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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Interview with Frank DeSimone, March 22, 2015.

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

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



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Broad Street Run: Out of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So many didn’t make it.

But congratulations!

You did.

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A Drive Through Overbrook Farms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo 1

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


photo 2

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

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

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



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Lost on Broad Street

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

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

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

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

From Broad Street and Somerville Avenue, heading south:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.1 miles – Broad below Oxford : The Mercantile Club.

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

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

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

5.3 miles – Broad and Callowhill: Another Armory.

5.6 miles – Broad and Vine: Hahnemann Hospital.

5.6 miles – Broad and Race: Scottish Rite Temple.

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

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

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Gentlemen and Wise Guys in Girard Estates


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testa Mugshot 1968

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


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


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

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

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

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

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Broad and Market Streets: the Intersection of Past and Future

North Broad from City Hall, ca. 1895) (PhillyHistory,org)

North Broad Street from City Hall, ca. 1895. (PhillyHistory,org)

Philadelphia’s past and future always collided at the intersection of Broad and Market Streets. From the conception of Center Square in the 1680s to the laying of the corner stone for City Hall in 1874 it was a tentative, slow-motion collision. After that, things sped up quite a bit. By the end of the 19th-century, Broad and Market Streets had become the official center of Center City.

“It is the only place where a building of suitable dignity can stand to display its parts in all the beauty of their architectural effect,” speechified Benjamin Harris Brewster at the July 4th corner stone laying ceremony. City Hall “will adorn…the highways at whose intersection it is placed, and it will give an air of majesty and grandeur to those long and broad avenues. It…stands out in bold and high relief, commanding admiration. It is placed, as other and great structures are, as the center of human concourse from which all things radiate and to which all things converge. It is surrounded by a grand avenue 135 feet wide, on the southern and eastern and western fronts, and 205 feet wide on the northern front.”

After nearly two centuries, the Philadelphia envisioned by William Penn and his surveyor, Thomas Holme was finally coming together. Here was the city that “will never be burnt, and always be wholesome,” declared Penn, who insisted avoiding  a re-creation of the London he had left behind. That city had been poised for conflagration, its wooden “rickety, slapdash buildings” leaning “against one another like drunks clutching each other for support,” writes Edward Dolnick, “an endless labyrinth of shops, tenements, and taverns with barely a gap to stop the flames.” London’s four-day fire of September 1666 left 100,000 of its citizens homeless, stunned amidst smoldering ruins.

Nothing like this would ever happen in Philadelphia, pledged Penn, who turned to the old Renaissance masters for fresh design ideas—ideas potent enough to eventually, centuries later, come to fruition in the center of Philadelphia.

“There are another Kind of public ways,” wrote Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century, these “may not improperly be called High Streets.” They are “designed for some certain Purpose, especially a public one; as for instance those which lead to some Temple, or the Course for Races; or to a Place for Justice.” Alberti imagined these grand “public ways” radiating and converging, lined with public buildings of many sorts.

These public avenues, argued Andrea Palladio, would be complex, active and spacious centers of civic life. “Broad Streets are more lightsome,” he wrote, noting “that one side of such a Street is … less eclipsed by the opposite Side. The Beauty of Churches and Palaces must needs be seen to the Greater advantage in large than narrow Streets, whence the Mind is more agreeably entertained and the city more adorned.”

Adorned indeed, and exquisitely right for civic life. The English translators of Alberti and Palladio called their public avenues “High Street” and “Broad Street.” So did Penn, who, in the 1680s, envisioned for “our intended Metropolis” something like the view up Broad Street in the 1890s: a bright, welcoming, urban center, a place that would “never be burnt, and always be wholesome.”

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Debt and Consequence

Broad Street - North of Spruce Street, December 21, 1915. (PhillyHistory.org)

Broad Street – North of Spruce Street, December 21, 1915. (PhillyHistory.org)

It’s a classic story. Behind a noble and refined façade, (thanks to the designs of Frank Miles Day and Louis Comfort Tiffany) Horticultural Hall on Broad Street was really a house of cards, a palace built on credit.

After an earlier hall on the same site burned in 1893, insurance kicked in $25,000 for a new building. At the start of 1894, according to the History of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, only $26.25 was in the bank.  But Society president, Clarence H. Clark (whose mansion at 42nd and Locust cost $300,000 two decades before) didn’t see a problem; he saw an opportunity. Clark, a banker, engineered a fix in the form of a $200,000 mortgage.

And so with borrowed money “a fine example of Italian Renaissance architecture” as we told last time, rose on Broad Street. Its bronze gates welcomed, its emerald glass awed, its “deep overhanging eaves” impressed. Above those eaves were the finest Spanish tiles. Below them was to be a pièce de résistance of public art, a giant, wraparound mural—one of the largest ever.

The last thing on muralist Joseph Lindon Smith’s mind was his client’s staggering debt. As he planned the job, Smith, faced his own daunting challenges. The up-and-coming artist had recently finished a modest mural in an alcove of the Boston Public Library, and had never taken on a commission this massive—308 feet long and 6 feet high. Nor had Smith ever taken on anything this risky. “It will be executed directly upon plaster and it will be out-of-doors,” worried an art critic at the Inquirer, on April 19, 1896, “two conditions seldom met with in modern wall-painting.”

Plus, Smith wasn’t entirely certain what he wanted to paint. In an interview in the Spring of 1896, he admitted “working upon his design for nearly a year” and still unclear how his mural would play out. There’d be “allegorical and mythological characters, the months, or the seasons and the signs of the zodiac, all having some bearing…upon the building and its use.” There’d be a decorative scheme featuring “the harvest gods, Ceres and Bacchus” and “an almost endless use of garlands” and wreaths. But how would it all come together?

Detail of proposed mural on Horticultural Hall, ca. 1896. ( McLean Library, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society)

As Smith sat at his drawing board feeling the panic rise, he learned the plaster below the eaves wouldn’t be ready for his brush until Fall. What a relief! More time to think! Smith could go on “a special trip to Italy during the summer to renew his acquaintance with the works of the early Italian fresco painters.”

Ah, the life of a struggling artist (with a commission).

Smith did master the challenge and depicted in his own frescoes “the evolution of the vegetable kingdom through four seasons” as Asa M. Steele related in Harper’s Weekly a few years later. “A great scroll also appears in the centre of the main façade, bearing the words “Horticulture” and “Agriculture,” “Sylviculture,” “Viticulture,” and Floriculture.” Between the many small windows “he painted…small panels depicting boys with agricultural tools, and conventional wreaths, and groupings of fruits, flowers, nuts, evergreens and holly.” Smith’s “principal groups depict twelve women typifying the months of the year, each holding in her lap the appropriate sign of the zodiac and accompanied by the patron deity of the season, and arrangements of foliage, fruits and flowers.”

Starting on the south side of the building, Smith’s figures for January and February were accompanied by Janus, the god of new starts, “who received the prayers and husbandmen at the beginning of seed time.” Then came Triptolemus, the demi-god of agriculture, “in his winged chariot drawn by serpents, rides through an awakening landscape, scattering his barley seed on either hand.” March arrived “in wind-tossed draperies;” April “in the tender hues of early spring, carried an inverted vase to symbolize the descent of rain upon the earth.” In between was the figure of Proserpina, daughter of Ceres.

Hort Hall - detail of mural - FLP

Horticultural Hall, ca. 1900 detail. (The Free Library of Philadelphia)

Steele continued: “May is decked in vivid green, against a background of blossoms. June sits wreathed in roses and the bloom of early summer, with garlands strewn about. Flora, the deity of horticulture, and Amor, with drawn bow, formed the remainder of the group. In the center of the front façade Phoebus Apollo sits enthroned in a glory of golden sunbeams, a lyre in his hands. July and August, arrayed in the gorgeous hues of midsummer, and surrounded by fruits and flowers, have Ceres as protectress. The goddess is robed in crimson and gold, and holds a sheaf of wheat. September and October, with Pomona, goddess of fruits, enthroned between them, are surrounded with the rich browns, reds, and yellows of autumn, with a bearing fruit tree in the background, and garlands of corn and grapes. The next panel depicts Bacchus, holding the thyrsus with a wreath of ivy on his head. In the background is the sea, with a marble screen of vines and grapes. The adjacent sky shines with Ariadne’s crown of seven stars; a satyr dances in the foreground. November, looking back toward her system months, and December, lingering in desolation with bowed head, and Boreas [the god of the north wind] blowing winter blasts, complete the series.”

As great a work as it may have been, Smith’s giant mural seemed unphotographable. And for all its wall power, for all its ability for to provide civic ulplift for paraders and boulevardiers on Broad Street, it represented a giant, crushing debt for the directors of the Horticultural Society that wasn’t going away.

So in 1909, three years after the death of Clarence Clark, when a cash offer of “at least $500,000” came in over the transom, the directors saw the light at the end of the tunnel. This offer appeared more appealing than anything designed, built or painted. The buyer would demolish the building but no matter. Finally, the debt would be retired.

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Frank DeSimone’s South Philly (Part One)


The 2300 block of South Bouvier Street, near St. Monica's Church, the site of many games of stoop ball during DeSimone's childhood in the 1950s.

The 2300 block of South Bouvier Street, near St. Monica’s Church, the site of many games of stoop ball during DeSimone’s childhood in the 1950s.

Frank DeSimone is seventy years old, and is a successful trial Philadelphia attorney who at one time served as assistant district attorney. He is short of stature and slight of build, with a soft, gravely voice and warm, open smile. Born in 1945, Frank is the grandson of immigrants from Naples.  His grandfather came to Philadelphia in the early 1900s and got a job at a paint factory, where like many other workers, contracted leukemia from the noxious fumes.  Frank’s parents ran a restaurant a few blocks from the family row house at 18th and Ritner.  

As a child, he was quite pudgy, and was known by the other kids in the neighborhood as “Beanzie.”  An elderly Jewish lady in the neighborhood who sometimes kept an eye on him after school gave him the Yiddish nickname “Frankele.”

“When I was older, they called me Beans McKinley,” he said, “because I would talk a lot and almost get into that lawyer stage even then!”

After school, a group of forty kids from the neighborhood congregated on Ritner Street, the main commercial artery of “New Italy.” “Everyone down here had a nickname,” Frank recalled, “which usually had to do with something you did, or you didn’t do. Bear, Bird, etc.” They played half-ball, stoop ball, and other games in the streets, which in the 1950s were still largely clear of cars. But Frank insists that few got into mischief either on the street or at school in St. Monica’s.   There were, as urbanist Jane Jacobs noted in her book contemporary book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, too many eyes on the street. “In those days, we didn’t lock our doors,” he said. “And nobody had fences in back of their houses.”  Plus, the last thing a student wanted was a note home from one of the nuns. Among the kids he grew up with was Ronald Donatucci, who also became a lawyer and is now Register of Wills.  Perhaps the most famous resident was Tommy Loughran, world heavy lightweight boxing champion from 1927 to 1929. The “Philly Phantom” was considered a gentleman both in and out of the arena, and a devoted parishioner at St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church. 

James Braddock vs. Tommy Loughran, July 18, 1929..

During high school, he took to heart the words of his surrogate Jewish grandmother: “lick the honey off the book pages.” Pushed to succeed in school by his own parents, Frank attended St. Joe’s Prep in North Philadelphia and then went on to Villanova University for college and law school, commuting from his parents’ home to save money.

Frank now lives on the Main Line and works in Center City. Yet he still frequently visits the old neighborhood to attend Mass at St. Monica’s, buy pastries from Cacia’s for Christmas and St. Joseph’s Day, and pick up a sandwich for his wife Lorrie from Nick’s Old Roast Beef.  He occasionally brings his 28 year old son Frank Jr., a third year law student, along with him.  “Like me, he’s a traditionalist,” Frank said about his son over a cup of coffee at the Melrose Diner.  “I want him to know where his family comes from, and to be proud of it. And it means a lot to him.”

“When my son got into Harvard,” Frank added, “I went to my parents’ graves and thanked them. We did it.”


The grave of Father D.P. McManus at St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church, 17th and Ritner. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

I met Frank Sr. for a tour of his old neighborhood on Sunday, March 22.  Unfortunately,  I missed the St. Joe’s cakes (also known as zeppole) at Cacia’s Bakery on Ritner Street by a few days.  Termini’s was out of them, as well, so I had a cannoli instead, filled with ricotta cheese. Frank told me that these treasured custard-filled fritters, an Italian American favorite on the annual Festa di San Giuseppe on March 19, do not keep for more than a day, anyway.  I’ll have to wait till next year.


A miniature zeppole, or St. Joseph’s Cake. Source: Wikipedia. “Minizeppola” by I, Calcagnile Floriano.

photo 1

The interior of St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church, 17th and Ritner. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

For him, St. Monica’s Church is still the heart and soul of his Philadelphia, a city not of neighborhoods, but of parishes.  St. Monica’s is a craggy Romanesque revival edifice dated from 1901.  It was gutted by a catastrophic fire on January 8, 1971, but thanks to the generous donations of the nearby parishioners, it was restored to its full glory a few years later, albeit with modern pews and stained glass windows. Each pew bears the name of a sponsoring family, almost all of them Italian.  While a bit forbidding on the outside, St. Monica’s is brightly lit and immaculate on the inside, with yellow walls, white plasterwork, and pastel murals on the ceiling and above the marble altar. The cross above the altar was covered by a Lenten shroud.  The mass schedule is full, just as it was half a century ago. A stained glass window commemorates the fire and Father Aloysius Xavier Farrell, who spearheaded the rebuilding effort.

photo 2

The stained glass window commemorating the 1971 fire at St. Monica’s Church and the rebuilding effort spearheaded by Father Farrell. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

“When people ask where are you from?” Frank told me. “They say I’m from St. Monica’s Parish.  When that was said to you, you not only knew the area of the city where they lived, but you knew something about their ethnicity, their education, their beliefs.  Secondarily to the parish, you’d give them a street corner, not your address. That also would identify where you lived.”

He learned that early on in his legal career. While being interviewed at the public defenders office, the first question Vincent Siccardi asked him was “Frank DeSimone. Where are you from, Frank?”

“18th and Ritner!”  Frank blurted out.

“You’re hired,” Siccardi responded immediately. “I hire guys from corners. They make good trial lawyers. I want you to work here.”

Porter  Street between 19th and 21st Street, January 23, 1953.

Porter Street between 19th and 21st Street, January 23, 1953.

When I  asked about Siccardi’s logic, Frank responded, “If you grew up on a street corner, you got to know people, you interacted with people, and were part of the fabric of the city. You have to make quick judgements when dealing with people, or you’re going to get teased or get made fun of, so you have to survive in that environment. When you’re in a courtroom, it’s the same thing.”

He took the job, missing out on a follow up interview from the District Attorney’s office.  He would get there eventually, serving in the homicide department, before going into private practice.  When picking a  jury, Frank believes that knowing a person’s parish and corner is still the next best thing to a psychological profile.



Interview with Frank DeSimone, March 22, 2015.

“St. Monica,” Philadelphia Church Project, http://www.phillychurchproject.com/st-monica/




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Lost Days on Broad Street

Art Club, Broad and Chancellor Streets, Southwest corner. (PhillyHistory.org)

Art Club, Broad and Chancellor Streets, Southwest corner. (PhillyHistory.org)

Philadelphia’s decades-long “reign of architectural terror” had finally come to an end. The powerful influence of Frank Furness, whose “violent mind” generated a “degree of depravity not to be measured in words” had played out. In its place, critic Ralph Adams Cram saw the rise of refinement and a “delicate sensibility” of a new posse of architects: Wilson Eyre, Cope & Stewardson and Frank Miles Day.

“These four,” claimed Cram in The Architectural Record, “became one voice crying in the wilderness, a voice proclaiming artistic salvation through the doctrine of good taste.” Day had signaled the start of a revolt in the late 1880s with his Art Club at Broad at Chancellor Streets. But this “unmistakable work of a young man just back from Europe” came across as just a bit too earnest. “Variety and picturesqueness were sought at any cost,” wrote Cram. While the building stood as a welcome “manifestation of delicacy and sweetness, of fine instincts and subtle sympathies,” the result was disappointing. “Calmness, reserve, simplicity are lost,” concluded Cram. The Art Club was “weak… in mass, composition and scale,” not quite the architectural breath of fresh air Cram had hoped for.

But it was a start, “a solid foundation” on which to build. With the Art Club, Day marked “the entrance of a new influence in a devastated field.” And as Day “found himself” as a designer, he’d come to realize that “salvation is not by fine line alone.”

Horticultural Hall, ca. 1894 (PhillyHistory.org)

Horticultural Hall, ca. 1896 (PhillyHistory.org)

As Cram saw it, architectural salvation arrived at last in the mid-1890s in the form of “two important structures” by Day. First was the American Baptist Publication Society, 1420-22 Chestnut Street, an “elaborate, ambitious, magnificent” creation, featuring “all kinds of splendor, an efflorescence of balustrades, dormers, pinnacles and diaper work” on the tower. Then there was the “bold yet delicate” architectural gem of a building in Horticultural Hall, 250 South Broad Street.

“A fine example of Italian Renaissance architecture,” complimented Asa M. Steele in Harper’s Weekly. Its “arched entrances and windows” contrast “with simple expanses of wall of golden-yellow Pompeian brick…surmounted by a roof of Spanish tiles.” Its façade resonates with “vitality and richness” with “ornate bronze gates, windows of emerald glass, and touches of brilliant gold, pink and green upon medallions, balcony grills, and deep overhanging eaves.”

Inside and out, the hall “breathes the atmosphere of blossoms, orchards, and woodlands,” wrote Steele. “The grand staircase of pink and white marble rises from the vestibule into a bower of green marble columns, and green and gold galleries surmounted by a bronze-gold-dome topped with opalescent glass. …  The entire main floor can be thrown open from end to end, giving the whole the appearance of an idealized sylvan vista.”

Day had produced a successful, mature design, a “strong and simple composition, with a just disposition of voids and solids…the building is thoroughly delightful in its mass and its general composition. Nothing appears that does not justify itself by its inherent beauty; archivolts, mouldings, medallions, balcony fronts, all are studied to the last degree; and as a result one has the same impulse to sit down before it with sketchbook and pencil that manifests itself in Italy.”

“Horticultural Hall is,” wrote Cram, “about the best thing Mr. Day has done… In detail it is just as delicate and lovely as the earlier work, but this detail is more carefully used, and disposed with far greater craft.” Although the Days hadn’t done many buildings, “their influence has been profound and far-reaching.” And most importantly, they “stood unflinchingly for good taste and for intrinsic beauty…they have done nothing that was half studied… They treated their art with respect, they never forgot that an architect must be first of all a gentleman, and they held faithfully to the gentleman’s creed ‘Noblesse oblige.’”

The Days, Cram declared, have “turned back the tide…that was overwhelming Philadelphia, and they set up their standard as a rallying point for all men loyal to good taste, to seriousness of purpose, to faithfulness in the small things of architecture as in the great.”

But the 20th century had another thing in store. As it turned out, greatness was fleeting for the Days’ buildings on Broad Street. Horticultural Hall, the last up, was the first cut down, in its 21st year. Only a few interior elements survive in the building’s remake as the Shubert Theatre (now the Merriam Theater).

The Art Club hung on into the mid-1970s. Then it, too, succumbed. The adjacent Bellevue-Stratford Hotel needed a parking garage.

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Fatal Collapse at 5th and Clearfield

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield, August 2, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield, August 2, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

“My God, it’s Reiss!” shouted Alfred Haggerty. The patrolman had noticed something at the bottom of the gaping pit at the intersection of 5th and Clearfield and stared at it for minutes before realizing it was the body of the missing police officer.

A week before, Joseph A. Reiss and his partner, patrolman Joseph Cheplick, responded to a call to investigate a street cavein. Within minutes of their arrival, Reiss had “plunged into a 20-foot-deep, water-filled hole that suddenly opened beneath him.”

“Policeman Vanished in Huge Cavein,” read the headline on August 2, 1959.

Gunner’s Run, one of the many creeks buried by the city in the 1880s, still flowed in a 12-foot brick conduit more than 20 feet below. This creek-turned-sewer was out of sight and out of mind until the rains. Then came the caveins, again and again.

As Cheplick told what happened that fateful Saturday night, he and Reiss “got out of their car for a closer look. Chelplick was about 20 feet behind his partner when Reiss reached the hole and peered over the edge.  “I saw dirt crumbling away under the pavement where Joe was standing,” Cheplick said. “I yelled, “For God’s sake, Joe, get back!” Then I saw his spotlight fly up in the air and Joe disappeared in to the hole.”

“The edge crumpled and he was flung into the hole. He disappeared from sight.”

Cheplick ran back to their squad car, “got a rope and worked his way back to the crater. He tried to lower the rope into the hole. “But when I got back all I could see was swirling water. Joe was gone…” Cheplick “was forced to retreat as the ground on which he stood fell away.”

At the missing officer’s home in Bustleton, Marie Reiss, prayed “in her living room and…begged God to keep her husband alive in the pit that swallowed him… She wept because she realized the chances were slim. Mayor Richardson Dilworth told her so. Her friends have told her the same—in an effort to soften the blow… But Marie Reiss clung to the thread of possibility.”

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield Sts., August 11, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

Cave-in at 5th and Clearfield Sts., August 11, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

In the light of day, Cheplick returned to the scene and choked back tears as he showed exactly where Reiss had fallen in. “It was here,” he told the Water Commissioner, pointing to one edge of the pit, “that’s where he disappeared.” The rescue team “descended into the sewer and penetrated to within fifty feet of the collapsed wall, but saw no sign of the missing patrolman.” As hopes of rescue turned to recovery, few expected that Reiss’s body remained close to the cavein. The sewer overflow emptied out in the Delaware two miles downstream. That’s where a Harbor Patrol boat idled in the Delaware River, just off the foot of Somerset Street and Port Richmond.

After a week of waiting and watching, that patrolman Alfred Haggerty spotted Reiss’s body in the the crater at 5th and Clearfield turned out to be the only break. Immediately, “police and firemen erected a platform in the pit about 15 feet from the bottom and then began lowering a ladder to the bottom… A crane was swung into position to recover the body.” Then, “suddenly, the water fed by the afternoon’s heavy rains swirled up over the body” and carried it away.

A mile and three-quarters downstream, beneath the pavement at Richmond Avenue and Somerset Street, Water Department workers Anthony DiNicola and Edward Potts had been maintaining a watchful vigil. And it was there, less than an hour after Haggerty spotted Reiss, that they would recover his body from a 12-foot square, concrete interceptor chamber.

Two days later, after the viewing, the Police and Firemen’s bands lined up along Cottman Avenue and played “Nearer My God To Thee.” At the Requiem Mass that followed at the Church of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, near Bustleton Avenue and Welsh road, “a detail of 100 policemen representing all branches of the department stood at attention” as the pallbearers, including Joseph Cheplick, passed by. In the front of the church, that sad Wednesday, as city and police leaders filed out after the Mass, stood Marie Agnes Reiss and her two children.

Now, only Marie alone knew she was carrying a third child.

[Sources consulted at the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Newsclipping Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University: “Policeman Vanished in Huge Cavein,” August 2, 1959; “Caveins Slow Rescue at Street Pit,” August 3, 1959; “That’s Where he Fell In, Officer Cries at Cavein,” August 4, 1959; “Policeman’s Wife Clings to Hope,” August 4, 1959; “Divers Recover Body of Policeman in Cavein,” August 9, 1959; “Mayor Attends Rites for Reiss,” August 12, 1959;  “Cave-In Widow Has A Daughter,” March 2, 1959. Also see “In Memory of Patrolman Joseph A. Reiss #2672.”]

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