose houses are gone. (Do we even have an idea of what remains?) Living up to their names: Good Intent, Vigilant, Perseverance, Hand-in-Hand, Harmony, Reliance, Assistance, Humane and Independence, they kept the city standing.

Will the same be said of us?

[Sources consulted from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Firemen’s Triennial Parade,” March 28, 1849 and “The Fourth among the Fireman,” July 5, 1862.]

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The Rise and Fall of PhillyPalladian

Some say Andrea Palladio invented it. Others claim it was first published by Sebastiano Serlio who had borrowed it from one or another master of the Italian Renaissance: Raphael, Peruzzi, Bramante or Scamozzi—or maybe all of them. The architectural feature that’s been called the Palladian Window, the Venetian Window and the Serlian Motif went viral in the 1500s and never lost its grip on designers looking to make a strong statement in masonry, woodwork and light.

Nearly a half a millennium ago, Palladio designed Villa Poiana in Northern Italy. His Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza, of 1549 exerted its power both on the street and in print.  More than an appealing form, here rose a trope that drew on a special power: the image of the triumphal arches in ancient Rome.

No wonder found it so appealing, and so handy.

And no wonder England adopted the Palladian window as it morphed into an empire. “Ubiquitous” is the word. Colin Campbell illustrated in Vitruvius Britannicus (1715-25) some one dozen buildings using the device. In his A Book of Architecture, James Gibbs showed an equal number of plates of building schemes incorporating this three-part feature, including the rear elevation of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.” Nicholas Hawksmoor featured the window at Codrington Library at All Souls College, Oxford. And that was a century-and-a-quarter after Inigo Jones featured it into his Queen’s Chapel at Saint James Palace.

Then, the “pattern books of James Gibbs, Batty Langley, William Pain, and others” assured “that the Palladian arch was transported to 18th-century America.” But why such a warm welcome in Philadelphia? It seemed more than merely inviting the southern sun to stream into the new State House. Maybe the Palladian window expressed in masonry, woodwork and glass what the poets had been waxing about so loud and clear—inside and out—that Philadelphia was destined to become the Athens of America? The Palladian window made appearances in many cities in the New World, but nowhere, it seems, more than in Philadelphia.

Independence Hall - Exterior Repairs - Painting South Entrance Exterior Painters, October 23, 1922 (

Independence Hall – Exterior Repairs – Painting South Entrance Exterior Painters, October 23, 1922 (

Here’s are what PhillyPalladians we could find, in chronological order:

Christ Church, Second Street, north of Market Street, 1727-1744.

State House (Independence Hall), Chestnut Street, between Fifth and Sixth Street, 1730-1748.

Saint Peters Church, Third and Pine Streets, 1758-1761.

Mount Pleasant, East Fairmount Park, 1761.

Port Royal, Frankford Avenue & Orthodox Street, 1761-1762.

Zion Lutheran Church, Fourth and Cherry Streets, 1766-1769.

Woodlands, 4000 Woodland Avenue, 1770.

Lemon Hill, East Fairmount Park, ca. 1770.

Woodford, East Fairmount Park, ca. 1772.

William Bingham House, 3rd and Spruce Streets, ca. 1788.

Presidents House, 9th and Chestnut Street, 1790.

Cooke’s Building, Third and Market Streets, ca. 1792.

Chestnut Street Theatre, Chestnut Street, east of Fifth Street, 1791-1794.

Saint Thomas African Episcopal Church, Fifth and Saint James Place, 1794.

Penn National Bank, Frank Furness, 7th and Market Streets, 1882.

Weisbrod and Hess Brewery, A.C. Wagner, Martha Street between York Street and E. Hagert Street, 1885.

Engine 37 Firehouse, John T. Windrim, 101 West Highland Avenue, Chestnut Hill, 1894.

Philadelphia City Hall (Tower) , Broad and Market Streets, John McArthur, Jr., 1890s.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street. Addison Hutton, 1910.

Firehouse #49,  1513 Snyder Avenue, 1911.

Yes, the Palladian window offered Philadelphians classical flair and an unmatched grand flavor. It fulfilled needs of all kinds: civic, religious, business and domestic. The PhillyPalladians upped the game for buildings until the last decades of the 19th century, when something happened. The Palladian window migrated from grandiose gesture to general design vocabulary. And ever since, what once called forth images of Empire, settled in as a somewhat fancier option  of letting in some light and air.

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July 14, 1948: Convention Hall’s Most Historic Moment

Convention Hall, undated. (

Convention Hall Auditorium, undated. (

Of all the things that happened here—appearances by Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela; performances by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead; boxing matches featuring Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier (his pro debut); Atlantic Ten Conference and Big Five basketball games; and concerts on the hall’s monster M.P. Moller pipe organ—of all of these events, and more, what would be the most memorable, the most worthy of being considered a great moment in history?

Civic Center’s 1931 Convention Hall Auditorium also hosted four national political conventions. The Democrats nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt for a second term there in 1936, and in 1940 the Republicans nominated Wendell Willkie. No earthshaking memories there. Then, in 1948, there came conventions of both major parties. Thomas Dewey left as the candidate for the GOP, and the Democrats confirmed their choice of Harry Truman after “a huge floor fight.”


What took place 68 years ago when the Democrats met is worth remembering—big time. The incumbent Truman hoped to sail to his first nomination unruffled. But in working out the party platform issues that would come to define the second half of the 20th century, drama intervened.

Late into the July Philadelphia night, in a proverbial smoke-filled room, Democratic leaders debated the planks of their platform. And the next day, the 37-year old mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, delivered the speech of a lifetime to a packed, tense, hall. It’s considered one of the top moments in American political convention history.

“Because good conscience, decent morality, demands it—I feel I must rise at this time to support…the great issue of civil rights,” declared Humphrey.

He later filled in the story of the night leading up to his speech. “All we knew was that we, a group of young liberals, had beaten the leadership of the party and led them closer to where they ought to have been… I had taken on our establishment and won. It was a heady feeling.” But some delegates reacted to Humphrey’s speech with significant grumbling on the convention floor.

Now let me say this at the outset that this proposal is made for no single region.” He continued: “Our proposal is made for no single class, for no single racial or religious group in mind. All of the regions of this country, all of the states have shared in our precious heritage of American freedom. All the states and all the regions have seen at least some of the infringements of that freedom—all people—get this—all people, white and black, all groups, all racial groups have been the victims at time[s] in this nation of—let me say—vicious discrimination.”

“We have made progress … But we must now focus the direction of that progress towards the… realization of a full program of civil rights to all.”

“Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise on the guarantees of …civil rights…” Humphrey’s handwritten addition on his typescript, seen in this .pdf of what he wrote and read that day, conveys raw exuberance. He added powerful phrases, made them extra-large, and emphasized them with single and double underlining.

“My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of Civil Rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this Civil-Rights program is an infringement on States’ Rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of States’ Rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of Human Rights. …This is the issue of the 20th century,” declared Humphrey.

“I ask you for a calm consideration of our historic opportunity. Let us do forget the evil passions and the blindness of the past. …we cannot and we must not turn from the path so plainly before us. …now is the time to recall those who were left on that path of American freedom.” …

“My good friends, I ask my Party, I ask the Democratic Party, to march down the high road of progressive democracy.”

A contingent of Southerners objected to the party’s position demanding anti-lynching laws, school integration, anti-discrimination in employment and universal access to restrooms.

NPR’s Ron Elving  later told what happened next: “The Mississippi delegation walked out in its entirety, about half of the Alabama delegation. About three dozen delegates in toto walked out of the convention and vowed to nominate their own Dixiecrat candidate for president, Strom Thurmond from South Carolina” with their own Dixiecrat platform. Knowing this, and knowing how the issue is still very much with us, it’s riveting to hear Humphrey’s delivery.

This wouldn’t be the first time, nor would it be the last, when a major, memorable speech on race and rights was set in Philadelphia, a place whose associations with freedom and independence always seem to flavor the rhetorical stew. Humphrey’s masterpiece—he never had another quite like it—ranks with other great oratorical moments on the subject in Philadelphia. They include presidential candidate Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union”speech delivered at the National Constitution Center in 2008. And we cannot forget another, by Angelina Grimké at the opening of Pennsylvania Hall in 1838. As Grimké spoke, Pennsylvania Hall was under siege by a mob opposing her convention’s anti-slavery position. And a few days later, they’d burn the building to the ground.

The 1948 the drama looked different, but the confrontation about civil rights as human rights was eerily similar.

Convention Hall, Vincent Feldman, date.

Demolition of Convention Hall in 2005. Photographed by Vincent Feldman.

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The Randolph Mill Fire: Disaster, Indignation and Recognition

Randolph Mill and Pennsylvania Hosiery Mill in 1879. Hexamer General Survey, vol. 15 (GeoHistory Network/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Randolph Mill and Pennsylvania Hosiery Mill in 1879. (Between 5th St. and Randolph St., north of Columbia, now Cecil B. Moore Ave.) Hexamer General Survey, vol. 15 (GeoHistory Network/Free Library of Philadelphia)

The two front doors on Randolph Street were locked tight. They said this was “partly to keep intruders out, and partly to keep the male hands in” during work hours. You know, to “prevent their slipping around the corner to get a drink.” Worst of all, in spite of the three-year-old law requiring fire escapes, the five-story mill building had not a one.

On the night of October 12, 1881, when fire struck Landenberger’s Dress Goods Manufactory, destruction multiplied into horror and death.

A little before 10pm, neighbors heard the “shrieks of agony and despair…issuing from the building.” They looked to the windows on the third and fourth floors to see “the forms of men and women gesticulating frantically and screaming for aid, their retreat being cut off and the flames sweeping around them.”

“Don’t jump,” someone on the ground shouted. “We will get ladders.”

The fire spread faster. As an eyewitness described it, “the first thing we knew, down came a girl, and then another and another. When the first was picked up it was found that she had broken her back over the railing of the iron steps. The next leaped from the fourth story and was crushed out of shape upon the pavement. And so the work of desperation went on until nearly a score of victims had been cruelly and in most cases fatally injured.”

Mattie Conlan was somewhat luckier, “let down by a shawl from the third story window.” The smoke “rising round her and the flames streaming upward”—and she let go. Conlan’s injuries weren’t fatal. Kate Schaeffer and Annie Brady “jumped hand-in-hand from the third floor window. Brady died instantly.

What became of the 35 others working the night shift? According to newspaper reports, no one even knew exactly who they were. “Landenberger’s people positively refused to furnish the list of those who were in the building when the fire broke out.” And without a list, loved ones were at loose ends: angry, confused, and grieving.

Looking West from 5th and Cecil B. Moore St. to Randolph St., October 19, 1934 (

Looking West from 5th and Columbia, now Cecil B. Moore Avenue to Randolph Street, October 19, 1934 (

The following morning, as the coroner searched the ruins, relatives “begged pathetically to be allowed to enter the building and look for missing husbands or sons.” Five victims were retreived that day, including the 16-year old Elizabeth Franck, who had lived with her family at 1706 Waterloo Street. Her funeral services would be held at St. Jacob’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3rd and Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore). “Six young ladies clad in white” were Lizzie Franck’s pallbearers.

Even two days after the fire, searchers worked all day looking for bodies— “but discovered none.” James McMunn’s wife waited nearby, sadly watching. So was Joseph Glazer’s mother. Annie Straub’s brothers looked on “with anxious hearts.”

At the morgue, George Matheson barely recognized the body and polka dot blue and white dress of his 15-year old daughter, Mary. He had her remains transferred home to 1419 Hope Street. Later the same day, authorities sent by a contingent by “to see whether the body was not really that of the missing Annie Straub.” Matheson angrily turned them away, refusing access to Mary’s body. What he expected was a visit by Charles Landenberger who, Matheson snapped to a reporter, “might have come to see the family, as any gentleman would have done.”

“The feeling around the neighborhood was intense, and many people, while they unreservedly condemned the owner of the building, Joseph Harvey,” they also challenged Landenberger’s denials of culpability. He knew the upper floors were dangerous. He claimed to have urged Harvey, time and time again, to install fire escapes. So, they asked, “Why did he send so many people up there to work?

Surrounding streets filled up with expressions of distress. “Knots of employees of other mills were grouped here and there earnestly discussing the sad event, and strongly denouncing the false economy which failed to provide suitable means of escape from the burned mill.”

“Popular sentiment, urged on by the atrocity of this case, with its ugly exposure of indifference to human life and human suffering and sorrow” led to the organization of an “indignation meeting.” About 600 people crowded onto the lot adjacent to “the scene of slaughter” at Randolph and Columbia.

The coroner’s inquest into the fire and the nine deaths it caused produced an undisputed verdict: “…the fire was caused by the improperly constructed and inefficiently managed apparatus for lighting the building; …Joseph Harvey, owner of the mills, is criminally responsible for the loss of life, in neglecting to furnish proper means of escape in case of fire; …the city of Philadelphia is responsible for not enforcing the laws in compelling Joseph Harvey to erect proper fire-escapes.”

In fact, the Randolph Mill Fire turned out to be a pivotal disaster. A specially appointed committee of the Franklin Institute examined technologies and design possibilities for fire escapes and elevators and, as historian Sara Wermiel tells us, made “farsighted recommendations” leading to “an important advance in the field of life safety.”

So, PhillyHistory people, we ask ourselves: Do we remember and recognize any of this at the site today?

[Sources Include: Sara E. Wermiel, “No Exit: The Rise and Demise of the Outside Fire Escape,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 258-284; “Report of Committee of the Franklin Institute on Fire-Escapes and Elevators,” The Journal of the Franklin Institute, (Philadelphia, 1881), pp. 408-414; and in The Philadelphia Inquirer:  “Another Horror. Fatal Result of a Mill Fire,” October 13, 1881; “A Holocaust. The Mill Fire Disaster,” October 14, 1881; “Around the Ruins,” October 14, 1881; “At the Hospitals. How the Wounded Are Faring,” October 14, 1881; The Man-Trap. More About the Mill Disaster,” October 15, 1881; “Last Week’s Horror. The Disaster and Its Results,” October 17, 1881.]

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A Would-Be Disaster Design Solution: The Iron Skeleton Fire Escape

Front Elevations of 102-104 N Water Street, February 14, 1918 (

Front Elevations of 102-104 N. Water Street, February 14, 1918 (

How to safely exit a building on fire? The fire escape, of course.

But what about before law required the familiar “iron skeleton fire escape”? In the greater part of the 19th century, when fire struck in the rising city, urbanites were at the mercy of fate. On more than one occasion, Philadelphia’s garret sweatshops and New York’s tenements went up in flames. Those trapped inside the upper stories perished in “galleries of certain death.”

Inventors heeded the call. In March 1849, the Franklin Institute exhibited for public admiration the model for “a very ingenious contrivance,” a “new fire-escape.” No word as to how it might save lives, or if it ever did. Nor do we know exactly how many such contrivances, either ingenious or ridiculous, promised the trapped and doomed freedom to walk, jump or even fly to safety. But, as we saw in the case of Philadelphia’s Deadliest Fire, even after buildings were equipped with exterior iron fire escapes, they sometimes contributed to fatal disasters.

Philadelphia passed an ordinance creating a fire-escape regulatory board in 1876 and endowed it with the authority to order their installation “upon such buildings as they may deem necessary… to secure life and property.” Three years later, Pennsylvania passed a sweeping law declaring that any building “three or more stories in height, shall be provided with a permanent, safe external means of escape therefrom in cases of fire.”

The list of seemed comprehensive: “Every building used as a seminary, college, academy, hospital, asylum, or a hotel for the accommodation of the public, every storehouse, factory, manufactory, workshop of every kind, in which employees or operatives are usually employed at work in the third or higher story, every tenement house or building in which rooms or floors are usually let to lodgers or families, and every public school building.”  But somehow the 1879 list missed theatres. No problem, historian Sara Wermeil tells us, that mistake was corrected in 1885.

Pasquale Nigro, Fire Escape, U.S. Patent filed, May 15,1908. (GooglePatent)

Pasquale Nigro, Fire Escape, U.S. Patent filed, May 15,1908. (GooglePatent)

Benjamin B. Oppenheimer, Fire-Escape. No. 221,855. Patented Nov; 18, 1879 (Google Patent)

Benjamin B. Oppenheimer,
Improvement in Fire-Escapes.
No. 221,855. Patented Nov; 18, 1879 (Google Patent)

But to some, a greater mistake lay in the assumption that the exterior iron fire escape would be effective. According to Wermeil, Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan “condemned the ‘iron ladders clamped against the wall’ as ‘worse than useless, because they are deceptive; giving the appearance of an escape without the reality.’” They were, he wrote in 1868, “‘a most stupid contrivance’ because women, children, the aged and the disabled could not use them. With fires lapping out the window, he asked, ‘would not those balconies be turned into gridirons to roast the unhappy victims?’”

Sloan’s preference? Wall off internal stairwells with iron doors—a solution that became standard, but not until the 20th century.

Building owners and landlords took advantage of inadequate compliance and enforcement. A full decade after passage of the 1879 law, “the lives of fully 100,000 children are in danger,” reported the Inquirer. “City Councils have failed to obey the laws plainly lay down by the legislature of Pennsylvania. There are over 113,000 school children in Philadelphia distributed among 262 schoolhouses. Only 17 of these buildings are provided with fire escapes…  The remaining 245 schoolhouses, with over 100,000 pupils, are totally without any means of escape in case of fire.”

Frankford Elevated - Site of Bent 16 - 208 North Front Street , April 2, 1919 (

Frankford Elevated – Site of Bent 16 – 208 North Front Street , April 2, 1919 (

No surprise, really. Compliance failures continued for decades, as we know from the landmark disaster at the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, which killed 145 New Yorkers in less than half an hour.

Did Philadelphia somehow manage to avoid such a pivotal and devastating event? Hardly. We recently recalled the Market Street fire of 1901, where 22 died. And a full thirty years before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Philadelphia endured the tragic and scandalous Randolph Mill fire.

[Sources Include: Sara E. Wermiel, “No Exit: The Rise and Demise of the Outside Fire Escape,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 258-284; “The Model of a New Fire-escape,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 26, 1849; “Tenement Traps,” The New York Times, February 4, 1860; “The City’s Safety, Annual Meeting of the Board of Fire Commissioners. Report of the Chief,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 11, 1880; “Schools Not Protected,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 7, 1889.]

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Philadelphia’s Deadliest Fire

12th and Market Streets - Hunt-Wilkinson Company, 5-Alarm Fire. 22 Killed. (

12th and Market Streets – Hunt-Wilkinson Company, 5-Alarm Fire. 22 Killed. (

Walls of the Hunt, Wilkinson & Company furniture emporium came tumbling down the morning of October 25th, 1901. By lunchtime, firefighters declared the conflagration of the 8-story, 14-year-old building at 1219–1221 Market Street under control.

Twenty-two were dead, ranking this as Philadelphia’s deadliest fire.

Yet it’s missing from the top “25 Most Deadly Building Fires in America,” a list that recalls the 1908 Rhoads Opera House disaster in Boyertown, PA which killed 171. (That ranks #8.) Philadelphia’s 1901 fire had the same number of casualties as the Detroit’s Study Club dance hall disaster of 1929, the 24th worst disaster.

“Never in its history has Philadelphia experienced a fire which spread with such great rapidity,” reported the Inquirer. Never before were so many victims “speeded through gates of eternity,” reported the Atlanta Constitution.

“Rows of charred bodies at the morgue, a score of homes made desolate, a gaunt pile of twisted, steaming ruins on Market street between Twelfth and Thirteenth, are monuments to a fire” that was “swift as a whirlwind, sickening in its horrors.”

First responders were quick, “but the flames were quicker.” The fire rose quickly “from cellar to roof, eating into adjoining buildings and hanging in a seething, spark-dotted canopy over Market street.”

Hell reigned outside and in: “Sixty or more men, women and children were at work on the upper floors of the building. The roaring flames and the suffocating smoke that cut off retreat were their first and only warnings. Madly they groped for windows and the fire escapes, many meeting death where they stood, others reaching the iron railed balconies, only to find themselves and like rats in a trap, confronted with the alternative of being gridironed or the chance of being crushed on the stones below. Most of those killed were at work on the sixth floor, where women were engaged in sewing. It was reported that goods were stored against the windows, which prevented the women from getting out on the fire escapes, but this was positively denied by a member of the firm.”

“Thousands from the streets below witnessed tragedy upon tragedy, powerless to help. They saw women penned in by flame tearing out their hair in their frenzy. They saw men struggle on wires and gratings and burn as they hung between earth and sky. They saw others plunge from the windows or turn and stagger back into the pitiless cauldron. The stones of Commerce street, the narrow highway at the rear of the building, rang the dirge of more than one victim who jumped blindly and missed the net.”

“Squares away the screams of the dying could be heard. Tongues cannot tell the horrors that eyes saw.”

At one point, “all eyes turned to the fire escapes” outside a 7th-story window, where upholsterers “were running down the escape pell-mell.”

“The smoke ascending in their faces was growing blacker and blacker. A man appeared at the window with a woman. He put his arm around her waist. They began to climb down the escape and reached the sixth floor. He seemed to faint. They stopped to rest, and then made another struggle.”

“Cheer after cheer went up from the street at this. But the situation was growing more desperate every second. When the next wave of smoke passed the woman was seen standing alone on the landing. It was impossible for her to get down thought the flames beneath her. She heard the shouts and news the net had been spread below to catch her. She had one chance in a hundred to save her life by a leap. The firemen grabbed their net and looked up. They could not see her. The woman peered down. She could not see them. Persons father away tried to shout directions. It was a guess. It was her only chance. She leaped. Her form came straight through the air, feet foremost. She jumped well and clear. Thousands of eyes watched the flying form. They saw it strike the iron rail of the awning. She dropped a little to one side of the net outstretched to save her and struck the pavement.”

“Such was the death of Susan Gormley, 42 years of age, of 1727 Filbert street.”

A special jury of experts convened by the City Coroner collected evidence, reviewed testimony and found the structure in compliance with what safety codes existed. They couldn’t zero in on what started the fire, suggesting the deceased “could probably explain the direct cause.” And they recommended sweeping changes aimed at prevention, mitigation and “providing proper and sufficient means of escape.”

[Sources include: “Flames starting in basement of Hunt, Wilkinson & Co.’s Furniture Store, 1219–21 Market Street Form Funeral Pyre for Many and Cause Estimated Property Loss of $500,000,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 1901; “Eight Story Building Fire,” The Atlanta Constitution, October 26, 1901; “No Cause Found for Fatal Fire,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1901; The 25 most-deadly building fires of all time,]

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Saving Souls on Hell’s Half Acre: The Inasmuch Mission

Perspective of NE corner of Warnock and Locust St. In-as-much mission building , January 8, 1917 (

Perspective of NE corner of Warnock and Locust St. Inasmuch Mission building, January 8, 1917 (

“Born and brought up a true son of the tenderloin,” George Long survived as a child pickpocket in Madison Square Park in New York City.

At the age of 14, having “been thoroughly schooled in the ways of the underworld, he launched himself upon his career as a ‘grafter.’” Long became addicted to cocaine and morphine and for the next two decades lived as “a habitué of the dens of vice in the large cities… repellant even to the keepers of the lowest resorts.” He had, “time and time again” been thrown out of even “the filthiest brothels.”

George Long “floated about the country for years” arriving in Philadelphia “on the ‘hobo’s’ common carrier, the freight train.” A “wreck of a man” on Skid Row, Long was “dissipated and disheveled, unshaven, unkempt, and saturated with liquor… a ‘bum’ of the uttermost, guttermost type.”

Then  he found religion. Long “fell upon his knees in the Galilee Mission and gave his heart to God” and dedicated himself to saving the souls of others.

“It takes a ‘down and outer’ to reform a ‘down and outer,’” he claimed. “Social workers try hard, but they can’t realize that feeling the other fellow has.” Long could talk with “them in their own language.” He met them where they lived, “in the heart of the city’s most disreputable and filthy sections” like Philadelphia’s Hell’s Half Acre—a place even more desperate than Skid Row.

“Bounded by Spruce and Walnut Street and Tenth and Eleventh” Hell’s Half Acre “is cut up by many small thorough fares filled with dilapidated houses. No less than 65 were being used for immoral purposes” including three gambling dens, two opium joints, and many pool rooms and speakeasies.”

At the heart of it, on Locust Street east of 11th, George Woodward, owned “20 vacant, ramshackle houses.” “Each was connected with the other by an underground passage, so that if a crime was committed in one, the perpetrator could easily make his way from that house to another, and so on to the street and to safety. One building in this group was known as the ‘get-away house.’”

Long convinced Woodward of his plans and the wealthy developer from Chestnut Hill turned over the houses, rent free. Long and his associates cleaned them up, removing “eleven wagonloads of beer bottles, playing cards, discarded frills and burbelows [furbelows?] of feminine wearing apparel, and other rubbish.” They made the former “getaway house” Long’s headquarters.

The Inasmuch Mission (named for the biblical passage: “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”) was born.

"Chapel of Inasumch Mission," in "The Inasmuch Mission: A Work of God Made Manifest," Church News, February 1915.

“Chapel of Inasumch Mission,” in The Inasmuch Mission: A Work of God Made Manifest. Church News, February 1915.

Beginning in March, 1911 Inasmuch offered help to “any man in need, providing that the beneficiary showed the desire to help himself.” And in the first six months more than 14,000 attended services, 8,731 meals were served and more than 2,000 took lodging. The mission placed 96 reformed men in paying jobs. At the second anniversary celebration, the first three rows were packed with men whose testimony so inspired Mrs. Woodward, she offered to donate funds for “a suitable building in which Mr. Long might carry out his original dream.”

Inspired by London’s Rowton Houses for working men and New York’s Mills Hotel, Philadelphia architects, Duhring, Okie & Ziegler designed a severe, four-story, fire-proof facility with a chapel for 300, an office, a restaurant, a kitchen, and 400 beds. In March 1914, Long and others dedicated the Inasmuch Mission “as a place where men will be cleansed, both mentally and physically.”

Meanwhile, Long’s evangelistic career grew in scope and scale. With the gift (also from Mrs. Woodward) of a “large touring car,” Long began a “series of automobile meetings” on street corners “throughout the Tenderloin.” Long provided sermons accompanied by musical entertainment.

The popular evangelist soon preached to gatherings of 1,000 in a giant Inasmuch tent pitched at 60th and Locust Streets. In the midst of the World War, Long lumped together local food profiteers, rent gaugers and the Kaiser. “Hell is too good for them,” Long shouted.

Followers cheered.

Long determined to break a preaching record in the summer of 1918. For ten weeks straight he packed tent meetings with as many as 3,000. Long moved indoors to the nearby Imperial Theatre, 219 South 60th Street, while architects drew up plans for a new 5,000-seat evangelistic tabernacle.

More confident than ever, Long pivoted his message from the pulpit to politics: “There are more gamblers, thieves, pickpockets and prostitutes in this city than ever before, and it depends upon our next mayor as to whether they are to remain here.”

He “censured women who wear immodest attire” Long claimed “such women were responsible for much of the widespread immorality” adding: “More men are being sent to hell today owing to women’s immodest dressing than ever before.”

And he critiqued fellow preachers: “The she-man in the pulpit, with his soft voice and ladylike manners, has been driving red-blooded men away from the church.” The headline read: “Evangelist Flays “Sissies” In Pulpit.”

Long, it seemed, was only getting started.

[Sources include: Blair Jaekel, “The Inasmuch Mission,” The World’s Work: A History of Our Time (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1913); “Inasmuch Mission: A Work of God Made Manifest,” The Church News of the Diocese of Pennsylvania (1915);  G. Grant Williams, Hells Half Acre and Inasmuch Mission,” The Philadelphia Tribune, May 18, 1912; “Rose From Underworld,” The New York Times, May 12, 1913; and from The Philadelphia Inquirer:  “Inasmuch Mission and Founder Have Done Great Work,” September 1, 1912; “To Conduct Street Missions in Auto,” January 15, 1913; “Inasmuch Mission will Provide Home for Men Desiring Reform,” January 24, 1914; “Inasmuch Mission Now in New Home,” March 24, 1914; “Scores Food Gougers,” July 8, 1918; “Tent Meetings Overflow,” July 27, 1918; “Evangelist Flays ‘Sissies’ In Pulpit,” August 4, 1919.]

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Chestnut Hill: Recognizing and Remembering the Real Legacy

"Proposed - Pastorius Circle - at Hartwell and Lincoln Avenue - Chestnut Hill - Philadelphia. "General Plans Division / Bureau of Surveys" Signed and dated lower right: "J. H. Hutchinson May 16, 1913" Looking Northeast on Hartwell Avenue." (

“Proposed – Pastorius Circle – at Hartwell and Lincoln Avenue – Chestnut Hill – Philadelphia.” J. H. Hutchinson, May 16, 1913″ (

Chestnut Hill is celebrating its legacy.

The party’s on for what Henry Howard Houston and his son-in-law, George Woodward, started in the 1870s. Houston spent some of his fortune from the Pennsylvania Railroad on tracts of land for his envisioned community of Wissahickon Heights. Woodward continued the development of Chestnut Hill—that name stuck—designing, defining and carefully expanding, decades into the 20th century. Today, both are being “revered as pioneers in sustainability and pillars of the community…champions for creating, preserving and promoting the well-regarded quality of life in Chestnut Hill.”

But is it a legacy worth celebrating? Or is it more one worth rediscovering—and recognizing for what it really was?

“The real key to that community’s character,” wrote Dan Rottenberg in the Inquirer back in 1986, “is the rare brand of benevolent feudalism practiced there for more than a century by the Houston-Woodward family. Just as feudal lords protected their tenants from barbarian invaders, so the Houstons and Woodwards protected their tenants from the equally frightening forces of economic and social change.”

George Woodward, it turns out, was “something of an eccentric” with very particular, if not peculiar, preferences. He disliked cars with internal combustion engines (“loud and smelly”) so he drove electric models. He didn’t care for light from incandescent bulbs so he read by kerosene lamps. Woodward dressed in golf knickers and woolen stockings. He shared his ideas about life in an autobiography titled Memoirs of A Mediocre Man. And when it came to a vision for expanding and populating Chestnut Hill, Woodward had some very specific preferences as to who would get in—and who would not.

Woodward picked up one principle while a student at Yale, and later shared it in a talk titled Landlord and Tenant. According to Woodward, “we used to say in a college fraternity that one fool member always reproduced another fool member. Working on the reverse of this principle, one social asset reproduces his kind in a real estate venture.”

Implementing his vision of community for the many rental homes he built in Chestnut Hill around two private schools, a country club and the Episcopal Church his father-in-law dedicated in 1889 (St. Martin-in-the-Fields)—Woodward carefully selected tenants. As planned, the well off rented the high-end homes in his version of SimCity. More modest twin houses built by Woodward were intended for the working class. But to his mild dismay (and seeming amusement) the “white collars” were attracted to his sturdy worker twins “and rented every house in sight.” Ah, well.

Map of Existing and Proposed Main Traffic Highways and Parkways Northwestern Section of Philadelphia. December 1, 1915 (PhillyHistory,org)

Detail of “Map of Existing and Proposed Main Traffic Highways and Parkways Northwestern Section of Philadelphia. December 1, 1915” (PhillyHistory,org)

Woodward put to work a second lesson learned at Yale, this one from the lectures of social scientist William Graham Sumner. The professor spoke of a new kind of American citizen, “The Forgotten Man”—“dependable, self-respecting, and quite unexciting.” According to Sumner:

He works, he votes, generally he prays — but he always pays — yes, above all, he pays. He does not want an office; his name never gets into the newspaper except when he gets married or dies. He keeps production going on. He contributes to the strength of parties. He is flattered before election. He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted, whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given. He may grumble some occasionally to his wife and family, but he does not frequent the grocery or talk politics at the tavern. Consequently, he is forgotten. He is a commonplace man. He gives no trouble. He excites no admiration.

Woodward relished his success at having created a community of 180 families where the folks with the lowest incomes turned out to be “exactly the people who pay their bills and seldom complain.”

Plus they were all White. And Protestant.

Woodward never rented to minorities: Italians, African Americans or Jews. In 1920, in “Landlord and Tenant” he proudly said so: “I have consistently refused to rent a house to anyone only because he happened to have the price. I have always inquired into antecedents. I have never taken a Jewish family or allowed one to be taken as a subtenant.” Other ethnics need not apply, either.

The legacy of exclusion in Chestnut Hill became an operating principle that stuck. In 1960, Chestnut Hill insider Barbara Rex broke free and “used fiction to unmask what she saw as inequities and injustices.”  Rex described her community as “all-white, privileged, prejudiced, Protestant, aristocratic Philadelphia society, where exclusion was a beast that struck down the weak, unfit, or unwary.” In her novel Vacancy on India Street, Rex wrote of the deep worry about outsiders moving in:

Connie could not conceive of Joe Setteventi strolling around Flora’s yard, the stump of a cigar in his red face, and Mrs. Setteventi waving from the bay window. The Setteventi children were cat lovers, carried cats around in their arms all day. Now the birds would never come back.

‘Well, at least they are not Jews,’ said Connie’s friend. ‘You’re just as glad as I am we don’t have Jews on India Street! …Look what’s happened on Franklin Street. They’ve got Jews over there, three in a row. … Nobody lives on Franklin Street anymore.’

As for African-Americans, according to Rex, “no negro has ever so much as attempted to violate the special domain” of the neighborhood. “Houses come up for sale in the community, but it simply would not occur to a negro to apply.” Although one of Rex’s characters, Clayton Cruikshank, “had defiled his sisters memory by daring to sell her house to a Negro.” But Cruikshank wasn’t playing straight. He “had been seen drunk on India Street on Christmas morning, wearing a woman’s hat.”

There goes the neighborhood.

Chestnut Hill’s legacy? Attractive, well-built homes in a leafy, planned community built of Wissahickon schist, cemented with bigotry, engineered for consistency, complacency and comfort. And definitely not for everybody.

So, again: recognizing and remembering makes all the sense in the world. But why a celebration?

[Additional Sources Include: David R. Contosta, “George Woodward, Philadelphia Progressive,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 111: 3 (July 1987) and David R. Contosta, A Philadelphia Family, The Houstons and Woodwards of Chestnut Hill, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).]

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The Zigzag Drama of a Memorial Day Monument

Colored Soldiers Memorial - Lansdowne Drive East of Belmont Avenue - Fairmount Park, January 15, 1935 (

Colored Soldiers Memorial – [original location] Lansdowne Drive East of Belmont Avenue – Fairmount Park, January 15, 1935 (

“All monuments have a message,” writes Dell Upton in Commemoration in America, “they direct us not simply to remember, but to remember in a certain light.

That’s the first of Upton’s “three rules of thumb for monument-building,” principles especially useful in explaining the zigzag drama of Philadelphia’s All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, dedicated eighty-two years ago today at one of the most off-the-beaten-track places in all of Fairmount Park.

Upton tells us that monuments “interpret the subjects they honor for an intended audience: people who are thought to need the message.” By installing this piece on Landsdowne Drive behind Memorial Hall and not permitting it at the intended public place on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, its message was blunted and stunted; its audience disrespected.

Upton’s second rule of thumb is further revealing: “Monuments always say more about the people, times and places of their creation then they do about the people, times and places they honor.”

On May 30, 1934, if this monument had been dedicated where it was intended, Philadelphia’s Art Jury (the predecessor of the Art Commission) would have made a definitive declaration. By denying that site, and hiding the memorial in one of the farther recesses of the Park, we see a declaration of another kind.


All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, 1934. J. Otto Schweitzer, sculptor. (Wikimedia)

“If a Negro is fit to fight and die for his country on the battlefield then no site is too great for a war memorial,” claimed a contemporary news story. But racial equality in the American Armed Forces was still 14 years off in 1934. Even at the start of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt still worried that the “intermingling of White and Colored personnel” would be a “new social experiment” that might “confuse the issue of prompt preparedness.” By 1948, when President Harry S. Truman finally issued Executive Order 9981 integrating the Armed Forces, the memorial’s move from banishment was still 46 years off.

Can Upton’s third rule of thumb help us understand why? “Monuments are almost always promoted by interested parties who claim to offer ‘the nation’s gratitude.’ By setting a monument in a public space, the builders claim to speak to everyone. This is a fundamental, necessary fiction of monuments,” he writes, “but it is a fiction.”

Ironically, memorials commemorate facts by employing fiction. Between, and rising above, six very representative African-American servicemen on the front of this memorial is an allegorical figure of “Justice” holding a pair of wreaths signifying “Honor” and “Reward.” On the back are four additional, equally unreal human figures. On the left is War” with a shield and “Liberty” with torch and tiara. On the right are “Peace” and “Plenty.” All are abstract allegories, idealistic personifications of classical attributes. All are unflinchingly represented by Anglo-Saxon Caucasian females, idealistic spokesfigures for the same authorities who kept this memorial out of the public view for six long decades.

In 1994, the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors was refurbished, rededicated and finally reinstalled—this time on Logan Circle—a place of prominence and respect.

[Sources include: Bill Duhart, “Monument to Black soldiers may get its due, 67 years late,” The Philadelphia Tribune, December 24, 1993; Peter Landry, “Belated But Monumental Move Sixty Years Later, A Memorial To Black Soldiers Will Go On The Parkway,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 1994.]

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The Center City Conflagration of 1897

Fire - 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (

Fire – 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (

Philadelphians couldn’t imagine their city in ruins. But the fire of January 26, 1897 provided a pretty good idea of how that looked and felt.

That Tuesday morning, a fire started in the basement bakery of Hanscom Brothers, 1309-1317 Market Street, at 6:45 am. A porter sweeping out an upper story room saw smoke and “dashed into the street, calling ‘Fire!’” and a watchman at the corner “rung in an alarm.”

In the panic, “someone bethought himself of the two bakers,” still inside and unconscious, and a pair of Hanscom employees “descended through the smoke and dragged the half-suffocated men out.”

What began as a “little tongue of flame” was soon “caught…by the winds that whirl about City Hall, and fanned…into a pillar of fire” destroying not only the 6-story building, the home of Hanscom, Dennett’s Café and Hirsh’s Umbrella Factory, but also 59 other buildings between 13th and Juniper Streets, Market and Filbert Streets.

“It was a fearful morning to fight a fire,” reported the Inquirer. “The thermometer was near zero, and the first line of hose, as it was unreeled, burst and covered everything surrounding with water that turned to ice the moment it struck. The flames gained on the firemen, and alarm after alarm was rung in, until every engine in the city was hurrying to the scene. Thousands of workers on their way to their places of business were attracted by the fire, and the streets in the vicinity speedily became impassable from the curious and surging throng.”

A conflagration of “spectacular grandeur” that “defied the resources of the city.”

“Firemen worked under the most discouraging conditions, the hosemen and laddermen taking their lives into their hands as they crawled cautiously up the ice coated rungs of their ladders, dragging after them their lines of hose, which were encased in a solid covering of ice. The streets around the fire were coated with ice… The fronts of the surrounding buildings upon which the water had been played presented a beautiful spectacle as they flashed back from their icy walls the rays of the morning sun.”

At time, the smoke “would descend to the street in almost [a] solid cloud, and the firemen were driven back, gasping for breath. … Building after building along Market Street crumbled beneath the touch of the fiery tongues of flame enwrapping them, and when the rear wall of the Hirsch Building fell into Silver Street, the fire leapt across and entered the seven-story double iron building fronting on Filbert Street.” Soon the entire block was “honeycombed by fire.”

Fire - 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (

Fire – 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (

“The firemen feared that the great Wanamaker establishment would go… Mr. Wanamaker himself had arrived early, and, dismissing the greater number of his 3,500 employees, marshaled under his own direction the fire force of the store.” At 8am, when “the Market Street front of the Hirsh building fell into the street…a torrent of fire rolled out and flowed across… and broke against Wanamaker’s. The building shriveled and blistered beneath the fierce deluge, and a tongue of flame shot up from the high clock tower at the corner of Thirteenth and Market Streets.

Much to the dismay of the firefighters—and Wanamaker himself—“the jets from the hose could not reach the flames in the tower and the entire building seemed threatened with destruction.” Just as the chimes in the burning clock were striking 8:15, the “entire tower toppled over and fell with the great crash.” This “proved the salvation of the building, for the firemen were then able to fight the heart of the fire, and soon had it under control…”

“By 5 o’clock the carpenters had completed the temporary repairs, and then they raised large American flag on ruins of the clock tower” which was quickly rebuilt.

To the west, City Hall survived, although the heat was so intense employees couldn’t “bear to stand within five feet of the windows, which, to a one, cracked or broke.

In the days to follow, the ruins were compelling to visit and dangerous to navigate. And with each “severe gust of wind” the “great bulging wall of the Hirsh building… was seen to be swaying dangerously. To all appearances it was on the point of crashing outward….  A shower of loose bricks was whirled off of the crumbling wall….”

The fire was the “worst in a generation.” But so long as there were no casualties due directly to the fire, the loss of buildings seemed welcomed by the Press. “Their destruction will probably be to the ultimate good, if newer and more modern buildings are erected on their sites.”

And, in a historical blink of an eye, new buildings that addressed the needs of the burgeoning city in the new century appeared in their places.

[Sources: “Big Philadelphia Fire,” The New York Times, January 27, 1897; and in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Many Buildings A Prey to the Flames,” January 27, 1897; “Thousands at the Scene of the Fire,” January 28, 1897; “Tottering Walls Retard the Work,” January 29, 1897; and “New Buildings Soon To Be Erected,” March 12, 1897.]

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