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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Steps on the Waterfront – A Vestige of Penn’s Promise

Front elevation of alley at N. Water and Cherry St. February 14, 1914 (PhillyHistory.org)

Barreling northward through William Penn’s original city grid, I-95 barely skirts a massive abutment for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Pulling slightly to the west before it reaches Callowhill Street, the highway spares a short block between Front and Water Streets. Somewhat forgotten, this survivor speaks of a dynamic that once defined the city’s waterfront. And it’s not the buildings that are doing the talking as much as the narrow space in between 323 and 325 North Front Street. A growing collection of fans know this grey granite feature as the Wood Street Steps.

They are more than mere steps. Harris Steinberg, the former head of Penn Praxis, the group that led the way to a new vision for the waterfront, thinks of them as an “epiphany,” and a “guiding touchstone.” Others agree. What here we have here is “the message in the bottle.”

What’s the message?

It goes back to the genesis of the city and the founding promise to balance private ownership and public access of the riverfront. In the 1680s, William Penn first battled a band of the city’s cave dwellers, settlers who refused to leave their perches dug into the steep bluffs overlooking the river. He worried about scenes of “clandestine looseness” where “evil disorders” might go unchecked. But as soon as the caves were gone, Penn faced the prospect of development preventing public access. It seemed his planning principles, based on a careful balance of public and private interests, were at risk.

In Imagining Philadelphia, Steinberg writes of the wealthy and powerful Samuel Carpenter, who “sought to build a commercial wharf along the river” blocking access for everyone else. Penn needed to find a way to assure public access while still enabling Carpenter to conduct his business. The solution? Public passageways, “sets of municipal stairs.” Before long, there were as many as eleven sets of stairways between Water and Front Streets providing Philadelphians access to their waterfront. Wood Street, the final survivor, was the northernmost. Going south from Vine there were steps at Summer Street, Cherry Street, Filbert Street and Blackhorse Alley. Each one connected the city, the riverfront and the river that reached around the world.

Top of Cherry Street Steps. Alley at the Intersection of 131-133 North Front Street, February 11, 1918 (PhillyHistory.org)

For the longest time,  the remaining sets of steps were considered picturesque vestiges of the quaint past, reminiscent features of faraway places. Joseph Pennell etched “Water Street Stairs, Looking Up,” a copy of which is at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He and his wife Elisabeth Robins Pennell included a second etching “The Cherry Street Stairs Near the River” in their book Our Philadelphia of 1914. A few years later, Christopher Morley ambled down the Cherry Street Stairs one September afternoon for his Travels in Philadelphia.

“Watching myself with caution, I dodged down the steep stairs by which Cherry street descends from Front to Delaware avenue. In the vista of this narrow passage appeared the sharp gray bow of the United States transport Santa Teresa. The wide space along the docks was a rumble of traffic, as usual: wagons of golden bananas, sacks of peanuts on the pavement.”

On Valentine’s Day in 1918 a city photographer captured a romantic side-eye view of the Cherry Street Stairs.

And in the early 1920s, G. Mark Wilson penciled a note on the back of his photograph now at the Library Company of Philadelphia. “Not in Florence, Genoa, or Naples. An outside stairway between Water and Front Sts., No. of Market St. Phila. The characters are not Italians. The man is a Jew and the young woman is Irish.”

Only recently have we recognized these stairs as something more than picturesque vestiges with Old World echoes. In 1986 the Wood Street Steps was approved for the city’s Register of Historic Places. It survives, as Steinberg tells it, as “testimony to the enduring, if not frayed, power of values-based planning”—a reminder and an illustration in granite of “Penn’s promise.”

[Sources: Scott Knowles, Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2009); Christopher Morley, Travels in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1920).]

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The Mystery Church: St. Andrew’s Chapel of Spruce Hill

St. Andrew’s Chapel, 4201 Spruce Street, January 14, 1963.

St. Andrew’s Chapel, one of Philadelphia’s finest examples of neo-Gothic architecture, is the  only quiet place on its tree-shaded block.  The locked building is surrounded by the bustle of the children attending the Penn Alexander School and the Parent Infant Center.  From the 1924 to 1974, this church was the centerpiece of the now-closed Philadelphia Episcopal Seminary.

Alonzo Potter (1800-1865), Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania. Source: Wikipedia.

Founded in 1857 by Bishop Alonzo Potter of Pennsylvania, the seminary had a strong connection with the University of Pennsylvania — a strange irony since the Church of England had violently persecuted Quakers (the Penn mascot) back in Great Britain. In the early 1920s, the estate of financier Clarence Clark came on the market.  This five-acre “Chestnutwold” compound had once been one of the finest properties in West Philadelphia, boasting a brownstone Renaissance Revival mansion, and arboretum, and even a private zoo.   Looking for a new home, the Philadelphia Divinity School snapped up the Clark estate, razed all the buildings (only the iron gates remain) and made plans to build an elaborate new campus.  It hired an architectural firm with myriad Penn alumni connections: Zantzinger, Borie and Medary. The firm had made a name for itself as a designer of office buidings, museums, collegiate Gothic dormitories at Princeton, and suburban homes for Philadelphia’s upper class.  It helped that partner Clarence Clark Zantzinger was the grandson of Clarence Clark and an heir to the E.W. Clark & Company banking fortune. Zantzinger and his partners, all Penn alumni, frequently collaborated with Paul-Philippe Cret, distinguished professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The Zantzinger firm’s most famous alumnus was a Jewish immigrant from Estonia named Louis Kahn, a 1922 graduate of Penn’s architecture school.

Rendering by Ray Hollis (circa 1922), of the Divinity School’s proposed 20 buildings. The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.

The Zantzinger firm’s vision for the new Philadelphia Divinty School was ambitious: a complex of dormitories, dining halls, libraries, administrative buildings, and residences centered around the magnficient St. Andrew’s Chapel.  Completed in 1924, the grandeur of  St. Andrew’s Chapel reflected the booming economy of the Roaring Twenties.  The interior boasted ironwork by Samuel Yellin and stained glass windows by the studios of Nicola D’Ascenzo, and a carved limestone reredos echoing the famous one at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York.

The Dorrance Memorial Window (1924) from St. James the Greater Church in Bristol, PA. A fine example of the work of the D’Ascenzo studio. Wikipedia.com.

Yet the Great Depression slammed the brakes on the Philadelphia Divinity School’s grand plans.  Only six of of the planned twenty-two structures were built.  And unfortunately, in its badly reduced circumstances, the Episcopal Seminary could never quite match the prestige and drawing power of its counterparts in New York (General Theological Seminary) or Cambridge, Massachusetts (Episcopal Divinity School).  The school limped along until 1974, when it closed its doors and the University of Pennsylvania took possession of the property.

Today, St. Andrew’s Chapel, although sealed shut, is completely intact on the inside. The public gets a peak at one of the finest sacred spaces in Philadelphia only at an occassional concert or art installation.

 

Nave of St. Andrew’s Chapel, 4201 Spruce Street, 1980.

 

Choir stalls at St. Andrew’s Chapel, 4201 Spruce Street, 1980.

Sources: 

“At the Former Philadelphia Divinity School Site: Discovering Inspiration from the Past and Creating Spaces to Learn and Grow,” University of Pennsylvania Almanac, March 30, 2010, Volume 56, No. 27., accessed November 13, 2018.

https://almanac.upenn.edu/archive/volumes/v56/n27/divinity.html

Sandra Tatman, “Zantzinger, Borie & Medary (fl. 1910 – 1929),” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2018, accessed November 13, 2018.

https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/23459

Arnold Lewis, James Turner, and Steven McQuillin, The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), p.46.

“Magnificent  Structure in West Philadelphia Undergoing Demolition by Wrecking Crew,” The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, April 7, 1916. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045211/1916-04-07/ed-1/seq-9/#date1=1836&index=19&rows=20&words=Clark+Park&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=Pennsylvania&date2=1922&proxtext=%22clark+park%22&y=-221&x=-932&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1, accessed December 9, 2015.

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The Hoagie is Venerable (but not as historic as we’ve been led to believe)

Maggie’s, Veree Road, Bustleton Avenue to Red Lion Road, February 17, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

There’s been a lot of big talk and conflicting claims over the years, as to who invented the hoagie, and when. Was it conjured up for workers going to the shipyards at Hog Island in World War I? Was it first introduced by South Philadelphia sandwich purveyors Antoinette Iannelli, Al DePalma or the Scarsi Brothers? Or someone else?

“I made the first hoagie back in 1935,” declared Antoinette Iannelli in 1983. Why call it a hoagie?” asked food writer Jim Quinn. “’I didn’t,’” responded Iannelli, “I called them submarines….”

Hmmm.

It may be we cannot actually know when Philadelphia’s official sandwich was invented and named. What we do know is that the hoagie originated in South Philadelphia at some point during the first half of the 20th century. Hard evidence is sparse, and there’s conflicting verbal accounts shared decades later. Opinion and hearsay . . . lore yearning to be legend.

Fact is, there’s no recorded oral history pegging the hoagie to Hog Island at the end of WWI. Looking for evidence in print, we find there’s no mention of “hoagie” in the 1910s, or the 1920s, or even in the 1930s.

The word “Hoagie” does not appear in print until the 1940s.

Sandwich scholars Edwin Eames and Howard Robboy explored the entire genre—the Bomber, Cuban Sandwich, Garabaldi, Grinder; Hero, Hoagie, Italian Sandwich, Musalatta, Poor Boy, Rocket, Submarine, Torpedo and Zepplin—and found that the first use of the terms “hoggy,” “hoggie” or “hoagie” simply do not appear before the 1940s. The earliest mention of “hoagie” Eames and Robboy located was in the Philadelphia Telephone Directory from 1943.

We delved into the database at Philly.newspapers.com and found corroborating evidence. The word “Hoggie” appears twice in the Inquirer classified ads in 1943. From April 4: “HOGGIE SHOP. Doing gd. Bus. Must sell account sickness. 6305 Greenway ave.” Then, on September 12: “Woman, active 25 to 45, to work part time in sandwich shop. 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. no Sun. 40c an hr. to start. Tony’s Hoggie Shop, 6709 Woodland ave.”

The word “hoagie” doesn’t appear for another three years.

That classified advertisement published February 4, 1946 reads: “HOAGIE & Luncheonette shop. Doing gd bus. Gd. Reason for selling. Apply 5501 Chester ave.” Four days later, the ad is edited: “HOGGIE SHOP & luncheonette. Doing a swell business. Good reason for selling. 5501 Chester ave.”

Digging deeper, we find between 1946 and 1950, the words “hoggie” and “hoagie” appear with equal frequency.  The former appears 127 times and the latter 124 times. But at the end of this period, there’s a shift where “hoggie” gives way to “hoagie.” In 1950, the “hoagie” pulls ahead for the first time, appearing 73 times compared with only 45 times for “hoggie.” In the next five years, from 1951-1955, “hoggie” appears 44 times while “hoagie” appears a robust 565 times.

What can we infer from this instability of usage? Perhaps the word “hoagie” was still so new that one spelling, one pronunciation, wasn’t yet widely and uniformly accepted? Was the hoagie still searching for its footing in the Philadelphia lexicon? Only in the final years of the 1950s does “hoggie” fade away, making an appearance only six times compared with 352 imprints for “hoagie.” By the 1960s, it’s all “hoagie,” all the time, with nearly 1,000 impressions.

Maggie used both “hoagie” and “submarine,” much the way suspenders can be used with a belt. (PhillyHistory.org)

Meanwhile, in the mid-1950s, hoagie hustlers start staking out extravagant claims as to the origin stories. But without hard evidence, they appear to be based on memory. Competing boasts. Opinion and hearsay; lore yearning to be legend.

Based on evidence in print, we have no reason to believe the words “hoggie” and its successor, the “hoagie,” date back to the World War I era. Rather, both appear to be the product of a rising, post-World War II hoagie hype. Entrepreneurial competition larded with nostalgia and spiced with boosterism.

Searching for a turning point, we see 1972 as a watershed year in hoagie history, Ben DiAngelis, head chef at the Bellevue Stratford, adds hoagies to the hotel’s menu. The Philadelphia-based, nationally broadcast Mike Douglas Show airs a hoagie demonstration. The Shackamaxon Society sponsors the first annual hoagie competition. The Daily News names it’s first “Hoagie Editor.” “Home Sweet Hoagie,” read the headline below a double truck, poster-size illustration of a hoagie in the Inquirer’s Today Magazine. Writer Stephen Friend describes how badly he missed the hoagie after moving to the mid-west, and how frustrated he felt trying to describe “the joys of a hoagie” to friends in Detroit. “It’s like describing the Mona Lisa in Braille.”

Another two decades pass and City Hall declares the hoagie the “Official Sandwich of Philadelphia.” A well-deserved status given twenty years after the fact.

Revelers in hoagie history have a proud legacy to share, but that legacy only goes back to the 1940s. Unless, of course, someone can turn up hard evidence proving the hoagie is ancient as well as venerable.

[Sources: Jim Quinn, “The Story of the First Hoagie, Inquirer, Today Magazine, January 16, 1972; Food Timeline Library; Mary Rizzo, “Hoagies,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Rutgers University, 2014; Edwin Eames and Howard Robboy, “The Submarine Sandwich: Lexical Variations in a Cultural Context,” American Speech, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Dec., 1967), pp. 279-288; Dave Wilton, “A Hoagie by any other name,” Verbatim–The Language Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3 Autumn 2003; Gloria Campisi, “A Hoagie a la Bellevue? Really!” Daily News, April 12, 1972; Kathy Begley, “6-foot Hoagie Adjudged Winner Over New York Hero, “Inquirer, April 20, 1972; Stephen F. Friend, “Home Sweet Hoagie, Inquirer, Today Magazine, April 9, 1972; Joe Clark, “‘Now’ Hoagie Big, Wet,” Daily News, April 20, 1972.]

Also see: A Fresh Take on the Hoagie Origin Story.

 

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Books in Trust: The Germantown Friends Free Library – Part 2

Main Building, Germantown Friends School, 31 W. Coulter Street, 1964.

“In an age in which the individual is merely a number to his employer, his bank, his insurance company and his government, humanizing influences are sadly needed. It is our belief that books and the libraries that make them available constitute one of the most powerful of these influences.”

Germantown Friends Free Library Annual Report, 1963-1964

As the Friends Free Library bustled with activity, Germantown Friends School became one of Philadelphia’s leading independent school.  During the late 19th century, Philadelphia flourished as an industrial and financial center, and many other private schools were founded to educate the children of the burgeoning managerial class.  Northwest Philadelphia’s suburban communities supported a whole ecosystem of schools, social clubs, and retail shops.  Unlike its nearby competitors, Springside School and Chestnut Hill Academy, which were based on single-sex English models, GFS had been co-ed since it’s “refounding” in 1858.   As an educational institution, it had more in common with the co-ed, progressive “Hicksite” Swarthmore College than the all-male “Orthodox” Haverford College.

In an era of increasing affluence and luxury, GFS strove to maintain its founding Quaker principles of simplicity and equality.

Unlike the Gothic finery and Georgian grandeur of the era’s preparatory school campuses, the architecture of Germantown Friends School was deliberately restrained, almost austere.  The color palate was predominately tan, gray, and brown.  There were no soaring spires or stained glass windows in the Meeting House. It grew cautiously, constructing new buildings as needed but also freely adapting nearby older structures to meet its   social club on Coulter Street became a new classroom building (fragments of the original bowling alley survive in the basement) and a converted bank on Germantown Avenue housed staff offices (the steel bank vault still resides in the basement). The Main Building, originally dating from the 1860s, was expanded many times over the years. The present-day neo-classical façade, with its arched auditorium windows and Doric columns, was completed in 1925.  According to Tim Wood, present day archivist at Germantown Friends School, “The previous version of the front, from 1896-97 renovations, was thought by some to be too ostentatious.” Francis Cope, of the Cope shipping family, added “They had made quite a respectable looking building of it, somewhat marred by the addition of a prominent and incongruous porch.” The school’s student publication, The Pastorian, though, called it “a grand new building.”

 

The remains of the bowling alley in the basement of one of Germantown Friends School’s classroom buildings. Photo by Steven Ujifusa.

The foyer of the Germantown Friends School’s Meeting House. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The Main Building’s entrance hall showcases a collection of plays and literature that once belonged to long-time teacher and administrator Irvin C. Poley, the man who brought the arts to Germantown Friends.  If kept out of the school’s main library, fiction flourished in Poley’s classroom.  Poley graduated from GFS in 1908, and after college returned to his alma mater to teach English. There, the Quaker instructor urged his students to dive into the classics of Western literature, especially Shakespeare. Poley helped Germantown Friends pivot toward rather than away from the arts, for, as he wrote, “the wise educator wants the arts prominent in general education not primarily for vocational use later.”

“Include in your capital of experience vicarious experience,” he urged GFS students in one speech, “what you learn from observing your parents and teachers, from friends, from first-class books, particularly fiction. Even if you ‘re the kind of person that people like to talk to intimately and if you thus know the inner life of a great many friends and acquaintances and chance contacts, you can still learn about people and about yourself from great literature, particularly from plays and poetry and essays and biography.”

Good fiction is, of course, experience minus the irrelevant,” he added, “the life of a person given unity and clarity.”

He also fostered the development of the school’s drama program. According to one yearbook, his “energetic” readings of Shakespeare’s Macbethand Julius Caesarheld students “spellbound.”

One of his students, Henry Scattergood (related to the famed cricketer Henry Scattergood) said that it was Poley who inspired him to go into teaching after graduating from Haverford College.  “Some of my clearest memories of my school life come from his classroom,” Scattergood recalled of his teacher. “I recall particularly a ninth-grade class when we acted scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and from Galsworthy’s The Silver Box,or his clever ways of putting across less glamorous subjects such as spelling. His sentence ‘Neither leisurely foreigner seized the weird height” straightened me out on the major exceptions to the ‘i before e except after c words.’ In all his teaching, Irvin Poley was always resourceful and always stretching his students. He knew and understood his students well, their weaknesses and strengths, and he continually played up the latter, so that all wanted to be their best to justify his belief in them. Even more important, he seemed every alert to seize the opportunity to relate whatever he was teaching to important issues — such as justice, fair play, decency, humility.”

 

Irvin C. Poley’s literature collection in the entrance hall of the main building of Germantown Friends School. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Irvin C. Poley teaching an English class at Germantown Friends, c.1937. Collection of Germantown Friends School.

Irvin C. Poley leading the reading of a play at Germantown Friends School, 1963. Collection of Germantown Friends School.

 

 

Sources: 

Irvin C. Poley, “A Word in Parting,” June 11, 1958. Collection of Germantown Friends School.

Henry Scattergood, “From a Former Student,” undated. Collection of Germantown Friends School.

Timothy Wood, Archivist, Germantown Friends School.

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A Fresh Take on the Hoagie Origin Story

Hog Island Shipyard, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Far across the low-lying meadows the great fringe of derricks rises against the sky,” wrote Christopher Morley in his love note to Hog Island.

“Past the crumpled ramparts of old Fort Mifflin, motors and trolley cars now go flashing down to the huge new shipyard.” Morley stood in awe of “the marvelous stretch of fifty shipways, each carrying a vessel in course of construction.”

“Hog Island is a poem, a vast bracing chant of manly achievement in every respect,” he wrote. “Nothing less than a “marvelous epic of human achievement.”

[Clarification: women were among the 35,000 employed at Hog Island.]

“Perhaps some day, there will come some poet great enough to tell the drama of Hog Island as it ought to be told,” added Morley. “The men who gritted their teeth and put it through will never tell. They are of the old stalwart breed that works with its hands. As they talk you can divine something of what they endured.”

“I don’t believe there is a more triumphant place on earth than Hog Island these days,” wrote Morley. “Ships are the most expressive creatures of men’s hands . . . it was hard to resist the thought that each of them has a soul of her own and was partaking in the general exultation.”

On August 5, 1918 they christened the first Hog Islander, the Quistconck. The tenth was launched in April 1919, five months after the war ended. Not a single one of the 122 Hog Islanders served in World War I, though many did serve in World War II. Fifty eight of those ships would be lost, many to German submarines.

Even before Hitler declared war on the United States, Germans seized The City of Flint while transporting cargo of tractors, grain and fruit to Britain. After its release, the ship returned to service until January 1943 when it was sunk by the Germans. The vessel’s “amazing career came to an end. . . in the mid-Atlantic,” reported the Inquirer, “when an enemy torpedo ripped into her rusting sides.”

Before dawn on May 21, 1941, midway between Brazil and Africa, another German submarine stopped the Robin Moor. Chief Officer Melvin Mundy of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania insisted the transport ship only had “ordinary merchandise for South African Ports.” But, according to Mundy, German commander Jost Metzler kept saying: ‘You have supplies for my country’s enemy and I must therefore sink you.’”

Metzler gave the Robin Moor twenty minutes. Mundy pleaded for more time to evacuate the passengers, which including a young child and an elderly couple.

“’Well, maybe I’ll give you 30 minutes,” said Metzler.

At 6:32 a.m., the German submarine “fired 33 shells into the Robin Moor from her deck gun. The ship went down in 18 minutes. Then the submarine fired volley after volley from her anti-aircraft guns at floating cargo until it all sank.”

710 North 48th Street, July 2, 1954 (PhillyHistory.org)

The Germans provided the life boats with three days’ worth of food and water. Then, according to Mundy, “the submarine pulled away . . . and disappeared beneath the surface. The sea churned violently, and the boats bobbed in the smoldering wreckage.” Adrift for 13 days until discovered, the 35 passengers and crew were “drenched by torrential rains, scorched by a broiling sun and in constant fear of death.”

So, one can well imagine Philadelphia’s hesitant reaction to The Saturday Evening Post’s article about the submarine as “The Noblest Sandwich of Them All,” published a decade after the war’s end. Celebrating the “submarine” as “a noble edifice” as “the king of all sandwiches?” No thank you.

Sure, submarine sandwiches were available from as many as “4000 places in the East and Midwest.” Some called them heroes, grinders, poor boys, garibaldis, wedges, bombers, zeppelins and rockets, but Americans in no less than 68 out of 100 cities knew them as “submarines.”

Not in Philadelphia.

For good reason, Philadelphians, most especially the 35,000 who had worked at Hog Island, as well as their friends, families and colleagues, harbored no interest in celebrating the submarine. They had their own unique name for America’s sandwich of choice: the hoggie, or as everyone would eventually spell it—and say it—the hoagie.

Sometimes victory comes in unexpected packages.

[Sources: Christopher Morley, Travels in Philadelphia (David McKay, 1920); “City of Flint Sunk by Sub; 17 Are Lost,” Inquirer, March 21, 1943; “All Robin Moor Victims Saved; Tell of Sinking,” Inquirer, June 17, 1941; “Robin Moor Survivors Tell Story of Suffering,” Inquirer, June 14, 1941; Amanda Schaffer, “Lost at Sea on the Brink of the Second World War,” The New Yorker, May 28, 1916; Food Timeline: sandwiches; Edwin Eames and Howard Robboy, The Submarine Sandwich: Lexical Variations in a Cultural Context, American Speech, Vol. 42, no. 4 (Dec., 1967)].

Also see: The Hoagie is Venerable (but not as historic as we’ve been led to believe.

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The Collector Collected: William Wagner and his Free Institute of Science

A selection of Representative Men of Philadelphia – Centennial Portrait Gallery, W. Curtis Taylor, 1876 (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Some of the Beetles at the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

People aren’t caught like insects, poked through with pins and mounted behind glass, although photographer W. Curtis Taylor did something akin to that at America’s centennial celebration in 1876. With his camera (instead of a net) Taylor collected 87 “noteworthy citizens”and titled the collection Representative Men of Philadelphia. Among the assembled all-white cohort were lawyers, judges, engineers, architects, artists, clerics, government officials, scientists, educators, manufacturers, publishers, a librarian a poet and more.

(Sets found their way to the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia, which shares them here at PhillyHistory.org.)

The practice of collecting, classifying and presenting men as specimens of achievement caught on. The North American Press presented an expanded collection of manufacturers, merchants, realtors, engravers, photographers, brewers, distillers, ship builders, railroaders, physicians, journalists in 1891. You can peruse Philadelphia and Popular Philadelphians online. Likewisewe scroll through the 1,552 portraits assembled by Moses King in 1902 (nearly 18 times the number Curtis assembled) in Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians(Again and again, 100% were men and—you guessed it—all were white.)

Maybe one of the most ironic specimens Taylor collected was William Wagner, himself a collector, who made a name for himself acquiring, displaying and lecturing about all kinds of natural history specimens. Below is something about Wagner’s legacy, an intact “rare survival” of a 19th-century institution at 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue in North Philadelphia.

William Wagner, 1876 (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library)

William Wagner, from Representative Men of Philadelphia, photograph by W. Curtis Taylor, 1876 (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Caption

The Wagner Free Institute of Science, 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue.  (Wagner Free Institute of Science)

“Formally incorporated in 1855, the Institute had its inception in a public lecture series begun in the early 1850s by founder William Wagner (1796-1885), a noted Philadelphia merchant, philanthropist, gentleman scientist, and lifelong collector of natural history specimens. Believing strongly that education in the sciences should be available to everyone, Wagner began offering free lectures on science at his home, Elm Grove, a colonial farm estate then on the outskirts of the city. To illustrate the lectures, he drew on the vast collection of specimens he had gathered since his childhood, including many he had acquired during the years he spent traveling around the world as an agent for the well-known Philadelphia financier Stephen Girard. These lectures became so popular that by 1855 he moved them to a public hall to accommodate the rapidly growing audience, and appointed a faculty to teach six evenings a week on subjects ranging from paleontology and chemistry to botany and architecture. All the classes were offered free of charge with an open admission policy that allowed women as well as men to attend. Based on the success of earlier lectures, in 1859 Wagner began construction on a building that would become the permanent home for his collections and his educational program.

“The Wagner Institute’s natural history museum contains more than 100,000 specimens illustrating the various branches of the natural world. The Museum includes founder William Wagner’s mineral collection – one of the oldest in the country – and his fossil collection, representing many important European and American localities and collecting sites of the nineteenth century. Mounted animal skeletons, skulls, and skins; birds; an extensive regional entomological collection; and shells from around the world are on display, along with fossils collected on Institute sponsored expeditions to the American South, Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic regions, as well as the Caribbean. Specimens collected on Institute expeditions include many “type specimens,” the first identification of a new species. Perhaps the best-known of these specimens is the North American saber-toothed cat, Smilodon floridanus, discovered in 1886 on an Institute expedition to Florida. These fossils are on display in the exhibition hall near dinosaur bones collected by noted paleontologist and Wagner lecturer, Edward Drinker Cope. All specimens are displayed in the cherry wood cases constructed for them in the 1880s, and many retain the original handwritten curator’s labels. The specimens are arranged especially for study. The exhibit is one of the largest systematically-arranged collections on display in the country. It also serves as a resource for scholarly research.”

You haven’t been there yet? You should add it to your collection of Philly history experiences. It’s one of the all-time most authentic. And the Wagner is open, free, Tuesday through Friday, 9 AM to 4 PM.

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A Cursed Mansion in Belmont: The Rise and Fall of the Rorkes (Part 2)

Franklin Rorke mansion, December 1872. Courtesy of H.R. Haas.

During the hot summer of July 1900, Franklin Rorke was faced with mounting bills and a failing construction business. His new mansion at 41st and Ogden, an extravagant gift from his late father, had every modern convenience, and boasted mosaics, hardwood floors, marble trim, and onyx fireplaces, as well as a fully equipped stable in the rear. Yet Rorke couldn’t afford to maintain or staff it. The $300 he had received from his late father’s estate almost certainly had run out.

Rorke’s wife Helen was terrified of the man once heralded as the scion of an “exceedingly clever” clan. “He had hallucinations of hearing and sight,” she alleged, “and thought persons were secreted about the house, and that detectives were following him in an effort to kill him.” Rorke then started making threats on his wife’s life, and drove her from the house in one of his rages.  Then, Rorke turned his fury on his own mother, attacking her with a razor blade.

The Rorke mansion, built as a glittering testament to the Rorke family’s wealth, had become a 7,000 square foot house of horrors.

Helen Rorke finally had her husband committed to a new West Philadelphia home: the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital at 49th and Market Street.

A year later, the Republican politician and former Philadelphia District Attorney George S. Graham successfully petitioned the Quarter Sessions Court to release Franklin Rorke from the insane asylum. Judge Stevenson signed off on the release. According to the Philadelphia Times, “Rorke had only been in the institution temporarily and was in his proper mind, and it would be manifestly wrong to keep him there any longer.” What Rorke’s mother and wife thought of Franklin’s release in unclear, but it may have been one last political favor by Graham for his late friend and fellow Union League member Allen B. Rorke.

In 1906, Barber, Hartman & Company listed the former Franklin Rorke mansion for sale.  “This property was built and owned by the famous Philadelphia contractor,” the advertisement stated, “and no expense was spared to erect one of the handsomest properties in West Philadelphia. The premises are in a first-class condition, and will be sold at a great sacrifice.”  That same year, Franklin Rorke was thrown in jail for “creat[ing] a scene with a pistol in a West Philadelphia Saloon.” He and his wife long-suffering wife Helen, who stated he had been “drinking excessively and abusing her,” were now residing in a modest dwelling at 4043 Baring Street.  An unnamed family friend bailed out the miscreant former construction heir for $1,000, or about $20,000 today. This was approximately the same amount Allen Rorke had left his children seven years earlier.

4000 block of Baring Street, looking west, March 27, 1961.

Franklin Rorke died in 1915, working as a bailiff for the Philadelphia Court of Common Please, a position that was almost certainly another favor from one his father’s friends. His brother Allen B. Rorke Jr. led a much quieter life, carrying on what was left of the family business and last appearing in the Philadelphia City Directory in 1926.

 

November 25, 1906 “West Philadelphia” real estate section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Franklin Rorke mansion still stands at the corner of 41st and Ogden Street, a boarded-up, vandalized shell.  It is a sad home of “might-have-beens.” The mansion never fulfilled its builder’s desire as a happy home for future generations of Rorkes, or as a glittering backdrop for balls and parties.  The cast-iron oriel window at the center of its main facade is gone, as are the elaborate railings. The lawn is completely overgrown. Yet the mansion’s stone walls and turrets are still sturdy, and the roof is still on, a testament to the care and attention Allen B. Rorke, once lauded as “the nation’s greatest builder,” put into this gift for his son 120 years ago.

Franklin Rorke mansion, 41st and Ogden, August 14, 2018. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa

One can fault would-be patriarch Allen B. Rorke for his spendthrift ways and the dynastic ambitions he placed on his very troubled son Franklin.  The once-lauded Rorkes have been long forgotten. Yet the house survives, and it could be argued that Rorke indeed lived up his reputation of doing “more rather than less than his specifications called for.”

 

Sources: 

“Allen B. Rorke,” Findagrave.com

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/60364125/allen-b.-rorke

“Builder Allen B. Rorke Is Dead, But His Work Will Live On,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27, 1899

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/20696094/allen_b_rorke_obit_phila_inq_27_dec/

Sandra Tatman, “Rorke, Allen B,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings 

https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/1274

Sandra Tatman, “Rorke, Allen B. Jr.,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings

https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/65344

“Says He is not Insane,” The Philadelphia Times, May 4, 1901, p. 3.

“Released from Asylum,” The Philadelphia Times, May 5, 1901.

H.R. Haas, “862-72 N. 41st Street,” Nomination for Historic Building, Structure, Site or Object, Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Philadelphia Historical Commission, March 7, 2017

https://www.phila.gov/historical/Documents/862-72-N-41st-nomination.pdf

“Three Deaths from Burns,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 22, 1906, p. 7.

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