Willis Hale and the Proposed Chester-Regent Historic District

Twin houses on the 4500 block of Chester Avenue, May 25, 1951.

Restraint is not a word associated with the Philadelphia architect Willis Gaylord Hale (1848-1907).  His most famous Philadelphia commission, the recently-rehabbed Divine Lorraine Hotel of 1894, is a yellow-brick wedding cake skyscraper. His other residential and commercial structures that have survived the wrecking ball, such as the Union Trust in Center City, are fanciful and exuberant, but hardly graceful.

Willis Hale achieved his (brief) professional success through a combination of hard work and strategic associations. A transplant from Seneca Falls, New York, he studied in the architectural offices of Samuel Sloan (designer of Woodland Terrace) and John McArthur (designer of City Hall) before opening his own firm. He had also married a niece of the chemical magnate William Weightman, one of the richest men in Philadelphia.  Very much like his contemporary Peter Widener (whose North Broad Street mansion Hale designed), Weightman was also deeply involved in land speculation in North and West Philadelphia. Of course, Hale was Weightman’s architect of choice for several ornate developments pitched to upper-middle class buyers.  Prosperous lawyers and physicians loved Hale’s homes, but the architectural establishment thought otherwise. “The building shall lack unity, shall lack harmony, shall lack repose and shall be a restless jumble,” sneered The Architectural Record in 1893. His commercial buildings on Chestnut Street were “monstrosities.”

Yet the 41 homes Willis Hale designed just off Clark Park, on Chester Avenue and Regent Street, are so uncharacteristic of his gaudy oeuvre. Devoid of almost all ornamentation, they are massive, brooding, fortress-like structures with thick walls and small windows.  Their only touches of whimsy are their elaborately-carved wooden porches, Tudor half-timbered gables, and finial-topped roofs.  The semi-circular turrets are Hale’s nod to the Boston architect H.H. Richardson’s Romanesque Revival style, which was popular in the New England, but rarely seen in the Philadelphia area.

The real showstopper in Hale’s development is the 10,000 square foot freestanding mansion at 46th and Chester.  Completed in 1889, its first occupant was the wealthy physician Dr. Daniel Egan, whose family owned it until the 1930s, by which time the neighborhood had fallen out of fashion due to the ravages of the Great Depression.  Dr. Egan’s widow donated the house to the Roman Catholic church, who converted it into a home for the elderly.  Now restored to much of its former grandeur, the former Egan mansion is now the Gables Bed & Breakfast.

An announcement for a performance at the Utopian Club, a musical society of which Willis Hale, an amateur singer, was a member. The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 1883.

Like Frank Furness, Hale’s florid high Victorian style was out-of-fashion by the early twentieth century. Clients wanted the clean lines and cool French classicism of Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele.  Once one of the city’s most prosperous architects, Willis Hale ended his days in straightened circumstances, surviving mostly on the largesse of his very wealthy uncle in-law.

Today, the University City Historic District has proposed that the 41 Willis Hale houses be designated as the Chester-Regent Historic District.  If the Historic Commission approves the proposed district on April 17, it will be another step toward actively preserving more of West Philadelphia’s Victorian housing stock, which has come under increasing pressure from development and demolition in recent years.

Sources: 

Sandra Tatman, “Hale, Willis Gaylord (1848-1907),” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2019.  https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/24990

Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930s. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2011.

“Historical Commission to consider preservation designation for 41 homes near Clark Park,” West Philly Local, March 4, 2019.

Historical Commission to consider preservation designation for 41 homes near Clark Park

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How the Free Library of Philadelphia Grew its Branches

Caricature of Andrew Carnegie as a Santa Claus with a sack of libraries, The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 8, 1903.

“I am in the library manufacturing business,” gloated steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who had been making dozens of grants around the country to build new public libraries. From New Hampshire to Texas, Maine to Montana, groundbreakings were planned or underway. New York had gotten the largest chunk of money, more than $5.2 million. Carnegie made that announcement back in 1899.

As 1903 got off to a chilly start, Philadelphians impatiently waited their turn.

But if Philadelphia was to see any of Carnegie’s wealth, City Council and the Mayor would have to increase their spending on libraries, each and every year. Librarian John Thomson went to Washington, D. C. and met with Carnegie, ready to admit that a city of 1.3 million people couldn’t be adequately served by the city’s current fourteen branch libraries, most of which were in rented, re-purposed houses. With the right level of support, however, Thomson would welcome the idea of an expanded, state-of-the-art, urban library system. But he couldn’t commit funds he didn’t have.

“I am Aladdin,” Carnegie told the librarian at the meeting. “You, Mr. Thomson, and the trustees of the Free Library of Philadelphia are the lamp. I rub the lamp… But you do the work. You devote your time, your brains, your health to the task. I merely supply the polish.”

And, as both men knew full well, Philadelphia would be obliged to pay more, much more, for an expanded improved network of libraries. “I do not want to be known for what I give,” Carnegie claimed, “but for what I induce others to give.”

“This is not charity, this is not philanthropy,” he said, “it is the people helping themselves by taxing themselves.”

A few days later, Thomson received the anticipated letter: “After listening to you,” Carnegie wrote, “I beg to say that it would give me great pleasure to do for the city of Philadelphia what I have done for New York, provided always that Philadelphia will do what New York has done for herself.” (Carnegie committed to pay for the construction of what would amount to 67 libraries in New York for a total of more than $5.2 million. The city agreed to cover for the costs for land, books, staffing and ongoing maintenance.)

“You tell me that a complete system of branch libraries for Philadelphia would require thirty of such branches,” Carnegie continued in his letter to Thomson, “and you estimate that twenty to thirty thousand dollars apiece would be sufficient for these, but I do not think this sum would be enough. You should have lecture rooms in these branch libraries and our experience in Pittsburgh is that we have not spent enough upon them. The last branches there cost a great deal most than the first.”

Lehigh Branch (now Lillian Marrero Library) Free Library of Philadelphia, North side of Lehigh Avenue, west of 6th Street, October 16, 1912 (PhillyHistory.org)

“I think, therefore, it would be well for you to spend fifty thousand dollars apiece for these branch library buildings, and it would give me great pleasure to provide a million and a half of dollars as the same may be needed to erect thirty branch libraries for Philadelphia provided sites be given and the city agree to maintain these branch libraries at a cost of not less than one hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year.”

“The branch libraries are the most popular institutions of all,” observed the steel magnate, “and I think, the most useful. A great central library is, of course, needed. But even before it in usefulness I place the local libraries, which reach the masses of the people.”

Before Carnegie’s offer, library trustees in Philadelphia were actually considering shuttering all but one of their fourteen current branches as “unsuitable.” But with the new offer on the table, they voted to accept it. The decision would be subject to approval by City Council and the mayor.

George McCurdy, president of Common Council, responded cautiously, acknowledging the gift as “handsome,” adding “the city will have to take into consideration the probably expense… it means an outlay of $150,000 a year for maintenance alone, exclusive of our big central library (the plans for which were underway along the Parkway). If the city is obliged to buy a score or more of sites, that also means a big outlay, and we will have to consider the propriety of expending so large a sum at this time.”

McCurdy hoped Carnegie’s “magnanimous offer” might “stimulate some of our own wealthy citizens to make similar gifts, either for a central library or for the purchase of sites. We have men here who could duplicate the gift, and should do it from a spirit of civic pride.” Discussions dragged on for a year before the city officially accepted Carnegie’s offer.

Among the earliest branch designed, bid and built was the “Grecian style” Lehigh Avenue Branch (now the Lillian Marrero Library) designed by architects G. W. & W. D. Hewitt. “When new [it] was one of the biggest libraries in the state,” wrote Inquirer’s Thomas Hine in 1985, “a classical building of immense pretension and grandeur standing on its own little Parnassus in the heart of the industrial city.”

“The cornerstone of the first Carnegie Library of the chain to be erected in this city was laid at Sixth and Lehigh avenue” the afternoon of April 10, 1905. The complete building would be outfitted with granite steps, Corinthian columns and be made of either Indiana limestone or Pennsylvania white marble. Beneath a giant reading room, would be a nearly equally large auditorium. The anticipated cost—about $100,000—was twice what Carnegie originally anticipated, and as much as five times what Thomson originally imagined for a typical branch.

That same year, the West Philadelphia Branch in the French Renaissance style by C.C. Zantzinger also opened. So did the Tacony Branch, designed by Lindley Johnson. Over time, twenty-two more, from Passyunk to Manayink, Cobbs Creek to Kingsessing would follow, joining the 1,689 libraries Carnegie leveraged into existence throughout the United States. “In 30 years,” wrote Hine, Carnegie “spent $56,162,662 and single-handedly increased the number of American public libraries four-fold.”

Carnegie’s grant to Philadelphia was his second largest library grant ever.

Lillian Marrero/Lehigh Avenue Branch, exterior, ca. 1906. (Free Library of Philadelphia Print and Picture Collection)

[Sources: In The Philadelphia Inquirer – “Carnegie Will Endow Thirty Free Libraries,” January 7, 1903; “Mr. Carnegie’s Gift to Philadelphia,” (Editorial) January 7, 1903; “Carnegie Gift to Camden; Opening at Washington,” January 8, 1903; “Councils Must Decide on the Carnegie Offer,” January 8, 1903; “Library Trustees Will Meet Today,” January 9, 1903; “Trustees To Accept Mr. Carnegie’s Gift,” January 10, 1903; “Library Bill Signed, January 12, 1904; “Will Bid Upon Two Carnegie Branches,” October 1, 1904: “Corner Stone for Carnegie Library,” April 11, 1905; “To Dedicate New Carnegie Library – Lehigh Avenue Branch,” November 18, 1906 and Thomas Hine, “Public Libraries Were his Gifts to the World,” July 25, 1985. Also, Theodore Wesley Koch, A Book of Carnegie Libraries. (H.W. Wilson company, 1917).]

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This Educational Institution Welcomed Wealth from Slavery

The Institute for Colored Youth, later the Samuel J. Randall School, 915 Bainbridge Streets, December 9, 1935 (PhillyHistory.org)

“The academy never stood apart from American slavery,” argues Craig Steven Wilder in his book Ebony and Ivy. “In fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”

“The American college is largely the story of the rise of the slave economy in the Atlantic world,” Wilder noted.

Producers of the the podcast Shackled Legacy: Universities and the Slave Trade agree.“Profits from slavery and related industries helped fund some of the most prestigious schools in the Northeast, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale.” Wealth from “slavery built several schools in the North. And in many southern states enslaved people built college campuses and served faculty and students.”

A few years ago, Georgetown University In Washington, D.C. admitted slavery’s role in their founding. Educators “orchestrated the sale of 272 men, women and children for $115,000 – $3.3 million in today’s dollars – to pay off the school’s debts.”

At first, the University of Pennsylvania denied “any direct involvement between Penn and the slave trade.” Then a group of students and faculty calling themselves The Penn Slavery Project released revealing research. “Seventy-five of the school’s early trustees, including over twenty of the founding trustees” were either owners of slaves or had financial ties to the slave trade.

The more we look, the more we see: in 18th and 19th-century America, education, philanthropy and the slave trade were woven into a massive tangle of moral compromise that generally was kept secret.

But not always.  In one prominent Philadelphia case, not only did folks know it, you might say they even owned it.

Consider the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheney University) the nation’s earliest institution of higher learning for African Americans, founded in 1837 and still standing at 915 Bainbridge Street.  The ICY was made possible with funds from Richard Humphreys, a Caucasian silversmith who left a $10,000 bequest (more than $260,000 in today’s dollars) to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends in order to establish a school for “…instructing the descendants of the African Race in school learning, in the various branches of the mechanical arts and trades and in Agriculture…in order to prepare and fit and qualify them to act as teachers in such of those branches of useful business…”

Thing was, Humphreys’ fortune originated in the coffee and sugar plantations of Tortola, the Caribbean Island where his parents, members of the Society of Friends, held and benefited from the labor of hundreds of enslaved Africans. At the time of Humphreys’ birth in 1750, his parents were among about 100 British colonists on the island who owned 10,000 Africans brought there to toil and die. The Quakers on Tortola were said to be “self-conscious about their plantations being cultivated by slave labor.” But the Humphreys continued to hold slaves, and accumulate wealth, so long as they lived on the Island.

When Octavius V. Catto (himself an ICY alum) delivered a commencement address more than a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, he acknowledged Humphreys and the Quakers for their “proverbial sympathy and charity for the oppressed,” and their “consistent opposition to ignorance, intemperance, war, and slavery.” This, said Catto, made Humphreys’ name “inseparable from our heartfelt gratitude and respect.” Instead of focusing on the source of the funds, Catto turned his listeners’ attention to the overwhelming need for education of the formerly enslaved, “those millions of human beings now scattered through the Southern country…”

Education, declared Catto, would be their continued path “to come forth into the sunlight of Freedom . . .”

[Sources: Octavius V. Catto,”An Address Delivered at Concert Hall on the Occasion of the Twelfth Annual Commencement of the Institute for Colored Youth,” May 10th, 1864, ExplorePaHistory.com; “Richard Humphreys (1750-1832)” in Philadelphia, Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976), pp. 128-132; Jennifer Schuessler, “Dirty Antebellum Secrets in Ivory Towers,” The New York Times, October 18, 2013; Sheila Simmons, “UPenn Claims No Traces of Slavery in its DNA,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 9, 2016; “Shackled Legacy: Universities and the Slave Trade,” American Public Media podcast, September 4, 2017; Madeleine Ngo, “Penn has acknowledged its ties to slavery, but student researchers say their work is far from over,” The Daily Pennsylvanian, August 24, 2018.]

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The “Shameless” Architectural Self-Promotion of Stearns & Castor

 

The Columbia Club, 1600 North Broad Street, 1893. Photo taken before the Stearns & Castor 1906 rear addition.

The Gilded Age was when Philadelphia smoked from fires of industry and shimmered in the glow of the electric light. The newfangled incandescent bulb became an object of near-mystic veneration.  Located in Northeast Philadelphia, the Rohrbacher & Horrmann Jefferson Flint Glass Company specialized in making high-quality “art glass” shades for electrical and gas lighting.

A German immigrant, Ferdinand Horrmann was one of a cadre of self-made industrialists who owned and operated large businesses in Northeast Philadelphia. These included the Disstons, who ran the nation’s largest saw manufacturers, and the Harbisons, among the region’s most successful dairy operators. These were family businesses, which in their heyday demanded architectural commissions for factories, warehouses, and mansions. Fancy “art glass” shades made by company’s such as Ferdinand Horrmann’s in Philadelphia, as well as Quezal and Tiffany in New York, served a practical purpose — to make the bright glare of electric lights more tolerable to those used to flickering gas light. Some shades were iridescent, while others mimicked bird plumage. Regardless, glass was a booming business in late 19th century America.

Rohrbacher & Horrmann Jefferson Flint Glass Company.  Source: The Free Library of Philadelphia

In the early 1890s, architect Horace Castor married Ferdinand’s daughter Elizabeth.  Castor, a master of the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles, partnered with engineer George Stearns to build structures for the North Philadelphia industrial elite, among them the Scottish Rite Temple, a mansion for cowboy-hat maker John Stetson, and various other buildings for the Mary Disston, Thomas Harbison,  He also built a grand twin house for himself at 7345 and 7347 Oxford Avenue.  Although prosperous, the Stearns & Castor firm did not break into the insular world of residential design for the Rittenhouse Square elite, a market cornered by the better-connected Frank Furness and Hewitt brothers.

Tiffany glass lamp, c.1900. Source: Wikipedia.com

The most impressive and “artistic” of Stearns & Castor’s commissions was an addition to the  Columbia Club, built in 1899 at the corner of North Broad and Oxford Streets in North Philadelphia.  The original clubhouse, a Queen Anne-style structure designed by the Scottish-born architect John Ord, was erected in 1899, at the height of North Broad Street’s glory years as an upscale residential boulevard.  In 1906, the Columbia Club had enough cash on hand to commission Stearns & Castor to build a large addition to the rear of the structure.  The Philadelphia Inquirerreported that “the building to be erected will be two stories high, covering an area 50×99 feet, and conforming in outward appearance with the present building. The building will contain, beside game rooms, recreation, and reading rooms, a large swimming pool and banquet hall.  The addition, when completed, will cost about $30,000.”

Sadly, no photographs survive of the interior of the now-demolished Columbia Club, but it can be guessed that it had the same Arts & Crafts richness as nearby establishments on North Broad Street.  No roster of its membership can be found, either, but it can safely be assumed that Ferdinand Horrmann was on the roster.  Among its members was leather manufacturer Alfred E. Burk, who lived in a Beaux-Arts mansion at 1500 N. Broad Street that cost $256,000 to build in 1907, or about $4 million in today’s money.

Shortly before the completion of the Columbia Club addition, Stearns and Foster published a monograph that highlighted the firm’s most successful projects. However, the American Institute of Architects took great exception to what they saw as flagrant self-promotion.  According to Philadelphia Architects and Buildings:

“From 1905 to 1907 the Minute Books of the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA report[ed] difficulties with Stearns & Castor regarding the right to advertise. This issue was brought to Chapter attention by the publication of a monograph of the office’s works, no doubt intended indeed to advertise by demonstrating the designs, which they had already successfully completed. Following the stern admonition of the Chapter’s committee on ethics, Stearns & Castor withdrew the publication from circulation, and the matter was thus ended.”

Stearns & Castor withdrew their monograph from circulation, but in 1916 got in hot water again with the AIA for entry in an unauthorized design competition for a Masonic home in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.  Its reputation battered, the Stearns & Castor dissolved in 1917.

The grandeur that was the Columbia Club, and much of the wealth that made it and the work of Stearns & Castor possible, proved to have a fleeting impact in North Philadelphia. A drab commercial block on the Temple University campus now occupies the site of the Columbia Club. Most of its industrial and residential buildings have either been demolished or abandoned.  The Castor family home still stands, and a nearby avenue still bears his name.

The Castor house at 7345-47 Oxford Avenue, June 30, 1931.

Sources: 

“The Latest News in Real Estate,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 30, 1906, p.9.

The Staff of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, “Nomination Form: 7345 and 7347 Oxford Ave,” Philadelphia Historical Commission, March 14, 2015.

Jessica R. Markey Locklear, “Statement of Significance for 1500 N. Broad,” Temple University Public History, accessed February 19, 2019.

Sandra Tatman, “Philadelphia Architects and Buildings (fl. 1895-1917),” The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2019.

Posted in Behind the Scenes, Snapshots of History | 2 Comments

African-American History Hijacked: the Rise and Fall of Phillis Wheatley on Lombard Street

Equity Hall (aka The Phyllis Wheatley Social Center), 1024-1026 Lombard Street, April 19, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

Slavers kidnapped a frail, 7-year-old girl in West Africa. They forced her aboard The Phillis, transported her to Boston, and sold her to John Wheatley, a tailor, and his wife, Susanna. Phillis Wheatley (named for the ship) quickly mastered English, became versed in the Bible and learned Greek and Latin. A creative genius, her first poem appeared in print in 1770. Wheatley was lauded as a new, distinctively American poet, a star of the rising anti-slavery movement and a trans-Atlantic literary celebrity. Six cities, including Philadelphia, printed her work. Wheatley’s collected poems were published in London in 1773.

A century and a half later, the name Phillis (sometimes spelled Phyllis) Wheatley would be considered an inspiring choice for African-American organizations from South Carolina to Minnesota. Equity Hall in Philadelphia’s “Black 7th Ward” had been serving as a destination since 1894 for banquets, meetings, protests, funerals, balls, boxing matches, concerts and political rallies. In 1922, The Negro Year Book listed the building at 1024 Lombard as the Phyllis Wheatley Social Center.

When Mayor Hampton Moore confirmed his plan to renovate the hall and build a new playground on the block between 10th, 11th, Lombard and Rodman Streets, it made perfect sense to name it for the poet. “I suggest the name of one who stands for the colored race,” declared the mayor, “a slave child brought to the country and kept here in slavery, who, despite all obstacles became an educated woman—a writer and a poet, a woman who wrote of her people and who sang their songs.” At a dedication ceremony on July 12, 1921, Mayor Moore noted before a crowd of 2,000 that a place previously known as “Hell’s Half Acre” was about to be renamed “the Phyllis Wheatley Recreation Centre.” This choice, he later noted, met the approval of several religious and civic leaders in Philadelphia’s African American community.

But Mayor Moore had earned himself a few political enemies. Immediately after his election in 1919, Moore unfurled a banner across Market Street proclaiming: “No boss shall rule this town.” He derailed the political ambitions of Vare loyalist, City Councilman Charles B. Hall, whose district included the playground. And Moore commissioned a study, conducted by sociologist Richard R. Wright Jr., that concluded the 1000 block of Lombard Street was “one of the worst pest holes in Philadelphia… due largely [to the] influence and protection” of an unnamed politician. Wright’s report claimed that city-owned buildings there were being “used for profitable, but illegal practices, including banditry, dope, prostitution, gambling and a series of other crimes too numerous to mention.”

Hall, the area’s ward leader, looked like the guilty party. He threatened to sue the Mayor for libel—and more, he proposed using what power he did have in City Council to swap out Wheatley’s name with someone who had a direct connection with the 7th Ward, the recently deceased City Councilman (and Hall’s predecessor and mentor) Charles Seger.  A fireman turned saloon owner machine politician, Seger was the epitome of political bossism.

Seger Playground with Equity Hall remaining. Atlas of the City of Philadelphia. Geo. W. & Walter S. Bromley, 1922. (Temple University Special Collections)

Moore called Hall “a “baby” and a “bluffer,” and reiterated the accusation that Hall was “largely responsible for vice conditions in the section of the city where he is in political control.”

“It’s a usurpation of power which belongs to Council,” claimed Hall of Moore’s proposal for the Wheatley name. “I want that place named Charles Seger Park and I’m going to see that it is named that.” A few members of the city’s African-American press took Hall’s side and interpreted the mayor’s proposal as crass pandering. “The most regrettable occurrence,” wrote the author of an article entitled “Phyliss Wheatley’s Name in Wrong Hands,” “has been the flippant and disgusting manner in which the mayor of Philadelphia and a few of his colored followers have dragged into the mire of the filthy politics of the city the name of that illustrious Negro woman…” Others in the city’s African-American community disagreed: “Numerous colored churches … vigorously denounced Councilman Hall for his attempt to name the new playground at 10th and Lombard streets after the late Charles Seger.”

Mayor Moore wasn’t about to back down, even after City Council overwhelmingly voted (15-4) to name the playground for Charles Seger in late July, 1921. He vetoed the bill and presented a plaque of Phyllis Wheatley to hang in the Lombard Street building. A week later, Moore opened the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall to 250 citizens interested in maintaining the Wheatley name. “The masks usually worn by the colored population had been stripped off,” declared the Rev. W.H. Moses of the Zion Baptist Church, “and no matter what Council did the name of the playground to the Negroes always would be the Phillis Wheatley Center.”

City Council did override the Mayor’s veto. And soon after, Council proposed to demolish Equity Hall, aka the Phyllis Wheatley Social Center. What would take its place? Councilman Hall had at the ready an ordinance to fund “a modern community and social service house to be named after Fanny Jackson Coppin, a slave girl who rose to be a profound Greek and Latin scholar and the greatest of all Negro educators of all time.” Coppin did have strong ties to the neighborhood. Starting in 1865, she ran the Institute for Colored Youth only a few blocks away near 9th and Bainbridge Streets.

But today, the Coppin building is long gone. And, of course, Wheatley’s name is nowhere to be found. What remains is once-contested public space that goes by the name of Seger.

Sometimes, long-forgotten history forces us to pose a question. In this case, we must ask: Should Seger’s name remain?

[Sources: [Dedication of Equity Hall], December 11, 1894 (Inquirer); “Colored Odd Fellows’ lodges in Philadelphia, 1896,” New York Public Library Digital Collections;  “Republicans Hold a Rousing Meeting in Equity Hall,” October 26, 1912 (Tribune); “Seger Dies at 71,” November 8, 1919 (Inquirer); “Moore Clamps Lid Tightly on Cabinet,” Nov. 8, 1919 (Inquirer); “’Hell’s Half Acre’ to get New Name,” July 13, 1921 (Tribune); “From Sproul Down, Vare Rule is Over, Notice From Moore,” Dec. 24, 1919 (Inquirer); “Mayor Answers Threats of Hall,” July 9, 1920 (Inquirer); “Mayor Should Clean Up Vice, Declares Hall,” Aug. 25, 1920 (Inquirer); “Hall Threatens Mayor, Dares Moore to Charge Him with Vice Conditions,” Aug. 28, 1920 (Tribune); “Mayor Threatened By Hall With Suit,” Nov. 27, 1920 (Inquirer); “Mayor Threatened By Hall With Suit,” Nov. 27, 1920 (Inquirer); “To Build Playground,” Oct. 23 1920 (Bulletin); “Mayor Moore Would ‘Clean-Up’ Seventh Ward Section to Establish His Own Political Headquarters,” Oct. 30, 1920 (Tribune); “Hell’s Half Acre Is Passing Away,” Jan. 4, 1921 (Inquirer); “Bill for New Playground,” June 2 1921 (Bulletin); “Hell’s Half Acre” to get New Name,” July 13, 1921 (Inquirer); “Wheatley Pa’K How Come?” July 16, 1921 (Bulletin); “Phyllis Wheatley’s Name in Wrong Hands,” July 16 1921 (Tribune); “Mayor Moore Opens New Play Ground…Phyllis Wheatley its Name,” July 16, 1921 (Tribune); “Hall Defies the Mayor to Veto ‘Seger’ Centre,” July 22, 1921 (Bulletin);  “Bold Attempt to Use Our Churches in City Politics,” July 23, 1921 (Tribune);  “Phillis Wheatley Name To ‘Stick,’” July 23, 1921 (Inquirer); “Negroes Announce Break with Hall over Playground,” Aug. 4, 1921 (Bulletin); “Colored Residents Demand Park Be Named for Poetess,” Aug. 4, 1921 (Bulletin); “The Mayor Hears Arguments on Play Ground Naming,” Aug. 6, 1921 (Tribune). Marcus Anthony Hunter, Black Citymakers: How The Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America (Oxford University Press; 2015)].

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A Most Exciting Discovery

On Monday, January 21, our nation observed and celebrated the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hundreds of volumes have been written about the beloved icon of the American Civil Rights Movement, also known as MLK. His heavily analyzed and eventful life has been chronicled with a thoroughness that gives the impression there is little else we can know or see about this man who played such a vital role in changing the course of American history and the lives of millions throughout the world. But artifacts that chronicle significant events and people still remain in archives, libraries, and other cultural institutions, waiting to be rediscovered. Such was the case with a series of photos housed in Philadelphia City Archives.

On October 10, 1966, City of Philadelphia photographer Ralph Carollo took a series of fourteen images to document Dr. King’s tour of Philadelphia neighborhoods with Mrs. Sigrid Craig, founder of the Better Philadelphia Committee.[1] These photos were in an original envelope from 1966 included in one of the hundreds of boxes of official City of Philadelphia photographs waiting to be scanned and uploaded to PhillyHistory.org. The envelope described the contents as “Streets Sanitation: 1800 Block N. Lambert St, Mrs. Craig.” It was with great excitement that I “discovered” these photos also included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.! Immediately, I wanted to know why this icon of the Civil Rights Movement was in Philadelphia  in 1966 on a streets sanitation tour.

Dr. King, as was his mission, traveled extensively around the country to speak at rallies and gatherings to promote the cause of civil rights. In the few days of October 1966 he was here, his presence bolstered at least three events. Dr. King was welcomed to Philadelphia by the Rev. William L. Bentley, pastor of the Emmanuel Institutional Baptist Church and president of the Interfaith Interracial Council.

Accompanied by Rev. Bentley, Dr. King’s first stop in Philadelphia was to speak Sunday, Oct. 9th at The Arena before a crowd of 1500 as part of a rally organized by Civil Rights activist James Meredith and sponsored by the Interfaith Interracial Council of the Clergy. Dubbed by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “the lonesome traveler of the civil rights movement,” Meredith may be most remembered for his brush with death only four months before this rally.[2]

James Meredith was the first African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Persevering under intense opposition, he graduated in 1964, and in 1966 “began a one man protest against racial violence in Mississippi which he called a ‘March Against Fear.’” Originating in Memphis, Tennessee, the march was to end at Jackson, Mississippi, but shortly

Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1966

after he crossed into Mississippi, Meredith was shot by an unknown assailant. Dr. Martin Luther King and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, led by Stokely Carmichael, continued on the march, meeting the recovering Meredith the day before they reached the state capital.[3]

On Monday, October 10, Dr. King, accompanied by his good friend and fellow activist Ralph Abernathy, Rev. William Bentley and others toured African American neighborhoods in the city. Captured images show the entourage speaking to Mrs. Craig, meeting tradesmen working on some of the houses on the 1800 block of N. Lambert Street, and interacting with people on the street. Details of the images show Dr. King outfitted with a microphone and cord.[4] I’m sure the people of that neighborhood got a rare treat in hearing the words of Dr. King that day, although the exact topics of his speeches remain unknown.

Dr. King’s next engagement while in Philadelphia was to speak at a luncheon honoring Rev. William Bentley on his 25th anniversary as pastor of the Emmanuel Institutional Baptist Church. The luncheon, sponsored by the Greater Chamber of Commerce, took place at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel and was attended by approximately 300 businessmen of Philadelphia.[5] Dr. King’s message at this gathering emphasized that “’There are two Americas in existence today.  One is white America, which is beautiful and prosperous. The other is the America of the Negroes which is ugly, brooding, defeated and disappointed.’” Dr. King went on to point out to the businessmen the wide salary gap between white and black workers, and said “This presents for our nation a problem which must be dealt with. To move ahead we must solve it. As long as nothing is done, it will only encourage the forces of extremism.”[6] Fifty-three years later, these words continue to encourage us to look for inequities in our current systems. Though Dr. King’s work ended too soon, there is still much to discover about his life and mission; and through that discovery, much to learn and teach to our children as leaders of tomorrow.

Discovering these images in an unobtrusively labeled envelope shows the importance of the photo organization and digitization completed via PhillyHistory.org. It is our task to properly catalog and scan the photos in the Philadelphia City Archives collection and store them in new, archival quality envelopes and boxes. Thousands of images have been scanned and uploaded, but many thousands still await scanning. As we go through each envelope, we know that not all are labeled accurately. This could be due to photographer error, changes in street names, architecture, or events. Images that now have historical importance perhaps were considered quite ordinary when the photographer took them. In 1966 Dr. Martin Luther King was not regarded in the same light that he is now. Perhaps that can account for the labeling of this archival envelope. Whatever the reason for this labeling, discovering a snippet of American history in the Philadelphia City Archives is greatly exciting, and has now added another facet to the noble story and life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the City of Philadelphia.

 

 

[1] Them That Do: Stories About Philadelphia’s Block Captains, Sigrid Craig – Mother of Philadelphia Block Captains. (7 May, 2015). http://themthatdo.net/2015/05/sigrid-craig-mother-of-philadelphia-block-captains/. The Better Philadelphia Committee evolved into the Clean-up, Paint-Up, Fix-Up campaign, eventually becoming the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee in 1965.

[2] The Philadelphia Inquirer. Monday Morning, October 10, 1966. pg 6.

[3] BlackPast.org, Remembered and Reclaimed: A Reference Guide to African American History. Meredith, James (1933- ). https://blackpast.org/aah/meredith-james-1933 (Accessed 22 Jan, 2019.)

[4] https://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/Detail.aspx?assetId=156952

[5] The Philadelphia Inquirer. Tuesday Morning, October 11, 1966. pg. 6.

[6] Ibid. Dr. King noted that the “Average annual salary of white workers in the country is $6874 while that of Negro workers is $3662.”

 

 

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Figuring Out a Photograph: the First St. Francis Xavier and its Long-Gone Neighborhood at Fairmount

Fairmount Bridge – East Approach, 1874 (PhillyHistory.org)

The date, 1874, seems reasonable enough. So does the photograph’s title “Fairmount Bridge – East Approach.” But the buildings don’t seem to match the given address: “N. 25th St and Fairmount Ave.” And so we turn to the online version of G. M. Hopkins 1875  Atlas at The Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network to figure it out. The curve of the road, the stone wall and the steep slope on the left side of the image rather suggest we’re looking at the southeastern edge of the Fairmount Reservoir, what is now the site of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Today, the scene would be looking across Eakins Oval.

A closer look at the atlas yields a solid hint as to precisely where. “Approach to the upper deck of the bridge,” it says. And just above the word “approach” we especially like that a bend in the road that matches a bend in the masonry wall visible in the photograph. Now, oriented to that spot on the map, we are certain it’s a view to the northwest, toward what was once 25th and Spring Garden Streets.

Zooming in on the photograph, there’s a sign for the “New Bridge Hotel,” a short row of brick houses, and then a substantial domed church. And a thought occurs: we never knew of a church there. The Atlas tells us the church property is owned by James F. Wood. Hmmm. That’s not very helpful. But with the click of a box on the Interactive Map Viewer we switch to Smedley’s 1862 Philadelphia Atlas and we’re treated to some welcome information. At the northwest corner of 25th and Biddle Streets, just south of where Spring Garden Street runs into the foot of Fairmount, the word “Church” is plainly there in a rectangle. No name, no denomination—for that we’ll have to look elsewhere. And just one more click of a box away, we find what we’re looking for: The church is “St. Francis Xavier R. Cath. Church.” A small archival victory.

Where to turn to learn more?

The Callowhill Street Bridge, as they called it, did have an upper deck, as confirmed by PhillyHistory images  here and here. In fact, it was new in 1874, which explains the construction debris in the curved road as well as the sign “New Bridge Hotel.” A double-decker bridge replaced the previous bridge, the “Wire Bridge at Fairmount” of 1842. And, if you want to go all the way back, the first bridge there “The Upper Ferry Bridge,” opened in 1812. It earned a distinctive nickname: “The Colossus” for the record-breaking size of its single wooden truss.

Detail – Fairmount Bridge – East Approach, 1874 (PhillyHistory.org)

San Carlo al Corso, Rome. Pietro da Cortona, 1668. (RomeArtLover)

Biddle Street became Buttonwood in 1897 a fact that’s confirmed by G. W. Bromley’s 1910 Philadelphia Atlas. By then, however, the church is gone and a bath house stands in its place. What happened? The B. & O. Railroad’s Schuylkill River East Side Rail Road tunnel under 25th Street underwent expansion in the mid-1880s. In the process, blasting resulted in “significant damage to both the church and the adjacent rectory.”

What more can we read into the photograph? Off to the left, partially hidden in the distance, is a multi-story mill building. In 1875, that would be Fairmount Worsted Mills (formerly J.& W. Yewdale’s Worsted Goods Manufactory) occupying much of the south side of the 2400 block of Spring Garden between Osprey and Taylor Streets.

On the northeast corner of 25th and Biddle is a one-story mill identified as “Cotton Manufactory” by Hexamer & Locher on their 1858-60 Atlas. By 1895, that building has become part of S. B. Fleisher’s mill. Adjacent to it is Fleisher’s Star Braid Works and dye house. Within a few short blocks one would find an ice factory, several soap works, a carriage bolt works, machine tool manufacturers and factories making everything from carpets to iron roofing. All places of employment in the burgeoning neighborhood along the Schuylkill.

Is there anything to uncover about the church, which, we read on the 1895 Atlas, is “St. Francis Cath. Ch.”?

Luckily, one copy of a lithograph of the church building dating from 1880 (or so) survives at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. The compilers of the comprehensive Philadelphia on Stone at the Library Company included an entry for it in their catalogue. But other than informing us that “the church relocated to a new building at 24th and Green streets in 1898,” we remain in the dark as to who designed it and when its dome joined the city’s skyline.

The extant St. Francis Xavier Church a few blocks away on the 2300 block of Green Street is the work of architect Edwin Forrest Durang. But his extensive list of projects identifies only one St. Francis Xavier, not two.

Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, 18th and Parkway, 1970 – detail of dome (PhillyHistory.org)

We turn to a book entitled Cathlocity in Philadelphia, which happens to be word-searchable at archive.org. There, on pages 293 and 294 is an entry for St. Francis Xavier’s Church which provides some useful background. In 1839, Bishop Francis Kendrick recognized the need for new parishes in the western sections of the city proper. He noted the growth of “the coal-shipping industry, the wharves of which stretched alongside the east bank of the Schuylkill River” and new, largely Irish Catholic settlements known “The Village” and “Out Schuylkill.” Kendrick created two new parishes: St. Patrick based at 20th and Rittenhouse and St. Francis Xavier at 25th and Biddle. The community came together to dedicate a church at the former on June 1, 1841.  The corner-stone of St. Francis Xavier’s was laid June 1, 1839 and that church, still without a dome, was dedicated on Sunday, June 6, 1841.

We learn that St. Patrick’s was “built under the direction of [architect] Napoleon LeBrun.” No mention of an architect for St. Francis Xavier.

But we take away a clue that is subsequently confirmed in Roger Moss’s Historic Sacred Places in Philadelphia. The dome, which Moss suggests may date to 1866, appears to be an echo of Pietro da Cortona’s San Carlo al Corso in Rome, which has often been cited as the source for the dome of the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on Logan Square. LeBrun also contributed designs for the Cathedral. Could this church at 25th and Biddle be another iteration of the same idea by LeBrun? Take a look at San Carlo’s dome and consider the possibilities.

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Once Upon a Day: Philadelphia’s American Museum of Photography

As workers cleaned debris from the old Victorian brownstone at 338 South 15th Street, a framed set of photographs caught the eye of Marc Mostovoy, the building’s new owner. Mostovoy, a conductor of classical music with no knowledge of vintage photography, kept the curiosity from being tossed into the dumpster. That was 1970.

Sixteen years later, F. Holland Day’s The Seven Words, the Boston photographer’s depiction of Christ on the cross, portrayed by himself, sold at Sotheby’s auction in New York, setting a new record for a photographic work of art: $93,500. Day went to great lengths creating the series, which was, according to The New York Times, inspired by the religious ideas of Day’s friend, the poet William Butler Yeats. “Day imported a cross from Syria, created a crown of thorns, grew a beard and long hair and fasted to achieve an emaciated look.”

The Seven Words, F. Holland Day, photographer, 1898. Seven platinum prints, each 5 1/4 x 4 1/4 inches in the original frame. (Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York)

Day had sent the piece to Philadelphia for exhibition in the first photographic salon at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the Fall of 1898. After the salon, Philadelphia archaeologist, collector and photographer Clarence Bloomfield Moore, added the piece to his art collection. The fact that Day’s work had found its way to 338 South 15th street actually made a lot of sense. The building’s previous owner, Louis Walton Sipley, an energetic writer, inventor, lantern slide and educational film maker, had established a museum of photography. Sipley operated the museum on the building’s lower floors. He and his wife occupied the upper stories.

In 1939, while working on an article about photography’s centennial year for Arts and Sciences, a magazine he edited, Sipley came to realize the quantity of important photographs lost or on the brink of oblivion. On a mission, he went from museum to museum in Philadelphia trying to convince someone, anyone, to make photography a collecting priority. No one would. Meanwhile, Sipley learned that institutions and individuals wanted to turn over valuable photographic material to him, if he would take it. So Sipley adopted photography—literally—he founded the nation’s first museum devoted exclusively to it.

The American Museum of Photography opened December 10, 1940. Through exhibitions and articles on the early history of the medium, Sipley expanded upon his magazine article telling the story of Philadelphia’s substantial contributions to its development.

The museum’s holdings grew to more than 50,000 prints representing all kinds of photographic and photo-mechanical processes. It developed a library of 5,000 books and periodicals. Hundreds of pieces of early equipment found their way to 338 South 15th Street. Sipley began to imagine that his American Museum of Photography might someday occupy a building on the city’s cultural boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

South 15th Street, Pine to Spruce, 1964 (PhillyHistory.org). The American Museum of Photography (1940-1968) was in 338 South 15th, the seventh building from the left.

When Sipley died in 1968, his museum was not only leaderless, it lacking any kind of an endowment to sustain operations. At the very least, Sipley had hoped to somehow keep the collection intact and in Philadelphia. But none of the Philadelphia institutions wanted the American Museum of Photography without funds to support it. One prominent curator from the Philadelphia Museum of Art reportedly visited the shuttered museum on 15th street, stepped into a room with tables and shelves piled high with prints, books and equipment, and quickly turned on his heel.

That may have been the death knell for the American Museum of Photography.

In short order, the contents of the museum were sold to the 3M Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. Executives there were thinking about establishing their own museum of photography. But their plans faltered and the Sipley collection languished in a St. Paul warehouse for the better part of the decade.

In the 1970s, the museum world grew more accepting of photography. Dim recollections of the defunct museum finally found resolution. There would be no museum, came the announcement from St. Paul. The Sipley/3M Collection would be turned over to the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum) in Rochester, New York.

Somehow, F. Holland Day’s The Seven Words failed to make it into the museum’s inventory, or into any of the crates shipped to St. Paul.

Day’s work from 1898 is considered a highlight in the history of the medium. There are only two other sets of The Seven Words known, one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Alfred Stieglitz’s copy) and another at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After its acquisition in 2013, curators lavished praise, calling the “monumental self portrait . . . one of the masterpieces of photographic history.” And more. “The Seven Last Words,” they swooned, is nothing short of being “one of the most significant images in the history of the photography, a work that reverberates with iconic importance and one that influenced subsequent artists significantly.”

If and when Sipley’s Day, which is now at a New York gallery, were to be sold again, it would certainly break auction records once more, records that currently stand in excess of $4 million.

Once upon a time, Philadelphia had this gem in hand. And that was the least of it. Back then, Philadelphia had an entire museum devoted to the medium of photography. What are we left with now? A tale of disappointment, the story of a cultural treasure that somehow slipped away.

[Adapted from: Kenneth Finkel, editor, Legacy in Light: Photographic Treasures from Philadelphia Area Public Collections (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1990). Additional Sources: Lita Solis-Cohen, “The Trash Yields a Record-Setting Photo Treasure,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 14,1986; [Obituary] “Dr. Louis Sipley of Photo Museum: Head of Private Institution in Philadelphia Is Dead,” The New York Times, October 19, 1968; and Rita Reif, “Auctions,” The New York Times, October 31, 1968.]

 

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A Vintage New Year’s Resolution: The Natatorium & Physical Institute for Scientific Instruction in the Improvement of the Physical Powers

“How common is the spectacle . . . youth falling into decay before manhood is reached, of middle age weighed down by accumulated ills and infirmities, while slowly, and more slowly move the hesitating wheels of life.”

The pitch from a promotional pamphlet To Philadelphians on Behalf of the Natatorium & Physical Institute. The year: 1860.

Natatorium Physical Institute, 219 South Broad Street. December 13, 1916, Charles P. Mills, photographer (PhillyHistory.org)

“Modern civilization, with all its wonderful applications of science and art to the increase of personal comfort and the promotion of social pleasures, tends, unfortunately, to a precocious development of both mind and body.” These modern people “constantly sin against the natural laws established by the Creator” resulting in “weakened frames and puny offspring.”

What are “the primary causes which bring on premature decline and shorten life?” Inadequate, impure air “and want of regular bodily exercise.” These conditions . . . begin as early as the nursery and continue “in the school-room, the study, the store, the shop, and the factory.” The impact: a society of “round-shouldered” men and “women with . . . obliquity of the spine.”

The cure?  Establish a natatorium “following the examples set in European capitals — Paris, Madrid, Vienna, Berlin, Breslau and Copenhagen.” After all, “swimming is not only a healthful exercise and recreation, but it is likewise an accomplishment by which life is often saved.” Consider how a “bold swimmer” converts “moments of agonizing suspense . . . into a time of rejoicing and gratitude at the escape, through his exertions, of a fellow being from a watery grave.”

An authentic natatorium would recreate the thermal springs found in ancient Greece “dedicated to Hercules.” Its time-tested “renovating powers” enabled the original athletes “restoration of their strength after it was exhausted in the exhibitions of the palestrae or the circus.” This modern day “Natatorium and Institute for Scientific Instruction in the Improvement of the Physical Powers” was conveniently located on Broad Street, between Walnut and Locust; it opened in 1862 and remained a popular feature through the 19th century and into the 20th.

 

Natatorium Swimming Pool, from the pamphlet To Philadelphians on Behalf of the Natatorium & Physical Institute (Philadelphia, 1860) (Google Books)

A glimpse of an opening reception at the Natatorium after its first decade of operation: Renovations and decorated rooms greeted visitors, as did music and dancing. “On the surface of the bath reposed a small single-scull bateau, gaily painted. The galleries were festooned with evergreens, a moss basket being suspended under every loop, alternating with small American flags projecting from the balustrade, which was nearly concealed with the national colors on a larger scale. Five flags were also draped beneath the arches of the ceiling, being looped at the center of the arch with a pendant falling from that points. McClurg’s Band was in attendance and enhanced with good music the brilliance of the scene.”

“At half-past seven o’clock the bath was in readiness for the young lady pupils of [swimming master] Mr. [J. A.] Payne, the evening of the reception being the only one of the season in which the feminine eyes behold the swimming-school and gymnasium by gaslight.” An hour later, “the doors were thrown open to all the invited guests, and the throng of visitors drifted upstairs to the gymnasium, whither the band speedily followed them, and the dance music proving too strong a temptation to be resisted a number of couples were soon moving over the floor in a series of waltzes, redowas and polkas that gave the crowded room very much the appearance of an impromptu ball” for the four hundred guests.

The Philadelphia Natatorium, ca. 1885 (The Free Library of Philadelphia / Print and Picture Collection)

At the fortieth anniversary in 1902, then known as Asher’s Natatorium, the institution celebrated the coming summer season with “a large number of athletic society folk, both men and women . . . who witnessed a program of many unique features in the aquatic line and later indulged in an enjoyable dance.” Twenty-seven young women pupils opened the program with “a highly interesting exhibition of swimming and diving. Professor George Kistler, of the University of Pennsylvania, followed with a fin demonstration of fancy strokes and high-class trick swimming. He was assisted in this demonstration by J. C. Myers. One of the most interesting features was that of swimming gracefully with both hands and feet tied.”

What did such a demonstration prove? That the art of swimming, as the founding argument put it, was not only natural, it was essential. “Man, the lord of all, and so proud of his knowledge, may be lost in a brook, if he has not learned to swim.” Why forfeit “half of his sovereignty by his not becoming amphibious?”

Why, indeed.

Fitness, and swimming in particular, was the answer. And the place to begin: Philadelphia’s venerable Natatorium: “the first and only systematic swimming school in the United States” where the “temperature always remains the same—summer heat” and where even “the most timid person” could learn to swim in “six to ten lessons.”

[Sources: To Philadelphians on Behalf of the Natatorium & Physical Institute. President, Paul B. Goddard, etc. (Philadelphia: J. B. Chandler, Printer, 1860); from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Philadelphia Natatorium and Physical Institute,” May 1, 1868; “The Natatorium,” May 1, 1871; “Philadelphia Natatorium and Physical Institute,” April 26 1884; “Established 1858 – Natatorium,” April 24, 1895; “Natatorium Opens,” April 27, 1902]

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The Extraordinary Ricky Jay

Chess Automaton in 1783 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Ricky Jay is gone. He left this earth two days ago. Those who knew him, who witnessed his performances, who read his books are the poorer, suspended in disbelief.

This time there’s no resolution. There’s no final illusion like the one that captivated audiences when “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” hit Broadway. There’s nothing like those up-close, unbelievable sleights of hand. Ricky will not be conjuring his way back to us. YouTube will have to suffice.

Ricky revived and breathed life into rare illusions. He also collected posters, diaries, rare books and artifacts having to do with the history of unusual performances. He deeply larded his acts with the past and, convincingly claimed he could travel through time. His commitment to the history of his art and craft led to books (including Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women), lectures (“Splendors of Decaying Celluloid”), documentaries (“Deceptive Practice”) and keynotes (“Illusion as Truth”). He founded the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts.

I was lucky to meet Ricky in the 1980s during his book buying trips to Philadelphia. At Bookbinder’s (on 15th Street in Center City), Ricky, whose hands were never idle, would make oyster crackers, one after the other, disappear from the large carafe. Conversation at the table entirely stopped, not that he meant it to draw attention to himself. We’d ask for more (illusions, not oyster crackers) and he’d pause, then conjure up the precise content of Clarence Wolf’s jacket pocket, somehow “reading” the type on 3-by-5 cards through the tweed. Always practicing, always learning, yet (somehow) never showing off, Ricky would share a newly-acquired illusion. He’d say: “This was a favorite one of the king of Persia in the 8th century.” Of course, you believed him. Why wouldn’t you? And more than that. You believed in him. Ricky commanded attention in ways that required you to suspend mere logic. You always wanted more from Ricky. Because you knew it was the real thing. And that you’d be more surprised than you ever thought possible. When ”Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” returned to Broadway, the venerable New York Times welcomed him back with an editorial: “Ricky Jay Is Back in Town” praising his show. “The impossible is made to happen repeatedly” and yet “the viewer’s sense of impossibility” was somehow still protected.

Ruins of the Chinese Museum, northeast corner of 9th and Samson Streets, 1854. (The Athenaeum of Philadelphia)

Expecting a polite decline, I asked Ricky if he would consider contributing to the Philadelphia Almanac and Citizens’ Manual, published by The Library Company of Philadelphia in late 1993. Much to my delight, he agreed and turned in a scholarly, entertaining, and, of course, esoteric essay. Here is “The Turkish Automaton’s Final Act” by Ricky Jay:

To please the Empress Maria Theresa, the Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian inventor, constructed a chess-playing pseudo-automaton in 1769. It appeared as a lifelike, elaborately costumed Turkish mannequin holding a long pipe seated behind a cabinet whose doors were opened to reveal an impressive display of wheels and gears. In performance, the apparatus was wound up, and the Turk commenced to play chess against all comers. He compiled an impressive record of victory, defeating many of the best players in Europe, and clearly articulating the word “échec” as his opponent’s doom seemed inevitable. Attempted explanations and exposes of the mechanism (in truth: a secret, hidden chess expert/operator) did little to deflate its popularity, which was enhanced by matches against such worthies as Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin.

Von Kempelen occasionally exhibited the machine, always slightly embarrassed at the attention it garnered. Although his system of concealment was exceedingly clever, he felt the hidden human agent belittled his achievements as a serious inventor. After the Baron’s death, musician, inventor, and itinerant showman Johann Nepomuk Maelzel purchased the machine. In 1826, Maelzel brought his automaton to America, exhibiting in New York and Boston before making Philadelphia his base of operations.

Although the Turk was a resounding success in its initial Philadelphia appearances, over the years its popularity waned due to a combination of factors. Too often the machine concealed inferior players. Too frequently its secret was revealed (once by a young Edgar Allan Poe). Knock-off versions and over-exposure of the original diminished its novelty.

After Maelzel’s death in 1838, the Turk was stored in a warehouse at the Lombard Street wharf. Two years later, with the machine in a horrible state of disrepair, a group of Philadelphia investors headed by the well-known physician John Kearsley Mitchell (Poe’s personal physician) came forward to purchase it. Mitchell restored the automaton and exhibited it privately. One of the Turk’s hidden directors was Lloyd P. Smith, a young businessman who later became librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Foundations for the Continental Hotel in 1859 on the site of the Chinese Museum, northeast from 9th and Sansom Streets (PhillyHistory.org/The Library Company of Philadelphia)

In 1840, the Turk was exhibited at the Franklin Institute (now the building of the Philadelphia History Museum) and thereafter at the Chinese Museum at Ninth near Sansom Streets. Its active career may have been only a few days, but it remained in the museum until July 5, 1854, when a fire that started at the nearby National Theater claimed several adjacent buildings, including the museum that housed the 85-year-old Turk. John Kearsley Mitchell’s son, the dapper novelist and physician S. Weir Mitchell, entered the building before the conflagration made access completely impossible, possibly to rescue a few essential parts of the device, and witnessed a scene that he later delivered as the Turk’s epitaph:

Already the fire was about him. Death found him tranquil. He who had seen Moscow perish knew no fear of fire. We listened with painful anxiety. It might have been a sound from the crackling woodwork or the breaking window-panes, but, certain it is, that we thought we heard, through the struggling flames, and above the din of outside thousands, the last words of our dear departed friend, the sternly whispered, oft repeated syllables, ”Échec! Échec!”

[Sources: Mark Singer, “Secrets of the Magus,” The New Yorker, April 5, 1993; Bradley Ewart, Chess: Man versus Machine (A.S. Barnes and Tantivy Press, 1980); George Allen, Proceedings of the First Annual Chess Conference (Philadelphia, 1859); Philadelphia Almanac and Citizens’ Manual for 1994, edited by Kenneth Finkel (Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1993)]

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