Gritty King Coal

Northwest Corner - 13th Street and Washington Avenue. B. F. Hill and Company-Coal Supplier, September 20, 1914. (

Northwest Corner – 13th Street and Washington Avenue. B. F. Hill and Company-Coal Supplier, September 20, 1914. (

In the 1820s, Philadelphia investors “awoke as if from a dream” to the “immensity of the riches concealed in the mountains and ravines of their native State.” As “news of fortunes accumulated by piercing the bowels of the earth, and bringing forth [coal] from the caverns of mountains,” wrote Edwin Freedley, the anthracite trade, which “appeared yesterday but a fly, now assumed the gigantic proportions of an elephant!”

In an optimistic rush, investors who “previously laughed at the infatuation of the daring pioneers of the coal trade” now cooked up their own “plans of towns…surveys of coal lands…railways, canals and…other improvements.” They poured five million dollars into the Schuylkill coals-fields to get black diamonds to the city, digging more than 800 miles of canals and building 1,600 miles of railroad. Investors made out. So did “laborers and mechanics of all kinds from all quarters and nations” who “flocked to the coal region,” wrote Freedley, and “found ready and constant employment…” Down on Philadelphia’s Schuykill docks, arrivals from Ireland found ready, backbreaking work as “coal heavers.”  Dawn-to-dark work for a dollar a day.

Philadelphia’s appetite for coal—a skimpy 365 tons in 1820—flourished at 867,000 tons by 1840. Less than a decade after that, 5,000,000 tons of anthracite poured into the city.


(Detail) Northwest Corner – 13th Street and Washington Avenue. B. F. Hill and Company-Coal Supplier, September 20, 1914. (

Cheap coal meant cheap heat. Affordable, high-quality anthracite also gave the city’s makers an edge. “Inexpensive and abundant coal,” relates The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, “helped drive population and industrial growth. Citizens used it “to heat homes, power factories, propel steamships, and smelt iron.” Anthracite “enabled Philadelphia to transform itself from a commercial city of merchants into an industrial powerhouse. … Canals, coal, and industrial Philadelphia grew together synergistically.”

By the last quarter of the 19th century, when manufacture was strategically chosen as the theme for the Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia could display its makeover to the world. By 1876, the question wasn’t what Philadelphia manufactured—but what it didn’t.

Expansion—and the fortunes made from it—seemed endless. In the middle of the 19th-century, the Reading Railroad built a facility in Port Richmond large enough to handle more than 1.2 million tons of coal every year with wharves capacious enough to handle 100 ships at a time. After the Civil War, the Pennsylvania Railroad developed its own Greenwich Point Holding Yard, along the Delaware in South Philadelphia. By the early 1890s, coal cars stretched as far as the eye could see. Greenwich car dumpers heaved 300 carloads of coal each and every day.

King Coal had rubbed his gritty elbows with Philadelphia. What could possibly go wrong?

[Sources include: John C. Van Horne, etc. Traveling the Pennsylvania Railroad: Photographs of William H. Rau (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002); Russell Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982)] 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Silent Film Era Was Anything But

Bellevue Theatre - Home of the Wonderful Echo Organ, 2210 North Front Street, March 14, 1916. (

Bellevue Theatre – Home of the Wonderful Echo Organ, 2210 North Front Street, March 14, 1916. (

In 1913, “seventy vaudeville and motion picture theatres were under construction” wrote Irvin Glazer. And “virtually all of them were open by the fall,” providing Philadelphia with about 350 venues theatres that excluded downtown “legitimate theatres.” Each and every one screened silent films.

Viewing options were everywhere. In addition to the Victoria at 913 Market (open since in 1909) was the Ruby Theatre at 618 Market, the Arcadia, at 1529 Chestnut, and the Palace Theatre at 1214 Market. The massive, new, 1400-seat Stanton had opened at 16th and Market, not far from the Regent, a block to the west. But movie goers didn’t have to come to town; they could stay in their own neighborhoods and enjoy films at The Tioga, near 17th Venango or The Apollo at 52nd and Girard, or many, many others theatres—and more were on the way.

By 1915, as one film trade publication put it, “in the district known as Kensington, the home of varied industries and a large, live population” film fans could visit the newly-opened, 830-seat Bellevue Theatre. Front and Susquehanna had become a happening place.

Beyond the Bellevue’s ticket booth “of marble and mahogany” and lobby lined with stone tiles, potted palms, and hung with wall-to-wall movie posters, the Bellevue accommodated nickel-and-dime-paying patrons from after noon to an hour before midnight. They filed past brass railings and opal fixtures, down crimson carpeted aisles to upholstered seats to hear the tones of the echo organ and a five-piece orchestra. They’d take in the latest films—advertised in circulars, the daily papers, on billboards and posters mounted on a wagon that paraded the streets.

With a boom in venues and production burgeoning, the screen was now the place to be and be seen. The “celebrated and pulchritudinous” Kitty Gordon held back as long as she could, but as 1915 came to a close, Gordon gave in to “the green glare of the lights of a motion picture studio.”

“I felt positively tremulous as I made my first scene,” confessed Gordon. “But that feeling soon wore off and by the time the camera man was ready to ‘grind’ I was perfectly cool again. I am quite in love with this wonderful new art that furnishes one with surprises no matter which way one turns.”

In the role of the beautiful, charming, conniving Lena Despard, in an updated version of F. C. Philips’ As in a Looking Glass, Gordon did manage to make “an especially striking and attention-compelling photo drama.” The bar had been set high by stars in the stage versions of the role. Sarah Bernhardt had owned it for a time in Paris, admitting to a reporter that the “frank and easy style” of the story “touched” her “dramatic fibre.” Philadelphia ticket holders had packed The Walnut to witness Lily Langtry as the “soulless adventuress” Despard displayed in one after another glamorous gown, just as Lillian Cleves would at the Girard Avenue Theatre.

Gordon delivered in her debut. “Quite frequently,” observed critic Lynde Denig, she turned “her back to the camera and it generally happened that her gown was pronouncedly—need it be added—becomingly décolleté.” The director “surely bore in mind the probable spirit of the public, how eagerly it would await a convincing display of Miss Gordon’s much advertised back,” and, Denig noted, “how little the story mattered by comparison.” If the script “lacked inspirational qualities” the production “was fortunate in having a star capable of carrying so much responsibility on undraped shoulders.” Denig gave a thumbs up: “nobody is going to be disappointed in Miss Gordon’s beauty from whatever angle it is viewed…”

Motography’s writer agreed, adding a bit of pre-Hollywood snark on Gordon’s gowns, which “began late and ended early.” As it turned out, the anticipated “brilliance” of the her “‘polished shoulders’… had caused widespread halation. . .on the film.” Makeup had to “dull the gleam of that famous back and those celebrated shoulders with whole shaker-fulls of powder” before the camera could refocus “its undazzled eye on the dulled surface.”

But audiences were dazzled by all they saw, which culminated in an updated suicide scene, “a final thrill” of the Thelma and Louise variety, as Gordon and her vehicle are “hurled over a precipice.”

Projectors at the Bellevue clicked on into the 1930s, when the place was brought back to a life, of sorts, as a car parts shop.

Today, the much-compromised building on Front Street barely survives.

[Sources: Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z: A Comprehensive, Descriptive Record of 813 Theatres Constructed Since 1724. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Lynde Denig, “As in a Looking Glass” Kitty Gordon Is Introduced to World Film Audience in Melodrama of Intrigue and Love,” The Moving Picture World, Vol. 27 (World Photographic Publishing Company, 1916); “Notes from all Over,” Motography, Volume 15, No. 1, p. 48, 1916; “Bellevue Theatre Opens in Philadelphia,” Accessory News, Vol. 10, No. 25, (October 1914-Jan 1915), p. 112; and from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Mrs. Langtry at the Walnut,” January 23, 1888; “Mrs. Langtry’s Second Week,” January 24, 1888; “At the Theatres Last Night – The Girard Avenue,” October 27, 1891; “Kitty Gordon is Filmed,”  December 26, 1915.]

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō Had Arrived

Detail of “City Hall – Decorated for Visit by Admiral Togo,” 1911. (

“With Secret Service men and city detectives following in a motor car and mounted policemen galloping ahead and behind, the Japanese commander was whirled around the west side of City Hall and South on Broad street. Those who caught a fleeting look at his immobile face gave him a noisy welcome. From the windows of the Bellevue-Stratford fluttered the flags of the United States,” that of Japan and the admiral’s, which the resourceful hotel staff had finished stitching together only minutes before.

Yes, Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō had arrived.

Down in the bowels of the Bellevue-Stratford “the pantryman of the culinary department” had readied his creation: a three-and-a-half-foot model of Tōgō’s famous battleship, the Mikasa. The model looked exactly right, down to “the number of guns pointing from turrets,” the chocolate sailors manning the small-fire guns and the surrounding waves of “billowy green bonbons.”

Tōgō’s eyes “twinkled when he saw the midget ship.” He “gravely drew himself to attention and saluted.”

Philadelphians fell all over themselves in August 1911, celebrating their 48-hours with Admiral Tōgō.  The samurai who studied naval warfare under British tutelage had put all of his finely honed skills to work against the Chinese and the Russians. Only five years before, Tōgō won what is often referred to as “the most decisive sea battle in history, the Battle of Tsushima.”

Now, this “Conqueror of Russia’s Fleet” who represented the Japanese government at the coronation of King George V in England was headed back home. But not before an American Grand Tour. Tōgō left Liverpool on the Lusitania. President Taft hosted him at the White House. Tōgō visited Mount Vernon, laying a wreath at Washington’s tomb. He’d see the Naval Academy in Annapolis; witness drills by Army cadets at West Point. And he would dine at Oyster Bay with former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had presided over the negotiations between the Japanese and the Russians that resulted in the Portsmouth Treaty. For that, Roosevelt had earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.

In his 48-hour, whirlwind tour of Philadelphia, Tōgō visited Independence Hall. He stood before the Liberty Bell and took a long, deep bow at the portrait of George Washington. Tōgō toured the Philadelphia Navy Yard and inspected a new style of “fighting mast” on the battleship Minnesota. He plied the Delaware port in a tugboat, and visited the yards of Camden’s New York Shipbuilding Corporation, which saluted Tōgō with large cannon booming a nineteen-gun salute. Back in Philadelphia, Tōgō visited Baldwin Locomotive Works (which he noted was “well known in our faraway country”). He marveled at the Mint and met the Mayor. But August heat crimped Tōgō stamina, and he passed on a scheduled visit to William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding Company, where the Kasagi, his battleship and original flagship in the Japanese-Russian War, first took to water.

On his final evening in Philadelphia, having dined casually in his fourth-floor suite at the Bellevue-Stratford, Tōgō requested a “motor ride” to escape the city’s stifling humidity. His driver navigated into the cool recesses of Fairmount Park, presumably allowing a glimpse of the ancient Japanese Temple Gate, recently purchased, installed and landscaped at the expense of two Baldwin executives.

In all of his comings and goings, Tōgō hardly had a chance to study the two large electric signs mounted in his honor over the north and south portals of City Hall. But in the quiet of this dark, steamy August night, Tōgō’s car returned down Broad Street. Tōgō read the words aloud “as the car approached the big, electric ‘Welcome to Togo’” sign. “The Admiral instructed the chauffeur to stop and for a few minutes” and “he studied the design carefully. The blending in lights of the American and Japanese flags pleased him, but he was greatly mystified at the significance of the blue and yellow flag.”

Tōgō didn’t recognize that flag. Neither did his aide, nor did his secretary, or the Secret Service agent, or the chauffeur. The entourage hailed a policeman to learn it was “the insignia of Philadelphia.”

The Admiral “seemed amused” and delighted at this “real, official municipal welcome,” the likes of which he had never seen before—and probably wouldn’t again.

[Sources: Jonathan Clements, Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, (Haus Publishing, 2010); Encyclopedia of World Biography; “Togo here next month,” The New York Times, July 16 1911; and the Newspaper collection at the Special Collections Research Center, Paley Library, Temple University, including “Admiral Togo, Japan’s Hero, Arrives Here. Conqueror of Russia’s Fleet is Given Great Ovation,”August 10, 1911; “Togo Leaves City After Day Spent Seeing Its Sights,” August 11, 1911, both in The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

PhillyHistory Turns 10!

Celebrate ten years of at a birthday event Wednesday, October 21, at City Hall!

City Hall Tower-Statue Penn's Head (

City Hall Tower-Statue Penn’s Head (

Back in 2005, the City of Philadelphia Department of Records launched the Photo Archives Website to provide access to historic photographs from the Philadelphia City Archives. A few months afterward, that site became and we launched the Blog to help tell the stories behind the photos. Ten years later, we’re excited to have over 130,000 historic photographs and maps from five organizations available that are viewed and searched by thousands of visitors each month.

We hope you’ll join us for a panel discussion on Wednesday, October 21, at 5pm at City Hall to celebrate ten years of We’ll explore PhillyHistory’s creation and development, lessons learned from ten years of maintaining a digital history project, and plans for future digitization initiatives. Please follow the RSVP directions at the event announcement if you’re interested in attending.

The “Celebrating PhillyHistory’s 10th Birthday” event is part of Archives Month Philly. Visit their website for a full list of events throughout the month of October!

Posted in Events and People | Leave a comment

A Story of Stewardship


“Japanese Pagoda – Fairmount Park,” ca. 1910. (

The 1904 St. Louis’ Louisiana Purchase Exposition was a gigantic affair: nearly twice the size of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and quadruple Philadelphia’s Centennial in 1876.  For Japan, the increasing scale of America’s world’s fairs turned out to be just about the perfect platform to demonstrate its expanded ambitions for the world stage. The Japanese occupied seven acres in St. Louis, more than any other nation outside the United States.

Japan had emerged as the Far East’s imperial nation and its colonial power—“the protector of Chinese territory,” according to historian Carol Christ. (Just a few months before the fair opened, Japan had attacked Russia on Chinese soil and was on its way to a decisive victory, the first time an Asian country defeated a European power.)

Japan also expressed its dominance in the creative realm. As the heir of Asian culture and the “sole guardians of the art inheritance,” Japan positioned itself as keeper of the “museum of Asiatic civilization.” When Russia backed out of their commitment to exhibit in St. Louis, Japan the imperial power and cultural ambassador stepped in with purpose and commandeered the Russian space.

Japan’s exhibition buildings were “built entirely by native carpenters,” in styles perfected hundreds of years earlier, declared one guidebook. Set in landscapes with gardens, hills, waterfalls, lakes and bridges, accented with imported, centuries old, “beautifully trained dwarf trees…drooping wisteria…peony, scented lily and blushing maple”—it all added up to a “harmonized…artistic” whole. For visitors from around the world, Japan curated a one-of a kind experience that sent a powerful message: Asian power had arrived.

And there was more. By the fair’s main entrance, millions were lured onto the Pike, a mile-long, carnival-like collection of attractions open late into the evenings. “The Pike” offered up contortionists, dancing girls and a “Zoological Paradise” complete with an elephant water slide. Visitors went “deep sea” diving, scaled miniature replicas of the Tyrolean Alps, rode burros along constructed cliff dwellings and toured “Blarney Castle.” Especially popular were rides inspired by the biblical version of “Creation” and another ride with the “Hereafter” as its theme. The Pike also staged military reenactments: the Boer War, the Spanish-American War and, the Russo-Japanese War, still in progress.

No concession on the Pike stood out more than Japan’s. Entering through a massive, 150-foot  gateway –a “replica of the famous portal in Nekko, Japan” visitors strolled “a Street of Tokyo,” brought alive by 80 actors in traditional costume. Everything was new, though constructed to appear ancient and venerable, except for one artifact that didn’t need to feign authenticity, a 45-foot tall temple gate that, for the previous three centuries, had graced the Hitachi Provence, about 120 miles northeast of Tokyo.

Japanese Temple Gate, Fairmount Park. Autochrome by Emil Albrecht, ca. 1912.  (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

Japanese Temple Gate, Fairmount Park. Autochrome by Emil Albrecht, ca. 1912. (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

What would become of such a treasure when the crowds returned home? John H. Converse and Samuel Vauclain, who had made their fortunes at Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive Works, imagined the “Nio-Mon, or, Temple Gate” as a picturesque addition to Fairmount Park. They bought it, paid for its transportation, reconstruction and landscaping—completed with tons of boulders worn smooth in the nearby Darby Creek. Converse and Vauclain, with additional help from John T. Morris, transformed the grove between Memorial Hall and Horticultural Hall into a picturesque and peaceful destination.

But peaceful in a big city park can be vulnerable. From the start, the City and the Fairmount Park Art Association (where Converse and Morris served on the board) took protective measures.  Artifacts exhibited inside the temple gate’s second-story chamber were transferred to Memorial Hall and later to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (One still survives in the Asian Art gallery.) But without fences or a guard, Philadelphia’s new, hidden treasure became an easy target.

Architect Albert Kelsey had seen it coming: “I deplore the possibility of this beautiful temple becoming merely another scattered unit in a poorly planned park that has not, in many instances, been laid out to heighten the effect of the many valuable works of art it possesses.” Morris called for the installation of “wire guards” to prevent “acts of barbaric young American(s), who take pleasure in stoning these fine specimens of Japanese wood carvings.”

“If the building is not protected it will soon go to decay,” Morris fretted. “If visitors are permitted to do as they want in the interior it will soon be a disgrace…” Cycles of vandalism and repair followed one another from installation in 1906 into the 1930s, when, as part of the Works Progress Administration, the temple gate got a facelift. But to no avail. Within a few more years, Park Commissioner John B. Kelly was ready to throw up his hands. Kelly suggested the gate might just have to be “torn down.”

On the eve of the temple gate’s golden anniversary in Philadelphia, in May, 1955, the City installed scaffolding to carry out another cosmetic overhaul. But before the project got underway, the temple gate burned to the ground. The culprit, according to the Philadelphia Fire Department, wasn’t vandalism, but the “carelessly discarded cigarette” from the repair crew.

Who mourned the temple gate? Who had time to? Two years after the fire, Shofuso, another cultural treasure from Japan, found its way to Fairmount Park.

[Sources include: Christ, Carol. “The Sole Guardians of the Art Inheritance of Asia: Japan and China at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 8:3 (2000): 675-709; Historical Narrative of Shofuso. (.pdf); 1904: The World’s Fair. Missouri Historical Society; At The Fair: The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The Pike; Hoshi, Hajime, Handbook of Japan and Japanese exhibits at World’s fair, St. Louis, 1904; Tsen, Hsuan, Spectacles of Authenticity: The Emergence of Transnational Entertainments in Japan and America, 1880-1906. (Stanford University, 2011).]

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pope John Paul II Visits Philadelphia

Just about everyone knows that Pope Francis is scheduled to visit our area this weekend on Saturday September 26th- Sunday September 27th. Security will be tight, bridges will be closed, as will major highways and public transportation via SEPTA will be severely limited as well. Though it will be a major inconvenience for many Philadelphians who live and/or work in the affected area, it is expected to bring in millions of visitors to the city. This isn’t the first time that a Pope has visited us, though. Back in 1979, Pope John Paul II came here right after he was inaugurated.

This was a much quicker visit than what is being planned for Pope Francis next month, though. He arrived mid-day on October 3, 1979 and left at 11 AM the next morning for Des Moines, IA. During the time that he was here, he visited two churches and led a mass at the old Civic Center site and the day before, he led a large mass that attracted 1.5 to 2 million visitors at Logan Circle.




Posted in Events and People, Snapshots of History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Philadelphia Rowhouse: American Dream Revisited

The American Dream? Data collected last year, and presented in the chart below from The Washington Post’s WongBlog, identifies a decisive answer: the single, detached house. It’s the way Americans live in half of the nation’s 40 largest cities—with two prominent exceptions. The majority of New Yorkers live in buildings with 20 or more units. And in Philadelphia, about 60% live in “single attached residences,” or what we know as rowhouses. Keeping in mind that New York is always the outlier, we ask: is Philadelphia’s habit of rowhouse living an un-American dream?

The most popular type of home in major American cities, charted (Washington Post)

The most popular type of home in major American cities, charted (Washington Post)

Earlier, we explored the evolution of the Philadelphia rowhouse, which culminated in the two-story “Workingmen’s House,” a machine for living that lined miles of streets and set off a frenzy of envy at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Then, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia walked us through the centuries-long evolution of our rowhouse genre. Now, with up-to-date housing typology data, we can see just how aberrant Philadelphia may have been, and apparently still is today. Thing is, the Philadelphia rowhouse wasn’t presented as an aberration during a massive period of growth at the end of the 19th century. Quite the opposite. Talcott Williams, and others, pitched it as nothing less than a manifestation of the American Dream. In an essay from 1893: “Philadelphia—A City of Homes” published in St. Nicholas, an Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, Williams explained:

“There are in Philadelphia about 500 [Building Associations] and 500 more in the state of Pennsylvania. The entire 1000, in 1889, were paying out $33,000,000 to be used in buying houses; and of this about $22,000,000 was being paid in Philadelphia. From 1849 to 1876, these associations bought 30,000 houses at a cost of $72,000,000. Since then, the associations have lent money to about 50,000 persons who were buying houses. In the last sixty years, about 80,000 houses have been bought this way. The average price of a house began at about $1000; it rose to $2000; and now most of the houses bought by men who work cost from $2500 to $3500.

“What kind of houses are they? There is a sample one which has been put up at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago. When you go there, you must look at it. There is nothing more wonderful in all that marvelous Exposition than this proof that the laws, the habits, and the businesses of a city of one million people can be so arranged that even the day-laborer earning only $8 or $10 a week can own the roof over his head and call no man landlord.”

Southwest corner - 24th and Kimball Streets, May 11, 1916. (

Southwest corner – 24th and Kimball Streets, May 11, 1916. (

Williams goes on: “The result of all this is that Philadelphia is not a city of palaces for the few, but a city of homes for the many—which is better. It is not magnificent, but it is comfortable. In 1890, its 1,046,964 inhabitants were living in 187,052 dwellings. This means that with only two-thirds as many people, it had twice as many houses as New York. With just as many people as Chicago, it had half more houses. Of the 200,000 families in Philadelphia, seven out of eight had separate houses, and three-quarters of its families, or 150,000, owned the houses they lived in.  …  The number of families owning the house in which they live is from four to six times greater in Philadelphia than in any other great cities of the world. You cannot know, until years and life have taught you more than any boy or girl should know of this hard and bitter world, how much of comfort, peace, and happiness is summed up in that statement. It means room and air and health. It means that each family can have its own bath-tub, its own yard, its own staircase, and its own door step. These are simple daily blessings for most of us; but for tens and hundreds of thousands in all large cities, they are absent. …”

1014-1018 South 24th Street. Row Homes  (

1014-1018 South 24th Street. Row Homes (

“Street after street of small two-story brick houses looks rather mean and dingy,” admitted Williams. But “if the great mass of voters are men owning small houses and living in a small way, then all the work of the city will be done in a small way, too.”

“But it is better to spread a carpet on a poor man’s floor than spread an asphalt pavement under the carriage wheels of the rich. It is better to have bath-rooms by the ten thousand in small homes, than to have brilliant fountains playing in beautiful squares.” …

The rowhouse, concluded Williams— 150,000 of them—“owned by the families which live in them, are such a triumph of right living in a great city, as the world never saw before, and can see nowhere else but in Philadelphia, a city of homes.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Philadelphia Architects on Fire(houses)


Fire Engine Company No. 47. 3035-37 Grays Ferry Avenue. Charles E. Oelschlager, architect, ca. 1899. (

As the city heated up, pushing outward in all directions, so did its fire department. As we’ve seen in more than one post, architect John Windrim stepped in and supplied an array of new and eclectic designs for the expanded municipal footprint, making up for lost time. Director of Public Works Windrim had a natural advantage getting commissions, but there was more work, and a broader appetite for design diversity, than any one office could handle. Projects went to bid, many other architects and contractors responded. What resulted might be called Philadelphia’s Fin-de-siècle Firehouse Boom.

This post introduces a six-pack of additional architects and handful of their firehouses, as well as a spattering of their kin, police stations. In all, the city put an estimated 50 or so fire houses and police stations on the streets between 1890 and the 1910, a prodigious display of design finesse.

Have we ever heard of such a demonstration in municipal architecture? We have, in a way. On NPR a few years back, Susan Stamberg presented the case of Columbus, Indiana. In the mid-20th century, Columbus commissioned more than 60 buildings “by a veritable who’s who of modern masters” including I.M. Pei, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, and Philadelphia’s Robert Venturi (who, in 1967, created Fire Station No. 4).

The Philadelphia’s six are not big names, but the civic design frenzy that took place at the turn of the 20th century, long before Indiana’s, occurred at the intersection of demand and indigenous talent. Where Columbus lured starchitects from far and wide and funded their arrival with philanthropy, Philadelphia’s homegrown creative burst took place in its own space, on its own time—on its own terms.

Firehouse, 1322 West Cambria Street. (Google)

Firehouse (Engine 50; Latter 12) 1325 West Cambria Street. Charles E. Oeschlager, architect, 1900. (Google)

So who’s rushing out for a Philadelphia firehouse tour? Unfortunately, much of this work got lost in the shuffle over the last century. In truth, we barely even know the extent of what once was. A few private efforts at compilation hope to fill the yawning information gap. (See Mike Legeros’s List of Historic and Former Philadelphia Firehouses.) You can’t just dip a toe in the complicated and (early on) violent history of the Philly firefighting, certainly not in a few blog posts. It’s a steep, slippery and, so far, largely silent slope. But who and what you’d encounter makes it a ride well worth the price of admission.

Here are a few of the architects and buildings you’d see along the way:

Charles E. Oelschlager’s listed projects include churches, theatres (both moving picture and vaudeville) and even early gas stations. His “new three story fire house…at 31st and Grays Ferry Road,” from 1899 (illustrated here) didn’t survive. What did is still in use: his three-bay-wide firehouse from 1900 on Cambria east of Broad (also illustrated). Behind its terra cotta, red brick façade, beneath its green, slate-covered mansard roof were nine horse stalls, sleeping quarters, four sliding poles and all the latest “appliances…electric bells and buzzers.”

Joseph M. Huston (1866-1940) generated more impressive projects, like the Pennsylvania State Capitol, but that job proved to be a show stopper. Scandal and conviction led to a residency at Eastern State Penitentiary. Before all that, in 1899 and 1900, Huston designed several firehouses that have yet to be documented and none of which survive.  In addition, his stationhouse for the Sixth Police District at 11th and Winter Streets was a lovely, long gone, Georgian Revival design.

Engine Company #13, 1529-39 Parrish Street. Phillip H. Johnson, architect. Photographed by Vince Feldman in 2001.

Engine Company #13, 1529-39 Parrish Street. Phillip H. Johnson, architect, 1901. Photographed by Vincent D. Feldman in 2001.

E. V. Seeler (1867-1929) is known for 65 projects including Curtis Publishing Company on Washington Square, the nearby Penn Mutual Life Insurance Building and the Philadelphia Bulletin Building on Filbert Street, once just to the northeast of City Hall. His breakthrough took place with the First Baptist Church in 1901, at the corner of 17th and Sansom Streets. It’s not far from the extant fire house at 1528- 1530 Sansom, which he completed two years before that.

Hazelhurst & Huckel – Way back in the early 1880s  Edward P. Hazlehurst and William Samuel Huckel, Jr. started a long and prolific partnership generating 326 projects. Their combination police station, patrol station and fire house stood at the northwest corner of Seventh and Carpenter Streets until it was demolished in 1962.

W. Bleddyn Powell’s (1854-1910) projects include the completion of City Hall. His combined fire/patrol houses including one at 4th and Snyder, now long gone. He also turned out a police station at 19th and Oxford that later served as the first Opportunities Industrialization Center.

Phillip H. Johnson (1868-1933) is not to be confused with another architect: Philip Johnson. The Philadelphian was more notorious than famous. Through some skill and sheer connectedness he landed a lifetime contract with the City Health Department that earned his office more than $2 million in fees over three decades. Johnson’s projects include the Philadelphia General Hospital, Philadelphia Hospital for Contagious Diseases and buildings at the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases aka Byberry. He also designed City Hall Annex.  Johnson cut his teeth on several firehouse projects: at 1016-1018 South Street, 50th and Baltimore Avenue, 1529-39 Parrish Street (illustrated here from Vince Feldman’s aptly named book, City Abandoned) and 2936-38 Ridge Avenue. All of these survive except the last, which was demolished in 1994.

No, we’re not quite ready yet for the Philadelphia’s Fin-de-siècle Firehouse Boom tour. Heck, we’re not even sure what we have—or if we really even want to keep it. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

John Windrim and the Eclectic Engine House Boom

Fire House #2, Southwest Corner Warnock and Berks Streets.March 23,1931. (

Fire House #2, Southwest Corner Warnock and Berks Streets.
March 23,1931. (

The newspaper headline confirmed what everyone already suspected. Philadelphia’s “Boom in Building” of 1889 had more structures going up than during any other year in the entire history of the city. On the streets, that translated into the city pushing noisily in every possible direction. On the books, that meant 70 new factories, 65 additional shops and foundries, 65 stores, 30 warehouses, five freight stations, three market houses, and as many hospitals. The spires of 18 new churches reached heavenward between the factories, punctuating more than eleven miles of new brick rowhouses. In North Philadelphia alone, just west of Broad Street, more than 1,800 homes extended the city’s grid monotonously to the north. Five hundred eighty new houses pushed the city to the south. And in West Philadelphia, developers obtained building permits for no less than 1,500 additional houses.

Everyone expected 1890 to be an “even more prosperous” year. After all, open land in the vicinity of 29th and Susquehanna that had been selling for $1,000 per acre. Now it fetched up to $30,000. “Everything points to success” claimed an optimistic developer, “if we build 10,000 houses a year we are only supplying the demand of our growing population.”

Thing is, the city’s own role in the phenomenal growth of 1889 was seriously stunted. Only one fire station and three patrol houses were built that year. Politicians scrambled to close the gap. Dancing in their heads were visions of something new, not the same old kinds of firehouses and police stations, those had been outgrown in so many ways. Here was the chance to fix the problem while crafting a newer image for the expanding metropolis. And who could disagree with more and better services based in newer, more and better facilities?

In May of 1890 the first one opened. “A Model Station House, the first combination fire engine house, police station and patrol house in the country,” proclaimed officials gathered at 20th and Long Lane (now Point Breeze Avenue). Mayor Edwin Fitler addressed the crowd at the ribbon cutting as Councilman Edwin S. Stuart stood proudly by. Director of the Department of Public Safety William S. Stokley praised the new, “elegant” 3-story, “Roman” design as “the ideal station house of the city” regretting only that “it was not in a more central position, as nobody but people from the Neck” might see it for inspiration. Officials believed this building, which cost the hefty sum of $58,000, was nothing less than “the finest station house in the country.”

Engine # 45, 26th and York Streets, 1908. (

Engine Company  #45, Northeast corner, 26th and York Streets, 1908. (

The election of Edwin S. Stuart to the mayor’s office in 1891 allowed him to extend his construction campaign citywide. As the Bureau of City Property looked ahead, they allocated more than half of their next annual budget for “new stations and new engine houses” specifically earmarking $25,000 for a new station house at Twentieth and Berks Streets. Many more were on the way.

To carry out Stuart’s vision in style, he brought in architect James H. Windrim as Director of Public Works. But Windrim had too much work from other clients and turned his partner and son, John T. Windrim, loose on the fresh streets of the city. Over the next several years, the younger Windrim expanded the city’s footprint in a string of gem-like fire stations. By 1913 the list had grown quite long.

More than a century later, a few remain in various stages of threat and preservation. Others have been lost to time. Below, Windrim’s extant buildings are presented in bold; each is linked to contemporary street views. Two of the major causalities in North Philadelphia, Engine Companies # 2 and #45, are illustrated with the only things that remain: rare archival images from the City Archives.

1892 – Engine Company #42, Front and Westmoreland Streets.

1893 – Engine Company #2, Berks and Warnock Streets.

1894 – Engine Company #43, 21st Street near Market Street.

1894 – Engine Company # 45, 26th and York Streets.

1894 – Engine Company #46, Reed and Water Streets.

1894 – Engine Company #37, West Highland Avenue and Shawnee Street (Chestnut Hill)

1895 – Engine Company # 16, Belmont Avenue near Wyalusing Avenue (Mill Creek)

1895 – Engine Company #29 , 1225 North 4th Street near West Girard Avenue.

[Sources in the Philadelphia Inquirer include: “The Boom in Building. More Structures Erected in 1889 than during Any Previous Year,” November 9, 1889; “A  Model Station House. Opening of the New Seventeenth District Fire, Police and Patrol Station,” May 13, 1890; “A New Style of Station Houses.”  (Front and Westmoreland), September 29, 1892; “A New Police and Fire Station,” (Chestnut Hill), October 4, 1894; “A New Engine House. Fourth Street above Girard Avenue, February 28, 1895; “New Fire Station. It Will be Opened for Use in a Few Days,” March 7, 1895; “New Fire House: West Philadelphia Boys Will Occupy It To-Morrow,” June 21, 1896.]

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Firehouses Acting Out: An Exuberant, Stylistic Storm in the 1890s

Engine House #29 - Truck "G", Chemical Engine #2 N 04th St and W Girard Ave. 11-17-1896 (

Engine House #29 – Truck “G”, Chemical Engine #2
North 4th Street and West Girard Avenue, November 17, 1896 (

“The most intriguing element” on the façade of Engine #29 on 4th Street near Girard,” Inga Saffron wonders, is “the vaguely Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs embedded between the handsome truck doors and the German-style pattern in the ribbon of flowery tiles just below the cornice. Why those motifs?”

Yes, we agree: What the hex?

Might this be “an attempt to reflect the heritage of the German immigrants who worked in the neighborhood’s breweries and mills,” Saffron pondered. Or “was it just the fancy of the architect?”

Fancy indeed.

Philadelphia firehouses took off in an exuberant stylistic storm in the 1890s, and John T. Windrim, the likely designer of Engine #29, was the creative at its center. We can see the broad eclecticism on 4th Street; it’s one of the factors that led to the building’s listing by the Philadelphia Historical Commission in 1989. We see something similar at Windrim’s Engine #37, on Highland Avenue in Chestnut Hill, completed about the same time. (The Commission recently added that structure, “the oldest active fire hall in the city” to their list, reported Newsworks.) Two happy survivors, but many more gems by Windrim got lost along the way.

Back to our original question: What the Hex? How, in the 1890s, did firehouses become places for expressions of opulence, eclecticism, and outright design rowdyism? Not only did Windrim draw from the German vernacular, he dipped into all kinds of historical and contemporary design sources that added up to a wild ride in architectural design. More than “Richardsonian Romanesque,” the firehouse on 4th Street takes strides toward the even wilder, contemporary work by Frank Furness which Michael Lewis refers to with an apt and revealing subtitle: “Architecture and the Violent Mind.”

What was it about firehouses at the end of the century that made them so susceptible to architectural expression? Did the culture of rowdyism, which played out so vividly in firefighting’s earlier years, somehow become channeled into its architecture? Or, as Rebecca Zurier suggests in The American Firehouse, could it be that there was “no prevailing ‘proper’ style for a fire station, [so] architects tried nearly all of them.” In firehouses, she wrote, they executed designs “considered too outlandish for another type of building.” Zurier, who conducted her own Grand Tour of American firehouses concluded: “no one ever complained about a fire station being undignified.”

In recent times, observed historian John Maass, “municipal officials generally want inconspicuous fire stations lest they be accused of wasting taxpayers’ money.” But in the 1890s, “political bosses used to glory in building the showiest firehouses.”

“Opulent fire stations,” said Zurier, “constituted political as well as architectural statements. Responsibility for commissioning a particularly extravagant fire station” was often “traced directly to the wishes of the mayor.”

Purposeful extravagance resulted in “a wondrous variety of architectural styles,” wrote Maass, from “Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Richardsonian Romanesque” to “French Chateauesque, Castellated, Half-timbered Tudor, Prairie Style, Spanish Colonial, Pueblo Adobe, Art Deco, Ugly & Ordinary Venturian.” The American firehouse had become, and would remain, a genre all its own.


Detail: Engine House #29 – Truck “G”, Chemical Engine #2. North 4th Street and West Girard Avenue, November 17, 1896 (

Fire House #2 - Southwest Corner Warnock and Berks Streets.  March 23, 1931. (PhillyHistory,org)

Detail: Fire House #2 – Southwest Corner, Warnock and Berks Streets. March 23, 1931. (PhillyHistory,org)

“Up-Town Firemen Move to Better and More Modern Quarters,” reported the Inquirer on February 28, 1895. Contractor Frederick J. Amweg had turned Engine #29, his project in “terra cotta and Pompeian brick,” costing $39,611, over to the City Department of Public Safety. Philadelphia had added yet one more creative interpretation in the firehouse genre to its ever-more exuberant, ever-growing collection.

But do we really know that Windrim came up with this particular design? The hex sign offers a possible confirming hint. The very same feature also appears in another, documented example of Windrim’s work: Fire House #2, which opened in 1894 at the southwest corner Warnock and Berks Streets. That building had a similar hex pattern, applied in a similar way, as does the Engine #29 on 4th Street.

Except that Windrim building is long gone, its site now occupied by Temple University’s mammoth Montgomery Avenue Parking Garage.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments closed
  • Categories

  • Archives