The PRT and the Upwardly-Mobile Bricker Family

The old "streetcar" shopping hub at 49th and Baltimore Avenue, April 20, 1955. The bank building now houses the Mariposa Food Co-op.

The old “streetcar” shopping hub at 49th and Baltimore Avenue, April 20, 1955. The bank building now houses the Mariposa Food Co-op.

My fiancee and I have just purchased a c.1905 twin house in the Cedar Park section of West Philadelphia.  It is a typical house for what was originally an upper-middle class streetcar neighborhood (according to the National Register of Historic Places, West Philadelphia contains America’s largest intact collection of Victorian housing stock): three stories (four including the finished attic), a front and back garden, polychrome brickwork on the front facade, and plenty of carved interior oak woodwork and leaded glass.  The work of those long-dead woodcarvers is truly outstanding– the baroque scrolled staircase and latticed screen in the front parlor made me wonder if these men also plied their craft in Cedar Park’s grand churches, such as Calvary United Methodist and St. Francis de Sales.

The main staircase, with baroque scrollwork. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The main staircase, with baroque-ish scrollwork. The door now leads to the basement staircase, but it originally led to the “telephone room.” In the early 1900s, having a telephone displayed in the parlor was considered quite improper. The servant staircase in the back has been replaced by a powder room. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Cedar Park combined the walkability of the old city with the spaciousness of the country. In fact, before the rise of the mass-produced automobile, Cedar Park was considered a Philadelphia suburb. Unlike the ornate, turreted “Queen Anne” homes in the vicinity, our Cedar Park house is square and stolid, with minimal exterior ornamentation.  The use of space is very efficient. Although the house is almost 3,000 square feet, one wouldn’t guess it when looking at it from the street. Philadelphia architectural historian/photographer Joseph Minardi describes houses built in this idiom as “colonial revival,” but they actually don’t bear much resemblance to the “authentic” colonial models in Society Hill.  Perhaps a hybrid of Colonial Revival and Arts & Crafts would be a fairer description.  These big houses, Minardi states, were “far from fancy,” but still considered “comfortable for an upper-middle class worker and his growing family…spacious and modern with room for servants to assist the lady of the house.”

The intersection of 48th Street and Cedar Avenue, 1907 and 2016. These large "colonial revival/arts & crafts" style homes were built for white collar upper middle class workers and their families, and had every modern convenience for the era, including electric lighting and steam heat. Kitchen stoves and furnaces were still coal-fired and had to be stoked by hand. Upper photograph by Steven Ujifusa, lower photograph a period postcard from Robert Morris Skaler's book "West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street."

The intersection of 48th Street and Cedar Avenue, 1907 and 2016. These large “colonial revival/arts & crafts” style homes were built for white collar workers and their families, and had every modern convenience for the era, including electric lighting and steam heat. Some had telephones. Kitchen stoves and furnaces were still coal-fired and had to be stoked by hand. The first floor contained a formal front parlor, dining room, and kitchen. The second floor had a more informal family living room, illuminated by a bay window. Upper photograph by Steven Ujifusa, lower photograph a period postcard from Robert Morris Skaler’s book “West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street.”

4800 block of Hazel Avenue 5.16.27.ashx

The 4800 block of Hazel Avenue, looking west. May 16, 1927. These large houses were only 30 years old or so when this photograph was taken.  Note that there is only one car parked on the block.

The 4800 block of Cedar Avenue, looking west. February 15, 1954. Note the third floor balconies.

The 4800 block of Cedar Avenue, looking west. February 15, 1954. Note the third floor balconies.

One of the first things I did after we decided to buy the Cedar Park house was learn more about its history.  It appears that its first owners were members of the Bricker family. William Elmer Bricker, a “transitman” at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (headquartered at 730 Market Street) and a 1907 alumnus of Lehigh University, is listed as living at the house in the 1908-1909 proceedings of his alma mater’s alumni association.  According to the mayor of Philadelphia’s annual report, Bricker earned $70 per month, or about $1,700 in today’s money, a solid wage in the early 1900s, and was a son of a veteran of the “War of Rebellion.” As an undergraduate, he belonged to Delta Upsilon fraternity. No spouse or children are listed.  In 1917, he is listed as still working at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, with an office at 820 Dauphin Street.

It appears that the PRT was a family affair for the Brickers.  On March 20, 1913, the Transit Journal noted the death of James E. Bricker, 70, superintendent of the PRT and Civil War veteran.  A native of Cumberland County, he had started his career as a conductor on the West Philadelphia Street Railway during its “horse car days” and rose to become superintendent of the Union Traction Company until its takeover by Widener’s Philadelphia Traction Company, and then the PRT.  It appears that William Bricker shared the house with his parents, as the Harrisburg Daily Independent notes that Miss Emma Stewart was spending the month of February, 1910 with her sister Mrs. James Bricker on Cedar Avenue.

Carved latticework in the "courting nook." Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Carved latticework in the “courting nook.” Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

To borrow Minardi’s phrase, the PRT was one of many prosperous businesses that employed West Philadelphia’s  “upwardly mobile meritocracy.”   It was chartered on May 1, 1902, with John S. Parsons as its first president.  Its board included Peter Arrell Brown Widener–the richest man in Philadelphia–who had created his $100 million fortune by building electrified trolley lines and developing land around them.  Also on the PRT board was his son George Dunton Widener, who would perish in the RMS Titanic disaster in 1912.   PRT’s purpose was to construct an electrified, high speed rail line that would run from Frankford in North Philadelphia all the way to 69th Street in Upper Darby.  The PRT needed bright young men like Bricker to manage the complicated logistics of constructing an elevated railroad along Market Street: in Center City, where the railroad went underground, the tracks were was built using the “cut-and-cover” technique previously employed in the construction of New York and Boston’s underground system.  In West Philadelphia, the line ran above ground, through what was then largely undeveloped farmland.


By choosing to buy a house in Cedar Park, William Bricker had the best of both worlds when it came to commuting into Center City.  He was only two blocks north from the electric trolley line that ran along Baltimore Avenue, and seven blocks south of the 52nd Street stop on the Market Street Elevated, which opened for business in 1907.  Travel time from West Philadelphia to the Center City business district was cut to a mere 10 minutes. Between 1910 and 1920, West Philadelphia’s population skyrocketed by 110,000 residents, its greatest increase ever, to hit a peak population of 410,000.  Within a few years, the rowhouses and apartment buildings of the Garden Court development filled up the sylvan landscape separating the Bricker house from the elevated line.

Considering the number of Philadelphia transit-related articles I have written over the past several years, I found the purchase of this particular house to be quite a fortunate coincidence. To the readership: if anyone has additional information on the Bricker family, please let me know!

Note: to read about the creation of the Center City Commuter Connection, click here to read my PlanPhilly article from 2008. 

52nd and Market Street, looking south from the PRT elevated railroad stop, November 20, 1914.

52nd and Market Streets, looking south from the PRT elevated railroad stop, November 20, 1914. Note the trolley line that connects the older “trolley suburb” of Cedar Park with the denser, rapidly-growing commercial/residential hub around the 52nd street PRT stop.


Music from the period of our “ragtime” house: the “Top Liner” rag, composed by Joseph Lamb in 1916.


Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930s (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2011), p.94.

Samuel Bass Warner Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Growth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), p.194.

Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, February 18, 1910.

Catalogue of Delta Upsilon (New York: The Arthur Crist Company, 1917) p.479.

Annual Report of the Bureau of Railways, Department for Internal Affairs, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Part IV: Railroad, Canal, Telephone, and Telegrah Companies (Harrisburg: C.E. Aughinbaugh, 1910), p.507.



Posted in Neighborhoods, Snapshots of History | 3 Comments

Hypersegregation + Redlining + Time = Persistent Decline

Geographical Distribution of Negro Population - Philadelphia 1932. City Plans Division. Bureau of Engineering and Surveys. (

Geographical Distribution of Negro Population – Philadelphia 1932. City Plans Division. Bureau of Engineering and Surveys. (

More than 85,000 mostly rural Southerners arrived in Philadelphia in the 1920s seeking opportunity. What they encountered was discrimination, segregation and poverty. The Great Migration, followed by the Great Depression, added up to a double disadvantage for Philadelphia’s African American population. The city founded on principles of tolerance, mercy and justice had managed to modify its original DNA. Hypersegregation had taken hold.

Between 1920 and 1930, the largest increases in the city’s African-American population were seen in only 10 out of 48 Wards. These 10 Wards absorbed more than 57,000 of the newcomers, more than two-thirds of the citywide increase. North, West and South Philadelphia saw the largest rises, as maps created in 1932 by the City Plans Division, Bureau of Engineering and Surveys graphically illustrate. Previously, we examined Distribution of Negro Population By Ward, from 1920 to 1930. This time, we examine a newly-discovered map with even more precision, a block-by-block display of the newly ghettoized and overcrowded neighborhoods immediately to the North, South and West of Center City. The Geographical Distribution of Negro Population from 1932 is a rare, illuminating snapshot of life in Philadelphia.

1934 Appraisal Map, by J. M. Brewer identifying Percy Street as "Decadent." (Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network)

1934 Appraisal Map, by J. M. Brewer identifying Percy Street Real Estate as “Decadent.” (Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network)

In many of the city’s other neighborhoods—the nearer and farther stretches of the Northeast, the Northwest beyond Nicetown and Germantown and deep South Philadelphia the African-American population didn’t grow at all.. And where it did, it became more geographically concentrated. No fewer than eight Wards saw declines in African American population, including Center City’s historically Black Seventh Ward (the subject  of W. E. B. DuBois’ classic The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, published in 1899). Between 1920 and 1930, this neighborhood stretching west from 7th Street, between Spruce and South Streets, saw a once robust African-American population diminish from 12,241 to 8,430.

Philadelphia’s demographic narrative in the 1920s, when its African-American population became uneven, isolated, clustered, concentrated and centralized—can be summarized in a word: hypersegregated.  How would that narrative play out in the 1930s?

926-924 Percy Street, July 13, 1951. (

926-924 Percy Street, July 13, 1951. (

Without adequate supports to address overcrowding and poverty, without mechanisms to guide the transition from rural to urban life, tens of thousands of new Philadelphians found themselves without survival strategies on the eve of the Great Depression. And when the Depression arrived, it hit the hypersegregated, African-American neighborhoods the hardest. In 1931, unemployment among Philadelphia’s African Americans exceeded 40 percent; two years later it rose to 50 percent.

By mid 1930s, the collision of place, time and people was presented in another set of powerful graphics: Philadelphia’s redlining maps. Taken with the newly-uncovered maps from the Philadelphia’s Department of Records, we see a progression of unfortunate evidence. Neighborhoods identified as having dramatic increases in African American populations in the 1920s; neighborhoods with concentrations of African-American in the early 1930s, those same blocks—hundreds and hundreds of them—would be systematically designated as occupied by “Colored” and in nothing less “decadent” and “hazardous” condition.

That was in the depths of the Depression. Recovery would take the rest of the 20th century—and then some.

[Listen to the full interview with WHYY’s Dave Heller recorded March 18,2016 and aired on Newsworks.]

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Roots of Hypersegregation in Philadelphia, 1920-1930

Distribution of Negro Population By Wards 1920-1930. William A. Gee, photographer, April 27, 1932. (

Distribution of Negro Population By Wards 1920-1930. William A. Gee, photographer, April 27, 1932. (


Philadelphia’s 48 Wards: Changes in African-American Population, 1920 to 1930.

For the first couple of centuries, Philadelphians of different races co-existed in close proximity. Near rows of mansions and shops on Chestnut, Walnut and Spruce stood clusters of modest houses tucked into sidestreets, courts and alleys. The city seemed designed—destined, even—for social, economic and racial integration. Philadelphia’s original DNA wasn’t programmed for the 20th century urban ghetto.

Then came the transformative convergence of the city’s Great Expansion and the nation’s Great Migration.

“The nation’s black people had been overwhelmingly rural and predominantly southern,” wrote Frederic Miller. Seventy three percent lived in rural areas and 89% were Southerners. By 1920, “the outmigration of blacks from the eleven states of the Southeast was about 554,000, nearly 7% of the area’s total black population.” Between 1920 and 1930, about 902,000 more African Americans left the rural South.

This would transform many Northern cities, especially Philadelphia, which had dramatically expanded in cycle after cycle of construction from the Civil War to World War I.

With World War came the collapse of European immigration and the stream of labor it provided. Then the boll weevil devastated agriculture in the American South. Cities in the urban, industrial North seemed like destinations with promise. By 1930, more than two million African Americans had relocated.

Here’s a few snapshots of Philadelphia’s demographic shift: 1910: 84,459 African-American Philadelphians made up 5.5% of the population. 1920: 134,224, made up 7.4% of the total. 1930: 219,599, made up 11.3%. 1940: 250,000, represented 12.94% of the total.At the start of the Great Depression, seven out of ten African Americans living in Philadelphia had come from the American South.

Transformations throughout the 20th century played out on social, economic, education and spacial fronts. According to Robert Gregg: “Not only were there difficulties assimilating such a large number into the community at once, but the racism already evident in the city was heightened. White Philadelphians began to separate themselves from their black neighbors in all spheres, segregating not only housing, but accommodations, services, education, and religion. Black people were barred from all center-city restaurants, hotels, lunch counters, dime-store counters; and theaters. At the same time, attempts were made to segregate Philadelphia’s schools.”

From 1908 to 1935, the city’s expanding African-American neighborhoods found footing with increased homeownership (802 to 9,855); African American owned stores (281 to 787); physicians (28 to 200); clergymen (73 to 250); schoolteachers (54 to 553) and policemen (70 to 219). But at a price, writes Gregg: “African Americans also became more concentrated and more segregated from the white community.” As the city absorbed newcomers in seemingly endless miles of relatively rowhouses stretching to the north, south and west of Center City, Philadelphia’s expanding African-American population settled unevenly in isolated, concentrated and centralized clusters. Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey gave this a name: hypersegregation.

And in Philadelphia, hypersegregation took root in the 1920s, when North Philadelphia’s African-American population about doubled. The western side of North Philadelphia (from Poplar to Lehigh), approximately 3.4 square miles, saw an increase of the African-American population from 16,666 to 41,270. By 1940, according to Gregg, “more than fifteen thousand families, or more than sixty thousand individuals” occupied the three-quarter square mile area from 7th to Broad, Fairmount to Susquehanna.

Similar concentration, and isolation, was seen south of South Street to Washington Avenue, Broad Street to the Schuylkill. In 1910, this half square mile area was 16% African American. By 1920, that population stood at 15,481, just over half of the total. By 1930, the number increased to 19,537. And by 1940, this small swath of South Philadelphia was 80% African American.

In West Philadelphia, the number of African Americans living in a two-square mile expanse north of Market more than doubled from 15,304 to 39,609.

Meanwhile, the African American presence in Center City and the lower Northeast was shrinking. In the 1920s, while Philadelphia’s total African American population increased by more than 85,000, Center City increased by only 61.

Twentieth-century Philadelphia had modified its founding DNA and enabled hypersegregation to take hold.

[Sources include: Robert Gregg, Sparks from the Anvil of Oppression: Philadelphia’s African Methodists and Southern Migrants, 1890-1940 (Temple University Press: 1993); Douglas S. Massey & Jonathan Tannen, “A Research Note on Trends in Black Hypersegregation,” Demography (2015) 52:1025–1034; Frederic Miller, “The Black Migration to Philadelphia, A 1924 Profile,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, July 1984, pp. 315-350; James Wolfinger, “African American Migration,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2013.]

[Listen to the full interview with WHYY’s Dave Heller recorded March 18,2016 and aired on Newsworks.]

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Gangs of Philadelphia

Caption (

In Southwark – Front Street at Christian. Photograph by John Moran, 1869. (Free Library of Philadelphia/

“Armed to the teeth” with “pocket pistols, knives, or those horrible inventions known as ‘slung-shot,'” Philadelphia’s gangs dominated the streets of Southwark and Moyamensing in the 1840s, raining bricks and reigning terror.

How had it gotten so out of control? The lack of police beyond the city’s southern border – then South Street. And the give-and-take of street warfare. The cycle of violence begins when a gang member “escapes barely with his life, and mangled, wounded, and bleeding, makes his appearance among his confederates and companions, details a vivid account of the manner in which he was assailed…  A spirit of vengeance is kindled… threats of retaliation are uttered, and an early opportunity is sought, to pay back in the same coin, with bricks, bludgeons and knives, the attack upon their brother. When the fight is once commenced under these circumstances, the feelings become inflamed, the mind is maddened, the blood heated, and the scene is often of the most fearful character. This, we believe, is the whole story with regard to most of the collisions which have recently taken place.”

“What is the remedy?” asked the Inquirer in desperation during the the hot summer of 1849.

Meanwhile, all hell had broken loose. “We are told there are no less than five gangs of organized ruffians, either in the county, or on the outskirts of the city.” Seasoned columnist George Foster identified eleven “squads or clubs” in Southwark and Moyamensing populated by “loafers” who give themselves “outlandish titles.” The fiercer the better. Marauding the streets were Killers, Bouncers, Rats, Stingers, Nighthawks, Buffers, Skinners, Gumballs, Smashers, Whelps, Flayers “and other appropriate and verminous designations.” They marked their territories by fighting, rioting, and writing “in chalk or charcoal on every dead-wall, fence and stable-door.” They held their “nightly conclaves on the corners of by-streets or in unoccupied building-lots, sneaking about behind the rubbish-heaps, and perhaps now and then venturing out to assault an unprotected female or knock down a lonely passenger.”

Two of the Killers. ca. 1848. Lithograph by J. Childs. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

And worse. On Election Day, 1849, the Killers and the Stingers corralled a few hundred of their allies and attacked the California House at Sixth and St. Mary Street (now Naudain), a tavern operated by an interracial couple. The battle “raged for a night and a day” before causalities were counted . “Dreadful Riot,” read one of several headlines,” Houses Burned, and Several Persons Killed and Wounded.”

For years, the newspapers had been crying out for “the law efficiently and vigorously administered” no matter what the cost. “Is it not possible for the authorities of the immediate districts concerned, to secure one or two of the ringleaders?” they demanded. “Are the citizens of that district content to live in such a state of anarchy?”

Apparently, the citizens had little choice in the matter. According to David R. Johnson in The Peoples of Philadelphia, The Public Ledger reported on the doings of no less than 51 gangs. In an effort to be even more comprehensive—from sources listed below as well as the Inquirer—we located an additional 14.

Here are the gangs, the Philadelphia 65, listed in alphabetical order:

American Guards; Bleeders; Blood Tubs; Blossoms; Bouncers; Buffers; Bugs; Bulldogs; Centre Street Boys; Chesapeakes; Crockets; Darts; Deathfetchers; Dogs; Dog-Towners; Flayers; Fly-By-Nights; Garroters; Gumballs; Hyenas; Jack of Clubs; Jumpers; Juniatta Club; Kensington Blackhawks; Kerryonians; Keystone No. 2; Killers; Lancers; Molly Maguires; Neckers; Nighthawks; Orangemen; Pickwick Club; Pluckers; Pots No. 2; Privateer Club No. 1; Rangers; Rats; Reading Hose Club; Rebels; Red Roses; Reed Birds; Schuylkill Rangers; Shifflers; Skinners; Smashers; Snakers; Snappers; Spiggots; Spitfires; Sporters; Springers; Stingers; Stockholders; The Forty Thieves; The Vesper Social; Tormentors; Turks; Vampyres; Waynetowners; Weecys; Whelps; Wild Cats; Wreckers.

If these boys and men had heroes, these were the toughest of Philadelphia’s volunteer firemen who, according to Bruce Laurie, they “gazed upon and followed in awe and reverence.” But unlike the gangs, which more often than not served as firefighting farm teams, the city’s volunteer fire companies chose names without bite, or even growl. Fact was, the fire companies found resonance in their choices of civic-sounding names: Assistance, Diligent, Friendship, Good Intent, Good Will, Hand-In-Hand, Harmony, Hope, Humane, Perseverance, Reliance and Vigilant.

Ah, branding.

Sources include: The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Bouncers and Killers,” August 11, 1846; “Fireman’s Triennial Parade,” March 27, 1849; [News/Opinion, page 2, column 1] August 7, 1849; “Dreadful Riot,” October, 10, 1849; George Rogers Taylor and George G. Foster, “Philadelphia in Slices,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jan., 1969), pp. 23-72; David R. Johnson “Crime Patterns in Philadelphia, 1840-70,” pp. 89-110 and Bruce Laurie, “Fire Companies and Gangs in Southwark: The 1840s,” in Allen F. Davis, Mark H. Haller The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life, 1790-1940. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); Peter McCaffery, When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: The Emergence of the Republican Machine, 1867–1933. (Penn State University Press: 1993).

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Tony Drexel Goes for a Walk (Part II)

Church of the Savior 1969.ashx

The Church of the Savior, built in 1889, restored after a fire in 1906 The Davis mansion on the left (designed by Willis Hale, also responsible for Peter A.B. Widener’s castle on North Broad Street) was demolished soon after this picture was taken. June 8, 1969.

Although born a Roman Catholic, Drexel migrated to the Episcopal church and helped fund the construction of the Church of the Savior at 38th and Ludlow, today’s Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral.  To honor his patronage, a stained glass window was installed in his honor. He purchased and developed vacant land with homes as the streetcar lines spread ever westward.

Finally, he built up his father’s bank to be one of the leading investment firms in the nation.  In London, he worked closely with older leading financiers, most notably the Rothschilds and the Vanderbilts, to replace the standard 5-20 call bonds with 4 per cents.  He also made successful deals with the Philadelphia & Reading and New York Central railroads. Among Drexel’s proteges was a brilliant but temperamental young man from Connectict named John Pierpont Morgan, who would go on to found the firm Drexel, Morgan & Company in New York, the ancestor of today’s J.P. Morgan Chase.  J.P. Morgan himself did not share Drexel’s retiring, gentle demeanor: one observer said that Morgan’s eyes were like the headlights of an onrushing train.

Drexel himself didn’t take the street car to work, even after electrification allowed it to reach the-then dizzying speed of 15 miles per hour.  Nor did he take a coach.  Rather, he walked to his office at 16th and Walnut Street every day, almost always with his good friend, the Philadelphia Public Ledger publisher George William Childs.  “Year in and year out,” noted historian Robert Morris Skaler, “they walked the same round, making themselves well-known personalities in their day.”

In 1891, shortly before his death, he bequeathed $2 million of his fortune (equivalent to over $40 million today) to establish the Drexel Institute of Technology. Located in a terra cotta-encrusted structure at 32nd and Chestnut  Street, the Institute’s goal was provide affordable and practical education to the children of families of modest means.  It may have been Drexel’s retort to the Gilded Age elitism at his longtime neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania.

Anthony Drexel died on June 30, 1893 while on a European vacation, aged 66.  When asked to comment on the death of his friend, George William Childs could barely stop from choking up: “It is a great shock and a great blow to me and us all. We were so far from expecting anything of this kind.  I would rather it have been myself that had died–much better I had died than Mr. Drexel.”

Although Anthony had built two other houses on “the Drexel Block” for his son George William Childs Drexel and daughter Frances Katherine Drexel Paul, his descendants rapidly abandoned West Philadelphia for Rittenhouse Square, the Main Line, and Chestnut Hill.

The Drexel mansion itself is long gone, replaced by Penn dormitories. The Wharton School, which has trained generations of Drexel and later Morgan bankers, is located just across 38th Street.  Drexel University, his greatest and most long-lasting legacy, continues to thrive north of Market Street.

Drexel University 1963.ashx

The Drexel Institute, later Drexel University, at 32nd and Chestnut Street. The main building, designed by the Wilson brothers, as photographed in 1963.


“Anthony Drexel is Dead,” The New York Times, July 1, 1893.

Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930 (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2011), pp.39, 70, 74, 77.

Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p.13.

Posted in Events and People, Historic Sites, Neighborhoods | Leave a comment

Nuclear Apocalypse at 12th & Arch

Civil Defense Sign - Roosevelt Boulevard, August 29, 1951. (PhillyHistory,org)

Civil Defense Sign – Roosevelt Boulevard, August 29, 1951. (PhillyHistory,org)

As the 10th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings approached in 1955, horrors of nuclear war seemed closer, not farther away. Millions of American viewers were rattled to see the disfigured “Hiroshima Maidens” on reality TV (This Is Your Life), victims visiting the United States for reconstructive surgery. Even more frightening—if such a thing was possible—the arms race with the Soviet Union turned out ever larger and more destructive weapons.

The Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in August 1949. Four years later, they claimed to have the hydrogen bomb. In November 1955, they detonated it. Americans also had also been developing larger and more powerful warheads. In 1952, the U.S. detonated “Mike,” a 10.4 megaton hydrogen bomb with twice the explosive power of World War II. Two years after that, the Americans tested “Bravo,” a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb resulting in an explosion more powerful than anticipated. Bravo contaminated 7,000 square miles of the Pacific and blanketed the globe with fallout.

The possibilities of deploying nuclear weapons were very real. In 1950, President Truman admitted A-bombs were being considered in the Korean War. Five years later, President Eisenhower wouldn’t rule them out in the Formosa Straits Crisis. Americans grew increasingly distraught about the possibility, the probability, it seemed, that the United States would attack—or come under attack. And if this were to happen, when this happened, society as known would be over, replaced by a decimated, fragmented version managed by a government hidden deep underground.

The transition to this new, post-apocalyptic world would begin a few minutes before the bombs hit America’s soon-to-be-obsolete cities. If all went well, apocalypse management would begin with the wail of air-raid sirens signaling a mass exodus from the targets. And Civil Defense authorities figured that any city with a population of over 50,000 would be a target.

Reading Terminal: The Would-Be Soviet Target (

Reading Terminal: A Cold War target (

Operation Alert took place on June 15, 1955, a day that otherwise seemed like any other Wednesday. “Imaginary atom bombs ‘blasted’ Washington and 60 other American cities to theoretical rubble,” reported the Inquirer. “Thousands of officials, led by President Eisenhower, fled the capital and set up a scattered, skeleton government at sites up to 300 miles away.”  A Secret Service motorcade escorted the president and his entourage from the White House to “an undisclosed hideaway in a ‘mountainous, wooded area.’”

“Philadelphia was brought face-to-face with the grim realities of atomic war. A ‘surprise bomb’ hit the city at 2:11PM, “striking at 12th and Arch Sts. and theoretically making a wasteland of many square miles…” Operation Alert “brought traffic to a standstill throughout the Philadelphia area. … Sidewalks were emptied of pedestrians and the city’s full complement of Civil Defense personnel and equipment went into action.”

“Mayor Joseph S. Clark and members of his Cabinet left City Hall…to take command at the secret central control station set up in the Northeast. … Philadelphia ‘evacuees’ were moved out of the city…to previously prepared reception centers in Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery counties.” Police led convoys from Bridesburg to Council Rock High School in Newtown and from Germantown to Abington High School. More than 1,600 evacuated West Philadelphia in 300 cars and buses.

12th and Arch Street from Reading Railroad Bridge, February 5, 1959. (PhillyHistory,org)

Evidence of life at 12th and Arch Streets in 1959, four years after Operation Alert. (PhillyHistory,org)

Casualties would be devastating. Officials “counted” 760,340 “dead” in Philadelphia and 363,860 “injured” reported The New York Times. More than three quarter of a million would be “homeless.” Across the nation, according to the Civil Defense Administration, “a partial presumed toll of more than 5,000,000” had died; nearly as many were injured. Other officials projected even more: 8.5 million Americans dead, 8 million injured and 10 million displaced. Best guesses had 25 million without food or water.

“Staggering,” said Eisenhower, who had previously admitted “if war comes, it will be horrible. Atomic war will destroy our civilization. It will destroy our cities. …[it] would not save democracy. Civilization would be ruined… No one was going to be the winner. … The destruction might be such that we…go back to bows and arrows.”

Even so, the Eisenhower Administration supported the policy known as MAD—mutually assured destruction—and the idea that Americans were “Better dead than red.”

Not everyone bought into Operation Alert, and not everything worked as planned on June 15, 1955. Schoolchildren spotted Eisenhower’s “secret” caravan and shouted, “Hey Ike!” as it sped by. In New York, resisters occupied park benches across from City Hall. One official in the District of Columbia declared: “the test will teach us nothing.” Another in Peoria, Illinois refused to cooperate, adding “I can’t see a lot of people running around with armbands on.” And in Flint, Michigan the siren system was broken. Everyone in Flint “died” without ever hearing the Cold War’s piercing, futile wail.

[Sources: “President Leads Flight of Officials To Hideaway Capital in Atom Test,” and “202,000 ‘Casualties’ Listed In City in Mock A-Bombing” in The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 1955; Anthony Leviero, “’H-Bombs’ Test U.S. Civil Defense: 61 Cities ‘Ruined,’” New York Times, June 16, 1955; and Dee Garrison, Bracing for Armageddon: Why Civil Defense Never Worked ((Oxford University Press, 2006).]

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tony Drexel Goes for a Walk (Part I)

The Anthony J. Drexel mansion at 39th and Walnut streets.

The Anthony J. Drexel mansion at 39th and Walnut streets. Source: The Free Library of Philadelphia/Joseph Minardi

Anthony J. Drexel was one of the wizards of late 19th century finance.  He also had big shoes to fill. His Austrian-born father Francis Martin Drexel emigrated to America at the dawn of the 19th century to seek his fortune as a portrait painter.  The elder Drexel found that he was more skilled at bond trading than portraiture–although talented, he was no Thomas Eakins.  Like many immigrant fathers, Francis put his three sons (Francis Jr., Joseph, and Anthony) to work at the family business, running errands and sweeping floors in their office at 2nd and Chestnut.  He also went on more than his share of adventures: at the age of 13, he guarded a gold shipment as it traveled by stagecoach from Philadelphia to New Orleans.  In this pre-Federal Reserve era, paper money was untrustworthy. Gold was king.

Although Anthony (born in 1826) would eventually inherit one of the nation’s great banking fortunes, the lack of a formal education plagued him all of his life.  Despite his wealth, he felt awkward in Philadelphia society, and preferred the privacy and love of family life.  Although he and his wife Ellen lived there briefly, he had little interest in the gaiety of the Rittenhouse Square set. The titans of Wall Street didn’t know him that well, either.  As The New York Times wrote of him: “For a man of such financial importance, Mr. Drexel did not have a wide personal acquaintance here in this city.”

Soon after this father’s death in 1863, Anthony Drexel purchased a large plot of land centered at the intersection of 39th and Walnut streets, far out in West Philadelphia. He then commissioned an unknown architect (possibly Samuel Sloan, designer of nearby Woodland Terrace) to design a sprawling Italianate villa, where he, his wife Ellen, and their nine children could live away from the noise and dirt of Center City.   He was also generous to his extended family, frequently looking after his niece Katharine Drexel, whose father Francis Jr. raised his children as strict Roman Catholics. His brother Anthony however crossed the Reformation aisle, raising his family as Episcopalians. As an adult, Katharine renounced her privileged upbringing altogether and became a nun, donating her time and vast inheritance to Native American and African-American civil rights causes.


St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955). Source: Wikipedia.

The A.J. Drexel compound in West Philadelphia took up the entire 3900 block of Walnut Street, and was separated from the street by a hedges and a high iron fence.  Not that there was much traffic in those days: the horse-drawn street car ran as far west as 41st and Chestnut.  West of 42nd Street, the city melted away into a pastoral landscape of rolling fields and babbling creeks.

Drexel has a few other high-profile neighbors, namely the Clarks–who lived at Chestnutwold, 42nd and Locust–and the Pottses–who lived in a Ruskinian Gothic pile at 3905 Spruce Street.  To the east and north were several less idyllic neighbors, most notably the Blockley Almshouse, Presbyterian Hospital, and the Pennsylvania Home for Blind Women.

Pennsylvania Home for Blind women.ashx

The Pennsylvania Home for Blind Women, 39th and Powelton, September 11, 1931.

The area was pretty but not exactly fashionable.  Promoters wrote of West Philadelphia that “the ground in general is elevated, and remarkably healthy; the streets are wide, and many of them bordered with rows of handsome shade trees.” For their part, the denizens of Rittenhouse Square claimed that residents of West Philadelphia spoke with a distinctly unpleasant accent. Drexel didn’t particularly care.  Nonetheless, he spent much the next three decades of his life investing in and improving the blocks around his home, especially after the University of Pennsylvania’s move to the site of the Blockley Almshouse in 1873.


Anthony Joseph Drexel (1826-1893). Source: Wikipedia.

To be continued…


“Anthony Drexel is Dead,” The New York Times, July 1, 1893.

“The Founder’s Vision,” Drexel University,, accessed January 24, 2016.

Alissa Falcone, “The Story of the World’s Wealthiest Nun,” DrexelNow, December, 2, 2014.

Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930 (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2011), pp.39, 70, 74, 77.

Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p.13.

Posted in Behind the Scenes, Events and People, Snapshots of History | Leave a comment

The Audacious, Cantilevered, Disappearing Cornice

Manufacturers' Club, N.W. corner of Broad and Walnut Sts., December 28, 1916 (

Manufacturers’ Club, N.W. corner of Broad and Walnut Sts., December 28, 1916 (

Going back a century or so, the well-dressed edifice would carry itself with proud bearing. Such buildings lined public avenues instilling character through style and substance. At the Manufacturers Club, for instance, a grand entrance framed by pairs of freestanding columns finished in the Corinthian classical order welcomed (or intimidated) visitors. Rising above, entablatures and colonnades gave way to corbels, pediments, tasteful arches and courses of dentils—all in Green River Limestone. Bas-relief carvings of winged creatures and heraldry marked the corners. Stretching skyward, the entire towering eyeful culminated with an architectural “TA-DA” at the uppermost heights. Before the admirer’s gaze was finally relinquished, a final, rooftop finesse—a bold cornice—captivated the eye.

More than shade or protection from the elements, such overhangs provided a powerful visual terminus confirming stature. Projecting over the sidewalks, they reached outwards as declarations of potency, demonstrations of consequence transforming buildings into destinations and citizens into spectators. And here, at the heart of Center City at Broad and Walnut, the group proclaiming its grand arrival was the city’s’ nouveau riche: the manufacturers.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Philadelphians had come to expect architectural statements along the rooftops of South Broad Street. La Pierre House and the Academy of Music claimed a more modest skyline in the 1850s. Horticultural Hall and the Art Club updated it in the 1890s. Philadelphia’s earliest skyscrapers on Broad Street offered their own kind of “visual liveliness.” Architectural historian David Brownlee observed that the “chateau-esque pinnacles of the Bellevue Hotel, the boldly massed modern classicism of the Fidelity (now Wells Fargo) Building, the strong cornices of the two Land Title towers, and the Art Deco belfry of the PNB (built as the Lincoln Liberty) Building rise together with City Hall’s tower to create one of the world’s most distinctive and animated skylines.” What’s missing today, writes Brownlee, is the biggest, boldest, roofline of them all. The Manufacturers’ Club “suffered a bad haircut” when it’s “giant Florentine shadow caster, proportionately one of the biggest cornices in the city, was removed.”

Land Title Building and Annex, Southwest corner of Broad and Chestnut Streets. Charles P. Mills, photographer, December 11, 1916. (

Land Title Building and Annex, Southwest corner of Broad and Chestnut Streets. Charles P. Mills, photographer, December 11, 1916. (

The Manufactures’ Club earlier, 5-story Queen Anne style building by Hazehurst & Huckle opened at 1409 Walnut in the 1880s. But membership quickly expanded beyond the city’s textile manufacturers to include any industry. By 1912, 1,800 members strong, the club had acquired the site of the Hotel Bellevue after it merged with the Stratford. One architectural competition later, the club signed on Simon and Bassett and builders Irwin & Leighton and the construction of the 10-story steel frame clubhouse was underway.

Simon and Bassett designed it in the Italian Renaissance style, and a rendering was exhibited in 1912 at the Eighteenth Annual Architectural Exhibition Held by the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the T-Square Club. It featured a paneled mahogany lobby, a lounge and café above a basement billiard room and a rustic, tiled grille. On the second floor, members found the library and card rooms. An auditorium for 1,200 occupied the third floor. Above that were three floors of guest rooms, an elaborate banquet hall overlooking Broad Street on the 8th floor and a dining room above it all. “One of the handsomest and best equipped clubhouses in the world” praised one architectural journal.  A welcome contrast to “the familiar bleak ‘skyscraper’” wrote another. “A tall building of truly artistic conception … one of the most impressive sights of South Broad Street.”

Screenshot of Manufacturers' Club, center, without cornice (Google)

The Manufacturers’ Club, center, without its cornice (Google Streetview)

Edward P. Simon partnered with David B. Bassett from 1908 to 1919 and produced another great cornice that survives. This one, from 1917, is atop the historically designated Pomerantz Building at 1525 Chestnut Street. Hidden City, called this cantilevered cornice “audacious.” Its historical nomination (see the .pdf here) described it as a “radical projection” extending “more than seven feet out from the plane of the façade” causing it to “almost…float above the sidewalk.” Instead of harkening back to classical times, this feature endowed its building with something ironic. Simon & Bassett “used the daring projection of the cantilevered cornice as a reminder that the building’s structure is modern.” So, too, with the spreading cornice at the Manufacturers’ Club.

How, then, did this most expressive and defining attribute disappear?

Cornices were considered dangerous. Almost immediately after the Club opened, Philadelphians read of an earthquake in Avezzano, Italy that “knocked cornices off buildings in Rome.” Closer to home, cornices and ornamental coping were falling off Philadelphia’s own City Hall. “Danger In Cornices,” read one headline. To reassure a worried public, city officials removed five tons from the upper reaches of City Hall.

It was only a matter of time before the Manufacturers Club at Broad and Walnut would get a similar shearing.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A More Balanced History of Rittenhouse Square

Caption (

1724 Walnut Street, built for George W. Edwards ca. 1850. Occupied in 1864 by French consul Sir Charles Edward Keith Kortright and Lady Kortright. Subsequently home to the Italian consul to Philadelphia Count Goffredo Galli and Countess Galli (Clara Roberts) and in 1898 by the William Weightman family. Demolished in 1929. Photographed ca. 1865. (

PhillyVoice called the other day with a burning PhillyHistory question: “When did Rittenhouse Square get its ritzy rep?” And always willing to help out, I explained how the place managed to become and remain “Philadelphia’s most fashionable neighborhood.” Brandon Baker’s fine column (read it here) focuses on the city’s who’s who: the wasp-y aristocratic types, their friends and allies who populated the square and nearby streets with mansions during the second half of the 19th century.

Now there really are two ways to pick apart that question. One is to respond the way I did, something that’s been done repeatedly, in book after book, naming names and ogling great fortunes, grand mansions and lavish weddings. Who can resist the temptation of drawing juicy quotes from Nathaniel Burt’s The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy? And there’s more. We could have turned to Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class where Digby Baltzell analysed the “Victorian gentry” and their “handsome mansions” surrounding the Square.

That’s one way to tell the tale. And while it’s not wrong, it is one sided. Balance, imagined as an afterthought (the French call it L’esprit de l’escalier) was sorely missing. And it would have been supplied by Dennis Clark’s essay on Rittenhouse the nearby companion neighborhood once called “Ramcat,” just to the southwest of the Square.

“It is difficult for Americans today to imagine the grandeur of the elite life-style of a Rittenhouse Square at the end of the nineteenth century,” wrote Clark. “The class culture of such neighborhoods created what amounted to a fairyland of elegance and display protected by Victorian codes of civility and discrimination. These enclaves of privilege combined with architectural eclecticism with passionate embellishment, lavish furnishings, and an adoration of English upper-class family etiquette. Flamboyant architects like Frank Furness and Theophilus Chandler designed edifices for an almost hysterical display of wealth—here a mansion for the sugar baron James Scott, there a Renaissance palace for Mrs. Sarah Drexel Fell. The structures on the square became wildly adorned shrines to aggressive vanity and the obsessive flaunting of riches.”

“But,” Clark continues, “an aristocratic way of life requires much more than money and manners if it is to remain in ascendancy. It demands presumptions of superiority, the exercise of assured authority, and the collaboration of a servant class to do the thousands of jobs necessary to guarantee an elaborate system of personal comforts and princely appointments. … The working people who served were often from such impoverished backgrounds that they had no choice but to serve, and some may even have been beguiled into servility by the mere thought of association with the elegance which they labored to support.”

“In the 1880s, Rittenhouse Square was the scene of an interdependent relationship between rich and poor.” And so Clark fills in the back story: “The servants required to prepare and serve the meals, shop, clean the household, do the laundry, and care for all the details of the privileged establishments on Rittenhouse Square were drawn for the most part from the South Philadelphia Irish community. After 1850, ‘Irish’ in Philadelphia became virtually synonymous with servant.  According to the United States census of 1870, there were 24,108 domestic servants in the city of whom 10,044 were born in Ireland.  Among the remainder a large portion were of Irish parentage.”

“The great households of Rittenhouse Square were caught in a social dilemma. It was impossible to pursue the extravagant life-style of mannered elegance and luxury without servants, but those most readily available were from a group alien in outlook, habits and background. Nevertheless, wealth had to make the best of it and be served by such poor as there were. …  For the Irish a similar ambiguity characterized their connection with Rittenhouse Square. It was demeaning for them to be forced to serve families whose wealth was founded upon notoriously exploitative mills, factories, and railroads. … Many a railroad pick-and-shovel man looked with deeply mixed feelings upon his daughters’ employment in the great houses of men whose railroads had meant for him a lifetime of miserable toil.”

There you have it. Upstairs and downstairs.

Clark’s chapter appeared in the aptly titled book: The Divided Metropolis. Yes, history is always so much better when it reflects reality—complicated, conflicted and contested as it inevitably is.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Curious “Afterlife” of the Chicago World’s Fair

Commercial Museum 1956.ashx

The Commercial Museum in 1956, by then renamed the Civi Center Museum, at 34th and Convention Avenue.

Chicago’s “World’s Columbian Exposition” closed its doors in October 1893 . Its magnificent neoclassical buildings, designed by McKim Mead and White and recently made infamous in Erik Larson’s narrative history The Devil in the White City, quickly vanished.  For all its grandeur, the “White City” was a mirage of plaster and lathe. For a few brief months, its echoing halls and grand boulevards hosted over 27 million visitors, who marveled at paintings, industrial machinery, locomotives, and other curiosities — such as a replica of a Viking ship and prototype of the zipper.

And then there was the Midway Plaisance, which featured crowd-pleasing attractions such as a 263 foot high Ferris wheel, belly dancers, and people from around the world displayed in mock native “villages.”

Despite its brief life, most of the Columbian Exposition’s contents lived on, virtually undivided and intact, for nearly a century, halfway across the country.  One of the attendees was a University of Pennsylvania botanist named William P. Wilson, became obsessed with the idea of a “permanent world’s exposition” that would allow America to continue to display its manufacturing and industrial prowess to the world.  Yet to realize his dream, Wilson needed the ear of someone with power and money.

He found his man in Dr. William Pepper, the recently retired provost of the University of Pennsylvania.  A respect surgeon possessing a family fortune made in brewing and real estate, Pepper had spent the previous decade raising money to expand the University’s faculty and campus.  Philadelphia’s elite knew that the good doctor was a master fund-raiser.  His most recent pet project was the University of Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, located at 34th and South Streets in a hulking Byzantine palace designed by Wilson Eyre Jr.

University Museum 3.16.1961.ashx

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 33rd and South streets, March 16, 1961.

With massive resources and powerful connections at his disposal, Pepper commanded Wilson to purchase most of the exhibits from the Chicago exposition and ship them by train to Philadelphia.  After several years in a temporary structure, in 1897 the collections of the so-called Philadelphia Commercial Museum moved into a grand neoclassical home located cheek-by-jowl with the University Museum and Franklin Field.  Its main facade bore a striking resemblance to the one of the Louvre in Paris. Although fronted by a green lawn, it was only a stone’s throw away from the chuffing, screeching trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  In the tradition of its predecessor, the Commercial Museum contained exhibits that ranked various civilizations in terms of technology and progress.

Wilson, like many American scientists of his time, was fascinated by eugenics and Herbert Spencer’s philosophy of “survival of the fittest.”  For example, Wilson got a three-year leave of absence from the University to organize and mount a “living” exhibition of 1,200 Filipinos in France.  The timing of this exhibition of “human curiosities” was no mere coincidence.  For the past decade, America had been waging a bloody war against Philippine rebels desiring self-government.  The Philippines–like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam–had been handed over to America by Spain following its defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1897.  Cuba was given its independence–albeit with a government friendly to US interests–and Puerto Rico became a territory.  The Philippines, however, was given no such special status.  American imperialists viewed the Filipinos as racially inferior and hence incapable of self-government.  In the ensuing guerrilla war, an estimated 250,000 Filipinos died before the rebellion was put down.


Cartoon by Charles L. Bartholomew, July 1898, Minneapolis Journal. Source:

Such imperialist behavior prompted outrage by many prominent American businessmen and intellectuals.  Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who had fled the British class system in his native Scotland, wrote in 1898 that if America took overseas possessions, then it was in danger of losing its founding republican goals forever:

This drain upon the resources of these countries has become a necessity from their respective positions, largely as graspers for foreign possessions. The United States to-day, happily, has no such necessity, her neighbors being powerless against her, since her possessions are concentrated and her power is one solid mass.

His friend and American Anti-Imperialist League colleague Mark Twain argued that it was the obligation of the United States to set the Filipinos free, and that making them a part of a new American “empire” was hypocrisy:

It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.


Commercial Museum founder Dr. William Wilson. Source: Independence Seaport Museum.

As for the Commercial Museum, it never lived up to its promise of making Philadelphia a center of international commerce.  After Wilson’s death in 1926, its prestige and revenues steadily declined.  By the 1930s, it was completely overshadowed by the Art Deco mass of the Civic Center.  It 2004, after being open only to groups of touring schoolchildren, the deteriorating structure was demolished and replaced by an expansion to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  Its collections, the last remnants of the “Great White City,” were disbursed to other Philadelphia institutions such as the Mutter Museum, the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Free Library, and the Independence Seaport Museum.

Stonorow Commercial Museum 1956.ashx

Proposed alterations to the Commercial Museum by architect Oscar Stonorov, 1956.


Andrew Carnegie, “Distant Possessions: The Parting of the Ways,” North American Review, August 1898,

“The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum,” Independence Seaport Museum,, accessed December 27, 2015.

“Midway Plaisance Park,” Chicago Parks District,, accessed December 27, 2015.

Mark Twain, The New York Herald, October 15, 1900,, accessed December 27, 2015.

Posted in Behind the Scenes, Historic Sites | 2 Comments
  • Categories

  • Archives