The Rise and Fall of Southwark

“When you enter the plaza,” reported the Inquirer in 1981, “Southwark surprises you with the makings of a nice community. The towers look into a community center, open squares and trees, and from these extend little streets of rowhouses with hedges and yards. It is a campus-like setting full of potential…”

That was the idea, anyway.

South 4th Street, Christian to Washington, 1964 (PhillyHistory.org)

Inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, architects including Louis I. Kahn and Oscar Stonorov designed three dozen high-rise housing projects for thousands of Philadelphia’s low-income families. Edmund Bacon at the city planning commission led the charge. Bacon, John F. Bauman put it, “viewed public housing as part of the process of excising away Philadelphia’s obsolescent industrial past and ushering in a modern and more physically attractive future for a ‘Better Philadelphia.’”

Through the 1950s and 1960s, according to Alexander van Hoffman, urban high-rise projects “rising out of vast expanses of grass and greenery” came to “dominate the image of American public housing.” The “movement for tall modernism…gained support from city officials and developers who saw sleek skyscrapers as a way of modernizing the aging urban landscapes of postwar America.”

A few designers worried they might be creating a new generation of “supertenements.” No matter. According to van Hoffman, officials “in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago, embraced high-rise design with an almost insane tenaciousness.” By 1960, Philadelphia had 22 low-income towers with another dozen, including three at Southwark Plaza, by Stonorov & Haws, on the drawing boards. By the late 1970s, 5,000 Philadelphia families occupied 36 high-rise projects, a social experiment that would soon become recognized as a profound city planning failure.

Built in 1963 for about $12 million (the equivalent of more than $100 million in today’s dollars) Southwark’s three 26-story towers, along with adjacent low-rise neighbors, housed more than 2,700 residents in 886 units. Cheek-by-jowl and steeped in poverty, everyone there lived with crime, drugs, unrepaired plumbing and perennially dysfunctional elevators. “It’s like living in hell, only worse,” one resident told a Bulletin reporter in 1977. “In hell, at least you are dead.”

Aerial View from Southwark Building, May 11, 1965 (PhillyHistory.org)

Southwark quickly became known as a “model of the misguided public housing policies of the day: Build cheap, then pack ’em in,” wrote the Inquirer’s Frank Lewis. This project was nothing short of “notorious for its failure in terms of people’s lives,” urban designer Jon Lang later wrote. “One of the city’s worst public housing sites,” confirmed John Kromer in Fixing Broken Cities.

The police “dreaded” Southwark. Responding to complaints, “they used the ‘three-car’ approach—three police vehicles dispatched to handle one complaint. One set of officers was needed to guard the cars. Bricks flew from the high-rises, pelting cops and their vehicles.”

If Southwark stood out at all,” wrote Buzz Bissinger in A Prayer for the City, “if there was anything that distinguished the complex, it was in the color of those…towers—a clammy, sickly yellow the human skin gets from chronic fever and stale air.”

“One didn’t have to be a social scientist or an expert in public housing to understand a place like Southwark… Any adult…or any child, for that matter—could look at those towers in their ugly incongruous setting … and know that they had been doomed to failure from the very beginning, casting a potentially fatal effect not only on those who were sentenced to live there but also those who lived anywhere close to them.”

“There were poor people in the city who desperately needed housing,” wrote Bissinger, “but not like this.”

“Around the same time,” reported the Inquirer, “everyone had seemed to come to the same conclusion … high-rises and low incomes just don’t mix.

The successful explosives felling of [Southwark Residential Towers] two, 331’ tall, 26-story, reinforced concrete apartment structures, 8:30 AM on Sunday, January 23, 2000. (Controlled Demolition, Inc.)

And so, early one frigid millennial morning [January 23, 2000], scores of police officers “cordoned off an area bordered by Sixth, Moyamensing, Queen and Wharton.” Traffic on I-95 was temporarily halted. Eighty-five pounds of explosives had been strategically affixed to 650 concrete uprights in each of two towers.

“At 8:31 a.m. as light snow fell and police, officials and hundreds of residents watched, the two 26-story towers at Washington and Fourth Streets were imploded into giant piles of rubble. Loud bangs rang out, and for an instant, the towers stood intact. Then another bang sounded and the buildings crumbled straight down.” Finally, “a giant ball of light-brown dust rose and spread” over a good part of South Philadelphia.

Southwark was hardly the only low-income, high rise to meet its fate with a bang and a cloud of dust. For two decades, starting in the mid-1990s, no fewer than 23 low-income high rises came down. And implosion was the method of choice. The 8-tower Raymond Rosen Apartments in 1995 was followed a year later by the Schuylkill Falls Apartments. The Martin Luther King Plaza came down in 1999, one year before Southwark, two years before Cambridge Plaza and three years before the Mill Creek Apartments.

Philadelphia, it seemed, had come to its senses as to what constitutes humane, low-income housing. And Philadelphians found themselves engaged in a newfound, post-modern spectator sport.

[Sources: From The Philadelphia Inquirer: Bob Frump, “Why ‘Projects” is a Dirty Word in Housing, April 16, 1978; Andrew Wallace, “Southwark: Trash,” April 16, 1978; Mark Randall, “At Southwark Plaza…” Our Town, Today Magazine, November 1, 1981; Laura Bunch, Vacant Towers Coming Down Amid Hope of Better Housing,” December 2, 1996; Thom Guarnieri, “Towers’ Rubble Clears the Way for a Fresh Start,” January 24, 2000; Larry Eichel, “Rising from Ruins,” December 4, 2005. From The Philadelphia Daily News:  Leon Taylor, “Project’s Towers go from Dream to Dust, April 18, 1995; Christine Bahls, MLK Towers Tumble Down, October 18, 1999. A Citizen’s Guide to Housing and Urban Renewal in Philadelphia (Philadelphia Housing Association, 1960); John F. Bauman, Public Housing, Race, and Urban Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920–1974 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987); John F. Bauman, “Row Housing as Public Housing: The Philadelphia Story, 1957–2013,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol.138, no. 4 (2014): Buzz Bissinger, A Prayer for the City (Vintage, 1998); Ryan Briggs, “Bidding Farewell To Queen Lane, Looking Ahead For PHA,” Hidden City, September 12, 2014; Jon Lang, Urban Design: The American Experience (John Wiley & Sons, 1994); Frank Lewis, “The Philadelphia Experiment,” Philadelphia City Paper,  April 17–24, 1997; John L. Puckett, Public Housing’s Backstory, Part of Diverse Stories: Public Housing in West Philadelphia, (West Philadelphia Collaborative History); Alexander van Hoffman, “High Ambitions: The Past and the Future of American Low-Income Housing Policy,” Housing Policy Debate, vol. 8, no. 3, 1996.]

 

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More Jane Jacobs’ Philadelphia

The great Jane Jacobs, as we saw in our last post, had a lot to say about cities in general and Philadelphia in particular. We couldn’t resist sharing more:

On demolishing City Hall: “I’m glad they didn’t!” declared Jacobs in 1962. “That courtyard space is one of the most attractive things of its kind in any city I ever saw. More should be done with it, of course, though you don’t want anything chic or flossy or cutesy.”

“Philadelphia’s embrace of the new, after long years of apathy, has by some miracle not meant the usual rejection of whatever is old. When a city can carry on a love affair with its old and its new at once, it has terrific vitality.”

Jane Jacobs wrote that the new Independence mall was “embalming Independence Hall in its grand distances like a fly in amber” admitted that “the Hall is a fly in amber – whole, stimulating to the sense of wonder, but infinitely, infinitely remote.”  And, she added, “the quaintsy lamps, urns and pedestals that irritate the mall’s edges are a pathetic try and concealing the joints between then-and-now, but the design that counts is the long, tree-lined vista which acknowledges the Hall is an exhibit that most people first view at 35 mph.” Independence Mall, June 6, 1966 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Mrs. Jacobs shook her head disapprovingly,” wrote Frederick Pillsbury of Jacobs’ reaction to Penn Center. Planners and urban renewal experts “have this notion of taking a superblock and spotting buildings on it” believing “that a development like this helps what’s around it.” But, she added, “it’s done nothing for the other side of the street. It’s an island instead of part of the continuing fabric.”  Penn Center Ice Skating, October 1963 (PhillyHistory.org)

“I was sure she would pan the new, flying-saucer tourist center on the north side of the hall,” wrote Bulletin reporter Frederick Pillsbury, “but she surprised me. I like that,” she commented. “A little flashy, perhaps, but appropriate, and fun.”Hospitality Center – 16th and Parkway. September 23, 1960 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Mrs. Jacobs frowned,” wrote Pillsbury. “‘This is what happens when you start arranging cultural things,’” she said. “‘The library has no business being out here and neither do the Art Museum or the Franklin Institute. They belong right at the center of things. Thank God they didn’t move the Academy of Music out here! But I do like the fountains. Philadelphia should have more fountains like those.’”  Fountain, Logan Circle, April 13, 1949 (PhillyHistory.org)

“We drove around Rittenhouse Square,” wrote Pilsbury. “This is nifty,” [Jacobs] said. “I’ve never seen it looking prettier. See how much more interesting it is than those big projects set off by themselves. But if it gets too popular and expensive it will be doomed. To keep it healthy you should have a variety of buildings and uses, as you have now, and a variety of people and ages.” Rittenhouse Square – 18th and Walnut Streets, January 13, 1935 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Downtown Philadelphia has dozens upon dozens of reborn blocks. This is an immensely healthy development, worth far more than the street widening and highway bisection which – in ignorance or in ruthlessness – help thwart such upgrading in many cities.”

“Hundreds of thousands of people with hundreds of thousands of plans and purposes built the city and only they will rebuild the city. All else can only be oases in the desert.”

“And still the deserts of the city have grown and still they are growing, the awful endless blocks, the endless miles of drabness and chaos.”

“Little good can happen to people or to buildings when a sense of neighborhood is missing.”

“The street works harder than any other part of downtown. It is the nervous system; it communicates the flavor, the feel, the sights. … Users of downtown know that downtown needs not fewer streets, but more, especially for pedestrians.”

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Near 3rd and Spruce Streets Jacobs “looked over the first buildings of the Society Hill project. ‘I don’t ‘like them,’” she said of some new buildings in Society Hill, “They’re pretending to be something they’re not.”

Visiting 10th and Tasker Streets in South Philadelphia, Jacobs observed: “There were people sitting on front steps, talking out windows. Children played on the sidewalks under the eyes of neighbors and parents. There were corner stores. … ‘This looks healthy to me… This is much better than Society Hill will ever be. It’s the kind of area a city ought to cherish and respect. These people live here. The people who set policy for the city ought to listen to these people down here.’”

“Now this is nice!” [Jacobs] said at [Fitler Square] 23rd and Pine Streets. . . She settled back on the seat and lit a cigarette. ‘City zoning needs a complete overhaul,’ she said presently. ‘Look at this: stores and gardens spotted everywhere. They’re not standing in the way of rehabilitation, are they? There’s a whole fiction about what’s blighting. The planners haven’t looked and seen what city life is all about.'”  Fitler Park – 23rd and Pine Streets. January 21, 1947 (PhillyHistory.org)

McKee's Alley, east of 1320 Lombard Street, February 27, 1930 (PhillyHistory.org)

“We cut down to Lombard Street and inspected its old, small houses, many recently fixed up, many, undergoing face-liftings. ‘Now this is important,’ Mrs. Jacobs said. ‘It’s not broken up with a lot of woozy open space.’ We had a glimpse of an inner courtyard through an open doorway. ‘That’s one of the wonderful things about Philadelphia,’ she said, ‘those little courtyards behind houses. Yet they flout every regulation about urban renewal.'”  McKee’s Alley, east of 1320 Lombard Street, February 27, 1930 (PhillyHistory.org)

“We saw two of the city’s recent examples of urban renewal- simple two-story apartment houses with strips of green around them. Mrs. Jacobs said they showed ‘a great vacuum of thought.’ It was wrong, she said, to herd people of one income together, because you got too many similar problems in one place and too little variety.”  Tenth Street, Brown to Parrish Streets, December 4, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

[Sources: [Jane Jacobs], “A Lesson in Urban Redevelopment: Philadelphia’s Redevelopment, A Progress Report,” Architectural Forum 103 (July 1955); Frederick Pillsbury, ”’I Like Philadelphia with some big IFs and BUTs.” An Interview with Jane Jacobs,” The Sunday Bulletin Magazine, June 24, 1962.]

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Jane Jacobs’ Philadelphia

Site of Society Hill Towers, July 7, 1961 (PhillyHistory.org) with Frederick Pillsbury. “We viewed the acres of rubble that one day will be apartment house towers and new houses. ‘You see, the planners always want to make a big deal of everything they do,’ Mrs. Jacobs said. ‘In urban renewal you need new buildings—I have no quarrel with that—but there were plenty of good buildings here. Why tear them all down?'”

‘You’ve got to get out and walk!’ urban journalist Jane Jacobs implored her readers.

It was 1958 and her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wouldn’t appear for another three years. Jacobs ideas were still forming, still considered “radical and outlandish.” In time, her approach would prevail and come to influence both urban theory and redevelopment.

So why not take the occasion of Jacobs’ 104th birthday, to share some of her thoughts on urban design in general, and Philadelphia in particular? Jane Jacobs had much to say about both.

“Look at some lively old parts of the city,” she wrote. “Notice the tenement with the stoop and sidewalk and how that stoop and sidewalk belong to the people there. … Notice the stores and the converted store fronts. …think about these examples of the plaza, the market place and the forum, all very ugly and makeshift but very much belonging to the inhabitants, very intimate and informal. … the least we can do is to respect—in the deepest sense—strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.”

That “weird wisdom,” wrote Nathaniel Rich in The Atlantic, “was the wisdom of crowds: the customs and habits that people in cities, left to their own devices.” And it was often counter to what planners wanted. “The planners had been guided by aesthetic concerns, favoring clean lines, geometric shapes, and vast boulevards that were beautiful so long as they were seen from the window of an airplane. But Americans didn’t need a new utopia,” says Rich. “They already had a system that, while messy and imperfect, produced a thriving society.”

As Jacobs studied “the ecology of cities,” she would reveal “nothing less than a new ‘system of thought’ about the city.” And, when “compared to the bird’s-eye view and arm’s-length approach of professional theorists,” according to Peter L. Laurence, Jacobs’ “approach, like her activism, was eye level and hands on; her urban theory was the corollary of her activism, and vice versa.”

10th Street, Brown to Parrish Streets, December 4, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org) “We drove through a dreary, rundown area on North 11th Street.” Frederick Pillsbury “asked Mrs. Jacobs what she would do about it if she had the authority. ‘I don’t believe in panaceas,’ she said. ‘The problems in a place like this are too complicated for offhand suggestions. The first thing would be to learn about the life here.'”

Jacobs’ “great accomplishment, writes Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, “would be to translate that ‘weird wisdom’ into terms we could all understand.”

And, one might argue, it all started in 1954, when the editors of Architectural Forum assigned Jacobs’ to cover the legendary Philadelphia city planner Edmund N. Bacon. According to Alice Sparberg Alexiou, Bacon, “like everybody else at the time believed wholeheartedly in the bulldozer approach to urban renewal.”

According to Alexiou, Jacobs would later recall Bacon taking her “on a tour of a black neighborhood . . . to show her a recent renewal project. ‘He took me along a crowded street, where there were a lot of recent arrivals in the Great Migration, . . . Obviously they were very poor people, but enjoying themselves and each other. Then we went one street over [where there were the new high-rise projects]. Ed Bacon said, ‘Let me show you what we’re doing.’ He wanted me to see the lovely vista. There was no human being on the street except for a little boy kicking a tire. I said, ‘Where are the people?’ He didn’t answer. He only said, ‘They don’t appreciate these things.’”

In an instant, “Jacobs realized that the high-rise projects that Bacon was so proud of had been designed with total disregard for the people who inhabit them.”

“What a revelation that was to me!” said Jacobs of her encounter with Bacon. She returned to New York with the realization that “all the hyped new projects the planners and architects were building in cities… bore no relation to what people actually needed.”

Jacobs had learned the truth by trusting “what her own eyes told her, what she had seen in Philadelphia.”

[Sources: Alice Sparberg Alexiou, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006); [Jane Jacobs], “A Lesson in Urban Redevelopment: Philadelphia’s Redevelopment, A Progress Report,” Architectural Forum (July 1955); [Jane Jacobs], “The Missing Link in City Redevelopment,” Architectural Forum (June 1956); Peter L. Laurence, “Jane Jacobs Before Death and Life,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, (March 2007); Frederick Pillsbury, ”’I Like Philadelphia with some big IFs and BUTs.” An Interview with Jane Jacobs,” The Sunday Bulletin Magazine, June 24, 1962; Nathaniel Rich, “The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs,”, The Atlantic, November 2016; Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, “An Ad Hoc Affair: Jane Jacobs’s clear-eyed vision of humanity.” The Nation, February 3, 2017.]

Next Time: More of Jane Jacobs’ Philadelphia

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Ulysses S. Grant’s Philadelphia

Detail. Grant’s Cabin. Lemon Hill Drive and Sedgley Drive, East Fairmount Park, February 21, 1950 (PhillyHistory.org)

Philadelphians did all they could to welcome Julia and Ulysses Grant to their newly-adopted city.

Not long after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Grants moved into the townhouse at 2009 Chestnut, a gift of, as Julia referred to them, “a number of strange gentlemen of Philadelphia” who spared no expense outfitting the place.

As we saw in our previous post, Grant thanked the city’s generosity by making an unusual gift:  the log cabin in City Point, Virginia where he directed the final months of the Civil War. Both the General and Julia had fond memories of the place, which also served as the family’s temporary home. According biographer Ron Chernow, “When Julia joined [the general there] …she domesticated the rough-hewn cabin…and took her meals on equal terms with his officers. She brightened up the table by draping a makeshift cloth over it and had a way of cheering the men with her vivacity and attending to anyone who was ailing.”

“I am snugly nestled away in my husband’s log cabin,” she once confided to a friend.

It must to have been a fond reunion, then, when the family, newly settled in Philadelphia, took the two-mile carriage ride from their new townhouse to Lemon Hill Drive in Fairmount Park where the cabin had been reassembled, log-by-log and brick-by-brick.

Grant’s Cabin. Lemon Hill Drive and Sedgley Drive, East Fairmount Park, February 21, 1950 (PhillyHistory.org)

But even without the presence of this “oversized souvenir,” as Thomas Hine would later call it, the Grants really had hoped to stay in Philadelphia.

“I have a horror of living in Washington,” the General privately admitted “and never intend to do it.” But, as Chernow relates, living in the District of Columbia “proved inseparable from high command.  [Grant] fantasized about living in Philadelphia and commuting to the capital weekly.” But “upon occupying the house in May [1865] Grant discovered he had woefully underestimated the time he had to spend in Washington. Predictably he became a prisoner of his heavy workload and Julia, after four years apart from her husband, hated being stranded in another city.”

The Grants also underestimated the cost of upkeep. And in November 1865, after only a few months in their Chestnut Street mansion, they “rented out the Philadelphia house … and relocated to Washington, decorating their new home, with furniture from Philadelphia.” For the next twenty years they rented out the Philadelphia house, finally disposing it in 1885 at auction.

Meanwhile, Grant’s cabin, which the Inquirer predicted would be “an ornament to Fairmount Park” and “an object of great historical interest to Americans” remained an attraction until it, too, lost its allure.

“In the 1940s and 1950s,” we learn from archaeologist David Orr, “ the cabin barely survived the threats of fire and vandalism; by the 1970s, correspondence between the National Park Service and the City of Philadelphia … culminated in a letter requesting the transfer of Grant’s Cabin to the National Park Service to relocate it to its original City Point site.”

“The 117-year-old cabin, rotting and scarred with graffiti,” reported The New York Times, “has been difficult for the city to keep secure.”

“It is a blessing it is going,” admitted John McIlhenny, historian for the Fairmount Park Commission, which voted in 1981 “to give the building to the National Park Service. I am certainly glad it’s going home” said McIlhenny. Once again a demolition crew numbered each log and chimney brick and cut “the larger pieces of the building…along the rafters and joints, so that they could be put on a truck.”

”We had to throw a lot of rotten stuff on the trash heap,” admitted Henry Magaziner, the historical architect. But what could be saved was shipped back to Virginia and “re-erected slightly askew” on its original site, as not to disturb archaeological assets.

Cabin used by General U.S. Grant during the Siege of Petersburg at City Point, VA. (Wikimedia.org)

Is Grant remembered in Philadelphia today?

About a mile from the former site of Grant’s Cabin, at the intersection of Kelly Drive and Fountain Green Drive, stands a monumental equestrian statue by sculptors Daniel Chester French and Edward C. Potter.

French, according to the Inquirer, selected the site “himself after a careful consideration of many available spots in the park.”

Grant, Kelly Drive at Fountain Green Drive, March 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

“We endeavored in the figure of Grant to give something of the latent force of the man, manifesting itself through perfect passivity,” said French. “The expression is sober thoughtful,” observed the Inquirer. “The spectator fancies that the man is pondering over some stupendous military maneuver. The work is rather restful than dramatic, a quality which gives to the bronze representation some small suggestion of that reserved force which was—according to those who know him best—the secret of Grant’s mysterious power over this troops.”

“If the statue impresses the beholder by its force as having character and stillness,” said French,” it will have fulfilled its mission.”

In 1896 the statue was cast in fourteen sections at the Bureau Brothers Foundry, 21st Street and Allegheny Avenue. And on April 27, 1899, it was ceremoniously unveiled.

Today (the day of this post) is 121 years after that dedication and 198 years since the birth of Ulysses S. Grant.

[Sources: Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017); David G. Orr, “Cabin in Command, The City Point Headquarters of Ulysses S. Grant,”  chapter in Huts and history : the Historical Archaeology of Military Encampment During the American Civil War, edited by Clarence R. Geier, David G. Orr, Matthew B. Reeves. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, [2006]); David Gerald Orr, “Work in Progress: The City Point Headquarters Cabin of Ulysses S. Grant,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 1 (1982), pp. 195-199; Thomas Hine, “Cabin Used by Gen. Grant Being Repatriated to Va.” The Inquirer, Sept 11, 1981; “The Grant Statue,” The Inquirer, September 26, 1897; “Gen. Grant’s Philadelphia House. The New York Times, May 11, 1885; “Grant’s Civil War Cabin Set to Move,” The New York Times, September 13, 1981.]

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No Ordinary Log Cabin

In December 1864, philanthropist, abolitionist, and Presbyterian educator George H. Stuart made an offer to Ulysses S. Grant. “I incidentally asked him if there was anything I could do for him in Philadelphia.”

“No thank you,” quickly responded General Grant, who was occupied fighting the Civil War.

Then the General paused. “But on second thought, he said: ‘Yes, perhaps you can help me.’” Grant’s wife Julia, then in Burlington, New Jersey, had been “anxious to move to Philadelphia” had been “deterred by the high rates that are asked for houses.”

Could Stuart possibly help “get a furnished house ready for Mrs. Grant?”

2009 Chestnut Street, a gift to the Grants in 1865. (railsplitter.com)

The well-connected Stuart immediately reached out to monied friends and associates, including A.J. Drexel, George W. Childs, and Jay Cooke, and “found no difficulty raising the money” – $40,000 in all – the equivalent of more than $633,000 in today’s dollars.

Stuart and a few of his top donors wrote Grant a letter dated January 2, 1865 confirming their plan to buy a house: “It affords us great pleasure to present to yourself and family a house furnished and ready in our ‘city of homes.’ As citizens of Philadelphia, feeling that it would be a high honor to have you a fellow-townsman, we present it as a token of the welcome which our entire city extends to your family while you are still fighting the battles of the nation and which we will most heartily extend to yourself when the war shall be over.”

Ensconced in his sparse cabin at City Point, Virginia, Grant responded immediately: “It is with gratitude and pride that I accept this substantial testimonial of the esteem of your loyal citizens. … I will not predict a day when we will have peace again, with a Union restored, but that that day will come is as sure as the rising of to-morrow’s sun. I have never doubted this in the darkest days of this dark and terrible rebellion. Until this happy day of peace does come my family will occupy and enjoy your magnificent present. But until then I do not expect nor desire to see much of the enjoyment of a home fireside.”

Then Grant got back to the business of war.

Three days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, on April 12th, the group purchased the four-story brick townhouse at 2009 Chestnut Street, furnished it, stocked its dining room with “fine silver,” filled its closets with “snowy linen” and its larders with supplies. When Ulysses and Julia Grant arrived in the city on May 3rd, they had no idea the house was a fait accompli.

Stuart’s committee had arranged for “a handsome luncheon” welcoming the Grants at the house “the purchase of which had been kept as a profound secret from him and his family.” With another of his co-conspirators, Stuart went down to the Walnut Street wharf “to meet and escort General Grant and his family to their future residence. After reaching the house, where they were introduced to the ladies assembled,” related Stuart, “I suggested to Mrs. Grant that she go upstairs and take off her bonnet, which she thought was unnecessary, as they were only going to stay for lunch.”

“When all were assembled in the parlor,” Stuart continued, “I opened a silver case, which had been presented by J. E. Caldwell & Co., and which contained the handsomest engrossed deed that I had ever seen… Standing with my back to the fireplace opposite to General Grant as he sat upon the sofa, I said to him, ‘ Permit me, General Grant, to present you with a deed for this house and lot, from a few of your Philadelphia friends and admirers, with their best wishes that you and your dear family may live long to enjoy this your new home…”

The stunned General “arose seeming quite overcome with the gift, and, thanking us with tears in his eyes… Soon after, we repaired to the large dining-room, where a bountiful repast had been spread with all the delicacies of the season…”

“It will be gratifying for our citizens to know that Lieutenant General Grant will hereafter be a permanent resident of Philadelphia,” declared the Inquirer the following day. “He will vote at our elections, associate with our citizens, will doubtless take an interest in our municipal concerns, and in every sense of the word, will be a citizen of the city of Philadelphia.” And then the newspaper offered good wishes: “May the General’s future life in this city be as happy and peaceful as the past four years of his career have been stormy and tempestuous.”

The next morning, Stuart pulled up to the house in Chestnut Street in an open buggy to introduce the General to his new city. He introduced Grant to Independence Hall, where a crowd gathered, and Fairmount Park, where, as president eleven years later, Grant would ceremoniously open the Centennial Exposition. On this ride, Grant doubtless contemplated ways to thank the city for its generosity.

By mid-July, 1865, Grant had arranged a gift. “In return for the house which I was instrumental in presenting to him,” Stuart later wrote, “General Grant presented … the log cabin in which he had spent the last months of the war.”

This was no ordinary log cabin, according to Adam Badeau of Grant’s staff.

Grant’s Cabin. Lemon Hill Drive and Sedgley Drive, East Fairmount Park, February 21, 1950 (PhillyHistory.org)

“The last four months of the rebellion . . . were passed by [Grant] within its walls. Here he received the reports of his great subordinates almost daily, and sent them each their orders and their rewards. Here he watched Sherman’s route as he came across the continent to the sea. . . Here he received the President, Gen. Sherman, Gen. Sheridan, Gen. Meade, and Admiral Porter. . . Here the last orders for all these generals were penned before the commencement of the great campaign which terminated the war.”

Where would Philadelphia install such a venerable souvenir? Possibly “one of the public squares of Philadelphia,” suggest one report. “Fairmount Park or Rittenhouse Square will be selected,” said another. Stuart “chartered a vessel to bring the cabin to Philadelphia” and by early August, a crew had re-assembled it on a bluff near Lemon Hill, overlooking the Schuylkill “exactly as it stood on the banks of the James River.”

“We now have in our midst,” reported the Inquirer of August 4th, “…no less a relic of General Grant than the . . . log cabin erected expressly for his head-quarters at City Point, Va. . . . This cabin will, as long as it can be kept together, be an object of great historical interest to Americans, and every visitor to the city will be desirous of viewing it.” Grant’s cabin immediately attracted “hosts of visitors.” Photographers seized the moment. Peregrine F. Cooper offered souvenir photographs individually and “$60 per thousand.” Cooper wasn’t the only photographer to visit Grant’s Cabin, which quickly became a staple of Philadelphia tourism.

Today, more than a century-and-a-half later, the bluff in Fairmount Park stands overgrown and empty. And 2009 Chestnut is an anonymous commercial space.

[Sources: The Philadelphia Inquirer, “General Grant And Family Take Up Their Residence in Philadelphia,” May 4, 1865; “Presentation of a Log Cabin,” July 13, 1865; “From Fortress Monroe,” July 13, 1865; “Arrival of General Grant’s Log Cabin,” July 15, 1865; “Relic of the War – General Grant’s Log Cabin,” August 4, 1865;  “Gen Grant’s Log Cabin,” August 8, 1865; [Advertisement] “A Fine Photographic View of General Grant’s Log Cabin at Fairmount Park, August 19, 1865; “General Grant’s City House,” December 16, 1879; George H. Stuart, The Life of George H. Stuart, Written by Himself (Philadelphia, J. M. Stoddard and co. 1890).]

Next Time: What became of Grant’s Cabin and his city house.

 

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As Times Goes By on Lancaster Avenue: 1:05pm, April 22, 1914

The date is Wednesday, April 22, 1914.  On that day, George Herman “Babe” Ruth played his first professional baseball game, pitching for the (then minor league) Baltimore Orioles, in an exhibition game against the major league Philadelphia Phillies. To the amazement of the spectators, Babe Ruth proved to be one of those rare pitchers who could also hit! He left the game with a six hit, 6-0 win.  Incidently, Baltimore’s Major League Team at the time was the quaintly-named “Terrapins,” the main ingredient in the city’s famous turtle soup.  The terrapins went the way of the dodo the following year, and the Orioles replaced them as Baltimore’s MLB team.

The residents of the Philadelphia neighborhood of Belmont, like so many other Americans, were bewitched by baseball.  However, sports radio broadcasts were still a decade away.  Like telegraphs, wireless radio receivers of the time could only pick up Morse code dots and dashes.  Those unable to attend a baseball game at Shibe Park due to work or family obligations had to be content with detailed newspaper accounts published in the evening papers.

Belmont at the time was a solidly middle class neighborhood, largely a mixture of German, Italian, and Eastern European Jewish families. Although residents of Belmont enjoyed more leisure time than the factory workers of neighborhoods like Kensington, they still toiled long hours in the shops, groceries, law offices, and other small enterprises that lined Lancaster Avenue.  At 1:06pm at this day, the streets, were relatively empty, aside from a lone pedestrian and a couple of electric trolleys whooshing by. According to architect Robert Morris Skaler, whose family owned  L. Skaler & Sons kosher butcher shop, the owners usually lived above the store and all children were expected to help out with the chores. After hours, the adults would retire to the local pubs such as Trench’s Saloon to scan the Evening Bulletin and discuss the merits of various players, the rising star Babe Ruth among them.  After leaving classes at E. Spencer Miller School, the kids would have the same debates while hanging out at Furey’s ice cream parlor.  Or they would reeanct the game in games of half-ball on Belmont’s side streets, which at the time were almost car-free. On warmer spring nights, the sounds of upright pianos and Camden-made phonographs (popularly known as Victrolas) emanated from rowhouse windows.  Those who could spare a few dollars for a vaudeville show flocked to the William Penn Theater at 4063 Lancaster Avenue, completed two years earlier and able to seat 3,200 people at a time.

Students at the E. Spencer Miller School, 43rd and Westminster Avenue, June 14, 1933, 19 years after the railroad clock photograph.

The clock that stood outside 4255 Lancaster Avenue, located outside of the Walter M. Engle jewelry store, proudly noted that it kept railroad time. Inside the ornate little Engle store, another wall clock reminded the customers that it kept “True Time.”   Until the fall 1883, almost all cities and towns in the United States kept their own local time, based on when the sun reached its highest point in the sky.  Yet railroads such as the Pennsylvania, Union Pacific, and the Chicago Burlington & Quincy had greatly reduced the time it took to transport freight and passengers across the country.  Morever, railroad managers needed uniform time schedules to keep hundreds of trains on schedule and from crashing into each other.  Finding local time too burdensome (and it was), the railroads divided the country into four time zones, very close to the ones we know today. Despite a fair amount of local grumbling, most Americans adapted their lives around this executive fiat.

In 1914, a clock marked”Railroad Time” in front of a store on Lancaster Avenue signified modernity and predictability, essential traits in industrial powerhouse city such as Philadelphia. So did the dangling electric streetlight and the telephone wires overhead.  On Sundays, the bells of Belmont’s many  churches chimed in sych with the subtle thunk of the Engle clock’s minute hand.

The city of Philadelphia on April 22, 1914 had its share of poverty and labor unrest, but by and large, was prosperous and secure.  Yet within a few months, the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary would plunge the world into the bloodiest war in history. American joined the fight on the side of Britain, France, and Russia in April 1917. Scores of the young men of Belmont would leave their jobs, families, education (and their old time zone) behind to fight in the trenches, patrol the seas, and soar in the skies. Industrial production ramped up, the pace of life quickened, and time became even more precious.

At war’s end, Congress made the five zones of “railroad time” synonymous with national time.

Sources:

“What Happened on April 22, 1914,” OnThisDay.com, https://www.onthisday.com/date/1914/april/22, accessed April 8, 2020.

“Railroads Create the First Time Zones,” History.com, November 16, 2009,  https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/railroads-create-the-first-time-zones, accessed April 8, 2020.

Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), pp. 95-99, 107.

Jeff Gamage, “A Collection of Postcards Captures Phila’s Changes,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 8, 2014,

https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/20140208_Collection_of_postcards_captures_Phila__s_changes.html, accessed April 8, 2020.

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Before “Center City” Won Out

The start of a long-simmering naming debate for Center City can be traced to the waning years of the 19th century.

“Barber, first-class, wants situation in center city,” reads a classified ad in the Inquirer from 1898. But the next year, another ad reads “Errand boy, about 14 years old, strong, active; center of city. And then in 1900 we see; “Bartender, age 30, good mixer; capable of taking charge: 7 years central city reference.”

Which would it be? For the next half century, any of the three would suffice.

Center City – Aerial View June 6, 1966 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Central City” seemed to dominate for a few years. “Housework –an honest and respectable girl wants general housework in small, private family. Central city reference” and “Barber, first-class, wants situation in 10-cent shop. Married, young man, speaks German and English, central city” and “Licensed Saloon (Central City) – Handsomely equipped; running $800 weekly; sickness cause: great sacrifice; $17,000.”

But then “center of city” seemed to make a comeback. In May 1906 we find a headline: “How Realty Rises In Center Of City.” In 1910 we see another: “1000 New Lamps Flood Center of City with Light / Mayor Turns Switch Inaugurating System of Illumination / Brilliance Extends River to River.”

In Our Philadelphia of 1914, Elizabeth Robbins Pennell likes the relatively clunky “centre of the town.” One example: “with the Law Courts now in the centre of the town and the new Stock Exchange at Broad and Walnut, and stores everywhere, nobody could live in town; the noise of the trolleys is unbearable; the dirt of the city is unhealthy; soft coal has made Philadelphia grimier than London…”

Classifieds support the usage of “of.” “Bartender – Young German for centre of city” or “Shisler Built Homes $1900 to $3800” only “20 minutes to center of city.” Or one of a dozen appearances, for houses in the Olney neighborhood promoting “One Fare to Center of City.”

A Philadelphia Tribune headline from 1932 reads: “Maniac Slays 1, Wound Pair, Ends Own Life: Hundreds Dodge in Center of City As Bullets Sizzle By.” (“Death and Destruction barked from a maniac’s gun last Thursday night near Ninth and Market streets and hundreds of Philadelphia’s citizens escaped death by dodging while sizzling hot lead whizzed through the air.”)

If Christopher Morley had been inclined, his Travels in Philadelphia, published in 1920 would have mentioned Center City at least once. He was not so inclined.

That’s not to say the usage of “Center City” was nonexistent. We find one from 1916: “Saloon Saloon – Near center city / Bar averages $450 weekly; old established. Selling account sickness.” And in 1920 we see a mention of the” YMCA building, 1421 Arch, “in the Center City Building.” In 1926, there are two more appearances: An ad for Greenwood Terrace near the Jenkintown Station: “Suburban Charm with Center City Convenience” and an ad for ”C.T. Electric Trucks. … which delivers the Inquirer “to the newsdealers of the center city area.” And in 1929, the Philadelphia Gas Works put out the word for its “Center City Dump” at 22nd and Market Streets. (“Save time and expense by dumping conveniently instead of hauling to outskirts of the city. 50 cents per load…”

In 1937, “Center City” gave way to “Central City” in the Federal Writers’ Project’s Philadelphia, a Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace“There was a time when the central city was dotted with abattoirs. Now, however, excepting two large slaughterhouses on Gray’s Ferry Avenue, and one at Third Street and Girard Avenue, all are far from the city center.” And: “The central city section had already begun to take on the appearance of a metropolis. The main streets, such as Market, Chestnut, and Broad, were crowded with buildings and shops of substantial size.” And “By 7:30 there is a lull in the central city as the sphere of activity shifts to the home.”

Aerial View of Center City, ca. 1991 (PhillyHistory.org)

Newspapers of 1930 put forth the headline: “$50,000 in Jewels Stolen at Door of Central City Hotel” and “Boy Boot Blacks Banished From Mid-City Streets.” The article suggests that the proposition, “Shine Mister?” by “hundreds of juvenile bootblacks on central city streets, will be heard with diminishing frequency…” And a page-one headline: “Federal padlocks for central city hotels, cafes and clubs may follow as a result of “wet” New Year’s Eve and other parties staged on their premises…”

“Central City” appeared to be an almost uncontested choice in 1930. “3 Central City Blazes Quelled Within Hour” read a headline. When Strawbridge and Clothier opened its new store in Ardmore, an ad promised that its location “will offer special allurement to the motorists who do not wish to run the gauntlet of central-city traffic.”

Headline in February 1940: “Parking Meters Backed for Six Months’ Tryout – Experts Favor Them for Central City.”

“Street Widening Called Key to Mid-City Traffic” read another headline that Spring.  “The ultimate solution of central city traffic congestion and its resulting high-accident rate must be major reconstruction of its traffic arteries…” And in December of the same year, “Yule Traffic Control Urged by Businessmen – Tow Squad Busy in Central City.”

And the Cushman’s Sons bakery had many locations. “There’s a store near you” promised the ad, citing the Main Line as well as Logan, Tioga, West Philadelphia, Germantown, Chestnut Hill and no less than four shops in “Central City.”

As recently as 1969, the Inquirer criticized “Stop-Gap Airport Transportation” suggesting “SEPTA’s proposed bus line from central city to the airport” was only a stop-gap measure.

We know one thing for sure: “Center City” would win out. In 1940, “Center City” appeared in the Inquirer less than 200 times compared with more than 1,200 for “Central City.” In 1950, the imbalance grew even greater. More than 1,700 appearances of “Center City” and more than 2,400 for “Central City.” By 1960 the score would flip to more than 3,400 impressions of “Center City” and less than 900 for “Central City.” By 1980, “Center City” would appear more than 10,000 times. By then, “Central City” faded to just over 500 impressions.

“Center City” had prevailed.

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The Persian Building at the 1926 Sesquicentennial International Exposition

The dedication of the Persian Building, October 6, 1926. 20th and Pattison.

The 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition’s most iconic image is the oversized replica of the Liberty Bell, illuminated by hundreds of incandescent bulbs.  However, there was another structure that captured the imagination of the fairgoers: the Persian Building, designed by Philadelphia architect Carl Augustus Ziegler.  Situated on the banks of Edgewater Lake, the mosque-like dome and towers rose above the squat rowhouses of South Philadelphia like a shimmering apparition.  Inside, visitors could admire ancient manuscripts, tapestries, and other priceless art and artifacts.

One would expect that the Persian government would have selected one of its own to design its pavilion, but Carl Ziegler had a track record of designing intricately detailed, historically inspired structures.  Born in 1878, Ziegler attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his certificate in proficiency in architecture.  He then worked in the offices of several prominent architects who masterfully blended impeccable historical detailing with modern needs, most notably Cope & Stewardson (designer of dormitories at Princeton and Penn) and Frank Miles Day (designer of the Jacob Reed building).  In 1898, he joined up with architects Louis Duhring and R. Brognard Okie to form the firm of Duhring, Okie & Ziegler. This team became most famous for their Pennsylvania “farmhouse” revival country homes. Their rough-hewn simplicty was a stark contrast to the stiff Gilded Age palaces previously so in vogue with the city’s elite.

In 1924, Ziegler broke from the Duhring firm and struck out on his own as a historical consultant, where he helped supervise the restoration of Independence Hall and Carpenter’s Hall.  The 1920s marked resurgence in the popularity of the Colonial Revival and Georgian modes.   Yet Ziegler showed himself to be quite adept at learning other historical styles, and the polychrome Persian Building was truly beguiling, standing out in quality and detail from the fairground kitsch that surrounded it. He continued to practice until the 1940s, by which time his encyclopedia knowledge of historical styles (including Persian) had fallen out of favor.

Sadly, the Exposition proved to be a failure, attracting only about 4.6 million paid attendees rather than the 30 million the organizers preducted. Like almost every other structure at the Sesquicentennial Exposition, the Persian Building met the wrecker’s ball.   Today, the fairground is the site of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park and the Sports Complex.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park golf course, 20th and Pattison, John McWhorter, photographer. March 29, 1954.

Sources: 

James D. Ristine, Philadelphias 1926 Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition(Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2009), pp.70-71.

Sandra Tatman, “Ziegler, Carl (or Charles) Augustus (1878-1952),”Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2020, https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/23435, accessed

Martin W. Wilson, “Sesquicentennial International Exposition (1926),”The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Rutgers University, 2012, https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/sesquicentennial-international-exposition/, accessed April 2, 2020.

 

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Crafting Pennsylvania Steel’s Macho Myths

Dedication of the Steel Statue, Sesquicentennial International Exhibition, August 4, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

Charles Walker’s gritty diary of labor in the bowels of an Aliquippa, Pennsylvania steel mill helped popularize the “men of steel” macho. Four years later, the same steel manufacturer that employed Walker, Jones and Laughlin, upped the ante commissioning a giant statue for the Sesquicentennial Exhibition, the world’s fair in Philadelphia. This grandiose sculpture, “the Spirit of Steel,” featured three classically-inspired heroic males making steel, the central figure holding a winged I-beam aloft, an offering to the world.

These heroic, men-of-steel interpretations further solidified the legend of the Pennsylvania steelworker as American folk hero. The fictional legend of Joe Magarac would take it even further. In 1931, Owen Francis introduced a comic-strip-style, Paul Bunyanesque man-of-steel in Scribner’s Magazine. This gentle immigrant giant would “appear out of nowhere to protect steel workers from molten steel and other dangers” in the mills. Magarac was both management and labor-friendly, working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year enthusiastically squeezing out steel railroad rails “from between his fingers.”

These exaggerated, overwrought masculine images of the American steel worker came to an abrupt halt in the 1980s, when American steel manufacturing was caught off guard when “Germany, Japan, and other steelmaking nations built brand-new capacity” leading to a sharp decline in production, employment and optimism. It resulted in a halving of industrial employment and the collapse of the entire industry. By the end of the 20th century, Pennsylvania’s “out-of-date steel plants” and the laborers who had perpetuated the legend had all but disappeared.

Steel’s bleak future would have been unimaginable on the sunny Wednesday afternoon of August 4, 1926 when visitors to the Sesquicentennial in deep South Philadelphia considered the day’s options. In the stadium, one could watch the “Mounted Police Gymkhana,” an “exhibition of relay racing, rescue racing, Roman riding, pyramid riding, mounted wrestling, trick riding and platoon formation.” A “Super-Contest of Rodeo Champions,” also scheduled in the stadium, promised “the greatest context of brain and brawn … ever witnessed.” In the Sesqui Bathing Pool the Women’s Swimming Championships were underway. In the Sesqui auditorium, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Brahms symphony No. 1 in C Minor. And at 2 o’clock, that busy day, a crowd gathered for the steel statue’s dedication. There, in the promenade extending Broad Street into the fairgrounds the Sesqui’s own military band provided music before speeches by Mayor Kendrick and steel executives before Gloria Vittor, the five-year-old daughter of sculptor Frank Vittor, yanked the cord releasing drapery over the gigantic grouping.

The Inquirer described the heroic figure and it’s setting: on the right side of the monumental figure “stands a furnaceman, exerting his strength to tilt a huge ladle of molten steel into ingot molds. On the left side there is a smith swinging a huge hammer and typifying the traditional worker in iron and steel. Flames from the furnaces sweep up around the legs of these three figures. On the pedestal on which they stand there is done in bas-relief a series of striking sculptural pictures of scenes in the steel industry; men working  before open-hearth furnaces; others chipping steel and loading it upon ‘buggies;’ trains of cars hauling coal and iron ore, fleets of steel barges transporting products upon the  interior rivers;  blast furnace plants in operation and rolling mills pouring forth tongues of flame.”

Steel Statue under construction by Bostwick Steel Lathe Company, July 7, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

That night, “fifty 500-candle power searchlights, concealed in the base of the group [flooded] multi-colored rays of light upward around the pedestal and the stalwart figures of the steel workers,” added the Pittsburgh Gazette Times.

The Italian-born sculptor Frank Vittor had established himself in Pittsburgh eight years prior to the Sesquicentennial. Vittor “created the individual plaster pieces in his Pittsburgh studio using live models in order to realistically depict the muscles and facial details,” we learn from historical curator Nicholas P. Ciotola, “He then shipped the completed work by freight trains to Philadelphia, where he assembled it and coated it with a composition of wax, oil, and paint to protect the plaster from the elements. When unveiled, The Spirit of Steel weighed two tons and stood towering ninety feet high – taller than all of its surroundings on the event grounds.”

Vittor received a gold medal from the Sesquicentennial Exhibition Association for his sculpture. He would attract other opportunities to glorify the story of steel. In the 1930s, Vittor received a commission “for what would become his most lasting tribute to the industrial might western Pennsylvania,” four figures: pioneers, transportation, electricity, and, of course, steel, for the pylons of Pittsburgh’s George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge.

Unlike the monumental plaster “Spirit of Steel” at the Sesquicentennial, these were carved in stone.

[Sources: Making Steel, Stories from PA History, ExplorePAHistory.com (WITF and PHMC); Clifford J. Reutter, “The Puzzle of a Pittsburgh Steeler: Joe Magarac’s Ethnic Identity,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 63 (January 1980); Nicholas P.  Ciotola, “From Honus to Columbus: The Life and Work of Frank Vittor,” in Italian Americans: Bridges to Italy, Bonds to America. Edited by Luciano J. Iorizzo and Ernest E. Rossi, (Teneo Press, 2010); “Steel Industry Statue at Sesqui-Centennial Dedication Wednesday,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, August 1, 1926;  “Steel Men to Give Statue Wednesday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 1, 1926; [Daily Schedule] The Sesqui-Centennial International Exhibition, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 4, 1926; Statue “Steel” Unveiled, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 5, 1926; Frank Vittor [obituary] The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan 25, 1968.]

For more about the story of Pennsylvania steel, see this post: “Men Of Steel.”

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The Old Rittenhouse Hotel: Have You Dined and Danced in ‘The Box’?

The entrance marquee of the Rittenhouse Hotel, 22nd and Chestnut, October 25, 1920.

The original Rittenhouse Hotel was opened in 1893 on the 2200 block of Chestnut Street. Its designer was the now-forgotten Angus S. Wade.  Wade was a Yankee transplant, born in Montpelier, Vermont in 1868.  As a young man, he moved to Philadelphia to train in the studio of the highflying Willis Hale, the favorite architect of trolley tycoon Peter A. B. Widener.  Like his mentor, Wade was more of a theatrical set designer than an architectural artist. He skillfully layered ornamentation onto rather formulaic structures.  His buildings, although beguiling and playful on the surface, lacked the lively silhouettes and bold massings that characterized the oeuvre of Frank Furness.  As commercial structures, Angus’s buildings were meant to charm and entice, rather than impress or trascend, the passerby.

The Rittenhouse Hotel fulfilled its theatrical role admirably, serving as a fashionable lodging house during its namesake square’s Gilded Age heyday. An advertisement for the Hotel Rittenhouse in a 1904 edition of The Apothecary advertised that the establishment was only half a block from the College of Physicians, and that it “gave special attention to ladies traveling alone.”   The hotel offered both so-called “European” and “American” plans.   The former meant that patrons could pay $1.50 (about $43 today) and up per night for rooms only, and the latter $4.00 (about $115 today) and up per night for rooms and all meals in the dining room.

 

1909 advertisement for the Rittenhouse Hotel that appeared in The Apothecary.

By the end of World War I, however, Victorian hostelries like the Rittenhouse Hotel were looking dated, even chintzy.  A photo taken in the autumn of 1920 shows that the entrance marquee adorned with theater style lights that advertised the hotel’s night club  (“The Box”) rather than the hotel’s name.   The featured band at “The Box” was the “Tierney Five” ensemble, which probably played a mixture of ragtime and early hot jazz.  The advertisement is oddly suggestive: a dancing girl superimposed on the profile of an old man.

“Have you dined and danced in The Box?” the advertisement queried.

Advertisement for “The Box” from October 15, 1920, ten days before the photograph was taken. What did the Tierney Five sound like? Probably something like the Louisiana Five. 

Since Prohibition had gone into effect only ten months earlier, it is probable that “The Box” was also a speakeasy.   If so, it probably earned more money for the owners than the hotel rooms. The sign certainly is a clue!

The dowdy “grande dame” came crashing down in the 1940s, and was replaced by Louis Magaziner’s modernist Sidney Hillman Medical Center. The current Rittenhouse Hotel arose on the site of the old Alexander Cassatt mansion in the 1980s.

Sources:

“Angus S. Wade,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 24, 1932.

Robert Morris Skaler and Thomas Keels, Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square (Mount Pleasant: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), p.33.

The Evening Public Ledger, October 15, 1920, p.4.

The Apothecary, Volume 21, MCP Publications, 1909, p.27.

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