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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