Steps on the Waterfront – A Vestige of Penn’s Promise

Front elevation of alley at N. Water and Cherry St. February 14, 1914 (

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 (

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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The Mystery Church: St. Andrew’s Chapel of Spruce Hill

St. Andrew’s Chapel, 4201 Spruce Street, January 14, 1963.

St. Andrew’s Chapel, one of Philadelphia’s finest examples of neo-Gothic architecture, is the  only quiet place on its tree-shaded block.  The locked building is surrounded by the bustle of the children attending the Penn Alexander School and the Parent Infant Center.  From the 1924 to 1974, this church was the centerpiece of the now-closed Philadelphia Episcopal Seminary.

Alonzo Potter (1800-1865), Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania. Source: Wikipedia.

Founded in 1857 by Bishop Alonzo Potter of Pennsylvania, the seminary had a strong connection with the University of Pennsylvania — a strange irony since the Church of England had violently persecuted Quakers (the Penn mascot) back in Great Britain. In the early 1920s, the estate of financier Clarence Clark came on the market.  This five-acre “Chestnutwold” compound had once been one of the finest properties in West Philadelphia, boasting a brownstone Renaissance Revival mansion, and arboretum, and even a private zoo.   Looking for a new home, the Philadelphia Divinity School snapped up the Clark estate, razed all the buildings (only the iron gates remain) and made plans to build an elaborate new campus.  It hired an architectural firm with myriad Penn alumni connections: Zantzinger, Borie and Medary. The firm had made a name for itself as a designer of office buidings, museums, collegiate Gothic dormitories at Princeton, and suburban homes for Philadelphia’s upper class.  It helped that partner Clarence Clark Zantzinger was the grandson of Clarence Clark and an heir to the E.W. Clark & Company banking fortune. Zantzinger and his partners, all Penn alumni, frequently collaborated with Paul-Philippe Cret, distinguished professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The Zantzinger firm’s most famous alumnus was a Jewish immigrant from Estonia named Louis Kahn, a 1922 graduate of Penn’s architecture school.

Rendering by Ray Hollis (circa 1922), of the Divinity School’s proposed 20 buildings. The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.

The Zantzinger firm’s vision for the new Philadelphia Divinty School was ambitious: a complex of dormitories, dining halls, libraries, administrative buildings, and residences centered around the magnficient St. Andrew’s Chapel.  Completed in 1924, the grandeur of  St. Andrew’s Chapel reflected the booming economy of the Roaring Twenties.  The interior boasted ironwork by Samuel Yellin and stained glass windows by the studios of Nicola D’Ascenzo, and a carved limestone reredos echoing the famous one at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York.

The Dorrance Memorial Window (1924) from St. James the Greater Church in Bristol, PA. A fine example of the work of the D’Ascenzo studio.

Yet the Great Depression slammed the brakes on the Philadelphia Divinity School’s grand plans.  Only six of of the planned twenty-two structures were built.  And unfortunately, in its badly reduced circumstances, the Episcopal Seminary could never quite match the prestige and drawing power of its counterparts in New York (General Theological Seminary) or Cambridge, Massachusetts (Episcopal Divinity School).  The school limped along until 1974, when it closed its doors and the University of Pennsylvania took possession of the property.

Today, St. Andrew’s Chapel, although sealed shut, is completely intact on the inside. The public gets a peak at one of the finest sacred spaces in Philadelphia only at an occassional concert or art installation.


Nave of St. Andrew’s Chapel, 4201 Spruce Street, 1980.


Choir stalls at St. Andrew’s Chapel, 4201 Spruce Street, 1980.


“At the Former Philadelphia Divinity School Site: Discovering Inspiration from the Past and Creating Spaces to Learn and Grow,” University of Pennsylvania Almanac, March 30, 2010, Volume 56, No. 27., accessed November 13, 2018.

Sandra Tatman, “Zantzinger, Borie & Medary (fl. 1910 – 1929),” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2018, accessed November 13, 2018.

Arnold Lewis, James Turner, and Steven McQuillin, The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), p.46.

“Magnificent  Structure in West Philadelphia Undergoing Demolition by Wrecking Crew,” The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, April 7, 1916., accessed December 9, 2015.

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The Hoagie is Venerable (but not as historic as we’ve been led to believe)

Maggie’s, Veree Road, Bustleton Avenue to Red Lion Road, February 17, 1959 (

There’s been a lot of big talk and conflicting claims over the years, as to who invented the hoagie, and when. Was it conjured up for workers going to the shipyards at Hog Island in World War I? Was it first introduced by South Philadelphia sandwich purveyors Antoinette Iannelli, Al DePalma or the Scarsi Brothers? Or someone else?

“I made the first hoagie back in 1935,” declared Antoinette Iannelli in 1983. Why call it a hoagie?” asked food writer Jim Quinn. “’I didn’t,’” responded Iannelli, “I called them submarines….”


It may be we cannot actually know when Philadelphia’s official sandwich was invented and named. What we do know is that the hoagie originated in South Philadelphia at some point during the first half of the 20th century. Hard evidence is sparse, and there’s conflicting verbal accounts shared decades later. Opinion and hearsay . . . lore yearning to be legend.

Fact is, there’s no recorded oral history pegging the hoagie to Hog Island at the end of WWI. Looking for evidence in print, we find there’s no mention of “hoagie” in the 1910s, or the 1920s, or even in the 1930s.

The word “Hoagie” does not appear in print until the 1940s.

Sandwich scholars Edwin Eames and Howard Robboy explored the entire genre—the Bomber, Cuban Sandwich, Garabaldi, Grinder; Hero, Hoagie, Italian Sandwich, Musalatta, Poor Boy, Rocket, Submarine, Torpedo and Zepplin—and found that the first use of the terms “hoggy,” “hoggie” or “hoagie” simply do not appear before the 1940s. The earliest mention of “hoagie” Eames and Robboy located was in the Philadelphia Telephone Directory from 1943.

We delved into the database at and found corroborating evidence. The word “Hoggie” appears twice in the Inquirer classified ads in 1943. From April 4: “HOGGIE SHOP. Doing gd. Bus. Must sell account sickness. 6305 Greenway ave.” Then, on September 12: “Woman, active 25 to 45, to work part time in sandwich shop. 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. no Sun. 40c an hr. to start. Tony’s Hoggie Shop, 6709 Woodland ave.”

The word “hoagie” doesn’t appear for another three years.

That classified advertisement published February 4, 1946 reads: “HOAGIE & Luncheonette shop. Doing gd bus. Gd. Reason for selling. Apply 5501 Chester ave.” Four days later, the ad is edited: “HOGGIE SHOP & luncheonette. Doing a swell business. Good reason for selling. 5501 Chester ave.”

Digging deeper, we find between 1946 and 1950, the words “hoggie” and “hoagie” appear with equal frequency.  The former appears 127 times and the latter 124 times. But at the end of this period, there’s a shift where “hoggie” gives way to “hoagie.” In 1950, the “hoagie” pulls ahead for the first time, appearing 73 times compared with only 45 times for “hoggie.” In the next five years, from 1951-1955, “hoggie” appears 44 times while “hoagie” appears a robust 565 times.

What can we infer from this instability of usage? Perhaps the word “hoagie” was still so new that one spelling, one pronunciation, wasn’t yet widely and uniformly accepted? Was the hoagie still searching for its footing in the Philadelphia lexicon? Only in the final years of the 1950s does “hoggie” fade away, making an appearance only six times compared with 352 imprints for “hoagie.” By the 1960s, it’s all “hoagie,” all the time, with nearly 1,000 impressions.

Maggie used both “hoagie” and “submarine,” much the way suspenders can be used with a belt. (

Meanwhile, in the mid-1950s, hoagie hustlers start staking out extravagant claims as to the origin stories. But without hard evidence, they appear to be based on memory. Competing boasts. Opinion and hearsay; lore yearning to be legend.

Based on evidence in print, we have no reason to believe the words “hoggie” and its successor, the “hoagie,” date back to the World War I era. Rather, both appear to be the product of a rising, post-World War II hoagie hype. Entrepreneurial competition larded with nostalgia and spiced with boosterism.

Searching for a turning point, we see 1972 as a watershed year in hoagie history, Ben DiAngelis, head chef at the Bellevue Stratford, adds hoagies to the hotel’s menu. The Philadelphia-based, nationally broadcast Mike Douglas Show airs a hoagie demonstration. The Shackamaxon Society sponsors the first annual hoagie competition. The Daily News names it’s first “Hoagie Editor.” “Home Sweet Hoagie,” read the headline below a double truck, poster-size illustration of a hoagie in the Inquirer’s Today Magazine. Writer Stephen Friend describes how badly he missed the hoagie after moving to the mid-west, and how frustrated he felt trying to describe “the joys of a hoagie” to friends in Detroit. “It’s like describing the Mona Lisa in Braille.”

Another two decades pass and City Hall declares the hoagie the “Official Sandwich of Philadelphia.” A well-deserved status given twenty years after the fact.

Revelers in hoagie history have a proud legacy to share, but that legacy only goes back to the 1940s. Unless, of course, someone can turn up hard evidence proving the hoagie is ancient as well as venerable.

[Sources: Jim Quinn, “The Story of the First Hoagie, Inquirer, Today Magazine, January 16, 1972; Food Timeline Library; Mary Rizzo, “Hoagies,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Rutgers University, 2014; Edwin Eames and Howard Robboy, “The Submarine Sandwich: Lexical Variations in a Cultural Context,” American Speech, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Dec., 1967), pp. 279-288; Dave Wilton, “A Hoagie by any other name,” Verbatim–The Language Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3 Autumn 2003; Gloria Campisi, “A Hoagie a la Bellevue? Really!” Daily News, April 12, 1972; Kathy Begley, “6-foot Hoagie Adjudged Winner Over New York Hero, “Inquirer, April 20, 1972; Stephen F. Friend, “Home Sweet Hoagie, Inquirer, Today Magazine, April 9, 1972; Joe Clark, “‘Now’ Hoagie Big, Wet,” Daily News, April 20, 1972.]

Also see: A Fresh Take on the Hoagie Origin Story.


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Books in Trust: The Germantown Friends Free Library – Part 2

Main Building, Germantown Friends School, 31 W. Coulter Street, 1964.

“In an age in which the individual is merely a number to his employer, his bank, his insurance company and his government, humanizing influences are sadly needed. It is our belief that books and the libraries that make them available constitute one of the most powerful of these influences.”

Germantown Friends Free Library Annual Report, 1963-1964

As the Friends Free Library bustled with activity, Germantown Friends School became one of Philadelphia’s leading independent school.  During the late 19th century, Philadelphia flourished as an industrial and financial center, and many other private schools were founded to educate the children of the burgeoning managerial class.  Northwest Philadelphia’s suburban communities supported a whole ecosystem of schools, social clubs, and retail shops.  Unlike its nearby competitors, Springside School and Chestnut Hill Academy, which were based on single-sex English models, GFS had been co-ed since it’s “refounding” in 1858.   As an educational institution, it had more in common with the co-ed, progressive “Hicksite” Swarthmore College than the all-male “Orthodox” Haverford College.

In an era of increasing affluence and luxury, GFS strove to maintain its founding Quaker principles of simplicity and equality.

Unlike the Gothic finery and Georgian grandeur of the era’s preparatory school campuses, the architecture of Germantown Friends School was deliberately restrained, almost austere.  The color palate was predominately tan, gray, and brown.  There were no soaring spires or stained glass windows in the Meeting House. It grew cautiously, constructing new buildings as needed but also freely adapting nearby older structures to meet its   social club on Coulter Street became a new classroom building (fragments of the original bowling alley survive in the basement) and a converted bank on Germantown Avenue housed staff offices (the steel bank vault still resides in the basement). The Main Building, originally dating from the 1860s, was expanded many times over the years. The present-day neo-classical façade, with its arched auditorium windows and Doric columns, was completed in 1925.  According to Tim Wood, present day archivist at Germantown Friends School, “The previous version of the front, from 1896-97 renovations, was thought by some to be too ostentatious.” Francis Cope, of the Cope shipping family, added “They had made quite a respectable looking building of it, somewhat marred by the addition of a prominent and incongruous porch.” The school’s student publication, The Pastorian, though, called it “a grand new building.”


The remains of the bowling alley in the basement of one of Germantown Friends School’s classroom buildings. Photo by Steven Ujifusa.

The foyer of the Germantown Friends School’s Meeting House. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The Main Building’s entrance hall showcases a collection of plays and literature that once belonged to long-time teacher and administrator Irvin C. Poley, the man who brought the arts to Germantown Friends.  If kept out of the school’s main library, fiction flourished in Poley’s classroom.  Poley graduated from GFS in 1908, and after college returned to his alma mater to teach English. There, the Quaker instructor urged his students to dive into the classics of Western literature, especially Shakespeare. Poley helped Germantown Friends pivot toward rather than away from the arts, for, as he wrote, “the wise educator wants the arts prominent in general education not primarily for vocational use later.”

“Include in your capital of experience vicarious experience,” he urged GFS students in one speech, “what you learn from observing your parents and teachers, from friends, from first-class books, particularly fiction. Even if you ‘re the kind of person that people like to talk to intimately and if you thus know the inner life of a great many friends and acquaintances and chance contacts, you can still learn about people and about yourself from great literature, particularly from plays and poetry and essays and biography.”

Good fiction is, of course, experience minus the irrelevant,” he added, “the life of a person given unity and clarity.”

He also fostered the development of the school’s drama program. According to one yearbook, his “energetic” readings of Shakespeare’s Macbethand Julius Caesarheld students “spellbound.”

One of his students, Henry Scattergood (related to the famed cricketer Henry Scattergood) said that it was Poley who inspired him to go into teaching after graduating from Haverford College.  “Some of my clearest memories of my school life come from his classroom,” Scattergood recalled of his teacher. “I recall particularly a ninth-grade class when we acted scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and from Galsworthy’s The Silver Box,or his clever ways of putting across less glamorous subjects such as spelling. His sentence ‘Neither leisurely foreigner seized the weird height” straightened me out on the major exceptions to the ‘i before e except after c words.’ In all his teaching, Irvin Poley was always resourceful and always stretching his students. He knew and understood his students well, their weaknesses and strengths, and he continually played up the latter, so that all wanted to be their best to justify his belief in them. Even more important, he seemed every alert to seize the opportunity to relate whatever he was teaching to important issues — such as justice, fair play, decency, humility.”


Irvin C. Poley’s literature collection in the entrance hall of the main building of Germantown Friends School. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Irvin C. Poley teaching an English class at Germantown Friends, c.1937. Collection of Germantown Friends School.

Irvin C. Poley leading the reading of a play at Germantown Friends School, 1963. Collection of Germantown Friends School.




Irvin C. Poley, “A Word in Parting,” June 11, 1958. Collection of Germantown Friends School.

Henry Scattergood, “From a Former Student,” undated. Collection of Germantown Friends School.

Timothy Wood, Archivist, Germantown Friends School.

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A Fresh Take on the Hoagie Origin Story

Hog Island Shipyard, 1918. (

“Far across the low-lying meadows the great fringe of derricks rises against the sky,” wrote Christopher Morley in his love note to Hog Island.

“Past the crumpled ramparts of old Fort Mifflin, motors and trolley cars now go flashing down to the huge new shipyard.” Morley stood in awe of “the marvelous stretch of fifty shipways, each carrying a vessel in course of construction.”

“Hog Island is a poem, a vast bracing chant of manly achievement in every respect,” he wrote. “Nothing less than a “marvelous epic of human achievement.”

[Clarification: women were among the 35,000 employed at Hog Island.]

“Perhaps some day, there will come some poet great enough to tell the drama of Hog Island as it ought to be told,” added Morley. “The men who gritted their teeth and put it through will never tell. They are of the old stalwart breed that works with its hands. As they talk you can divine something of what they endured.”

“I don’t believe there is a more triumphant place on earth than Hog Island these days,” wrote Morley. “Ships are the most expressive creatures of men’s hands . . . it was hard to resist the thought that each of them has a soul of her own and was partaking in the general exultation.”

On August 5, 1918 they christened the first Hog Islander, the Quistconck. The tenth was launched in April 1919, five months after the war ended. Not a single one of the 122 Hog Islanders served in World War I, though many did serve in World War II. Fifty eight of those ships would be lost, many to German submarines.

Even before Hitler declared war on the United States, Germans seized The City of Flint while transporting cargo of tractors, grain and fruit to Britain. After its release, the ship returned to service until January 1943 when it was sunk by the Germans. The vessel’s “amazing career came to an end. . . in the mid-Atlantic,” reported the Inquirer, “when an enemy torpedo ripped into her rusting sides.”

Before dawn on May 21, 1941, midway between Brazil and Africa, another German submarine stopped the Robin Moor. Chief Officer Melvin Mundy of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania insisted the transport ship only had “ordinary merchandise for South African Ports.” But, according to Mundy, German commander Jost Metzler kept saying: ‘You have supplies for my country’s enemy and I must therefore sink you.’”

Metzler gave the Robin Moor twenty minutes. Mundy pleaded for more time to evacuate the passengers, which including a young child and an elderly couple.

“’Well, maybe I’ll give you 30 minutes,” said Metzler.

At 6:32 a.m., the German submarine “fired 33 shells into the Robin Moor from her deck gun. The ship went down in 18 minutes. Then the submarine fired volley after volley from her anti-aircraft guns at floating cargo until it all sank.”

710 North 48th Street, July 2, 1954 (

The Germans provided the life boats with three days’ worth of food and water. Then, according to Mundy, “the submarine pulled away . . . and disappeared beneath the surface. The sea churned violently, and the boats bobbed in the smoldering wreckage.” Adrift for 13 days until discovered, the 35 passengers and crew were “drenched by torrential rains, scorched by a broiling sun and in constant fear of death.”

So, one can well imagine Philadelphia’s hesitant reaction to The Saturday Evening Post’s article about the submarine as “The Noblest Sandwich of Them All,” published a decade after the war’s end. Celebrating the “submarine” as “a noble edifice” as “the king of all sandwiches?” No thank you.

Sure, submarine sandwiches were available from as many as “4000 places in the East and Midwest.” Some called them heroes, grinders, poor boys, garibaldis, wedges, bombers, zeppelins and rockets, but Americans in no less than 68 out of 100 cities knew them as “submarines.”

Not in Philadelphia.

For good reason, Philadelphians, most especially the 35,000 who had worked at Hog Island, as well as their friends, families and colleagues, harbored no interest in celebrating the submarine. They had their own unique name for America’s sandwich of choice: the hoggie, or as everyone would eventually spell it—and say it—the hoagie.

Sometimes victory comes in unexpected packages.

[Sources: Christopher Morley, Travels in Philadelphia (David McKay, 1920); “City of Flint Sunk by Sub; 17 Are Lost,” Inquirer, March 21, 1943; “All Robin Moor Victims Saved; Tell of Sinking,” Inquirer, June 17, 1941; “Robin Moor Survivors Tell Story of Suffering,” Inquirer, June 14, 1941; Amanda Schaffer, “Lost at Sea on the Brink of the Second World War,” The New Yorker, May 28, 1916; Food Timeline: sandwiches; Edwin Eames and Howard Robboy, The Submarine Sandwich: Lexical Variations in a Cultural Context, American Speech, Vol. 42, no. 4 (Dec., 1967)].

Also see: The Hoagie is Venerable (but not as historic as we’ve been led to believe.

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The Collector Collected: William Wagner and his Free Institute of Science

A selection of Representative Men of Philadelphia – Centennial Portrait Gallery, W. Curtis Taylor, 1876 ( Library of Philadelphia)

Some of the Beetles at the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

People aren’t caught like insects, poked through with pins and mounted behind glass, although photographer W. Curtis Taylor did something akin to that at America’s centennial celebration in 1876. With his camera (instead of a net) Taylor collected 87 “noteworthy citizens”and titled the collection Representative Men of Philadelphia. Among the assembled all-white cohort were lawyers, judges, engineers, architects, artists, clerics, government officials, scientists, educators, manufacturers, publishers, a librarian a poet and more.

(Sets found their way to the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia, which shares them here at

The practice of collecting, classifying and presenting men as specimens of achievement caught on. The North American Press presented an expanded collection of manufacturers, merchants, realtors, engravers, photographers, brewers, distillers, ship builders, railroaders, physicians, journalists in 1891. You can peruse Philadelphia and Popular Philadelphians online. Likewisewe scroll through the 1,552 portraits assembled by Moses King in 1902 (nearly 18 times the number Curtis assembled) in Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians(Again and again, 100% were men and—you guessed it—all were white.)

Maybe one of the most ironic specimens Taylor collected was William Wagner, himself a collector, who made a name for himself acquiring, displaying and lecturing about all kinds of natural history specimens. Below is something about Wagner’s legacy, an intact “rare survival” of a 19th-century institution at 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue in North Philadelphia.

William Wagner, 1876 ( Library)

William Wagner, from Representative Men of Philadelphia, photograph by W. Curtis Taylor, 1876 ( Library of Philadelphia)


The Wagner Free Institute of Science, 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue.  (Wagner Free Institute of Science)

“Formally incorporated in 1855, the Institute had its inception in a public lecture series begun in the early 1850s by founder William Wagner (1796-1885), a noted Philadelphia merchant, philanthropist, gentleman scientist, and lifelong collector of natural history specimens. Believing strongly that education in the sciences should be available to everyone, Wagner began offering free lectures on science at his home, Elm Grove, a colonial farm estate then on the outskirts of the city. To illustrate the lectures, he drew on the vast collection of specimens he had gathered since his childhood, including many he had acquired during the years he spent traveling around the world as an agent for the well-known Philadelphia financier Stephen Girard. These lectures became so popular that by 1855 he moved them to a public hall to accommodate the rapidly growing audience, and appointed a faculty to teach six evenings a week on subjects ranging from paleontology and chemistry to botany and architecture. All the classes were offered free of charge with an open admission policy that allowed women as well as men to attend. Based on the success of earlier lectures, in 1859 Wagner began construction on a building that would become the permanent home for his collections and his educational program.

“The Wagner Institute’s natural history museum contains more than 100,000 specimens illustrating the various branches of the natural world. The Museum includes founder William Wagner’s mineral collection – one of the oldest in the country – and his fossil collection, representing many important European and American localities and collecting sites of the nineteenth century. Mounted animal skeletons, skulls, and skins; birds; an extensive regional entomological collection; and shells from around the world are on display, along with fossils collected on Institute sponsored expeditions to the American South, Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic regions, as well as the Caribbean. Specimens collected on Institute expeditions include many “type specimens,” the first identification of a new species. Perhaps the best-known of these specimens is the North American saber-toothed cat, Smilodon floridanus, discovered in 1886 on an Institute expedition to Florida. These fossils are on display in the exhibition hall near dinosaur bones collected by noted paleontologist and Wagner lecturer, Edward Drinker Cope. All specimens are displayed in the cherry wood cases constructed for them in the 1880s, and many retain the original handwritten curator’s labels. The specimens are arranged especially for study. The exhibit is one of the largest systematically-arranged collections on display in the country. It also serves as a resource for scholarly research.”

You haven’t been there yet? You should add it to your collection of Philly history experiences. It’s one of the all-time most authentic. And the Wagner is open, free, Tuesday through Friday, 9 AM to 4 PM.

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A Cursed Mansion in Belmont: The Rise and Fall of the Rorkes (Part 2)

Franklin Rorke mansion, December 1872. Courtesy of H.R. Haas.

During the hot summer of July 1900, Franklin Rorke was faced with mounting bills and a failing construction business. His new mansion at 41st and Ogden, an extravagant gift from his late father, had every modern convenience, and boasted mosaics, hardwood floors, marble trim, and onyx fireplaces, as well as a fully equipped stable in the rear. Yet Rorke couldn’t afford to maintain or staff it. The $300 he had received from his late father’s estate almost certainly had run out.

Rorke’s wife Helen was terrified of the man once heralded as the scion of an “exceedingly clever” clan. “He had hallucinations of hearing and sight,” she alleged, “and thought persons were secreted about the house, and that detectives were following him in an effort to kill him.” Rorke then started making threats on his wife’s life, and drove her from the house in one of his rages.  Then, Rorke turned his fury on his own mother, attacking her with a razor blade.

The Rorke mansion, built as a glittering testament to the Rorke family’s wealth, had become a 7,000 square foot house of horrors.

Helen Rorke finally had her husband committed to a new West Philadelphia home: the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital at 49th and Market Street.

A year later, the Republican politician and former Philadelphia District Attorney George S. Graham successfully petitioned the Quarter Sessions Court to release Franklin Rorke from the insane asylum. Judge Stevenson signed off on the release. According to the Philadelphia Times, “Rorke had only been in the institution temporarily and was in his proper mind, and it would be manifestly wrong to keep him there any longer.” What Rorke’s mother and wife thought of Franklin’s release in unclear, but it may have been one last political favor by Graham for his late friend and fellow Union League member Allen B. Rorke.

In 1906, Barber, Hartman & Company listed the former Franklin Rorke mansion for sale.  “This property was built and owned by the famous Philadelphia contractor,” the advertisement stated, “and no expense was spared to erect one of the handsomest properties in West Philadelphia. The premises are in a first-class condition, and will be sold at a great sacrifice.”  That same year, Franklin Rorke was thrown in jail for “creat[ing] a scene with a pistol in a West Philadelphia Saloon.” He and his wife long-suffering wife Helen, who stated he had been “drinking excessively and abusing her,” were now residing in a modest dwelling at 4043 Baring Street.  An unnamed family friend bailed out the miscreant former construction heir for $1,000, or about $20,000 today. This was approximately the same amount Allen Rorke had left his children seven years earlier.

4000 block of Baring Street, looking west, March 27, 1961.

Franklin Rorke died in 1915, working as a bailiff for the Philadelphia Court of Common Please, a position that was almost certainly another favor from one his father’s friends. His brother Allen B. Rorke Jr. led a much quieter life, carrying on what was left of the family business and last appearing in the Philadelphia City Directory in 1926.


November 25, 1906 “West Philadelphia” real estate section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Franklin Rorke mansion still stands at the corner of 41st and Ogden Street, a boarded-up, vandalized shell.  It is a sad home of “might-have-beens.” The mansion never fulfilled its builder’s desire as a happy home for future generations of Rorkes, or as a glittering backdrop for balls and parties.  The cast-iron oriel window at the center of its main facade is gone, as are the elaborate railings. The lawn is completely overgrown. Yet the mansion’s stone walls and turrets are still sturdy, and the roof is still on, a testament to the care and attention Allen B. Rorke, once lauded as “the nation’s greatest builder,” put into this gift for his son 120 years ago.

Franklin Rorke mansion, 41st and Ogden, August 14, 2018. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa

One can fault would-be patriarch Allen B. Rorke for his spendthrift ways and the dynastic ambitions he placed on his very troubled son Franklin.  The once-lauded Rorkes have been long forgotten. Yet the house survives, and it could be argued that Rorke indeed lived up his reputation of doing “more rather than less than his specifications called for.”



“Allen B. Rorke,”

“Builder Allen B. Rorke Is Dead, But His Work Will Live On,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27, 1899

Sandra Tatman, “Rorke, Allen B,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings

Sandra Tatman, “Rorke, Allen B. Jr.,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings

“Says He is not Insane,” The Philadelphia Times, May 4, 1901, p. 3.

“Released from Asylum,” The Philadelphia Times, May 5, 1901.

H.R. Haas, “862-72 N. 41st Street,” Nomination for Historic Building, Structure, Site or Object, Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Philadelphia Historical Commission, March 7, 2017

“Three Deaths from Burns,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 22, 1906, p. 7.

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A Cursed Mansion in Belmont: The Rise and Fall of the Rorkes (Part 1)

Allen B. Rorke (1853-1899). Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27, 1899,

In the 1890s, the self-made construction magnate Allen B. Rorke appeared to be living the Gilded Age dream.  Fame, fortune, social standing, and grand houses were all his.  He belonged to the Union League, the Masonic Order of the Odd Fellows, the Legion of Honor, and the Clover Club.  Among his construction clients were the Poth Brewing Company, the Philadelphia Traction Company, and Jacob Reed & Sons. He resided with his family in a townhouse at 131 S.18th Street, just off fashionable Rittenhouse Square.

As a loyal member of Philadelphia’s Republican Party machine, Rorke was considered by his friends to be an ideal candidate for mayor.

Yet in the laissez-faire circus of late 19th century Philadelphia, the pressure to maintain appearances was crushing. And appearances could be deceiving.  One observer noted that, “His contracts were always carried out with a disposition to do more rather than less than his specifications called for.”

The son of a master carpenter, Rorke, like so many tradesmen’s children, left school at 14 to apprentice himself in his father’s trade.  At 21, he struck on his own. One of his earliest construction projects was the Horticultural Hall at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, a colossal cast-iron and glass pile designed by Hermann Schwarzmann.  By his 30s, Rorke had a healthy portfolio of building projects in the Philadelphia area.  His City Directory listing advertised for “estimates and Plan furnished upon application, for Banks, Warehouses, Mills, Churches, Dwellings and Buildings of every description” (Philadelphia City directory, 1884, p. 1369).  Like many other prominent builders, he maintained an office in the Philadelphia Bourse Building, near Independence Hall.

129, 131, 133 S.18th Street, 1963.

Rorke’s most high profile project was the construction of the new Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Designed by architect Henry Ives Cobb, the structure was a replacement for a neoclassical structure that burned in a spectacular fire in 1897.  Yet many in the Pennsylvania state government were unhappy with the Rorke/Cobb collaboration.  One observer derided it as an  “unadorned, unfinished, several-story brown brick structure that looked like a factory.” The legislature decided that, rather than upgrade the structure, they would spend the money on on a more grandiose home.

As a way of solidifying his dynastic ambitions, Rorke purchased a big lot at the corner of 41st and Odgen Street in West Philadelphia as the site of his son Franklin’s new suburban home.  It was an odd location for a socially-ambitious businessman: the Belmont neighborhood at the time was comfortable but hardly fashionable.  Yet the Franklin Rorke mansion rivaled the big homes under construction a few miles to the west in Overbrook Farms. Unlike the nearby twins and rowhouses, Franklin’s turreted Queen Anne mansion at 862-872 North 41st Street was a freestanding structure, surrounded by a garden and stone fence.

That summer, as the new family mansion rose on 41st Street, the Rorkes vacationed at the Seaside Hotel in Atlantic City. The nation had fully recovered from the Panic of 1893, and the luxury hotels of the Jersey Shore were booked to capacity from June to September. The Philadelphia Times described the children as an “exceedingly clever lot.” That fall, a laudatory article appeared in the Philadelphia Times, praising Rorke as “the nation’s greatest builder.”

On Christmas Eve of 1899, Allen Rorke spent the day with his son Franklin in West Philadelphia. The mansion at 41st and Ogden was nearing completion. The following day, at his townhouse on Rittenhouse Square, Rorke complained that he wasn’t feeling well. He then collapsed to the floor, felled by a stroke.  A second stroke rendered him unconscious. He died on December 26, his wife and sons Franklin and Allen Jr. at his side.

His funeral which took place at his Rittenhouse Square home. Governor William Stone and Mayor Samuel Ashbridge served as honorary pallbearers.  Soon after the doors of the Rorke family’s grand West Laurel Hill family mausoleum were locked, his grieving wife and sons received another jolt. High society pundits speculated that Rorke had left a legacy north of $1 million, a princely sum in fin-de-siecle Philadelphia and enough for the three heirs to continue on in high style. Instead, “the nation’s greatest builder” had left his family a mere $952.56, or about $20,000 in today’s money.

Franklin and Allen Jr. were also left their father’s construction firm.  The question was whether or not they could salvage it, and their family’s fortunes.


Allen B. Rorke,

“Builder Allen B. Rorke Is Dead, But His Work Will Live On,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27, 1899

Sandra Tatman, “Rorke, Allen B,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings

H.R. Haas, “862-72 N. 41st Street,” Nomination for Historic Building, Structure, Site or Object, Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Philadelphia Historical Commission, March 7, 2017

“Big Season is on in Atlantic City,” The Philadelphia Times, June 27, 1899.

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They Were Wrong Demolishing Scottish Rite

150 North Broad Street, Scottish Rite Cathedral or Temple (also known as Town Hall) April, 1983. Photographed by Jefferson Moak for the Philadelphia Historical Commission (

Philadlephians gathered at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, also known as Town Hall, for all kinds of events between the 1940s (when the Christian evangelist Hyman Jedidiah Appleman launched his crusade) and the 1970s (when Dr. Timothy Leary presented “An Evening of Standup Philosophy”). Most were musical. Just about everyone stopped by, from Miles Davis to Peter Paul and Mary; The Irish Rovers to The Doors; Pete Seeger to the Ahmad Jamal Trio. Bob Dylan started his set in October 1964 with The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Indeed, they were.

All that praying, philosophizing and singing made no difference when it came to the survival of Town Hall, a building whose developers, the Scottish Rite Masons, committed a cardinal sin in 1927 of locating the 1,900-seat, Art Deco structure north of Market Street. No amount of design savvy or best intentions by architect Horace W. Castor could overcome the sheer audacity of being at Broad and Race Streets. More than anything else, that dictated the difference between success and failure, appreciation and indifference, and, ultimately, the difference between preservation and demolition.

No matter that the Philadelphia Historical Commission designated this palace of performance as “worthy of preservation” in December 1973. Less than ten years later it would be sold to a parking lot mogul and, soon after, demolished and replaced by—you guessed it—a parking lot. Sure, the city needed more performance venues. The Pennsylvania Ballet needed studio and rehearsal space. John de Lancie, Director of the Curtis Institute of Music expressed distress at the prospect of a loss. He called it “one more blow to the organizations that try, against overwhelming financial odds, to achieve stability and provide cultural activities that a city of this size deserves.”

Broad Street entrance, 150 North Broad Street.Photographed by Jefferson M. Moak, April 1983 {

On the eve of destruction in March 1983 (so far as we know, Barry Maguire didn’t get to perform his song of the same name there) architect, planner and preservationist Maxwell Levinson described the imminent demolition “shocking. … With the present desperate need for a first-class Performing Arts Center in Philadelphia, the destruction of the Temple and its fine facilities is an outrage.”

All hope evaporated as the Historical Commission chose not to come to the building’s defense by implementing a six-month delay of demolition. The building “has gone beyond its usefulness,” explained one architectural history technician with the Commission. Demolition, the Inquirer reported, was “expected within the next ten days.”

The Inquirer’s architecture critic, Thomas Hine, stood out as one of the few voices in favor of preservation. “The choice between landmarks and parking seems simple on the face of it,” he observed. “There is no point in having plenty of parking if there is no place for you to go.”

But Hine, too, wavered. In an article offering a backhanded compliment in its headline: “A historic building, even this one, deserves a reprieve,” Hine conceded that although the Scottish Rite Temple “does have some attractive decoration near its cornice line…few would mourn the loss of the building.”

He noted that the Historical Commission fell down on two fronts. Not only did the Commission abstain from delaying the demolition permit “as allowed by the city’s historic preservation law” he pointed out that “city preservation and planning leaders did a walk through and agreed the interior of the building was in ‘terrible condition,’ that there were cracks in the wall that appeared “ominous.'”

“The decision may well have been correct,” wrote Hine, “but it does raise questions about the value of historic certification. If a quick look by a few city officials, none of whom were really qualified to judge the building structural integrity, is enough to undo certification, what is its value? … By voting a delay, the Historical Commission could have given an opportunity for anyone who might have an interest in the building to take a look, along with competent structural engineers and architects who could make an informed judgment on whether the building had a future.”

Demolition underway, 150 North Broad Street, 1983. Photographed by Jefferson M. Moak for the Philadelphia Historical Commission (

Stripped of all stewardship, with advocacy abandoned, the building had no future. A few months later, standing at the empty intersection, columnist Clark DeLeon reminisced about losing yet “another landmark.”

“They chipped away at it, foot by foot, filling the night sky with the glow of metal cutting torches, undoing the craftsmanship of the men who built the windowless fortress more than 55 years ago. And now on the same site where the stately structure once loomed, there is a sign that says, ‘Warning: Do not reverse over treadles. Tire damage.’”

Right. You can’t drive in reverse once you cross those spiky treadles. Nor can you undo a hasty, ill-informed demolition.

[Sources:Christopher Hepp, “Will Wrecker’s Ball Be Final Lot of Scottish Rite Cathedral?” Daily News, December 14, 1982; Gregory Byrnes “Town Hall to be sold; to be demolished,” Inquirer, December 14, 1982; Thomas Hine, “Town Hall set for demolition,” Inquirer March 5, 1983; Thomas Hine, “A historic building, even this one, deserves a reprieve.” Inquirer, March 13, 1983; John de Lancie, Director, Curtis Institute of Music – Letter to the Editor, Inquirer, April 9, 1983; Joe Clark, “Last Rites for Town Hall – Wreckers Come Knocking,” Daily News, June 8, 1983; Clark DeLeon, The Scene: another landmark gone,” Inquirer, September 23, 1983; Philadelphia Historical Commission file on the Scottish Rite Cathedral.]


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Philadelphia’s Town Hall: Where Bob Dylan (and Many, Many Others) Performed

Town Hall (Scottish Rite Temple) 150 North Broad Street, September 1966 (

As mentioned last time, Bob Dylan will reopen the long-closed Metropolitan Opera House December 3rd, 55 years after his first Philadelphia appearance further down Broad Street. Where exactly did Dylan first perform in Philadelphia? Not the Academy of Music, which would be a logical guess (although Dylan did perform there in February 1966).

On October 25 1963—after the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, after his duet with Joan Baez at the Newport Folk Festival, and after singing at the March on Washington—Dylan made his Philadelphia debut at Town Hall, Broad and Race Streets. (Correction: According to Dan DeLuca, Dylan’s first “official gig” in the city, before an audience of about 45, was at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square in May 1963. )

Dylan almost didn’t make it to Town Hall. “Riding here in manager Al Grossman’s Rolls,” The Daily News reported after the concert, Dylan and Grossman “suffered a flat tire and had to repair it” on the roadside with the help of the owner’s manual. The audience inside Philadelphia’s Town Hall waited patiently.

What? You never heard of Philadelphia’s Town Hall?

In a way, Town Hall’s anonymity today shouldn’t be a surprise. This “ominous, almost windowless” structure opened in 1927 as “The Temple of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Free Masonry, of the Northern Jurisdiction in the Valley of Philadelphia” and was pulled down in the early 1980s. Only from the 1940s through the 1960s did producers and presenters program its gigantic auditorium with results that were at times impressive.

Starting in the early 1940s, Town Hall became a reflection of popular culture. Some would attend the mass meeting sponsored by the Philadelphia Fundamentalists, hearing Hyman Jedidiah Appleman launch his evangelistic crusade. (“A Jew Preaches Christ!” read the newspaper advertisement.) They’d endure Carle Knisley conducting Philadelphia’s Piano Orchestra, “22 girls at 12 Baldwin Grands.” Railroad buffs lined up to see the “National Model Show.”

Folks would come to hear William Z. Foster, the National Chairman of the Communist Party share their “important statement of policy” the presidential elections of 1944. They’d return to view “Russia’s First Post-War Musical Film ‘Hello Moscow!’” and the “Rebirth of Stalingrad,” kicked up a notch with “Russian Songs and Dances.”

Increasingly, the venue was used for performances: Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado;” Vivian Della Chiesa and 70 male voices with the La Scala Opera Company Orchestra; the “Trapp Family ‘Musical Mother’ Baroness Maria Augusta von Trapp and her nine sons and daughters under the conductorship of the Family’s Priest, Franz Wasner;” The Southernaires Vocal Ensemble; and Ruth Morris, the “Great Negro Soprano.”

In 1944, drummer Gene Krupa and his new 30-piece band performed. Two years later, a presumably different audience came for a “Hayloft Hoedown and Barn Dance Show,” that was broadcast “Coast to Coast” on ABC.

In January 1950, a televised auction for March of Dimes offered “a new automobile from Frank Polumbo; gas hot water heaters, sets of tires, “four dozen autographed baseballs signed by members of the Athletics and Phillies, 12 footballs signed by each member of the Eagles championship squad; a refrigerator, a console TV set” and much more. A year later, Philadelphians got a taste of African dance with  Pearl Primus, the Trinidad-born dancer and choreographer.

In the mid 1950s, regulars saw the Don Cassack Chorus and Dancers, the Kings College Choir, a “Holiday Parade of Stars” with Frank Fontaine, Roger Williams, the “peppy and pert” Eydie Gorme, and “Philadelphia’s own Al Martino.” The Sensations (also local) performed “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” And in November, 1955, Ray Charles and his band performed sets before a backstage narcotics raid, thanks to the Philadelphia Police.

Detail of Town Hall (Scottish Rite Temple) 150 North Broad Street, September 1966 (

In the late 1950s, things revved up even more with the Miles Davis Quintet, John Coltrane, “Philly Joe” Jones and “Cannonball” Adderley.

A distinct folk habit took root with a regular visitors in Pete Seeger, The New Lost City Ramblers, Cynthia Gooding, John Jacob Niles and others.

In February, 1960, Hal Holbrook brought his long running one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight” to Broad Street. Here it is from the 1967 version for television.

Audiences enjoyed the flamenco guitar of Carlos Montoya, the flamenco dance of Vicente Escudero in his “final farewell tour.” They heard the jazz piano of the Ahmad Jamal Trio.

In 1961, “America’s Most Controversial Comedian,” Lenny Bruce, brought his brand of reality-based satire. Here he is on “fake news.”

In 1962, Town Hall’s audiences welcomed Joan Baez, The Greenbriar Boys, Theodore Bikel, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, Marle Travis and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Josh White, Peter, Paul and Mary Bill Cosby “Temple University’s star fullback.”

Theodore Bikel returned the following year. So did the Weavers, The Greenbriar Boys, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. New faces, including The Johnson Boys, Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and, of course, Bob Dylan.

In the remaining years of the ‘60s, Town Hall presented Nina Simone, Marion Williams, Judy Collins, The Blues Project, Woody’s Truck Stop, Lou Rawls, the “controversial folk-rock group” known as The Fugs, The Nazz and The Doors, where Jim Morrison was said to perform in leather pants for the first time.

In 1970, Town Hall presented Yussuf Lateef and his quintet, Mose Allison’s Modern Jazz Quartet. In January of that year, Murray Weisberg, the general manager of Town Hall, died after a 20-year run. Things would never be the same again.

Later that year, the seven-story landmark was sold back to its original owners, the Scottish Rite Masons. After that, all it took was a few mishandled performances to erode audience faith. When the Buddy Miles Band took the stage in April 1971, there were more ushers in the hall than audience. The Inquirer reported “rumors that the rest rooms were locked” and quoted Buddy Miles muttering “This is weird. This is (bleep) weird.”

Eleven mostly silent years passed before a headline asked readers who remembered Town Hall to wonder: “Will Wrecker’s Ball Be Final Lot of Scottish Rite Cathedral?” In December 1982 a new owner filed a demolition permit. The plan? To put up a parking lot.

“Don’t it always seem to go,” wrote Joni Mitchell, who performed instead in the 1970s at the Academy of Music, the Second Fret, the Main Point, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

[Sources: Advertisements in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News, 1930s-1970s; Jerry Gaghan, “Riding High,” Philadelphia Daily News, October 28, 1963; “Masons Again Own Long-Lost Town Hall,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 2, 1970; Jack Lloyd, “’Buddy Miles’ Band Sparkles-But the Audience is a Flop,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 24, 1971; Christopher Hepp, “Will Wrecker’s Ball Be Final Lot of Scottish Rite Cathedral?” Philadelphia Daily News, December, 14, 1982;  [Obituary] M. Weisberg, Theater Head, The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 1970.]

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