Stenton Park: Green, Historic and Minutes Away

Stenton Park. House in Stenton Park, April 12, 1910. (

Stenton Park. House in Stenton Park, April 12, 1910. (

James Logan needed to get out of town. At forty, William Penn’s secretary had grown “heartily out of love with the world.” Planning his escape, Logan bought 500 acres five miles from the center of Philadelphia. In a retreat built in the 1720s, this “bookman extraordinary,” (he amassed a library of astronomy, mathematics, physics, linguistics, botany, history and the Greek and Latin classics) would get some serious time to read, to reflect and, finally, some peace and quiet.

Despite Logan’s Quaker restraint, “Stenton” would become one of the most genteel homes in the colonies.

The place stayed in family hands for the better part of two centuries. In 1899, the Logan family offered The Society of Colonial Dames “the privilege of restoring and preserving the fine old house as a historic memorial” if they’d also cover the annual taxes. The Dames agreed. And this arrangement proved workable for a dozen years, before the family sold the house and property to the City.

What would become of the house and grounds, which was now in the center of a fast growing neighborhood of rowhouses, mills and factories?


Park Extension – As Suggested in Comprehensive Plans, 1911, indicating Stenton Park. (PhillyHistory)

As one of two dozen green, open spaces remaining in the built-up sections of Philadelphia, the City Parks Association proposed that “Stenton” be included in a network of spaces and boulevards knitting the growing city together. These small parks in neighborhoods, totaling about 130 acres, would offer breathing room for everyone, but especially, as advocates put it, for “children who have no place except the dirty streets to roam in…”

That might be a solution for the open space, but what would become of “the most perfect colonial building in America” where the Dames had spent more than $2,500 (equal to more than $60,000 today) for restoration and had been committed to an additional $800 per year (more than $19,000 today) for ongoing maintenance?

In 1910, a City ordinance gave permanent “custody and control” of “Stenton” to the Society of the Colonial Dames” who were to maintain the buildings “in their original condition as historic object lessons”—exactly what they had been doing over a decade of stewardship. Today, more than a century later, the Society still preserves and still interprets. (Earlier this year, they issued a new and informative 64-page guidebook: Stenton: A Visitor’s Guide to the Site, History and Collections.)

The 8-minute walk from SEPTA's Wayne Junction Station (Google)

The 8-minute walk from SEPTA’s Wayne Junction Station (Google)

There’s nothing like a good book (or guidebook), especially at a place designed for reading, unless, of course, it’s a visit to the real thing. This Friday, July 4th, provides the opportunity. Stenton’s Independence Day Celebration begins at 11:30 and continues to 1:30. It’s free, and RSVPs are requested: call 215-329-7312 or email

Never been to “Stenton”? Getting to 18th and Courtland is more convenient than you’d think. The nearby Wayne Junction Station (itself recently restored and listed on The National Register of Historic Places) serves five regional rail lines, two bus routes and a trackless trolley. Even better: it’s only two stops (about 10 minutes) from SEPTA’s Market East Station, the station nearest the Liberty Bell. And from the Wayne Junction Station, it’s an 8-minute walk to a place of history, books, and on the Fourth, free hot dogs and ice cream.

(Sources include: “The Demand for Parks.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 3, 1895 and “City Ordinances,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 4, 1910.)

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Elfreth’s Alley

On Market Street, between 5th and 6th Streets and next to the Independence Visitor Center, there are plaques on the sidewalk dedicated to the families, artisans, and businesses who had shops on that very block during the 18th century. However, a mere ten minutes walk from that location, visitors are not only able to get similar historical information, but they’re also able to view the still-standing colonial houses which have been on the same alley since as early as 1728.


Elfreth’s Alley in 1910

Elfreth’s Alley maintains the claim of being the oldest residential street in the United States. It dates back to 1702 when two blacksmiths surrendered portions of their land in order to create an alleyway that led to the river. The current Elfreth’s Alley houses were built between 1728 and 1836. Luckily, census records are able to provide insight into the changing lives of Philadelphia citizens for over 300 years. Through those centuries, the houses have usually held more than one family at once. The residences included dressmakers, silversmiths, ship builders, and more. For instance, in the 19th century Josiah Elfreth, whose grandfather was the alley’s namesake, lived at 137 Elfreth’s Alley for a period of time with his wife and children. Also, in the 18th century, German Adam Clampfer owned both 130 and 132 while he kept a tavern and store on 134 Elfreth’s Alley. According to records previously found on the association’s website, the Clampfer family owned the 132 Elfreth’s Alley property for over a century. With such a complex and long history, it is easy to see why preservation of such a street is important to the City of Philadelphia.



Elfreth’s Alley in 1938.

It is not a surprise then, that preservation efforts for Elfreth’s Alley began in 1934. That was the year that the Elfreth’s Alley Association was founded. At that time, the City of Philadelphia had rebranded Elfreth’s Alley as the 100 block of Cherry Street and it was set to be destroyed. Not only did the organization save the street, but they were also able to turn the 100 block of Cherry Street back into Elfreth’s Alley. It is a credit to the Elfreth’s Alley Association that tourists from all over the country and the world are able to explore the cobblestone street and its history.


Elfreth’s Alley in 1957

However, preserving the street and its buildings are not the only important jobs taken up by the modern, non-profit Elfreth’s Alley Association. They also promote conservation efforts in an attempt to research more about the history of alley’s residents. In 2012 and 2013, archaeological teams headed by Deirdre Kelleher from Temple University were able to dig into the rich history of the street, finding artifacts from both the professional and personal lives on the Elfreth’s Alley residents.

This year, the Elfreth’s Alley Association will receive a PA Historical Marker for their hard work in preservation, research, and education. It will read: “Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia County – Impeccably preserved vernacular neighborhood in the heart of Philadelphia – one of the nation’s oldest and a National Historic Landmark. There have been extensive studies of these homes, their owners, and the area’s transformation over its nearly 300 years of existence, shedding light on a very diverse working class community.”

Elfreth's Alley - now

Current view of Elfreth’s Alley – from the Elfreth’s Alley website



Elfreth’s Alley Archaeology 

Elfreth’s Alley Museum 

Visit Philly!

Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program

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From Classic to Electric: Art Deco and American Business


The Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Building, 26th and Pennsylvania Avenue. August 8, 1930. (

Every once in a while, art and life imitate one other, sometimes with interesting results.

Such was evident recently when the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission approved Comcast’s request to replace the GE logo atop 30 Rockefeller Center. In 2011, writers of the comedy TV series 30 Rock predicted as much. What they didn’t predict, and what Comcast isn’t proposing to change, is the permanence of the art at the entrance of the building in mid-town Manhattan. The bas-relief of Wisdom and Knowledge and the statue of Atlas have  long been popular—so much so that they are immovable.

They were the work of Lee Lawrie, a/k/aAmerica’s Machine Age Michelangelo,” a sculptor whose masterpieces are found from New York to Nebraska. In Philadelphia, Lawrie developed the sculptural program for Philadelphia’s Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Building, now part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That project dates from the late 1920s, when corporate America still aped civic America, representing business in classically-inspired allegories and virtues.

To transform the former site of a demolished locomotive roundhouse at 26th and Pennsylvania, Fidelity’s executives chose architects Zantzinger, Borie and Medary and sculptor Lawrie, who steeped the project in the language of legend and history. And in so doing, Fidelity Mutual managed to make the buying and selling of life insurance seem temple-worthy.

Up to then, this A-team of creatives hadn’t dabbled much in insurance. Institutions where civic and social purpose: museums, churches, universities, and government buildings were more their kind of thing. But this project and this company—under the spell of City Beautiful on Philadelphia’s new Parkway—was ambitiously different.




Why not consider insurance in terms of civic duty? Why not dress up the corporate headquarters as a temple to coverage? And it wasn’t enough to carve messages in stone: “IN THE NOBLER LIFE OF THE HOUSEHOLD IS THE NOBLER LIFE OF MANKIND.” And “THE FINEST WORK OF A MANS’ LIFE IS TO OPEN THE DOORS OF OPPORTUNITY TO THOSE DEPENDENT UPON HIM.” But words were only a start. Lawrie made sure his project in buff Indiana limestone repeatedly confirmed that coverage was, indeed, heroic.

As Penny Balkin Bach put it in Public Art in Philadelphia, Lawrie spoke with “gilt squirrels and pelicans, huge stone reliefs of human figures, small suns and moons, and the classical Graces… At the main portal on Fairmount Avenue, two guardian dogs, emblems of fidelity and the company itself, watch sternly. Overhead, rising out of the limestone columns, are giant male and female forms: a father figure (Fidelity) on the left, with a spade as his token; a mother (Frugality) on the right, with a child in her arms. At the figures’ bases are smaller symbols: for the father, a sheaf of grain and a horn of plenty; for the mother, a cradle and a ‘gift tree.’ Elsewhere, friezes, reliefs, and mosaic panels present the ‘twelve labors’ and the ‘seven ages’ of humankind, the cycle of time and many symbols of ‘home and protection’ and the ‘hazards of life.’ Crowning the entrance tower is an ornamental gilt crest with marvelous figures of squirrels, opossums, owls, and pelicans, which represent, respectively, the virtues of thrift, protection, wisdom and charity.”

By 1928, the messages were all in place for those who happened to pass by 26th and Pennsylvania. But the very next year, a few other Philadelphia businessmen, this time architects hired by bankers from the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, envisioned another project that would simultaneously change corporate messaging and the skylines of urban America. In 1932, four, red, 27-foot-high initials in a new font called Futura light were lit up on the rooftop of the bank’s new headquarters at 12th and Market. Philadelphia’s PSFS sign, visible for miles, provided a streamlined, clarified, thoroughly modern message. By 1937, 30 Rock would also be topped by the initials of its owner, RCA. In time, that would change to GE. And now to Comcast. Doubtless, in the great chain of commerce, Comcast’s logo will someday be replaced as well.

Lawrie’s work, we can bet, will remain untouched.

The lesson learned? Ars longa, logo brevis.

Detail 1930 (

Ornamental gilt crest with owls (wisdom) and an opossum (protection).

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Say “Hallo” to Bart King, the Kingsessing Cricketer

The Belmont Cricket Club, which once stood at the intersection of 49th Street and Chester Avenue. The Kingsessing Recreational Center, built in 1918, now occupies the site. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The Belmont Cricket Club, which once stood at the intersection of S. 50th Street and Chester Avenue. The Kingsessing Recreational Center, built in 1918, now occupies the site. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

A slice of England in West Philadelphia? There was once a “Sherwood Forest” — a grove of trees that stood at the intersection of 58th Street and Baltimore Avenue. Nearby was the Belmont Cricket Club at the intersection of  S. 50th Street and Chester Avenue, which for a few short years competed against the still-extant Germantown, Merion, and Philadelphia clubs.

On hot, hazy summer afternoons in the 1890s, the residents of the surrounding brick twin houses — porches bedecked with striped awnings — would stroll to Belmont Cricket and watch the local and international legend Bart King (1873-1965) play on the crease.

Bart King at bat at the Belmont Cricket Club in 1906. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Bart King at bat at the Belmont Cricket Club in 1906. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the “Gentlemen of Philadelphia” were a juggernaut that mowed down the best teams from England and her colonies.  The Associated Clubs of Philadelphia proudly declared that “with the vast improvement made in cricket at Philadelphia (and in fact everywhere in the country) since the last team visited England, there is every reason to expect very different showings this year.  Since the last time crossed the Atlantic, the representatives of the Quaker City have laid claim to more than ordinary honors.  In 1891, Lord Hawke’s team suffered a defeat at their hands. The following year the Gentlemen of Ireland had to lower their colors when they met the Philadelphians. In 1893, the Australian team of that year lost in Philadelphia. In 1894, Lord Hawke’s team was again beaten. The visiting Cambridge and Oxford teams lost to home players in 1985. ”

Leading the charge during cricket’s brief golden age was  Bart King.  A star bowler and a hitter, King would later be known as the “Bob Hope” of the cricketing world, for according to one account he, “told his impossible tales with such an air of conviction … that his audiences were always in doubt when to take him seriously. He made their task doubly difficult by sprinkling in a fair mixture of truth with his fiction.”  When King died in 1966, his obituary noted that, “his 344 for Belmont v Merion B stand as the North American record: he scored 39 centuries in his career and he topped 1,000 runs in a season six times, in 4 of them also taking over 100 wickets.”

"Sherwood Forest, 58th  Street and Baltimore Avenue, September 29, 1906.

“Sherwood Forest,” 58th Street and Baltimore Avenue, September 29, 1906. The Sherwood Cricket Club, located at 60th and Baltimore, was Belmont’s more rustic neighbor. For an image of the Sherwood Club, click here.

In those days, watching a cricket match was just as popular a past time as going to a Phillies game.  West Philadelphia’s Belmont was the scrappy sibling of Philadelphia’s league.  The haughty Pennsylvania Railroad built the Main Line and Chestnut Hill, while Peter Widener’s humbler trolley lines built the more democratic suburbs of West Philadelphia. The Belmont Club, founded in 1874, was prosperous, its grounds and buildings beautiful, but it did not put on aristocratic airs. Neither did Bart King. What John B. Kelly was to rowing, King was to the even more rarified world of cricket  Unlike most of his peers, the middle-class King had to work for a living.  In those days, a Philadelphia cricketer did not play for money.  To support his amateur habit, King worked in his father’s linen business — there were many textile mills in West Philadelphia at this time, which drew their power from Cobb’s Creek.  To preserve his status as a “gentleman amateur,” wealthy friends secured him a low-stress job at a Philadelphia insurance company.

By the early 1900s, America lagged behind England when it came to compensating its best players. In fact, King was surprised to learn that British cricketers actually got paid for their sport.

“Hallo Mr. King,” said an English professional who ran into King in London.

“Hallo, call me Bart,” King responded.

“But you’re a gentleman cricketer, sir?” the professional queried.

“Aren’t you a gentleman too?” King asked.

“Oh no sir, I’m a professional,” was the reply.

Despite its aristocratic associations, cricket in America had proletarian origins.  English textile workers from Nottingham brought the game to American in the early 19th century, and played six hour matches with gusto on their precious days off.  Spectators drank ale and freely placed bets.  Many cricketers also tried their hand at baseball, a faster American variant of the game (also with runs and innings) which gained traction during the Civil War.  By the 1880s, the well-heeled Wisters of Germantown and the Clarks of West Philadelphia — developers of the Spruce Hill neighborhood — took up the British sport and transformed the game of the millworkers workers into the past-time of the wealthy. The local, blue-collar cricket clubs such as Tioga — which King played for as a young man — and Frankford closed their doors, their creases and clubhouses replaced by blocks of row houses.

Belmont held out longer but succumbed on the eve of World War I. The surrounding neighborhood was populated by comfortable factory managers and small business owners  – like King’s family — who could not afford to be “gentleman amateurs” or attend games that lasted three to five days.  More importantly, the rise of professional baseball teams — with their big stadiums and open seating — were a more democratic way to spend an afternoon for the industrial city’s growing population.  Philadelphia formed its first official baseball team in 1883. Soon, the Phillies attracted bigger crowds. Spectators could cheer from the stadium bleachers when their favorite players scored runs, rather than demurely clap behind ropes at private clubs.  The rules of baseball were also much less arcane, and the  ”seventh inning stretch” replaced leisurely breaks for lunch and tea.

Houses at 52nd and Springfield Avenue, near the site of the Belmont Cricket Club, March 21, 1960.

Victorian rowhouses at 52nd and Springfield Avenue, near the site of the Belmont Cricket Club, March 21, 1960.

Belmont Cricket Club closed its doors in 1914, but not before visiting English cricketer C. Percy Hurditch introduced its members to a more fast-paced field sport: soccer.  King saw which way the wind was blowing in West Philadelphia, and joined the Philadelphia Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, two years before Belmont went defunct.  He continued to play and tour internationally until his death at age 92.   The London Times eulogized: “Had he been an Englishman or an Australian, he would have been even more famous than he was.”

The Belmont Cricket Club was torn down in 1918 and was replaced by the fields and buildings of the Kingsessing Recreation Center, which continues to serve the neighborhood’s athletic needs to this day.

The railroad overpass at the intersection of S.49th Street and Chester Avenue, near the site of the Belmont Cricket Club, February 20, 1960.

The railroad overpass at the intersection of S.49th Street and Chester Avenue, near the site of the Belmont Cricket Club, February 20, 1960.

Footage of the Colin Jodah Trophy Match at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, with a mention of Bart King.


Barker, Ralph (1967). Ten Great Bowlers. Chatto and Windus. pp. 124–155.

P. David Sentence, Cricket in America: 1710-2000 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2006),  pp. 93, .278 .


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The View from 27th and Aspen Streets

27th and Aspen Streets, "Near East Park," ca. 1880. Etching by Augustus Kollner, (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

27th and Aspen Streets, “Near East Park,” ca. 1880. Etching by Augustus Kollner, (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Artist Augustus Kollner hit the ground running as soon as he arrived in Philadelphia from Germany in 1839. Thing is, the ground in Philadelphia was changing under Kollner’s feet.

In watercolors, lithographs and etchings, Kollner captured scenes of a city in transition, a grid expanding uniformly to accommodate the railroad, the factory and miles of previously unimagined rowhouses. Kollner’s wistful titles of his collections: “City Sights for Country Eyes” and “Bits of Nature and some Art Products, in Fairmount Park” speak, again and again, of his attraction for surviving surprises like the shack and tethered goat on the rocky outcropping at 27th and Aspen Streets.


From the 1910 Philadelphia Atlas by G. W. Bromley, (Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network)

Kollner the brinksman knew this texture—the goats, the shacks and the rocky remnants they stood on—were all disappearing. What could an artist do? He documented as much as he could, and preserved his work in tidy albums and portfolios, filling the better part of his house at 616 North 7th Street. When Kollner died in 1906, his life work was nearly lost, sold as waste paper for two dollars.

Long before then, of course, the flattened, expanded city grid had won out, replacing all remaining picturesque bits of rural life with industrial necessities. By the turn of the century, Domenic Vitiello tells us,the Baldwin Locomotive Works employed more than 11,000 and produced more than 1,200 locomotives each and every a year. Baldwin took over the triangular block along Pennsylvania Avenue between 26th and 27th hard by Pennsylvania Avenue’s sunken tracks with a roundhouse to launch its locomotives.

Pennsylvania Avenue Southward from 27th Street, Andrew D. Warden, June 11, 1931. (

27th Street at Aspen Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Andrew D. Warden, photographer, June 11, 1931. (

The industrial city was going strong when Baldwin decided to move its operations to Eddystone, Pennsylvania. At the same time, an alternate and competing vision for a grand civic boulevard, in the form of the nearby Parkway, promised to transform the city industrial into the City Beautiful. Within a couple of short decades, the smoky red-brick roundhouse (seen at the upper left in this photograph) was rendered obsolete—an antique.

What would replace it?

Just across 26th Street from the roundhouse, the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company would light the way. This Art Deco building from the late 1920s, a white-limestone temple to the gods of insurance, is seen here in an aerial view effectively separating the old, working-class, rowhouse neighborhood from the Parkway. Fidelity Mutual stood as a lodestar for the new idea for a 20th century civic city, a place that would continue to call itself the Workshop of the World, but in reality had moved beyond that very 19th- century identity.

Pennsylvania Avenue, 27th Street and Aspen Street, Wenzel J. Hess, October 17, 1940. (

Pennsylvania Avenue, 27th Street and Aspen Street, Wenzel J. Hess, photographer, October 17, 1940. (

The civic buildings along the Parkway would be up to the task of forging this new identity, but what could augment Fidelity Mutual’s beacon-like claim to the present?  First, the 2600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue would need to be connected to the new Parkway by covering the half-dozen depressed tracks with a new grade-level deck along Pennsylvania Avenue. Then the challenge of what the new high-rise residence dubbed “2601 Parkway” might look like could be tackled by the office of architect Paul P. Cret. In fact, the project would evolve over nine years. As David Brownlee put it in Building the City Beautiful, Cret eventually stripped his idea of a building “of all detail and produced a series of ‘moderne’ alternatives that assumed an “expressionist guise.”  No less than 161 drawings for the project are listed in the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings database, and at least one other drawing for a proposed design found its way into the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Why was 2601 so important?

As we’ve come to realize nearly a century later, the success of the Parkway cannot be measured by the impressive facades and ambitious missions of the institutions along its path. Rather, what defines success in the post-industrial, civic city is the value these institutions have for the communities they serve. For that reason, the transformations of 27th and Aspen then, and now, complete the story.

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The Labor Lyceum Movement in Philadelphia

Kensington Labor Lyceum Hall, Second Street North of Cambria Street, 1898 (

Of all the places where Mother Jones might have started her famous 1903 protest known as the March of the Mill Children, which did she find the most strategic? Philadelphia’s Kensington Labor Lyceum at 2nd and Cambria Streets.

Of all the halls where Mother Jones might have advised a thousand young seamstresses on the verge of the “the great Philadelphia shirtwaist strike of 1909” which did she visit? Philadelphia’s Labor Lyceum at Sixth and Brown Streets. (Become “independent workers who will assert their rights…get the spirit of revolt and be a woman.”)

When Eugene V. Debs came to Philadelphia in 1908 campaigning for the U.S. presidency, on what stages did he proclaim: “We are today upon the verge of the greatest organic change in all of history. … We are permeated with the spirit of the new social order and of the grander civilization…. Here in the United States we are very happily approaching the third revolution”? Debs’ advocated his “third revolution” on stages at both Labor Lyceums: Northern Liberties and Kensington.

At the Kensington Lyceum in January 1921, thousands of textile workers filled “every seat and windowsill” and “every inch of standing room” before marching up 2nd Street to support strikers at the textile mills. “Bright-eyed girls,” burly men and “careworn women” were stirred by the “silver tongued” labor leader Abraham Plotkin and his warnings. “The fellow who hasn’t a job and is cold, and whose stomach hurts all the time from hunger is dangerous. … Out of unemployed come the tramps, out of the tramps come the criminals, and out of the criminals, the jails. We’ve learned this from hard knocks.”

The Labor Lyceums were places were free speech reigned and where all ideas were welcome.

The idea of the Lyceum was first presented at a Labor Day picnic in 1889, the brainchild of Frederick Wilhelm Fritzsche, a self-described “labor agitator” from Germany. The city’s first Labor Lyceum thrived in rented quarters at 441 North 5th Street and served as a headquarters for unions and a home away from home for workers. Members would come for meetings, for votes, and for “mental and moral improvements” in the form of classes in typewriting, singing, drawing, cabinetmaking and English. When Lyceums had the space, they’d also offer libraries packed with books, in German and English.

Northern Liberties Labor Lyceum Hall, 6th Street, north of Brown Street  (Google Books)

Northern Liberties Labor Lyceum Hall, Sixth Street, North of Brown Street in 1899. (Google Books)

In 1893, the Congregation Keneseth Israel vacated their large (126 by 96 feet), ornate 1860s building at 809-817 North 6th Street (just north of Brown Street) for a larger synagogue on Broad Street where Temple University’s Law School stands today. The burgeoning Lyceum immediately stepped in and bought the building.

Labor’s New Home,” read the Inquirer headline describing the move to the new quarters. “Over three thousand men were in line with banners and brass bands…entered the new building…” The Fresco Painters’ Union led the procession “with their blood-red flag and badges;” followed by the Typographers, with their banners with Guttenberg and Franklin. There were the Metal Workers, the Carpenters, Cigar Makers’, Cigar Packers, Dyers, Leathers Workers, Blacksmiths Wheelwrights, Harness Makers, Barkeepers, Waiters and the Socialist Labor Union.  They arrived at the new building and “crowded into the big hall… decked with greens and flags.”

The idea of the Lyceum was so successful that, less than two years later, the city’s textile unions hired architect A. C. Wagner to design and build the Kensington Labor Lyceum in the heart of the city’s s textile district, on Second Street just north of Cambria.

When Fritzsche died in 1905, the Lyceum on 6th Street became his memorial. “Thousands Mourn Dead Socialist,” read the headline. Fritzsche’s body laid “in state in the hall” as “five thousand men and women trudged through the rain and icy streets” to pay last respects. “The auditorium was decorated with long streamers of red bunting, the symbol of socialism, kept in place by black rosettes. Over the catafalque hung the inscription: ‘Arbeiter Aller Lander Vereinigt Euch.’” Workers of the World Unite.

What’s left today? No buildings. Only faded memories, a handful of archived images and newspaper articles.

And a whole lot of history.

[Consulted newspaper articles include: “The Labor Lyceum,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 4, 1891; “Labor's New Home,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 23, 1893; “World of Labor,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 15, 1899; “Thousands Mourn Dead Socialist,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 13, 1905.]

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The Philadelphia Stars: Philadelphia’s Other Pro Football Team

When most people think of professional football in Philadelphia, the topic is usually The Philadelphia Eagles. Fair enough then, as they have been around since 1931 and since the NFL is by far the most prominent professional football league in all of sports. However, it should be noted that between 1984 and 1986, there was another prominent pro football team here. That team would be the Philadelphia Stars of the long-defunct USFL (United States Football League), who won the league championship in two of three seasons in which the league existed and appeared in all three championship games. Technically, though, they were only a Philadelphia-based team for 2 of those 3 seasons as after the 1985 season, they moved to Baltimore. Despite this, they kept their operations here in Philadelphia, though this led to them essentially playing every game on the road.

The Office of the City Representative photo collection at the Philadelphia City Archives includes a few images from the victory parade (see below). The victory parade was held in July 1984 after the Stars beat the Arizona Wranglers in the championship game of the USFL’s second season.  The game was held in Tampa, Florida’s Tampa Stadium, which was demolished in 1999.

Philadelphia Stars victory parade circa 1984.

Philadelphia Stars victory parade circa 1984.

The Stars had future NFL stars like Bart Oates and Sean Landeta (both future New York Giants player who won 5 Super Bowl rings between them) as part of the championship crew and others like Sam Mills, a future All-Pro for the New Orleans Saints were also on the roster. Their coach for all 3 seasons was Jim Mora, who later went on to successful NFL coaching career with The New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. Though largely forgotten now, a movie about the team and its role in the development of the USFL is currently in development.


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Reflections on a Funeral (for a Home)

"The Parkway Group" and Hathaway Removing 1st Brick on the Parkway.  422 North 22nd Street, February 22, 1907. (

“The Parkway Group” and Hathaway Removing 1st Brick on the Parkway. 422 North 22nd Street, February 22, 1907. (

The gathered mourners were done sharing memories. The moving eulogy was over and the choir’s hymn reached its final “amen,” echoing a dozen times through the streets of Mantua. Now, the waiting excavator reared back, its giant claw raised against the blue sky hovering over the two-story rowhouse at 3711 Melon Street. The Funeral for a Home had reached the moment where ceremony was about to give way to reality. The claw gently picked up the blanket of flowers placed above the cornice and brought it down to the street. The next bite would be a chunk of the 142-year old cornice.

Most of the hundreds in attendance considered this ceremony as something unusual and new. And it was unusual. But the event wasn’t entirely without precedent. Another Philadelphia rowhouse was celebrated before its demolition in February 1907, although the speeches then didn’t deal with memory or community.

In the Fall of 1907, inspired by a grandiose vision of civic progress, the city served notice to more than 700 property owners whose homes stood in the way of The City Beautiful.  The idea of a grand boulevard connecting City Hall and Fairmount Park had been talked about for more than thirty years. Now the Parkway was a project with a timeline. In January, contractor Howard E. Ruch signed a contract with the city to demolish everything between Callowhill to Hamilton Streets that stood in the way. He had 95 days to complete the job, even though the majority of the residents were still in place.

Director of Public Works John R. Hathaway decided if eggs were going to break, he might as well make an omelet. Hathaway cast displacement and demolition as historic “improvement” and commandeered George Washington’s birthday to choreograph a ceremony around the start of demolition.

Demolition of 422 North 22nd Street. February 22, 1907. (

Demolition of 422 North 22nd Street. February 22, 1907. (

The first house to come down would be one of the few emptied rowhouses. On February 22nd, officials dressed for the occasion gathered at Ruch’s nearby office and then, just before noon, held a procession to 422 North 22nd Street, the first residence “marked for demolition.”

“The party… entered the house and one by one [climbed] up a rickety ladder…onto the roof. There, just as the clock struck 12, the Director raised his silver pick and began loosening a brick on the chimney. … Several hundred persons on the street below gave a cheer as the first brick was pecked out and held aloft.”

At a luncheon following the ceremony, City Councilman John W. Ford, presented Hathaway with the silver pick in its custom-made, satin-lined case. Accepting it, Hathaway proclaimed: “I regard this as an era in Philadelphia’s history, and I shall cherish this souvenir to my dying day.”

A contrasting scenario was playing out around the corner at 2223 Hamilton Street. John Kelley and his wife were attempting to keep their bricks, their home, in place. While Hathaway and his “Parkway Group” conducted ceremonial street theater, Kelley, who had previously believed “there was a chance of his home escaping demolition,” realized all hope was lost. Already ill and now grieving “over the fact that the house which he and his family occupied was to be dismantled,” he soon received a final notice to vacate. Within days, Kelley died. Grieved to Death over Loss of Home, read the newspaper headline.

Walking from the Melon Street ceremony, I overheard a conversation between two Mantua  neighbors.

“What’s this all about?” asked one resident.

“They’ve come to bury the neighborhood,” was the response.

This time, there wasn’t a silver pick to take home. But there were lots of questions about the history, meaning, and future of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

[Consulted newspaper articles, all from the archives of the The Philadelphia Inquirer, include: “Working on Parkway Property Owners Are Notified to Vacate,” October 23, 1906; “Contract Awarded for Parkway Work,” January 1, 1907; “Parkway Started by Razing of First Building,” February 23, 1907; “Parkway Progress Opposed by Tenants, “March 1, 1907; “Grieved to Death over Loss of Home,” March 3, 1907.]

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Trolley Barns and Grand Hotels: A Brief Look at the Widener Empire (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of “Trolley Barns and Grand Hotels.”
Part I can be viewed here.

Market Street, looking east from 10th Street, 1907. Note the Widener streetcars running along Market Street.

Market Street, looking east from 10th Street, 1907. Note the Widener streetcars running along Market Street.

The Philadelphia Traction Company, founded by Widener and his business partner William Lukens Elkins (1832-1903), held an iron-grip on the city’s horse drawn and electric trolleys.  As a monopolist, Widener not only sold transportation, but he also sold dreams to the city’s upwardly mobile.  Members of this aspiring, confident middle class were eager to purchase the ornate, modern houses developed by Widener in North or West Philadelphia. By capturing the nickels and dimes of Philadelphia’s Victorian commuters, Widener had harnessed a mighty river of cash.  This cash flow gave him strong leverage to invest in other business enterprises: U.S. Steel, American Tobacco, International Mercantile Marine. Widener also created other companies connected with real estate development, most notably the United Gas Improvement Company (UGI), which supplied utilities to his new streetcar residential developments.

As the city spread outward along Widener’s trolley lines, even the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad felt threatened.  In 1876, the year of the Centennial Exposition, the PRR bought up the trolley rights on Lancaster Avenue from 52nd Street all the way to Paoli.  Lancaster Avenue ran parallel to its “Main Line” right-of-way. It was a smart move, as it prevented Widener and his cronies from building more middle-class rowhouse neighborhoods that would compete with the Pennsy’s decidedly upscale, exclusive plans for the Main Line suburbs.  With the exception of Overbrook Farms, these communities would be located outside of the city limits, away from Widener’s political power base.

The Peter Arrell Brown Widener mansion (left) and the William Lukens Elkins mansion (right), at the intersection of North Broad Street and Girard Avenue, c.1900. Both structures have long since been demolished.

The Peter Arrell Brown Widener mansion (left) and the William Lukens Elkins mansion (right), at the intersection of North Broad Street and Girard Avenue, c.1900. Both structures have long since been demolished.

By 1900, Peter Arrell Brown Widener was worth over $100 million, making him the richest man in Philadelphia and putting him in the same class of plutocrats as New York’s Astors and Vanderbilts. His son George Dunton Widener, who had married Eleanor Elkins (daughter of William Lukens Elkins) shifted the family’s real estate focus to the heart of downtown Philadelphia.  His three grandest commissions were all the work of architect Horace Trumbauer: the Widener Building at 12th and Chestnut, the Racquet Club at 16th and Locust, and finally the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Walnut and South Broad Streets.

In the spring of 1912, as the Ritz was in under construction, George, Eleanor, and their book collecting son Harry (a close friend and protege of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach) left town for a European vacation.  They booked their return passage on the RMS Titanic.  Only Eleanor returned to Philadelphia. She promptly commissioned the family’s favorite architect Horace Trumbauer to build a new library at Harvard, dedicated to her son’s memory.  Peter Widener, who had been an investor in the White Star Line’s parent company, died rich but heartbroken three years later in his cavernous Elkins Park mansion.

The city’s growth proved unsustainable, indeed. In the years that followed Widener’s death, the city’s population contracted and its economy de-industrialized. The trolleys could not compete with buses and automobiles.  Many of the comfortable neighborhoods surrounding the old trolley routes succumbed to decay and abandonment, in part because they were ill-suited to the demands of the automobile.  Today, much of the former Widener trolley empire has been absorbed by SEPTA.  The former Ritz-Carlton Hotel serves as classroom space for the University of the Arts.  Further to the west, the one surviving West Philadelphia trolley shed is the studio of artist Jordan Griska, creator of the “Grumman Greenhouse” sculpture on Lenfest Plaza at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Construction an addition to the Widener family's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, December 18, 1913.

Construction an addition to the Widener family’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, December 18, 1913.


Brian Butko. The Lincoln Highway: Pennsylvania Traveler’s Guide (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2013). pp. 50–51

Andrew Heath, “Consolidation Act of 1854,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia,, accessed February 21, 2014.

Stephen Salisbury, “Sculptor Turns Bomber into a Greenhouse,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 2011.

Philip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986), p.5.

Ron Soodalter, The Union’s Shoddy Aristocracy, The New York Times, May 9, 2011.

Preston Thayer and Jed Porter, “Philadelphia Traction Company Barn & Stable,” Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

David Whitmire, “The Wideners: An American Family,” Encyclopedia Titanica, January 11, 2008. 

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“Doctor, Dear Doctor!”: Echoes from the Mask and Wig Club, Part III

Broad and Spruce 1.12.1928

The intersection of South Broad and Spruce Street, with part of the Shubert Theater (now the Merriam) on the left. It was built in 1918, and it has hosted performers such as Helen Hayes, Sammy Davis Jr., Katharine Hepburn, and John Barrymore.

This is the final article in the series “Echoes from the Mask and Wig.” Click to read Part I and Part II.  

Doctor, Dear Doctor! premiered at Philadelphia’s Shubert Theater in November 1951. Grandpa and his fellow scriptwriters apparently left Moliere’s original plot alone, as the gags about the dimwitted, dissolute woodchopper Sganarelle turned doctor proved just as funny then as they were during the “Grand Siecle.”  The show received a glowing review from Henry T. Murdock in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 21: “This reviewer wasn’t around in 1889 when Lurline launched the Wiggers’ history,” he wrote, “nor for a few years after that, but taking the standard of the last 25 years, few shows have been so attractively staged, so colorfully staged, or so swiftly danced as the current enterprise at the Shubert.”

Glancing through the program book, I found a big surprise: among those in the show’s cast are a senior named Sydney T. Fisher and a sophomore named Barry E. Knerr, both of whom I would one day sing with in the Orpheus Club of Philadelphia.

Sydney T. Fisher fIFTH FROM left

The Glee Chorus of the 1951 Mask and Wig production “Doctor, Dear Doctor!” Sydney T. Fisher is fifth from the left. The Mask and Wig Club Archives.

knerr doctor

Partial cast photo for “Doctor, Dear Doctor!” Barry E. Knerr is in the first on the right, top row.  The Mask and Wig Club Archives.

That was the last year Grandpa contributed songs and his time as a rehearsal pianist to the Mask and Wig Club.   Perhaps, by then, he had realized that, despite his prodigious musical talent, making it big in show business was not in the cards for him.  By then, his career as an insurance executive was taking up more and more of his time. Despite the fine reviews, Doctor, Dear Doctor! was his last hurrah, and he knew it.  Within a few years, he had moved to New York, was widowed, married his second wife — my grandmother — and adopted her two small children — my uncle and mother.  He enthusiastically supported my mother’s studies as a classical violinist — the two of them spent many hours playing piano and violin sonatas in their Manhattan living room.

Yet my guess is that despite the local success of Doctor, Dear Doctor?, Grandpa then realized that American musical theater was destined to be his pastime rather than his livelihood.  He continued to attend shows and remain active in the Graduate Club — my  New York-born grandmother said that back then, there was no where to eat in Philadelphia except Bookbinders (of course) — but it seems that he cut back on his musical contributions.

Grandpa Joe died in 1989, aged 81. I was ten at the time.I now live in West Philadelphia, not far from where he grew up and only a few blocks from the University.  It is only now that I am asking questions that I wish my ten-year-old self could as he gleefully played the theme from “Peter and the Wolf” for my brother and me.  But for now, I must be content with these old images and what others remember of him, as well as the whoosh-clang of the Lancaster Avenue trolley that runs along the line that probably once took Granda Joe to college and a better life.

It’s not just “Peter and the Wolf” that I associate with Grandpa, but a wistful Mask and Wig tune from the 1937 show Fifty/Fifty that for so long sat unplayed in my family’s record collection: “I Live the Life I Love.

The  program cover for "Doctor, Dear Doctor?" The Mask and Wig Club Archives.

The program cover for “Doctor, Dear Doctor?” The Mask and Wig Club Archives.


The author and Grandpa Joe at 310 S. Quince Street, before attending the 2014 annual production “Wishful Sinking.”

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