Broad and Market Streets: the Intersection of Past and Future

North Broad from City Hall, ca. 1895) (PhillyHistory,org)

North Broad Street from City Hall, ca. 1895. (PhillyHistory,org)

Philadelphia’s past and future always collided at the intersection of Broad and Market Streets. From the conception of Center Square in the 1680s to the laying of the corner stone for City Hall in 1874 it was a tentative, slow-motion collision. After that, things sped up quite a bit. By the end of the 19th-century, Broad and Market Streets had become the official center of Center City.

“It is the only place where a building of suitable dignity can stand to display its parts in all the beauty of their architectural effect,” speechified Benjamin Harris Brewster at the July 4th corner stone laying ceremony. City Hall “will adorn…the highways at whose intersection it is placed, and it will give an air of majesty and grandeur to those long and broad avenues. It…stands out in bold and high relief, commanding admiration. It is placed, as other and great structures are, as the center of human concourse from which all things radiate and to which all things converge. It is surrounded by a grand avenue 135 feet wide, on the southern and eastern and western fronts, and 205 feet wide on the northern front.”

After nearly two centuries, the Philadelphia envisioned by William Penn and his surveyor, Thomas Holme was finally coming together. Here was the city that “will never be burnt, and always be wholesome,” declared Penn, who insisted avoiding  a re-creation of the London he had left behind. That city had been poised for conflagration, its wooden “rickety, slapdash buildings” leaning “against one another like drunks clutching each other for support,” writes Edward Dolnick, “an endless labyrinth of shops, tenements, and taverns with barely a gap to stop the flames.” London’s four-day fire of September 1666 left 100,000 of its citizens homeless, stunned amidst smoldering ruins.

Nothing like this would ever happen in Philadelphia, pledged Penn, who turned to the old Renaissance masters for fresh design ideas—ideas potent enough to eventually, centuries later, come to fruition in the center of Philadelphia.

“There are another Kind of public ways,” wrote Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century, these “may not improperly be called High Streets.” They are “designed for some certain Purpose, especially a public one; as for instance those which lead to some Temple, or the Course for Races; or to a Place for Justice.” Alberti imagined these grand “public ways” radiating and converging, lined with public buildings of many sorts.

These public avenues, argued Andrea Palladio, would be complex, active and spacious centers of civic life. “Broad Streets are more lightsome,” he wrote, noting “that one side of such a Street is … less eclipsed by the opposite Side. The Beauty of Churches and Palaces must needs be seen to the Greater advantage in large than narrow Streets, whence the Mind is more agreeably entertained and the city more adorned.”

Adorned indeed, and exquisitely right for civic life. The English translators of Alberti and Palladio called their public avenues “High Street” and “Broad Street.” So did Penn, who, in the 1680s, envisioned for “our intended Metropolis” something like the view up Broad Street in the 1890s: a bright, welcoming, urban center, a place that would “never be burnt, and always be wholesome.”

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Debt and Consequence

Broad Street - North of Spruce Street, December 21, 1915. (

Broad Street – North of Spruce Street, December 21, 1915. (

It’s a classic story. Behind a noble and refined façade, (thanks to the designs of Frank Miles Day and Louis Comfort Tiffany) Horticultural Hall on Broad Street was really a house of cards, a palace built on credit.

After an earlier hall on the same site burned in 1893, insurance kicked in $25,000 for a new building. At the start of 1894, according to the History of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, only $26.25 was in the bank.  But Society president, Clarence H. Clark (whose mansion at 42nd and Locust cost $300,000 two decades before) didn’t see a problem; he saw an opportunity. Clark, a banker, engineered a fix in the form of a $200,000 mortgage.

And so with borrowed money “a fine example of Italian Renaissance architecture” as we told last time, rose on Broad Street. Its bronze gates welcomed, its emerald glass awed, its “deep overhanging eaves” impressed. Above those eaves were the finest Spanish tiles. Below them was to be a pièce de résistance of public art, a giant, wraparound mural—one of the largest ever.

The last thing on muralist Joseph Lindon Smith’s mind was his client’s staggering debt. As he planned the job, Smith, faced his own daunting challenges. The up-and-coming artist had recently finished a modest mural in an alcove of the Boston Public Library, and had never taken on a commission this massive—308 feet long and 6 feet high. Nor had Smith ever taken on anything this risky. “It will be executed directly upon plaster and it will be out-of-doors,” worried an art critic at the Inquirer, on April 19, 1896, “two conditions seldom met with in modern wall-painting.”

Plus, Smith wasn’t entirely certain what he wanted to paint. In an interview in the Spring of 1896, he admitted “working upon his design for nearly a year” and still unclear how his mural would play out. There’d be “allegorical and mythological characters, the months, or the seasons and the signs of the zodiac, all having some bearing…upon the building and its use.” There’d be a decorative scheme featuring “the harvest gods, Ceres and Bacchus” and “an almost endless use of garlands” and wreaths. But how would it all come together?

Detail of proposed mural on Horticultural Hall, ca. 1896. ( McLean Library, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society)

As Smith sat at his drawing board feeling the panic rise, he learned the plaster below the eaves wouldn’t be ready for his brush until Fall. What a relief! More time to think! Smith could go on “a special trip to Italy during the summer to renew his acquaintance with the works of the early Italian fresco painters.”

Ah, the life of a struggling artist (with a commission).

Smith did master the challenge and depicted in his own frescoes “the evolution of the vegetable kingdom through four seasons” as Asa M. Steele related in Harper’s Weekly a few years later. “A great scroll also appears in the centre of the main façade, bearing the words “Horticulture” and “Agriculture,” “Sylviculture,” “Viticulture,” and Floriculture.” Between the many small windows “he painted…small panels depicting boys with agricultural tools, and conventional wreaths, and groupings of fruits, flowers, nuts, evergreens and holly.” Smith’s “principal groups depict twelve women typifying the months of the year, each holding in her lap the appropriate sign of the zodiac and accompanied by the patron deity of the season, and arrangements of foliage, fruits and flowers.”

Starting on the south side of the building, Smith’s figures for January and February were accompanied by Janus, the god of new starts, “who received the prayers and husbandmen at the beginning of seed time.” Then came Triptolemus, the demi-god of agriculture, “in his winged chariot drawn by serpents, rides through an awakening landscape, scattering his barley seed on either hand.” March arrived “in wind-tossed draperies;” April “in the tender hues of early spring, carried an inverted vase to symbolize the descent of rain upon the earth.” In between was the figure of Proserpina, daughter of Ceres.

Hort Hall - detail of mural - FLP

Horticultural Hall, ca. 1900 detail. (The Free Library of Philadelphia)

Steele continued: “May is decked in vivid green, against a background of blossoms. June sits wreathed in roses and the bloom of early summer, with garlands strewn about. Flora, the deity of horticulture, and Amor, with drawn bow, formed the remainder of the group. In the center of the front façade Phoebus Apollo sits enthroned in a glory of golden sunbeams, a lyre in his hands. July and August, arrayed in the gorgeous hues of midsummer, and surrounded by fruits and flowers, have Ceres as protectress. The goddess is robed in crimson and gold, and holds a sheaf of wheat. September and October, with Pomona, goddess of fruits, enthroned between them, are surrounded with the rich browns, reds, and yellows of autumn, with a bearing fruit tree in the background, and garlands of corn and grapes. The next panel depicts Bacchus, holding the thyrsus with a wreath of ivy on his head. In the background is the sea, with a marble screen of vines and grapes. The adjacent sky shines with Ariadne’s crown of seven stars; a satyr dances in the foreground. November, looking back toward her system months, and December, lingering in desolation with bowed head, and Boreas [the god of the north wind] blowing winter blasts, complete the series.”

As great a work as it may have been, Smith’s giant mural seemed unphotographable. And for all its wall power, for all its ability for to provide civic ulplift for paraders and boulevardiers on Broad Street, it represented a giant, crushing debt for the directors of the Horticultural Society that wasn’t going away.

So in 1909, three years after the death of Clarence Clark, when a cash offer of “at least $500,000” came in over the transom, the directors saw the light at the end of the tunnel. This offer appeared more appealing than anything designed, built or painted. The buyer would demolish the building but no matter. Finally, the debt would be retired.

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Frank DeSimone’s South Philly (Part One)


The 2300 block of South Bouvier Street, near St. Monica's Church, the site of many games of stoop ball during DeSimone's childhood in the 1950s.

The 2300 block of South Bouvier Street, near St. Monica’s Church, the site of many games of stoop ball during DeSimone’s childhood in the 1950s.

Frank DeSimone is seventy years old, and is a successful trial Philadelphia attorney who at one time served as assistant district attorney. He is short of stature and slight of build, with a soft, gravely voice and warm, open smile. Born in 1945, Frank is the grandson of immigrants from Naples.  His grandfather came to Philadelphia in the early 1900s and got a job at a paint factory, where like many other workers, contracted leukemia from the noxious fumes.  Frank’s parents ran a restaurant a few blocks from the family row house at 18th and Ritner.  

As a child, he was quite pudgy, and was known by the other kids in the neighborhood as “Beanzie.”  An elderly Jewish lady in the neighborhood who sometimes kept an eye on him after school gave him the Yiddish nickname “Frankele.”

“When I was older, they called me Beans McKinley,” he said, “because I would talk a lot and almost get into that lawyer stage even then!”

After school, a group of forty kids from the neighborhood congregated on Ritner Street, the main commercial artery of “New Italy.” ”Everyone down here had a nickname,” Frank recalled, “which usually had to do with something you did, or you didn’t do. Bear, Bird, etc.” They played half-ball, stoop ball, and other games in the streets, which in the 1950s were still largely clear of cars. But Frank insists that few got into mischief either on the street or at school in St. Monica’s.   There were, as urbanist Jane Jacobs noted in her book contemporary book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, too many eyes on the street. “In those days, we didn’t lock our doors,” he said. “And nobody had fences in back of their houses.”  Plus, the last thing a student wanted was a note home from one of the nuns. Among the kids he grew up with was Ronald Donatucci, who also became a lawyer and is now Register of Wills.  Perhaps the most famous resident was Tommy Loughran, world heavy lightweight boxing champion from 1927 to 1929. The “Philly Phantom” was considered a gentleman both in and out of the arena, and a devoted parishioner at St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church. 

James Braddock vs. Tommy Loughran, July 18, 1929..

During high school, he took to heart the words of his surrogate Jewish grandmother: “lick the honey off the book pages.” Pushed to succeed in school by his own parents, Frank attended St. Joe’s Prep in North Philadelphia and then went on to Villanova University for college and law school, commuting from his parents’ home to save money.

Frank now lives on the Main Line and works in Center City. Yet he still frequently visits the old neighborhood to attend Mass at St. Monica’s, buy pastries from Cacia’s for Christmas and St. Joseph’s Day, and pick up a sandwich for his wife Lorrie from Nick’s Old Roast Beef.  He occasionally brings his 28 year old son Frank Jr., a third year law student, along with him.  ”Like me, he’s a traditionalist,” Frank said about his son over a cup of coffee at the Melrose Diner.  ”I want him to know where his family comes from, and to be proud of it. And it means a lot to him.”

“When my son got into Harvard,” Frank added, “I went to my parents’ graves and thanked them. We did it.”


The grave of Father D.P. McManus at St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church, 17th and Ritner. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

I met Frank Sr. for a tour of his old neighborhood on Sunday, March 22.  Unfortunately,  I missed the St. Joe’s cakes (also known as zeppole) at Cacia’s Bakery on Ritner Street by a few days.  Termini’s was out of them, as well, so I had a cannoli instead, filled with ricotta cheese. Frank told me that these treasured custard-filled fritters, an Italian American favorite on the annual Festa di San Giuseppe on March 19, do not keep for more than a day, anyway.  I’ll have to wait till next year.


A miniature zeppole, or St. Joseph’s Cake. Source: Wikipedia. “Minizeppola” by I, Calcagnile Floriano.

photo 1

The interior of St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church, 17th and Ritner. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

For him, St. Monica’s Church is still the heart and soul of his Philadelphia, a city not of neighborhoods, but of parishes.  St. Monica’s is a craggy Romanesque revival edifice dated from 1901.  It was gutted by a catastrophic fire on January 8, 1971, but thanks to the generous donations of the nearby parishioners, it was restored to its full glory a few years later, albeit with modern pews and stained glass windows. Each pew bears the name of a sponsoring family, almost all of them Italian.  While a bit forbidding on the outside, St. Monica’s is brightly lit and immaculate on the inside, with yellow walls, white plasterwork, and pastel murals on the ceiling and above the marble altar. The cross above the altar was covered by a Lenten shroud.  The mass schedule is full, just as it was half a century ago. A stained glass window commemorates the fire and Father Aloysius Xavier Farrell, who spearheaded the rebuilding effort.

photo 2

The stained glass window commemorating the 1971 fire at St. Monica’s Church and the rebuilding effort spearheaded by Father Farrell. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

“When people ask where are you from?” Frank told me. “They say I’m from St. Monica’s Parish.  When that was said to you, you not only knew the area of the city where they lived, but you knew something about their ethnicity, their education, their beliefs.  Secondarily to the parish, you’d give them a street corner, not your address. That also would identify where you lived.”

He learned that early on in his legal career. While being interviewed at the public defenders office, the first question Vincent Siccardi asked him was “Frank DeSimone. Where are you from, Frank?”

“18th and Ritner!”  Frank blurted out.

“You’re hired,” Siccardi responded immediately. “I hire guys from corners. They make good trial lawyers. I want you to work here.”

Porter  Street between 19th and 21st Street, January 23, 1953.

Porter Street between 19th and 21st Street, January 23, 1953.

When I  asked about Siccardi’s logic, Frank responded, “If you grew up on a street corner, you got to know people, you interacted with people, and were part of the fabric of the city. You have to make quick judgements when dealing with people, or you’re going to get teased or get made fun of, so you have to survive in that environment. When you’re in a courtroom, it’s the same thing.”

He took the job, missing out on a follow up interview from the District Attorney’s office.  He would get there eventually, serving in the homicide department, before going into private practice.  When picking a  jury, Frank believes that knowing a person’s parish and corner is still the next best thing to a psychological profile.



Interview with Frank DeSimone, March 22, 2015.

“St. Monica,” Philadelphia Church Project,




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Lost Days on Broad Street

Art Club, Broad and Chancellor Streets, Southwest corner. (

Art Club, Broad and Chancellor Streets, Southwest corner. (

Philadelphia’s decades-long “reign of architectural terror” had finally come to an end. The powerful influence of Frank Furness, whose “violent mind” generated a “degree of depravity not to be measured in words” had played out. In its place, critic Ralph Adams Cram saw the rise of refinement and a “delicate sensibility” of a new posse of architects: Wilson Eyre, Cope & Stewardson and Frank Miles Day.

“These four,” claimed Cram in The Architectural Record, “became one voice crying in the wilderness, a voice proclaiming artistic salvation through the doctrine of good taste.” Day had signaled the start of a revolt in the late 1880s with his Art Club at Broad at Chancellor Streets. But this “unmistakable work of a young man just back from Europe” came across as just a bit too earnest. “Variety and picturesqueness were sought at any cost,” wrote Cram. While the building stood as a welcome “manifestation of delicacy and sweetness, of fine instincts and subtle sympathies,” the result was disappointing. “Calmness, reserve, simplicity are lost,” concluded Cram. The Art Club was “weak… in mass, composition and scale,” not quite the architectural breath of fresh air Cram had hoped for.

But it was a start, “a solid foundation” on which to build. With the Art Club, Day marked “the entrance of a new influence in a devastated field.” And as Day “found himself” as a designer, he’d come to realize that “salvation is not by fine line alone.”

Horticultural Hall, ca. 1894 (

Horticultural Hall, ca. 1896 (

As Cram saw it, architectural salvation arrived at last in the mid-1890s in the form of “two important structures” by Day. First was the American Baptist Publication Society, 1420-22 Chestnut Street, an “elaborate, ambitious, magnificent” creation, featuring “all kinds of splendor, an efflorescence of balustrades, dormers, pinnacles and diaper work” on the tower. Then there was the “bold yet delicate” architectural gem of a building in Horticultural Hall, 250 South Broad Street.

“A fine example of Italian Renaissance architecture,” complimented Asa M. Steele in Harper’s Weekly. Its “arched entrances and windows” contrast “with simple expanses of wall of golden-yellow Pompeian brick…surmounted by a roof of Spanish tiles.” Its façade resonates with “vitality and richness” with “ornate bronze gates, windows of emerald glass, and touches of brilliant gold, pink and green upon medallions, balcony grills, and deep overhanging eaves.”

Inside and out, the hall “breathes the atmosphere of blossoms, orchards, and woodlands,” wrote Steele. “The grand staircase of pink and white marble rises from the vestibule into a bower of green marble columns, and green and gold galleries surmounted by a bronze-gold-dome topped with opalescent glass. …  The entire main floor can be thrown open from end to end, giving the whole the appearance of an idealized sylvan vista.”

Day had produced a successful, mature design, a “strong and simple composition, with a just disposition of voids and solids…the building is thoroughly delightful in its mass and its general composition. Nothing appears that does not justify itself by its inherent beauty; archivolts, mouldings, medallions, balcony fronts, all are studied to the last degree; and as a result one has the same impulse to sit down before it with sketchbook and pencil that manifests itself in Italy.”

“Horticultural Hall is,” wrote Cram, “about the best thing Mr. Day has done… In detail it is just as delicate and lovely as the earlier work, but this detail is more carefully used, and disposed with far greater craft.” Although the Days hadn’t done many buildings, “their influence has been profound and far-reaching.” And most importantly, they “stood unflinchingly for good taste and for intrinsic beauty…they have done nothing that was half studied… They treated their art with respect, they never forgot that an architect must be first of all a gentleman, and they held faithfully to the gentleman’s creed ‘Noblesse oblige.’”

The Days, Cram declared, have “turned back the tide…that was overwhelming Philadelphia, and they set up their standard as a rallying point for all men loyal to good taste, to seriousness of purpose, to faithfulness in the small things of architecture as in the great.”

But the 20th century had another thing in store. As it turned out, greatness was fleeting for the Days’ buildings on Broad Street. Horticultural Hall, the last up, was the first cut down, in its 21st year. Only a few interior elements survive in the building’s remake as the Shubert Theatre (now the Merriam Theater).

The Art Club hung on into the mid-1970s. Then it, too, succumbed. The adjacent Bellevue-Stratford Hotel needed a parking garage.

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Fatal Collapse at 5th and Clearfield

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield, August 2, 1959 (

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield, August 2, 1959 (

“My God, it’s Reiss!” shouted Alfred Haggerty. The patrolman had noticed something at the bottom of the gaping pit at the intersection of 5th and Clearfield and stared at it for minutes before realizing it was the body of the missing police officer.

A week before, Joseph A. Reiss and his partner, patrolman Joseph Cheplick, responded to a call to investigate a street cavein. Within minutes of their arrival, Reiss had “plunged into a 20-foot-deep, water-filled hole that suddenly opened beneath him.”

“Policeman Vanished in Huge Cavein,” read the headline on August 2, 1959.

Gunner’s Run, one of the many creeks buried by the city in the 1880s, still flowed in a 12-foot brick conduit more than 20 feet below. This creek-turned-sewer was out of sight and out of mind until the rains. Then came the caveins, again and again.

As Cheplick told what happened that fateful Saturday night, he and Reiss “got out of their car for a closer look. Chelplick was about 20 feet behind his partner when Reiss reached the hole and peered over the edge.  “I saw dirt crumbling away under the pavement where Joe was standing,” Cheplick said. “I yelled, “For God’s sake, Joe, get back!” Then I saw his spotlight fly up in the air and Joe disappeared in to the hole.”

“The edge crumpled and he was flung into the hole. He disappeared from sight.”

Cheplick ran back to their squad car, “got a rope and worked his way back to the crater. He tried to lower the rope into the hole. “But when I got back all I could see was swirling water. Joe was gone…” Cheplick “was forced to retreat as the ground on which he stood fell away.”

At the missing officer’s home in Bustleton, Marie Reiss, prayed “in her living room and…begged God to keep her husband alive in the pit that swallowed him… She wept because she realized the chances were slim. Mayor Richardson Dilworth told her so. Her friends have told her the same—in an effort to soften the blow… But Marie Reiss clung to the thread of possibility.”

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield Sts., August 11, 1959. (

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield Sts., August 11, 1959. (

In the light of day, Cheplick returned to the scene and choked back tears as he showed exactly where Reiss had fallen in. “It was here,” he told the Water Commissioner, pointing to one edge of the pit, “that’s where he disappeared.” The rescue team “descended into the sewer and penetrated to within fifty feet of the collapsed wall, but saw no sign of the missing patrolman.” As hopes of rescue turned to recovery, few expected that Reiss’s body remained close to the cavein. The sewer overflow emptied out in the Delaware two miles downstream. That’s where a Harbor Patrol boat idled in the Delaware River, just off the foot of Somerset Street and Port Richmond.

After a week of waiting and watching, that patrolman Alfred Haggerty spotted Reiss’s body in the the crater at 5th and Clearfield turned out to be the only break. Immediately, “police and firemen erected a platform in the pit about 15 feet from the bottom and then began lowering a ladder to the bottom… A crane was swung into position to recover the body.” Then, “suddenly, the water fed by the afternoon’s heavy rains swirled up over the body” and carried it away.

A mile and three-quarters downstream, beneath the pavement at Richmond Avenue and Somerset Street, Water Department workers Anthony DiNicola and Edward Potts had been maintaining a watchful vigil. And it was there, less than an hour after Haggerty spotted Reiss, that they would recover his body from a 12-foot square, concrete interceptor chamber.

Two days later, after the viewing, the Police and Firemen’s bands lined up along Cottman Avenue and played “Nearer My God To Thee.” At the Requiem Mass that followed at the Church of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, near Bustleton Avenue and Welsh road, “a detail of 100 policemen representing all branches of the department stood at attention” as the pallbearers, including Joseph Cheplick, passed by. In the front of the church, that sad Wednesday, as city and police leaders filed out after the Mass, stood Marie Agnes Reiss and her two children.

Now, only Marie alone knew she was carrying a third child.

[Sources consulted at the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Newsclipping Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University: “Policeman Vanished in Huge Cavein,” August 2, 1959; “Caveins Slow Rescue at Street Pit,” August 3, 1959; “That’s Where he Fell In, Officer Cries at Cavein,” August 4, 1959; “Policeman’s Wife Clings to Hope,” August 4, 1959; “Divers Recover Body of Policeman in Cavein,” August 9, 1959; “Mayor Attends Rites for Reiss,” August 12, 1959;  “Cave-In Widow Has A Daughter,” March 2, 1959. Also see "In Memory of Patrolman Joseph A. Reiss #2672."]

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Wrong Turn, Wrong Street, Wrong Day

Break in Sewer - Thompson Street West of 8th, 9/19/ 1913 - 7012 (

Break in Sewer – Thompson Street West of 8th, September 19, 1913. (

That morning, just like any other Thursday, John Connor stepped out of his family’s two-story rowhouse, near 13th and Moore Streets, and made his way up Passyunk Avenue to his job in Center City. Summer still lingered in the sunny September air, and the 23-year-old Connor looked forward to another day behind the wheel of Merchant & Evans’ new, custom-made delivery truck.

Merchant & Evans had just about outgrown their building at 517 Arch Street. They’d done quite well since the Civil War, when Clark Merchant retired from the Navy and built a business in brass, bronze, copper and tin. Over time, he aligned the company with the building trades. And by now, 1913, with Powell Evans, of International Sprinkler Company fame at the helm, success was only the beginning. Under Evans, the firm had expanded its offerings. Their fireproof products would soon be standard everywhere, if the insurance companies had their say about it—and they did. Soon, few large structures rose without sprinklers, fireproof metal doors and shutters. But more: Evans saw potential in the automobile market and turned the company’s talents to the manufacture of clutches, alignment joints, rear axles, jackshaft transmissions, grease cups and metal tire cases. Before long, Merchant & Evans would even build their own “motor trucks,” not too unlike the models they assembled for deliveries and pickups in Philadelphia. The company was widely recognized as “one of the premier metal houses of the United States” with plants in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Wheeling, West Virginia and offices from New York to Kansas.

As Connor approached Merchant & Evans’ loading dock on Cuthbert Street side of the building, his delivery truck was already packed. This September morning, just as he did every day, Connor headed out from company headquarters with a full load of metal products that just about doubled the weight of his 3-ton truck.

Connor navigated the grid Philadelphia making stops and gradually unburdening some of his heavy load. In Northern Liberties he skirted the well-known stretch near 2nd and Germantown, where a cave-in of the Cohocksink, rumors had it, nearly claimed at horse-drawn streetcar in the 1880s. But Connor knew this wasn’t a rumor, he knew this wily underground creek-turned-sewer had nearly claimed a trolley car filled with passengers only one year before. And it would grab him too, if he made the wrong turn, on the wrong street, on the wrong day. Especially in a truck weighing more than two-and-a-half times what a Model-T Ford did—standing completely empty.

By late afternoon, Connor trundled through the busy traffic of North 9th Street, stopping, as his work orders dictated, at building sites, mills, wagon works, machine shops and hardware factories. As he approached the Girard Avenue Farmers Market and the new Girard Avenue Train Station, Connor knew from experience he had to avoid the intersection of 9th and Girard. And so he made a left turn onto Thompson Street.

Heading east to quieter quarters, with Seyferts’ Foundry and the American Smelting Company fading in his rearview mirror, Connor passed narrow Darien Street and glimpsed two church steeples straight ahead, at Thompson and Franklin. Then, in front of Heickhaus’s Groceries and Provisions, Connor saw out of the corner of his eye a “hump in the cobblestone paving.” He swerved; but too little, too late. With no further warning, Connor “felt the street suddenly sinking beneath him” and “plunged head-on into a collapsing mass of cobblestones and dirt.” As the truck dropped, Connor didn’t have time to think, he just “threw himself backward.” Then, as the debris-covered front of the truck shuttered and steamed, he saw water shooting from both front and back of the chasm. Worse, he smelled natural gas. Connor “clawed his way upward along the tilting surface” of the truck. “The odor of escaping gas was so powerful Connor had barely enough strength to climb over the edge…and stagger to safety.” But stagger he did, and safe he was. Connor escaped “scarcely a minute” before a great explosion echoed throughout the neighborhood.

As for Merchant & Evans, they survived, too, and rolled onward. Within a few years, Powell Evans moved the entire Philadelphia operation to a new plant near 20th Street and Washington Avenue. And the company proclaimed in advertisements that “rapid motor trucks” of their “own manufacture” were “used daily to make free delivery in all parts of the city.” No word as to whether John Connor ever got behind the wheel again.

[Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, September, 19, 1913. “Huge Truck in Sewer Cave-In, Large Vehicle Falls Through Street When Old Cohocksink Collapses.”]

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Cohocksink: The Northern Liberties Cover-Up

Break in Cohocksink Sewer – Germantown Avenue above 2nd Street, May 29, 1894. (

Break in Cohocksink Sewer – Germantown Avenue above 2nd Street, May 29, 1894. (

With an investment of $100,000—the equivalent of millions in today’s dollars—City Fathers assured Philadelphians that the “noisome” Cohocksink, the creek that drained much of North Philadelphia, had finally been contained. No longer would its “fetid and polluted waters” meander in plain sight, sluggishly making their way to the Delaware. It was 1871, and this country-creek-turned-urban-sewer would forever be “closed from view…shut off from further sight and further mischief.” City life could continue, unimpeded, above.

Or so they thought.

In spite of the best of intentions, this “work of magnitude and importance”  would not tame the Cohocksink. With runoff from the expanding grid of North-Central Philadelphia, this underground “solution” gained power as it flowed to the Delaware. By the time its “fetid and polluted” waters got to Northern Liberties, the Cohocksink could become much more mischievous, especially when swollen with storm water.

Time and time again, the Cohocksink dramatically carried away bits and pieces of the city. In November 1888, the horses and delivery wagon of wholesale grocer Henry Graham were saved only by tremendous efforts on the part of driver and a handful of pedestrians, who managed to pull a half-swallowed horse onto solid ground at Germantown Avenue near 2nd Street.

Before workmen could repair that gaping hole, another storm opened it up even more just as a horse-drawn streetcar passed over. The driver, “realizing their peril” as “the ground was rumbling and sinking,” lashed his horses into a gallop, and…got onto firm ground” before “the earth beneath the tracks gave way.”

Engineer Frank Seaville, slipped into the “yawning chasm.” If not for the efforts of fellow workmen, Seaville would have “fallen into the malodorous and swift rushing waters” to certain death. William F. Keppler wasn’t so lucky. When another storm caused a collapse over the Cohocksink, Keppler was swept away.

The gorge at Second Street soon extended “from curb to curb,” compromising homes and ruining businesses. Clothier P. Ostheim & Sons lost their Christmas trade. Store-keepers along nearby Girard Avenue: a baker, a butcher, a tobacconist and a pair of saloon keepers lost goods and customers. Rising waters extinguished cellar furnaces as far away as 4th and Girard.

Sinkholes opened in nearby streets with increasing frequency. “A mighty stream of water poured through the Cohocksink sewer last night,” reported the Inquirer in January 1889, “and near the big break at Germantown and Second Street masses of earth and masonry were heard giving way as the torrent swept toward the river.” That rainy summer the Inquirer reported yet “Another Big Cave In.” The waters “carried away sidewalks, and threatened to undermine houses.”

Frustrated residents above the Cohocksink pleaded with City Council “to take immediate measures to prevent further breaks.” Repairs would take years.

As work continued, so did the storms. In September 1894, a nighttime deluge led to another, familiar “deep rumbling” heard throughout Northern Liberties. Everyone knew what happened: the Cohocksink claimed yet another chunk of the city.

(Sources in The Inquirer: “Municipal Improvements,” January 4, 1871; “Work of the Storm,” November 12, 1888; “Like a Yawning Chasm,” December 18, 1888; “Another Break in the Cohocksink Sewer,” January 10, 1889; ”Snow, Rain and Slush,” January 21, 1889; “Cohocksink Sewer Again,” March 22, 1889; “Another Big Cave-In,” July 31, 1889; “Cohocksink Sewer,” May 23, 1894; “City Deluged By Heavy Rain,” September 9, 1894; “The Earth Dropped,” July 29, 1899.)

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Liberty Unveiled

Liberty Statue, South Penn Square, April 16, 1918. (

Liberty Statue, South Penn Square, April 16, 1918. (

Little “blue-eyed, pink-cheeked” Nona Martin, the five-year-old from Chestnut Hill, stood motionless, “awed by the numberless masses that stretched away before her vision down Broad Street, as far as the eye could see.” By her side, on the platform, was her grandfather, William G. McAdoo, the “tall, gaunt, commanding” Treasury Secretary. Behind them loomed the giant statue, draped in white.

The parade had started as the the clocks struck noon. Twelve hundred schoolgirls “dressed as Goddesses of Liberty,” escorted by the Police Band, marched northward from Broad and Jackson Streets. Each held in her uplifted hands torches of Liberty and the flags of France, England, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Japan, Poland, and, of course, the United States. Behind the “procession of the goddesses” marched 5,000 marines and sailors. The pageant was great; the crowd greater; the music spectacular.

Bands played “Over There.” Then Clarence Whitehill, baritone of the Metropolitan Opera Company, stepped forward. “A hush fell over the multitude. His voice rang out the first words of the hallowed ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’” (recently recorded by another baritone, Reinald Werrenrath, at Victor in Camden.) As Whitehill’s voice echoed over the silent crowd, “it was as though an electric current had been sent through the solid masses of humanity.”

According to the plan, at the conclusion of the singing, at the moment the words “Sweet land of liberty… wafted to the crisp Spring air from many thousands of throats,” McAdoo would pull the cord allowing “the veil to fall from the Statue of Liberty.” He then would announce the start of the Third Liberty Loan Campaign to finance The Great War.

But McAdoo had another idea. As “the last strains of patriotic song still were echoing down Broad street, over the heads of thousands upon thousands of men, women and children, between the walled land made by skyscraper office buildings,” he handed the cord, “the other end of which ran to the top of the white drapery” to his granddaughter.

The crowd fell silent in anticipation as the time had come to unveil Philadelphia’s plaster Statue of Liberty, a 29-foot replica of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s 151-foot monument in New York Harbor.

This Liberty-lookalike, mounted on a 22-foot base designed by architect John T. Windrim, had been the work of sculptor Max Voight, himself once an arrival from Germany among the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Voight’s international, hand-picked team of sculptors included an Italian, a Frenchman and a Russian: Salvatore Morani, Armand Maeme and Nathan Adelman. Their work on the statue had been followed in the newspapers and documented “by moving picture films,” as was increasingly the custom. Towering, 51-feet above Broad Street, Liberty’s flaming torch lit up Philadelphia’s nights and served as beacon, booth and site of symbolic gesture.

Unveiling the Statue of Liberty at start of Third Liberty Loan Drive, April 6, 1918. William H. Rau, photographer. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Unveiling the Statue of Liberty at start of Third Liberty Loan Drive, April 6, 1918. William H. Rau, photographer. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

“Each subscriber will be entitled to ascend the stairway to the foot of the statue and drive into the pedestal a large headed tack bearing his initials. This will transform the pedestal gradually from a wooden to a metal surface.”

As the gathered crowd stood in silence that April afternoon, Nona Martin “seemed for a moment lost as to her exact part of the affair. Her famous grandfather leaned over, spoke a word or two, and the child responded.  She gave a sudden, vigorous tug at the rope, while the draperies opened and fell, and Liberty—the personification of that for which America and most of the civilized world is now waging—stood revealed.”

“As the white sheeting fluttered to the base of the statue, the massed band struck up ‘America.’ … No less than 100,000 men, women and children joined in lifting the air as though in message to the Nation” that Philadelphians would soon part with another $136 million to fund a bloody war “in civilization’s and humanity’s cause.”

 (Sources from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Copy of Famous Liberty Statue Rising in Phila.,”February 10, 1918; “M’Adoo To Open Loan Drive Here; To Unveil Statue,” March 31, 1918; “Huge Crowd Electrified With Patriotic Fervor at Statue’s Unveiling,” April 7, 1918.)

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1918: Death on the Home Front

Philadelphia Deaths from Influenza, 1890-1930.. February 17, 1931 (

Deaths from Influenza in Philadelphia, 1890-1930.. February 17, 1931. (

September had been tough, especially the middle of the month, when more than a quarter of the soldiers at the Frankford Arsenal had been hospitalized with the “Spanish Flu.” On October 1, as the deaths were counted, the Inquirer grasped for a positive tone, pointing out the number of new cases had actually fallen off toward the end of the month. Commander R.W. Plummer of the Fourth Naval Reserve District also tried to offer hope, that maybe, just maybe, “the crest of the epidemic of Spanish Influenza has passed.”

“Talk of cheerful things instead of disease,” urged the Inquirer on October 5, why close down “public schools, theatres, churches, and many other places. … The authorities seem to be going daft. What are they trying to do, scare everybody to death?” The Inquirer took a position even more reckless than that of Dr. Wilmer Krusen, head of the City’s Department of Public Health and Charities. Until two days earlier, Krusen had insisted citizens were in no danger.

In October 1918, Philadelphians had little time for public health; there was a fundraising parade to put on. Citizens had been ordered to do their share and buy half a billion dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds in support of the war effort, and to do so before the end of October. No way would this be possible in a city scared and shuttered. On September 28th the parade on Broad Street took place as scheduled; 200,000 turned out for it.

Symptoms of this strain of influenza began as soon as a day after exposure. On September 30th and October 1st the city hospitals found 466 new cases on their hands. Twenty-four hours later, on October 2nd, the Inquirer reported an additional 635 cases.

“Within seventy-two hours after the parade” writes John Barry, in The Great Influenza,“every single bed in each of the city’s thirty-one hospitals was filled. And people began dying. Hospitals began refusing to accept patients. … On October 3, only five days after Krusen had let the parade proceed, he banned all public meetings in the city-including, finally, further Liberty Loan gatherings—and closed all churches, schools, theatres. Even public funerals were prohibited.”

Too little; too late. From October 4th through the 20th, the city recorded 22,051 new cases. More than 3,900 died during those 17 days. During its most virulent four-week stretch, 47,094 cases of influenza were reported, writes James F. Armstrong. Due to combined denial of city officials and the Press—an Inquirer article from October 9th  carried the headline “Signs Of Epidemic Wearing Itself Out”—the 1918 influenza pandemic and the related complication of pneumonia, cost Philadelphia something like 1% of its entire population, nearly 12,200 citizens.

“In its 10-month duration between 22 and 40 million people perished worldwide,” writes Armstrong, “estimates place the death toll in the United States at over 675,000 with over 22 million becoming ill.”  That death toll was more than five times the total number of American casualties in World War I. Bad all around, but no American city had it harder than Philly.

Life on the home front? In 1918 Philadelphia, it was more like stubborn ignorance and needless death.

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Censoring Philly Street Dance after the Shimmy Ship had Sailed

Police Band, City Hall Tower, 1918. (

Joseph Kiefer and the Philadelphia Police Band, City Hall Tower, 1918. (

“Those moaning saxophones,” fretted John R. McMahon in the Ladies’ Home Journal, “call out the low and rowdy instinct.” And with degrading names like “the cat step, camel walk, bunny hug, turkey trot,” McMahon figured jazz dance mocked the dignified traditions of social dance. Most insidious of all was a move they called the shimmy. “The road to hell is too often paved with jazz steps,” McMahon wrote in an article titled, “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!”

The shimmy rode in with Spencer Williams’ popular song, “Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble,” from 1917. Within a few years, the shimmy had just about taken over White America’s dance halls and cabarets; thriving on stage, in recordings, all the while shaking America’s sense of decency.

“With hardly any movement of the feet,” described singer and actress Mae West, dancers “just shook their shoulders, torsos, breasts and pelvises.” West introduced her version of the shimmy to New York in the Fall of 1918, and a year later her image appeared on the sheet music for “Ev’rybody Shimmies Now.” While the shimmy amused people, its boldness also shocked them. Even West conceded there was “a naked, aching sensual agony about it.”

By 1919, the shimmy dominated American music publishing, recording and performing. The Ziegfeld Follies featured it that year on Broadway. Gilda Gray introduced the shimmy to Philadelphia in the “Shubert Gaieties” at the Chestnut Street Opera House, suggesting that if she hadn’t exactly invented the move, she owned it on stage. “I don’t know whether my shoulders were made to express the shimmy,” Gray told the Inquirer, “or whether the shimmy was made for my shoulders to express.”

America danced to “an explosion of shimmy tunes” and “everyone seemed to jump on the shimmy bandwagon” writes Rebecca A. Bryant in “Shaking Things Up: Popularizing the Shimmy in America.” The most famous, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” would be joined by the “Shimmie Waltz,” “Let Us Keep the Shimmie,” “Shimmying Everywhere,” “You Cannot Shake That Shimmie Here.” Irving Berlin’s “You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea,” worried that Prohibition might kill the shimmy. But banning alcohol didn’t slow the shimmy. Philadelphia soon shook to its own song: “All the Quakers Are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker Town).

Others joined the scandalized Quaker on the cover of “Shoulder Shakers,” chiming in with their opinions about the shimmy. “Dancing Masters Join Clergy to Purify Dance,” read one headline, “International Association Blames Wave of Vulgar Dancing on Song Writers.”  Before long, from New York to San Francisco, moral authorities wanted to, and sometimes managed, to ban, restrict or censor the shimmy.

All the Quakers are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker town). (Duke University Libraries - Historic American Sheet Music.)

“All the Quakers are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker town).”  (Duke University Libraries – Historic American Sheet Music.)

Gilda Gray performs her famous Shimmy, 1931. (YouTube)

Gilda Gray performs the Shimmy, 1931. See 9:02. (YouTube.)

“The insidious thing,” wrote the Inquirer in an article confirming “the shimmy dance has been barred from Philadelphia,” is that “when one dancer starts the whole place must start, until the room rocks with the shimmy dance. It is more insidious than champagne, it is more insidious than drugs.” In the suburbs, the Lansdowne Club designated chaperones as “shimmy sleuths” assigning them to break up “the bunny-hugging and too affectionate ‘toddling.” In the city, the task of policing the city’s 4,000 licensed dance halls proved more challenging.

The solution? Dancing—and censoring—in the streets.

“Police Dance Censor Taboos Street Shimmy,” read the headline before the first Philadelphia street dances of 1919. Sergeant Theodore S. Fenn, assured that dancers “will do nothing ‘suggestive’ by way of street dancing while I am around…Philadelphia will dance with her feet, and her feet only. The Quaker City…will not be disgraced by the ‘shimmy’ dance.”

But the dancers had other ideas. When 15,000 jammed the Parkway to dance to the Police Band, reported the Inquirer, they were “happy in jazzing and shimmying…in…one jostling, swaying mass of sweltering humanity, in which a censor, if there had been one, would have had about as much change of imposing his ideas as the proverbial snowball.” Dancers “toddled and shimmied, dipped and slid to their hearts content….”

Someone needed to train police in anti-dance tactics and prevent “cheek-to-cheek dancing, abdominal contact, [the] shimmy [and the] toddle.” Enter dance master Miss Marguerite Walz, who would instruct 54 officers “to keep their eyes peeled for violators of the “No Shimmy” rule” while the Police Band played on. During their first outing, just “a few couples drew the attention of the censors, but policemen would step forward and touch one of the offenders on the shoulder and that was the end of it.”

Or so it seemed. The very next year, the “Hip-Dip” “wiggled its way into local terpsichorean circles,” complained Miss Walz. During a visit to South Philadelphia High School, she noticed the “Hip-Dip” and other “new and very undesirable dances,” including the “Flapper Flop,” the “Debutante Slouch” and the “Windmill Stride.”

Dance censorship, it turned out, would be a never-ending game of “whack-a-mole.”

 (Articles consulted: “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!” by John R. McMahon, Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1921; In The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Philadelphia Sneezes at Shimmy Dance,” January 18, 1919, page 3; “Police Dance Censor Taboos Street Shimmy,” May 7, 1919, p.3; “Dancing Masters Join Clergy to Purify Dance,” June 13, 1919, p. 16; “Another Creator of the Shimmy,” October 19, 1919, p. 8; “’Sedate Dancing Only’ Lansdowne Club Edict,” January 15, 1921, p. 19; “18,000 at City Dance Miss Walz, Censor, Finds Few Violations of ‘No Shimmy’ Rule,” July 29, 1921, p. 3; “New Dances Banned. South Phila. High Girls Promise to Eschew Latest Steps,” March 29, 1922, p. 16; “’Hip Dip’ Appears Here at City’s Public Dance,” July 14, 1922, p.3.)

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