Burning it up at The Lincoln: From “Mini The Moocher” to Hitler in Effigy

Lincoln Theatre, Southwest Corner of Broad and Lombard Streets, January 11, 1932 (PhillyHistory.org)

Lincoln Theatre, [formerly The Dunbar] Southwest Corner of Broad and Lombard Streets, January 11, 1932 (PhillyHistory.org)

In the Spring of 1919, “Marian Dawley and a few other girls of color…went to the movie theater at 59th and Market Streets.” They lined up to buy tickets and were told “all tickets for colored people have been sold.”

They left “disgusted,” according to the Philadelphia Tribune.

Other than The Standard Theatre on the 1100 block of South Street, audiences of color had few options for entertainment. “The white theatres are and have been for some time drawing the color line,” pointed out the Tribune. “We have but one theatre owned and controlled by our race in this city, and when it is full, which is at every performance, there is practically no place for our people to go.”

But change was coming, readers learned. “In a few months the new Dunbar theatre will be completed at the corner of Broad and Lombard Streets.” This theatre, The Dunbar, will be “owned and controlled by citizens of color” to serve the city’s African American theatregoers, which, as a result of the Great Migration, was estimated at 50,000.

“The Quality Amusement Company, of which Mr. E. C. Brown, of the Brown and Stevens, Bankers is the head” soon had “ten Negro Theatres…in cities including Savannah, Richmond, Washington (Howard) New York (Lafayette) and Chicago.” Philadelphia’s promised to be “the finest theatre in the world owned, managed and controlled by colored people.”

“It was a grand spectacle December 29, [1919] to see the thousands of happy souls, men and women, boys and girls, as they wended through the streets of Philadelphia and filled every available space in the new Dunbar Theatre…  The colored citizens of Philadelphia have something really their own,” something “that they will be and are proud of and can boast about” something “wonderful, marvelous, almost inconceivable, yet so true.”

Within The Law,” starring Cleo Desmond and Andrew Bishop filled the 1600-seat house twice daily for a solid week. And thanks to the Lafayette Players, the productions kept coming.

John T. Gibson, owner of the Standard Theatre responded by cutting his ticket prices. Gibson, according to A History of African American Theatre knew that the Dunbar’s parent company “had overextended itself by building the $500,000 Douglass Theatre in Baltimore, as well as the Renaissance Theatre in Harlem.” And in September 1921, just a few months after the “Shuffle Along” premiered at the Dunbar, Gibson bought the theater.

As the stage of choice, “Gibson’s New Dunbar Theatre” hosted the full array of African American talent: Will Marion Cook’s Internation Orchestra and Entertainers in the Quintessence of Jazz; the Ethiopian Art Theater’s version of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” fresh from its run on Broadway;  The  Lafayette Players productions of “The Shoplifters” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame;” the Manhattan Players’ “Cat and the Canary; “Sunshine Sammy;” “Runnin’ Wild;” “Swanee River Home;” “Struttin’ Time;” “Come Along Mandy;”  Mamie Smith; and “The Chocolate Dandies,” featuring Josephine Baker’s first Philadelphia appearance.

The Great Depression forced the sale of Gibson’s Dunbar to new (white) owners, who added a giant marquee, dubbed it The Lincoln and continued to bring in the talent including Duke Ellington and his Orchestra and Cab Callaway, “the Heidi Ho King and his original Cotton Club Orchestra,” who brought “Mini the Moocher” back to life once more. The Lincoln stage saw “Fats” Waller, Louis Armstrong, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Earl Hines, Ethel Waters, as well as other headliners.

From the beginning, the theater played a critical role in addition to serving as the city’s most desirable stage for African American performers. The Lincoln was often dedicated to race relations, human rights and political protest.

In 1920, the Bramhall Players, an interracial troupe, presented Butler Davenport ‘s “Justice,” described as a “race drama.” Where “Uncle Tom’s Cabin “went far to free the Negro’s body from bondage” “Justice,” claimed one review, “will go far to liberate the white man’s mind from prejudice.”

Three years later, more than 3,500 packed a mass meeting in the theater to protest “The Shame of America” and support passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill.

And in December 1938, The Lincoln hosted a public meeting denouncing “Nazi Germany’s persecutions of racial and religious minorities” warning that “such actions are sympathetically received in some quarters in this country.” About 500 attended the event, sponsored by the United Committee Against Racial and Religious Persecutions. It began with a march up South Street, from 5th to 15th and then to The Lincoln, where “an effigy of Adolf Hitler, replete in brown shirt swastika and mustache…in front of the theatre…was publicly burned.”

Such was Broad and Lombard’s well-earned niche, once-upon-a-time.

[Sources include: “All Seats For Colored People Are Sold Out,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 8, 1919; Philadelphia to Soon Have a New Colored Play House, Philadelphia Tribune, November  8, 1919; “The Dunbar Theatre has Swung Open its Doors to the Public,” Philadelphia Tribune, January 3, 1920; “Phila. Has “Something New Under the Sun,” by Anny Boddy, Philadelphia Tribune, January 3, 1920; The Crisis, 1920, vols. 21-22, Advertisement for  “Justice;” “Anti-Lynching Bill Support Asked,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 3, 1923; “Hitler’s Effigy Burned by Crowd,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 6. 1938; and Advertisements for The Dunbar and The Lincoln, 1920-1936 in The Philadelphia Inquirer. ]

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Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part IV)

Vesper Boat Club, April 8, 2003. The club’s motto is “All together!”

When the Penn AC Olympians came back to Depression-era Philadelphia, they got jobs as builders and beer salesmen. Beer gave them their wages and also their strength.   “These were Depression era guys,” Joe Sweeney said of the men who would become his coaches and had grown up hauling kegs around. “They used to take the trolley from West Philadelphia, bring a lunch bag, row, eat lunch, and then go home.  All  were beer salesmen and worked for beer manufacturers. They’d go around to bars, take orders for beer, had to buy a round for everyone in the bar. I got to like them because I was from their old neighborhood. I got that whole culture thing.”

After he graduated from La Salle University in 1964, Joe Sweeney joined the Penn AC Rowing Association, the rowing club most associated with the “Irish mafia” godfather John B. “Jack” Kelly.  As an up-and-coming rower and building contractor, Kelly had spent his formative years at  the venerable Vesper Boat Club. In the 1920s, he and a group of his Irish-American friends founded the Pennsylvania Athletic Club and built a magnificent clubhouse just off Rittenhouse Square. Sadly, the club was completed just after the stock market crashed in 1929, and Penn AC had to move to more modest quarters.  Still personally flush with cash thanks to New Deal building contracts, the Democratic Party powerbroker and head of “Kelly for Brickwork” approached Vesper with a proposition: in exchange for a name change, Penn AC would give financial support to Vesper’s rowing programs.

Vesper turned Kelly down.

Undaunted, Kelly then set his sights on West Philadelphia Boat Club, which had fallen on hard times and only had about 4 active rowing members.  West Philadelphia happily agreed, and it changed its name to the Penn AC Rowing Association. Over the years, Penn AC became a hub of Catholic high school rowing. From this club, Curran and Dougherty coached generations of students from West Catholic High School, LaSalle High School, Cardinal O’Hara, and St. Joseph’s University.

Belfield, the former Wister mansion and home of the President of La Salle University. 5596 N.20th Street, October 14, 1957.

Patriarch Kelly took a liking to Joe Sweeney, the up-and-coming novice Lasalle rower and Navy vet. Sweeney, although he had never rowed before coming to college, quickly proved to be a skilled and powerful oarsman.  Shortly before his death in 1960, Kelly gave Sweeney a job with the Parks Commission. Kelly’s son John B. Kelly Jr. (known as Kel) carried on his family legacy, both as a rower and coxswain for Penn AC.  Kel had honed his athletic prowess under his father’s tutelage and as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1947, Kel won the Diamond Sculls Regatta at Henley, the same aristocratic contest that  his father could not enter because, supposedly, he had worked with his hands as a bricklayer.

“I got to know the family and I was of the age where young Jack was competing and I was in some races he was in,” Joe remembered.

He also got to know Jack’s beautiful sister Grace, who occasionally came back to Philadelphia from Hollywood.  When Grace was a girl, Kelly had used his position as president of the Parks Commission to get a playhouse built for her behind Belmont Mansion.  “Grace Kelly used to study her lines and performances in a bar on City Avenue called The Wynnewood,” Joe remembered. “We would stop there while on the rounds with the rowers and coaches who worked as beer salesmen.”

Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly in the 1956 movie High Society, based on the 1940 play The Philadelphia Story

When Kelly came back to Philadelphia after it was announced she would be marrying Prince Rainer II of Monaco, she of course paid a visit to Boathouse Row. As the star of the 1956 film High Society made the rounds with the Philadelphia rowing community, Joe Sweeney served as her chaperone. By the 1980s, Joe Sweeney was Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, and traveled with Kel to Hong Kong to be the first Westerners to compete in the Crown Colony’s dragonboat races.

On the way to Hong Kong, the twenty men from Philadelphia had a layover in San Francisco.  They used their downtime to train, running up and down the city’s hills. “At the top of one hill, we stopped and rested,” Joe recalled, “and there was a residential brick building being built. Young Jack started to describe how a brick building was like a strong family.

“You have to have strong family connections,” Joe recalled Kel saying. “Each course was a family, each individual brick was a person. Great Irish malarkey.”

The men of Philadelphia won the silver in the Hong Kong dragon boat regatta, the first Western team to win a medal in the race’s history.

When Jack Kelly Jr. died in 1985, Joe served as the usher for the Monaco side of the family at the memorial service.

Grace Kelly (1929-1982), the Academy Award winning actress who became Princess of Monaco, in an MGM publicity photo from 1954.

Joe Sweeney, “History: The Saga of a Philadelphia Rowing Club,” Penn AC. http://pennac.org/about-us/history/, accessed March 27, 2017.

Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.




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“Shuffle Along” Broad Street

Southwest Corner, Broad and Lombard Streets (Gibson Theatre), July 6, 1927. (PhillyHistory.org)

Dunbar Theatre (a/k/a Gibson Theatre), Broad and Lombard Streets, Southwest corner. July 6, 1927. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Fourteen Thousand Negro Actors in This Country Now Performing,” read a headline at the start of the 1922 theatrical season. “In vaudeville alone there are more than six hundred acts, of which are about sixty are now in Europe. There are twenty-two Negro minstrel shows touring the south.” According to Billboard, “368 theaters in the United States [are] devoted entirely to the colored race.” Among them, in Philadelphia: the Standard near 11th and South Streets, the Royal near 15th and South and the Nixon on 52nd Street. Plus the only theater built, owned and operated by African Americans: the Dunbar at Broad and Lombard.

From the moment it opened at the Dunbar on April 11, 1921, Eubie Blake’s “Shuffle Along” demonstrated the power of the African American Jazz Sensation. “A ball of merriment rolling at aero-plane speed,” “Shuffle Along” would complete its run on Broad in Philly and return again before opening on Broadway in New York where critics raved. “The biggest hit New York has witnessed in years… a breeze of super-jazz blown up from Dixie” that would, over the next 60 weeks, establish a 500-performance legacy before going on tour.

“Whether you like jazz or not,” admitted the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Leopold Stowkowski in 1924, “it is a modern featurization of our hectic times and it is with us to stay.” Eubie Blake suggested that jazz’s “flash and fire” generated “flamboyant effectiveness” both artistically and commercially. It offers up “ingredients of freshness in a world where there must be freshness constantly.”

“Shuffle Along” would become the gold standard for American musical theater and for the Dunbar. Time and time again, managers would mount jazz and vaudeville productions hoping for another hit. They promoted “Liza” as the “musical thrill that won’t let your feet behave,” the “logical successor to ‘Shuffle Along.’” They opened “Carolina Nights” with choreography by Charlie Davis, the “dancing cop” from “Shuffle Along.”

In the first half of the 1920s, Dunbar audiences would enjoy “Creole Follies,” “Harlem Follies,” “Ebony Follies” and “Charleston Fricassee.” They came out for “Come Along Mandy;”  “Runnin’ Wild;” “Banville Dandies Revue;” Jimmie Cooper’s All Colored Revue “Hotsy Totsy” and Mamie Smith and her “Syncopators’ Revue Cyclonic Jazz Band.” None took off quite like “Shuffle Along.”

“There is no color line in the theater” proclaimed one Inquirer critic, claiming the broad and sustained appeal of “Shuffle Along” as proof. Yet there was a color line, possibly even several. Racial discrimination by mainstream theaters was one of the reasons the African American community built the Dunbar in the first place. And as quickly as the blockbuster “Shuffle Along” found a home at the Dunbar, after the extended Broadway run, it would return, but to greener pastures on Broad Street. In May 1923, “Shuffle Along” opened for a four-week run not at the Dunbar, but at the Forrest Theatre, then at Broad and Sansom Streets, a mainstream venue with a much larger stage and, more to the point, 400 additional seats for eager ticket buyers. Ironically, the success of African American productions would undercut the success of the Dunbar.

Old Forrest Theater, Broad and Sansom Streets, October 14, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

Old Forrest Theater, Broad and Sansom Streets, Southeast corner. October 14, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

And this time, “Shuffle Along” came to Philadelphia with the 16-year-old Josephine Baker on its chorus line.

“When the best part of a capacity house singles out one little girl in the chorus and gives her attention every time she appears,” raved a critic, “it shows the recognition of qualities as stars are made of. There is a girl like this in the all-colored musical success, ‘Shuffle Along,’ at the Forrest Theatre. She is a sturdy youngster with a winning way and comedy that asserts itself in everything she does. She is one of the happy-honeysuckles and her name is Josephine Baker. Jolly as she seems to be in her work, the stage romping is serious business with Josephine. … Miss Baker has been in the professional only a short time but she has done much during that period. She knows how to make people laugh and how to sing and dance.”

Would Josephine Baker ever debut at the Dunbar?

She would. In November 1924, Baker performed in “Chocolate Dandies,” another Eubie Blake show. “With snap and zest and to the tune of much musical melody, ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ ‘strutted their stuff’ into Philadelphia… The lid was off and it was a race all evening” and the double-jointed “Josephine Baker carries off the honors.”

When “Chocolate Dandies” closed, it was Baker’s last appearance at the Dunbar and her next to the last appearance on Broad Street. In February 1928, after Baker had relocated to Paris and performed at the Folies Bergèr, a clip of her famous “banana skirt” dance made its way into a film travelogue, “Paris by Night,” being shown at the Academy of Music at Broad and Locust Streets. No matter that the film had been “viewed by more than 150,000 people and 15 cities without creating criticism on its alleged impropriety.” One Philadelphia “patron” had lodged her complaint about Baker’s “lack of garb” and the censors deleted Baker’s performance from all subsequent screenings.

It wouldn’t be the last time official censors would have their way with African-American artists and their work on stage in Philadelphia.

[Sources include: “Dunbar Theatre To Open Monday, December 29th ,” The Philadelphia Tribune, December 27, 1919; “Shuffle Along,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 12, 1921; “Shuffle Along: Biggest New York Hit,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 11, 1921; “There are Many Colored Thespians,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 17, 1922; “’Shuffle Along:’ Breezy Musical Show Scores a Big Hit at the Forrest,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 8, 1923; “She Is a Real Comedy Chorus Girl,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1923; “How a Jazzer Views Such Music,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 23, 1924; “Chocolate Dandies Score at Dunbar,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 25, 1924; “Paris Night Life Scene Cut From Travel Film,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 19, 1928.]

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Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part III)

Boathouse Row lighting ceremony, April 8, 2003.

Boathouse Row lighting ceremony, April 8, 2003.

After that rough introduction the to LaSalle rowing program, Joe Sweeney did come back to Crescent, again and again. He discovered that coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom “Bear” Curran were not just founts of rowing wisdom, but also had some remarkable rowing stories from their younger days.

One of Joe Sweeney’s favorites was the story of the Reich Chancellery theft.


The American “Big Eight” that won the gold at Liege, Belgium in 1930 consisted of Charles McIlvaine in bow; Tom Curran, 2; Jack Bratten, 3; John McNichol, 4; Myrlin Janes, 5; Joe Doughert, 6; Dan Barrows, 7; Chet Turner, stroke; and Tom Mack, coxswain.   In the final, the Penn AC “Big Eight” beat Italy by two lengths, and Denmark by six lengths.  During their trial runs, the Philadelphia Irish “Big Eight” made 2,000 meters in an astounding 5 minutes and 18 seconds.  According to Joe Sweeney, “there was considerable speculation that this might be the fastest eight ever seen.”

The Philadelphians of Penn AC teammates tried to repeat their time to enter the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, but they sadly lost to crews from the University of California and the University of Washington crews, respectively.  In 1936, the men of the Penn AC eight went to Berlin to participate in the controversial, high profile Olympic games of that year.  Although they didn’t make the US eight, the Penn AC men rowed in various smaller boats.

There, they faced a few challenges.  The first had to with equipment. The University of Washington crew (of The Boys in the Boat fame) brought their own boat with them: a magnificent cedar-and-mahogany eight handbuilt by the British-born master boatbuilder George Pocock. Yet the other American rowers, including the Penn AC boys, had to make do with quads and pairs loaned to them by the Germans.

The brand new LZ-129 zeppelin "Hindenburg" flying over the Berlin Olympics. Built for the transatlantic run between Frankfurt and Lakehurst, New Jersey, she would make 12 round trips that year. She exploded while landing in Lakehurst the following May. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.

The brand new LZ-129 zeppelin “Hindenburg” flying over the Berlin Olympics. Built for the transatlantic run between Frankfurt and Lakehurst, New Jersey, she would make 12 round trips that year. The 800 foot long, hydrogen-filled airship would explode while landing in Lakehurst the following May. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Nazis had their own agenda: proving the athletic superiority of the Aryan race. at the expense of the foreign teams.

“The rowers swear they were sabotaged,” Sweeney said.  Tom Curran and Joe Dougherty, who rowed in the Penn AC pair, didn’t even make it to the finals.

The second problem was that their coach, Frank Mueller of Vesper, was a German national who was terrified of being detained in his native land and being conscripted.  He stayed behind.

The young men of Washington won the gold at the 1936 Olympics in their American boat, running the Langer See course in a mere 6:25.4, beating out Italy at 6:26, and Germany at 6:26.4.  Bringing their own boat across the Atlantic probably made that .4 second difference.

Rowing at the 1936 Summer Olympics on a German stamp. Source: Wikipedia

Rowing at the 1936 Summer Olympics on a German stamp. Source: Wikipedia

After the games were over, Dougherty, Curran, and the Penn AC boys stayed in Berlin for a week to take in the sights of the Germany capital, which on the surface seemed radiant and prosperous, a shining symbol of a renewed Germany.  Little did they know of the concentration camps, the incarceration of political dissidents, and the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of their rights as citizens. The highlight of their week in Berlin was a tour of the Reich Chancellery, recently renovated and expanded by architects Paul Troost and Leonhard Gall in a sleek, somewhat sinister Art Deco style.

While touring Adolf Hitler’s private office, the story went, Tom Curran spied an elegant pen set on the Fuhrer’s desk.  While no one was looking, he swiped it, and took it back to his room at the Olympic village.  That night, a group of men wearing black jackets, swastika armbands, and high jackboots showed up at the Penn AC dormitory, waking the men up.

Hitler's office in the New Reich Chancellery, completed in 1938 and designed by architect Albert Speer. The ceremonial office that the Penn AC crew visited was in the old Reich Chancellery. Source: Wikipedia.

Hitler’s office in the New Reich Chancellery, completed in 1938 and designed by architect Albert Speer. The ceremonial office that the Penn AC crew visited was in the old Reich Chancellery. Source: Wikipedia.

It was the Gestapo.

“The pen set is missing,” the lead Gestapo officer snapped at the Americans. “We want it back.”

Joe Dougherty, who was the captain, took a guess that it was the “bad boy” of the group who committed the crime.  He turned to Tom Curran and ordered him to hand the pen set over to the Gestapo.  Curran went back to his bunk and gave it to Dougherty.   The stern, starchy Philadelphia Penn AC captain then solemnly handed Hitler’s pens back to the Gestapo officer.

He turned to Curran and punched him square in the jaw. Curran fell to the floor, groaning in agony.

Dougherty then said to the Gestapo officer, “Are you satisfied or are you next?”


“I’ve heard that story from two or three other people,” Joe Sweeney said of the coaches he got to know twenty years later when he towed at LaSalle. “They were gentlemen. They had their own ethics. Really good guys.”

IMG_0213 (1)

Joe Sweeney being interviewed at the University Barge Club, November 9, 2016. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.


Joe Sweeney, “History: The Saga of a Philadelphia Rowing Club,” Penn AC. http://pennac.org/about-us/history/, accessed March 27, 2017.

Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.

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Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part II)

Crescent Barge Club (right) and Pennsylvania Barge Club (left), January 3, 1984.

Crescent Boat Club (right) and Pennsylvania Barge Club (left), January 3, 1984.

After spending several years in the Navy, Joe Sweeney came back to Philadelphia in the late 1950s to go to college on the GI Bill. His widowed mother continued to work as a nurse, rising to become the head of Student Health Services at the University of Pennsylvania.

The day he started his freshman year at LaSalle University, Joe swung by Boathouse Row, across the Schuylkill River from his old Powelton Village neighborhood. He had shown up on campus dressed in his Navy uniform. The Christian Brothers gave him a suit to change into on that first day of school. Dressed in his new outfit, he was on the way to pick up his mother at Penn, but had an hour or two to kill on the way home. He knew that LaSalle’s rowing program was based out of the Crescent Boat Club, a Tudor-revival structure on the eastern end of the row. He walked into the boathouse and saw a group of young men (he was a decade older than the other Lasalle freshmen) gathered around coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom Curran, both “Boathouse Row gods.” Dougherty, a “straight-laced Irish Catholic” as Sweeney remembered him, had rowed in the American “Big Eight” that set the 2,000 meter record at the 1930 Olympics at Liège, Belgium. They were also part of the “Irish Mafia” that hung out at the neighboring Penn Athletic Club (“Penn AC”) over cards and whiskey: the Kellys, the McIlvaines, and other Irish-American patriarchs were prosperous but couldn’t join any of the elite downtown clubs. Tom Curran, the “bad boy of the group,” had also rowed with Dougherty at Liège.

John B. “Jack” Kelly, powerful contractor and prominent Democratic kingmaker, was the godfather of the group. He had famously been denied entry at the Henley Regatta’s “Diamond Sculls” because the rules stipulated that which excluded anyone “who is or ever has been … by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer”. The rejection kindled a competitive fire in Kelly to not only push himself harder as an athlete (he was also an excellent boxer), but also his son Jack Jr, a Penn graduate who won the Henley “Diamond Sculls Challenge” in 1947 and 1949.   Using his enormous bricklaying fortune, Kelly Sr. built up the rowing program at the Pennsylvania Athletic Club.  He also mentored many aspiring young, working class Catholic rowers so they could compete toe-to-toe with the scions of Philadelphia’s Protestant gentry.

When Joe Sweeney entered Crescent that day, he had stumbled into the heart of Boathouse Row’s Catholic community. It was gritty, no-holds-barred competitive.

“Hey kid,” Dougherty shouted at Sweeney as he walked in the Crescent door, “would you like to row?”

One of the LaSalle eights was missing a man. Sweeney had never rowed in his life. He didn’t have a change of clothes, so he jumped into the eight in his Christian Brothers suit.

Sweeney not only had no idea how to row sweep, but he also learned to his horror that Coach Dougherty had his kids row at only one speed. “Full power upriver. Full power down river. No pieces.”

Yet Sweeney didn’t shirk.  “In the Navy, I did what I was told,” he said. “I was so sore, my legs were cut up, Grease all over my pants. I looked up at Tom Curran and I said, ‘you son of a b***h.”

Curran smiled back at Sweeney.  “You’ll be back!” the old Irishman said.

Witchita State men's eight at the 1990 Dad Vail Regatta.

Witchita State men’s eight at the 1990 Dad Vail Regatta.


Source: interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.








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The Censor Mayor

Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car - First Run - New Subway Cars (Dedication) September 16, 1938 (PhillyHistory.org)

Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car – First Run – New Subway Cars (Dedication) September 16, 1938 (PhillyHistory.org).

The “People’s Mayor” or “political chameleon”? From his flamboyant, convention hall swearing in during a “howling snowstorm” in January 1936 to his indictment less than three years later, Philadelphia’s mayor wielded power with flair. As historian John Rossi put it: “Hardly a week passed that didn’t witness some dramatic gesture” on the part of Philadelphia’s Mayor S. Davis Wilson.

He battled in the courtroom and in the Press with the city’s privately owned utilities, claiming the people were being robbed. “I’m going to wipe out the whole system” he boasted in a hallway argument with a young Richardson Dilworth, lawyer for the PRT (Philadelphia Rapid Transit) before promising to punch him in the nose.

(“Like hell you are,” Dilworth replied, as he shed his coat. “I’d like to see you try.”)

Wilson grabbed headlines every which way: luring the Democratic Party to bring their Presidential convention to Philadelphia, convincing organizers of the Army-Navy football game that Philadelphia should be their city of choice and the Philadelphia Orchestra to produce pop concerts. He urged the Mummers to reschedule their New Year’s Day parade to a more spectator-friendly time of year. And just for the sake of yet one more headline, Wilson offered the position of superintendent of Philadelphia police to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Wilson seemed everywhere—and was, with his name “stenciled on all kinds of city property” from “traffic lights to trashcans,” earning him another nickname: “Ashcan Wilson.”

As his first year in office came to a close, Mayor Wilson attended the revue “New Faces” at the Forrest Theatre. Actors portrayed the former and current first ladies, Mrs. Hoover and Mrs. Roosevelt, haranguing Girl Scouts “on the delicate subject of babies.” Wilson walked out.

“It’s a damnable outrage, to poke fun at the President’s wife!” exclaimed the Mayor. “Take that skit out – or I’ll stop the whole show,” he demanded. It didn’t seem to matter that “New Faces” had run for months in New York without complaint, or that the First Ladies actually appreciated the humor.

“Either the skit goes,” demanded Wilson, “or the show does.”

The skit went.

Theater critic Linton Martin worried what Wilson’s “attitude and its enforcement could and would do” to Philadelphia’s stage. Several productions of recent years would have been shorn of their smartest and most smarting shafts of satire…”

Detail. Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car - First Run - New Subway Cars (Dedication) 9/16/1938 (PhillyHistory.org)

Detail. Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car – First Run – New Subway Cars (Dedication) September 16, 1938 (PhillyHistory.org).

Martin and Philadelphia’s audiences didn’t have to speculate for long.

Wilson again acted as the city’s official censor on the eve of the opening of “Mullato” at the Locust Street Theatre. Langston Hughes’s play held the record for the longest running Broadway production by an African-American (before Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In The Sun”). At the New York opening in 1935, critic Brooks Atkinson called “Mulatto” a “sobering sensation.” Anticipating its arrival in Philadelphia, The Inquirer described the play as “a melodrama of miscegenation in the South” telling the story of “a wealthy Southern planter who philanders with his housekeeper” and sends “his four Mulatto children…North to be educated. The Yankee environment instills in them the spirit of equality, so that when they return to the plantation they antagonize their family and neighbors.” Advertisements promised a “darling drama of sex life in the South.”

“It will probably cure no ills and provoke no race riots,” wrote Percy Hammond, somewhat prophetically. And not once did “Mulatto’s” 373 performances in New York or its three month-run in Chicago stir the hint of a riot. But that’s what Mayor Wilson claimed to fear in Philadelphia.

“The show won’t go on,” declared the mayor, claiming “Mulatto” was “an outrageous affront to decency.”

“As long as I am mayor,” Wilson remarked to The New York Herald Tribune, “I will not permit such shows in Philadelphia.” He sought confirmation from his “special censor group” which previewed an edited version of the play. “Mulatto” producer Jack Linder assured the censors and the Press that “many changes have been made” and “the objectionable features have been removed.” One critic wondered whether enough “soap and water has been applied to make it safe for Philadelphia consumption.”

The mayor’s censors came in with a tie: 3-3. One publicly criticized Wilson’s last-minute ban as “stupid and unfair” and was relieved of her duties. Wilson stuck to his original decision and posted police at the entrances of the darkened theater.

“Mulatto” found audiences elsewhere, as close as the Garden Pier Theatre in Atlantic City the following August. And two years later, after Wilson’s death of a stroke, the play’s producers attempted again to bring “Mulatto” to the Philadelphia stage, this time at the Walnut Street Theatre. But Wilson’s successor invoked the earlier decision and debate continued. As the courts considered the ban, the Reverend Marshall L. Shepard, compared “the play’s possible importance to that of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’” He couldn’t understand “why the play should provoke rioting. It only depicts the truth.”

Wilson’s censorship stood. And from what we can tell, Langston Hughes’ “Mulatto” has yet to have its Philadelphia premiere.

[Sources Include: “Race Problems in the South the Theme of ‘Mulatto,’ a ‘New Drama’ by Langston Hughes. By Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times, October 25, 1935; “The New York Theatre,” by Percy Hammond, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 3, 1935; “The Call Boys Chat: New Faces,” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 15, 1936; “Wilson and Lawyer Near Fight Over P.R.T.” The New York Times, February 4, 1936; “Mayor Plays Gallant, Bans Girl Scout Skit,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 10, 1936; “The Playbill,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 7, 1937; “Mayor Won’t Yield; Show Fails To Open,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 9, 1937; “Philadelphia Halts The Play ‘Mulatto,’” The New York Times, February 9, 1937; “Mrs. Favorite to Lose Job on Theatre Censor Board,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 10, 1937; “Censors Tie On ‘Mulatto,’” The New York Times, February 11, 1937; “The Call Boy’s Chat: Revues In This Land of the Free-for-All,” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 15, 1936;   “The Call Boy’s Chat: Taking the Dare Out of Dubious Drama;” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 14, 1937;  “Indict Mayor of Philadelphia in Vice Inquiry,” Chicago Daily Tribune; September 10, 1938; John P. Rossi, “Philadelphia’s Forgotten Mayor: S. Davis Wilson, Pennsylvania History, Vol. 51, No. 2 (April,1984); Joseph McLaren, Langston Hughes, Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921-1943 (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997).]

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Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part I)

Map dated October 7, 1920, showing the grounds of Pennsylvania General Hospital (known as "Blockley") and the adjacent burial grounds for the victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.

Map dated October 7, 1920, showing the grounds of Pennsylvania General Hospital (known as “Blockley”) and the adjacent burial grounds for the victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.

Gray, lanky, and serene-faced, Joe Sweeney is now 80 years old.  The former Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy grew up in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. His father was a prominent physician at Pennsylvania General Hospital, his mother a nurse.  His mother, born into a well-to-do North Carolina family, converted to her husband’s Roman Catholic faith, not just out of love, but out of a remarkable thing she saw during the 1918 flu epidemic.

“There were lines of people people on 34th Street trying to get into the hospital,” Joe said.  “The people who died at the hospital were buried across the street, where the Civic Center was.  The seminarians from St. Charles dug the graves.  Mom and Dad had horrible experiences, but she was inspired by what she saw.”

Young Joe came up through Philadelphia’s parochial school system, living in a big Victorian house at 38th and Spring Garden and attending St. Agatha’s Parish. Yet he never got the chance to row in high school: his father died when he was only ten years old.  Even though his father was a highly-paid physician, the Sweeneys did not have enough in savings to maintain their previous lifestyle.   “My mom put the older boys through parochial school,” he said, “but she couldn’t afford to keep everyone at home.”  To earn extra money, Joe would run errands for the local Pennsylvania Railroad employees.  During the 1940s, the PRR was in slow decline, but it was still one of the biggest employers in Philadelphia.  Thousands of brakeman, signalmen, locomotive engineers, and repairmen worked long and hard shifts at the Powelton yards adjacent to 30th Street Station, “In the afternoons, the clerks would give you an address to a train man to let him known when and where to report,” Joe remembered. “The PRR would give you a quarter to deliver the slip to the man at his home.”

3417 Baring Street, located one block south of Joe Sweeney's childhoold home, December 14, 1962.

3417 Baring Street, located one block south of Joe Sweeney’s childhoold home, December 14, 1962.

Running errands for the railroad also gave young Joe his first taste of alcohol.  As the dusk approached, he would stop by the houses on Brandywine Street, just north of Powelton Village, where the wives of the railroad workers were making dinner. “The mother would give you a metal pot, and you’d go to the nearest bar, where there would be a blackboard with the names of the guys.”

The bartender would fill up the pot with beer, and then give Joe a shotglass full of beer.

31st and Mantua avenue 4.20.55.ashx

“That was his pay to you,” Joe remembered.  “I remember being so small that I had to reach up to the bar to get that little shotglass full of beer.  It was the culture.  Teach you how to drink.”  Yet despite the heavy drinking, the clergy made sure that their flock would turn off the spigot in time for Sunday communion.   Monsignor Mellon of St. Agatha’s would stride into Deemer’s bar, fully dressed in his robes, and announce, “Alright men, It’s Sunday!”  And everyone would scatter and the bar would close.

When he turned 17, Joe left home and enlisted in the Navy.  He came back to Philadelphia in the late 1950s and enrolled at Lasalle University. It was there that he discovered rowing, which would turn into a lifelong passion.  It was also on Boathouse Row that he discovered the so-called “Irish Mafia,” headed by the legendary Kelly clan.

To be continued…


Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.


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America’s Better Bet: The Wooden Washington

Statue of George Washington by William Rush. Photographed May 6, 1921 by Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory.org)

Statue of George Washington by William Rush. Photographed May 6, 1921 by Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory.org)

William Rush, ship figurehead carver extraordinaire, had done it again. His “bold and striking likeness of the President” on the 250-ton ‘General Washington’” gave “pleasure to every spectator” according to the Pennsylvania Journal. This time, Rush had notched his game up from a tomahawk-wielding “Indian Trader” with a real, life-size, sitting commander-in-chief. So practical, so promising—so distinctly American—here in the 1790s, was a reality show on the prow of a ship. It transformed the busy docks of Philadelphia and London into sculpture galleries.

As a practical patriot, Rush knew what would speak to the American spirit—and what wouldn’t. He deployed his talents in a modest and practical way, scaling to the moment, the American reality.

Giuseppe Ceracchi, on the other hand, that ambitious goldsmith from Rome, was neither aligned nor in synch with that reality.

Ceracchi “burst upon the American scene” in 1791, “fresh from the rabid republican turbulence of Revolutionary Paris, filled with a volcanic enthusiasm for Liberty and the Rights of Man…” Knowing Continental Congress had not yet commissioned the equestrian statue of the Founding Father approved in 1783, he presented Congress with a proposal for a giant, operatic design of extraordinary scale. Ceracchi described it in a letter to Congress and tacked his sketch of it on a wall at Oellers Hotel at 6th and Chestnut Streets.

Ceracchi’s baroque “Monument designed to perpetuate the Memory of American Liberty” would feature a larger-than-life-bronze Washington on his horse atop a rocky summit surrounded by allegorical groups “to be of the finest Italian Marble.” According to the artist’s description, “Liberty arrives on American soil in a chariot driven by Saturn” pulled by four winged horses. Poetry and History welcome her while Philosophy removes the blinding-veil from Policy. Meanwhile, Valor “faces down terror-stricken Despotism.” Each of the allegorical figures, which would include Apollo and Clio, Neptune and Mercury, Nature and Minerva, Genius and Fame, would stand fifteen feet tall. Ceracchi envisioned his entire pompous project at least sixty feet, possibly even one hundred feet tall.

Congress seemed star-struck enough to entertain the idea, no doubt helped by Ceracchi’s offer to take “no pecuniary Reward” willing to be “satisfied with the Glory, which his performance will receive from the Subject itself.” Ceracchi demonstrated his skill and intentions by sculpting a life-sized marble bust of the President as a Roman emperor (with appropriate ancient hair style and toga) and a he sculpted in terracotta a portion of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, which would watch over Congress as it deliberated. In the end, however, Congress chose not to fund the commission. (“At the present time it might not be expedient to go into the expenses which the Monument . . . would require, especially with the additional ornaments proposed by the artist.”) And so the Washington bust eventually found its way into the Metropolitan Museum and Minerva came to rest at the Library Company.

An equestrian Washington would take another fifty years in New York and Richmond, and more than another century in Philadelphia.

George Washington by William Rush, rear view. Photogrpahed April 8, 1929 by Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory.org)

George Washington by William Rush, rear view. Photographed April 8, 1929 by Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory.org)

Meanwhile, the modest, earnest Rush, sculptor of pine—never bronze or marble—moved up the creative ranks from ship carver to the “First American Sculptor.” And in 1815, two decades after the collapse of Ceracchi’s proposal, Rush produced “a dramatic and spirited interpretation of the first American president as a statesman.”

Writes Linda Bantell: “Washington wears the costume of the period over which is draped a ‘flowing Grecian mantle’” to use Rush’s own words. It “cascades over the edge of the pedestal. In his right hand, Washington holds an unfurling scroll while leaning on a book (a common symbol for wisdom), on top of a Doric column (for fortitude); his right foot is thrust forward, catching the edge of a second scroll as it too unfurls.”

Rush’s down to earth, full -standing, in-the-moment wooden Washington was everything Ceracchi’s was not. Nowhere was the heavy-duty allegorical narrative. Gone was the imported marble and the imperial posturing. Here stood the man, not in bronze, or in marble, or even in rare imported wood. This wooden, not-even-quite-life-size Washington was carved in plain American pine and placed in Independence Hall to greet the Marquis de Lafayette on his return visit to America in 1824. Lafayette claimed it revived in his memory Washington’s “majesty of countenance, the affability of his manner, and the dignity with which he addressed those about him.”

In 1831, Rush rejected an insultingly low offer of $500 from a potential private buyer. That would only reimburse Rush for his months of labor so many years before, he complained. But when the City of Philadelphia matched the offer, Rush accepted. And so the wooden Washington stood in Independence Hall for the next century and a half, as genuinely presidential a work of art as there might ever be in America.

And Rush’s reputation? It would forever hover somewhere between “inspired artisan” and “sculptural genius”—an appropriately American immortality.

[Sources include: Linda Bantel, William Rush, American Sculptor (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1982); “Enclosure: Giuseppe Ceracchi to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 31 October 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives; To George Washington from Giuseppe Ceracchi, 31 October 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives; Wayne Craven , “The Origins of Sculpture in America: Philadelphia, 1785-1830,” The American Art Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Nov., 1977); Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, “Fragment of a Lost Monument,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 7 (Mar., 1948).]

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Misty Eyed for Market Shambles

2nd and Pine (PhillyHistory.org)

Head House Square, South 2nd Street – Pine to Lombard Streets. May 10, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

As early Philadelphia expanded, the city’s spine of market shambles kept up. “The market could…be conveniently extended in the same plan,” wrote an observer in 1809, almost giddy that Philadelphia might be able to maintain its century-old shopping traditions in the new century. But 19th-century growth would outpace everyone’s expectations, rendering the last remaining shambles a quaint, shabby, vestige.

The city mid-century “market mania” ushered in an era of grand market halls that modernized food buying with a collection of block-long, light-filled, state-of-the-art venues for hundreds of vendors and thousands of shoppers. Many Philadelphians liked these markets, as well as the bragging rights they offered, but others preferred to shop at the city’s vestigial vintage shambles.

“There were three phases in the logical development of a market,” explained the author of a 1913 study, “first, the curbstone market; second, the open shed; and third, and the modern enclosed market house. Strange as it may seem, Philadelphia’s municipal markets are in the second phase—namely open sheds. The North and South Second Street markets are all that remain to us of Philadelphia’s once well-developed market system.” The 18th-century design had been updated with “sheet iron roofs, cement floors and the systematizing of the numbering of the stalls.” Otherwise “they stand as they were built.” Just the way many Philadelphians, who were exceedingly proud of their old market shambles, and their old marketing ways, had always liked it.

“Few cities can boast of markets better supplied with the bounties of nature than Philadelphia,” claimed one mid-19th-century guidebook. “Let the reader, particularly if a stranger, take a tour of observation through them, especially on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, and he will behold an exceedingly interesting and gratifying spectacle. He will find those buildings well supplied with all kinds of meat, poultry, game, fish, vegetables, fruit, &c., while the streets in the immediate vicinity are crowded in all directions with well-filled baskets.”

“These markets, distributed throughout the city, embrace altogether over forty entire squares, in addition to the range of wagon stands on Market Street and Second Street, which of themselves form a line equal in extent to three miles.”

Here’s where the shambles stood:

2nd Street Market - Butter and Egg Stall, June 14, 1935 (PhiilHistory.org)

2nd Street Market – Butter and Egg Stall, June 14, 1935 (PhillyHistory.org)

High Street Market. — Those long ranges of buildings that line this noble avenue, were not contemplated in the original plan of the city. Penn designed Centre Square for this purpose. The first of these houses was erected in 1710; it extended half way up from Second Street. In 1729, it was carried up to Third Street, where, for a long period, it was marked with the appendages of Pillory, Stocks, and Whipping Post. … Before the Revolution, the markets were extended to Fourth Street and eventually stretched all the way to Eighth Street. “In 1836, the old market-houses were torn down, and the present light and airy structures were erected.” At the easternmost end stood a fish market and a New Jersey Market with a domed head house flanked by cornucopia. West of Broad Street, the markets extended from two more blocks.

South Second Street Market extends from Pine to Cedar (South) Street.

North Second Street Market extends from Coates (Fairmount Avenue) to Poplar Street.

Callowhill Street Market is situated in Callowhill Street, between Fourth and Seventh Streets.

Shippen (Bainbridge) Street Market extends from Third to Fifth Street.

Maiden (Laurel) Street Market, Kensington, Maiden Street, between Broad and Manderson Streets.  This is Laurel and Frankford Ave at Delaware Avenue.

Spring Garden Market, Spring Garden Street. Extensive ranges of light and graceful market-houses line this elegant avenue, from Sixth to Twelfth Street.” The 1862 Philadelphia atlas shows another block of market sheds from 13th to Broad.

Girard Market, Girard Avenue, between Tenth and Lewis (Warnock) Streets.” The 1862 Atlas shows market sheds from Lawrence Street (between Fourth and Fifth) to Seventh and then also from Tenth to Twelfth.

Moyamensing Market, extends from Prime (Ellsworth) to Wharton Street.”

Franklin Market, Franklin (Girard) Avenue…consists of two ranges; one extending (a block east to) Hancock Street to the Germantown Road (now Avenue), the other from Crown (Crease) Street to the Frankford Road (Avenue).”

Eleventh Street Market, Moyamensing. Eleventh Street, extends from Shippen (Bainbridge) to Fitzwater Street.”  The 1862 atlas shows four blocks, from Bainbridge to Carpenter Streets.”

Head House Square, South 2nd Street - Pine to Lombard Streets. May 10, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

2nd Street, South to Lombard Street, May 10, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

By 1917, market watchers knew that more than 1,500,000 Philadelphians, living in hundreds of miles of new and old blocks of rowhouses made 25,000 market visits every day. More and more, these visits were shifting to a new market genre: the corner grocery store. Philadelphia had 5,266 retail grocery stores as well as 2,004 butchers and retail meat dealers and  257 delicatessens—approximately one store for every 54 families.

“If retail markets are to succeed,” worried Clyde Lyndon King in 1917, “they must change their locations as population centers shift. Public markets have evidently not adapted themselves to these changes as quickly as have private stores.”

And to further disrupt the old market system, buyers began to use their newly-acquired telephones as shopping aides, leading some market experts to believe “there can be no public market in the day of the telephone.”

“Can we, in this day of the telephone and the corner grocery store,” wrote Achsah Lippincott, “bring back the old custom of marketing?” Many Philadelphians still appreciated the idea, but more as wistful sentiment than serious possibility. “The corner grocery has come to stay,” admitted Lippincott. And so had the telephone. If the city’s remaining vintage market shambles were going to survive, they’d do so as quaint relics at the margins of the city’s increasingly massive food distribution system.

[Sources include: Some Account of the Markets of Philadelphia,” The Port Folio, (1809), pp. 508-511; Clyde Lyndon King, Public Markets in the United States (Philadelphia, The National Municipal League, 1917); Achsah Lippincott, Municipal Markets in Philadelphia (The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science) Vols. 49-50, 1913; R. A. Smith, Philadelphia as it is in 1852, (Lindsay and Blakiston, 1852); E. M. Patterson, Co-operation among Grocers in Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Dissertation, 1915.]

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The Food Market Bubble of 1859

Dock Street - Fish Market. April 28, 1914 (PhillyHistory.org)

Dock Street – Fish Market. April 28, 1914 (PhillyHistory.org)

“The completion of the market between the two rivers will probably take place in the present generation,” wrote an anonymous commentator in 1809, adding “a uniform, open arcade mathematically straight, two miles in length, perfect in its symmetry… will never be a contemptible object.”

But the coming generation of Philadelphians wouldn’t be so patient, or appreciative, of the vision for an urban village. While the anonymous writer worried some “pragmatical architect” might come along and “destroy this symmetry, by adopting new dimensions as to height or breadth, and taking a different curve for his arch,” the public had moved on, to the position of total demolition.

By the middle of the 19th-century, many Philadelphians had come to recognize that the city’s spine of market sheds was a vestige of a 1680s vision for a “country town” and little more than “a time-honored nuisance.” By 1850, the population would exceed 120,000 and a few years later the two-square mile city would consolidate to become one and the same with the 159-square mile county. By 1900, Philadelphia’s population would explode to nearly 1.3 million. That would demand sweeping transformation of how this sprawling, modernizing city would supply itself with victuals.  As historian Helen Tangires put it: squat, quaint, open-air markets had “no place in the emerging vision.”

That vision demanded an entirely new type of building: spacious market halls with soaring arched ceilings made possible by modern trusses accommodating hundreds of vendors and thousands of shoppers. These market halls would join the repertoire of large urban building types: city halls, schools, museums, libraries, theaters, factories, train sheds and depots. They’d play a distinct role, explains Tangires, in a 19th-century “moral economy” where government and private interests collaborated to support the community’s social, political and physical well-being. And Philadelphia, as it so happened, provided perfect conditions for this market movement to flourish.

Western Market, Market Street at 16th northeast corner, ca. 1859 (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia Print and Pictures Department)

Western Market, Northeast corner of 16th and Market Streets, ca. 1859 (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia Print and Pictures Department)

Four years after consolidation, “in the wake of the demolition” of Market Street’s old sheds, writes Tangires, 17 market companies were incorporated in the city, leading to a period of “unparalleled construction.” Each new corporation issuing stock meant another “unprecedented opportunity for speculation in food retailing,” another new hall with “the latest innovations in refrigeration, lighting, ventilation, and construction.”  Philadelphia’s “market house company mania” turned out an impressive collection of state-of-the art “market palaces.”

One by one, they opened with celebrations. At the northeast corner of 16th and Market Streets in April, 1859, architect John M. GriesWestern Market Company invited in the public and received praise for its arched roof and clerestory above a 170-by-150-foot interior with “280 stalls with Italian marble counter tops” divided by commodious aisles. At each end were galleries devoted to “the sale of flowers, seeds, and ice cream.” Iron-framed doors with “wicker inserts for air circulation lined the entire perimeter.”

Seven blocks away, an auction of 431 vendor stalls at the Eastern Market, a 300-by-100-foot-hall at 5th and Commerce Streets, brought higher prices than expected, spurring more confidence and investment citywide. When the Eastern Market opened in November, 1859, a company of top-hatted hosts served a feast in the center of the main floor.

Center City would have its share of new market houses and so would neighborhoods that only a few years before were beyond the city proper. The Fairmount Market Company, incorporated in March, 1859, raised $100,000 by selling two thousand shares at fifty dollars apiece.  Before long, they started building a 100-by 300-foot hall at the northwest corner of 22nd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Pennsylvania Avenue, West from Hamilton Street and 21st, October 25, 1900 (PhillyHistory.org)

Pennsylvania Avenue at 22nd Street, October 25, 1900 (PhillyHistory.org)

Throughout the city, from Northern Liberties to Point Breeze, from West Philadelphia to Germantown, the city’s appetites launched a golden age of market construction. And that was only the first round. “The market house company mania that began in Philadelphia in 1859 continued unabated through the rest of the state particularly during 1870s and 1880s,” writes Tangires. “They grew up like mushrooms in every part of the city.” In North Philadelphia alone, market halls cropped up at 9th & Girard, 10th & Montgomery, Broad & Columbia (Cecil B. Moore), 17th & Venango, 18th & Ridge, and 20th & Oxford—to mention but a few of the 39 listed in a City Directory from 1901.

A glorious tradition. And an unsustainable one. “Too numerous and costly,” observed Thomas De Voe as early as 1862, citing “false confidence,” false starts and early failures due to “overcapitalized and highly speculative” market halls. The Franklin Market at 10th and Marble (now Ludlow) was soon re-purposed as the Mercantile Library. Neither the Eastern nor the Western Markets survived. Nor did the Fairmount Market. Not one of Philadelphia’s soaring halls survive. Gone are the Black Horse, the Union, the Fidelity, the Globe, the Red Star and the Red Lion. Could it be that the Green Hill Market at 17th and Poplar stands as the city’s last remaining hall of those chartered in 1859?

Ask anyone today about the city’s great food halls and they’ll point you to the Reading Terminal Market, a street-level emporium under the 1892 train shed at 12th and Filbert Streets. It stands where not one, but two of the grand, original market halls once stood, side by side, in the heady days of Philadelphia’s “market mania.”

Architecturally, it’s the result of a steep compromise. But it’s also a proud, lone survivor.

[Sources include: “Some Account of the Markets of Philadelphia,” The Port Folio, (1809), pp. 508-511; Helen Tangires, Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and “Public Markets,” The Encyclopedia of Greater PhiladelphiaLaws of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Pennsylvania, Passed at the Session of 1859 (Harrisburg, 1859); A Digest of Titles of Corporations Chartered by the Legislature of Pennsylvania, Between the Years 1700 and 1873 Inclusive (Philadelphia: J. Campbell & Son, 1874); Gospill’s Philadelphia City Directory for 1901 (Philadelphia: James Gospill’s Sons, 1901).]

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