“As long as City Hall existed the city would never completely be free to grow up to the dreams of those who loved her.”

City Hall from Arch Street, April 1910 (PhillyHistory.org)

“You could be critical of your city and laugh among yourselves at its quaintness, its political corruption, its provincialism, its charming, absurd, easy-going conservatism, its heat and dirt, its faint enthusiasms dying so easily before a stouter longing for pleasure,” wrote Francis Biddle in 1927. “But you mustn’t let an outsider laugh at it. For, after all, Philadelphia was an aristocracy compared to the polyglot barbarity of the new New York; cosmopolitan against the gauche provincialism of Boston; rich in flavor where Washington was thin and spiceless.”

“Of course you didn’t say these things, only felt them,” admitted Biddle in his one and only novel, The Llanfear Pattern. “A member of a patrician Philadelphia family” whose obituary in his New York Times obituary noted a “singular noblesse oblige” that propelled him “into reform politics and ultimately into Roosevelt’s cabinet as Attorney General during World War II.”

In his story of “a large conservative tribe” all of whom yielded “to the inexorable power of the family, a pattern woven through generations of leadership in the worlds of finance, law and society” Biddle dared “to describe Philadelphia as he saw it…a brave thing for a Biddle to do,” according to one reviewer. “Many Philadelphians…will squirm, and many more will delight to see their friends and acquaintances in the pages of this book.”  In either case, Biddle was “considered a traitor to his class.”

The novel follows the young lawyer, Carl Llanfear as he “pits his ambition and enthusiasm against the powerful inertia of the clan,” in a city whose very streets, neighborhoods and public buildings resonate with all that is corrupt and content:

“On a certain March morning of 1910 Carl started early for the office. It was penetratingly cold, and the city was damp and dark beneath a dirty pile of snow, a depressing sight. Here and there a municipal snowplough cleared a way, and groups of sleepy shovellers piled snow into little horse trucks that looked like farm wagons… The city was always unprepared and slow and inadequate. They would be digging for another week, and leave vast ridges grown filthy from the soot and smut to melt through the warm weather, spreading germs, while the voters coughed and sneezed, and contracted tonsillitis and pneumonia, and some died, but all remained indifferent. And always dirty; dusty in summer and littered with papers, dreary with the dreariness of filth and neglect, without pride or beauty.”

Northeast Corner – City Hall, 1900 (PhillyHistory.org)

‘It was dying, he felt, decaying from river to river, the damp rot of wood like gangrene running from the Schuylkill on the west to the Delaware on the east.”

Carl Llanfear thought about the popular motto: “Philadelphia, city of homes.” He “heard it said that working man were better housed here than anywhere in the world, owned their own houses; unemployment was scarce; taxes were low; people were contented…The homes made the workingman contented. They need to be, thought Carl, to put up with the discomfort of the city, which seemed to be running down like some great industrial plant whose owners were squeezing dividends for the stockholders at the expense of upkeep.”

Maybe, just maybe, there would be a chance for change, for reform.

The day after an election when voters finally turned on  The Organization, Llanfear, a would be reformer, hoped for the start of a revolution. “Men’s consciences were awakening, the door had been opened for the possibility of great things.”

Northeast Corner – City Hall, January 27, 1919 (PhillyHistory.org)

“A splendid city, rising from the ashes of its past, blooming from the ignoble past of [Mayor Samuel Howell] Ashbridge, who had built City Hall, boasting of the fortune he would take out of the contracts, making good his boast. City Hall, symbol of dishonesty and ugliness, squatting over the city’s heart, its immense meaningless bulk blocking traffic where it was thickest, wasting space, shutting out sun and air from the gloomy rooms within; great corridors that every day were littered with the refuse of the crowd; ill-ventilated court-rooms, where the fetid air lay heavy over judge and jury, witnesses, and accused; imitation marble, velvet plush grown dingy with grime, meaningless decorations, carvings of slaves and Cupids where they could not be seen; fly-specked portraits of forgotten nonentities; gilded Venetian ceilings with checker-board patterns; a Philadelphia architect’s dream, perhaps, of the vanished Tuilleries, the costly richness of those old kings, who had probably grafted, too, in their day . . .”

“How could Philadelphians take pride in their city when its business was transacted in such a place? Where dirty human rats — shyster lawyers, ambulance-chasers, jury-fixers, professional bondsmen — scurried about, and the clerks and policemen, employees of the city, swore at the public that paid their salaries, and pushed them about with the insolence of servants who have learned to rob their master.”

“Carl had a feeling that as long as City Hall existed the city would never completely be free to grow up to the dreams of those who loved her.”

(Sources: Francis Biddle, The Llanfear Pattern (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1927); Advertisement for The Llanfear Pattern in The New York Times, October 6, 1927; Samuel Scoville, Jr. An American Forsyte, Forum, (LXXIX; 4) April 1928; “New Books in Brief Review,” The Independent,  Vol. (120; 4052) January 28, 1928; Alden Whitman, “Francis Biddle Is Dead at 82; Roosevelt’s Attorney General,” The New York Times, October 5, 1968.)

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2 Comments

  1. george e thomas
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Ken – so interesting that elite Philadelphians carried on the battle against city hall – the building – as the manifestation of the corruption of the government. Agnes Repplier ends her history of Philadelphia: The Place and the People with a diatribe against the building which essentially stands in for the entire 19th century; and obviously too Ed Bacon made the removal of city hall the center of his plan for center city. It must be wondered whether this was entirely about class and social order – the good old elite families having largely moved to the Main Line, looking back with hostility at a city increasingly of immigrants or whether it was resentment that they did not get their share?
    Biddle’s work is also a parallel to William Bullitt’s Its Not Done (also mid-1920s) suggesting that this is about the moment when the old families, who had returned to the active life of the city in the 1870s and 1880s had once again withdrawn.

    • Francis W. Hoeber
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      First, Steffans was certainly right in calling Philadelphia corrupt, but it was never contented. Philadelphians were discontented with their city’s corruption for decades and rose up regularly in attempts to free it from the Harrisburg criminals who stole from the city and from the home grown criminals of the Penrose-Vare Republican machine. The reform efforts of 1883 (Bullitt Bill), 1905 (UGI fight), 1911 (Blankenburg), 1918 (Charter reform), 1935 (Kelly), 1939 (Charter Reform),1943 (Bill Bullitt) and the final success of 1951 (Charter, Clark, Dilworth) are hardly indicative of a “contented” populace.

      Second, “Ed Bacon made the removal of city hall the center of his plan for center city.” Really? The plan to destroy the building except for the tower was first proposed by Paul Cret in 1927 with his drawing to encase the tower in an Art Deco sheath. The Better Philadelphia Exhibition of 1947 by Bacon, Stonorov and Phillips, however, did not show the removal of City Hall, nor did any Planning Commission drawing for the Center City Plan after Joe Clark became mayor in 1952 and Bacon became his Planning director. There is a 1952 drawing in which Bacon briefly flirted with the Cret proposal, but almost all published drawings after that kept City Hall at the center of everything. Later,Bacon became the city’s greatest champion for City Hall. It was cleaned for the first time in the early ’50s, while Bacon was Planning Director, and people were able to see the remarkable stonework after the removal of decades of encrusted coal dust. In the 1980s, Bacon made himself unpopular with developers by insisting on the existence of a Gentleman’s Agreement that no building would ever be built higher than City Hall. In the ’90s, Bacon used his own money (he sold rare books from his personal collection to raise the cash) to have a giant compass rose painted in City Hall courtyard to emphasize its centrality in marking William Penn’s original plan for the city.

      It has been popular (and inexplicable to me) in recent years to blame Ed Bacon for anything the city failed to accomplish during his lifetime and to ignore his leadership transforming so many things positively. But to assert that Bacon wanted to get rid of City Hall is not justified by his actions and the written record.

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