A Philadelphia Firehouse Designed by the “Other” Philip Johnson

Fire Station at 701 S.50th Street, designed by Philip H. Johnson in 1903. Photographed by R. Carrollo, December 9, 1959.

All our municipal governments are more or less bad. Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.”

-Lincoln Steffens, 1903

The firehouse at intersection of Baltimore Avenue and 50th Street is a redbrick Flemish revival structure dating from the early 1900s.  In the days of coal-fired kitchen ranges and unreliable electrical wiring, a modern fire station was a big draw to potential residents of Cedar Park and Spruce Hill, which by the early 1900s had become a desirable and expensive streetcar suburb.  The fire engines at the station at 701 S.50th Street were horse-drawn until at least the mid-1910s, when internal combustion engines finally became powerful enough to haul heavy ladders and pumping machinery through the streets at high speed.

 

A British fire engine, powered by an internal combustion engine, 1905. From Popular Mechanics.

Although dripping in fin-de-siècle charm, the Cedar Park firehouse was the result of a no-bid, lifetime city contract that remained inviolate for 30 years and netted architect Philip H. Johnson a small fortune.  Johnson owed his good luck thanks to a familial connection to one of Philadelphia’s most powerful political bosses. In 1903, when journalist Lincoln Steffens described Philadelphia as “corrupt and contented” (and the same year Johnson’s drafted the firehouse plans), the city’s 7th Ward was under the iron-fisted rule of the Republican boss Israel M. Durham. A longtime party operative who had served in the Pennsylvania State Senate and as State Insurance Commissioner, he lavished generous salaries on himself and his loyal associates.  He also traveled widely to Europe and the American West, all while receiving a handsome $20,000 a year salary as State Insurance Commissioner. During his final years, he became majority owner and president of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team.  Although poor health prevented Durham from watching from the stands, he kept a telephone by his hospital bed so he could manage the team and follow the games in real time.

One of Durham’s most controversial acts was the awarding of a lifetime contract to his brother-in-law Philip Johnson for City Health Department projects. No relation to the famed modernist architect of the same name, Johnson was a competent (if not particularly imaginative) architect who had previously worked at the City’s Bureau of Engineering and Surveys. After starting his own firm in 1903, thanks to the contract granted by his brother-in-law, Johnson churned out dozens of public buildings during his tenure.  Among them were the City Hall Annex (now the Notary Hotel), the Philadelphia General Hospital, the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases at Byberry. and the old Philadelphia Convention Center on Civic Center Boulevard.  After Durham’s demise in 1909, several Philadelphia mayors tried to get Johnson’s lifetime contract overturned. The courts consistently sided with Johnson, and as a result more than $2 million worth of projects flowed into the architect’s office until his death in 1933. Protected from competitive bids, Johnson made few efforts to hide the wealth garnered from the city coffers, belonging to the Philadelphia City Yacht Club and the Larchmont Yacht Club in the suburbs of New York City.

After closing in the 1980s, the Cedar Park firehouse became the home of a popular indoor farmer’s market. Today, the former firehouse now houses a quartet of Cedar Park businesses: Dock Street Brewery, Satellite Cafe, Firehouse Bicycles, and The Fireworks Co-Working Space.

Sleeping quarters, fire station at 701 S.50th Street, photographed by R. Carrollo, December 9, 1959.  Now Firehouse Bicycles.

The engine garage, photographed by R. Carrollo on December 9, 1959. Now Dock Street Brewery.

Firehouse at 701 S.50th Street. photographed by R. Carrollo on December 9, 1959. Now the site of the Satellite Cafe.

Sources: 

Sandra Tatman, Johnson, Philip H. (1868-1933), Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, 2019.

Howard Gillette, Corrupt and Contented, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

“Israel Durham Quits: Abandons Claims to Leadership of Party Machine,” The New York Times, January 10, 1906.

“Israel Wilson Durham: Politician and Owner/President of the Philadelphia Phillies,” Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery.

 

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