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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5 Comments

  1. lou
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a fascinating article. I have done a few corrections on this website over the past 10 years, and I can attest to your wonder when you figured out its location. One point that needs addressing: so many small details cannot be seen in the current archives’ low DPI publishing protocol. By increasing how these photos could be scanned, particularly ones where are there is signage or there are other clues that could assist capturing their location, hundreds of additional images could be viewed in the future and properly assigned so the general public in the future would know what they were observing.

    • Ken Finkel
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Good point. I’ll pass this along to the folks who run the site. – KF

  2. george e thomas
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Ken — two points the view is from the northwest looking southeast — from the bridge approach toward the old industrial district.
    James Wood is the Archbishop of Philadelphia from 1860-1883. Many Roman Catholic properties were listed under the name of the archbishop for much of the 19th century. For Le Brun to have had anything to do with the church, it would have had to be very early in Wood’s archbishopric — Lebrun moves to New York in 1864. Wood used Samuel Sloan for his new seminary in Overbrook in the late 1860s so another possibility there.
    George Thomas

    • george e thomas
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      One other point – if the church was really designed and completed between 1839 and 1841, it would be before Le Brun (b. 1821) was active – he was apprenticing to TU Walter in those years. So again seems unlikely – and Walter’s affiliation with the Baptists might have made him an unlikely selection at the moment when the church was seeking its own institutional identity and often hired from its own ranks.
      GET

      • Ken Finkel
        Posted January 29, 2019 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        If LeBrun did design the long-gone St. Patrick’s at 20th and Rittenhouse (it opened in 1841) he was engaged just as he left Walter’s shop. Roger Moss seems to be suggesting some of St. Francis Xavier’s (possibly the dome) could date later. In any case, I look forward to the records and archives turning up something definitive as to who had a hand in this dome.

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