Want a Better Philadelphia? “Look for it in The City Item.”

The Item, 7th and Ranstead Streets, 1889. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

The Item, 7th and Ranstead Streets, 1889. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Thomas Fitzgerald jumped into Philly journalism and never looked back. He liked to write; loved to lead, and insisted on challenging the status quo.

The name of the “racy and spicy” newspaper Fitzgerald started as a weekly in 1847 and soon grew into a daily changed again and again: The City Item, Fitzgerald’s City Item, The Philadelphia City Item, The Evening Item. Everyone always knew it as The Item—and that it stood for the little guy. Fitzgerald promised to be “constantly aggressive in all that relates to the equality of Man before the Law and ever striving to break down barriers of Prejudice and Caste.”

“If a house is burnt in this city, or a store robbed, or an omnibus upset, or a fiddler hissed, or an actor applauded, look for it in The City Item. If a poor fellow goes in two with a railroad car on Market Street, or a gentleman of aldermanic rotundity falls down in his own street in a quiet, comfortable, respectable fit of apoplexy, look for it in The City Item. If a fair maiden is lured from the pathway of peace to the pathway of vice by a fellow with a huge pair of moustaches, look for it in The City Item. If an elopement takes place between one man’s wife and another wife’s husband, look for it in The City Item.”

Fitzgerald, who very much looked the part, had, demanded reforms aimed at improving the common good: removing gates from public squares, reforming the street numbering system, upgrading the police and fire departments with telegraphs, building public baths and establishing a city morgue. He fought to demolish the sheds that ran up the center of Market Street since the 17th century and to replace them with modern market buildings. He “ridiculed the red-brick monotony of the city’s architecture” and campaigned for music in the schools.

In June 1869, Fitzgerald called for mixed-race baseball. “Such a game would be interesting and well patronized,” he argued, asking “Who will put the ball in motion?” and signing off as “A Lover of the Game.” (A few months later, Fitzgerald got his wish, serving as the umpire of the game—the first of its kind– between the African-American Pythians and the Caucasian Olympics.)

Circulation of The Item grew until it hit its stride in the 1880s “as a crusading penny paper with a press run that sometimes reached 200,000 copies.” By 1890, nearing the age of 70, Fitzgerald retired handing the operation over to his sons. Harrington Fitzgerald became managing editor.

In 1894, Inquirer editor Charles H. Heustis described The Item as a successful afternoon paper with a Sunday edition that “especially reaches the working classes.” He observed that “Item boys are seen in every quarter of the city, and when the Item wagons are drawn up in a line on Seventh Street, at the hour of publication, they form an extended procession.” That procession led to circulation that bypassed Heustis’ own paper.

As we said in an earlier post, no less than a dozen dailies started up in the city between the mid-1830s and 1880, and all were in the same neighborhood. Next door to The Item was The Call. Just across Ranstead was The Evening Star. Diagonally across 7th Street was The Daily News. The Evening Bulletin, The Public Ledger and the Philadelphia Demokrat, a German-language newspaper were found within a  block to the east. Half a block to the south at Chestnut were The Press, and The North American. (The Press Annex still stands at 7th and Sansom.) Further to the west on Chestnut was The Times Printing House.

Seventh and Ranstead Streets, 1970. (PhillyHistory,org)

Seventh and Ranstead Streets in 1970. (PhillyHistory.org)

Competition was stiff. But by 1901, John Henry Hepp notes, The Item had them all beat every day of the week. The Sunday Item surpassed The Philadelphia Inquirer by more than 17,000 copies with circulation of 184,009.

But winning wasn’t enough for the feisty, fastidious Harrington Fitzgerald. The following year, in a full-page advertisement in N.W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual Fitzgerald boasted “THE ITEM LEADS; OTHERS FOLLOW” and presented his own, higher circulation numbers for each day of the entire previous year. Fitzgerald challenged his competition to join in on a bet worth as much as $40,000 for the newspaper with the highest circulation in Philadelphia.

By 1911, with the bet still untouched, Fitzgerald increased the stakes to $120,000. Still, no takers came forward.

Behind the bluff, The Item was losing ground. After Thomas Fitzgerald’s departure, the paper gradually lost its spirit, its talent, its focus and its popularity. Circulation plummeted from 200,000 to a paltry 10,000 and in 1914, it folded. Harrington Fitzgerald went from bragging in print to selling at auction. On January 12, The Item’s two buildings, five Hoe presses, 12 linotype machines, its fittings and furniture—all of it went to the highest bidder.

(Additional sources include: American Newspaper Journalists, 1873-1900. Perry J. Ashley, ed. (Gale Research Co., 1983); “Executor’s Sale, Estate of Thomas Fitzgerald, Deceased,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 1914; “Fitzgerald Estate,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1914.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

All We Need is Love at LOVE Park?

Looking Northwest from City Hall Tower, April 10, 1929. Photograph by Charles L. Howell.  (PhillyHistory.org)

Looking Northwest from City Hall Tower, April 10, 1929. (Detail.) Photograph by Charles L. Howell. (PhillyHistory.org)

In order to succeed in its grand ambitions of City Beautifulism, the Parkway had to overcome a handful of awkward design moments. The first, at the base of City Hall, got the boulevard off on the wrong foot. Instead of elegance and clarity, we see Broad Street Station’s tower poking and jutting into what should have been an open vista. A second awkwardness appeared at Logan Square, where the Parkway sliced through on the diagonal. And the Parkway’s third clumsy challenge was at the rocky base of Fairmount itself.

Jacques Gréber brilliantly addressed the last two awkward moments. His solution at Fairmount employed a giant set of steps to extend the Parkway’s axis to the entrance of the “Greek Garage.” At Logan Square, Gréber introduced an off-center traffic circle disguised as a Beaux-Arts fountain.

And so two of the Parkway’s design problems were solved.

The remaining problem at the base of City Hall, was at the site with the greatest demands and conflicting responsibilities. As early as 1911, a proposed plaza design for the start of the Parkway got loaded up with a host of additional functions in as many new buildings: a headquarters for the Free Library, a Franklin Institute, and a massive court house. Fortunately, these projects were soon moved to Logan Circle. But by 1920, the expanse at the start of the Parkway still felt and looked unfinished, a pleasant jumble, as depicted by Salvatore Pinto, of cars, towers and citizens.

Enter Edmund N. Bacon, who spent at least some of his adolescence wondering what this awkward space could become. Bacon worked on the problem for his architecture thesis at Cornell in 1932 and his plans, which introduced a giant, circular terminus for the Parkway vista would simmer for another three decades.

According to Greg Heller, as head of the City Planning Commission, Bacon worked with Vincent Kling to advance a version of his earlier idea for a plaza. In the Spring of 1962, the aged Gréber even gave the idea his thumbs up. The soon to be named JFK Plaza featured a giant, 90-foot wide fountain, large and symmetrical enough, on this burdened, little square, to strongly punctuate the beginning (or the end) of the Parkway.

Detail, Plan Showing Relation of the Proposed Parkway Development to the Present Street System. Philadelphia, March 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

Detail: Plan Showing Relation of the Proposed Parkway Development to the Present Street System. Philadelphia, March 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

Aspirations called for something more for JFK Plaza than the giant geyser fountain we’ve come to accept. But a design competition turned up nothing winnable, not even Robert Venturi’s proposed giant, seemingly NASA-inspired fountain that would provide much-needed scale,  dimension (and wit) to the Bacon/Kling idea. As Venturi explained his solution in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture: “The form is big and bold so that it will read against its background of big buildings and amorphous space and also from the relatively long distance up the Parkway. Its plastic shape, curving silhouette, and plain surface also contrast boldly with the intricate patterns of the buildings around….  This fountain is big and little in scale, sculptural and architectural in structure, analogous and contrasting in its context, directional and nondirectional, curvilinear and angular in its form, it was designed from the inside out and the outside in.” Venturi recognized what the site demanded: a hyperlegible feature, a bold solution.

Which brings us to the recently announced redesign for JFK Plaza, aka LOVE Park. Hargreaves Associates and Kieran Timberlake allowed competing demands to have their way with the space. It has become many things to many interests, at the expense of being big and bold (in spite of one review claiming the contrary). The fountain survives, though shrunken; the beloved Visitor Center is offered a new life; a greensward dominates as it might in a suburban office park. A century later, we find ourselves rediscovering the plaza’s original awkward complexity.

LOVE Park is again bereft of much needed boldness, or as Bacon would put it, a powerful “design idea.” Unless LOVE is enough to carry the day.

Maybe, just maybe, the relatively small (but big-hearted and extraordinarily popular) LOVE statue can save the square? Long ago, William Penn urged: “Let us try what love will do… Force may subdue but love gains.” Penn was talking about his policy of peace with Native Americans. More than 330 years later, we’d like to think that we, too, believe in the power of love to solve all kinds of problems, maybe even our most demanding design challenges.

So, taking Penn’s lead: “Let us try what Love will do.” Maybe, by some miracle, love is all we need at LOVE Park.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments closed

Preservation to Demolition: Why Lancaster Mews Matters

11.17.47 3600 Lancaster Aveneu. ashx

36th and Lancaster Avenue, looking south down 36th Street towards the Market Street elevated line station. The line was placed underground in the 1960s. A corner of Lancaster Mews appears on the right — it now the terrace of the Aloosh Hookah Bar. The station stop and Queen Anne homes on the west side of 36th Street were demolished in the 1970s to make way for University City High School, now also under demolition. The “Old Quaker Building” on the left survives as apartments. The intersection of 36th and Market Street was the heart of the so-called “Black Bottom” area. Photograph dated November 17, 1947.

Yet another high rise student housing complex going up, billed as “luxury” apartments? At a community meeting last night,  residents of the area expressed their concern at the possible loss of an historic anchor structure at the corner of 36th and Lancaster Avenue.  The building entered the spotlight a few weeks ago, when Inga Saffron wrote in her “Changing Skyline” Inquirer column that the 1870s Second Empire building at 3600 Lancaster Avenue may be yet another victim of University City’s “frenzied real estate market.”

The recent demolition of the Boyd Theater near Rittenhouse Square has bothered many Philadelphians — for a city with so much well-preserved building stock, it now seems that anything is for sale.

Powelton’s homeowners are particularly on edge.  Despite its wealth of historic Italianate and Queen Anne architecture, the neighborhood is  almost completely unprotected by local historic ordinances. Over the past few years, several Victorian row houses and twins have been torn down and replaced by boxy, bland student apartment houses.

According to resident and local property owner Hanley Bodek, 3810 Hamilton Street is the latest house under threat. Over the past three decades, Bodek  — along with his business partner John Lindsay — have carefully restored dozens of abandoned Victorian structures in the neighborhood. Until last year, Bodek taught a hands-on class at PennDesign about historic renovation called “Entrepreneurial Inner City Housing Markets,” in which a group of students renovated an abandoned Philadelphia row house and sold it to a low-income family.

Now, there are few vacant lots left in Powelton.  Bodek owns 3808 Hamilton, the adjacent twin to the house now under threat.  He restored the brick house at a time when “nobody wanted these houses.”  Now, there are few vacant lots left in Powelton.

Glamorous, Lancaster Mews definitely is not, but it does have character and its own kind of utility, and houses a variety of local businesses that have thrived catering to students and Powelton Village residents alike: Aloosh hookah bar, Dr. Cycles bike repair, and Lemongrass Thai restaurant.  They do not offer the sanitized predictability of the chains that occupy the lower levels of the latest crop of West Philadelphia student high rises, but they do offer character and a sense of place, and they provide a place for local, “basic needs” entrepreneurs.

“Such blocks are what make Philadelphia, well, Philadelphia,” Saffron astutely declared.  And it was not built to be transient.

At least one local business owner feels threatened by the loss of the building. “Pure evil,” wrote Bodyrock Boot Camp owner Nate McIntyre in a Facebook post. “From the perspective of a small business owner on Lancaster Ave. that’s exactly what I call these plans by an outside developer and the city council woman to tear down this 150 year old historic, and thriving block of business and residences in my neighborhood.”

509 N 40th Street.ashx

509 N.40th Street, which housed an automobile repair shop and a tailor’s shop, with apartments on the second and third floors. April 17, 1950.

Not a bad considering that two decades ago, the entire block now known as Lancaster Mews was largely abandoned, as was much of the Lancaster Avenue commercial corridor.  After a thorough renovation, it now serves the same purpose as it did in the 1870s.

Lancaster Avenue, which branches out diagonally at the intersection of 30th Street and Market and continues all the way to Lancaster City, is the oldest turnpike in the country, opening for business in 1792.   It was the starting point of Lewis and Clark’s  journey west.  After the Civil War, its right of way was the object of a fierce battle between the trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the trolleys of the Philadelphia Traction Company.

Despite its storied history, Lancaster Avenue and the buildings that grew up around it were comparatively hum-drum — most of its structures are mixed-used buildings erected in the second half of the 19th century.  Aside from a cluster of grand houses in the Powelton neighborhood, this part of West Philadelphia was never an especially fancy part of town. According to architectural historian Robert Morris Skaler, it was an “economically diverse community,” mostly middle class, comprised of “old stock Americans, as well as more recent immigrants of German, Irish, and Italian descent,” who lived in modest three story row houses located within walking distance of shopping on Lancaster Avenue.

Queen Anne twins at 66. N. 36th Street, September  1948. Demolished.

Queen Anne twins dating from c.1890 at 66. N. 36th Street, September 26, 1948. Demolished.

Not that the commercial buildings in the area were completely without flair. The now vanished William Penn Theater at 4063 Lancaster had an auditorium just as glamorous as the (now half demolished) Boyd’s near Rittenhouse Square.  It was a favorite gathering place for Penn students, who in the 1920s had no qualms about crossing Market Street (and cutting class) to catch a movie.  The curved face Hawthorne Hall, located just up the street from Lancaster Mews at 39th Street, is an Art Nouveau fantasy in red brick, terra cotta, and pressed tin.  It once housed a drug store, theater, and other small businesses. A former apothecary shop catty-corner from Lancaster Mews boasts an elaborate pressed tin storefront that is a riot of Louis Sullivanesque plant forms.

Today, such design whimsy is largely confined to the ephemeral  images that flash across the screens of our smart phones and tablets.

12.12.1951 3612 lANCASTER aVENUE.ashx

The street fronts of Lancaster Mews, 3612 Lancaster Avenue, December 12, 1951.

Some of Lancaster’s buildings have been butchered by modern signage or punctured by garage doors.  Others are abandoned or in poor repair, with wood trim and cornices stripped.  These once viable neighborhoods were victims of multiple forces: the rise of the automobile, redlining by banks and insurance companies, white flight, and government policies that favored new construction versus preservation.

Lancaster Mews, which still has its gingerbread trim and historically appropriate windows, represents a successful blending of historic preservation and redevelopment, in which a building is restored to much of its former appearance while still being viable from an economic standpoint.  We have learned a lot since the 1960s, when mass demolition — i.e. Philadelphia’s “Black Bottom” — was rampant in American cities and old buildings were seen as disposable.  Trouble still occurs when a neighborhood goes from grassroots historic preservation mode to big money demolition mode — hopefully Powelton Village and the Lancaster Avenue corridor will be revitalized without being sterilized.  Philadelphia may rejoice in its economic resurgence, but new construction in a city as historic and well-preserved as this one should should be mindful and measured rather than frenzied.

Hawthorne Hall, built in the 1890s on the site of the former McIlvaine lumberyard.  This photograph dates from c.1970.  The pressed tin cornice on the second floor has been partially removed, but most of the terra cotta statuary and ornament remains.

Hawthorne Hall, built in the 1890s on the site of the former McIlvaine lumberyard. This photograph dates from c.1970. The pressed tin cornice on the second floor has been partially removed, but most of the terra cotta statuary and ornament remains.


Inga Saffron, “Changing Skyline, Frenzied Real Estate Market Makes Any Building a Teardown Target,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2015.

Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia, University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, SC: The Arcadia Press, 2002), pp. 95,97.



Posted in Neighborhoods, Urban Planning | Comments closed

Thinking about the 21st-Century Monument

"The Thinker," by Auguste Rodin, March 4, 1927  (PhillyHistory.org)

“The Thinker,” by Auguste Rodin, March 4, 1927 (PhillyHistory.org)

A lot of folks have given a lot of thought as to who The Thinker is and what he’s thinking about. Not everyone agrees on a single interpretation, not even the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who imagined many and wouldn’t say for sure which one he intended. Anyway, Rodin believed works of art should speak for themselves.

So everyone else got to have their thoughts about The Thinker, which made it very, very popular—and gave it its staying power.

That power is why this cast of the Thinker migrated from Paris and landed temporarily on Logan Square in 1927, awaiting completion of Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum. The Thinker had spoken, as it were, to Philadelphia motion picture magnate and philanthropist Jules Mastbaum, who went on a Rodin buying binge in 1925 and 1926. Mastbaum returned home from Paris with a cache of 106 Rodin bronzes. The Thinker would have the place of honor; he’d be the first to welcome visitors. All the more important to know what he was thinking.

Since Rodin first modeled the figure in 1880 as a central element for his monumental, complex Gates of Hell, it made some sense that The Thinker might be the artist himself. Or, possibly it could be Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, which inspired the sculpture. But by 1904, Rodin freed The Thinker from his Gates project and “conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated upon a rock, his feet drawn under him, his fist against his teeth” …dreaming.

This larger, muscular stand-alone Thinker did more than dream, explained Rodin. “The fertile thought slowly elaborated itself within his brain.” He is “no longer a dreamer, he is a creator.” A romantic idea, and a popular one.

Rodin cast and re-cast his thinkers in monumental forms—dozens of times. They proliferated in public places from Paris to Louisville, Dresden to Detroit, guaranteeing The Thinker unfortunate fate as a visual cliché, but also assuring that thinking about The Thinker was anyone’s game.

“With his worn body and face of a primitive man,” The Thinker is, speculated critic Octave Mirbeau, the image of a cave man, looking at the unfolding below of the crimes and passions of his descendants.” He is “austere nudity, in his pensive force.” He is “the same as a wild Adam, implacable Dante, and merciful Virgil…but he is above all The Ancestor, the first man, naïve and without conscience, bending over that which he will engender.”

Cast in monumental scale, made of bronze to endure the ages and installed in civic settings, The Thinker became everyman for everyone, nearly everywhere.

Our public art, our memorials and our monuments are part of a civic cultural collective, or they should be. They should be ours to help us consider, recognize and remember, ours to help us organize the past and shape future memory.

It didn’t work that way in the 1920s. For all of his generosity, Jules Mastbaum usurped civic power acquiring Rodins for exhibition at the Sesquicentennial Exposition and as a subsequent gift for the City. It’s hard to fault Mastbaum for his philanthropy, but we could fault him for his presumptions. Mastbaum crossed a line thinking The Thinker was an appropriate idea of a monument for the 20th century city.

What would other Philadelphians in Mastbaum’s time rather have seen cast in bronze and displayed in public? They weren’t consulted.

Nearly a century later, the tables are turned. Now, thanks to Monument Lab, an innovative project taking place in Philadelphia between May 15 and June 7, 2015, we all have a shot at becoming Mastbaums. We get to propose monuments appropriate for the 21st century city. We get to say what they are, what we expect of them, and where they’d have the most meaning.

When imagination is at work, there are no limits.  So what will it be?

Visit Monument Lab in City Hall courtyard and submit your ideas, your inspirations.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments closed

The Search for an American Art in “Gallery C”

Memorial Hall - American Department, Centennial Photographic Company, 1976. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

“Gallery C” in Memorial Hall – American Department, Centennial Photographic Co., 1876. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Construction delays scuttled the original plan to open the Centennial in April 1876, in time for the 100th anniversary of the battles at Lexington and Concord. Just as well. The nation’s first world’s fair wasn’t looking to the past so much as the American present and, even more, its future.

On May 10, 1876—139 years ago yesterday—the bell at Independence Hall signaled the opening of the Centennial. Four miles from the city’s historic center more than 186,000 gathered for a heady celebration of stuff in a temporary Centennial City in West Fairmount Park. In all, more than 9.8 million visitors would visit over the summer months to celebrate the growth of America from idea to flourishing nation.

At its symbolic and ceremonial center, Centennial planners built a place where America would be represented by the nation’s artists. Inside, surrounded by an array of other galleries filled with art from around the world, was America’s “Grand Salon,” aka “Gallery C,” the place for the nation’s artists to be and be seen. Here would be the best of the best in American art, works expressive of what this nation had become, or as Kimberly Orcutt put it: “…the first officially sanctioned, full-scale reckoning of the nation’s art.”

It wouldn’t be easy to present what the organizers hoped for: “a unified ‘American school.’” As it turned out, by the 1870s, America’s artists were more divided than united. New York landscapists conflicted with European-trained cosmopolitans from Philadelphia and Boston. And Philadelphia artist John Sartain, appointed chief of the Art Advisory Committee only eight months before opening day, created a top-heavy bureaucracy, a Committee on Selection and a Committee on Arrangement, to “help.” The ever-political Sartain, Orcutt writes, “was careful not to place himself on the Committee on Selection” but after the committee reviewed more than 1,000 works of art in early April, rejecting some interesting newcomers like the still-young and little-known Thomas Eakins and others who also trained abroad, Sartain carried out a notorious series of end runs around his committees, soliciting works he thought merited display, particularly from artists who were longtime friends and allies, including Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran.

In all, Sartain and his committee assembled far more than could possibly fit in Gallery C. Americans would be hung in the long, narrow  connecting gallery at Memorial Hall as well as in a handful of small, square  rooms in the one-story, wooden annex built directly behind Memorial Hall to accommodate overflow.

Installed, “Gallery C” spoke more to the contested state of American art than anything like a hoped-for American School. In the center stood two sculptures by P.F. Connelly’s, Ophelia and Death and Honor and another by Howard Roberts Le Premier Pose, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Visitors witnessed John Vanderlyn’s Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos, now at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Albert Bierstadt’s Entrance into Monterey (The Settlement of California, Bay of Monterey, 1777), now in the U. S. House of Representatives. They saw Eastman Johnson, Catching the Bee, 1872  and Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip. They took in Peter Rothermel’s gigantic (16’ x 32’), bloodless, Battle of Gettysburg, and Thomas Eakins’ Portrait of Dr. Rand, now the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Of course, they didn’t see Eakins’ very bloody Portrait of Dr. Samuel Gross which the Selection Committee passed on. That refusée made an appearance in the far-flung Army Medical Department Exhibition.

Opening Day at the Centennial Exhibition, May 10, 1876. Centennial Photographic Co. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Opening Day at the Centennial Exhibition, May 10, 1876. Centennial Photographic Co. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Eakins’ Gross Clinic, according to Sylvan Schendler, had been been dumped for a cow painting entitled The Return of the Herd by Peter Moran, Thomas Moran’s younger brother. (In a twist of history, the Peter Moran recently sold for sum of $38,025, minuscule compared to the $68,000,000 sale price for The Gross Clinic in 2006.)

In 1914, nearly four decades after doing his best to define an American art, the mature Eakins, who embodied the best of the conflicting approaches, reflected on the American art dilemma that had shaped his entire career: “If America is to produce great painters and if young artists wish to assume a place in the history of the art of their country, their first desire should be to remain in America to peer deeper into the heart of American life, rather than spend their time abroad obtaining a superficial view of the art of the Old World.”

When Eakins was in his early 30s in 1875 and painted The Gross Clinic, American artists were  nowhere near ready to speak in one clear, creative voice that might be considered an “American School.” Many decades later, the dust still hadn’t settled. If anything, the international influences on American art were stirred up even more by the Armory Show in 1913 and collector Albert Barnes, who focused intensely  on what made good art, rather than what made good American art.

It could be the impossible search for a pure, distinctive and exclusively American art is what stymied success at the Centennial’s “Gallery C.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments closed

“Where Are You From?” Frank DeSimone’s South Philadelphia (Part 2)

Mummers 7.7.64.ashx

Mummer String Bands at the Annual Festival of Fountains, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, July 7, 1964.

Note: this article is Part II of a series.  Click here for Part I. 

 Two months ago, as we stood in front of St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church, Frank DeSimone recalled one of his fondest childhood memories: the annual visit of the Joseph A. Ferko String Band.

In the 1950s, Philadelphia was defined not by neighborhoods, but by parishes, and the local string band was a parish’s pride and joy.

“In those days, there would be a million and half people along North Broad Street,” Frank said.  “It was HUGE!”

And every New Year’s Day, the populace of St. Monica’s Parish was serenaded by 85 very honored guests.

The Mummers Parade, which formally began in 1895, was initially a kind of subversive institution, an assertion of Roman Catholic identity in a largely Protestant city.  The Quaker founders, who strove for simplicity in life and worship, were particularly suspect of “popery.”  Like the Puritans of New England, Quakers viewed liturgical feasts such as Christmas as excuses for public revelry and mischief rather than quiet devotion.  In 1733, the city leadership grew concerned that the Jesuits had arrived in Philadelphia. The Provincial Council of Pennsylvania noted that it was: “no small concern to hear that a House lately built in Walnut Street.was sett apart for the Exercise of the Roman Catholick Religion and it is commonly called the Romish Chappell . where Mass [is] openly celebrated by a Popish priest, contrary to the Laws of England.”  Remarkably, the Council determined that Philadelphia’s fledgling Roman Catholic population was protected by William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, which guaranteed religious freedom for all.  The “Romish Chappell” in question became Old Joseph’s Church, which still stands in Society Hill. Yet the hostility continued.  In 1808, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a bill declared that “masquerades, masquerade balls, and masked processions were public nuisances”  Some of this animus against dressing up was no doubt fueled by anti-Catholic sentiment, which grew to a fever pitch during the “Know Nothing” Philadelphia riots of the 1830s, in which Protestant rioters torched Roman Catholic churches, homes, and businesses.

St. Joe's 9.22.1970ashx

Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, founded in 1733 by the Jesuits and the first church of this denomination in Philadelphia. 2nd and Walnut Streets. September 22, 1970.

By the late 19th century, a huge influx of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany tipped the balance of political power in Philadelphia in favor of the Roman Catholic electorate.  Inspired by the religious pageants from their native lands, as well as celebrations of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the city’s burgeoning working class — whose toil in the factories and mills supported the lifestyles of Philadelphia’s Gilded Age elite — decided to put on their own annual fete.  In 1923, a new string band joined the ranks of revelers parading up Broad Street at the start of every year: the Joseph A. Ferko String Band. Its clubhouse was located near the Delaware River on 2nd Street.  The band’s founder Joseph Ferko was a pharmacist from North Philadelphia, who for nearly fifty years led the group up Broad Street, and on to twenty first place finishes.

St. Monica’s Parish — centered around the church at 17th and Ritner — was located relatively close to the parade’s starting point at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue.   So every New Year’s Day, the Ferko String Band would arrive at St. Monica’s basement and change into their elaborate customs.  At 10am, Frank recalled, the 85 men of the Ferko String Band would walk out in all their colorful finery and serenade the 35 nuns on the convent steps with their renditions of “Alabama Jubilee,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and other popular songs.

Then, the priest of St. Monica’s Church would bless the men of Ferko, and off they would strut to the parade route.

“I wouldn’t go to the parade until I saw Ferko!” Frank said.

And the performance pleased the nuns who taught Frank and his friends at the parish school. “If you spoke out of turn in class,” he said, “you were a ‘bold, brazen article!’  The last thing you wanted was for your parents to receive a note from Sister.”

Penn Mummers land c.1980.ashx

Mummers performing to crowds on Penn’s Landing, c.1975.


Interview with Frank DeSimone, March 22, 2015.

“The Joseph A. Ferko String Band,” accessed May 6, 2015. http://www.ferko.com/pages/jandband.htm

“Old St. Joseph’s in the 18th Century,” accessed May 6, 2015. http://oldstjoseph.org/blog/about-osj/history/18th-century/



Posted in Uncategorized | Comments closed

Broad Street Run: Out of Time

Betz Building, Southeast Corner of South Penn Square, December 11, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

Betz Building, Southeast Corner of South Penn Square, December 11, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

At the 5.9-mile point, Broad Street runners round City Hall turning at South Penn Square. It wasn’t always like a canyon. The place had a downright downscaled feel in the first half of the 19th century, when Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s Pump House sat central in the Square and Napoleon LeBrun’s stone steps spilled onto the sidewalk from the classical portico of his 7th Presbyterian Church. But by the 1890s, when Will Decker’s 14-story Betz Building rose on the site of the church and Furness and Evans’ West End Trust topped out at the same height directly across Broad, City Hall had formidable company and Scrappletown had its own brand of wanna-be-skyscrapers.

Of course, that’s all gone today, demolished and replaced. Every structure pictured or linked in this special-edition pair of blog posts was demolished to make way for the city we know and sometimes love, the Philadelphia celebrated by the Broad Street Run. Last time we focused on the northern portion of the course, where runners enjoyed the gentle slope from Logan’s heady elevation at 170-feet above sea level to Penn Square’s humble 49 feet. From here on down to the Navy Yard? That’s the harder part. So, to help you with that final stretch, PhillyHistory is pleased to provide a distraction to help runners imagine what the last four miles of this course once looked like.

Just past 6.0 miles at Broad and Chestnut Streets: On your left at Broad and Sansom:  Another classical temple, this one from the 1830s, the First Independent Presbyterian Church (aka Chambers’ Church).  On your right: the Academy of Natural Sciences, a hotel topped by a giant wooden eagle (La Pierre House).

6.1 miles – Broad and Walnut: On the left, still another classical portico, this time at the Dundas-Lippincott Mansion and just past the Bellevue on the right, the Art Club, which survived into the 1970s.

6.15 miles – Broad and Locust: architect Theophilus Parsons Chandler, Jr.’s Walton Hotel, which made it as far as the 1960s, survived thirty years longer than did Kiralfy’s Alhambra Palace (aka the Broad Street Theatre), not visible on the left. Horticultural Hall, formerly on the right, and previously posted about, lasted only 21 years.

Southwestern National Bank - Southeast Corner Broad and South Streets (PhillyHistory.org)

Southwestern National Bank – Southeast Corner Broad and South Streets, July 25, 1927. (PhillyHistory.org)

6.2 miles – Broad and Spruce: Hotel Stenton from the 1890s, also on the east side. Just south of Spruce, on the left, stood the Romanesque-style First Reformed Presbyterian Church (aka Wylie Memorial Church).

6.4 miles – Broad and Lombard: Where the threatened blue-brick District Health Center No. 1 sits, once stood the Darley Residence, first designed by Furness & Hewitt in the 1870s then redone by C. M. Burns.

6.5 miles – Broad and South: At the southeast corner, you won’t see another Burns building the Southwestern National Bank from 1900, which barely made it to middle age.

6.8 miles – Broad and Carpenter: A railroad freight depot on the southwest corner, now parking on blacktop behind a vintage chain link fence.

6.9 miles – Broad and Washington: Another freight depot, on the northwest corner, this one of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

7.0 miles – Broad and Federal: Holland Memorial Presbyterian Church where a Pep Boys now stands.


At the Liberty Bell, Broad Street, South of Oregon Avenue, 1926. (PhillyHistory.org)

7.9 miles – Broad and Jackson: The Southern Manual Training School, by architect Titus Lloyd, diagonally across from St. Luke’s Church.

7.1 miles – Broad and Wharton: Third Regiment Armory, demolished just two years ago.

7.8 miles – Broad and Snyder: Where a Walgreens  is today the Broadway Theatre opened in 1913.

8.3 miles – Broad and Oregon:  The entrance to the sprawling Sesquicentennial Exposition in 1926, featuring the long-lost portent of Pop: a giant, electrified Liberty Bell.

8.4 to 9.1 miles – From Broad and Bigler to Broad and Hartranft, was the landscaped promenade called Forum of Founders. It lead to the Municipal Stadium, a venue later joined by Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum, all of which, of course, are gone.

At 10 miles – at the blunt, wet end of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, stood another icon of power and strength, “Old Hammerhead,” “the World’s Largest Crane,” which proved its mettle as a worthy monument by holding up “350 Tons of Guns.”

So many didn’t make it.

But congratulations!

You did.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments closed

A Drive Through Overbrook Farms

Woodbine Avenue, looking east from 66th Street, May 16, 1927.

Woodbine Avenue, looking east from 66th Street, May 16, 1927.

In 1876, as Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition was in full swing, the Pennsylvania Railroad quietly bought up the trolley rights on Lancaster Avenue from 52nd Street to the western city limits.  The PRR shrewdly sought to control as much development as possible along its Main Line to Pittsburgh, which paralleled Lancaster Avenue — also known as US 30.  The lack of trolley cars — seen as a noisy but necessary nuisance by many residents of West Philadelphia — allowed developers to create build larger houses on more spacious lots.  One property ripe for development was the 165 acre John M. George farm, which in the 1890s had not yet been developed by traction magnate Peter Widener and his cronies.  A consortium lead by the PRR and Drexel & Company then transformed the George farm from bucolic fields to upscale housing development.

420 S.44th Street.ashx

420 S.44th Street, a twin house typical of those built near the old Drexel estate in Spruce Hill at the same time as Overbrook Farms. As typical with these trolley houses, there is neither carriage house nor dedicated parking.

Overbrook Farms, like Chestnut Hill on the other side of the Schuylkill, was a carefully planned community of suburban-style houses built within walking distance of a train stop.  The Drexels were no strangers to development in West Philadelphia — Anthony Drexel, who died the year after his bank purchased the George farm, was responsible for much of the trolley car housing development around his family’s compound at 39th and Locust.  In Overbrook, however, commercial enterprises were banished from residential streets, confined to a circumscribed shopping area near the railroad station, rather than strung out along main trolley car routes such as Baltimore Avenue to the south.

Intersection of Lancaster and City Avenues, March 19, 1917.

Intersection of Lancaster and City Avenues, March 19, 1917. Overbrook Presbyterian Church is on the left.

Small wonder the real estate promoters unabashedly advertised Overbrook Farms as a “suburb deluxe.”  Compare the freestanding and twin houses of Overbrook Farms with the streetcar developments built elsewhere in West Philadelphia at the same time.  These 500 or so homes — many designed by noted architects such as William Price, Angus Wade and Horace Trumbauer — are ancestors of the suburban houses that Americans take for granted today but were so novel at the end of the 19th century.  A typical detached house in Overbrook Farms contains over 2,000 square feet per floor, and cost anywhere from $12,500 to $35,000 in the 1890s, making them the modern equivalent of million dollar plus homes. The Overbrook homes are free from the constraints of traditional row house lots, the largest of which were typically 21 feet wide and 100 feet deep.  The twin homes  Church Road, Drexel Road, and Woodbine Avenue are massive, almost mansion like in scale.  They are also more richly decorated than their boxier counterparts in West Philadelphia’s trolley car suburbs of Cedar Park and Spruce Hill, which were built at almost exactly the same time.  Rooflines are more playful and varied, and walls are ornamented with Tudor half-timbering, Spanish stucco, and Colonial Revival windows.

Mueller Atlas of Overbrook Farms, 1896. Source: PhillyH20.com

Mueller Atlas of Overbrook Farms, 1896. Source: PhillyH20.com

Another advantage of larger lots was room for on-site carriage houses, which within a few decades would be transformed into garages.  On Woodcrest Avenue, just to the south of the original Overbrook Farms development, rowhouses and twins constructed after the First World War had alleys built in the rear for parking.

Originally located outside the western boundary of Philadelphia in the 1890s, Overbrook Farms was eventually annexed by the city, making it distinct from neighboring Merion and Wynnewood, which were also developed by the PRR.  It became popular with wealthy Philadelphians such as real estate mogul Albert Greenfield and chemist/art collector Albert Barnes, who were put off by the Main Line’s exclusivity but were attracted by the high quality housing stock.

Although Overbrook shares some qualities with Chestnut Hill — a fashionable suburb located in the city limits — it never had a Henry Howard Houston or George Woodward-type landlord who carefully curated its insular, exclusive mystique by building churches like St. Martins-in-the-Fields or clubs like Philadelphia Cricket.  Churches of various denominations were sponsored by individual congregations, most notably St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Philadelphia’s city’s oldest historically African-American Episcopal congregation, which before its move to Overbrook was located at 52nd and Parrish.  Rather than the firm hand of the Houston-Woodward clan, control of neighborhood aesthetics was overseen by a more democratic entity: the Overbrook Farms Club, the oldest continuously operating neighborhood association in the United States.

The Overbrook School for the Blind. N.64th and Malvern Avenue, August 21, 1962.

The Overbrook School for the Blind. N.64th and Malvern Avenue, August 21, 1962.

The result was that Overbrook Farms abounds in character and beautiful period architecture, but it never for a second feels like an English village.  Its tree-lined streets are thoroughly American in feel and layout.  Overbrook Farms was also a taste of things to come in American suburban development, which would boom in the 1920s and 50s, coinciding with middle class prosperity and the rise of the automobile.

Thanks to the hard work of the Overbrook Farms Club, this distinct neighborhood has survived remarkably intact, despite widespread abandonment and subdivision only a few blocks away. Most of Overbrook Farms’ historic homes are still single family residences.

photo 1

6397 and 6399 Drexel Road. The latter house’s owners have included Clarence Geist, William Luden of cough drop fame, and real estate tycoon Albert M. Greenfield. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa, April 28, 2015.


photo 2

A Georgian revival house at the intersection of Drexel Road and N.66th Street. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa, April 28, 2015.

“History: Overbrook Farms Club,” accessed April 29, 2015. http://www.overbrookfarmsclub.org/?page_id=213

Edith Willoughby, “Overbrook Farms,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory Form, 1985, p.7.  https://www.dot7.state.pa.us/ce_imagery/phmc_scans/H082616_01H.pdf



Posted in Uncategorized | Comments closed

Lost on Broad Street

Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Market Street west at Penn Square. (PhillyHistory.org - Free Library of Philadelphia)

Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Market Street west at Penn Square. (PhillyHistory.org – Free Library of Philadelphia)

What ran up and down Broad Street a century ago? Buildings did. According to Poor Richard’s Dictionary of Philadelphia, nearly fifty of the city’s public structures: hospitals, schools, institutes, hotels, sacred places, museums, theatres, opera houses, government buildings, clubs and railroad stations were sited along the 10-mile plus length of Broad Street. As discussed last time, this plan was long in the making. William Penn, who almost certainly found inspiration in the urban visions of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in giving Broad Street its plain, forthright name in the 1680s, intended exactly that. It took a while—two centuries— to fully catch on, but in the fullness of time, Broad Street became Philadelphia’s Public Avenue, the venue for civic life.

But things change, and many of the buildings that once lined Broad Street are now gone. In this, the first of two posts dedicated to the expected 30,000 participants in the 2015 Broad Street Run, we link to what’s lost on Broad, some of the buildings no longer seen along this 10-mile course.

From Broad Street and Somerville Avenue, heading south:

1.0 miles – Broad, just south of Blavis Street: Saint Luke’s Hospital.

1.2 miles – Broad and the Roosevelt Boulevard: The first of many gas stations. This one designed for the Atlantic Refining Company.

1.8 miles – Broad and Erie: The Greek Revival temple of the North Central Trust Company, on the southeast corner, directly across from the now-closed Bowlorama and its time-keeping billboard.

2.1 miles – Broad and Ontario: Samaritan Hospital and the recently demolished Temple University Medical School.

2.4 miles – Broad and Allegheny: Philadelphia original Convention Hall, inside and out.

3.4 miles – Broad and Susquehanna: Our Lady of Mercy Roman Catholic Church.

3.5 miles –Broad, north of Diamond: The first Armory.

3.8 miles –Broad and Berks: Gatehouse of Monument Cemetery.

4 miles – Broad and Cecil B. Moore: Keneseth Israel Synagogue (before and after the fire), Columbia Club and Columbia Avenue Saving Fund, Safe Deposit, Title and Trust Company.

4.1 miles – Broad below Oxford : The Mercantile Club.

4.5 miles – Broad and Girard: Reid Hotel, Widener Mansion and the Majestic Hotel.

5.0 miles – Broad and Green: the first and second versions of Central High School there.

5.1 miles – Broad and Spring Garden: Odd Fellows Hall.

5.3 miles – Broad and Callowhill: Another Armory.

5.6 miles – Broad and Vine: Hahnemann Hospital.

5.6 miles – Broad and Race: Scottish Rite Temple.

5.9 miles – Broad and Market: City Hall, of course, survives. Broad Street Station illustrated above, did not.

Next time: What you won’t see as you run the final 4.1 miles down Broad, from City Hall to the Navy Yard.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments closed

Gentlemen and Wise Guys in Girard Estates


Stephen Girard, in a posthumous portrait by B. Otis.  Source: Wikipedia.

Stephen Girard, in a posthumous portrait by B. Otis. Note his missing eye.  Source: Wikipedia.

Stephen Girard, the French-born Philadelphia shipping tycoon, was famous for his hard driving work ethic.  He came to America as a teenager, an orphaned cabin boy from the city of Bordeaux, and quickly established himself as a merchant who sent his ships to China and the Caribbean.  Along with John Jacob Astor of New York and Thomas Handasyd Perkins of Boston, he was active in the China trade, speculating in tea and opium. During the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1794, he personally took care of the sick and dying at a private estate that he had transformed into a hospital. Proud of his adopted country, he named his sailing ships after French Enlightenment figures and ideals: Liberty, Montesquieu, Voltaire. He took over the First Bank of the United States after its charter expired. He immodestly named it the Bank of Stephen Girard, and as sole proprietor made millions lending funds to start up new businesses and to fund public improvements such as turnpikes and canals.

He could also avaricious and cruel. When his wife developed mental health problems in the 1780s, he committed her to the insane ward of the Pennsylvania Hospital and took up with a mistress.

He died in 1831, aged 81, with a fortune of $7.5 million (the modern equivalent of $105 billion) making him according to one calculation the fourth richest American in history, adjusted for percentage of national GDP.  This places him behind only John D. Rockefeller (adjusted wealth $336 billion), Cornelius Vanderbilt ($185 billion), and John Jacob Astor ($100 billion).

Yet Girard left no direct or legitimate heirs.  He gave virtually all of his massive fortune to the city of Philadelphia.  His hotly-contested will’s most famous provision was the establishment of a charity school for “white, male orphans” that would become Girard College.  The estate also controlled vast swaths of land in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Among them was a place very dear to Girard’s heart: Gentilhommiere (“A Gentleman’s Home”), a summer retreat he built in the village of Passyunk.

Gentilhommiere, the Stephen Girard Mansion at 22nd and Shunk Streets, 1972.

Gentilhommiere, the Stephen Girard Mansion at 22nd and Shunk Streets, 1972.

Unlike Germantown, where wealthy Philadelphians such as the Chews built grand summer retreats, Passyunk never became a fashionable summer retreat for the city’s elite.  The land was flat and marshy. The Schuylkill River snaked lazily southward in the distance.   Although similar in style to Benjamin Chew’s Cliveden, Gentilhommiere is hardly baronial in scale. It is low-slung and sparsely ornamented, more a predecessor to the Adirondack camps than the chateaux of Newport.  Girard could have easily afforded a grander place — the Hare’s Powelton mansion in West Philadelphia and Biddle’s Andalusia on the Delaware rivaled the finest English country homes — but he set an early example of reverse snobbery.  Never much of a social animal, the one-eyed old salt enjoyed time away from the cares of commerce, in the company of his mistress and a few close friends.

Girard’s will stipulated that his beloved Gentilhommiere be maintained in perpetuity by the city of Philadelphia as a public park.  It would be as if Bill Gates left his 64,000 square foot Xanadu 2.0 estate outside of Seattle as a house museum, with an endowment left to run it.

By the 1910s, nearly a century after the tycoon’s death, the Girard Estate office decided to develop the former farmland around the mansion with upper-middle class housing, which would then be rented out for additional income.  Architect John Windrim, designer of the titanic Delaware Electric Generating Station and and son of Frank Furness’s most hated rival, laid out plans for blocks of row houses and twins in a variety of period styles: Spanish mission, Tudor, Georgian, and Craftsman Bungalow.  Compared to the squat, plain row houses springing up all over South Philadelphia, the homes of “Girard Estates” were palatial, and their association with the famed financier’s gentlemen’s farm gave added prestige.

Starting in the 1950s, the Girard Estate office began selling off the 481 rental properties to individual homebuyers. The people who lived in these homes were doctors, lawyers, and successful small business owners.  The land immediately around the old Girard mansion remained open as parkland, however.

One mafia don known as “The Chicken Man” made Girard Estates his home, but he never made it out of his home at 2211 W. Porter Street alive. He was Phil Testa, head of  Philadelphia’s Scarfi crime family.  The de facto head of the Philadelphia Mafia fancied himself the Julius Caesar of the Mob.   And like Caesar, this don met his end on the Ides of March, when a nail bomb planted in his home blew the “Chicken Man” to smithereens.  Phil Testa’s death on March 15, 1981 was the opening salvo to the so-called Philadelphia Mafia Wars, which raged for several years afterward.  “Bodies were falling all the time,” said one law enforcement official at the time. “You would be afraid to lay your head down at night for fear the phone would start ringing, calling you out to another one.” Testa’s son Salvatore followed in his father’s footsteps, serving as the Scarfi’s main hit man, until he too was killed — in the back of the Too Sweet candy store in South Philadelphia.

The former Testa house, a Craftsman bungalow located right across from Girard’s Gentilhommiere, was restored and is once again a private home.

Testa Mugshot 1968

Mugshot of Phil “Chicken Man” Testa. Source: Wikipedia.


2117 W. Porter Street, where Phil Testa met his end in 1981. Source: “2117 W. Porter St, Philadelphia, PA” by Centpacrr at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Tom Nickels, “Where Stephen Girard Called Home,” The Philadelphia Weekly Press, June 3, 2009. http://weeklypress.com/where-stephen-girard-called-home-p1340-1.htm

“The Top Ten Richest of All Time,” New York Daily News, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/top-10-richest-people-time-gallery-1.1186737

Toni Locy, “The Mob Shoots It Out,” The Philadelphia Daily News, April 27, 1989.  http://articles.philly.com/1989-04-27/news/26145174_1_mob-boss-philadelphia-south-jersey-nicodemo-little-nicky-scarfo

Brian Warner, “The 30 Richest Americans of All Time,” Celebrity Net Worth, March 21, 2014. http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/entertainment-articles/30-richest-americans-time-inflation-adjusted/#!/6-stephen-girard-net-worth-105-billion_751/

Posted in Behind the Scenes, Neighborhoods | Comments closed