The Demise and Demolition of Horticultural Hall

Horticultural Hall, Fairmount Park, 1876. Centennial Photographic Company (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Distaste for Victorian architecture blossomed in the first half of the 20th century into unmitigated disgust. By the time the waves of demolition subsided, it was too late for many masterpieces that had been pulled down with confidence and even glee.

We saw this before, with Frank Furness, who “embodied the worst of Victorian excess in the eyes of modernists.” His buildings fell as if in a losing war; and so did many others that dared display individualism or a lack of restraint. Wreckers worked relentlessly through the 1950s and 1960s as preservationists searched for their voices. By the time a reappraisal of the Victorian finally changed minds, it was too late; so much was already gone. Words of regret and mourning seemed flimsy; too little; too late.

One of the earliest voices, that of George B. Tatum in Penn’s Great Town, wrote in 1961 of Horticultural Hall’s demise: “by any standard a major monument of American architecture of the 19th century.” In time, others would join the chorus with ever more strident tones. By 1976, almost 18 years too late, Edmund Bacon commented on the demolition of another “major monument,” the Jayne building, “as the worst single act of architectural vandalism.” Words too late. Words as soundbites. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s high Victorian buildings had slipped from cultural treasure to architectural albatross.  Then they were gone.

Horticultural Hall , south entrance. Centennial Exhibition, 1876. Centennial Photographic Company. (PhillyHistory.org - Free Library)

Horticultural Hall, south entrance, 1876. Centennial Photographic Company. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

The campaign to establish existential doubt for Horticultural Hall, began just after the turn of the 20th century with squawks about the burden of repairs. By mid-century, these cries had risen to a cacophony leading to, inevitably, a call for the wrecking ball. Horticultural Hall’s narrative arc, urged on by the city itself, lasted for more than a half a century before the contract was finally put out. Slowly, surely, over nearly half a century, the language of demise exercised its ever firming grip. Hurricane or not, the victim was doomed.

The calls came as early as 1910, when City Council appropriated $30,000 for a major renovation. Horticultural Hall was then thought to be “in such bad condition that the Park Commissioners feared that it would collapse and injury [sic] many persons.”

By 1937, the building had become a “gray, friendly ghost of a fading age,” if still “quickened by wild, exotic plant life from far corners of the world…”

Sixteen more years pass. “Originally gaily polychrome, in reds, greens, and yellows,” Horticultural Hall in 1953 “has lost this finery and much of its original iron embellishment and in many places is rusting… It is still standing, but is in need of extensive repairs.”

“Historic Hall In Park Held ‘Dangerous’” read an unapologetic headline in the Spring of 1953, more than a year before Hazel. “A showplace when it was opened,” halfway into the 20th century it was now “in ‘dangerous condition,’ and the place should be closed, Charles I. Thompson, president of the Fairmount Park Commission declared…”.

“’Badly rusted framework holding heavy glass panes in the vaulted roof make it likely that the panes will come loose in the near future and fall to the floor,” said Thompson. “This condition is dangerous and we’d better do something about it before somebody gets hurt.” The Commission concluded: “’we’re just throwing good money after bad,’ and that it would be ‘better to start over again with a new building.’”

Broken panes made “the whole place like a sieve when it rains,” an engineer chimed in.

And we know what happens when it rains: it pours.

In October 1954, Hurricane Hazel brought not only rain, but 50 to 60 mile per hour winds and gusts of 94 miles per hour. Fifteen people were killed in the Philadelphia area.

Wreckers Ready to Move into Horticultural Hall, Spring 1955. Charles Newman, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (Temple University Paley Library – Special Collections Research Center)

“Hazel Hit Historic Hall” read the headline on October 16th.  “Park Director Paul MacMurray…disclosed that hundreds of panes of class were blown from the roof of the central hall of the massive structure, a relic of the Centennial Exposition.”

No one ever documented exactly how many panes were broken, but both the “danger” and the “relic” cards had been played.

“Hazel Death Death Blow to Horticultural Hall,” confirmed an October 22nd headline. “The ornate building…is now in such condition that authorities feel it is imperative to begin tearing down the structure as a safety measure.”

“We’re now faced with the problem of tearing it down or it falling down,” claimed MacMurray.

“It would be a great pity to tear it down,” retorted preservationists. “If it was in such a dilapidated state why didn’t the hurricane level it to the ground, instead of blowing out a few panes of glass? … “Other cities take pride in preserving their landmarks.” … Where is Philadelphia’s pride now?” This is nothing more than “willful neglect.”

Wreckers competed with one another for the “Dismantling, Demolition and Disposition” of Horticultural Hall. Bids arrived in room 313, City Hall Annex, before 2:30PM February 7, 1955.

And by April Fool’s Day a classified advertisement described and offered what remained: “2000’ rare ornamental railings & stairs. Greenhouse. 10,000’ steam pipe from ½” to 5”. Steel beams 8 to 12” from 12 to 30’ in length. Numerous other items dating back over 100 years.”

“Salesman on site at all times,” assured the ad.

[Sources: Philadelphia, A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace, compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project, Works Progress Administration, for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by Federal Writers’ Project (Pa.), 1937; Theo. B. White, Philadelphia Architecture in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia Art Alliance, 1953); George B. Tatum, Penn’s Great Town: 250 Years of Philadelphia Architecture Illustrated in Prints and Drawings (University of Pennsylvania, 1961); The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Park Exhibit to Open,” September 15, 1910; “Historic Hall In Park Held ‘Dangerous,’” May 24, 1953; “Hurricane Kills 15 in Phila. Area, Leaves Path of Ruin in 8 States,” October 16, 1954; ”Hazel Hit Historic Hall,” October 21, 1954; “Hazel Death Death Blow to Horticultural Hall,” October 22, 1954; “Garden Under Glass, Letter by “E.C.” October 27, 1954; January 27, 1955 (letter to the editor); April 1, 1955  (classified advertisement)].

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4 Comments

  1. Frank
    Posted November 21, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I particularly appreciate your first sentence. So many people fail to understand that tastes change over time, and that this is what leads to most demolition. What was once deemed beautiful is later deemed ugly, and still later may come into popularity again. No one complained in the 1990s when the Sheraton Hotel and the Penn Center Inn were demolished, as they were regarded as the most egregiously bland/ugly elements of Vincent Kling’s awful Penn Center development. I don’t doubt that in 50 years, critics will be lamenting the shortsightedness that led to the loss of those two building, which will then in hindsight be regarded as exquisite examples of mid-century modern design. Preservation is great, but demolition is not always the result of some moral failure. Changing economic and aesthetic judgments are the most frequent reasons old building are not kept forever.

  2. Dentral Holman Smith
    Posted November 25, 2017 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    What is egregious is the decisions of politicians that advance their own agenda and not those of the city. It seems ludicrous to cling to an unsightly prison in the city but destroy the Horticultural Hall, which was so much more than a building. It’s sad that society commemorates the negative history more readily than a cultural and learning experience from all corners of the world.

    • Ken Finkel
      Posted November 25, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      The times and their tastes were very different. The decision to demolish Horticultural Hall dates to the mid 1950s. Eastern State (I’m guessing that’s the prison you are referring to) was saved from the wreckers in the late 1980s – and even then, more than a few would have liked to see it go.

  3. William E. Mifflin
    Posted November 25, 2017 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Ken,
    Thanks for sharing the sad story of the demise of Horticulturall Hall.
    Along with Memorial Hall the only major building ( Ohio House) that remained after the close of the 1876 Centennial celebration.
    Wonderful model of the Centennial grounds remains in the basement of Memorial Hall.

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