Avenue of the Arts: a mid-century concept that lives in the imagination

First “Avenue of the Arts” street sign erected for the Philadelphia Arts Festival. 16th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Deputy Street Commissioner Michael J. Gittens and Moore art students Helen Hickey and Drena Ricci, June 5, 1962. (PhillyHistory,org)

In a freezing drizzle in January 1993, at the corner of Broad and South Streets, Mayor Edward G. Rendell asked a modest gathering of creatives, advocates, developers and funders to ignore what was on the street in front of them and imagine an Avenue of the Arts. The big idea, a “cultural district initiative” would serve as “a tourism-based economic development strategy” designed to enhance the city’s tax base “drained of its population and employment.” A new nonprofit, named Avenue of the Arts, Inc. would promote and oversee the promised upgrade.

“Two years later,” reported the Inquirer’s Stephan Salisbury, the promised crowds were “still not jostling one another along Broad Street. No other theaters have been built. No orchestra halls. No recital halls. No art centers. No schools.” Bringing Rendell’s Avenue of the Arts into being would require far more time, money and patience than originally anticipated.

By the end of the 1990s, the Avenue of the Arts would get built and audiences would fill seats. According to sociologist Anna Maria Bounds, South Broad got “11 cultural and educational institutions and seven venues, providing over 10,000 performances seats. Total investment for the initiative was $378.4 million, with over $75 million from the state and over $30 million from the local government.” According the Pennsylvania Economy League, the Avenue of the Arts generated “more than $157 million in revenue annually, providing 2800 full-time and over 1000 part-time jobs.”

A lot could be claimed, though not the name. The moniker “Avenue of the Arts” had been kicked around on South Broad Street since 1978, when about thirty “business and cultural leaders created the Avenue of the Arts Council (AAC) to redevelop South Broad Street as a cultural destination.” And it had been used even earlier, in 1962, though not on Broad Street, but on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

As posted previously, in 1962 the city went on “a 16-day crash diet of high-calorie culture” known as the Philadelphia Arts Festival in 1962. It included music, ballet, painting, sculpture, architectural exhibits, poetry and drama. For the duration of the Festival, the Parkway was renamed Avenue of the Arts.

“You name it, Philadelphia will have it” boasted The Philadelphia Daily News. “And a good many of the cultural dishes will be just what the best things in life are supposed to be—free as the air. Most of them, in fact, will be in the air. Like under-the-stars offerings in a new outdoor theatre behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art. … There’ll be more than 100 events, more than 5,000 performers—pros, amateurs, students, even some members. And estimated one million persons will peek at some phase of the fete before the curtain rings down on June 24.”

The cultural smorgasbord of 1962 included exhibits focusing on the work of native-born designers Tina Leser, James Galanos and Gustave Tassell). Folk singer George Britton performed at what is now LOVE Park, organist Robert Elmore cut loose at Wanamaker’s. Jack Bookbinder, director of art education at the Philadelphia Public Schools, lectured on the “Understanding and Enjoyment of Modern Art.” Grace Zahn and Margaret White entertained children with stories in French and songs. Mummers music animated the streets and fireworks made statues and buildings shimmer. Dances by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Philadelphia Workshop (directed by Maria Swoboda) complimented concerts by the Philadelphia Arts Festival Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Anshel Brusilow with soloists Wilmer Wise on trumpet and soprano Anna Marie Kuhn.) City-wide event listings included pianist Edna Bockstein and cellist James Holesovsky at Lemon Hill Mansion, art hung at the 40th and Walnut Street Free Library and square dancing at the Cheltenham Shopping Center mall.

Are there lessons to be learned from comparing Philadelphia’s Avenues of the Arts? For that, we should take the mayor’s advice: “’Close your eyes and dream.” After all, when you get down it it, an Avenue of the Arts isn’t so much about paving as it is a destination for our collective imagination.

[Sources: Citywide Stage is Set for 16-day art Festival, Philadelphia Daily News, June 8, 1962; 3rd Festival of Arts Opens on Saturday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 9, 1962; “Arts Festival Events at Peak,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17, 1962; Stephan Salisbury, Progress Lurches up Broad Street, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 10, 1993; Anna Maria Bounds, “Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts the Challenges of a Cultural District Initiative” in Melanie Smith, editor, Tourism, Culture and Regeneration (CABI, 2006)].

 

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The One That Got Away: Marian Carson’s On Washington Square

South Washington Square, December 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

The six, second-floor windows look out on Washington Square. They’re not very high, not even at the tree tops. On the outside they appear to be adjacent houses, except they are one, bought and joined together by Marian S. Carson, the widowed, single mother of two girls who traded their sprawling farmhouse in Bryn Mawr for whatever city life might offer—an unusual and bold move in the mid-1950s.

Across the square, Mayor Richardson Dilworth’s colonial replica was under construction. He’d move in, too, staking out a social/political/urban commitment that inspired the city’s first wave of gentrification. At Washington Square’s quieter southwest corner, Carson was more interested in the authentic, the vintage—the actual and historical. Her pair of rowhouses would be connected on the second floor creating a double-wide parlor, a gracious, even palatial room of more than 1,000 square feet. There she’d raise her daughters, host salons of sherry-sipping editors from nearby publishing houses and conduct a decades-long game of show-and-tell with collectors of all stripes from all over the United States.

Marian Carson had the stuff of history. She inherited much from generations of collectors on all sides. And over the decades she added acquisitions in great sweeping swaths as any seasoned, capable collector would—if they had the chance.

Visiting Marian never failed to be a treat, or a tease—depending on what she chose to share with you, or promise you might get to see next time. Behind those windows, you’d encounter early American gems of cabinetry illustrated in the volume  (Blue Book, Philadelphia Furniture) that she and her first husband William McPherson Horner, Jr. compiled and published privately in 1935. Visits often went beyond the woodwork and into the broader strokes of history. The tables in Marian’s parlor would be littered with specimens accumulated over the generations and added to in her own time: paintings, watercolors, archives, manuscripts and photographs. Not any photograph, mind you, but the first self-portrait (now known as the first selfie) by pioneering daguerreotypist Robert Cornelius. Marian might have had Francis Hopkinson’s toast to his friend George Washington from 1778, published in the Pennsylvania Packet, but she certainly had the original manuscript in Hopkinson’s songbook, purchased in Paoli at a consignment shop where a Hopkinson descendant had left it.

Home of Marian S. Carson 704/706 South Washington Square, December 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

An early printing of the Declaration of Independence? Marian had one of two known copies of a July, 1776 printing from New York City. A post-humus portrait drawing of George Washington himself by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin? Marian’s dated to 1800. A depiction of the senate of Liberia, a new nation settled by former American slaves? Marian’s watercolor was from 1856.

After an hour of looking at such treasures, one welcomed the calming view of sycamore branches out on the square.

Marian developed a revised vision of what history could and should be about. It would move away from celebration by those fortunate enough to inherit heirlooms. Her vision accommodated those who might make the past part of their lives and the life of their communities. As Marian expressed this shift, this awakening, in the 1977 reprint of her Blue Book, it would be “a new breed of informed collector” whose labors, explained historian Robert V. Remini, “would include research, public forums, restoration and publication, not simply acquisition.” This was Marian’s new creed as steward and collector. That commitment, as well as her vast collections, would make Marian a target for scholars, curiosity seekers, curators, librarians, philanthropists and collecting institutions.

In her later years, when Marian answered the doorbell at 706 South Washington Square, she looked frail, at first. But the more knowledge and appreciation shared, the younger she’d appear. For those who made it inside, it would be a decades long courtship requiring persistence, but most of all, patience.

It cane to an end in the mid-1990s, when Librarian of Congress James H. Billington stepped over the threshold for the first time. With the generous help of his James Madison Council (described by The Washington Post as “the wealthiest Friends of the Library group in the world”), Billington’s people negotiated a combination gift and a $2 million purchase of more than 10,000 manuscripts, photographs, paintings, books, broadsides, letters and official documents valued at approximately $6 million.

In the Fall of 1996, at a celebratory dinner in the Library of Congress’ Great Hall, Billington called the acquisition nothing less than “the most significant acquisition of Americana by the Library of Congress in this century.”

Good for the Library of Congress. Not so good for Philadelphia, where much of what Marian Carson had so much context and made so much sense.

Other collections got away over the years, but nothing quite like this one.

[Sources: Marian S. Carson Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room, The Library of Congress; Sarah Booth Conroy, “Philadelphia Stories,” The Washington Post, October 14, 1996; Bernard Reilly and Gail Fineberg, “Library Acquires Carson Collection,”LOC Information Bulletin, October 21, 1996; Gathering History: The Marian S. Carson Collection of Americana, (Washington, D.C. Library of Congress, 1999); Gayle Ronan Sims, “Marian S. Carson, 98, preservationist,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 16, 2004.]

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“Life Illustrated Thoroughly”

Market Street Ferry, Front and Market Streets, December 16, 1915 (PhillyHistory.org)

As we learned last time, Whitman much preferred the ferry. Not that bridges didn’t have their fine points. A night on the Mississippi, for instance. Whitman “haunted the river every night…where I could get a look at the [Eads] bridge by moonlight. It is indeed a structure of perfection and beauty unsurpassable, and I never tire of it.”

From far away, Whitman praised even the Brooklyn Bridge, which ultimately made obsolete his favorite Fulton Ferry. “To the right the East river—the mast-hemme’d shores—the grand obelisk-like towers of the bridge, one on either side, in haze, yet plainly defin’d, giant brothers twain, throwing free graceful interlinking loops high across the tumbled tumultuous current below…”

But up close and personal, Whitman always chose the ferry. “It is impossible to overstate the psychic investment [Whitman] had in ferries,” writes Arthur Geffen, who argues that the Brooklyn Bridge “became psychologically disturbing to him because it endangered a world in which he had made deep personal investments.”

On the water, Whitman could experience and celebrate all that he saw: “Such a show as the Delaware presented an hour before sundown yesterday evening, all along between Philadelphia and Camden… It was full tide, a fair breeze from the southwest, the water of a pale tawny color, and just enough motion to make things frolicsome and lively. Add to these an approaching sunset of unusual splendor, a broad fumble of clouds, with much golden haze and profusion of beaming shaft and dazzle.”

Delaware Avenue, North From Market Street, ca. 1890 (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

On the water, Whitman could revel in the humanity. Ferry crossings became his signature events, experiences that started on richly crowded landings. As he observed in Specimen Days:

“The reception room, for passengers waiting—life illustrated thoroughly. Take a March picture I jotted there two or three weeks since. Afternoon, about 3 1/2 o’clock, it begins to snow. There has been a matinee performance at the theater—from 4 1/4 to 5 comes a stream of homeward bound ladies. I never knew the spacious room to present a gayer, more lively scene—handsome, well-drest Jersey women and girls, scores of them, streaming in for nearly an hour—the bright eyes and glowing faces, coming in from the air—a sprinkling of snow on bonnets or dresses as they enter—the five or ten minutes’ waiting—the chatting and laughing—(women can have capital times among themselves, with plenty of wit, lunches, jovial abandon)—Lizzie, the pleasant-manner’d waiting room woman—for sound, the bell-taps and steam-signals of the departing boats with their rhythmic break and undertone—the domestic pictures, mothers with bevies of daughters, (a charming sight)—children, countrymen—the railroad men in their blue clothes and caps—all the various characters of city and country represented or suggested. Then outside some belated passenger frantically running, jumping after the boat. Towards six o’clock the human stream gradually thickening—now a pressure of vehicles, drays, piled railroad crates — now a drove of cattle, making quite an excitement, the drovers with heavy sticks, belaboring the steaming sides of the frighten’d brutes. Inside the reception room, business bargains, flirting, love-making, eclaircissements, proposals—pleasant, sober-faced Phil coming in with his burden of afternoon papers—or Jo, or Charley (who jump’d in the dock last week, and saved a stout lady from drowning,) to replenish the stove, after clearing it with long crow-bar poker.”

“Besides all this ‘comedy human.’ The river affords nutriment of a higher order.” And Whitman goes on to share some of his “memoranda of the past winter, just as pencill’d down on the spot.” For that, best to track down a copy of Specimen Days or simply click here and read.

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A Walt Whitman Bridge? The Good Gray Poet Wouldn’t Want It.

No matter how much Walt Whitman’s philosophical beliefs and sexual preferences rankled the priests of Camden, no matter how many mimeographed form letters of protest were sent in by Camden’s parochial schoolchildren, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) held firm. The new bridge would bear Whitman’s name.

Smith and Windmill Islands – Delaware River Near Foot of Chestnut Street, Frederick Gutekunst, 1891 (PhillyHistory.org)

Thing is, Whitman didn’t much care for bridges. But the Good Gray Poet had been dead for six decades when the DRPA deliberated on the new bridge’s name. But if he could have been consulted on the matter, Whitman would have declined the honor. “I have always had a passion for ferries,” he wrote, “to me they afford inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems.”

Back in Brooklyn at the mid-century, Whitman regularly crossed the East River to Manhattan, often making his way up into the ferry’s pilot-houses where he could take in the “full sweep, absorbing shows, accompaniments, surroundings.” He had no kind words to share when construction of the Brooklyn Bridge got underway in the 1870s. Anyway, by then, living in bridge-free Camden, Whitman doubled down on his passion, finding in each ferry ride crossing the Delaware  River a “refreshment of spirit.”

Whitman’s ideal crossing was about experience, not efficiency. On the deck of a bridge, high above the water, he’d be disconnected from the river’s sounds, sights and smells – its culture. Sure, crossing would go faster on a bridge, but it would deny Whitman what a city by a river city was all about, what he lived for.

In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” his poem of 1856, Whitman transforms would-be mundane mid-nineteenth-century experience into something glorious and transformative. “Crossing” confirmed not only Whitman’s utter joy in the moment (“Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face! / Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face”) but, as Whitman scholar Howard Nelson points out, Whitman expected such moments would always be part of urban life:

Detail – Delaware River Near Foot of Chestnut Street. Frederick Gutekunst, photographer, 1891. (PhillyHistory)

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

However, “a hundred years hence,” both ferries were gone. “Whitman did not foresee the demise of the ferries,” explains Nelson, he assumed “people in the future would, like him, see the gulls turning in late afternoon light, the rise and fall of tides, the river flowing, and the sun…” Such experiences even suggested “a kind of immortality.”

“I have never lived away from a big river,” wrote Whitman. “I don’t know what I should do without the ferry, & river, & crossing, day & night.” After a debilitating stroke in 1873, Whitman regarded the Camden Ferry as therapy, crossing back and forth as many as half a dozen times in a day. To assure access, he bought a house within walking distance of the ferry landing. Toward the end of his life, too frail to make his way to the waterfront, Whitman delighted in having it come to him. “One of the watermen came to see me yesterday afternoon & told me all ab’t the river & ferry (of wh’ I knew so much & was fond-but now kept from a year & more).”

In New York, the Brooklyn Bridge (built 1869-1883) eventually killed off Whitman’s treasured Fulton Ferry. It’s last crossing took place in 1924. Likewise, Philadelphia’s Delaware River Bridge (later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) did away with Whitman’s much-loved Camden ferry on March 31, 1952 when the Millville, skippered by Capt. Clayton E. Dibble, pulled away from Philadelphia for the final time. Construction of the Walt Whitman Bridge began one year later.

Today, crossing the Delaware in the style of Whitman is not only impossible, it’s an unfamiliar experience. All we have are left to remind us are Whitman’s words:

“Then the Camden ferry. What exhilaration, change, people, business by day. What soothing, silent wondrous hours, at night, crossing on the boat, most all to myself—pacing the deck, alone, forward or aft. What communion with the waters, the air, the exquisite chiaroscuro—the sky and stars, that speak no word, nothing to the intellect, yet so eloquent, so communicative to the soul.”

Detail – Delaware River Near Foot of Chestnut Street. Frederick Gutekunst, photographer, 1891. (PhillyHistory.org)

“A January Night.—Fine trips across the wide Delaware tonight. Tide pretty high, and a strong ebb. River, a little after 8, full of ice, mostly broken, but some large cakes making out strong timber’d steamboat hum and quiver as she strikes them. In the clear moonlight they spread, strange, unearthly, silvery, faintly glistening as far as I can see. Bumping, trembling, sometimes hissing like a thousand snakes, the tide-procession, as we went with or through it, affording a grand undertone, in keeping with the scene. Overhead, the splendor is indescribable, yet something haughty, almost supercilious, in the night. Never did I realize more latent sentiment, almost passion, in those silent interminable stars up there. …

“Night of March 18 ’79.—On the edges of the river, many lamps twinkling—with two or three huge chimneys, a couple of miles up, belching forth molten, steady flames, volcano-like, illuminating all around—and sometimes an electric or calcium, its Dante-Inferno gleams, in far shafts, terrible, ghastly-powerful. Of later May nights, crossing, I like to watch the fishermen’s little buoy-lights—so pretty, so dreamy—like corpse candles—undulating delicate and lonesome on the surface of the shadowy waters, floating with the current.

“April 5, 1879.—With the return of spring to the skies, airs, waters of the Delaware, return the sea-gulls. I never tire of watching their broad and easy flight, in spirals, or as they oscillate with slow unflapping wings, or look down with curved beak, or dipping to the water after food. The crows, plenty enough all through the winter, have vanish’d with the ice. Not one of them now to be seen. The steamboats have again come forth — bustling up, handsome, freshly painted, for summer work — the Columbia, the Edwin Forrest, (the Republic not yet out,) the Reybold, the Nelly White, the Twilight, the Ariel, the Warner, the Perry, the Taggart, the Jersey Blue — even the hulky old Trenton — not forgetting those saucy little bull-pups of the current, the steamtugs.

“For two hours I cross’d and recross’d, merely for pleasure—for a still excitement. Both sky and river went through several changes. …”

[Sources: Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (first published in Leaves of Grass, 1856); Walt Whitman, Specimen Days in America, (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882); “Ferryboats Span Delaware Tonight for Last Time,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1952; Arthur Geffen, “Silence and Denial: Walt Whitman and the Brooklyn Bridge,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 1, no. 4 (1984),(PDF); Joann P. Krieg, “Democracy in Action: Naming the Bridge for Walt Whitman,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 12, no. 2 ( 1994), (PDF); Howard Nelson, “’Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ [1856],” (from J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998); M. Jimmie Killingsworth, “Walt Whitman and the Earth: A Study in Ecopoetics,” The Walt Whitman Archive (first published by the University of Iowa Press, 2004).]

For more posts on the naming of the Walt Whitman Bridge, click here and here.

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The “Objectionable” Walt Whitman Gets His Bridge

Walt Whitman Bridge, September 6, 1960 (PhillyHistory.org)

Controversy swirled around the naming of the Walt Whitman Bridge in Camden’s Catholic community late in 1955. As we learned in our last post, the Reverend James Ryan of nearby Westville, New Jersey claimed Whitman’s writings conveyed “a revolting homosexual imagery . . . permeates the fetid whole.”

Not to be outdone, the Reverend Edward Lucitt, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, sent a letter of protest to the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA). “Walt Whitman himself had neither the noble stature or quality of accomplishment that merits this tremendous honor,” wrote Lucitt, “his life and works are personally objectionable to us.”

“He is not great enough to deserve this honor,” insisted Lucitt, who argued “his political philosophy, dusted off the scrap heap during the depression, as the Voice of the Common Man, has proved alien to Jeffersonian Democracy, and he is now the Poet Laureate of the World Communist Revolution.”

A letter-writing campaign gained momentum on both sides of the Delaware. Students in the South Jersey’s 58 Catholic schools were encouraged to propose alternate “great men of New Jersey” the DRPA might consider instead of Whitman. Within a few months, nearly 1,500, mostly form letters, filled the Port Authority’s in-box. According to historian Marc Stein, “90% of the New Jersey writers were anti-Whitman; 77% of the Philadelphia writers were pro Whitman.” The DRPA received anti-Whitman letters from the Camden chapter of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic War Veterans, the American Gold Star Mothers; a chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars in South Jersey and two labor unions. Among Whitman’s most organized and ardent supporters were of English professors on faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.

One resourceful letter writer from Philadelphia found a passage by Philadelphia’s Agnes Repplier labeling Whitman “an ‘incurable poseur’ who “loved his indecency . . .  clinging to it with an almost embarrassing ardor.” Another writer suggested the contrary, that “the Port Authority should not be pressured into rejecting Whitman “just because he didn’t think in narrow, dogmatic religious terms, nor behave in strict, puritan, conforming ways.”

Statue of Walt Whitman, Broad Street and Packer Avenue, April 6, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

By March 1956, the chairman of DRPA’s Special Committee on Bridge Names, formed the previous June, confirmed the original decision to name the bridge for Whitman. He holds an “honored place in our history,” concluded the committee. Plus, the agency added, they “found no evidence Whitman was homosexual.”

The 7-lane Walt Whitman Bridge opened on May 15, 1957 at a mid-span ceremony attended by some 3,500 citizens. The following morning the DRPA opened it to traffic with a 25-cent toll.

Two years later, on June 1, 1959, officials gathered on a grassy patch at Packer Avenue and Broad Street to dedicate a larger-than-life bronze statue of a striding Whitman by sculptor Jo Davidson.  “I wanted Walt “‘afoot and lighthearted,’” wrote Davidson, quoting from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” But in this case, the “open road” would be an on-ramp for six-lanes of bridge-bound traffic crossing the Delaware a mile a minute, 150-feet above the rippling, brackish current so familiar to Whitman.

[Sources: Marc Stein, City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972 (Temple University Press, 2004); The Delaware River Port Authority (chronology). In chronological order: Edgar Williams, The Bridge Without a Name, Today Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1954; “Catholics Decry Whitman Bridge,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 1955; “Gloucester City Claims Bridge as Own,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 8, 1956; “Bridge is Opened at Philadelphia,” The New York Times, May 16, 1957; “Whitman Statue Dedication Set,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 29, 1959; Joann P. Krieg, “Democracy in Action: Naming the Bridge for Walt Whitman,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 12, no. 2 (1994) pp. 108-114. Special thanks to Bob Skiba.]

For more posts on the naming of the Walt Whitman Bridge, click here and here.

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Naming Bridges in the 1950s: Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman

The vision to span the Delaware River goes back as far as 1818, but the Delaware River Bridge wasn’t completed for another 108 years. This project coincided with the Sesquicentennial Exposition, Philadelphia’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Here we tell the story of the bridges renaming and the controversy about the name of a second span in the 1950s.

Walt Whitman Bridge Towers East – September 23, 1955 (PhillyHistory.org)

1951 – The Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) proposed a new bridge three miles downstream from the 25-year old span connecting Center City Philadelphia and Camden – the Delaware River Bridge.

1953 – Construction begins on the second suspension bridge to span the Delaware, this one connecting South Philadelphia and Gloucester City, New Jersey. DRPA dubs it “the new bridge” or “Bridge No.2.”

April 1954 – “The Bridge Without a Name,” a prominent story in the Inquirer, inspires a rash of proposed names for both the earlier Delaware River Bridge and the new one. (Ike and Mamie?) Other suggestions include Gloucester City Bridge, Packer Avenue Bridge, and Philester, a combination of the two. Some prefer the more regional Penjerdel. Familiar names tossed around include William Penn, Thomas Jefferson, John Barry, Thomas Paine, Betsy Ross, James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Wanamaker, Thomas Edison, among others. Someone suggested “Brotherhood Bridge.” The Pennsylvania chapter of American Gold Star Mothers wanted the bridge to be called “Penn-Jersey Memorial Bridge” in honor of the casualties of World War II and Korea.

May 1954 – Mindful of the upcoming 250th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth in 1956, an executive at the Franklin Institute urges that one bridge be named for Franklin. The idea gains traction.

1954 & 1955 – The DRPA appoints a Special Committee on Bridge Names which unanimously approves the renaming of the earlier bridge as the “Benjamin Franklin Bridge.” Bridge No.2 will become the “Walt Whitman Bridge.”

August & September 1955 – Gloucester City Council protests naming the new bridge for Whitman, pointing out that the DRPA didn’t consult them, observing that “Whitman had nothing to do with Gloucester.” They allocate funds for signs with their preferred name: the “Gloucester Bridge.”

November & December 1955The Catholic Star Herald, the newspaper of the Camden diocese, publishes three articles by Reverend James Ryan of St. Anne’s Church in Westville, New Jersey. “As a poet,” wrote Father Ryan, Whitman “is recognized even by his most favorable critics as definitely ‘second-rate.’ . . . As a thinker Walt Whitman possesses the depth of a saucer and enjoys a vision which extends about as far as his eyelids. A naturalist, a pantheist, a freethinker, a man whose ideas were destructive of usual ethical codes-is this a name we wish to preserve for posterity? . . . The philosophy of Walt Whitman crumbles under the destructive egotism that gave it life. . . . We don’t want our new span named after a man whose ideas fell far short of spanning the problems of human existence.”

In the last of his articles, Father Ryan reveals his main objection: “Whitman’s major works exhibit a revolting homosexual imagery that is not confined to a few isolated passages but permeates the fetid whole.”

What happened next? Click here and here to find out.

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The Re-Branding of Philadelphia as Arts Destination, 1955-1962

Arts Festival Poster, March 19, 1962 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Some of us may be inclined to think and talk of Philadelphia in terms of magnificent buildings, colossal machines and other products of imaginative planning,” said Mayor Joseph Clark in 1955. “Not forgotten, but somewhat less talked about today in the cultural vitality which has always identified Philadelphia nationally and throughout the world. Our city is nobly endowed with schools in every field of art, with outstanding art treasures and with widely valued art activities. All of these are expanding rapidly and with a sensitivity to the spirit of our age which I believe will account for much of the city’s greatness in the future.”

And so, Philadelphia launched an “Art Festival,” a collection of performances and exhibitions that would draw 50,000 attendees. The new idea of re branding the city as an arts destination would catch on, if a bit slowly. In 1959, the second “arts festival” (now plural) got off to its start, complete with a rationale, as explained in the Inquirer:

“Modern technology and increased productivity have added golden hours to everyone’s days. Some of these extra hours, of course, are devoted to sports and travel, gardening, bird watching and the like. But a steadily increasing proportion are being used for the enjoyment of the arts. Never before have so many people taken such an active interest in paintings and sculpture, music, dancing, the theater, and all the other divisions of art. To encourage this growing interest and to acquaint the people of Philadelphia and its suburbs with their wealth of art facilities, is the purpose of the Festival” which presented more than 100 events.

The third festival took place in 1962.

“The city is going on a 16-day crash diet of high-calorie culture,” proclaimed the Daily News on June 8th. “It’s called the Philadelphia Arts Festival… And if this can’t get a fellow away from his television set, nothing can.”

Plastering of the First Kiosks, June 7, 1962 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Music, ballet, painting, sculpture, architectural exhibits, poetry drama, you name it, Philadelphia will have it. And a good many of the cultural dishes will be just what the best things in life are supposed to be – free as the air. Most of them, in fact, will be in the air. … There’ll be more than 100 events, more than 5,000 performers—pros, amateurs, students… An estimated one million persons will peek at some phase of the fête before the curtain rings down on June 24.”

The kickoff included the opening of major exhibits at the Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, an illustrated lecture by Jack Bookbinder, director of art education, Philadelphia Public Schools: “Understanding and Enjoyment of Modern Art.”  The festival included “an all-star jazz concert” under the stars including Billy Krechmer and his five-man group; pianist Bernard Peiffer with Gusti Nemeth; bassist Billy Root and his octet, and the Vincent Montana Trio. It featured a program of folk songs with George Britton at the Hospitality Center (at what is now Love Park). In all, the festival sponsored by the Mayor’s Arts Advisory Council was a packed schedule of events from a clothesline art exhibition at Rittenhouse Square to the Ferko Mummers String Band on the Parkway, to square dancing at the Cheltenham Shopping Center.

Theatrical performances included “an evening of comedy” featuring  Jules Feiffer’s “Crawling Arnold,” the barroom scene from Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars” and scenes from Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid.” Dance soloists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art featured character sketches by Andrey Brookspan, Leah Dillon and her Dance Arts Group, Sally Gibbs McClure and her Spanish dance group, and solos by Malvena Taiz.

Word spread via schedules posted on 25 temporary kiosks throughout Center City.

Arts Festival Awards Presentation at the Warwick Hotel June 15, 1962 (PhillyHistory.org)

The highlight event took place on Saturday evening, June 16th when more than 5,000 filled the cavernous Convention Hall (then in West Philadelphia) for a free concert of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Jerome Lowenthal, soloist) and works by Shostakovich, Barber, Gershwin and Bernstein.

The Mayor’s Arts Advisory Council honored eleven Philadelphia creatives “for bringing credit and renown to the city.” Recipients were presented with engraved silver plates. They were:

Architecture: Louis I. Kahn “who did the Art Gallery at Yale and teaches at Penn and Princeton.”

City Planning: Roy Larson, president of the Philadelphia Art Commission, “who has ‘kept a watchful eye on the design of the city.’”

Dance: Zachary Solov, “who, after leaving Philadelphia, studied with Balanchine, Scholler and Loring and who was selected by Rudolf Bing to bring a new look to the Metropolitan Opera.”

Fashion: Tina Leser, “noted designer.”

Literature: Loren Eiseley, provost of the University of Pennsylvania “and prize-winning author of The Firmament of Time.”

Music: Samuel Barber, “composer of prize-winning works and first American to have his work performed at the Salzburg Festival”; famed bassoonist Sol Schoenbach, of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Woodwind Quintet; and Susan Starr, “pianist who recently took second place in the Tchaikovsky International Exhibition in Russia.”

Painting: Charles Sheeler, “’the grand old man of painting,’ who studied here, later in Spain, France and Italy.”

Theater: Playwright George Kelly, “of the famous local family, who won the Pulitzer Prize 37 years ago with Craig’s Wife.” And actress Ethel Waters, “Chester-born star known for her work on Broadway and Hollywood.”

[Sources: Gertrude Benson, “Art Festival Sets Array of Awards,” Inquirer, January 30, 1955; “20,000 at Museum See Opening of Art Festival,” Inquirer, February 26, 1955; Hugh Scott, “The Arts Festival,” Inquirer Magazine, January 18, 1959; “Citywide Stage is set for 16-Day Art Festival,” The Philadelphia Daily News, June 8, 1962; “3rd Festival of Arts Opens on Saturday,” Inquirer, June 9, 1962; [Advertisement] “Free Tickets Philadelphia Arts Awards Gala, Convention Hall, 34th and Spruce, Friday, June 15, 8:15 PM,” Inquirer, June 13, 1962; “City to Honor Eleven Artists from Area,” The Philadelphia Daily News, June 15, 1962; “Phila. Pays Tribute To 11 for Achievement In the World of Arts,” Inquirer, June 16, 1962; Samuel L. Singer, “Concert Highlights Art Awards Gala,” Inquirer, June 16, 1962; “Arts Festival Events at Peak,” Inquirer, June 17, 1962.]

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Realism at the Sesquicentennial: The Palace of Arts

Palace of Fine Arts at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

Deep in South Philadelphia in the mid-1920s, Sesquicentennial planners carved up a brand new 68,000 square-foot pavilion beside Edgewater Lake into 48 galleries and dubbed it the Palace of Fine Arts. Along a mile-and- a-quarter of walls, they hung paintings, watercolors and prints. On pedestals they mounted sculptures from all over the world, more than 400 of them from France, Spain, Yugoslavia, Japan and Russia, among other nations. Among “the foremost Americans” represented was Charles Grafly and Albert Laessle, who had dedicated galleries. Paul Manship’s sculptures, including his Diana and Actaeon, both now at the Smithsonian, graced the great entrance hall. Just outside the large arched entrance, in a place of honor, Beatrice Fenton’s Seaweed Fountain greeted visitors.

A half century later, curator of 20th century art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Anne d’Harnoncourt described Seaweed Fountain as Fenton’s first “ambitious, life-size ornamental sculpture” an example of a genre known as Decorative Realism. An “unidealized treatment of youth,” it represented a “departure from standard academic canons of grace and proportion in the human figure.” This particularly American brand of realism was reminiscent of work by Thomas Eakins, a family friend and early mentor. Eakins painted a portrait of the young Fenton in 1904. He died a decade before the Sesquicentennial but his reputation was on the upswing in the mid-1920s. In stark contrast to the decision not to hang his Gross Clinic at the Centennial in 1876, curators at the Palace of Fine Arts devoted an entire gallery to Eakins, crediting him as “the most potent figure in the art of this country in the last fifty years.”

Fenton’s Seaweed Fountain also echoed the approach of another mentor and teacher, Charles Grafly. An “original adaptation of the realist aspect of Grafly’s teaching,” suggested D’Harnoncourt. “Nothing could be more remote in feeling from the polished simplified and classicizing work of Paul Manship” who, interestingly, had also studied with Grafly.

Manship’s Duck Girl from 1911 won the coveted Widener prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1914. Fenton’s Seaweed Fountain won the same award in 1922.  (See Duck Girl is in Rittenhouse Square, not far from Fenton’s much later Evelyn Taylor Price Memorial Sundial.)

Beatrice Fenton with her sculpture Seaweed Fountain, ca. 1920 / unidentified photographer. Beatrice Fenton papers. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Fenton walked away from the Sesquicentennial with a bronze medal for sculpture, one of 15 winners, 13 of whom were men, including Manship, Alexander Sterling Calder (who Fenton also briefly studied under) and Albert Laessle (another student of Grafly). The only one other woman to win a medal, the younger Katharine Lane Weems from Boston, would become known for her realistic renditions of all kinds of animals, especially elephants and rhinoceroses.

D’Harnoncourt described the making of Fenton’s Seaweed Fountain: Fenton “set about it with characteristic thoroughness. Working in her third-floor studio at 1523 Chestnut Street, she posed a lively six-year-old child…. The child is gawky yet charming, posing in her seaweed festoons, with all the coy bravado of one caught in the act dressing up in her mother’s clothes before a mirror. Her toes grip the turtle’s back, and her stocky torso balances awkwardly atop thin and knock-kneed legs.”

In 1922, Fenton’s first cast was installed in a fountain at the foot of Fairmount Park’s Lemon Hill. Three additional casts are known, in the Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina and private collections. In the early 1960s, the Fairmount Park Art Association commissioned Fenton to create clusters of bronze angelfish to accompany the piece at Lemon Hill. Those were stolen in 1974 and presumedly melted down as scrap. Fearing Seaweed Fountain would have also disappeared, officials moved to the park’s Horticultural Center, where it’s still on view.

Shortly after that re installation, Nessa Forman, the arts editor at The Bulletin, found that Mary Wilson Wallace, the once-upon-a-time model for Seaweed Fountain, was alive and well in nearby Glenolden, Pennsylvania. Then 63, Wallace and the 89-year-old Fenton held a reunion in front of a cast of Seaweed Fountain, part of a centerpiece display at the Flower Show. Wallace and Fenton reminisced about the a six-year-old whose arms were growing tired. But the commitment to realism only went so far. For the sake of posing, Fenton chose to have Wilson’s “precarious perch” be on a box, rather than on the back of a giant turtle. To make her sculpture of the turtle look as real as possible, Fenton convinced the aquarium at the Fairmount Waterworks to lend her one of theirs.

(Sources: Paintings, Sculpture and Prints in the Department of Fine Arts, Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition [Illustrated Catalogue] (Philadelphia, 1926); E. L. Austin and Odell Hauser, The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition (Philadelphia: Current Publications, 1929); Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art : Bicentennial Exhibition, April 11-October 10, 1976 (Philadelphia Museum of Art: 1976]; Nessa Forman,” Found: Mary Wilson,” The Philadelphia Bulletin, March 21, 1977; Penny Balkin Bach, Public Art in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia, Temple University Press: 1992); Page Talbot, “The Philadelphia Ten,” (The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2017); A Finding Aid to the Beatrice Fenton Papers, 1836-1984, bulk 1890-1978, in the Archives of American Art.)

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Tragic Train Wreck at 53rd Street and Baltimore Avenue

The Chester Avenue Bridge at the 49th Street Station. October 12, 1950.

“The 17‐car accident occurred about 8:20 A.M. on Conrail’s West Chester-Media line, which passes through southwest Philadelphia. The site of the accident, near 53d Street and Baltimore Avenue, is an area of depressed housing, storefront businesses and abandoned automobile chassis situated about two miles from Center City.”

-The New York Times, October 17, 1979

When finished in 1858, the Philadelphia & West Chester Railroad new line connected Center City Philadelphia with farming communities in rural Chester County.  By the late 1880s, as the formerly rural West and Southwest Philadelphia grew more developed, a bridge carried Chester Avenue over the railroad tracks, and a permanent station was constructed at the 49th Street intersection.  By then the Philadelphia Railroad had absorbed the small West Chester line.  Clusters of substantial Queen Anne style twin houses sprung up around the 49th Street station stop, and the formerly peripatetic Belmont Cricket Club moved to a large lot a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks, a set-up mirroring the Merion Cricket Club’s on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line.  Stops along the way to West Chester included the new towns of Philadelphia’s idyllic southwestern “Quaker” suburbs: Swarthmore, Rose Valley, Wallingford and Media.

In 1968, the financially troubled Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central merged into a goliath known as Penn Central.  A decade later, Penn Central collapsed in the nation’s largest bankruptcy in American history, but not before it spun off its commuter operations, as well as some freight-hauling, to form a new entity called Conrail. Conrail’s operational record was spotty due to ancient PRR equipment and years of deferred maintenance.  On October 1, 1979, two freight trains, one consisting of 44 cars and one of 111 cars, collided outside of Philadelphia, killing two crewmembers. Just over two weeks later, on October 16, disaster struck Conrail again, this time in West Philadelphia.  The last two cars of the 7:27am commuter train from Media were not attaching properly to the rest of the train.  The engineer moved all passengers forward, leaving the last two cars on the track.  The next train into Philadelphia, the 7:47 from Media, picked up the two orphaned cars on its way. At 11 cars in length, the 7:47 was now quite ungainly, but the rush hour passengers probably appreciated the extra room.

Near the intersection of 53rd and Baltimore Avenue, the signal blinked “stop,” and the big 7:47 from Media came to a halt.  A small, two-car train, the 7:07 from West Chester, stopped behind it. Onboard were about 1,200 people preparing for their workday. They chatted, read the paper, drank coffee, or dozed in their seats.

But there was another train coming around the bend, the 7:50 from Elwyn, whose engineer ignored the “stop” signal and plowed right into the parked West Chester train at nearly 30 miles an hour.

“Signals gave me the go‐ahead,” the engineer later claimed.  Conrail would counter, “The signaling system was in proper working order.”

Pushed ahead by the force of the collision, the West Chester train then rear-ended the big 7:47 train from Media.

There was a cacophony of crunching sheet metal, shattering glass, and the shrieking of steel wheels on rails. “There was no screaming,” remembered one passenger, “There was a kind of stunned silence.” Hundreds of bloodied passengers stumbled out of the wrecked trains.  No one was killed, but 400 people were hurt, some with broken bones and abdominal injuries.  The city’s emergency services sprung into action, setting up a first aid center at the nearby Avery T. Harrington Public School at 53rd and Baltimore Avenue.  About 80 police cars and ambulances swiftly transferred everyone in need of medical attention to nearby hospitals.

Trolley tracks at the intersection of 54th and Baltimore, near the Conrail crash site. October 1, 1953. Photographer: Francis Ballonis.

“By midday, hours after the accident,” The New York Times reported, “workmen with hand tools were tearing up gouged ties, cranes mounted on flatbed cars were hooking into crumpled stainless steel cars, and the police were barring spectators from the scene. Inside the cars where 1,200 people had been on their way to town, bloodied handkerchiefs and sections of the morning paper were strewn about.”

525 passengers were injured in the accident, and one crewmember died six days later.  Equipment damage totaled nearly $2 million.

In its final report on the disaster, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the negligence of the engineer of the oncoming train:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the engineer of train No. 1718 operating at a speed above that authorized by the block signal indication which did not allow for his stopping the train before it collided with a standing train. Contributing to the accident was the engineer’s improper operation of the train brakes and the failure of a supervisor and train crew personnel in the operating compartment of the locomotive to monitor the train’s operation adequately and to take action to insure that the train’s speed was reduced or that it was stopped when its speed exceeded that authorized for the signal block.

Five years after the collision at 53rd and Baltimore Conrail divested itself of Philadelphia’s commuter rail lines handed the remnants of the once-mighty PRR and Reading lines over to the newly created Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). Service to West Chester terminated in 1986.

Sources:

Railroad Accident Report: Collision of Conrail Commuter Trains, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 16, 1979 (Report). Washington, D.C.: National Transportation Safety Board. May 12, 1980. NTSB-RAR-80-5.

https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/accidentreports/pages/RAR8005.aspx

Bradley Peniston, “A Short History of a Short Street,” Hidden City Philadelphia, February 27, 2013.

A Short History Of A Short Street

Alan Richman, “More Than 400 Hurt in 3-Train Crash in Philadelphia,” The New York Times, October 17, 1979.l

 

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Martin Meyerson’s Presidential Residence at 2016 Spruce Street

Facade of the President’s Residence, University of Pennsylvania, 2016 Spruce Street, 1927.

In 1970, University of Pennsylvania’s new president Martin Meyerson hired arguably the most famous architect in America at the time, Penn’s own Louis Kahn, to renovate a double-wide brownstone mansion at 2016 Spruce Street into a new presidential residence.  Meyerson was a unusual university president, in that his background was not in academia, but in city planning. Accordiing to the New York Times: “He oversaw the conversion of what had been a collection of buildings on Philadelphia streets into a true campus. Streets were closed, landscaped walkways were built, and a large park was created in the middle of the campus.”

Traditionally, the Penn president lived in leafy Chestnut Hill, the favorite enclave of Philadelphia’s upper crust and the neigborhood of many of the university’s biggest donors.  A native New Yorker, Meyerson decided to change that precendent by moving the president’s home into Center City. 2016 Spruce had been built in the 1860s by the prominent architect Samuel Sloan. Sloan’s most notable surviving commissions include the Woodland Terrace development (longtime neighborhood of Penn architecture professor Paul-Philippe Cret) and the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital at 50thand Market. Sloan’s specialized in the picturesque Italianate style.  By the early 1970s, Philadelphia’s real estate market was in a deep funk. Rittenhouse Square had fallen a long way since its Gilded Age heyday, when the author Henry James described it as “the perfect square.”  Yet the once-fashionable streets around Rittenhouse still remained popular with Penn faculty, including physician Dr. Isidor Ravdin, city planner Edmund Bacon, and sociologist E. Digby Baltzell Jr.

The student protests and strikes of the late 60s also may have had something to do with Meyerson’s decision to not live on the West Philadelphia campus.  In 1972, Harvard’s president Derek Bok (an heir to the Philadelphia-based Curtis publishing fortune) decamped from Harvard Yard to the 18th century Elmwood mansion, still in Cambridge but a comfortable mile or so from campus.

Library, 2016 Spruce Street, 1972.

Louis Kahn, who balanced private practice and teaching duties, was busy with prestigious commissions in the late 60s, most notably the National Assembly at Dhaka in Bangladesh. Yet Kahn must have felt sense of obligation to his former boss at Penn’s architecture school to undertake this relatively small project.   Trained in the traditional Beaux Arts method, Kahn was extremely respectful of the mansion’s Victorian aesthetic.  Unlike other modernist architects, who would gutted the house, Kahn used a light touch, keeping all of the intricate paneling, marble fireplaces, and ornamental plaster intact.  He added bookshelves in one of the double parlors to house Meyerson’s library, and then created a new kitchen addition at the rear of the house.  The kitchen, despite its modest size, is pure Kahn, with plenty of light and large, unornamented surfaces of wood and brick.

 

Louis Kahn’s kitchen addition for 2016 Spruce Street, 1972.

The end result was a house that retained its “Old Philadelphia” Victorian gravitas, but was well-suited to the modern urban family life of Martin and Margi Meyerson.

In 1980, with the memories of campus unrest fading, the University of Pennsylvania decided to move the president’s residence back to West Philadelphia.  The building chosen for the honor was the former mansion of the cigar manufacturer Otto Eisenlohr, located at 3808-3810 Walnut Street. Built in 1907, it was the work of Horace Trumbauer and his partner Julian Abele, the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture program.

2016 Spruce Street is once again a private residence, and has recently been listed for sale at nearly $3 million.

 

Sources: 

Judith Rodin, The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), p.25.

Sandy Smith, “A President’s House in Rittenhouse for $2.895M,” Philadelphia Magazine, April 30, 2018.

https://www.phillymag.com/property/2018/04/30/martin-meyerson-house-rittenhouse-for-2-895m/

Dennis Hevesi, “Martin Meyerson, 84, Leader at 3 Universities, Dies,” The New York Times, June 7, 2007.

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