Looking back on the vision for the Ben Franklin Parkway

by Brady Dale

N 15th St & John F Kennedy Blv

Every month at countless large, public events, thousands of area residents are reminded that the Ben Franklin Parkway is a place that provides amenities other than a quick route out to the Schuylkill from Center City. That common sentiment complements a recent vision articulated by PennPraxis in its report, “More Park, Less Way.” In it, Praxis suggest strategies to make the Eakins Oval and other parts of the Parkway more of a space for people than commuters. A plan that appears to be moving forward.

The Parkway as we know if was first articulated in 1917, by Jacques Gréber, though the concept officially entered the city’s overall plan a decade before that. Construction began on the parkway that year. In a book digitally preserved by The University of the Arts Internet Archive, The Fairmount Parkway: a pictorial record of development from its first incorporation in the city plan in 1904 to the completion of the main drive from City Hall to Fairmount Park in 1919 (1919), there’s a photo of what stood where the parkway now stands. It was a neighborhood. Here’s the photo, shot from the tower in City Hall before construction began.

View from City Hall out onto where the Parkway would go.

To help orient a reader familiar with the city, the domed building is Logan Circle’s Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. Here’s a photo of one of the houses that’s now gone, along with a tiny park. Not so long after, a photo documents the Parkway under construction. You can again see the Basilica in this photo, which helps provide orientation.

The Ben Franklin Parkway, under construction. View from City Hall.

The book also includes a topical view of Jacques Gréber’s final plan, which served as the original vision for the Parkway, though it has seen some hefty revisions since then. Look closely at Eakins Oval, depicted below, to see how that space has changed.

Much of the green space along the northern edge of the plan above is now parking for a few high rises that have gone in on the north edge since then. Another major change to the space has been the replacement of the trees that line its boulevards. In 1989, the 219 red oak trees lining the boulevard were removed because they had all become too unhealthy, due to repeated collisions from automobiles, disease and nails used to post notices. In their place were planted red oak, red maple and sweet gums, so that the space would no longer be an arboreal monoculture.

The Parkway began roughly contemporaneously with the construction of the Art Museum, which broke ground in 1919, but took until 1928 to complete.

The design, as shown in “The Fairmount Parkway: A Pictorial Record.”

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Celebrating January 20th: America’s First Day of Peace

Fireworks in front of the Art Museum, July 4, 2004 by Link Harper. (PhillyHistory.org)

Declaring Independence, you have to admit, was Founding Father bluster—a grand and gutsy act of defiance. Before the colonies could actually and truly claim independence, there’d be a whole lot of bloodshed and years of uncertainty.

So maybe, come the next 4th of July, when folks celebrate the anniversary of this declaration with parades, picnics, concerts and (of course) fireworks, they might consider that there’s another day in the American calendar equally worthy of patriotic revelry. That’s the day America could claim the trifecta: independence, liberty and, most important of all, peace.

Today, January 20th, is that day.

What? No fireworks?

For all intents and purposes, the Revolutionary War ended when the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781. But there’d be no lasting or meaningful peace until the players: Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, as well as the would-be United States of America, agreed to all kinds of arrangements, concessions and processes. Until that delicate, negotiated moment, Britain withheld recognition of American sovereignty and maintained military forces on American soil.

In Paris, “two months of hard bargaining” by negotiators (including Americans John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, William Temple Franklin, John Adams and Henry Laurens) “resulted in preliminary articles of peace in which the British accepted American independence and boundaries.” We’re told by the State Department’s official historian that the terms of this agreement also resolved “prewar debts owed British creditors… restitution of property lost during the war by Americans loyal to the British…and provided for the evacuation of British forces from the thirteen states.” On January 20, 1783, six-and-a-half years after July 4, 1776, Americans could finally stop holding their breath and get on with the job of becoming a free nation. The “Definitive Treaty of Peace” would be signed formally the following September.

Eleazer Oswald’s broadside declaring peace had broken out. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Imagine Eleazer Oswald’s relief and excitement upon hearing the news on March 23, 1783, shortly after the Triumph docked at the port of Philadelphia. Oswald, a Revolutionary War veteran, had paid his dues as a lieutenant colonel of artillery and, for a time, as prisoner of war. More recently, he had set himself up as a printer above the London Coffee House at Front and Market Streets.

Not only was the war finally and officially over, but the United States was, in the eyes of its former enemies, a free and sovereign nation. No matter that the day was Sunday. As soon as Oswald heard the news, he ran to his print shop and set his headline in the largest font he could find.

“Peace, Liberty and Independence,” it screamed. Oswald’s broadside hit the streets the following morning, scooping the newspapers. “Yesterday arrived, after a passage of 32 days from Cadiz, a French Sloop of War…with the agreeable Intelligence of PEACE.” There was little more to add, other than to list the “particular Articles respecting this happy and glorious Event….of January 20, 1783,” which included the long awaited words: “Great-Britain acknowledges the Sovereignty and Independence of the Thirteen United States of America.”

No better a reason to light up the sky over Philadelphia this January 20th. It’s nothing less than the 231st anniversary of the First American Peace.

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Frederick A. Poth: Red Bricks and Gold Beer (Part 2)

Construction and surveying work in front of the former Frederick and Helena Poth mansion at 216 N.33rd Street, May 20, 1927. The Roeschs had vacated the house around this time, and it had become a Drexel Institute dormitory supervised by Dean of Women Ruth A.L. Dorsey.

In 1887, the brewer Frederick A. Poth purchased a large corner lot at N.33rd and Powelton Avenue from Quaker industrialist John Sellers Jr.  Sellers was one of Philadelphia’s richest men, a manufacturer of machinery and investor in West Philadelphia real estate.  Along with the lumber merchant John McIlvain, Sellers was also a stalwart of West Philadelphia’s Quaker community.   The Powelton Quakers tended to be a reserved, insular, and tech-savvy group. They were also usually shrewd business people, and often vocally anti-slavery. True to his faith’s “plainness” doctrine, Sellers lived in a boxy Italianate house at 3300 Arch Street. His cousin and mechanical polymath Coleman Sellers II — hydroelectric engineer for Niagra Falls and arguably the inventor of the first moving picture camera (the kinematoscope) — lived a few blocks to the north on Baring Street.

Industrialist and inventor Coleman Sellers II (1827-1907).

As they grew in wealth and prominence during the Industrial Revolution, Philadelphia Quakers struggled to balance their financial success with the trappings of weath.  The older generation before the Civil War continued to wear gray and black broadcloth, address people in the non-hierarchal “thee” and “thou,” and avoid intoxicating beverages.   The “frivolous” material temptations of the Gilded Age, however, proved too great for many members of the Society of Friends after the Civil War.

Few Philadelphian tycoons could be more quintessentially Gilded Age than the portly brewer Frederick A. Poth.  When he bought the corner lot from Sellers in 1887, the self-made German immigrant was one of the city’s biggest brewers, owner of F.A. Poth & Sons at 31st and Jefferson Street, located in the section of North Philadelphia still known as Brewerytown.  Poth — who still spoke in the gutteral accent of the “old country” — was many things: a tough businessman, an amateur singer in German musical societies, gentleman farmer (at his country property in Norristown), dedicated Mason, bon vivant clubman, and sharp real estate investor.  Soon after purchasing the Sellers lot, he immediately commissioned the relatively obscure architect Alfred W. Dilks Jr. to build a new family home.

Why Poth selected Dilks is a bit of a mystery, especially when he could have chosen the likes of the colorful Frank Furness (then hard at work on the University of Pennsylvania’s new library) or the buttoned-up Theophilus Parsons Chandler Jr. (a distinguished professor at the University and also Dilks’ mentor). Just before he started drafting designs for the Poth mansion, Dilks finished a speculative rowhouse development for Poth and his fellow brewer Edward Schmidt on the 3300 block of Arch Street.  The new houses were cheek-by-jowl with the sober John Sellers mansion. The 1985 National Register nomination of the Poth-Schmidt rowhouses sums up Dilks’s design approach: “As a consequence of Dilks’ training, and his understanding of contemporary taste, the buildings that he designed for Arch Street are among Philadelphia’s most important examples of the Queen Anne style, showing all of its essential features. Those include the Japanese influenced porch details, which alternate with the Mediaevalizing knee braces of other porch details; the empathetic use of brick detail to describe architectural weight; and the multiple textures from painted wood to smooth brick, to shadow catching hung tile. The buildings were further enlivened by formal variation within the group that adds to the richness of the ensemble. There are few equals to the Dilks achievement in the generally plain Quaker City.”

The F.A. Poth and Company brewery at 31st and Jefferson Streets, designed by Otto Wolf. Almost all of these buildings have been demolished. Source: The Hagley Museum and Library. Click on the image to go to the original source.

Definitely not plain, and very un-Quaker, indeed.   And a strange choice of architect for a man a later biographer would eulogize as being “a man of simple tastes.” Yet it was also industrial mechanization that had made the increasingly use of ornament not only possible, but affordable.  Although Dilks specialized in the so-called Queen Anne style, the house he designed for the Poth family at 216 N. 33rd Street can best be described as German “Beer Baron” baroque, a Rhineland castle transported to the banks of the Schuylkill River.  Compared to the flat surfaces of the surrounding Italianate  houses, Poth’s brick mansion is ornate and exuberant.  To trolley riders and pedestrians, its jagged roofline, protruding turrets, and fiery terra cotta details must have screamed for attention. The irony was that all of this historicist ornament in brick, wood, and metal was made possible — and economically feasible — by the mass-production celebrated at the city’s 1876 Centennial Exposition.  Mechanical jigsaws, for example, could churn out intricate gingerbread wood trim in minutes.  Mechanized presses could transform tin sheets into cornices and bay windows just as quickly.

The Powelton Club, located on the 3500 block of Powelton Avenue. It was in operation from 1894 until 1906. Poth and many of the neighborhood’s businessmen were members. Here is a description from the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated November 15, 1894:
“The building is 50 feet front by 100 feet deep, and stands on a plot 89 x 212 feet. It has been entirely renovated and rearranged, so as to insure all the conveniences and comforts of club life. The wide hallway is one of the striking points of the interior arrangements that give the building a quaint and yet pleasant effect. On either side of the hallway are the reception room and library, with accommodation for those who may want to either read or write. In the basement is a fine gymnasium, with all the modern appliances, together with shuffleboard, billiard and pool room and bowling alleys. Close beside these are the bath rooms, lavatories, etc.
“The second floor rooms are devoted to whist parlors, elegantly furnished. The third story is devoted entirely to apartments of the steward and store rooms. All the rooms have the old style of grate. The lighting throughout is by electricity and the building is heated by steam. The outside grounds will be used in summer for tennis and other sports.” Click on image to go to the original source.

To complete his urban ensemble, Poth commissioned fellow German-native Otto Wolf (the same architect who designed his brewery) to build another set of speculative rowhouses directly across the street from 216 N.33rd Street.   He then turned his sights north and west to the old Centennial district of Parkside. Here, he commissioned Willis Hale and other young architects to built a series of enormous, three-story Flemish revival twin homes fronting the old fairgrounds.

3301-11, 3315 Powelton Avenue, built for Frederick A. Poth on speculation by architect Otto Wolf. The houses remained in the Poth family real estate portfolio until the 1950s. Source: University City Historical Society. Click on image to go to original source.

By 1900, the Victorian streetcar suburb of West Philadelphia had reached its stylistic and economic peak.  The houses had evolved from simple suburban Italianate villas into full blown semi-urban mansions.  The man who had dreamed up the 19th century suburban ideal, the landscape architect Alexander Jackson Downing (1815-1852), had warned in his book The Architecture of Country Houses against castle architecture: “There is something wonderfully captivating in the idea of a battlemented castle, even to the apparently modest man, who thus shows to the world his unsuspected vein of personal ambition, by trying to make a castle of his country house. But, unless there is something of the castle in the man, it is very likely, if it be like a real castle to dwarf him to the stature of a mouse.”

The italics are Downing’s own.

Maybe Poth and his wife Helena did feel like a family of “Mäuse” in their Powelton “schloss,” for they did not live for long at 216 N. 33rd Street. About only about ten years, they gave their house to their daughter Mathilde and son-in-law George Roesch (a beef wholesaler), and moved to a new city residence in the middle of their Parkside Avenue development, which they called “Brantwood.”  Here, Frederick Poth died on January 21, 1905.  His sons inherited F.A. Poth & Sons, which like most of Philadelphia’s beer empires fell victim to the Prohibition in the 1920s.

“The Brantwood” at 4130 Parkside Avenue (October 5, 1945), a series of six large twin houses Poth built in the 1890s on Parkside Avenue. He and his wife Helena moved into one of them after giving their house on North 33rd Street to their daughter and son-in-law. After Poth’s death, the six houses were converted into apartments.

Although no longer conducted on the same scale as a century ago, the ancient art of making beer (ale as well as lager) is undergoing a renaissance in Philadelphia.  Although the Poth brewery has vanished, most of his residential buildings in Powelton and Parkside have survived, the legacy of a German immigrant who wanted to bring a bit of his native Rhine Valley to his adopted home.


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Fifty Years Before the War on Poverty

531 Delancey Street Lodging House – 2nd Floor Front. February 27, 1912. (PhillyHistory.org)

Mayor J. Hampton Moore knew better when he remarked, in 1933, that “Philadelphia was too proud to have slums.” Indeed, the city had some of the worst housing conditions anywhere in America. Philadelphia’s labyrinth of courts and alleys were lined with tenements that went back a long, long time—despite the best efforts of those who didn’t deny their existence.

Ignoring slums had been just about impossible since 1909, thanks to a citizens’ action group that called itself the Philadelphia Housing Commission. The Commission (which later became the Philadelphia Housing Association) “recruited an army of volunteer housing inspectors” who “combed the city’s courts and alleys looking for noxious heaps of manure… fouled privies, structurally unsafe houses, and other threats to public health and safety.” They filed complaints by the thousands. And more: they spread the word about the city’s slum conditions, advocating for reform in lectures, leaflets, meetings and, maybe most effective of all – in photographs.

Then it should have come as some relief to the city’s thousands of slum tenants and their allies when, in 1913, the state legislature passed an act creating a Division of Housing and Sanitation in the Department of Health and Charities. But the signed bill would have no impact, thanks to the inaction of City Council. The city’s slums remained intact; housing reform in Philadelphia would have to wait.

“Better government in Philadelphia is being slowly strangled,” editorialized The Evening Public Ledger in October 1914. The “cold fingers” of “Philadelphia’s Tammany twisting dexterously through a pliable majority in Councils” are failing to require landlords “to keep their properties in such repair as to make them healthy places to live in. By refusing to appropriate funds necessary to put the law into effect the majority members completely nullified it. It is now as good as dead, killed by Councils.”

840 Lombard Street, September 4, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)

Without funding, tenement occupants without water would continue to have no water; those without connections to sewers would have no sewers. Their unsafe stairways would continue to be unsafe; their broken plumbing, leaky roofs, flooded cellars and windowless rooms would remain intact.

Housing reform wasn’t only the right thing to do for the poor, largely immigrant families “caught on the treadwheel of life.” Removing slums was also about improving the overall health of the city. “Many of the future inmates of blind asylums, tubercular hospitals and prisons are made from a childhood spent amid defective living conditions,” argued The Evening Public Ledger. “Darkness, impure air, dampness, dirt and dilapidation are public enemies.”

If the lack of funding of hard-won legislation was killing reform, the Philadelphia Housing Commission would have to get back to work. No matter that the city’s slum conditions were out of sight and out of mind. Photographers documented them; and the Commission commandeered a storefront window on one of the city’s busiest streets to show how bad slum conditions were.

In November 1914, the Philadelphia Housing Commission’s sidewalk display in the window of the Sharswood Building, 931 Chestnut Street, opened eyes of those who would never otherwise see slums themselves. In the center of the window, the Commission mounted The Evening Public Ledger’s editorial demanding reform. Surrounding it, they hung pictures that attracted the attention of hundreds of “shoppers, merchants, ministers, physicians, lawyers, laborers and visitors” passing by. They were “surprised to see that conditions such as pictured… actually existed in the 20th century in this city;” they were disturbed that the conditions “told by the camera” were of homes lived-in only a few blocks away from the storefront exhibition.

Slums – 1225 Pine Street, August 14, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Welfare Workers Charge Councils with Responsibility for Evil Conditions” read The Evening Public Ledger headline about the display. And in 1915,the Philadelphia Housing Commission would prevail with the passage and the funding of the city’s first comprehensive housing code. But, as housing advocates knew so well, implementation would require monitoring: ongoing data collection, filing of complaints and vigilant public information campaigns.

Despite laws, agencies and advocacy, the rising number of poor residents in Philadelphia resulted in more, not less, one-room tenements. In 1922, the Philadelphia Housing Commission filed more than 8,000 complaints with the city and wrote of the ongoing problem: “The City knows that families, like rats, have taken to cellars to cook, eat and work… The City knows that the 4,837 tenements and the 2,465 rooming houses recorded are far below the actual number… The City knows there is a teeming population … in narrow alleys and courts and minor streets, approximating 60,000 persons…”

Philadelphia’s first housing code was not nearly enough. More powerful, comprehensive and systemic interventions would be needed to mount an effective war on poverty. Yet, the citizens campaign of 1914 had been a start. And in time, government would again follow their lead.

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Aesthetics in the Archives

Water Main Break at Spring Garden Station, December 1895 (PhillyHistory.org)

The massive water main break at Frankford and Torresdale Avenues last month inspired yet another one of our fishing expeditions at PhillyHistory. And one photographic treasure we hooked offers a bit of perspective on the 23 million lost gallons—and then some.

A December 1895 monster break between the Spring Garden Water Works and Brewerytown washed out a swath 18 feet wide and 11 feet deep. It obstructed the Reading Railroad tracks with debris and pushed tons of gravel where it wasn’t welcome.

But this water main from 1895 was only half the diameter of the one that broke last December. That broken 60-inch pipe allowed water to gush across neighborhoods, affecting residents in eight zip codes. To emphasize how much water 23 million gallons is, newsfolk reported it was the equivalent of 34 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Olympic swimming pools? Sorry, that’s too obtuse a reference for this sedentary city dweller. And translating it into 920 suburban pools isn’t much better. What we need is an illustration that’s more down to earth.

Like bathtubs. At 36 gallons per bath, we calculate that the 23 million gallons of water that cascaded through city streets might have meant a good scrub up for 638,889 people—or 41% of the city’s population.

Reminds us of the cartoon by Jerry Doyle from 1937, when The Philadelphia Record editorialized against the city’s recent purchase of Paul Cezanne’s painting, The Bathers. A proud William Penn, descended from his City Hall pedestal, steps across the threshold of a squalid tenement and shows off his new Cezanne to a poor, single mom. “Lookit!” declares the smiling Penn, “I bought you a pretty picture.”

The $110,000 price for the Cezanne, which has hung in the Philadelphia Museum of Art ever since, was enough, The Record editors pointed out, to install bathtubs in half of the 40,000 Philadelphia homes that lacked proper plumbing.

PhillyHistory’s men-at-work photograph, which dates five years before the Cezanne, is a powerful and telling composition in its own right. And it represents a compelling new idea about modern beauty. Nothing against Cezanne, mind you. He has a place in the history of art, at Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Barnes Foundation (where another version of The Bathers resides).

Not too many decades before the 1890s, “a gentle brook purled” and the “dogwood-tree bloomed most abundant” where the Spring Garden Waterworks stood.  Historians Scharf and Westcott noted that industry had “obliterated” this “charming little valley” and those searching for its “wild beauties” would “wander in vain amid the ponderous and immense buildings of Brewerytown.”

What would they find there? An entirely new species of wild beauty, an urban aesthetic, a reality made of iron, mud and men. It echoed neither the natural past nor the classical past. This gritty beauty was derived from and thrived on the industrial city—an appreciation of the here and now.

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Frederick A. Poth: Red Bricks and Gold Beer (Part 1)

N. 30th and Jefferson Streets, June 28, 1951. The former Frederick A. Poth & Company brewery is visible on the right, one block west.

If you enjoy drinking “lager” while watching the Eagles, thank Frederick A. Poth and his Philadelphia “beer baron” friends. Otherwise, you would be drinking ale. Or whiskey. Yuengling might be America’s oldest operating brewery (1828), but it is up the Schuylkill River in Pottsville, not Philadelphia. A century ago, if you asked for a “lager” in a Philadelphia saloon, the bartender would have quizzically responded, “Which one?” Auf deutsch. Schmidt, Ortlieb, Bergdoll, Esslinger, Poth?  All were brewed in Philadelphia. Our city may be enjoying a “craft beer” revival, there was a time when beer was big business. Big enough to build castles fit for a Rhine River robber baron. Architects such as the German-born Otto Wolf and the Americans Willis Hale and A.W. Dilks were more than happy to indulge their clients’ flights of fancy.

Frederick August Poth (1841-1905)

Frederick A. Poth (1841-1905) was one of thousands of German immigrants who flocked to Philadelphia in the mid-19th century. Some were political dissidents, fleeing the brutal government crackdowns that followed failed revolutions of 1848. The city had had a significant German population since the time of William Penn, religious nonconformists such as the Amish, Mennonites, and Schwenkfelders, who braved the North Atlantic to see if Penn’s revolutionary promise of freedom of religion was actually true. Most of these Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch) aimed to recreate the rural life of their ancestors.  They settled in the village of Germantown or further west in Lancaster County, where they farmed, operated grist mills, and built carriages. This second wave of Germans immigrants, which included Frederick Poth, came to make a new life in the rapidly industrializing 19th century city: shopkeepers, journalists, merchants, craftsmen, and brewers. Protestants largely came from Prussia and the Rhine Palatinate, the Catholics largely from Bavaria and the Saarland, although most German states had mixed populations, a source of strife since the Reformation and the resulting Thirty Years War. There were also a significant number of Jews among these new  arrivals. Among them were the Snellenbergs, Gimbels, Rosenbachs, and Fleischmans.  By the mid-19th century, many German-speaking states had lifted official restrictions against Jews, allowing them to rise into the increasingly prosperous urban bourgeoisie.  However, they were still subject to intense hatred both on the street and in the press, so for many, a move to America made religious and economic sense.

Once settled in their new urban home, the new arrivals started German-language newspapers that kept the flag of liberal republicanism flying high. They also started singing societies such as the Columbia Gesang Verein in Kensington, where men gathered to sing part-songs by Schubert, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Strauss, and Abt. German-born and trained musicians filled the ranks of the Musical Fund Society’s orchestra, which played subscription concerts to the city’s elite. They also brought along a tradition of fine craftsmanships. They made grand pianos (Albrecht, Riekes, and Schmidt), toys (Schoenhut), as well as tools and decorative objects for domestic use. Like many immigrants, they competed for the lowest rungs on the economic ladder. German Catholics, like the Irish, faced considerable persecution from gangs of Nativist “Know Nothings,” who viciously attacked parishioners and burned churches to the ground. Some Philadelphians were more welcoming. Reverend William Henry Furness, minister at the First Unitarian Church and father of architect Frank Furness, formed a close friendship with the rabbi of the German-Jewish congregation of Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street.

Male singing groups (Männerchor) such as the Columba Gesang Verein in Kensington gathered regularly to sing popular songs such as the “Rhapsody for Alto and Male Chorus” by Brahms and “Wein Weib und Gesang” by Johann Strauss II.  On a less highbrow note, here is a recording of a beer garden band playing dances that reminded Philadelphia patrons of the old country. 

Perhaps their most enduring cultural contribution, however, was transforming America from a whiskey and ale drinking nation into a beer drinking one. Lager beer, to be precise. Derived from the German word “to store,” lager was fermented using a special yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Unlike heavy English ales, lager was fermented at low temperatures (40 degrees) in caves or monastery cellars, and was usually gold-colored and light bodied. Although started in Bavaria, the world-wide lager revolution was spearheaded in two American cities. One was St. Louis, another German stronghold and birthplace of the still-flourishing Anheuser-Busch empire. The other was Philadelphia, whose temperate climate and artesian wells made it an ideal beer brewing city. Moreover, the advent of mechanical refrigeration and the growth of railroads — specifically the Mighty Pennsylvania — allowed for mass-production and transport of lager beer on a truly grand scale.

Few exploited this blend of craft, mechanization, and booze better than Frederick A. Poth.  A Roman Catholic, Poth had not come to America to escape religious or political persecution. He had come to make a buck. He was a stocky, mustachioed man known as a “raritache” (litte rarity) in his native Walhaben, Rheinpfalz province. He arrived in Philadelphia at the tender age of 20, and apprenticed himself to Vollmer & Born brewers, where he shoveled mash out of the copper brewing vats and shouldered massive bags of barley from delivery wagons. When the 1876 Centennial Exhibition opened its gates, Poth saw a golden opportunity and built a rambling beer garden opposite the fairground. In addition to his own “F.A. Poth” lager, he served up savory favorites from the Vaterland: most likely wiener schnitzel, sauerkraut, bratwurst, and frankfurters. Think of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s pop-up beer garden on South Broad Street this past summer, only bigger, louder, and rowdier. The timing was perfect.  The eyes of the world were on the newly-unified German Empire at the time of the Centennial. In 1871, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussia soundly defeated Emperor Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War, and then unified the various German states (Protestant and Catholic) under the Prussian Hohenzollern crown.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society “pop up” beer garden on South Broad Street. In the late 19th century, they were common throughout Philadelphia, but especially in German neighborhoods such as North Liberties, Brewerytown, and parts of West Philadelphia. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa

Although Poth’s Centennial beer garden appears to have lost money, it got his product out to the entire nation. Poth then purchased a large plot of land at North 31st and Jefferson Streets in North Philadelphia — at the heart of today’s Brewerytown neighborhood — and erected a modern lager brewery that grew to mammoth proportions and employed hundreds of workers. Poth had, according to one gushing contemporary biographer “a keen knowledge of human nature and made a large number of friends who were willing and able to cooperate with him.” Reading between the lines, he also must have been extremely tough, especially when dealing with disgruntled workers during an 1887 strike. His supposedly paternalistic attitude towards labor turned into sour ale as soon as the workers, according to the same biographer, “had the disposition to assume an arrogant attitude.” Poth then used “all the force of his personality, determination, and diplomacy” to settle the strike. Day drinking among all classes was extremely common in late 19th century America. Philadelphia’s brewery workers expected a half-hour beer break every day. Hatmakers at the Stetson factory were especially notorious for their beer intake. The dust and the animal hair irritated their throats, and beer eased the pain. Small wonder the workers became rowdy after downing a few pints, especially when hours were long and working conditions dangerous.

By the 1880s, F.A. Poth & Company had made its founder and his family extremely wealthy. He and his wife Helena (also born in Germany) had five children: two daughters and three sons, one of whom would follow him into the business. Poth also enjoyed music, belonging to several German singing societies. As one of the city’s largest brewers, Poth’s decided to invest his riches in West Philadelphia real estate, near the spot where he had introduced his beer to the world at the 1876 Centennial. The Powelton area — in the blocks just north of Lancaster Avenue between 33rd and 40th Streets — was already an attractive place to live,  filled with slender, elegant Italianate and Second Empire twin houses occupied by upper middle class professionals. A Centennial guidebook described the area as “a location much sought after for private residences and consequently is filled with handsome edifices and delightful villas.” The brass bands and cheering crowds were long gone from the fairground, but Poth believed he could add some Gilded Age grandeur to the rather prim neighborhood.

He would build a castle and real estate barony fit for a Rhinish prince, and would grow his fortune in the process.

204 N. 35th Street, March 10, 1969. One of many large Italianate twin houses in the Powelton “streetcar suburb” section of West Philadelphia that built just before the Civil War. Frederick A. Poth would outdo this house and others in the neighborhood.


Leon S. Rosenthal, A History of Philadelphia’s University City (Philadelphia, PA: West Philadelphia Corporation, 1963), http://www.uchs.net/Rosenthal/wphila.html

Phillip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986) pp.105, 166..

“Frederick August Poth,” Philadelphia: Pictorial and Biographical. (Philadelphia, PA: S.J. Clarke and Company), 1911.


“216 N. 33rd Street: A History of the Building”

“500 Years Ago, Yeast’s Epic Journey Gave Rise to Lager Beer,” Genetic Archaeology, August 24, 2011.

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Bright Lights; Beautiful City, or a Collision of Hope and History

City Hall Illuminated during Founder’s Week (detail). October 1908. (PhillyHistory.org)

Never mind that Philadelphia actually dated back to 1682, that its 225th anniversary had come and gone the year before. Philadelphians were in the grip of a new and overpowering love affair with the city and it was fine to fudge the details. In 1908, they mounted an over-the-top celebration of the original city and called it “Founders Week.” But it was really more about the bright new century than the dim and dusty past.

“There is a promise in the sky of a new day,” proclaimed Charles Mulford Robinson of the 20th century city. “The tall facades glow as the sun rises; their windows shine as topaz; their pendants of steam, tugging flutteringly from high chimneys, are changed to silvery plumes. Whatever was dingy, coarse, and ugly is either transformed or hidden in shadow. The streets, bathed in the fresh morning light, fairly sparkle, their pavements from upper windows appearing smooth and clean. There seems to be a new city for the work of a new day.”

“City Beautiful” Philadelphia would be bathed in sunlight during the day. At night, it would be brilliantly illuminated by electric lights. At the center of it all, at the intersection of Broad, Market, past and future, stood City Hall, symbolically lit, top to bottom. Founder’s Week producers strung lights along its many rooflines; they aimed searchlights hundreds of feet up to the giant statue of the founder. Down at street level, the building became a billboard for a giant portrait of William Penn ensconced in a welcoming, promising electric sunrise.

The illuminated promise was that Philadelphia’s founding purpose (whether it had been made 225 or 226 years before) was still very much alive. “Philadelphia Maneto” the electric sign flashed up and down Broad Street: Let Brotherly Love Endure.

During Founders Week, the beautiful, hopeful historic city was “choked with humanity,” residents and visitors jamming parades, receptions, unveilings, commemorations, displays, processions, and patriotic exercises. A “River Pageant” animated the entire Delaware waterfront, from Fort Mifflin to Allegheny Avenue. At Franklin Field, thousands attended “Philadelphia,” the Musical Historical Drama. Violet Oakley’ designed a “Historical Pageant” that featured operatic floats and elaborately costumed actors anticipating Hollywood’s Golden Age. On the celebration’s final day, before the fireworks, the City and the Quaker City Motor Club co-sponsored a 200-mile automobile race on a brand new “speedway” in West Fairmount Park. All in all, gushed The New York Times, it was “probably the greatest civic celebration ever held in America.”

One of the 28 Lamps at City Hall, 1909. (PhillyHistory,org)

City Hall’s lighting scheme was more than mere wattage, it was civic theater. And it had been brought to life on Saturday, October 3rd, the day before any other Founders Week events. School children from across the city convened to christen a ring of “Memorial Lamp Poles,” 28, 22-foot, cast iron lamp standards on the plaza surrounding City Hall, each with 28 glass globes. Why 28? That’s how many districts, townships and boroughs had been consolidated in 1854 to form a bigger, better, safer and more prosperous metropolis. The public plaza around City Hall was now the civic centerpiece where all citizens could embrace the past and future promise—in the brightly illuminated here and now.

“Illumination of Food Sign – North Side of City Hall.” October 4, 1917. (PhillyHistory,org)

Who could take on such a project? That would be the next generation the Royers family, the iron founders whose shop at 9th and Montgomery had been operating since just after the Civil War. Now, decades later, B. Frank Royer of Smyser-Royer would have a “complete drafting and engineering departments, designing studio, pattern shops, two large foundries, extensive machine and fitting shops” manufacturing everything from “lamp posts for Country Estates” to “Spiral Stairs and Marquises” in cast iron, bronze or aluminum. Smyser-Royer was understandably proud of their work and illustrated the City Hall lamps in their catalogs, bragging that with little more than “a coat of paint” these fixtures could last “almost forever.”

At City Hall. “almost forever” turned out to be 23 years.

After symbolic meaning drifted away, the lamps became only so much street furniture. Over the years, they blended into the backdrop of daily life. City carpenters built grandstands around them; subway contractors tolerated their presence. During the Sesquicentennial, the audience of a German oompah band crowded around them. And by the early 1930s, they were gone and forgotten.

What stands today on City Hall plaza, more than century later at a time when we take light for granted? A lonely pair of modern facsimiles, relatively dim and meaning-free.

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Dreaming about Philly’s Endangered Buildings?

Engine House #46, Reed and Water Streets, 1896. (PhillyHistory.org)

It’s been more than a decade since the Preservation Alliance started issuing its annual Endangered Properties List. This year the list features eight properties bringing the total to a hefty 84.

Has this ritualistic exercise in advocacy proved a success? Yes, if you consider coverage of the list’s release had become part of Philly’s December news cycle. But there are navigational challenges in getting the word out. Accessing the annual lists requires going through a mix of separate web pages (from 2003 to 2007) then a couple of pdfs (2008 and 2009) before the most recent format: a combination of web pages and pdfs (2010 to 2013). Each list is numbered, but not clearly dated. For instance, the 7th annual list came out in 2009 but was issued in the Alliance’s Winter 2010 newsletter. Only a preservationist with OCD would navigate through it all.

If this advocacy tool is to be effective in raising sights (and help prevent razing sites) it needs to be built on a clear, comprehensive web presence that can be easily located, augmented, enriched, updated and shared to help inform and advance a preservation agenda. Very useful; very doable.

Has the list helped prevent razing sites? For that question, the answer is “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.”

“Yes,” if we look at the new home of FringeArts  in the High Pressure Pump Station at the foot of Race Street (listed in 2006) or the Nugent Home for Baptists in West Mount Airy (listed in 2004). But it’s a definite “no,” if we look for the Church of Christ, once at 63rd and Vine Streets (listed in 2003). What’s there today is a spiffy new Walgreens.

Not too many victories; not too many losses. But in a contest, the worrisome “maybes” would win by a mile.

Robinson Store, 1020 Market Street. Built in 1946. (Library of Congress)

First is the Boyd Theatre, which made its second appearance this year (the Boyd debuted in 2007). The Divine Lorraine was also the subject of a double feature, in 2009 and 2010.

Does it really matter what year the former 26th District Police Headquarters at Trenton Avenue and Dauphin Street was listed in 2006?  Or that John P. B. Sinkler’s  Germantown Town Hall made the list in 2010? Or that the Royal Theater debuted in 2011? Or that both its neighboring District Health Center No. 1 at Broad and Lombard Streets and the Roundhouse at 7th and Race Streets were listed last year? Listing dates don’t matter; what does is documentation, information, and ultimately, preservation.

So, as the list of preservation challenges grows longer, what are the latest additions?

Age before beauty: From 1894, there’s the Flemish-revival Engine House #46 at Water and Reed Streets. “One of the most intriguing” buildings in the Pennsport neighborhood, wrote Inga Saffron. There’s the 1946 Robinson Store at 1020 Market Street designed by Victor Gruen and Elsie Krummeck in 1946. In its day, and especially at night, the Robinson Store was one of those buildings capable of giving chills. Here’s a specimen of “the surging tide of modernism” that never really reached us” here in Philadelphia, writes the Alliance’s Ben Leech. “It’s a Don Draper dream” writes Liz Spikol.

But Don Draper isn’t real. The Robinson Store, on the other hand, is…and very much endangered. It’s survival… well, that may be a dream.

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The Very Model of an Ancient-Modern Monument

Demolition of “Pennsylvania Bank, 1867,” Detail of albumen print by John Moran, photographer. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, from James Stuart’s Antiquities of Athens, 1762. (Smithsonian Libraries)

By the 1830s, you’d have thought folks might begin to grow a bit tired of seeing every last architect translating their city into the Greek. And they might have, had it not been for William Strickland’s way of combining the very old and the very new. This most creative of the homegrown generation of architect/engineers didn’t shy away from moving the game up a few notches. Strickland pulled out his copy of Stuart’s Antiquities of Athens, a book that had been around for seventy years, and had long been used as a source by architects including Benjamin Henry Latrobe, John Haviland and Strickland himself.

But the stakes were higher now. Strickland faced the challenge of making architectural sense on a very prominent and oddly-shaped building lot defined by Dock, Walnut and Third Streets. And he found himself working in the shadow of his mentor’s masterpiece, the Bank of Pennsylvania. This tough site demanded a commanding solution—and an innovative one. Squeezing a rectangular Greek temple onto a triangular building lot just wouldn’t do. Strickland needed to find design solutions that were even bolder, but also more carefully considered.

And so he did. Strickland positioned on the narrow end of this wedge a raised, semi-circular portico, making this eastern façade look like a grand entrance on a civic square. (In reality, this is the grand, rounded-off back of the building. Strickland made Third Street the user-friendly entrance.)

Perspective of Old Stock Exchange at Dock and Walnut Streets, March 24, 1915. (PhillyHistory.org)

Here, in Philadelphia, a few blocks from the city’s riverfront, facing the morning sun (the same that illuminated ancient Athens) stood Strickland’s masterpiece. Unlike his others Greek Revival buildings, this was no replica ripped from the pages of Antiquities of Athens. Here was a 3-D billboard of Greek features serving Philadelphia, here and now.

For the cupola, which pulled the entire project together, Strickland found inspiration in Stuart’s illustration of a 334 BC monument still very much standing on the streets of Athens. The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates was a self-congratulatory, 21-foot pedestal for a choral prize won at a performing arts competition, part of the same festival that produced the great dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Stuart and William Henry Playfair designed literal replicas in Staffordshire and Edinburgh. Here in Philadelphia, Strickland took great liberties with the design—and achieved very American results.

He moved the “monument” from street level to the roof. He blew it up to double the size of the original making a giant 40-foot-tall, 14 feet diameter skyline-defining structure. And instead of interpreting the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in stone for the ages, Strickland designed it in wood that he knew could last only a few decades. (It would be replaced about every sixty years.) Now, far from Europe, this Pop-Art scaled, archeologically correct, ephemeral monument would echo the past. But even more important, here above Philadelphia’s 1830s cityscape, this landmark would live very much in the moment.

East side of the Merchant Exchange Building, November 2, 1960. (PhillyHistory.org)

The Merchants Exchange, and, in particular, the tower at its eastern end, would become an essential element in a new, high-tech information network. Long before 1837, when Samuel F.B. Morse patented his telegraph (and way longer before anyone dreamed of the internet) Europeans and Americans had “optical telegraphs” capable of quickly transmitting coded messages over great distances. As early as 1807, the U.S. Congress had debated and eventually voted in favor of funding a 1,200 mile long chain of optical telegraph towers connecting New York and New Orleans – a project that fell by the wayside. But it wasn’t farfetched. More than a decade earlier, Claude Chappe’s invention, the “semaphore visual telegraph,” came to life in France as a 143-mile connection between Paris and Lille that would grow into a network of more than 500 towers across Europe extending 3,000 miles. In 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he envisioned extending the technology across the English Channel.

Merchants Exchange, looking east from above Third St., during construction of the 3rd cupola, 10/25/1964. (PhillyHistory.org)

So when American architect William Thornton envisioned connecting North and South America in 1800, the possibilities made level heads reel. Before long, American businessmen in Boston and New York had their own optical telegraph networks. By the time the Merchants Exchange was under construction, an optical telegraph in Boston tracked shipping, commerce and investments on a real-time basis.

“Time and distance are annihilated,” became the popular proclamation, a mantra of the 1830s.

No surprise, then, that the Merchant Exchange’s cupola high above Dock and Walnut Streets played triple duty: as a perch for clerks with telescopes identifying ships making their way to and from the Port of Philadelphia, as a place to send and receive messages flashing from New York across the plains of New Jersey, and the most lasting message of all: that Philadelphia had finally come into its own as a modern day version of ancient Athens.

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A Long-Lost Monument to Philadelphia’s Iron Age

The W. W. & R.S. Stevens Architectural Foundry and Iron Works, northwest corner of 9th Street and Montgomery Ave., May 19, 1902. (PhillyHistory.org)

“The period from the Civil War into the new century saw the transformation of Philadelphia into an industrial giant. … The impact of this explosion of industry and technology almost obliterated Penn’s green country town…in a smog of steam and smoke, of endless gridirons of workers housing, of railroads and factories, freight yards and warehouses. It was Philadelphia’s Iron Age.”

So begins a chapter of the same name in Philadelphia: A 300 Year History. As the 19th century progressed, Philadelphia’s “Iron Age” would be increasingly evident to anyone with imagination, but especially to architects, engineers and “practical mechanics.”

As early as 1826, when everyone else was applauding the new canal culture, William Strickland believed the railways promised much more. He was ahead of his time. So was architect John Haviland, who, even earlier, imagined cities entirely made of the stuff. “The improvement and general introduction of cast iron bids fair to create a totally new school of architecture. It has already been occasionally employed in bridges, pillars, roofs, floors, chimneys, doors, and windows, and the facility with which is moulded into different shapes will continue to extend its application.”

By the middle of the century, advocates of industry like Edwin T. Freedley shrugged with confidence: “Philadelphia is situated in the district entitled to be called the centre of the Iron production of the United States.” A decade earlier, local rolling mills had produced about 5,000 tons of iron annually. Now, just after the Civil War, production had ramped up to 30,000 tons. In the same years, production of pig iron nearly doubled from 400,000 tons to more than 770,000. The time when iron meant “nails, screws, bolts, tie rods and hardware,” as Henry Magaziner put it in his book The Golden Age of Ironwork, was over. Iron now meant the possibility of all kinds of design feats: “bridges, water towers, and greenhouses”—even “full cast iron facades” of entire city blocks, in whatever style. All of it would be prefabricated. And, even more impressive, all of it would be fireproof.

“Royer Brothers” column. Detail of “Northwest Corner, 9th Street and Montgomery Avenue, W.W. and R. S. Stevens Architectural Foundry and Iron Works, September 21, 1904.” (PhillyHistory.org)

Iron design, patents, production and construction began to transform city streets from New York to New Orleans. In the early 1850s, Philadelphia’s the first cast iron façade, The St. Charles Hotel on Third Street, tested the public appetite. By 1866, when the 4,400-ton cast-iron dome of the nation’s Capital in Washington, D.C., designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter, was declared “a masterpiece of American will and ingenuity” the way was clear: iron offered amazing architectural possibilities.

In North Philadelphia, the brothers Royer were ready. For a decade they had been honing skills at their Hope Foundry on 9th Street, above Poplar. Now, just as iron‘s grip took hold, they opened a new, expanded facility at 9th and Montgomery Avenue, “an extensive and complete Foundry for the production of Architectural Iron Work.” Four brothers: Alfred, Benjamin, J. Washington and William Royer, all “practical mechanics,” had made “Building Castings” their specialty. “They now employ fifty men,” wrote Freedley in 1867, “and have a good supply of orders some of considerable magnitude.”

The Royers cast iron features for the Seventh National Bank at 4th and Market Streets, the mansard-roofed Post Office at 9th and Market Street and McArthur’s David Jayne mansion at 19th and Chestnut Street. For Oak Hall, Wanamaker & Brown’s clothing store at 6th and Market Street, the Royer Brothers created a new, “massive and beautiful front…light and ornate,” which, according to Freedley, was “probably not equaled by any other Iron Front in Philadelphia.” The Royers’ reach extended to commissions in reading and Pittsburgh and, within a few years, they would cast the façade for the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware.

By the 1890s, John S. Stevens took over the foundry at 9th and Montgomery. But the Royer name—and the Royer brand—would remain prominent on both the foundry’s sign and on the cast-iron column that stood for decades at the corner.

A long-lost monument to Philadelphia’s Iron Age.

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