Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s “First Great Structure”

“Center Square Water Works,” Section.(PhillyHistory.org)

“Centre Square. Erected in 1800. Taken Down in 1828,” Copy of original by John James Barralet. (PhillyHistory.org)

Benjamin Henry Latrobe had abundant talent and even more ambition. He left his native England for America after realizing that there were those “whose talents are superior to mine… I should perhaps never have elbowed through them.” But in America, Latrobe could claim: “I am the only successful Architect and Engineer.” Here he could find opportunities to demonstrate his skills and shape the future of a new nation, as well as his profession.

And so he did, first in Philadelphia in 1798, then in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New Orleans and beyond. By the time Latrobe died of Yellow Fever in 1820, he left a trail of buildings the likes of which had not been seen or imagined on this side of the Atlantic. He showed what the profession of architecture could do, if given half a chance.

None of it was easy. “I have had to break the ice for my successors, and … destroy the prejudices … [of]  villainous [sic] Quacks in whose hands the public works have hitherto been…” The American custom of hiring builders for design and construction frustrated Latrobe, and made his every step difficult, but within a few years after his arrival, a few standing examples demonstrated his genius. In Philadelphia, Latrobe completed two buildings that would turn heads and change minds.

One was the Pump House at Center Square. Inspired, in part, by the Roman Pantheon, Latrobe adapted the oculus at the dome’s center not for light, but to emit smoke generated by the new engineering feat inside—a steam engine. This stoking, smoking, white-marble Pump House sat smack in the center of Philadelphia’s city plan as a dual symbol: a bold reflection of young America inheriting the past greatness of ancient civilization and a temple to dawn of the industrial age at the start of a new century.

Detail, demolition of “Pennsylvania Bank, 1867″ with the Merchants’ Exchange cupola in the distance.  Albumen print by John Moran, photographer. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Latrobe’s second early triumph, his Bank of Pennsylvania, quickly became “one of the most influential buildings in the nation’s history.” Critic Paul Goldberger waxes in a PBS documentary, calling it “a wonder.” Architectural historians from Talbot Hamlin (“an epoch-making work”) to Jeffrey Cohen, (“a game changer”) agree.

Ionic Capital from the Erectheum, Athens. From Antiquities of Athens, Stuart and Revett, 1762 (Google Books)

Where Latrobe’s bank looked like a Greek Temple, the Ionic temple on the Ilyssus near Athens, and was the first building to use archeologically-correct details (published decades before in Stuart and Revett’s landmark book, Antiquities of Athens) the Bank of Pennsylvania was, as Hamlin pointed out “in no sense a copy of any ancient building.”  Here Latrobe developed a plan “simply and functionally from the necessities of the building, with a new kind of simplicity and openness. Like the Pump House, “it was a creation and not a copy.” And with its vaulted interior, “nothing this technically ambitious had ever been built in America.”

For a brief moment, Latrobe made it sound easy. “It was a plaything to me,” he reflected, adding, “so in fact, are all my designs.” They “come of themselves unmasked and in multitudes…”

President Thomas Jefferson, a fan of ancient architecture who owned and treasured his copy of Stuart and Revett, took notice of Latrobe’s display in Philadelphia and brought him to the nation’s Capital. As Goldberger describes it, Jefferson needed Latrobe to “fix [William] Thornton’s mess” at the Capitol, then under construction.

Problem was, Washington needed an architect who was also a politician, which Latrobe decidedly was not. Years later, he commented about his work there: “I have run my race in a sack, and if I have got to the goal, it has only need by tumbling on & over all obstacles & persevering to the end.” But in Philadelphia, at the Bank of Pennsylvania, Latrobe had been given carte blanche.” That building Latrobe considered his masterpiece, or as he more immodestly put it: “my first great structure.”

Nothing important by Latrobe survives in Philadelphia. The Pump House lasted only until 1828. His Bank of Pennsylvania was pulled down in 1867. But Latrobe’s influence and impact lived on.

 

Related posts at PhillyHistory: Philadelphia as Athens- of America: More Than Skin Deep and Salvaging Parts of the Greek Revival.

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Salvaging Parts of the Greek Revival

First Congregational Unitarian Church, Northeast corner of 10th and Locust Street. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards, April 1, 1859. (PhillyHistory.org/The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

By the time architect William Strickland envisioned a set of columns for the portico of his Unitarian Church at 10th and Locust Streets, fortune had turned his way. A set of Doric columns was newly available, salvaged from Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s Pump House at Center Square. That building wasn’t even 30 years old, but the city had fast outgrown it. And now, in the late 1820s, Latrobe was gone and Strickland had come into his own as the city’s most imaginative and talented architect. He put Latrobe’s columns to good use.

Strickland had met Latrobe as a boy—Strickland’s father a, bricklayer and carpenter, had worked on Latrobe’s crews. Latrobe noted the young Strickland’s skills, “the quickness of his eye and the facility of his pencil” and put the 14-year-old to work. But what began as the “joyous and grateful temperament” soon gave way to distraction and quibbling. Strickland’s talent, according to architectural historian Talbot Hamlin, was undeniable, but he soon “appeared to Latrobe as a scatterbrained person, a boy upon whom he wasted much affection…” Now, it seemed, Strickland was “too independent minded, to light-hearted and curious, to endure patiently the regular draftsman’s routine.” This “whirligig temperament” had no place in architecture. Latrobe finally fired Strickland, now 17, and the two parted ways.

United States Mint, Northwest corner of Chestnut and Juniper Sts. Photograph by James E. McClees, 1855. (PhillyHistory.org/The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Now, two decades later, and eight years after Latrobe’s death from yellow fever in New Orleans, Strickland was rising into the role that Latrobe himself had strived for, the architect who would transform red-brick Philadelphia with white marble. And Strickland was doing it by continuing Latrobe’s legacy—his commitment to the Greek Revival in America.

After splitting from Latrobe’s in 1805, Strickland worked as an artist and a draftsman until 1808, when he was landed his first major architectural commission—the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street. This was an example, Hamlin later wrote, of Strickland “trying to leap out of the bounds of fashion.” And when the place burned in 1819, he imagined it was “no great loss.” Strickland most likely felt that way. After completing the Masonic Hall, he left the profession to travel and then settle in New York, where he eked a living painting and designing scenery for Park Theatre. Ten years later, when Strickland returned to Philadelphia to try his hand at architecture a second time, his appetite for experimentation still dominated. “Hardly a fashion or an impulse arises,” wrote Hamlin, that Strickland didn’t try to give “architectural expression; Gothic, Egyptian, Oriental, Greek, Italianate…” But Strickland’s stunning success in 1818, winning the competition for the Second Bank—outperforming even his former mentor—overshadowed his other “temporary aesthetic enthusiasms.” By the late 1820s, Hamlin wrote, it was in the general frame of the Greek Revival that Strickland found his most congenial and most accomplished expression.” And having found it, he stuck with it.

In 1828 at 10th and Locust Streets, Strickland found the opportunity to further solidify his expression of the Greek Revival while paying homage to his late master. He salvaged Latrobe’s Doric columns that had been unceremoniously pulled down in the Pump House demolition and resurrected them at the First Congressional Unitarian Church. It turned out to be an ephemeral gesture.

Just as Latrobe had every reason to believe his Pump House would stand the test of time, so did Strickland for his church. But it, too, was doomed to an early demolition, remaining up until only 1885. After that, Latrobe’s columns, which had two shots at standing for the ages, presumably became so much landfill.

Strickland’s columns are installed for the third time, April 2013. (Einstein Medical Center.)

In the second half of the 1820s, Strickland’s projects became a showcase for his newly evolved “touch” for the Greek Revival. His Unitarian Church, the United States Naval Asylum and the new United States Mint displayed a confidence in speaking Greek. Hamlin noted Strickland’s maturity at the Mint in his “wide spacing of the colonnade, in the stress of broad horizontals, and in the quiet wall treatment.”

But this building, too, was short lived. The Mint’s demise in 1902, wrote Hamlin a few decades later, “is but one of the many similar tragedies which have characterized the history and growth of Philadelphia as well as that of many other American cities. Architectural excellence has been the last thing considered (if it is considered at all) in judging whether or not economically obsolete buildings should be preserved.”

When the building came down, its columns were given to the Jewish Hospital, now Einstein Medical Center on Broad Street and Tabor Road. Nearly a century passed with the columns in place, framing the hospital entrance. Then, in 2000, they were in the way of road construction. One by one, the six, 24-foot columns, each weighing 28,000 pounds, were lifted by riggers and moved to storage. In the Spring of 2013, Strickland’s columns were returned to North Broad and set upright for a third time.

But who’s counting.

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Populist Modern at Twelfth and Market

Northeast Corner of 12th and Market Streets, September 21, 1949. Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

Just as Howe and Lescaze were getting to work on their PSFS Building in the late 1920s, Harry Sylk was starting up his Sun Ray drug store chain. Before long, the two would play out their similarities and differences—International Style versus Pre Populuxe—on the street. And where these design cousins would never intersect, they would redefine one of Philadelphia’s most dynamic intersections.

Twelfth and Market Streets had been Philly’s hot corner since the 1890s, when the Reading Railroad installed its masonry cliff of a head house in front of a giant train shed. Its interior was spoken for, but people animated the sidewalk. Pictures of 12th and Market from 1911 and 1914 confirm: this intersection was the heart of Center City, and possibly its soul. Problem was, the blank, anonymous corner niche of rusticated head house didn’t add all that much. It cried out for a kiosk – and a domed version, visible in the 1911 picture. The corner demanded little attention, only the decision to walk straight, right or left.

Until PSFS. In the early 1930s, Howe and Lescaze’s monumental curve of granite, steel and glass put the Reading Terminal Headhouse in perspective. So 19th century; so out of date. Could the power of PSFS possibly inspire its opposite corner to move into the 20th century?

It could. And in true 20th century fashion, it took the swagger and shamelessness of American retail to take up the challenge.

In the late 1920s, brothers Harry, Albert and William Sylk started with a “cut rate” store on Ridge Avenue and built a retail empire. The Sun Ray chain eventually grew to more than 150 stores in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.

The Sylks were promoters as much as retailers. When flying saucers were spotted in Roswell, New Mexico Sun Ray promoted its new Patterson, N.J. store by dropping discs from an airplane and offering free ice cream for anyone who could bring one in. At Easter, Sun Ray gave its customers free chicks. The Sylks didn’t just advertise on radio, they bought two stations: WPEN AM and FM.

Store location remained their first priority. “Wherever there was a Woolworth’s store,” Harry Sylk told the Inquirer, “we tried to open a store right next to them…”

Reading Terminal Head House (detail), Northeast corner 12th and Market Streets, ca. 1950. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Signs became Sun Ray’s other first priority. The Sylks likely stood on the sidewalk across from the commanding curve of PSFS, appreciating Howe and Lescaze’s commitment to retail at the street level. This was their same language, only the Sylks spoke it with an earthier accent. Their corner, the Sylks figured, could update the Victorian kiosk with modern lines and materials. They would brag and holler where PSFS purred.

“Sun Ray; Super Kiosk,” proclaimed their first sign as it curved around the corner. Over time, and abiding by the time-tested principle that there’s no redundancy when it comes to promotion, the words “Super Kiosk” were replaced with “Sun Ray Drug Co.” Neon lit it all.

Powerful? Sure, especially at night. And cluttered. And disappointingly unanimated. Why use neon halfway, asked Max Sarnoff, the Sylk’s sign man extraordinaire? While on the West Coast, Sarnoff had seen the light: “…I wanted to put show biz in the sign business.” Back from Hollywood, via Miami Beach, Sarnoff later told the Sign Builder Illustrated how proud he was of his giant, neon mortar and pestles for Sun Ray. But nothing Sarnoff did combined lights and action like his giant Sun Ray sign with neon bands chasing around the corner of 12th and Market.

A bit of Las Vegas in the Quaker City.

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Novelty in 1954: a Vacant Lot in North Philadelphia

Vacant Lot on Arizona Street-West of 26th. May 12, 1954. John McWhorter, photographer.
(PhillyHistory.org)

Between 1890 and 1950, the city had more than doubled in population, from about one million to just over two. But in the second half of the 20th century, Philadelphia’s population dropped by more than 550,000—a loss, on average, of more than 110,000 residents every decade. It was a remarkable reversal that redefined the city in the second half of the 20th century.

From the Civil War to after World War II, construction and employment booms powered Philadelphia’s expansion. Mile after mile of meadow and farmland had been transformed into red brick neighborhoods. They stretched, as far as the eye could see, interspersed only by churches, factories and freight lines.

By 1890, a short hike from the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery, bordering the lower branch of Cohocksink Creek, surveyors extended Penn’s original grid up to North Penn Village. Speculators divided the grid which now extended northward from Center City, into more development-friendly rectangles. Between York and Dauphin were cut smaller streets: Arizona and Gordon. And along the 400 feet, from corner to corner, speculators put up one more block of two-story row houses. By 1895, thirty stood between York and Arizona, 26th and 27th.

Open space just about disappeared as North Philadelphia rose up. Until the middle of the 20th century, anyway. Then, not only did growth come to a screeching halt, it did an about face. In the Spring of 1954, when city photographer John McWhorter photographed a vacant lot on the 2600 block of West Arizona Street, vacant lots were still the exception. Over the next half century, many more of the original thirty houses on that rectangle between York and Arizona, 20th and 27th disappeared. Today, only half remain.

Detail of the 2600 Block of West Arizona Street, ca. 2013. (Google.)

We were reminded in a recent Inquirer story, accompanied by a useful map, that eight North Philadelphia census tracts each dropped by more than 10,000 residents from 1950 to 2010. What remains today at 26th and Arizona was at the heart of this precipitous decline. It’s census tract: 169.01 – Susquehanna to Lehigh, 25th to 31st– lost 10,780 residents, falling from 16,604 to 5,820. This 65% decline, more than double the citywide drop of 26.7%, outpaced even Detroit’s 61% decline in the same time period. Among Philadelphia’s 385 census tracts, 169.01 and five adjacent tracts lost more than 49,000 residents between 1950 and 2010—more than one-eleventh of the city’s total decline in population.

Are there any clues as to how this dramatic demographic shift played out? Any why this particular neighborhood was hit so hard?

Manufacturing, and manufacturing jobs, once thrived along the nearby Glenwood Avenue corridor. The 1910 Philadelphia Atlas shows coal yards, brick yards, lumber yards, planning mills, furniture factories, brass foundries, factories making pipes, pumps, processing tobacco, weaving textiles – plenty of places for employment. But when the Great Depression hit, and unemployment for the general population stood at 24.75%, unemployment among African Americans was as high as double that rate. And in the depth of the Depression, as we know from J. M. Brewer’s color-coded real estate map, 26th and Arizona was an African-American community.

J. M. Brewer’s Map of Philadelphia, 1934. Detail of the 2600 block of West Arizona Street and vicinity with red indicating “Colored” population and “location ratings” indicating “lower or working class” to “decadent.” (Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network)

As Amy Hillier tells us, the Brewer map and the subsequent Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps, “established highly racialized neighborhood standards” and were used by mortgage companies to inform their lending decisions. Red shading on the Brewer map shows 26th and Arizona as “Colored” and the quality of the housing there “lower of working class” to “decadent.”  Two years later, a data sheet accompanying the HOLC map describes the entire area west of Broad to Fairmount Park between Poplar and Cumberland as “solid town, two and three story, brick houses, forty years old or more,” a neighborhood that “originally housed a large part of the city’s more prosperous middle class” but “is now fast approaching obsolescence, with its population almost entirely Negro.” The neighborhood stood out in red, which signified “hazardous.”

By the 1950s, after two decades of disadvantage and disinvestment, conditions in North Philadelphia were about to get even worse with a steep decline of Philadelphia’s manufacturing economy. At its peak in 1953, a hearty 45 percent of the city’s entire labor force worked in industrial jobs. But by the start of the 21st century, this had fallen to an anemic 5 percent.  Once again, North Philly’s neighborhoods would be among the biggest losers.

Before long, vacant lots would become the rule in North Philadelphia, not the exception. For a time, some would say, the terms “vacant lot” and “North Philadelphia” were synonymous.

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Can Philadelphia Have Too Many Eagles?

One of Alexander Milne Calder’s four eagles for City Hall tower at the Tacony Iron and Metal Works, 1893. (PhillyHistory.org)

We’re dealing with “a Bird of bad moral Character,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. The bald eagle, agreed William Bartram, was nothing more than “an execrable tyrant” who “supports his assumed dignity and grandeur by rapine and violence, extorting unreasonable tribute and subsidy from all the feathered nations.”

But the bird had been good enough for the ancient Romans who mounted miniatures on their standards as they marched to battle. And, as we saw in our last post, the eagle would suffice for the new Republic. In almost no time, on wings of patriotism and the desire to create a national iconography, the image of the bald eagle lifted from the Great Seal to, larger than life, the hearts and minds of the new Americans.

Charles Willson Peale’s “American Eagle” from his museum at Independence Hall. (PhillyHistory.org)

In his museum on Independence Square, artist Charles Willson Peale exhibited portraits of the Founding Fathers and a living, breathing bald eagle that screamed at him in recognition. Peale had great expectations for the nation and, so too, for his eagle, hanging its cage with the sign: “FEED ME DAILY 100 YEARS.” Peale’s eagle lived for a decade in captivity, from 1795 to 1805, and after it died he resurrected it, posed and stuffed.

In the new century, the prolific chisels of Peale’s sculptor friend, William Rush, secured for the bald eagle a permanent place in the American decorative motif. Rush’s carved and gilded eagles appeared in churches Saint John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (it’s now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and on public buildings, including Fairmount Waterworks (this piece is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Carved, cast or painted, eagles were becoming the go-to patriotic icon.

John McArthur Jr.’s La Pierre House, Broad St. north of Sansom, ca. 1869. (PhillyHistory.org)

By the mid-century, the place of the eagle was secured not only in the American hearts and minds, but on America’s streets. In 1848, the Philadelphia Gas Works welcomed home soldiers returning from the Mexican-American War in a display at Independence Hall. An eagle with “a halo of stars” hovered above a thirty-foot “Goddess of Peace,” one of the many “figures in fire” of bent gas-pipes lit by 4,000 gas jets.

Eagles appeared on buildings throughout the city: Chestnut Street; 8th Street: and Broad, where John McArthur, Jr. (later the architect of Philadelphia City Hall) mounted a giant eagle six stories above the entrance, above the cornice of his new luxury hotel, LaPierre House.

When the nation celebrated its 100th birthday in 1876, the roof line of Memorial Hall crackled with personifications of Industry and Commerce, Agriculture and Mining, Science and Art. On each of four corner pavilions were perched four eagles, 16 in all, made of galvanized zinc and with huge wing span. Sometime after the Centennial, Memorial Hall’s eagles had no problem taking off, never to be seen or heard of again.

At Philadelphia City Hall, on the other hand, the eagles mounted at the foot of the Founder stayed put. Sculptor Alexander Milne Calder topped City Hall tower with four bronze eagles with 14-foot wingspans.

The Eagles of Memorial Hall, 1876. (PhillyHistory.org)

With a second new century came still more eagles. After the Louisiana Purchase exhibition in 1904, John Wanamaker bought and installed in his department store August Gaul’s giant bronze bird. And, as Penny Balkin Bach tells us in Public Art in Philadelphia, when New Yorkers decided to demolish Pennsylvania Station in 1963, Philadelphia’s Market Street Bridge got four of Alexander Weinman’s 22 granite eagles. The rest were distributed to locations around the country. But Americans everywhere knew Weinman’s eagles from his representation on the reverse of his “Walking Liberty” half dollar.

After more than 200 years, could we possibly be growing weary of the eagle, tired of its fierce and serious pose? Not so long as we continue to interpret the bird freshly, which may mean ironically, satirically or humorously, whether in blinking neon or bronze. “The important thing,” as Jacques Lipschitz sculptor of the “Spirit of Enterprise” on Kelly Drive put it, is finding and working with “some kind of freedom in expression.” And wasn’t that one of the freedoms the Founders had in mind?

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Philadelphia Eagle Memories

N.W. Corner of 11the and Market Streets, April 12, 1960. Detail. (PhillyHistory.org).

To a wide-eyed boy, the gigantic neon eagle on Market Street just west of 11th seemed fierce—and fun. In fading evening light, oblivious commuters on the sidewalk below went about their business, seemingly unaware as the eagle glowed and flapped. As I sat in the passenger seat of my father’s Ford station wagon idling at the stoplight, I knew one thing: I would forever look forward to seeing the Market Street eagle again.

Eagles were part of our lives in the patriotic mid-century. I had seen plenty of them—cast on aluminum screen doors in my parents’ West Oak Lane rowhouse neighborhood, embroidered on quilts, stitched on flags, printed on labels of the beer cans my father popped open on hot summer days. I had seen how sign makers borrowed wings from eagles to keep horses aloft (Mobilgas) and rendered them in neon at Flying A Service stations. Wings were always spread, but but not nearly so dramatically or dynamically as the Market Street eagle. This glowing creature could out not only catch a PTC bus, it could devour it, as well.

Other cities had their neon eagles. In 1950, the Artkraft-Strauss Sign Corporation of New York filmed the real thing in flight and created a series of giant neon facsimiles for Anheuser-Busch breweries. Before long, Anheuser-Busch mounted one on the Brill Building in Manhattan, two blocks from Times Square. Breweries in Newark, Saint Louis, New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles soon had their own, which made sense: Anheuser-Busch had adopted the eagle for a logo in the 1870s. But even this was hardly an original idea. The first barrels of Yeungling rolled out of their Eagle Brewery in Pottsville, Pennsylvania back in 1829, and the eagle had been its logo ever since. Brewers weren’t the only ones who saw something special in eagles. Newspaper publishers liked them. So would fire companies, banks, sports teams, musical groups and pencil manufacturers, among others.

Charles Thomson’s design for the Great Seal (National Archives).

The eagle is universally admired as patriotic, independent, precise and powerful. Americans (except Benjamin Franklin) have officially liked the eagle since 1782. Franklin famously preferred the Wild Turkey for the Great Seal of the United States, although he was also partial to the rattlesnake. But the eagle v. turkey v. snake debate was short lived. Charles Thomson’s design (illustrated here) for the Great Seal had little serious opposition and soon, the eagle forever became something for our collective awe, appreciation, adaptation, and imitation—so much as humans might be able.

And they would try. Toward the end of World War One, photographers Arthur Mole and John Thomas arranged 12,500 military officers, nurses and others stationed at Camp Gordon outside Atlanta in a unique patriotic formation—a giant version of the Great Seal, eagle feathers delineated by the strategic placement of contrasting uniforms.

When and where, exactly, did the eagle first fly off the page and onto the streets, military bases, breweries and pencil factories of America? That took only took a few short years after the eagle’s adoption. In the 1790s, when Philadelphia was temporarily the nation’s Capital, Alexander Hamilton got his plan approved for a federal Treasury. And without an architect to help guide the way (Benjamin Henry Latrobe wouldn’t arrive until the Spring of 1796), Samuel Blodgett, Jr. supplied a design. With one eye on the Royal Exchange back in Dublin (now Dublin City Hall) the newly-minted Americans put up their First Bank, also the first of many marble facades designed to project a sense of pride and security for the citizenry.

First Bank of the United States, 3rd Street below Chestnut – detail. (PhillyHistory.org) – Click image for a closeup of Clodius LeGrand’s eagle carving in the bank’s pediment.

What would occupy the First Bank’s triangular pediment, the most symbolic space over the entrance of this most symbolic building? An eagle, of course. Even better, a riff on the Great Seal, with all of its correct attributes: an eagle with a fist full of arrows, a shield with thirteen stars and stripes, an olive branch, and, since the building was intended to support national well being—a lavishly stocked cornucopia.  Clodius LeGrand, a woodcarver and  stonecutter newly-arrived from France is thought to be responsible for the sculpture, which is considered “an elaborate masterpiece.”

Critics raved, calling it “the first finished building of any consequence wherein taste and knowledge has been displayed in this country.” But Latrobe, who meant to upgrade the American taste for such things, remained unimpressed. The white marble’s “bluish and yellowish veins” bothered him, as did the heights of the blocks and their off-level joints. As for detailed carvings and LeGrand’s eagle, Latrobe simply wrote: “the sculpture is not good.” Within a few years, Latrobe had won over Philadelphia, as well as the new District of Columbia, and LeGrand left for Santo Domingo—never to be heard from again.

Thanks to LeGrand, the American eagle had made its way from the new nation’s seals and coins to find a perch, for the first time, on the streets of America.

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The Philadelphia Athenaeum: a historical treasure with a seemy underbelly

A film copy image of the Athenaeum dated to 1962.

Through May and June, Hidden City Philadelphia hosted the Hidden City Festival and raised a bit of a ruckus about some under-appreciated artifacts of Philadelphia’s history. One of those is the Athenaeum, located at 219 South 6th Street. In the landscape of Philadelphia historical sites, the trove of architectural books and other media at the Athenaeum sits barely out of range of the Liberty Bell limelight, often ignored by tourists intent on seeing the infamous cracked bell and overlooked by locals in pursuit of the cool grass in Washington Square park.

As described in the institution’s own annual report (2012), it’s “one of the few surviving Philadelphia historical organizations not founded by Benjamin Franklin.” According to the Inquirer, there are approximately 100,000 books in the library, 250,000 architectural drawing and 300,000 photos in its archives.

Perhaps the library’s humble founding mission — “connected with the history and antiquities of America, and the useful arts, and generally to disseminate useful knowledge” — contributes to its relative anonymity. But the Athenaeum itself is itself such an architectural curiosity that it and its contents warrant a more careful look.

The Athenaeum was founded in 1814, but the building that stands today was designed in 1845 by John Notman. The smallish structure is a beacon of Italianate architecture and represents one of the first brownstones in the city. In 1977, the building received the honor of being dubbed a National Historic Landmark.

Inside, the Athenaeum’s astoundingly vast collection is an ode to Philadelphia’s history of architecture and interior design, predominantly from 1800 -1945. Open for free (but by appointment) to students and researchers, the repository is a mine of old Philadelphia imagery and antiques. The library is one of the last remaining subscription libraries in the country and membership is required to borrow a book.

The Athenaeum’s Main Library Room.

But what lies below the Athenaeum is even more surprising than the fact that Philadelphians and tourists alike regularly pass by such an architectural and intellectual treasure. That’s because this somewhat unassuming building lies on top of the foundational remnants of the Walnut Street Prison — the country’s first state penitentiary.

The jail was built in 1777 and is reported to have been a place of laborious misery for inmates until 1790 when Quakers expanded the building and changed its philosophy of incarceration. Instead of unadulterated punishment, the Quakers emphasized repentance and reflection, hoping to elicit remorse and reform the prisoners through solitary confinement — a new approach at the time. Indeed it was the Quakers who transformed the hellish jail into a different kind of hellish penitentiary, spawning what was to be referred to as the “Pennsylvania System” of incarceration.

The institution, which was demolished in 1835, became the precursor for the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Today, the Athenaeum, is just one year shy of its 200th birthday and it’s had a facelift or two to prove it (In 2012, the East Balcony was repaired). And beneath it all, the remains of another social and architectural wonder. Thanks to the Hidden City Festival, perhaps this month and for the foreseeable future, this odd nexus of history, architecture, and imprisonment is finally getting some of the recognition —and maybe some of the tourist attraction — it deserves.

 

 

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Breaking Away from the “Gentleman’s Agreement”

The statue of William Penn on City Hall tower. (PhillyHistory,org)

What kind of a city should Philadelphia be? Ponderous, historical and homey, stuck in its quaint ways, admiring of its own image in the review mirror? Or should Philadelphia throw in its hat and become lively, contemporary and international, willing to join the what’s what of World Cities?

Developer Williard Rouse didn’t think it was a real choice as he put the make-it-or-break-it question to the people of Philadelphia in the Spring of 1984. Rouse proposed breaking the city’s “gentleman’s agreement,” that quirky, decades-old a pact more ephemeral than legal. It had never been on the books but had been kept alive in the boardrooms as a ready-made, self-deprecating put down. Anyone suggesting a project over 500 feet would be brought up short by city planner Edmund N. Bacon with the same line:  ‘It’s only a gentleman’s agreement. The question is, are you a gentleman?’”

There were a lot of places in the city where you couldn’t even see City Hall tower or the statue of the founder. “If you stood at Rittenhouse Square right now and looked for William Penn,” Rouse pointed out, “you would not find him.”  According Benjamin M. Gerber’s chronicle of the gentleman’s agreement’s demise, the Inquirer editorial board agreed: “much of the symbolism of Penn’s supremacy was already lost amidst ‘a stubby tide of undistinguished office buildings already [lapping] just shy of Penn’s pantaloons.’”

Inquirer architecture writer Thomas Hine had seen it coming. “The breakthrough might come in private office building, or as a public monument,” he wrote in 1983, “but it seems that sooner or later, the city will rise over William Penn’s head.” When, the following April, Rouse presented two projects, a short one and a tall one (he only intended to develop latter). The debate that ensued became “The Battle of Billy Penn” as Gregory L. Heller tells it in his new biography of Bacon. It played out everywhere: in the streets, in the media, and in the public mind as Philadelphia redefined itself at the end of the century that began with the installation of the 37-foot bronze founder above the a humble skyline.

“The way people talked about One Liberty Place when plans for this skyscraper were announced,” wrote Paul Goldberger in the New York Times, “you would have thought that this was not a new building but some sort of nuclear weapon. One Liberty Place would be the ruination of Philadelphia, cried the project’s opponents, the sign that this somewhat genteel city had sold out to real-estate developers and become just like anyplace else.” The crier-in-chief, of course, was the retired Bacon, whose energy, style and way with words fueled the debate. The height limitation “sets Philadelphia apart from all other” cities. And Bacon warned: “once smashed it is gone forever.”

One Liberty Place in Philadelphia’s skyline, December 5, 1987. (PhillyHistory.org)

Liberty Place was built, of course.

In 1987, when it opened, some couldn’t forget that architect Helmut Jahn adapted it from a much taller, unbuilt tower proposed for Houston. They couldn’t forgive that it looked like a bulked-up version of New York’s Chrysler Building. Hine wrote that Liberty Place “loomed,” but appreciated how, amidst the “stubble” of existing office buildings, it turned “the uninspiring commercial agglomeration into a complete visual composition.” Liberty Place stood “like a mountain among the foothills.”

Philadelphia’s height limitation had been “an empty gesture, hollow and pretentious,” wrote Goldlberger in the New York Times. “The urban order that Philadelphians had for so long cherished was a myth… it was a fallacy to pretend that City Hall still commanded the skyline…William Penn barely stuck his head above his grim surroundings.” With Liberty Place, “City Hall…is still there, still great, and still at the critical center of the city. The only thing that has been lost is the illusion that William Penn was lording over it all.” Goldberger glowed that Liberty Place “transcends the old order, and establishes a new one, at a level of quality good enough to justify throwing away the old.”

Liberty Place would “dislodge this historical center which… informed our city from the beginning,” predicted Bacon. “In our arrogance, we replace it with a floating center up for sale to the highest bidder.” In that sense, Liberty Place and the still taller Comcast Center confirmed his worst fears.

But in the end, what was sacrificed? Sure, the skyline would never be the same. It would never again take on the same kind meaning. In the debates of the 1980s, Philadelphians were forced to think long and hard about where they found substance and where they found meaning. “We may be giving up something insubstantial, but not meaningless,” observed one architect.

In the 21st century, Philadelphians would search for substance and meaning in places other than the skyline. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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How High Was Up? A History of Philadelphia’s “Gentleman’s Agreement”

Center City Philadelphia from Belmont, ca. 1900 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Contemplating “that vast gray labyrinth” of Philadelphia, with “great Penn upon his pinnacle like the graven figure of a god who had fashioned a new world,” G. K. Chesterton imagined Philadelphians could “feel the presence of Penn and Franklin” just as his English brethren could “see the ghosts of Alfred or Becket.” But Philadelphians didn’t need to use their imaginations. They could literally see Penn from every quarter of the city, miles from the center, where a giant statue of the founder had been installed 500 feet up, on top of City Hall tower.

Philadelphia’s love affair with the Founding Fathers would persist, but they’d soon turn on their late-19th century City Hall. By the 1950s, when Lewis Mumford lectured at Penn, City Hall was seen as “an architectural nightmare, a mishmash of uglified Renaissance styles welded into a structure rugged enough to resist and atomic bomb…” It is “woefully obsolete,” wrote Mumford, but “the problem of whether to do away with it…is not an easy one to solve…because wrecking it would wreck the wrecker.”

But for the cost of demolition, City Hall survived. And as long as it had to remain in the center of the plan, city planner Edmund N. Bacon was going to make the most of it. In a new biography, Gregory Heller tells us Bacon “saw the dominance of City Hall tower in the skyline as a critical element to the city’s historical continuity.” Bacon “created an unwritten ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that no building would rise above the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.”

“Developers would periodically meet with Bacon and propose a building taller than City Hall tower,” Heller learned in his interviews. “They would query whether the height limit was legally mandated, to which Bacon would respond: ‘It’s only a gentleman’s agreement. The question is, are you a gentleman?’”

Throughout the 20th century, gentleman’s agreements were mostly associated with spurious and immoral practices: limiting Japanese immigration, preventing the employment of African Americans or denying real estate to Jews. Legal scholars begin discussions of the practice with this somewhat amusing (or chilling) definition: “A gentlemen’s agreement is an agreement which is not an agreement, made between two persons, neither of whom is a gentleman, whereby each expects the other to be strictly bound without himself being bound at all.”

Penn Center from City Hall Tower, ca. 1972. (PhillyHistory.org)

Bacon used the idea of a gentleman’s agreement to challenge the civility of (and presumably quickly end meetings with) developers audacious enough to bring him proposals for skyscrapers. But was there an actual gentleman’s agreement, or was it just a useful ploy to bury projects that would alter the city’s skyline? Over the years, the origins of the gentleman’s agreement have remained a mystery.

On April 28 1956, seven years into Bacon’s tenure as Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, The New Yorker published the first of Lewis Mumford’s two articles that, interestingly, do not mention Bacon, but do introduce Philadelphia’s “gentleman’s agreement.”  With the “Chinese Wall” coming down, Mumford concludes the city is looking up, although how far up isn’t open to discussion. “Without legislation and with nothing more solid than a gentleman’s agreement, the tallest of the city office buildings have been piously kept lower than the bronze figure atop” City Hall. “Sentiment and symbolism have made unnecessary—temporarily at any rate—any legislation.”

In 1963, when a developer proposed a sixty-story building, Bacon responded that “for the first time in the history of Philadelphia” a project “would violate the gentleman’s agreement that William Penn will not be topped by private construction.” The Planning Commission responded by approving a “height limit ordinance” of 450 feet that made its way through the Mayor’s office and to City Council, where it eventually died. The gentleman’s agreement remained, though worse for wear, its authority unclear.

The following year, another developer proposed a tower taller than City Hall for 15th and Market Streets and Bacon found himself at odds with his own Planning Commission. As built, the project came in shorter than proposed, but the challenge now seemed possible. “Not all Philadelphians favor squat skyscrapers,” wrote Glynn D. Mapes in The Wall Street Journal of November 29, 1967.  Philip Klein, vice chairman of the Commission, hankered for a proposal “that would top William Penn.” Said Klein: “It’s time Philadelphia did something like this. I’d fight for it all the way. No city can be a big city without tall buildings.”

Philadelphians loved tradition, something like what Chesterton appreciated and Bacon perpetuated. “It still matters what Penn did two hundred years ago or what Franklin did one hundred years ago,” Chesterton had written in 1922, “I never could feel in New York that it mattered what anybody did an hour ago.”

OK, Philadelphia was different from other American cities. But a real challenge to the city’s traditional skyline, gentleman’s agreement or not, was mounting. And in 1984, the question would again be posed: Could Philadelphians maintain an honest love affair with the past if the past didn’t also dominate their city’s skyline?

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Where did Breyer’s Ice Cream Go?

Ice cream wasn’t invented in Philadelphia, but that much is true for wholesome, all-natural Breyer’s brand (first, a Philadelphia family business). A recent article in the New York Times bemoaning the latest corporate iteration of Breyer’s — “frozen dairy dessert” — reminded many of this bittersweet fact.

The Breyer’s factory at 700 South 43rd Street in disrepair.

Breyer’s aficionados claim the current “dairy dessert” product is hardly recognizable, but that, in some way, has a sort of melancholy logic. Today, the Breyer’s factory (pictured) that was once described as a chilly, bustling facility that employed about 500 workers at its peak, no longer exists. It’s been paved over and serves as part of the University of the Science campus in University City. Even the Breyer’s factory that still stands at 9th and Cumberland  is difficult to associate. The hollowed out structure that Hidden City recently highlighted looks more like a prison than a place where a nation’s favorite dessert was churned.

The combination of corporate treat and crumbling concrete would probably also puzzle William A. Breyer, the original creator of the eponymous ice cream. He hand-churned the first batch of ice cream in 1866 in North Philadelphia. Then, beginning in 1882, he opened five shops throughout the city. At the time, Breyer wasn’t the only Philadelphian making a living producing ice cream, but after turning over the business to his son, Henry Breyer, his version probably became the most famous.

The younger Breyer constructed the factory at 700 South 43rd Street in 1924, then just two years later sold the company to the National Dairy Products Company.

At one time, the green mint leaf Breyer’s insignia was everywhere. Below you can see a few examples of corner stores and parlors displaying the logo to attract ice cream lovers across the city.

One of the trademark Breyer’s green mint leaf logos on a storefront at 4th and Vine in 1964.

The Breyer’s ice cream float on display in the 1926 Industrial Parade.

But the ubiquity of the staple confection belied its somewhat volatile ownership. Between 1926 and 1995, the company changed hands three times, moving from the Breyer family to the  National Dairy Products Company to Kraft to Unilever. Unilever NV bought the company in 1993 then ditched Philadelphia shortly thereafter.

It’s been almost two decades since Breyer’s manufactured ice cream in Philadelphia. The plant had been in operation for about 71 years when Unilever NV shuttered it in 1995. At the time, the company reportedly claimed that the cost to modernize the facility — approximately $15 million dollars — was too high. According to the same article, Ed Rendell valiantly tried to keep the tell-tale green mint leaf branded ice cream in Philadelphia, but the corporation shifted production to Framingham, Massachusetts, where a bigger, more modern plant was waiting (though it’s no longer produced there, either).

Although, by the time of its closing, the company had multiple manufacturing locations, the Philadelphia Breyer’s factory was the companies oldest. And the green mint leaf that represented its product both pervaded the city and welcomed visitors to it.

The Breyer’s company smokestack as seen from the nearby train tracks in 1955, likely somewhat before the Breyer’s billboard went up.

At the time the Breyer’s factory closed, an Inquirer reporter wrote, with no small amount of nostalgia:

“Its Philadelphia factory is crowned by a large billboard bearing the Breyers insignia – a green mint leaf – that can be seen from the Schuylkill Expressway and passing Amtrak trains.”

For anyone that loves ice cream, it really is a bit sad. After all, what better way to invite visitors or welcome back travelers than with the promise of a cool scoop of “home” made ice cream.

 

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