Philadelphia’s Own House of Hits

Ed Rendell with Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff

Ed Rendell with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff

You may have heard that the Philadelphia International Records building at 309 South Broad St, which since 1970 had been owned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, was recently demolished to make room for a condo and hotel development that new owners Dranoff Properties plan to open at 301-309 South Broad St.  The loss of this building is devastating from a preservationist point of view, while almost inevitable given that it never recovered from a 2010 arson fire. Not only does it have a plethora of history as a building that Gamble and Huff had owned since 1973, but before that, it was the headquarters of the equally legendary Cameo-Parkway label in the 1950s and 1960s. Each of these eras represent two distinct periods in which the sounds coming out of Philadelphia, and that building specifically, were not only some of the most popular but some of the most moving and important recordings of each respective time period.

The history of the building is impressive, to say the least. Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” a paradigm-shifting song that was a massive hit in 1961, was recorded there during the initial era. And during that time period, other Philadelphia artists like Charlie Gracie, Bobby Rydell, the Dovells, the Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp and The Tymes also recorded there.

The second era saw hits like Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” The O’Jays’ “Love Train” and the original versions of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (both by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, featuring Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals). Overall, Gamble and Huff (on many occasions assisted by the producer and songwriter Thom Bell) have over 50 Gold and Platinum records and over 50 Top 10 hits.

After the hits dried up by the late ’80s, it became a major tourist attraction that has always been the site of film documentaries, television specials, receptions and events such as one honoring Motown founder Berry Gordy. While we can debate if a museum to honor Philadelphia’s rich musical legacy (such as ones that exist in Memphis, Detroit and in other cities’ legendary recording studios) is necessary and while it’s also understandable why the building was sold, it’s almost certain that 309 South Broad Street would have been a great site for it. Now, unfortunately, we will never know.


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Saving (and Stretching) Devil’s Pocket

Devil's Pocket - Behind Naval Home. January 28, 1919. (

Devil’s Pocket – Behind Naval Home. January 28, 1919. (

“I have seen a pope, I have seen Julius Erving at the top of his game. I have seen a city administration burn down a neighborhood. I watched Randall Cobb slowly realize he would never become a heavyweight champion, of the world. One night I almost saw myself die.”

Pete Dexter was saying his long, gritty goodbye to Philadelphia.

The night Dexter nearly saw himself die was in 1981, after he wrote a Daily News column about a botched drug deal that resulted in murder. The deceased’s brother, according to Dexter, “bartended in Devil’s Pocket, which has got to be the worst neighborhood in the city—maybe anywhere.” And he was angry. But Dexter “thought he could talk to him and work it out, so I went down there” with Randall “Tex” Cobb. Both Dexter and Cobb nearly saw themselves die that night.

“It has been our good fortune that Pete Dexter did not die at the hands of those heroes with ballbats and tire irons,” wrote Pete Hamill. “He has gone on to write some of the most original, and disturbing, novels in American literature.”

“In an age when words and storytelling were what counted, not bloviated ranting and raving, claimed Buzz Bissinger, Dexter covered “more ground in 900 words than most writers could cover in 9,000.”

“I know the city,” wrote Bissinger, “and nobody has ever captured it the way Dexter has, shining his light on these punks and drunks and cops and hollowed-out men and women just hoping to grab on for one more day. Wherever there is loneliness in the city — and with the withering of its manufacturing and working-class roots, there’s no shortage of loneliness — Dexter seems to find it.”

What Dexter also found was the sense to appropriate Devils Pocket for the setting of his near-death experience. Doc’s, the bar where Dexter and Cobb had their clocks cleaned, was at 24th and Lombard, a place more accurately called Grays Ferry, or Schuylkill, or possibly even (forgive me) the Graduate Hospital Area and a good half-mile away from Devil’s Pocket, which, at Catherine and Taney Streets, is hard by the southwestern wall of the Naval Home.


“The Devil’s Pocket in Philadelphia, January 7, 1911.” (Google Books)

But none of those other neighborhood names fit Dexter’s story as brilliantly as did Devil’s Pocket.

We can forgive the artistic license. After all, if not for Dexter’s storytelling, Devil’s Pocket might have faded into the same gentrified oblivion where other Philadelphia neighborhood names of character have gone. (Who hears of Texas, Smoky Hollow, Beggarstown and Rose of Bath?)

Devils Pocket has resonance; it always did. It worked in 1911 with William Paul Dillingham, who focused on Philadelphia’s poor Irish in his study Immigrants in Cities. Dillingham noted the small triangular court called Asylum Place, “popularly known as ‘The Devil’s Pocket.’” He wrote of its ten two-story brick houses “poorly built and in bad repair” overcrowded with a mix of newly arrived and first generation Irish. Residents of Devils Pocket got their jobs at nearby mills, their water from shared hydrants in small back yards where the “dry” toilets were. Just as nearby Gibbons Court, drainage at the Devil’s Pocket ran along the pavement.

Devil’s Pocket had been known as one of those places many Philadelphians heard about, talked about, and avoided. An 1898 bicycle tour (“Trips Awheel,” The Inquirer, February 6, 1898) recommended bypassing this “nest of unnameable lawlessness. The bicyclist/journalist wouldn’t venture west of Grays Ferry Avenue; he heard the stories and gave Devil’s Pocket “a wide berth even in broad daylight.”

But there’d be no wide berth for Pete Dexter. Even if he had to fudge the coordinates of Devil’s Pocket to help make the most of his Philadelphia story.

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A Permanent Slice of Piazza on South Street?

Grays Ferry Avenue at South Street Looking Southwest, May 22, 1936. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (

Grays Ferry Avenue at South Street [and 23rd Street] Looking Southwest, May 22, 1936. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (

South Street’s civic temperature – and Philadelphia’s by degree – can be measured by checking in at the triangular intersection at South Street, 23rd Street and Grays Ferry Avenue. This pizza-shaped- piazza continues to change with the times, proving, once again, that what goes around comes around.

About a century ago, Christopher Morley (who resided nearby on too-quiet Pine Street) enviously noted the “uproarious and naïve humours” a few blocks away. “On South Street,” Morley wrote, “the veins of life run close to the surface.” By the 1970s, things had settled down, though not necessarily in a good way. “The street lay like a snake sleeping; dull-dusty, gray-black in the dingy darkness,” wrote David Bradley. “At the three-way intersection of Twenty-Third Street, Grays Ferry Avenue, and South Street a fountain, erected once-upon-a year by a ladies guild in remembrance of some dear departed altruist, stood cracked and dry, full of dead leaves and cigarette butts and bent beer cans, forgotten by the city and the ladies’ guide a minor memorial to how They Won’t Take Care of Nice Things.”

Ah, but given time they will care. If given half a chance.

In 2014, we’ve witnessed a waking up, a coming around to this very “nice thing” along the western end of South Street. Not exactly “uproarious,” and hardly “naïve,” the movement began three years ago with a celebration of the diagonal in a city made up of right angles. And it’s more than saving one of the city’s rare, vintage horse troughs. The Grays Ferry Triangle effort has been a grass-roots project since 2011, one bolstered by arguments that spaces are better, often far better, when reclaimed by and for community. To demonstrate and consolidate support, there’s been an annual Plazapalooza, a spate of social media and a poll showing 98% of near-neighbor support for promoting pedestrianism and banning the can on at least one tiny but potent stretch of Philly byway.

Last Spring, a six month trial street closure started and “an underused South of South space” got a “pedestrian-friendly makeover.” Will this experiment in participatory urban design come to an end? Will South Street once again revert to a place that “Won’t Take Care of Nice Things”? Or has Philadelphia made yet one more turn toward becoming a post-petroleum city, a city whose veins not only “run close to the surface” but pulse with something more organic than gasoline?

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Manhood, Womanhood (and Food) at Macfaddens Physical Culture Restaurant

23-25 S 9th St and Ranstead 3-15-1915 Rolston, NM (

23-25 S. 9th Street at Ranstead Street, 3-15-1915, N. M. Rolston, photographer (

“Weakness is a Crime.” With those four words Bernarr Macfadden launched a media empire built on health. Within a year, his Physical Culture magazine brought its growing readership arguments for fitness and against refined foods; arguments for contraception and against the corset. Macfadden wrote and published books with seductive titles: Virile Powers of Superb Manhood (1900); Power and Beauty of Superb Womanhood (1901). His boldly shared opinions on health, sex, exercise, diet and hygiene were famous; his name became a household word. Circulation of Macfadden’s Physical Culture magazine topped 150,000 in 1899, the first year of publication. In time, it would reach 500,000.

Mafadden’s ambitions extended beyond publishing. In 1902, he opened a Physical Culture vegetarian restaurant in New York City. Before long, restaurants opened in Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago, and Philadelphia—at 25 South 9th Street. By 1911, the year Macfadden published his first Encyclopedia of Physical Culture, his health-food restaurant chain had twenty locations. Macfadden opened Physical Culture sanatoriums, health resorts and planned a Physical Culture City. The man had presidential aspirations.

Macfaddens Physical Culture Restaurant, 25 South 9th Street, March 15, 1915 N. M. Rolston, photographer, detail. (

Macfaddens Physical Culture Restaurant, 25 South 9th Street, March 15, 1915. N. M. Rolston, photographer, detail. (

“We need stronger, more capable men; healthy superior women, wrote Macfadden in 1915, introducing Vitality Supreme, another of his popular books. “The great prizes of life come only to those who are efficient. … The body must be developed completely, splendidly. The buoyancy, vivacity, energy, enthusiasm and ambition ordinarily associated with youth can be maintained through middle age and in some cases even to old age.  … Why not throb with superior vitality! Why not possess the physical energy of a young lion? For then you will compel success. You will stand like a wall if need be, or rush with the force of a charging bison toward the desired achievements. … Adherence to the principles laid down herein will add to the characteristics that insure special achievements. They will increase the power of your body and mind and soul. They will help each human entity to become a live personality. They will enable you to live fully, joyously. They will help you to feel, enjoy, suffer every moment of every day. It is only when you are thus thrilled with the eternal force of life that you reach the highest pinnacle of attainable capacities and powers. Hidden forces, sometimes marvelous and mysterious, lie within nearly every human soul. Develop, expand and bring out these latent powers. Make your body splendid, your mind supreme; for then you become your real self, you possess all your attainable powers. … It will be worth infinitely more than money. … Adhere to the principles set forth and a munificent harvest of physical, mental and spiritual attainments will surely be yours.”

Whatever were they serving at Macfadden’s Physical Culture Restaurants? Foods “in their natural condition.” Macfadden believed “the process of ‘refining’ is the great food crime of the age.” He believed conventional methods of food preparation had “a destructive effect” upon their “nutritive value.” He pointed out the evils of “white bread” where “the best part of the wheat has been eliminated in the process of milling.” Likewise, he noted, nutritional value is “removed from our vegetables in the process of boiling” and from rice, in the process of polishing. “Trying to secure adequate nourishment,” he observed, many Americans consumed “an excessive amount of the refined defective foods.” Bread is “supposed to be the ‘staff of life,’” wrote Macfadden, but “it might reasonably be termed to be the ‘staff of death’.”

Macfadden urged his followers “to select only natural foods” arguing that “unquestionably, a perfect diet is furnished by nuts and fruits.” In their raw state, “foods…possess a tremendous amount of vitality-building elements,” he wrote. Macfadden relied on salads of “celery, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, water-cress, parsley, cucumbers” with spinach and dandelion, dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. Macfadden woudn’t serve vinegar “partly because it is seldom pure, and one can never tell what combination of chemicals it contains.”

Bernard Adolphus Macfadden (he changed his first name to Bernarr for effect) barely survived a miserable childhood to become America’s first public bodybuilder/empire builder. He survived four marriages, founded his own religion—Cosmotarianism—made and lost fortunes and planned to live to the age of 125. Judging from his confidence and physique in middle age, Macfadden might have actually believed he could.

But Macfadden didn’t achieve that ultimate goal. In 1955, The Washington Post and Times Herald summarized the accomplishments of his 87 years. Macfadden’s “proudly avowed aim” was “to rescue sex from the stuffy and unhealthy atmosphere of the smoking room and the honky-tonk into the clean sunlit world of outdoors, and also perhaps to dignify it as a subject of serious and high minded conversation in physical culture restaurants over a nut-and-spinach ragout and a magnum of chilled carrot juice.”

In the end, Bernarr Macfadden got credited for what he was most of all: a 20th-century American life-style pioneer.

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Listening to Lipchitz

 © Assoc for Public Art

Jacques Lipchitz, sculptor. “Government of the People,” 1976. (© Association for Public Art)

Jacques Lipchitz, sculptor. "Spirit of Enterprise," 1961. (

Jacques Lipchitz, sculptor. “The Spirit of Enterprise,” 1960. (

Ask Jacques Lipchitz to share his views on art. His response is curious. “You can’t verbalize art. I think when you start to do that you lose exactly your impact, because art is born from darkness, and if you start to clarify it, it goes away.”

Ask The Master about “freedom of expression” and he takes us down another interesting rabbit hole: “The important thing, you see, is to acquire some kind of a freedom in expression. And if you know something it becomes very difficult. Freedom is not given to us.  We have to conquer it, we have to conquer it by fighting, by working, very hard, and then a little bit more freedom comes every time. You know you are more free… and you have to learn how to be free. You have to let everything what is unknown, because what we know is very little… So these unknown forces you have to let them work for you. And, first of all, you have to be able to catch them. You know that’s the technique you learn. Things are coming, coming, you don’t know what it is, but you have to have a net to catch them. Then you have is see what it is, what you can use. You understand? That’s freedom for an artist. Because he works with things which are absolutely mysterious for him, unknown.  What he knows is very little.”

And when an artist does know something? “Rodin was telling that you have to know anatomy, but when you are working you have to forget about it.  It’s not easy to forget.  If you learn it, it’s with you. But relative freedom can be conquered; that comes only with age.  So as soon as you have freedom, everything changes for you. All your views are changed.”

At the end of his life, Lipchitz created a few monumental artworks. “Government of the People” is one of them, just across from City Hall.

“It was the architect Kling from Philadelphia who came to me and proposed to me this job. You know In Philadelphia I was very well known because the museum had a lot of pieces of mine, the Barnes collection, etc. and so I was somehow…the chosen son…I was the pet sculptor of Philadelphia. And so they came to me and of course I was very happy to do the job, because it’s a very responsible job. Kling built an annex to the municipal building, a modern…with a big plaza and he wanted to have me to make this sculpture for the plaza. It’s a very difficult thing because so many styles of arch are around. You know, the Municipal building of Philadelphia…is very interesting architecture, end of 19th century French architecture, a mixture of all these styles. And beside this you have this church with a steeple. And then you have a kind of a Masonic Temple, which is a mixture of all kinds of styles. It’s very different styles all around…”

Lipchitz died three years before the installation of “Government of the People” in 1976. But his recorded voice, Penny Bach tells us, echoed through the plaza at its dedication. “I believe in the capacities and potentialities of the human being,” proclaimed the sculptor, “and I would like the exalt them in every one of my works.”

Today, that and any of Lipchitz’s many other quips, quotes, anecdotes and advice can be heard, thanks to the internet. But what we’d really like to hear are the sculptor’s words bouncing, once again, off the facades of Center City, when and where they will really mean something. As luck would have it, the opportunity isn’t very far off. In a few months, when the new conservation project to clean and wax the “Government of the People” is complete, why not invite Lipchitz to its re-dedication? He never was at a loss for words worth listening to. And more than forty years after his death, he still isn’t.

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How Jacques Lipchitz Cheated Death

Jacques Lipchitz, Prometheus Strangling the Vulture, The Philadelphia Museum of Art,

Jacques Lipchitz, Prometheus Strangling the Vulture, 1953. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, (

“If Jacques Lipchitz is not the most overrated sculptor of the twentieth century,” sniped art historian Barbara Rose, “he is certainly in the running.” It was 1972 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective, Jacques Lipchitz: His Life in Sculpture seemed “to go on endlessly,” for Rose. Like so many “miles of stuffed kishka,” all the sculptor’s “bulges, lumps, nodules and protrusions” left her with “a bad case of esthetic indigestion.”

There had been a time when such words would have devastated Lipchitz. But the elder artist—Lipchitz turned 80 the year before—had learned long before even the most damning critical reviews had value. When starting out in Paris, another critic had written: “We have a newcomer by the name of Jacques Lipchitz, who is very promising, but [his artwork] looks too much like that of [Charles] Despiau.” Lipchitz hadn’t studied with Despiau and, in fact, had never even seen his work. Telling an older friend of this “injustice,” Lipchitz heard back: “My boy if you get such criticism every day for a year’s time, you will be famous.”

And so it was. By 1972, even through her indigestion, Rose admitted Lipchitz was “widely considered a major artist.” His role in the development of modernism had been undeniable. Lipchitz had seen the salons of Paris in the 1910s and 1920s. He had forged the avant garde with friends and acquaintances including Constantin Brancusi, Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau, André Derain, Ernest Hemingway, Max Jacob, Le Corbusier, James Joyce, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Juan Gris, Amedeo Modigliani and Chaim Soutine. He socialized with and sculpted Gertrude Stein. He sold his art to Albert Barnes.

To television producer Bruce Bassett, who had met the artist in 1967, Lipchitz’ life was a heck of a story, one worth telling in a documentary, but even more. “I wanted to share him with the future,” wrote Bassett in an unpublished essay, My Life with Jacques Lipchitz. “And since I was in media, I began to think of a way of doing it. One way was to do a film [Portrait of an Artist: Jacques Lipchitz] which ran on PBS. But what about the rest of the material? Another 400 hours was going to go on the shelf, and no one would see it.” Bassett envisioned “a machine,” a computer, that would allow Lipchitz to interact “with future audiences about his work, his ideas…”

He talked over the project with the artist. “There is a new machine coming,” said Bassett. “It is not here yet, Jacques, but it will be. I am conceiving your life as a mosaic of experiences. Each chip might represent a sculpture you created, pieces you collected, your relationships with your fellow artists, the tension in Europe that you survived, changes in the direction of your work, et cetera. Our new machine would instantaneously match people’s questions to the appropriate chips of your story. Our machine would make it possible for people to talk to our mosaic of your life.”

Jacques Lipchitz, Spirit of Enterprise,  The Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial, Kelly Drive, July 3, 1961. (

Jacques Lipchitz, The Spirit of Enterprise, 1960. The Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial, Kelly Drive, July 3, 1961. (

The idea “intrigued” Lipchitz, who, in his day, was no stranger to the cutting edge. “When we first came to Paris early in the century,” he responded to Bassett,” we looked around to see what was…happening in other fields. It was the machine age. Man was flying. … God did not give man wings on which he could fly, but man through his imagination found a way. … So we artists had to create monsters. But we had to create them so well that if Mother Nature looked over our shoulder to see what we were doing, she could say, ‘Look what man had gone off and done! He is cutting himself from my apron-strings to assume his own special adolescence.’”

The interviews, hundreds of hours of them, were completed not long after Lipchitz’s 80th birthday in 1971, just in time to include in the Metropolitan retrospective. The museum created “a special educational installation that makes use of the most up-to-date audio visual techniques.” Sculptures were “accompanied by Mr. Lipchitz’s own words, telling the story behind their creation, their place in the evolution of his style, and the ideas that inspired them.”

Critic Barbara Rose found the mix of artwork and video far from inspiring. As she saw it, the Met had concocted “some ghastly media experiment, ill-advisedly funded by IBM,” where “television sets with The Master in living color expounding on his art” littered the galleries. Rose found “the voice of Lipchitz resounding thought the show…an idiotic distraction.”

Lipchitz died the following May and Bassett spent the rest of his own life—he died in 2009—searching for a museum or a broadcaster to embrace his and Lipchitz’s creation. As computing evolved and the Internet grew up, the project seemed less futuristic and more plausible. Finally, in 2012, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, with its own collection of 153 Lipchitz sculptures, mounted what Bassett and Lipchitz had envisioned more than four decades before.

Go ahead. Ask Jacques Lipchitz a question. There’s nearly no end to the stories he’s ready to share with you.

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Balancing the Books for John Moran, Art Photographer

John Moran, photographer. "Nos. 114 & 116 N. Water St., 1868," ( Library of Philadelphia)

John Moran, photographer. “Nos. 114 & 116 N. Water St., 1868,” ( Library of Philadelphia)

Despite John Moran’s best efforts, Mary Panzer told us, his “photographs were never considered to be art. His audience believed that art was historical and made by hand, whereas Photography was scientific and made by machine. In 1903, the year Moran died, Alfred Steiglitz won the battle to establish photography as a fine art, but by that time, Moran’s work was long forgotten, shelved as topography by the same audience who believed Moby Dick was a book about whales.”

What did they say about Moran, the photographer in a family of painters? His brief New York Times obituary confirmed Moran’s role as “one of the pioneer photographers of this country” but instead of crediting him with American art photography, it noted his role as chief photographer in “the work of the Coast Survey” and his having “made the first pictures of the original route of the Panama Canal” in 1871. It mentioned his participation in the federal expedition to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. And it mentioned his abandonment of photography and his turn, late in life, to landscape painting.

In 1865, when Alfred Steiglitz was in still in diapers, Moran had connected the ideas of photography and art. In February of that year, he addressed the Philadelphia Photographic Society on “The Relation of Photography to the Fine Arts,” declaring that photography “speaks the same language, and addresses the same sentiments.” Moran noted the need for the photographer’s “perceiving mind to note and feel the relative degrees of importance in the various aspects which nature presents.” Without that, “nothing worthy of the name of pictures can be produced.”

Moran had collected his small landscapes made in and around Philadelphia in the early 1860s and became known as “a young Nature artist.” In fact, he would make aesthetic choices with everything he touched. During the Civil War, Moran’s photographs of the Mower General Hospital were more than a record, they were expressive, lush and rich. By the end of the decade, images he and brother Thomas made in the Wissahickon Valley helped inspire the city of Philadelphia to add it to the expanding Fairmount Park.

In the late 1860s, Moran put his ideas of to work on the streets of historic Philadelphia. He searched for scenes that re-framed the past as an aesthetic, not merely as anecdote. At a time of great growth, massive industrialization and diminishing history, Moran relished the textures and sensibilities of the city’s oldest streets and alleys. Between 1867 and 1870, he and his 6-by-9-inch wet-plate camera and wooden tripod were picture-making fixtures. Again and again, Moran blocked out the modern and focused in on the past, offering it renewed life. The results were compelling. Moran mounted 78 of his prints in an album entitled A Collection of Photographic Views in Philadelphia & its Vicinity and sold it to the Library Company of Philadelphia. Their accession book confirms the purchase from “John Moran, artist.”

John Moran, photographer, "Water St. below Vine, 1868" ( Library of Philadelphia)

John Moran, photographer, “Water St. below Vine, 1868″ ( Library of Philadelphia)

There’s a goodly stash of Moran prints from this series at the Free Library Print Department and at The two gems illustrated here are only a tip of the iceberg. In one small part of town now-long obliterated by I-95 Moran photographed Queen Street, Swanson Street at Christian and the “Ship Joiner” shop at 757 Swanson.

In all, Moran probably made as many as 100 views of the city in the late 1860s. But that was it. He would soon be drawn into the life of an expedition photographer for the federal government. By the time he returned to Philadelphia, Moran’s ideas about art had been tested and his confidence was even more firm. In June and again in October of 1875, Moran shared with his colleagues at the Photographic Society his “Thoughts on Art Nature and Photography” and his “Reflections on Art.”

The photographer has “the power to see the beautiful,” declared Moran (his remarks appeared in The Philadelphia Photographer) but “good work cannot be produced unless the workman has the instincts, feelings and education akin to those of the artist.” The best photographs are “quickened to life by their own spirit and intelligence…speaking the universal language of art.” As “a realistic art” photography “is a translator…and we, the translators, ought to look to it that we take noble themes, not false and artificial subjects…” Moran observed: “art in all its forms if the form of thought, and the photographic work that rises to this plane, is the expression of the photographer.”

So, how is Moran’s “discovery” of expression in photography accounted for today? One measure, of course, is the art marketplace. A few years ago, Christie’s auction house sold a Moran of the Bank of Pennsylvania. Never mind that the cataloger misidentified the scene as construction (it’s a demolition). The sale, $32,000, broke the record for a Moran.

How does this compare with Stieglitz? At recent Christie’s sales, six Stieglitz prints fetched more than $200,000 each. The priciest of these, was a view from the back window of the 291 gallery, the place where Stieglitz successfully promoted photography as art. That print brought $363,750, more than ten times what Moran’s did, but hardly a record. “Top Stieglitz photographs have sold for more than $1 million,” shrugged The Wall Street Journal.

Looks like it’ll be a while before the books of photographic history get balanced properly.

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Philadelphia’s Sears Tower

When Americans are asked about the Sears Tower, they normally call to mind the recently renamed Willis Tower in Chicago, Illinois. However, if asked about a Sears Tower when in Philadelphia, you’re likely to get a different answer. In Northeast Philadelphia, where Adams Avenue meets Roosevelt Boulevard, the 14-story Sears clock tower stood for over 70 years.

Sears visible from Roosevelt Boulevard.

Sears visible from Roosevelt Boulevard.

Side of Sears building

Side of Sears building with the bottom section of tower visible.

In the 1900s, the Sears, Roebuck & Co. was still growing rapidly in the United States. With the company’s need to expand eastward from Chicago, Philadelphia was highlighted as a possible location for one of their mail-order houses and plants. With the city’s important railroad access, the Northeast Philadelphia section, along Roosevelt Boulevard was chosen as a location.

From 1919 to 1920, Sears, Roebuck & Co. constructed a large complex that consisted of a large 9-story building that included a 14-story clock tower. The neo-Gothic brick building was designed by George C. Nimmons, a Chicago-area architect who had worked for Sears, Roebuck & Co. previously, even designing the company president’s home.

The building opened October 18, 1920 even though parts of it were still unfinished. This was just one of the companies allowing the Northeast section of Philadelphia to grow. However, even with the success of the Roosevelt Boulevard building, the overall decline of mail-order shopping prompted the company to open up a nearby retail store there just a few years later, in 1925. It wouldn’t be the company’s only expansion as Sears would also add on an administration building and a power plant. They even paid for a miniature of their building, with its famous clock tower, to be constructed as a firehouse on a nearby block.

Engine Company Number 70 on 4800 Langdon Street.

Engine Company Number 70 on 4800 Langdon Street.

Through most of the 20th century, the Sears complex was a popular and well-known landmark in Northeast Philadelphia, It employed thousands of workers from the surrounding neighborhoods. In the 1960s, the area, still a popular hub, even had a subway station constructed. Although it was meant to be connected to the Broad Street Line, the plan never went through. Unfortunately, in the 1980s and 1990s, sales decreased and the building with its iconic tower was sold in 1993.

On October 31, 1994, the Sears Tower was imploded. It barely took 7 seconds for the building to go down, as seen in the 6ABC news broadcast from that day. 


With a 14-story tower and over 25 million square feet, the implosion was set to be the largest of its time.  Hundreds of Philadelphia residents came to watch as over 70 years of history was brought down in 7 seconds.

Today, the area is home to a shopping center full of different chain stores. However, it is also still home to the Sears power plant, which was visible in the above video and not imploded. Currently, the power plant building is not being utilized other than Home Depot advertising its logo on the smokestack. The power plant and the aforementioned firehouse are the only Sears buildings remaining in the area.


Miller, Bill. (1988, May 15). The Sears Tower. The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sitton, Lea. 1994, October 24. An Explosive Finale For Giant Sears A Landmark Will Go As It Came: In Record-setting Fashion. The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Phila PA Chronicles – Keeping Time By Sears Clocktower



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It All Comes Down to “Yo!”

Caption (

Pretzel Vendor, Stetson Junior High School, 3200 B Street, October 22, 1934. (

In the time before traffic, air conditioners, leaf blowers and the irritating like, the city’s streets were full of cries. Not cries for help, but calls of peddlers selling (in summer) peaches, watermelons, and ice cream and (during the cooler months) pepper pot soup, hot muffins and split wood.

Pretzels, of course, were sold all year round.

One 19th century observer admittedly “astonished at the variety of noises which assail his ears on every side” celebrated “the bawling cries of all sorts of petty traders and jobbers” in a fine, illustrated book. That was in 1850. Seventy years later, Kate Rowland worried about the “passing away of the old Philadelphia street criers,” and collected dozens which she “performed” at a meeting of the Philadelphia City History Society. Rowland demonstrated the city still had vendors with traditions, tireless lungs and occasional musical ability. From the publication that followed, we know the proper intonation for “Pretzels!,” as well as that for potatoes, strawberries, cherries, shad, cat fish, lavender, sweet corn, hominy cakes, umbrellas, brooms and soft soap, among many other goods and services.

Pretzels from Rowland

From Street Cries of Philadelphia, by Mrs. A. J. Rowland,Philadelphia City History Society, 1922. (Private collection.)

Philadelphia street culture at its best, you might say. Even though “Yo!” was conspicuously absent.

Where are we today with our street cry tradition? You might say it all comes down to that one generic expression—“Yo!”—a pronouncement powerful enough to go up against today’s traffic noise and flexible enough to mean whatever one might intend. Today, “Yo!” seems to work just about anywhere and is made to work for just about anything.

“Yo!” came into this world as an abbreviation of “gualione” which means “young man” or “kid” in Italian dialect. A Neopolitan song titled Gualione was a hit in the 1950s, especially Perez Prado’s excellent Mambo version.

If Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang can be believed, “gualione” was shortened to “walyo.” “Yo!” wasn’t far behind. In the 1970s, we witnessed “Yo’s” Rocky road from South Philadelphia to Hollywood. And more recently, it’s been adopted as Jesse Pinkman meta catchphrase.

But propelled by the media, “Yo!” forgot its roots.

In 1993, New York claimed as their own this “short and sweet” greeting and had the temerity to even suggest “there is no yo in Philadelphia.” What the writer really meant to say was “Philadelphia, once again, has provided the world with something of great value.”

The recent launch of a free app of the same name (available on iTunes) once again makes clear that this strong, accessible, and possibly elegant utterance has morphed, as the Yo people put it: into “the simplest & most efficient communication tool in the world.” At least that’s what their investors, who extended their faith to the tune of $1 million, fervently hope.

Thanks to this start up now based in San Francisco, what started on the streets of Philly is now, everywhere and is everyone’s. Not only is Yo (the app) available in English, it’s also offered in Arabic, Bokmål, Norwegian, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Traditional Chinese, Turkish, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.

What is there for a Philadelphian to say?

“You’re welcome” would be about right.

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Dog Days of Philadelphia

The majority of photographs come from City of Philadelphia employees who were just doing their daily job to document the city, construction sites, and events. However, and luckily for us, they often captured the daily life of Philadelphia citizens. For the purpose of this blog entry and in honor of us being in the midst of the dog days of summer, we’ll focus on the furry, four-legged citizens. Here are a few times that dogs have gotten in the way of city officials. Of course, the leash law wasn’t added to the City of Philadelphia code until 1986 so these dogs were well within their rights to be wandering around their neighborhoods.


1957 - Dog in front of alleyway between Van Pelt and 22nd Streets.

1957 – Dog in front of alleyway between Van Pelt and 22nd Streets.

1957 - Dog behind the Manayunk Canal lock tender's house.

1957 – Dog behind the Manayunk Canal lock tender’s house.

1900 - A dog in front of Head House at 2nd and Pine.

1900 – A dog in front of Head House at 2nd and Pine.

1964 - Two girls and a dog on 2nd Street.

1964 – Two girls and a dog on 2nd Street.

1950 - Dog on alert.

1950 – Dog on alert.

1950 - Solly and Bustleton Avenues.

1950 – Solly and Bustleton Avenues.

1950 - A boy and a puppy sit on the curb in the July heat.

1950 – A boy and a puppy sit on the curb in the July heat.

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