Frederick A. Poth: Red Bricks and Gold Beer (Part 1)

N. 30th and Jefferson Streets, June 28, 1951. The former Frederick A. Poth & Company brewery is visible on the right, one block west.

If you enjoy drinking “lager” while watching the Eagles, thank Frederick A. Poth and his Philadelphia “beer baron” friends. Otherwise, you would be drinking ale. Or whiskey. Yuengling might be America’s oldest operating brewery (1828), but it is up the Schuylkill River in Pottsville, not Philadelphia. A century ago, if you asked for a “lager” in a Philadelphia saloon, the bartender would have quizzically responded, “Which one?” Auf deutsch. Schmidt, Ortlieb, Bergdoll, Esslinger, Poth?  All were brewed in Philadelphia. Our city may be enjoying a “craft beer” revival, there was a time when beer was big business. Big enough to build castles fit for a Rhine River robber baron. Architects such as the German-born Otto Wolf and the Americans Willis Hale and A.W. Dilks were more than happy to indulge their clients’ flights of fancy.

Frederick August Poth (1841-1905)

Frederick A. Poth (1841-1905) was one of thousands of German immigrants who flocked to Philadelphia in the mid-19th century. Some were political dissidents, fleeing the brutal government crackdowns that followed failed revolutions of 1848. The city had had a significant German population since the time of William Penn, religious nonconformists such as the Amish, Mennonites, and Schwenkfelders, who braved the North Atlantic to see if Penn’s revolutionary promise of freedom of religion was actually true. Most of these Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch) aimed to recreate the rural life of their ancestors.  They settled in the village of Germantown or further west in Lancaster County, where they farmed, operated grist mills, and built carriages. This second wave of Germans immigrants, which included Frederick Poth, came to make a new life in the rapidly industrializing 19th century city: shopkeepers, journalists, merchants, craftsmen, and brewers. Protestants largely came from Prussia and the Rhine Palatinate, the Catholics largely from Bavaria and the Saarland, although most German states had mixed populations, a source of strife since the Reformation and the resulting Thirty Years War. There were also a significant number of Jews among these new  arrivals. Among them were the Snellenbergs, Gimbels, Rosenbachs, and Fleischmans.  By the mid-19th century, many German-speaking states had lifted official restrictions against Jews, allowing them to rise into the increasingly prosperous urban bourgeoisie.  However, they were still subject to intense hatred both on the street and in the press, so for many, a move to America made religious and economic sense.

Once settled in their new urban home, the new arrivals started German-language newspapers that kept the flag of liberal republicanism flying high. They also started singing societies such as the Columbia Gesang Verein in Kensington, where men gathered to sing part-songs by Schubert, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Strauss, and Abt. German-born and trained musicians filled the ranks of the Musical Fund Society’s orchestra, which played subscription concerts to the city’s elite. They also brought along a tradition of fine craftsmanships. They made grand pianos (Albrecht, Riekes, and Schmidt), toys (Schoenhut), as well as tools and decorative objects for domestic use. Like many immigrants, they competed for the lowest rungs on the economic ladder. German Catholics, like the Irish, faced considerable persecution from gangs of Nativist “Know Nothings,” who viciously attacked parishioners and burned churches to the ground. Some Philadelphians were more welcoming. Reverend William Henry Furness, minister at the First Unitarian Church and father of architect Frank Furness, formed a close friendship with the rabbi of the German-Jewish congregation of Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street.

Male singing groups (Männerchor) such as the Columba Gesang Verein in Kensington gathered regularly to sing popular songs such as the “Rhapsody for Alto and Male Chorus” by Brahms and “Wein Weib und Gesang” by Johann Strauss II.  On a less highbrow note, here is a recording of a beer garden band playing dances that reminded Philadelphia patrons of the old country. 

Perhaps their most enduring cultural contribution, however, was transforming America from a whiskey and ale drinking nation into a beer drinking one. Lager beer, to be precise. Derived from the German word “to store,” lager was fermented using a special yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Unlike heavy English ales, lager was fermented at low temperatures (40 degrees) in caves or monastery cellars, and was usually gold-colored and light bodied. Although started in Bavaria, the world-wide lager revolution was spearheaded in two American cities. One was St. Louis, another German stronghold and birthplace of the still-flourishing Anheuser-Busch empire. The other was Philadelphia, whose temperate climate and artesian wells made it an ideal beer brewing city. Moreover, the advent of mechanical refrigeration and the growth of railroads — specifically the Mighty Pennsylvania — allowed for mass-production and transport of lager beer on a truly grand scale.

Few exploited this blend of craft, mechanization, and booze better than Frederick A. Poth.  A Roman Catholic, Poth had not come to America to escape religious or political persecution. He had come to make a buck. He was a stocky, mustachioed man known as a “raritache” (litte rarity) in his native Walhaben, Rheinpfalz province. He arrived in Philadelphia at the tender age of 20, and apprenticed himself to Vollmer & Born brewers, where he shoveled mash out of the copper brewing vats and shouldered massive bags of barley from delivery wagons. When the 1876 Centennial Exhibition opened its gates, Poth saw a golden opportunity and built a rambling beer garden opposite the fairground. In addition to his own “F.A. Poth” lager, he served up savory favorites from the Vaterland: most likely wiener schnitzel, sauerkraut, bratwurst, and frankfurters. Think of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s pop-up beer garden on South Broad Street this past summer, only bigger, louder, and rowdier. The timing was perfect.  The eyes of the world were on the newly-unified German Empire at the time of the Centennial. In 1871, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussia soundly defeated Emperor Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War, and then unified the various German states (Protestant and Catholic) under the Prussian Hohenzollern crown.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society “pop up” beer garden on South Broad Street. In the late 19th century, they were common throughout Philadelphia, but especially in German neighborhoods such as North Liberties, Brewerytown, and parts of West Philadelphia. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa

Although Poth’s Centennial beer garden appears to have lost money, it got his product out to the entire nation. Poth then purchased a large plot of land at North 31st and Jefferson Streets in North Philadelphia — at the heart of today’s Brewerytown neighborhood — and erected a modern lager brewery that grew to mammoth proportions and employed hundreds of workers. Poth had, according to one gushing contemporary biographer “a keen knowledge of human nature and made a large number of friends who were willing and able to cooperate with him.” Reading between the lines, he also must have been extremely tough, especially when dealing with disgruntled workers during an 1887 strike. His supposedly paternalistic attitude towards labor turned into sour ale as soon as the workers, according to the same biographer, “had the disposition to assume an arrogant attitude.” Poth then used “all the force of his personality, determination, and diplomacy” to settle the strike. Day drinking among all classes was extremely common in late 19th century America. Philadelphia’s brewery workers expected a half-hour beer break every day. Hatmakers at the Stetson factory were especially notorious for their beer intake. The dust and the animal hair irritated their throats, and beer eased the pain. Small wonder the workers became rowdy after downing a few pints, especially when hours were long and working conditions dangerous.

By the 1880s, F.A. Poth & Company had made its founder and his family extremely wealthy. He and his wife Helena (also born in Germany) had five children: two daughters and three sons, one of whom would follow him into the business. Poth also enjoyed music, belonging to several German singing societies. As one of the city’s largest brewers, Poth’s decided to invest his riches in West Philadelphia real estate, near the spot where he had introduced his beer to the world at the 1876 Centennial. The Powelton area — in the blocks just north of Lancaster Avenue between 33rd and 40th Streets — was already an attractive place to live,  filled with slender, elegant Italianate and Second Empire twin houses occupied by upper middle class professionals. A Centennial guidebook described the area as “a location much sought after for private residences and consequently is filled with handsome edifices and delightful villas.” The brass bands and cheering crowds were long gone from the fairground, but Poth believed he could add some Gilded Age grandeur to the rather prim neighborhood.

He would build a castle and real estate barony fit for a Rhinish prince, and would grow his fortune in the process.

204 N. 35th Street, March 10, 1969. One of many large Italianate twin houses in the Powelton “streetcar suburb” section of West Philadelphia that built just before the Civil War. Frederick A. Poth would outdo this house and others in the neighborhood.

Sources:

Leon S. Rosenthal, A History of Philadelphia’s University City (Philadelphia, PA: West Philadelphia Corporation, 1963), http://www.uchs.net/Rosenthal/wphila.html

Phillip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986) pp.105, 166..

“Frederick August Poth,” Philadelphia: Pictorial and Biographical. (Philadelphia, PA: S.J. Clarke and Company), 1911.

http://poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/Biographies/Poth%20Family%20Bio.pdf

“216 N. 33rd Street: A History of the Building”

http://poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/files/216n33rd.htm

“500 Years Ago, Yeast’s Epic Journey Gave Rise to Lager Beer,” Genetic Archaeology, August 24, 2011.

http://www.geneticarchaeology.com/research/500_years_ago_yeasts_epic_journey_gave_rise_to_lager_beer.asp

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Bright Lights; Beautiful City, or a Collision of Hope and History

City Hall Illuminated during Founder’s Week (detail). October 1908. (PhillyHistory.org)

Never mind that Philadelphia actually dated back to 1682, that its 225th anniversary had come and gone the year before. Philadelphians were in the grip of a new and overpowering love affair with the city and it was fine to fudge the details. In 1908, they mounted an over-the-top celebration of the original city and called it “Founders Week.” But it was really more about the bright new century than the dim and dusty past.

“There is a promise in the sky of a new day,” proclaimed Charles Mulford Robinson of the 20th century city. “The tall facades glow as the sun rises; their windows shine as topaz; their pendants of steam, tugging flutteringly from high chimneys, are changed to silvery plumes. Whatever was dingy, coarse, and ugly is either transformed or hidden in shadow. The streets, bathed in the fresh morning light, fairly sparkle, their pavements from upper windows appearing smooth and clean. There seems to be a new city for the work of a new day.”

“City Beautiful” Philadelphia would be bathed in sunlight during the day. At night, it would be brilliantly illuminated by electric lights. At the center of it all, at the intersection of Broad, Market, past and future, stood City Hall, symbolically lit, top to bottom. Founder’s Week producers strung lights along its many rooflines; they aimed searchlights hundreds of feet up to the giant statue of the founder. Down at street level, the building became a billboard for a giant portrait of William Penn ensconced in a welcoming, promising electric sunrise.

The illuminated promise was that Philadelphia’s founding purpose (whether it had been made 225 or 226 years before) was still very much alive. “Philadelphia Maneto” the electric sign flashed up and down Broad Street: Let Brotherly Love Endure.

During Founders Week, the beautiful, hopeful historic city was “choked with humanity,” residents and visitors jamming parades, receptions, unveilings, commemorations, displays, processions, and patriotic exercises. A “River Pageant” animated the entire Delaware waterfront, from Fort Mifflin to Allegheny Avenue. At Franklin Field, thousands attended “Philadelphia,” the Musical Historical Drama. Violet Oakley’ designed a “Historical Pageant” that featured operatic floats and elaborately costumed actors anticipating Hollywood’s Golden Age. On the celebration’s final day, before the fireworks, the City and the Quaker City Motor Club co-sponsored a 200-mile automobile race on a brand new “speedway” in West Fairmount Park. All in all, gushed The New York Times, it was “probably the greatest civic celebration ever held in America.”

One of the 28 Lamps at City Hall, 1909. (PhillyHistory,org)

City Hall’s lighting scheme was more than mere wattage, it was civic theater. And it had been brought to life on Saturday, October 3rd, the day before any other Founders Week events. School children from across the city convened to christen a ring of “Memorial Lamp Poles,” 28, 22-foot, cast iron lamp standards on the plaza surrounding City Hall, each with 28 glass globes. Why 28? That’s how many districts, townships and boroughs had been consolidated in 1854 to form a bigger, better, safer and more prosperous metropolis. The public plaza around City Hall was now the civic centerpiece where all citizens could embrace the past and future promise—in the brightly illuminated here and now.

“Illumination of Food Sign – North Side of City Hall.” October 4, 1917. (PhillyHistory,org)

Who could take on such a project? That would be the next generation the Royers family, the iron founders whose shop at 9th and Montgomery had been operating since just after the Civil War. Now, decades later, B. Frank Royer of Smyser-Royer would have a “complete drafting and engineering departments, designing studio, pattern shops, two large foundries, extensive machine and fitting shops” manufacturing everything from “lamp posts for Country Estates” to “Spiral Stairs and Marquises” in cast iron, bronze or aluminum. Smyser-Royer was understandably proud of their work and illustrated the City Hall lamps in their catalogs, bragging that with little more than “a coat of paint” these fixtures could last “almost forever.”

At City Hall. “almost forever” turned out to be 23 years.

After symbolic meaning drifted away, the lamps became only so much street furniture. Over the years, they blended into the backdrop of daily life. City carpenters built grandstands around them; subway contractors tolerated their presence. During the Sesquicentennial, the audience of a German oompah band crowded around them. And by the early 1930s, they were gone and forgotten.

What stands today on City Hall plaza, more than century later at a time when we take light for granted? A lonely pair of modern facsimiles, relatively dim and meaning-free.

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Dreaming about Philly’s Endangered Buildings?

Engine House #46, Reed and Water Streets, 1896. (PhillyHistory.org)

It’s been more than a decade since the Preservation Alliance started issuing its annual Endangered Properties List. This year the list features eight properties bringing the total to a hefty 84.

Has this ritualistic exercise in advocacy proved a success? Yes, if you consider coverage of the list’s release had become part of Philly’s December news cycle. But there are navigational challenges in getting the word out. Accessing the annual lists requires going through a mix of separate web pages (from 2003 to 2007) then a couple of pdfs (2008 and 2009) before the most recent format: a combination of web pages and pdfs (2010 to 2013). Each list is numbered, but not clearly dated. For instance, the 7th annual list came out in 2009 but was issued in the Alliance’s Winter 2010 newsletter. Only a preservationist with OCD would navigate through it all.

If this advocacy tool is to be effective in raising sights (and help prevent razing sites) it needs to be built on a clear, comprehensive web presence that can be easily located, augmented, enriched, updated and shared to help inform and advance a preservation agenda. Very useful; very doable.

Has the list helped prevent razing sites? For that question, the answer is “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.”

“Yes,” if we look at the new home of FringeArts  in the High Pressure Pump Station at the foot of Race Street (listed in 2006) or the Nugent Home for Baptists in West Mount Airy (listed in 2004). But it’s a definite “no,” if we look for the Church of Christ, once at 63rd and Vine Streets (listed in 2003). What’s there today is a spiffy new Walgreens.

Not too many victories; not too many losses. But in a contest, the worrisome “maybes” would win by a mile.

Robinson Store, 1020 Market Street. Built in 1946. (Library of Congress)

First is the Boyd Theatre, which made its second appearance this year (the Boyd debuted in 2007). The Divine Lorraine was also the subject of a double feature, in 2009 and 2010.

Does it really matter what year the former 26th District Police Headquarters at Trenton Avenue and Dauphin Street was listed in 2006?  Or that John P. B. Sinkler’s  Germantown Town Hall made the list in 2010? Or that the Royal Theater debuted in 2011? Or that both its neighboring District Health Center No. 1 at Broad and Lombard Streets and the Roundhouse at 7th and Race Streets were listed last year? Listing dates don’t matter; what does is documentation, information, and ultimately, preservation.

So, as the list of preservation challenges grows longer, what are the latest additions?

Age before beauty: From 1894, there’s the Flemish-revival Engine House #46 at Water and Reed Streets. “One of the most intriguing” buildings in the Pennsport neighborhood, wrote Inga Saffron. There’s the 1946 Robinson Store at 1020 Market Street designed by Victor Gruen and Elsie Krummeck in 1946. In its day, and especially at night, the Robinson Store was one of those buildings capable of giving chills. Here’s a specimen of “the surging tide of modernism” that never really reached us” here in Philadelphia, writes the Alliance’s Ben Leech. “It’s a Don Draper dream” writes Liz Spikol.

But Don Draper isn’t real. The Robinson Store, on the other hand, is…and very much endangered. It’s survival… well, that may be a dream.

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The Very Model of an Ancient-Modern Monument

Demolition of “Pennsylvania Bank, 1867,” Detail of albumen print by John Moran, photographer. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, from James Stuart’s Antiquities of Athens, 1762. (Smithsonian Libraries)

By the 1830s, you’d have thought folks might begin to grow a bit tired of seeing every last architect translating their city into the Greek. And they might have, had it not been for William Strickland’s way of combining the very old and the very new. This most creative of the homegrown generation of architect/engineers didn’t shy away from moving the game up a few notches. Strickland pulled out his copy of Stuart’s Antiquities of Athens, a book that had been around for seventy years, and had long been used as a source by architects including Benjamin Henry Latrobe, John Haviland and Strickland himself.

But the stakes were higher now. Strickland faced the challenge of making architectural sense on a very prominent and oddly-shaped building lot defined by Dock, Walnut and Third Streets. And he found himself working in the shadow of his mentor’s masterpiece, the Bank of Pennsylvania. This tough site demanded a commanding solution—and an innovative one. Squeezing a rectangular Greek temple onto a triangular building lot just wouldn’t do. Strickland needed to find design solutions that were even bolder, but also more carefully considered.

And so he did. Strickland positioned on the narrow end of this wedge a raised, semi-circular portico, making this eastern façade look like a grand entrance on a civic square. (In reality, this is the grand, rounded-off back of the building. Strickland made Third Street the user-friendly entrance.)

Perspective of Old Stock Exchange at Dock and Walnut Streets, March 24, 1915. (PhillyHistory.org)

Here, in Philadelphia, a few blocks from the city’s riverfront, facing the morning sun (the same that illuminated ancient Athens) stood Strickland’s masterpiece. Unlike his others Greek Revival buildings, this was no replica ripped from the pages of Antiquities of Athens. Here was a 3-D billboard of Greek features serving Philadelphia, here and now.

For the cupola, which pulled the entire project together, Strickland found inspiration in Stuart’s illustration of a 334 BC monument still very much standing on the streets of Athens. The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates was a self-congratulatory, 21-foot pedestal for a choral prize won at a performing arts competition, part of the same festival that produced the great dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Stuart and William Henry Playfair designed literal replicas in Staffordshire and Edinburgh. Here in Philadelphia, Strickland took great liberties with the design—and achieved very American results.

He moved the “monument” from street level to the roof. He blew it up to double the size of the original making a giant 40-foot-tall, 14 feet diameter skyline-defining structure. And instead of interpreting the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in stone for the ages, Strickland designed it in wood that he knew could last only a few decades. (It would be replaced about every sixty years.) Now, far from Europe, this Pop-Art scaled, archeologically correct, ephemeral monument would echo the past. But even more important, here above Philadelphia’s 1830s cityscape, this landmark would live very much in the moment.

East side of the Merchant Exchange Building, November 2, 1960. (PhillyHistory.org)

The Merchants Exchange, and, in particular, the tower at its eastern end, would become an essential element in a new, high-tech information network. Long before 1837, when Samuel F.B. Morse patented his telegraph (and way longer before anyone dreamed of the internet) Europeans and Americans had “optical telegraphs” capable of quickly transmitting coded messages over great distances. As early as 1807, the U.S. Congress had debated and eventually voted in favor of funding a 1,200 mile long chain of optical telegraph towers connecting New York and New Orleans – a project that fell by the wayside. But it wasn’t farfetched. More than a decade earlier, Claude Chappe’s invention, the “semaphore visual telegraph,” came to life in France as a 143-mile connection between Paris and Lille that would grow into a network of more than 500 towers across Europe extending 3,000 miles. In 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he envisioned extending the technology across the English Channel.

Merchants Exchange, looking east from above Third St., during construction of the 3rd cupola, 10/25/1964. (PhillyHistory.org)

So when American architect William Thornton envisioned connecting North and South America in 1800, the possibilities made level heads reel. Before long, American businessmen in Boston and New York had their own optical telegraph networks. By the time the Merchants Exchange was under construction, an optical telegraph in Boston tracked shipping, commerce and investments on a real-time basis.

“Time and distance are annihilated,” became the popular proclamation, a mantra of the 1830s.

No surprise, then, that the Merchant Exchange’s cupola high above Dock and Walnut Streets played triple duty: as a perch for clerks with telescopes identifying ships making their way to and from the Port of Philadelphia, as a place to send and receive messages flashing from New York across the plains of New Jersey, and the most lasting message of all: that Philadelphia had finally come into its own as a modern day version of ancient Athens.

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A Long-Lost Monument to Philadelphia’s Iron Age

The W. W. & R.S. Stevens Architectural Foundry and Iron Works, northwest corner of 9th Street and Montgomery Ave., May 19, 1902. (PhillyHistory.org)

“The period from the Civil War into the new century saw the transformation of Philadelphia into an industrial giant. … The impact of this explosion of industry and technology almost obliterated Penn’s green country town…in a smog of steam and smoke, of endless gridirons of workers housing, of railroads and factories, freight yards and warehouses. It was Philadelphia’s Iron Age.”

So begins a chapter of the same name in Philadelphia: A 300 Year History. As the 19th century progressed, Philadelphia’s “Iron Age” would be increasingly evident to anyone with imagination, but especially to architects, engineers and “practical mechanics.”

As early as 1826, when everyone else was applauding the new canal culture, William Strickland believed the railways promised much more. He was ahead of his time. So was architect John Haviland, who, even earlier, imagined cities entirely made of the stuff. “The improvement and general introduction of cast iron bids fair to create a totally new school of architecture. It has already been occasionally employed in bridges, pillars, roofs, floors, chimneys, doors, and windows, and the facility with which is moulded into different shapes will continue to extend its application.”

By the middle of the century, advocates of industry like Edwin T. Freedley shrugged with confidence: “Philadelphia is situated in the district entitled to be called the centre of the Iron production of the United States.” A decade earlier, local rolling mills had produced about 5,000 tons of iron annually. Now, just after the Civil War, production had ramped up to 30,000 tons. In the same years, production of pig iron nearly doubled from 400,000 tons to more than 770,000. The time when iron meant “nails, screws, bolts, tie rods and hardware,” as Henry Magaziner put it in his book The Golden Age of Ironwork, was over. Iron now meant the possibility of all kinds of design feats: “bridges, water towers, and greenhouses”—even “full cast iron facades” of entire city blocks, in whatever style. All of it would be prefabricated. And, even more impressive, all of it would be fireproof.

“Royer Brothers” column. Detail of “Northwest Corner, 9th Street and Montgomery Avenue, W.W. and R. S. Stevens Architectural Foundry and Iron Works, September 21, 1904.” (PhillyHistory.org)

Iron design, patents, production and construction began to transform city streets from New York to New Orleans. In the early 1850s, Philadelphia’s the first cast iron façade, The St. Charles Hotel on Third Street, tested the public appetite. By 1866, when the 4,400-ton cast-iron dome of the nation’s Capital in Washington, D.C., designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter, was declared “a masterpiece of American will and ingenuity” the way was clear: iron offered amazing architectural possibilities.

In North Philadelphia, the brothers Royer were ready. For a decade they had been honing skills at their Hope Foundry on 9th Street, above Poplar. Now, just as iron‘s grip took hold, they opened a new, expanded facility at 9th and Montgomery Avenue, “an extensive and complete Foundry for the production of Architectural Iron Work.” Four brothers: Alfred, Benjamin, J. Washington and William Royer, all “practical mechanics,” had made “Building Castings” their specialty. “They now employ fifty men,” wrote Freedley in 1867, “and have a good supply of orders some of considerable magnitude.”

The Royers cast iron features for the Seventh National Bank at 4th and Market Streets, the mansard-roofed Post Office at 9th and Market Street and McArthur’s David Jayne mansion at 19th and Chestnut Street. For Oak Hall, Wanamaker & Brown’s clothing store at 6th and Market Street, the Royer Brothers created a new, “massive and beautiful front…light and ornate,” which, according to Freedley, was “probably not equaled by any other Iron Front in Philadelphia.” The Royers’ reach extended to commissions in reading and Pittsburgh and, within a few years, they would cast the façade for the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware.

By the 1890s, John S. Stevens took over the foundry at 9th and Montgomery. But the Royer name—and the Royer brand—would remain prominent on both the foundry’s sign and on the cast-iron column that stood for decades at the corner.

A long-lost monument to Philadelphia’s Iron Age.

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Philadelphia Marathon: 54 races later, its first winner still stands out

Philadelphia Marathon 2001 Address: Benjamin Franklin Pky & N 21st St

Philadelphia Marathon 2001
Benjamin Franklin Pky & N 21st St

The Philadelphia Marathon was host to to is 54th annual race last weekend, with more than 30,000 participating runners. That’s an incredible amount of growth from its humble beginnings in the 1950s; the second Philadelphia Marathon drew about twenty runners, according to this account. The pioneers of that race might be surprised today to see that major American marathons often include more participants and attendees in one day than some small cities have in population all year.

One of those pioneers — who was truly critical to the growth of running in our country — was a man named Ted Corbitt.

Corbitt won the first Philadelphia marathon in 1954 and stands as the only person to win it more than two times: he won again in 1958, 1959 and 1962. Seven other men and three women have won the race twice.

Ted Corbitt’s place in running history is an intriguing one, because by all indications, he doesn’t fit the mold of a ferocious athlete. His athleticism is without question: his best race, 1958, when he finished the course in 2:26:44 would have bested 1979′s top finisher, Richard Hayden. But all accounts of the man express a gentle spirit and an exceptionless equanimity. He just loved running and other runners. That’s even reflected in the words of encouragement he offered in the book First Marathons: First Encounters with the 26.2 Mile Monster, as quoted in his New York Times obituary:

The marathon demands patience and a willingness to stay with it. You must be willing to suffer and keep on suffering. Running is something you just do. You don’t need a goal. You don’t need a race. You don’t need the hype of a so-called fitness craze. All you need is a cheap pair of shoes and some time. The rest will follow.

Tedd Corbitt leads the pack. Photo courtesy of tedcorbitt.com

His other achievements include:

  • He took part in developing a method to measure and certify long distance race courses that is still in use today.

  • He helped to start running organizations like the Road Runners Club of America and the New York Road Runners Club, which plans the New York City Marathon.

  • He ran 199 marathons and ultramarathons.

  • At 84, he completed a 24 hour race, walking 68 miles.

  • He competed in the 1952 Olympics marathon in Finland.

Running on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Running on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Additional past two-time winners with notable achievements:

  • Adolf Gruber (1963, 1964) was a notable Austrian runner, who won four American Marathons in 1963 and the Austrian championship twelve times in a row. At the end of his running career, he failed as a tobacconist because he couldn’t hide the fact that he disliked smoke from his customers. An annual race is still run in his honor.
  • Moses Mayfield (1970, 1971) was a Philadelphian and member of the Penn Athletic Club. He was still training young runners in 1992.
  • Jan Yerkes (1981, 1982), a Bucks County native, was also the first Villanova woman to compete in the NCAA women’s cross country championship, starting a legacy that would make Villanova the dominant school in that competition ever since.

Philadelphia Marathon 2000
Spring Garden St & Kelly Dr

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The Jayne Building: Chestnut Street’s Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda

The Jayne Building, 242-244 Chestnut Street, photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards, ca. 1859. (PhillyHistory.org/The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Things looked up in 1850. Eight stories up, to be precise. The future seemed bright for Dr. David Jayne, his new building and booming business on Chestnut Street. Jayne’s patent medicines in handy little bottles had been flying off the shelves ever since he figured out how to make people feel good spending money on tonics and pills. If Jayne’s vermifuge (for intestinal worms) or his sanative pills (for overall health) or his alteratives (to restore normal health) wouldn’t do the trick, there were always his expectorants and ague mixture. And even if you felt just fine, you probably could look a little better. For that, Jayne offered an array of oleaginous hair tonics and dyes.

How did he manage such a level of success? Since 1843, physician and master marketer Jayne had published and distributed free almanacs providing health advice to millions of loyal readers across the United States and around the world. Over time, more than half a billion copies of Jayne’s Medical Almanac and Guide to Health were printed and distributed. And beginning in 1851, nearly every one featured the image of his building on its cover.

The Jayne Building was no ordinary edifice. Only at street level did it seem like others along the lower blocks of Chestnut. But the higher it rose—and it soared to more than 133 feet with its two-story, tin-covered, Gothic tower—the Jayne Building stood taller than any other place of business in the city. Squinting away its Gothic motif, it even looked like a skyscraper. Since Louis Sullivan, who later designed the real thing in Chicago, briefly worked in the architectural offices of Frank Furness across street, there might even have been an influence.

Demolition of the Jayne Building, January 2, 1958. Photograph by George A. Eisenman (The Historic American Building Survey/The Library of Congress)

In 1950, on the building’s 100th birthday, Charles Peterson publicly made this claim. “In the annals of the American skyscraper there was, perhaps, nothing more daring as the design for this building…” Peterson proposed it be allowed to stand (without its tower, which had burned in a dramatic fire in 1872) as one of Chestnut Street’s monuments to American history. He had the Jayne Building documented by the Historic American Building Survey (Peterson had some pull there, having founded the program in the 1930s), and he talked about it and even distributed a two-page mimeographed handout to anyone who was game. Peterson bent Louis Mumford’s ear as he researched a series of articles about Philadelphia for The New Yorker in the Spring of 1956.

“One is tempted to agree with Mr. Peterson’s conclusion,” wrote Mumford, “that this building must have provided Sullivan with his image of the skyscraper as a ‘proud and soaring thing’ whose character would be established by stressing vertical lines, for the Jayne Building looks like a crude model of a Sullivan skyscraper of a generation later.” But “whether this unique and historic structure…should be spared, as a national monument,” Mumford added, “is one of the many difficult questions that confront the directors of that project…”

That  project, of course, was Independence National Historical Park, which favored 18th-century buildings über alles. And within months wrecking crews were busy taking Jayne down.

Over the years, city planner Edmund Bacon had monumental disagreements with Peterson. In this case he agreed completely. Bacon later called the demolition of the Jayne Building ‘‘the worst single act of architectural vandalism that I’ve ever experienced.”

For scars like that, and the regret that followed, there would be no tonics or ointments.

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How Philly Got Flat: Piling it on at the Logan Triangle

1895: Detail of Wingohocking Creek and the projected street grid from the G. W. Bromley Philadelphia Atlas. (Philadelphia GeoHistory Network)

Rolling Hills? Maybe once upon a time. But at the dawn of the 20th century, when the City of Homes meant rowhouses, as far as the eye could see, Philadelphia had to be flator as close to flat as humanly possibleif it was to have any value on the real estate market.

And so, one by one, Nature’s dips, rises and rolls were raised up or shaved down as the city grid marched north. Once flattened, Philly invited horse drawn streetcars on its newly leveled streets, which meant developers and then new residents. Mile by mile, that’s how the city boomed to more than double its population between the Civil War and 1900.

1903: Taking the Wingohocking underground. Sewer Construction at 7th and Courtland Streets. Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

As mid-century became turn-of-the-century,Broad Street forged northward past Ridge Avenue to Monument Cemetery (Temple University, today). It then trundled over the bridge at Cohocksink Creek (soon to become Dauphin Street), over Gunners Run (just south of the would-be Allegheny Avenue) and past Hunting Park, where a race-course-turned-public-park sprawled to the east. Now, little more than a wide lane, Broad Street approached the largest creek so farthe Wingohocking. And as it flowed eastward to join Frankford Creek, the Wingohocking did what creeks do: it meandered a bit to the north, and then a bit to the south, crossing where Courtland Street was supposed to be, no less than four times from Broad to 6th.

What’s to be done when the dips are gullies are actually valleys surrounded by rolling hills? Philly’s flatlanders had a ready-made solution. Run the creeks through giant culverts: massive, man-made, underground masonry aqueducts large enough to allow Mother Nature to carry on unimpeded—out of sight— and possibly out of mind. And even more convenient: these hidden, creek beds could double as the city’s backup sewer system, on an as-needed basis, when the occasional flood strikes. Above, on the level, it’s business as usual.Or that was the idea.

So they channeled the Wingahocking where it meandered. And over it, and over anything that laid lower than the idea grade for Philadelphia, well, that, too, would be covered with a deep layer of fill. Ambitious? To be sure. But doable.

2000: Detail of Map Showing the Distribution of Fill in the Frankford and Germantown Quadrangles (U.S. Department of the Interior / U.S. Geological Survey) Click image for original map (7.2MB PDF).

By the 1880s, historians Scharf and Westcott had seen it happen, again and again. “There have been great changes in the face of [Philadelphia], in its levels and contour, and in the direction and beds of its water-courses… Some streams have disappeared, some have changed their direction, nearly all have been reduced in volume and depth…in the building of a great city.” Scharf and Wescott had seen a lot, but nothing like was about to happen along the Wingohocking. As water historian Adam Levine tells it: “In some watersheds, it took many years to completely obliterate the main stream and its tributaries.” West Philadelphia’s conversion from Mill Creek to sewer “took more than 25 years, and the city’s largest such project, the burying of both branches of Wingohocking Creek, took about 40 years.” Raising the 80-acre Winghocking valley up to city grid grade would require as much as 40 feet of fill.

Aside from urban esthetics and environmental ethics, this massive project had every reason to work—if only the contractors had used rock and soil for fill. But, in one of Philadelphia’s most egregious and purposeful bungles, the fill hauled in by specially-designed streetcars was ash and cinder, an estimated 500,000 cubic yards of it. In time, the consequences would be as dire as the hauling and dumping project had been efficient. “It took decades for the inadequacy of the ash to be revealed,” writes Levine. But when the fill washed away, gas lines ruptured and the neighborhood above found itself in the midst of “an epidemic…of sagging porches, cracking foundations” and worse, much worse.

The saga of Philadelphia’s Logan Triangle had begun.

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Hungry for Authenticity at Second and Walnut

John Krider’s Gun Shop, Southeast corner of Walnut and Second Streets, Photograph by John Moran, ca. 1869. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia).

Back when big fish like Frank Sinatra, Elisabeth Taylor, Joe DiMaggio or John Wayne dined at Bookbinders, Philadelphia was still a W.C. Fields joke, rich in history and starved of self-esteem. The restaurant was more about fine spin than fine cuisine, but there weren’t many choices back then. So, again and again, from the 50s through the 80s, Bookbinders got to call the shots when it came to its many expansions, often at the expense of the very history it claimed to serve up as a side dish.

The first example: the 200-year-old Drinker-Krider building at 2nd and Walnut Streets. Soon after Bookbinders bought it, they demolished it.

Legend has it, John Drinker built this house in 1751, many years after having been born in a log cabin on the same site. (Legend also has it that Drinker witnessed William Penn’s arrival in the 1680s.) In the middle of the 19th century, a gunsmith named John Krider bought the place and operated what became a famous gun shop and taxidermy business there. Hunters and fisherman found everything there,  from Krider’s hand-crafted guns and bamboo rods to his hunting books and dog biscuits. The building at 2nd and Walnut became one of those anecdote-rich, go-to sites for artists, documentarians, and, of course, tourists.

Now, with a new owner in July 1952, this historic building itself was about to fall prey.

2nd Street South: Northeast Corner Walnut, John Drinker House Kreider’s Gun Store. Book #5, Survey of Philadelphia (1930). Photograph by Carollo R. Widdop. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Nowhere in the country is there a comparable collection of early buildings, wrote architect Grant Miles Simon in 1953, noting losses from “ruthless destruction…in the name of modern progress.”  These survivors, wrote Simon, “constitute an invaluable part of the documentation of American history. They were lived in by, and were familiar sights to, the many great figures of the Revolutionary and the Federal eras. Their days are few unless a tardy appreciation makes a permanent place for them in the City plan.”

When push came to shove, would Simon stand up for the lowly Drinker-Krider place? We’d like to think he saw it bordering the grand, Beaux-Arts, shrine-studded greensward he proposed eastward from Independence Hall in 1947. We’d like to think he imagined a role for near-shrines and even for non-shrines.

But the Drinker-Krider building was found to be flawed. A report by the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) found “the brick bearing walls…in poor structural condition…the south end of the party wall was extremely weak…the timber framing was badly deteriorated in spots and was in a generally weakened condition.” But instead of strengthening the walls and the framing, the building’s new owners chose to have the building condemned. They allowed HABS in for thorough documentation, then they pulled it down.

Wanting to have history both ways, Bookbinders hired Simon, who in 1956 was freshly appointed to chair the Philadelphia Historical Commission, to design a “meticulous copy” of the Drinker-Krider building, one that would allow them to expand their restaurant. On December 20, 1960, Mayor Richardson Dilworth, Mrs. Bookbinder and another official used a three-handled shovel to break ground for the new wing. With a new presence on this historic corner, across from the new Independence Historical National park, the restaurant would be able to open two new venues: the “Signers’ Dining Room” and the “Hall of Patriots Banquet Room”.

Northeast Corner of 2nd & Walnut Streets, November 29, 1961. Photograph Carollo R. Widdop. (PhillyHistory,org)

As it turned out, the reconstruction wasn’t meticulous. The new brick color lacked the hue and richness of the original; its fresh patina wasn’t anything  like what had been demolished. By comparison, the plaster cove cornice wasn’t as gutsy (HABS documented the orignal) and the shutters seemed soulless. Character and authenticity were gone. The reconstruction introduced a sad whiff of mid-20thcentury uncertainty to the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district.

The past isn’t about great shrines or grand vistas. Real historic cities grow over time, and they grow unpredictably. They can’t be intentionally made, and they certainly can’t be remade. At its fleeting best, Philadelphia is always about its many modest, authentic gems. Each has its own story, texture, character, and distinctiveness. Kind of like a great meal.

So far as authentic history was concerned, Philadelphians would go hungry at 2nd and Walnut. That banquet would have to be found elsewhere.

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John Haviland: Playing Out the Greek Option

Washington Square South with First Presbyterian Church and the Orange Street Friends Meeting in the distance, ca. 1885. Neither one survive. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library)

When British-trained architect John Haviland arrived in Philadelphia, some took him for a Benjamin Henry Latrobe doppelganger. But where Latrobe had been ahead of his time, introducing the architecture of ancient Greece at the turn of the century, Haviland, in 1816, was right on time.

For more than half a century, The Antiquities of Athens had been known as a library book filled with illustrations drawn from Grecian ruins by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett. First Latrobe, then Haviland and eventually many others saw value in applying these design ideas, and helped them migrate from printed page to city street. Ancient Greece had been the original Democracy. So why not whet the American appetite for archeological accuracy in everything Grecian, from clothing to buildings. But there was more: in the 1820s, the Greek struggle for independence played out in the Mediterranean, yet another chapter in the millennia-long struggle between Christians and Muslims. And the United States had a stake in the outcome. When Greek independence became a reality in 1832, Americans felt more justified than ever in choosing, and celebrating, the Greek option.

At first, Philadelphians engaged in some serious tiptoeing toward what would eventually become a full-fledged Greek Revival. In 1818, the directors of the Second Bank opened a design competition calling for “a chaste specimen of Greek architecture.” Haviland had a design for just such a building—and had exhibited it at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts the year before—but that’s long lost. And not much else of that bank competition survives. As Matthew Baigell, Haviland’s biographer tells us, “some ten tons of documents pertaining to the Bank…were rendered into pulp” in the 1840s. What we do know is that William Strickland won the competition with his close interpretation of the Parthenon in Pennsylvania marble drawn straight from The Antiquities of Athens.

First Presbyterian Church, 7th and South Washington Square, ca. 1930. (PhillyHistory.org).

Haviland would have to bide his time with minor projects and his own three-volume book, The Builder’s Assistant (1818-1821), the first American pattern book offering up detailed Greek and Roman orders. When Haviland finally landed his first big commission, the First Presbyterian Church on Washington Square in 1820, his building was drawn, just as Strickland’s and Latrobe’s banks were, straight from the illustration of the Temple on the Ilissus in Antiquities of Athens. There weren’t funds to cast it in marble, so Haviland had the church’s portico constructed in red and white cedar and painted with enough sand in the mix so that it would look like marble. And no matter that it wasn’t any closer to the real thing; the First Presbyterian Church could claim the title as the first Greek Revival church in America.

Ionic temple of the Ilissus. Elevation of the portico from James Stuart’s Antiquities of Athens, 1762. (Smithsonian Institution Libraries.)

As it turned out, the new church style was popular. Two years later, and one block away, Haviland delivered another congregation a building based on the temple of Dionysus at Teos. Saint Andrews Episcopal Church survives today as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George. Through the 1830s and beyond, the Greek option would continue to thrive.

But archeological correctness wasn’t always possible, and it wasn’t even always desirable. In 1825, when Haviland designed a building for the Franklin Institute (now the Philadelphia History Museum) he turned again to Stuart and Revett illustration of the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus. This time, Haviland made the façade his own and, as Baigell observed, and “resolved his composition more successfully than did his Greek predecessor.”

Haviland’s urge to make Greek replicas was strong, but his passion to design turned out to be even more powerful. He preferred the “Greek feeling for restraint and delicacy” wrote Talbot Hamlin, but “realized the dangers of pure copying.” Even at the First Presbyterian Church, Haviland didn’t allow the original to dictate his design. To accommodate site limitations he removed the original staircase. Sometimes, in Haviland’s published designs, he could be “free…almost to the point of eccentricity” fearlessly “combining new, creative forms with Greek detail.” And in the case of his castellated Eastern State Penitentiary, the largest, most important and influential of Haviland’s projects, here was a medieval breakaway, even if, as  Baigell wondered, “the Athenian Propylea lies somewhere in the genesis of the central portion of this design.” The drive to create lit the way: it was only a matter of time before Haviland, as well as others, would leave behind the Greek option.

What was going through Haviland’s creative imagination in the 1820s? For a hint, we turn to his portrait from 1828 by John Neagle. Next to Haviland leans a depiction of his completed penitentiary. In his right hand, a brass compass points to the inventive heart of the project, Haviland’s panopticon plan. The architect’s hand rests comfortably, if not lovingly, on his copy of the book that was the starting point for it all: Stuart’s Athens.

Once Haviland was able to convince his clients that there was more potential in invention than in archeological correctness, his creative juices, and this career, took off. So long as his buildings followed the basic principles of good design, he could dress them up in any style the occasion might require. And when these design doors flew open, Haviland would consider the Greek an option, but only one. After that, he’d choose whatever struck his fancy: Gothic, Egyptian, Japanese.

Haviland had played out the Greek option; now the eclectic possibilities for American architectural styles seemed endless.

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