John Avena and South Philadelphia’s “Bloody Angle”

Demolition of Old Fire & Police Station, 7th and Carpenter Streets. October 19, 1962. Replaced by the Charles Santore Branch of the Free Library. (

As he liked to tell it, John Avena had friends at 7th and Carpenter Streets. Thing was, Avena, aka “Nozzone,” aka “Big Nose John,” was a Sicilian-born gangster who’d eventually head up the Philadelphia mob. And if he didn’t have friends exactly, Avena had allies at the old 33rd District police station.

Avena’s interests would come to include dope dealing, extortion, numbers and eventually two high-stakes gambling houses at 11th and Christian and 9th and Washington. The $100 counterfeit notes he passed were good enough to impress bankers, and even the Secret Service.

When federal agents set out to arrest Avena in June of 1922, the gangster bragged he got tipped off by a policeman from 7th and Carpenter. The officer told him to “beat it” and Avena went off to New York.

When they caught up with Avena and arrested him, the bail was set at $10,000. It wouldn’t be the last time. There was a lot going on in the 1920s in the vicinity of “Dope Row” (the 800 block of Christian Street) and nearby. And cornering prohibition, gambling, and the protection rackets would grow fierce as Avena made his way to become the biggest numbers man in South Philadelphia.

A decade-long war would claim as many as twenty five lives in the neighborhood surrounding the police station. The area would earn the nickname the “Bloody Angle” (the same as the most fatal places on the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg and Spotsylvania). And along this stretch of Passyunk from Christian Street to Washington Avenue, Avena himself would survive several assassination attempts in the 1920s.

According to this Bulletin clipping of August 17, 1936 from Temple University’s Urban Archives:

The first time came early in 1926, when police had marked him as a bootlegger. They missed that time, missed altogether. Then it was July 29, a few months later. Avena was running a cigar store at 12th and Webster streets. It was night. Outside the store “Big Nose” heard a persistent whistling, a peculiar whistle, short and sharp, as though someone were calling. He went out. He met a burst of fire, and three shots ploughed into his back as he turned around to see where the whistling visitor was. An innocent woman bystander was wounded that night.

The word went out that they had “Big Nose” at last. Three shots. The boys shook their heads. But he made the grade, and then came March 10, 1927. He was in a restaurant on 8th street near Catharine. It was night again. He stepped out and two men, lurking in the shadows, sent twin streaks of fire across the pavement. They missed. A bootleggers’ feud.

“South Philadelphia’s Public Enemy No. 1″ would become famous for denying death. “He’d been news for years. Always, they said: ‘Well, Big Nose beat ‘m again. He’s going to live.’”

“And always, when he was shot, or shot at, or whenever he was on the police records, the cops used to ask him: “Come on Nosey, who did it? And what did “Nosey” always say?”

“I like to settle these things myself.”


The story continues…Zanghi’s Revenge: A Pivotal Mobster Moment

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Walking West Philly with Joe Washington (Part 1)

Joe Washington in front of Hawthorne Hall, 38th and Spring Garden. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

“West Philly hasn’t lost its soul. It’s still a melting pot. It’s had its share of ups and downs. New people from all over are bringing a new vitality to it.”

Joe Washington and I met for lunch at the Hamilton Restaurant on the last day of winter.  It’s a narrow, old-fashioned diner at 40th and Market with formica counters, brown-stained paneling, and cracked vinyl stools.  A neighborhood fixture for decades, it is run by Asian immigrants.  The Market Street subway rumbles underneath.

Construction work on the Market Street subway at 40th and Market, November 26, 1950. Note the diners and the old-fashioned movie theater.

Joe Washington has worked as the bartender of the Orpheus Club since the late 1970s.  He has also tended bar at a University of Pennsylvania fraternity, and as a young man worked in construction. He and his wife now life at 61st and Arch, a few blocks north of the Market Street El.

I asked if he could tell me the story of his life in West Philly.

Like many African-Americans in the city, his grandparents moved to the city from the rural South during the early twentieth century.   Joe’s maternal grandmother Myrtle Tucker came from from Lynchburg in Southside Virginia.  She purchased a few Victorian homes on the 4100 block of Parkside Avenue, which she ran as rooming houses for single men.  Her daughter Marion helped with the cooking and the cleaning.  Myrtle also made some extra cash running a basement speakeasy. In the 1950s, she sold her rooming houses and returned to the “Possum Hollow” farm she had purchased back in Virginia.

41st and Parkside Avenue, looking east. April 29, 1952.

Marion stayed in Philadelphia, where she worked as a seamstress and cook.  She married ironworker George Washington — yes, Joe said kids teased his dad a lot about his name  – whose family had come from Macon, Georgia. George Washington made good money with Delaney Construction, but suffered from vertigo as he grew older.  So did many other ironworkers.  Joe thinks his dad may have gotten sick from the construction site fumes.   George then took a job at ground-level as a steamroller driver.  On one school trip to the Philadelphia Airport, young Joe — born in 1956 at the Presbyterian Hospital — recalled proudly pointing out his old man to his classmates, driving his steamroller along the freshly-paved tarmac.

A family stands outside of their home at 632 Hutton Street, not far from the 700 block of Brooklyn Street. July 30, 1960.

The Washingtons moved to a house at 736 Brooklyn Street, just south of Lancaster Avenue.  In the 1950s and 60s, there were scores of factories nearby that employed entire neighborhoods: Bond Bakery (bread), Fels-Naptha (soap), and the garment center at 57th and Chestnut.  Eateries such as the Hamilton Restaurant served hot meals to workers at the beginning and end of their shifts.  Yet as the 1960s continued, the factories either closed down or moved to where the labor was cheaper and taxes lower.

After we finished our cheeseburgers at Hamilton, Joe and I then walked north up 40th Street into Powelton, towards his childhood home on Brooklyn Street.  The neighborhood is a maze of small streets and trapezoidal lots.  Some houses are worn and grungy, missing porches, stoops, and mansard roofs.  A few are still abandoned, their windows and doors boarded up with moldy plywood.  Most of the homes however have been renovated recently, with crisply painted doors and repointed brickwork.  New residences are popping up in the once-weedy gaps.  The naked steel frame of a new addition to Penn Presbyterian Hospital looms above the rooftops.

Joe remembers how he played on these stoops with other children. “It was fun and vibrant,” he recalled. “People cared and watched each others kids.”  I ask him about the high rise housing projects, bordered by Lee Park several blocks to the west.  ”I prefer living in a house,” he said. “Sometimes the elevator in one of those towers wouldn’t work.  As a kid, I carried bags up 18 floors to help out this one lady.”

The Homeowners Loan Corporation map of Philadelphia, 1936. Note how most of the neighborhoods in West Philadelphia north of Market Street have been “redlined.” The full effects of this policy would not be fully realized until after World War II. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In the 1960s, this part of West Philadelphia was changing from an ethnic white area (German, Irish, and Jewish) to predominately African-American.  The city’s banks, working hand-in-glove with federal Homeowners Loan Corporation, had declared most of the housing stock north of Market Street to be “hazardous.”  This policy, known as “redlining,” meant that getting a mortgage or homeowners’ insurance was either impossible or exorbitant.  The result was “white flight” to tract-home suburbs such as Levittown.  In addition, the city was seizing large tracts of land for urban renewal by eminent domain.  One of the biggest redevelopment projects in Philadelphia was centered at 36th and Market, the heart of the so-called “Black Bottom” neighborhood.  And the city’s population was declining, falling from a peak of over 2 million in 1950 to 1.8 million by 1970.  According to Joe, it was not just white people leaving town.  Many African-American residents moved back down south or died off, leaving behind vacant houses that no one seemed to want.

Joe’s parents separated in the late 1960s. Marion Washington opened a grocery store at 42nd and Aspen. She rented  the space for “Miss Marion’s Store” from the Johnson family, who owned a supermarket just up Lancaster Avenue.  She made enough money to put her son Joe through St. Ignatius Catholic Elementary School. On Fridays and Saturdays, teenage Joe served up platters of BBQ ribs, chicken, cabbage, and string beans, which were a hit with the Powelton residents.  ”We made $1,000 one day selling platters!” Joe said proudly.

801 N. 42nd Street, at Aspen Street. Miss Marion’s Store was located at this intersection in Mantua. March 24, 1961.

Yet he also remembered that the Johnsons were jealous of his mother’s success. A fire ripped through the store in the early 70s, soon after the landlords had installed newfangled aluminum wiring in the building. Joe’s mother opted not to rebuild.

We then walked north towards Lancaster Avenue and the hulking, curved brick facade of Hawthorne Hall.  Zara’s Bar and “Mighty Writers” occupy the first floor.  The upper stories, which include apartments and an auditorium, are partially abandoned.

“This building is in the Gray Area,” a sign hanging above the main entrance declares. “Gray Area is an experiment and public dialogue to encourage new ways of thinking about old buildings in Philadelphia and beyond. ”

“Oh, there were some great parties there back in the day!” Joe said.

Hawthorne Hall, 38th and Hamilton, c.1965.





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A century of Philadelphia parties

Get on the Party Car — we’re touring the city’s history of celebrations.

By Brady Dale.

With Spring set to usher in the city’s inexhaustible festival season, we can’t help but dream about gathering with friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Big parties are an anchor of any city and Philadelphia has a long, proud history of them. From the dozens of legendary Fourth of July’s to the annual Mummers Day Parade, parties are a local tradition. Here’s some parties of all shapes and sizes you can see documents of in the photo archives here on Philly History.


Founder's Day 1908, S. Broad St, Philadelphia, PA

Founders Day Celebration, Broad and Spruce, 1908.

The Founders Day Celebration in 1908 celebrated 225 years of Philadelphia as a city. From an earlier post on this site about that specific celebration.

Historical Day on Friday, October 9, featured a large historical pageant held on Broad Street. The pageant was divided into nine divisions with multiple floats illustrating the historic events that occurred in each division. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, a local historian and one of the pageant’s organizers, felt that the event should provide a historical and civic education to Philadelphians, rather than simply serving as another form of entertainment.


Clean Up Week Parade, Philadelphia, 1914

Broom Army marches south of City Hall, 1914.

The Clean Up Week Parade. Let’s bring it back? Here’s another great photo of this ensemble.


Hundreds of people gather in 1927 at the city’s market house, at 2nd and Pine.

A party at the New Market House, at 2nd and Pine, which was established in 1745.  There had already been a market attached to the court house at 2nd and Market, a bit to the north.

That first court house went up in 1707. According to Market Street, Philadelphia by Joseph Jackson (1918, a free ebook on Google Play). The court house got a market added to it in 1710.  The court house was the site for local elections and, notably, proclamations:

In all the pictures of the old Court House there is seen a little balcony projecting from the second story. … from the same balcony, in provincial days it was customary to read all proclamations. It was from this place that the citizens of Philadelphia in 1714 heard proclaimed that George I was their new king.

The court house was demolished in 1837, according to Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. You can see a drawing of the original court house in this History of Philadelphia.


Opening of the Philadelphia airport in 1938, marked with a model airplane show.

The opening of the airport gave the city something to celebrate. The marked the event exactly as we would today. By bringing out guys who build model airplanes to demonstrate their hobby for a cheering crowd.


United Service Organization Party, 1942. Historic Photo

New Year’s Eve formal dance at the Benedict Club, U.S.O.-N.C.C.S., 157 North 15th Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Photographed by Edward Hagan. The Benedict Club was apparently a space designated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for social affairs during war time, based on this record.


1951, the Curtis Institute’s Christmastime Costume Party.

The Curtis Institute’s Holiday Party goes back all the way to 1926. Here’s a photo of a costume party, in the tradition, from 1951.


Luncheon Party of Italian Mayors, 17th and Locust, 1962

This photo might seem a little sedate for the 1960s, but it is worth marking the fact that a group of Italian Mayors came to Philadelphia. Not so long ago, our Mayor Nutter joined a delegation of city leaders to go to Florence, after all.


July 4th parade, 1977

To make sure that July 4th, 1977, was really a party, Mayor Frank Rizzo got Frank Sinatra to come back to town and receive the Freedom Medal.


1987′s Africamericas Festival took place in North Philadelphia.

North Philadelphia’s Africamericas Festival included a wide array of avant garde and traditional arts, and culturally spanned from America to Africa to the Caribbean. More from

“When the City Representative’s office told me that they wanted to do the festival in North Philadelphia, I viewed it as a chance to do something positive for the area,” said coordinator Kofi Asante, a performing artist who has worked with such cultural organizations as the Arthur Hall Afro American Dance Ensemble, the Avante Theatre Company and the Black Theater Festival.

Also in the 80s, John Travolta marked the occasion of completing Blow Out with Brian DePalma.


West Oak Lane Neighborhood Festival, 1997.

Mayor Rendell greets future voters. In 1997, ten neighborhoods held festivals around July 4th to welcome America. West Oak Lane’s included a gospelrama, as well as the usual festival atmosphere.

Do you have photos from parties in years gone by? Upload them somewhere and let us know how to find them.


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“City Abandoned” may be the title, but Vince Feldman is no fence-hopping hipster

Germantown Hall, 5928-5930 Germantown Avenue. (Vincent Feldman, Photographer, 1997)

Germantown Town Hall – Germantown Avenue and Haines Street. October 4, 1938. (

Over the years, Vincent Feldman has lovingly made 100+ photographs of Philadelphia at its worst. When he asked me to write about them for his book, City Abandoned, I agreed—happily. And the result, officially published yesterday by Paul Dry Books, is quite beautiful.

It’s interesting to compare what Vince photographed, alongside what’s here at The two occasionally overlap, and here’s a selection of pairs that help us get at photographic intent. It’s also interesting—necessary, I think—to consider Vince’s point of view, and the greater tradition of imagemaking in which his work resides.

What follows is an adapted excerpt from my essay in City Abandoned, where I discuss how Vince’s work may appear to be part of the new and popular tradition in urban photography that has come to be known as “ruin porn”—but is something very different.


In City Abandoned, Vincent Feldman asks us to step back from the Philadelphia we know—its color, its sounds and smells—and travel with him through a parallel world of rich tones, extraordinary compositions and grit-infused definition. Then he asks us to explore the city’s past and its present on his terms.

Feldman never asks us to leave Philadelphia behind. To the contrary, his often beautiful and compelling images move us to a deeper feeling and understanding of the city, even as they pose important questions about our stewardship and the city’s future. It’s the story of a city on the edge, and we’re glad to be along for this freeze-frame journey of photographic brinksmanship.

Ridge Avenue Farmers’ Market, 1810-1818 Ridge Avenue. Demolished, 1997 (Vincent Feldman, Photographer, 1995)

Farmer’s Market – Ridge Avenue at 18th Street, 1968 (

City Abandoned celebrates dignity in the battered forms of sites and institutions. It acknowledges flaws and accumulated fragments in older signage (or in newer graffiti) in equal measure. Feldman works with irony but doesn’t let irony cloud his approach; he’s got much more to see and to express. In Feldman’s compositions, symmetry becomes a strategy for taming reality, a measure of control over chaos. Deep inside the images, however, in detail far more revealing than observation on the street allows, we see evidence of disturbing disorder. These devices of composition and content are reminiscent of the works of Piranesi, or Escher. They are also reminiscent of the contemporary urban trend called “ruin porn.”

What, exactly, is the genre of ruin porn and how does it relate to Feldman’s City Abandoned?

After decades of decline, de-industrialization, population shrinkage, and neglect, the urban landscape has taken on a familiar patina typical in many American cities. In the 1980s, long before the idea of ruin porn emerged, Camilo J. Vegara and others photographed decline as sociologists and documentarians. Only in July 2009 did Thomas Morton dub the genre “ruin porn” in a blog post: Something, Something, Something, Detroit: Lazy Journalists Love Pictures of Abandoned Stuff. Then, thanks to the power of the internet and NPR’s On The Media, we suddenly found ourselves with a swirling new genre of urban imagery.

Ile Ife Museum, (formerly the Northern National Bank), 2300 Germantown Avenue, Ray Gouldey, September 1984. (PhillyHistory,org)

Ile Ife Museum of Afro-American Culture, Germantown Ave. and Dauphin St. Demolished, 1997. (Vincent Feldman, Photographer, 1994)

“Ruin porn,” explained Peggy Nelson at Hilobrow in 2010, “seeks the poignancy of abandonment, the presence and poetry of absence. It seeks the resonant sadness seeping from recent walls and lightly collapsed roofs, the unmet expectation of empty sidewalks broken through with weeds…” Those who embrace what’s called ruin porn “come for abandonment,” writes Nelson, “they do not come for the abandoned.”

And that takes us to Detroit, perhaps America’s most popular destination for abandonment. In 2011, John Patrick Leary defined “Detroitism” as an “exuberant connoisseurship of dereliction,” an “unembarrassed rejoicing at the ‘excitement’” that every public building, every “windowless station has become a melancholy symbol of the city’s transformation in death.” The images and their audiences confirm the collective response: “The city is a shell.” An interesting shell to explore, a compelling one to photograph, but a shell nonetheless.

The ruin porn movement is not really about photography. It’s not about history and it’s certainly not about the future. These photographs may be well crafted, but “what counts, even more than the quality of the image” wrote bfp at the Feministe blog in 2011, “is dramatic presentation and, like the better-known form of pornography, ‘the nakedness of the subject.’”

Ruin pornographers tend to be voyeuristic, which Feldman is not. They are not particularly concerned with quality, which Feldman is. His dedication to composition, to scale and detail, his choice of black and white, his commitment to large format photography, aligns more closely with the 19th-century landscapes of Timothy O’Sullivan, Carlton Watkins or the cityscapes of John Moran, than the work of fence-hopping hipsters intent on displaying decay on flickr or tumblr.

Feldman is also in the urban hunt-and-capture game, but his discourse with subjects, his visual treatise, is more that of stakeholder than trespasser. Feldman’s images raise deeper questions about responsibility. He uses his art “to get to the root of the idea that the American city is sick.” Feldman is an insider, a visual investigator taking in the whole of the city, year after year, asking questions that grow increasingly more penetrating.

If there are any similarities between Feldman’s photographs and those made by the practitioners of ruin porn, it is in the realm of social commentary. Feldman agrees that Philadelphia, like Detroit, “has had a leg kicked out from under it,” but he considers ruin porn “smothering.” He believes it brands the city as a place to avoid engagement, when, in fact, Philadelphia isn’t a ghost town, and its citizens aren’t zombies. Philadelphia is a city with a utopian legacy that remembers its past and its purpose.

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Edmund N. Bacon’s Pitch for Center City’s Revival: Form, Design and The City

Click to view the 1962 film: Form, Design, and the City.

After hammering away at Philadelphia’s entrenched pessimists for more than a decade, city planner Edmund N. Bacon finally got the breakthrough he’d been looking for. In the middle of the 20th century, in the midst of decline, Bacon dared to envision a revived Center City: a modern, appealing and prosperous place to live and work. According to biographer Greg Heller, Bacon pitched this vision and honed his message in publications and exhibitions. Finally, in the Spring of 1961, he created a highly-produced presentation aimed at creating maximum impact.

On April 27, 1961, Bacon presented to the national conference of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), then meeting in Philadelphia. He walked the audience through his vision for a new Center City as he and others turned a giant, blank, 24-by-14-foot panel into a plan for the modern city. Bacon suggested Philadelphia should mind its historical past and boldly asserted that his vision, his grand “design idea,” utilized the same planning principles that guided Rome’s transformation from medieval chaos to Renaissance order.

Denise Scott Brown, a new architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania would have been in the audience. “Bacon takes a piece of chalk and slowly draws William Penn’s great crossroads and marks City Hall at the middle,” she wrote. He then brought others in to add their contributions and “the white sheet disappears; the intentions for the city slowly appear, as project after project is added…”

“The total effect is extremely impressive,” wrote Scott Brown the following year, reviewing the film version of the presentation for the Journal of the American Institute of Planners. (This was the first of Scott Brown’s published writings. For her full bibliography, see this pdf.) “The architects ‘in natural habitat’ before their plans, slightly chalky and a little abashed, are particularly successful,” she wrote. “The geometry of streets and squares behind them throws their faces and personalities into some sort of surrealist relief…”

“The performance ended with a grand finale in which the Commission staff, on two ladders, drawing and wheeling, brought the whole together by the addition of ringroads, expressways, and other circulation elements,” wrote Scott Brown. But as impressive as the giant, collaborative drawing might have been, it wasn’t quite Bacon’s final message.

Edmund N. Bacon’s concluding challenge to the architectural profession (click and go to 54:58). in his 1962 film: Form, Design, and the City.

That came in the form of a short monologue (more like a scolding of the architectural profession) by the architect turned city planner. “This is not planning as it is generally done; it is not architecture,” Bacon soberly instructed. “It is the form that should precede architecture awaiting the designer’s touch to bring it into life.”

Then he commanded his once and future colleagues: “The challenge to the architectural profession today is to prove that it is capable of designing an urban environment worth the price it costs. In order to do this, its individual practitioners will have to take a new view of their separate efforts and the profession as a whole must take a new view of itself. … Without a central design idea as an organizing force, the individual efforts under urban renewal will lead to chaos. With a central design idea, the creative energies of the individual architects will be stimulated to new heights, and the result will be truly architecture.”

What was this grand “design idea” that Bacon promised would transform Philadelphia into one of the great cities of the world? Scott Brown took issue with Bacon’s vision. “The ‘design idea’ seems basically to be a loosely linked series of architectural projects,” she observed, …it is too weak, and lacks the clarity of Penn’s original which it obscures.”

Scott Brown felt Bacon showed “little concern to discover what the city really ‘wants to be,’ quoting Louis Kahn, and crediting him as the one “who has driven so often to the root of city planning problems in Philadelphia.” Kahn’s “underlying presence” concluded Scott Brown, “pervades all thought here… even the title of the film.”

If Bacon had borrowed heavily in crafting his ideas, and fallen short in making it the most compelling case for it, at least he had captured, as Greg Heller put it, “the minds of the architectural profession.” Even Scott Brown conceded that Bacon had “started us all thinking.”

And the thinking would continue in focused fashion, just as Bacon had intended. Days after his presentation, the AIA located funding to film a re-staged version. And on March 27, 1962, the film version of Form, Design and The City premiered at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before hundreds of the city’s business and civic elite. Within a year, the film would be screened 167 times across the United States, even more internationally. Two years later, Bacon would be featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Thanks to Bacon, the promise of a positive future for Center City Philadelphia had officially made its way into the public imagination.

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Trolley Barns and Grand Hotels: A Brief Look at the Widener Empire (Part 1)


41st and Haverford Avenue, looking east, c.1900. The Philadelphia Traction Company’s trolley barn is the gable roofed structure on the right.

At the corner of 41st Street and Haverford Avenue, amidst the rowhouses of West Powelton, stands a cavernous brick building with a pitched roof. Looming over its neighbors, it is one of the few surviving structures of the Widener trolley car empire.

Originally, the Philadelphia Traction Company had three massive trolley sheds in West Philadelphia, each equipped with a blacksmith shop and other repair facilities. Another one survives at 41st and Chestnut Street, which was once able to house up to 300 horses.

During Philadelphia’s Gilded Age, the trolley car was the ubiquitous symbol of the Widener family’s power.  With the exception of the very rich, who had private coaches, almost every city dweller gave the Philadelphia Traction Company conductors his or her nickels and dimes while en route to work or running errands.  The trolley infrastructure is imprinted on the city’s urban landscape. Many of the rails and overhead wires have not been used in years, the bane of cyclists and drivers alike.  A century ago, the trolley shaped Philadelphia on a grand scale: it allowed the city to grow outward (a city of homes), as opposed to upward (a city of tenements and skyscrapers) like its rival New York.

The humble trolley also built one of the largest fortunes in the United States.

Peter Arrell Brown Widener (1836-1915), like the salty-tongued Cornelius Vanderbilt before him, knew the power of cold, hard cash. Widener was a believer in technology and progress, not propriety and tradition.  What mattered to him was harnessing a regular cash stream which flowed from the everyday needs of the masses.  Born poor and trained as a butcher, Widener made his first small fortune by supplying meat to the Union Army during the Civil War.  Like many so-called “war profiteers,” he rose from poverty to what the New York Herald smugly dismissed as the nation’s “Shoddy Aristocracy.”  The New York Tribune, for its part, defined shoddy as:  ”poor sleezy stuff, woven open enough for seives [sic], and then filled with shearman’s dust. … Soldiers, on the first day’s march or in the earliest storm, found their clothes, overcoats, and blanket, scattering to the wind in rags or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain.”

Shoddy or not, Widener was shrewd.  After Appomattox, Widener took his $50,000 (about $700,000 today) and began investing in his native city’s transportation network.  Rather than trying to break into the  railroad business — the Pennsylvania Railroad was a state-chartered old boys club — Widener invested in the construction streetcar lines and developing the surrounding real estate.  A street-smart young man who loved shirt-sleeve poker and politics, he knew how neighborhoods worked. He also knew how to muscle his way into City Hall by briefly serving as City Treasurer.

Peter Arrell Brown Widener (1836-1915). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In the boom years that followed the Civil War, the city had plenty of room to expand.  The 1854 Act of Consolidation expanded the city from a mere 2 square miles to nearly 130.  Much of this new territory was undeveloped farmland and woods. Trolley cars, unlike capital-intensive railroads, were relatively cheap to build and operate.  They were ideal people movers, as long as the city’s population and manufacturing economy continued to grow. And for a while, they did. The burgeoning factories and mills of late 19th century Philadelphia not only provided thousands of manufacturing jobs, but also plenty of white collar managerial ones.  As noted by historians Philip Scranton and Walter Licht: “At its peak in the 1920s, our setting was the third largest metropolis in the United States, an expanse of 128 square miles occupied by two million residents, and a visitor to the city could hardly overlook the industrial base that supported this complex.”

Click for Part II


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#WilliamPennWednesday: How Philadelphia Got Its Quaker Zeus

William Penn on City Hall Tower. (PhillyHistory,org)

Edward Hicks, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, ca 1830-40. (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Even though the statue of William Penn would be bolted in place more than 500 feet above the sidewalk and seen much farther away by most Philadelphians, it really mattered that the statue on City Hall make a good first and lasting impression. After all, at 36 feet 8 inches, here would stand the tallest figure on a building anywhere in the nation, nearly 17 feet taller than the statue of Freedom on the U.S. Capitol.

“Notwithstanding its great height,” explained sculptor Alexander Milne Calder in 1886 as he worked on the figure, Penn “will be quite plainly visible from the street, therefore every care has to be taken with regard to the features and every other detail.” What Calder had in mind was a statue facing South Broad Street, its bronzed expression bathed in sunlight. When the sculptor’s plans were scrapped by a new architect who turned Penn’s face away from the sun to gaze to the Northeast, and Penn Treaty Park, the scorned sculptor quipped that his greatest work had been “condemned to eternal silhouette.”

In fact, Calder had a number of reasons to turn his Penn’s back on the past, especially the place where he and the Native Americans may have signed a treaty. In his modernized redo of Penn, Calder wanted to pull away from the old image (and the myths they rode in on) to create something entirely new. “What we want is William Penn as he is known to Philadelphians, not a theoretical one or a fine English gentleman.” And as he worked, Calder admitted he felt conflicted. “I have not absolutely settled upon the final figure,” he added.

Calder also felt the heat. Ever since 1872, when John McArthur, City Hall’s original architect, proposed to replace the first idea an allegorical figure of Justice with a statue a real person, there had been no shortage of opinions as to how this giant Penn might be made to look. This image would dominate the city’s skyline immediately and, presumably, forever.  What it might suggest about Philadelphia, Philadelphians (and Philadelphia history) mattered then, and Calder knew it would matter now.

He hadn’t gotten any real pushback on the hundreds of statues he created for City Hall closer to the ground—figures people could actually see, but didn’t care all that much about. After working 13 years on the massive project, when he finally got to the tower groupings and to the largest sculpture of all, Calder planned on going for a “manly beauty,” something different than the Rotund, Bejowled Founder painted by Benjamin West in the 18th century or the Jolly Penn reinforced ad nauseum by Edward Hicks’ paintings in the 19th.

City Hall Tower-Statue Penn’s Head ca. 1892 (

Historians really had nothing to go on, there were no portraits of Penn at that time to serve as a guide, but that didn’t stop them from insisting on accuracy and authenticity. They argued at length about Penn’s clothing and the style of his hat. City Fathers, who had seen the project take far longer and become far more expensive and controversial than they had ever dreamed, just wanted building and sculpture done—with no further embarrassments.

What could possibly be embarrassing in 1886? A roly-poly Founder-figure defining the skyline, perhaps. Or a statue reminiscent of the corrupt, Gilded Age politician (see Thomas Nast’s caricature of Boss Tweed). This was the year Philadelphia politician Boies Penrose, aka “Big Grizzly,” a man of massive appetite (he was known to have a dozen eggs for breakfast and a turkey for lunch) and great girth (he’d reach 350 pounds) took his seat to the State Senate.

What could be embarrassing atop the white-marble frosting of City Hall? A figure recalling President Grover Cleveland’s White House wedding from the previous June. Cleveland stood firm in his wedding picture as the heaviest American president to date. (In time, only Taft would outweigh him.)

So it did matter—a lot—what this new Penn looked like. And as he worked through a series of maquettes, Calder would come to give his Penn a complete makeover, figure and face. He’d lose the gut and the double chin, acquiring a dimple. He’d get fancy ruffles, buckles and curls. Most of all, Calder made a figure that could stand almost joke-free. He gave the city a Quaker Zeus—if such a thing was possible.

Something to celebrate this #WilliamPennWednesday.

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Philadelphia Trivia (Workshop of the World Division)

Disston Saw Works, New State Road and Knorr Street, June 25, 1901. (

No question about it: Philadelphia’s WOW is greatly diminished. (And by WOW, we mean the city’s claim to the title “Workshop of the World.”) In the middle of the last century, just under half of the city’s workers made things. Now only one in twenty does.

With very few exceptions (like the surviving DisstonPrecision in Tacony, the subject of a recent post at AxisPhilly) the city’s sprawling industrial complexes are gone. And with the departure of the likes of Baldwin Locomotive Works, Stetson Hats, Quaker Lace and hundreds more smaller mills and factories, we can barely imagine what the city was like before it ran, literally, out of steam. What we have in their place are echoes of pride about all that once was Philly-made, a level of bluster and noise that rings as true with the city’s character and soul that 1776 does—and, come to think of it, maybe even truer. But what’s gone is gone.

How did Philadelphians celebrate their WOW factor when they still had it? With as much pride and bluster as the facts might convey. Apparently, there’s a long tradition of finding solace in the scale of what Philadelphia made.

Looking, for instance, at a printed bird’s eye-view of the city from 1908, The Philadelphia Of To-Day, The World’s Greatest Workshop, we see that the margins packed with what might be considered, for lack of a better word, trivia:

Philadelphia with only one-sixtieth of the population of the Republic, produced one-twentieth of all its manufactures.

Philadelphia has 16,000 manufacturing plants, employing 250,000 skilled laborers, each year consuming $400,000,000 of raw material and producing $700,000,000 of manufactures.

Philadelphia manufactures 8 locomotives every working day, or 2,663 in the year. These locomotives on a perfectly level track would haul 168,000 loaded cars of 50 tons capacity.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 45,000,000 yards of carpet, enough to put a belt around the earth and leave a remnant long enough to reach Cincinnati.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 12,000,000 dozen hose and half hose, enough to allow 2 pairs for every man, woman and child in the United States.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 4,800,000 hats. The bands, end to end, would reach from Philadelphia to Denver.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 180,000,000 yards of cotton piece goods, enough to make a pair of sheets for every family in the United States.

Of course, that’s all in the past, unless we’re talking about DisstonPrecision, the successor to Henry Disston’s Keystone Saw, Tool, Steel & File Works, which started in a cellar near 2nd and Arch Streets in 1840. They no longer make handsaws at the factory, which moved to Tacony in 1872, and the place is a shadow of its former self. But the making goes on at New State Road and Knorr Street, as it has continuously since 1872. And so with Disston, (thanks to Scranton and Licht, Silcox twice, and TIME) the numbers resonate less abstractly, and even a bit more sweetly.

Henry Disston Keystone Saw, Tool, Steel & File Works, interior, ca. 1910. (DisstonPrecision)

The number of steps to manufacture a handsaw blade: 82.

Disston’s marketshare of the American handsaw business in 1940: 75 percent.

Disston’s annual usage of coal in the mid 1870s: ten thousand tons.

Order placed by the country of Afghanistan in the mid-1930s: 10 Disston Tractor Tanks.

The number of Disston saws sold annually to amateur and vaudeville musicians: about 500.

In 1918, 3,600 men and women worked in 58 Disston buildings. Those who had been employed for a decade or more: 1,400.

The number of cross-cuts through four-foot hemlock logs in an 8 hour shift made by Disston’s 9’ 2” diameter saws: 900.

And today?

How long it takes the 600 teeth of DisstonPrecision’s 6’ 10″ circular saw to cut through a steel I-beam: two seconds.

Philadelphia’s WOW lives on, after all.

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Campus Clearance: A Look Inside UPenn’s Lost Houses

4045 Walnut Street, c.1955.


Apartment building on the corner of 40th and Locust, May 8, 1953. Demolished.

It’s hard to believe that before the 1960s, adaptive reuse was an alien concept to architects and city planners.  To universities, the planning ethos of “out with the old, in with the new” was especially potent.  Disciples of Le Corbusier and other modernists were in control of the University of Pennsylvania and American schools. The classical Beaux-Arts tradition as taught by Paul-Philipe Cret was largely replaced by the Bauhaus creed of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.  There was little interest in fixing up old buildings. They represented an unenlightened past — the gloomy “horse-and-buggy era” — out of sync with modern life, technology, and especially the automobile.

3910 Walnut Street, c.1955.

The former Comegy mansion at 4203 Walnut Street, photographed on April 20, 1959. Built originally in the 1850s as a streetcar suburban villa, a century later it was in the heart of inner-city West Philadelphia.

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, of course.  As is nostalgia.  In Penn’s defense, the GI Bill and the general “opening up” of American universities to the sons and daughters of the middle class caused serious strain on the old campus infrastructure.  Once largely the preserve  of the sons of the wealthy, an Ivy League education in the 1950s was well within the reach of young men and women from middle income families.  Penn president Gaylord P. Harnwell realized that in order to satisfy growing demand for classrooms and beds, the Penn campus would have to expand upward and westward. He built the massive new Van Pelt Library, and closed the trolley lines that ran down the middle of Locust Street, creating a new pedestrian greenway through the center of campus known as Locust Walk.  Most importantly, Penn leveled the four blocks bounded by 38th, 40th, Spruce, and Walnut Streets, replacing them with three concrete high-rise skyscraper dormitories designed by Penn Design dean G. Holmes Perkins, as well as several low-rise student housing structures. All of these were surrounded by lawns and walkways.The clean lines and smooth surfaces of the International style represented something striking, modern, and optimistic, a break with the dreary years of the Great Depression and World War II.

The Professor Henry C. Lea mansion at 3903 Spruce Street, November 9.1967. Originally built in the 1860s, this Italianate house served as the suburban residence of Penn professor Henry Lea (1825-1912). After serving as a fraternity house, it was pulled down in 1967.

The former dining room of the Lea mansion, just prior to demolition in 1967.


Fraternity paddles in an upstairs bedroom of the Lea mansion, just prior to demolition, November 1967.

Interior plasterwork, the Henry C. Lea mansion, just prior to demolition in November 1967.

Most of the houses on these blocks dated to the mid-to-late 19th century, and were built for middle class, white collar commuters. There was also were truly grand suburban residences built for the Drexels and other wealthy families.  Few people saw these grungy old homes as having much architectural value in the 1960s: what had once been a fashionable suburb had become a slum to be cleared. Critics derided Victorian architecture as decadent, ugly, and functionally obsolete.  From a practical standpoint, the buildings were old and run down, serving as ad hoc classroom space, student housing, fraternity houses, low-rent apartments, retail, and restaurants.  Their electrical and plumbing systems were at the end of their useful lives.  There was also a human cost to this expansion: scores of families, mostly African-American renters, were displaced. In fact, Penn’s expansion ignited tension in the surrounding neighborhood that lasted for years.

The destruction wasn’t total. Penn adapted a few houses for new uses: the Eisenlohr mansion became the president’s residence, while the Fels mansion housed the Fels Institute of government.  Two of the Drexel family houses survive as fraternity houses, while the Potts mansion survives largely intact as the headquarters of the Penn Press. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church also escaped the bulldozer.  Yet almost every other structure came down to make way for the “Superblock,” which stands in stark contrast to Penn’s historic, compact campus to the east.

Miraculously, city photographers documented many of these homes before the wreckers arrived and smashed them to pieces. These photographs give a rare glimpse into these homes, which appear remarkably intact despite decades of neglect and alterations. During this mass demolition, scavengers picked through these homes, salvaging paneling, piping, leaded glass, and other examples of fine 19th century craftsmanship.  The carved wood and plasterwork dated from a time when labor was cheap and rich materials plentiful: solid walnut pocket doors, for example, were common in West Philadelphia houses.  After the Civil War, machines could cheaply churn out elaborately ornamented furniture and fittings that previously could only have been laboriously made by hand.

Much of what is seen here in these pre-demolition shots had been dismissed not only as out-of-date, but just plain hideous.  Who wanted a monstrous Frank Furness fireplace in their home, anyway?  Most of these houses were simply smashed to smithereens and hauled off to the nearest landfill.

The remarkably well-preserved library of the Comegy mansion in April 1959: the paneling is most likely either walnut or mahogany. It is doubtful that any of this fine 19th century craftsmanship survived the wrecker’s ball.

39th and Locust Street, looking east, February 11, 1930. The Drexel mansion on the left is still standing, while the Second Empire rowhouses on the right are gone, replaced by Harnwell College House, one of three skyscrapers designed by G. Holmes Perkins.

It took a new generation of urban pioneers, real estate investors, and preservationists to realize the aesthetic (as well financial) value of historic structures, no matter how tired, in urban areas such as West Philadelphia.

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National History Day Philly Coming Soon!

National History Day is a year-long program that enables students to investigate and explore historical events while building critical thinking, research, analysis, and presentation skills. Here in Philadelphia, the competition begins with National History Day Philadelphia in March, when hundreds of middle and high school students in Philadelphia present their research in the form of essays, presentations, websites, documentaries, and more. Winners progress to the state and perhaps even national level competition.

The theme for the 2014 National History Day is “Rights and Responsibilities,” and local cultural institutions like the National Archives at Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and many more have supported Philadelphia student researchers by compiling lists of resources, providing mentoring and research assistance, and creating professional development materials for teachers.

For many local students, however, finding the resources and supplies to be able to participate in National History Day can be a challenge. To help raise funds for presentation boards, paper, markers, glue, photocopies, CDs, DVDs, and more basic supplies, the National History Day Philly group has set up a fundraiser at Individuals interested in supporting students in gaining a love of history are encouraged to donate before February 2.

To learn more about National History Day in Philadelphia, check out the video below or follow NHD Philly on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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