A Brief History of St. Francis de Sales – The Cathedral of West Philadelphia (Part 1)

St. Francis de Sales, 47th Street and Springfield Avenue, January 14, 1963.

St. Francis de Sales, 47th Street and Springfield Avenue, January 14, 1963.

In 1980, Eugene Ormandy was ready to retire from his long tenure as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.  For his last recording with the “Fabulous Philadelphians,” the octogenarian conductor decided to make a big splash with a rendition of the Symphony #3 in C major, opus 78 by Camille Saint-Saens.

Instead of using Academy of Music as his recording venue, he chose a grand church in West Philadelphia: St. Francis de Sales at 47th and Springfield Avenue that was renewed for its fine French-style C.S. Haskell organ and its magnificent acoustics. Known also as “The Cathedral of West Philadelphia” and named after the patron saint of writers and journalists, St. Francis de Sales had the second largest pipe organ in the Delaware Valley, surpassed only by the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Center City, arguably the largest musical instrument in the world.  The instrument was also of the 19th century French type, which made it well suited to the flamboyant French Romantic repertoire of Saint-Saens and his contemporaries.

Why a French organ?  The church’s original choir director, Albert Dooner, was a close friend of the French-Belgian organist Cesar Franck, and its music program had long been one of the best in Philadelphia.  It took several days for technicians to prepare the instruments for the demands of Saint-Saens’ masterpiece, including retuning the pipes to standard pitch. The police closed the surrounding streets so that the “Fabulous Philadelphians” could work their magic without the distraction of honking cars and squealing trolleys in the background.


St. Francis de Sales parish was founded on May 14, 1890 by a group of Irish and German immigrants seeking a foothold in what was then suburban West Philadelphia.  After several years of residing in temporary quarters at 49th and Woodland Avenue, the parish’s second pastor, Michael J. Crane, declared that he would build a church where “the soul would be lifted up to exultation; an edifice in which the liturgy would be carried out in all its mystical beauty.”

In 1908, Archbishop Edmond Francis Prendergast laid the cornerstone for the new building at the intersection of 47th Street and Springfield Avenue.  Designed by prominent liturgical architect Henry Dandurand Dagit (1865-1929) – who had made a name for himself as a church designer for the Archdiocese of Trenton–the Byzantine Revival structure took three years to complete.  It was topped a dome of Guastavino tile (known today as “subway tile”) that had no system of internal bracing, and its nave was illuminated by stained glass from the D’Ascenzo studios.

St. Francis de Sales was arguably Dagit’s crowning achievement.  He lavished uncommon care on its design and construction, in no small part because he and his family lived within the parish boundaries.  Although well versed in historic styles, Dagit wanted to give a modern twist to his churches.   St. Francis de Sales, although inspired by the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, was not a slavish copy of an historical model.  Along with the traditional glass mosaics and marble statuary, Dagit added modern touches such as rows of electric light bulbs along the cornices and archways, as well as an ornate “electrolier” light fixture that hovered above the altar. By using modern construction techniques such as reinforced concrete, Dagit created as open a floor plan as possible, to ensure maximum visibility of the altar for the congregation.  “Some will no doubt criticize the author for the liberty taken in rendering Churches free of the obstructing columns in the nave,” Dagit wrote, “but this is necessary eight hundred years ago to design a church with a long nave and interior columns…Certain it is that we are a people of strong convictions and that we must stamp upon the world’s history progress and not imitation.”

The building’s grandeur was made possible by both the size and the wealth of the parish.  The original boundaries of St. Francis de Sales stretched from 42nd to 52nd Street east to west, and from Market Street all the way down to modern-day Lindbergh Boulevard north to south. Some were successful first and second generation businessmen and professionals, who lived in the big Victorian twin houses that lined Springfield, Chester, and Baltimore Avenues.  Among the well-to-do parishioners were oyster house owner James Cooney of 4814 Regent Street, who donated the imposing main altar in memory of his wife.  Jean-Baptiste Revelli, the assistant manager of the Bellevue Stratford Hotel and resident of 4609 Cedar Avenue, donated the funds for one of the stained glass windows. James P. McNichols, who resided with his extended family in a clutch of three story houses on the 4600 block of Hazel Avenue, was owner of a construction firm that built the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Market Street subway tunnel.  He paid for an altar dedicated to St. Anastasia, the namesake of his late wife.   There was at least one figure of national prominence who assisted in the construction effort: General St. Clair Mulholland, an Irish-American Civil War veteran and first Catholic police chief of Philadelphia, who resided at 4202 Chester Avenue. Yet most of the parishioners were the tradesmen, mechanics, and shopkeepers who occupied more modest dwellings on the side streets, as well as the domestics (mostly Irish) who did the cooking and cleaning in the neighborhood’s big houses.

The Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, 1904.

The Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, 1904.

After facing decades of discrimination and violence, by the early 1900s Philadelphia’s burgeoning Roman Catholic population had truly arrived in terms of power and influence. St. Francis de Sales was the brick-and-mortar manifestation of a Gilded Age confidence.  The human manifestation of this spirit was Pastor Michael J. Crane (1863-1928), who spearheaded the construction of this magnificent church soon after he took charge of the parish.  Crane knew Dagit’s work well: he had served as rector of St. Malachy’s Church in Trenton, also designed by the architect in his trademark Byzantine revival style.  An imposing, dark-haired man with bushy eyebrows and a piercing gaze, Crane insisted that no expense would be spared on his new church. “The design is Romanesque with Byzantine details,” he wrote in a book published by the Dagit firm. “The exterior will be of marble with Indiana limestone trimmings.  On either side of the main doorway will be two corner towers with large doorways flanked by polished granite columns.  The interior of the church will be imposing. The nave will be sixty-two feet wide and will be vaulted with faience polychrome sculptured terra cotta arches, on which will rest the Gaustavino (sic) vaults.”  He specified an elaborate ornamentation and sculpture plan: a glass mosaic of the “Resurrection” under the rose window, a marble mosaic of Saint Francis de Sales just above the main altar, and emblems of the four evangelists floating above the main crossing.

 To be continued…

For a look into the life of the MacMurtrie family and St. Francis de Sales Parish in the 1920s, click here for a PhillyHistory.org article dated June 28, 2010.


Ron Avery, “Their Tradition Is Built to Last Dagits: A Family of Architecture,” The Philadelphia Daily News, October 30, 1995. http://articles.philly.com/1995-10-30/news/25693182_1_philadelphia-architects-catholic-church-sons

1890-2015, St. Francis de Sales Parish, United by the Most Blessed Sacrament, pp.10, 12, 14, collection of St. Francis de Sales Parish, courtesy of Michael Nevadomski.

Henry D. Dagit, Architect, collection of Paul H. Rogers, p.43.

Interview of Michael Nevadomski, Sacristan, St. Francis de Sales Church, September 6, 2016.



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Cracking America’s Ice Addiction

Near 21st and Hamilton, December 17, 1898 (PhillyHistory.org)

Keystone Setting, East Portal of the Tunnel near 21st and Hamilton Streets, December 17, 1898 (PhillyHistory.org)

Because they could, the American Ice Company encased Old Glory in a 5-ton slab of ice, propped it up on a wagon and hauled it down Broad Street. Delighted spectators at the Founder’s Week Industrial Parade cheered the chilly float, awed at the impressive chunk from the same glacier that supplied their own kitchens. Many customers would buy as much as 5 tons before the year was out—50 pounds at a time—and they’d buy as much again in 1909. And yet again in 1910.

America had an ice addiction.

A good place to start: 6th and Market Streets in the 1780s, where the Presidents House had an 18-foot-deep, stone-lined, octagonal ice pit providing the elite with pristine river ice, all year round. By the late 1820s, Philadelphia’s appetite had grown to more than 19 tons per day, or about 7,000 tons every year, more than could be cut from the Schuylkill River, even venturing as far upstream as Norristown. In the 1830s, the city’s major ice harvester, Knickerbocker, searched out sources along the Perkiomen Creek, up the Lehigh River, anywhere cold met water. And when those sources fell short during unseasonably warm winters, they packed ice in schooners and shipped it down from Maine.

By the 1840s Philadelphians used 30 tons of ice—every day. Ice harvesters cut as much as they could, imported the rest and stored aggressively, anticipating warm winters and hot summers. Knickerbocker’s icehouses in Maine held 400,000 tons from the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers.

Delaware Avenue - Knickerbocker Ice Company Whaft, September 29, 1899, detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

Delaware Avenue – Knickerbocker Ice Company Whaft, September 29, 1899, detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

The addiction grew even more intense. In 1880, each and every Philadelphian consumed 1,500 pounds. Eighty-one companies employed nearly 1,300 who kept the city chilled with 500 ice-filled, horse-drawn wagons. Still, demand outgrew supply.

Until “artificial ice.” Pennsylvania had five plants by 1889. Thirty years later, it had over 200.

Knickerbocker’s at 22nd and Hamilton and 9th and Washington were said to be the largest in the world. And they had another facility along the Schuylkill at Spruce Street. There seemed no end to the supply or the demand. Between 1880 and 1914 American ice consumption more than tripled.

What an opportunity for a monopoly, for the creation of an “Ice Trust” merging Knickerbocker and others into the grandly-named American Ice Company in 1899. The following April, American Ice doubled prices in New York City, paving the way by bribing elected officials. Distraught citizens heckled their mayor with cries of “Ice! Ice! Ice!” Next election, they froze him out of office.

As Philadelphians awaited the announcement of their price hike, an Inquirer reporter interviewed an American Ice official. He hedged: “Prices for the coming summer have not been fixed yet, and if I were to hazard a guess I would not know whether to say they were going up or going down.”

“‘But that is all bosh,’ declared the ice factory superintendent,” who saw no reason to increase prices in Philadelphia: “In New York there is practically no competition. Here in Philadelphia there is plenty of it. Outside of the Knickerbocker Company there are four independent natural ice companies capable of furnishing an almost unlimited supply if called upon to do so. … I can name no less than twelve artificial ice companies already in operation… having a capacity of 360 tons per day, almost ready to begin. Of the artificial ice companies output the trust controls probably thirty per cent. So you see, the trust hasn’t everything its own way here, as it has in New York, and there will be no doubling up on prices, I assure you.”

Haddonfield Ice Plant Wagon at Finnesey & Kobler, Brown and 27th Sts. (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

Haddonfield Ice Plant Wagon, Finnesey & Kobler, “The Model Shop,” Brown and 27th Streets (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

But prices did rise. It wasn’t so much a matter of supply as it was a matter of power. The Ice Trust and its successors had it, would keep it and would wield it. That is, until the electric refrigerator short circuited their vast, frozen empire.

[Sources: Vertie Knapp, “The Natural Ice Industry of Philadelphia in the Nineteenth Century,” Pennsylvania History, Vol. 41, No. 4 (October, 1974); Jonathan Rees, Refrigeration Nation A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013); “No Advance in Price of Ice – Philadelphia Will Not Follow New York’s Example,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 12, 1900; “New Ice Making Plant in the “City of Brotherly Love,” Industrial Refrigeration, Vol. 6. Nickerson & Collins, 1894, pp. 13-16.]

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The Iceman Leaveth

Frigidaire Electric Refrigerator Exhibit at the Sesqui-Centennial, 1926. (PhillyHistory.org)

“This Modern Ice Man Calls Once with Frigidaire,” Frigidaire Electric Refrigerator Exhibit at the Sesqui-Centennial, 1926. (PhillyHistory.org)

Frigidaire wanted to freeze the iceman out of America’s kitchens. To accomplish this, they literally took him on, appropriating the folksy icon of home delivery as the centerpiece of their lavish Art Deco display at Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Exposition. But instead of ice, this giant iceman statue had on his shoulder the final delivery – a new, compact electric refrigerator.

Four years earlier, the Inquirer had predicted the iceman’s demise, happily looking forward to relief from years of mopping up footprints and spill from overflow pans. The new, electric, “iceless refrigerator,” they said, “spelled doom for the iceman.” Soon he would be “an [extinct] species; a veritable Dodo…”

Dethroning Big Ice wouldn’t come fast, or easy.

In Philadelphia, one major ice company, Knickerbocker, had massive plants, one with 125 employees and storage capacity for a million tons throughout the city. With the help of 1,200 horses and mules, Knickerbocker drivers kept more than 500 delivery wagons mobile on the streets. At the start of the 20th century, America seemed to need every last one its 1,320 ice plants. And the nation’s iceboxes multiplied. Between 1889 and 1919, the the value iceboxes manufactured in the United States increased from $4.5 million to $26 million.

Eventually, electric refrigeration would become bigger, but not as long as their cost remained high and their performance poor. In 1920, a household refrigerator cost $600 (more than $7,500 in today’s dollars) and broke down about every tenth week.

Then the price point dropped and reliability increased. In addition, utilities recognized the potential goldmine in household refrigeration. Since units were always running, and consumed far more electricity than any other appliance, home refrigeration could more than double their revenues. Realizing that, electric utilities didn’t leave marketing and sales up to the manufacturers. By the mid- 1920s, they were selling nearly a third of all new electric refrigerators.

Caption (PhillyHistory.org)

Frigidaire Electric Refrigerator Exhibit, Sesquicentennial Exposition, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

That’s the decade Frigidaire, a subsidiary of General Motors, also engaged in aggressive, creative and even whimsical marketing—and became America’s refrigerator of choice.

“How do you do, Mrs. Prospect?” Frigidaire’s door-to-door sales script began in 1923. Once in the kitchen, the salesmen would take the temperature of the family’s ice box. “Mrs. Prospect,” continued the pitch, “we find that the average ice box maintains a temperature of about 55 degrees, and I think you will agree with me that this will keep food properly for only a short time.” But, the salesman proceeded, now sharing his thermometer with the housewife, “the temperature in your refrigerator is —— degrees. This is slightly warmer than I expected. If you had Frigidaire, the temperature would certainly be —— degrees colder than you now have in your icebox. . . . Won’t you please talk this matter over with your husband tonight as, in all probability; I or one of our men will call upon him tomorrow afternoon and tell him the benefits of owning a Frigidaire.”

Between 1920 and 1925, the number of refrigerators in American kitchens rose from 4,000 to 75,000. In 1926 they boomed to 248,000 units and by 1928, 468,000. The following year, Frigidaire manufactured its millionth refrigerator. By 1930, the sales of electric household refrigerators surpassed those of iceboxes.

In the middle of the Great Depression, Americans still cleaned up after 350,000 ice boxes. They had also grown accustomed to to the hum and chugging of 1.7 million plugged-in refrigerators. By 1940, 63 percent of all households had refrigerators—13.7 million of them. Four years later, 85 percent of America’s kitchens were equipped. As Jonathan Rees, author of Refrigeration Nation put it: “the electric household refrigerator symbolized modernity. When filled with food, it symbolized abundance.” And after World War II, when just about every kitchen had one, the increased size of the American refrigerator conveyed another prized status—prosperity.

By 1953, when the last U.S. icebox manufacturer went out of business, the young, virile delivery man carrying dripping, often dirty, blocks of ice into millions of clean American kitchens, the man whose proximity to wives and daughters fueled countless rumors, would-be scandals and jokes on stage and screen, that man, the iceman, finally found a new home—and new purpose—in nostalgia purgatory.

[Sources: Jonathan Rees, Refrigeration Nation A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013); “The Newest Ideas of Invention and Industry: The Passing of the Iceman,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 17, 1922; Frank Hamilton Taylor, The City of Philadelphia (Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, 1900); W.C. Fields, The Dentist, (Film, 1932).]

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Philadelphia’s Spiral Standpipe: A Monument to Industry, Innovation and . . . History

West Philadelphia Standpipe near 33rd St. and Fairmount Ave. (PhillyHistory.org)

The Standpipe at its second location at the Spring Garden Water Works, near 33rd and Master Sts., after 1882. (PhillyHistory.org)

Standpipe Rease (LCP)

Standpipe for West Philadelphia Water Works, (35th St. and Fairmount Ave.) Lithograph by Rease & Schell, ca. 1853. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

In a quirky burst of engineering, aesthetics and memory in the middle of the 19th-century, Philadelphia built itself a great, 130-foot spiral column. The idea was complicated and ambitious: provide water pressure for the emerging neighborhood of Mantua with a standpipe wrapped in an ornate, circular staircase topped off with a 17-foot wide public viewing platform and, above that, a 16-foot statue of George Washington. Everything would be custom engineered, locally-manufactured, and, except for the base, in cast iron.

Engineers Henry P.M. Birkinbine and Edward H. Trotter drove the scenario that saw the “fairy like” Gothic structure to completion. “Eight cluster columns opposite each angle of the stone base support…a railing of Gothic scrollwork,” read one official report. “The upper platform, surrounded by a Gothic railing, is sustained by ornamental brackets springing from the columns; these are continued above the platform, where, by flying buttresses, they are connected together, and to the standpipe, which is surmounted by a spire and a flag staff, the whole of iron except the base.” In the Fall of 1854, the 8-foot Gothic doorway at ground level was thrown open for the public to venture up the 172 narrow steps, following “the continuous Gothic scroll railing” and enjoy the spectacular view of the growing city.

By then, the Washington statue had fallen by the wayside.

The Father of His Country was being taken care of elsewhere. Philadelphia long had its wooden Washington at Independence Hall, carved by William Rush in 1815. Baltimore installed its statue-capped column in 1829. Congress commissioned Horatio Greenough to sculpt a 12-ton, white marble, bare-chested emperor, installed at the Capitol rotunda in 1841. Washington, D.C. also had its long-in-progress Washington Monument, which had declared bankruptcy the year Philadelphia built its standpipe. (The national monument wouldn’t be completed until 1888.) All of these were done, more than less, in the classical style, with classical materials. Philadelphia’s standpipe had its models in ancient Rome’s venerable columns for Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, monuments with spiral stone steps on the inside and spiral stone friezes on the outside. But something in addition to the Classical Revival was in play here.

Philadelphians of the mid-19th century recognized technology and expansion afforded an unprecedented opportunity to leap beyond Old World models and explore up-to-date materials—and ways to deploy them for grand effect. Above its 35-foot stone pedestal, the standpipe reached new heights utilizing “modern” cast iron. Here, expressed in honest and contemporary forms soon to become part of everyday life, was evidence of Philadelphia’s burgeoning engineering culture.

By the 1850s, Philadelphia’s engineers had come to appreciate “excellence of material, solidity, an admirable fitting of the joints, a just proportion and arrangement of the parts, and a certain thoroughness and genuineness.” These are the qualities, wrote Edwin T. Freedley, “that pervaded the machine work executed in Philadelphia, and distinguished it from all other American-made machinery.” But in the standpipe we see more than pure engineering, we see an engineering aesthetic spilling over into the mainstream.

Sure, the London-published Civil Engineer & Architect’s Journal profiled the standpipe. But so did Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, a popular national magazine of the day, whose editors presented an illustrated feature in the Spring of 1853. “When completed,” they promised, “the structure will form one of the most notable curiosities… an object of much scientific interest.” For both engineers and the general public.

It would take a few more decades before this sort of thinking would collide with the imagination of an architectural genius. As we noted previously, Frank Furness grabbed ahold of Philadelphia’s “industrial repertoire” and conducted daring feats of “structural panache.” A glance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fisher Fine Arts Library of 1890 confirms what Philadelphia’s leaders, engineers in body and in spirit, had come to relish in the world they manufactured.

That world, history constantly reminds us, was very much an everchanging one. Meant to be a stand-in, the standpipe became obsolete after a reservoir that took more funds and time, came online in another 15 years. (See the nearby Belmont Pumping Station.) The standpipe sat abandoned until the early 1880s, until, in yet another display of derring-do, engineers moved it in a single piece to the opposite side of the Schuylkill River, to the Spring Garden Water Works. There, too, permanence proved fleeting and fickle. Philadelphia’s spiral column, its monument to industry, innovation (and, yes) history, was last seen somewhere at the end of the 19th century. Its ultimate demise came without fanfare.

Meanwhile, in Rome, the standpipe’s ancient progenitors remain standing—two millennia and counting.

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Beyond Brinksmanship: Questioning our Urge to Preserve

Write a Caption (PhillyHistory.org)

United States Hose, 423 Buttonwood Street, 1960. (PhillyHistory.org)


“View of the United States Hose House & Apparatus, Philadelphia.” Northwest corner of 5th and Buttonwood Streets. Detail of lithograph, ca. 1851. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

About a year ago, we drew attention to the heyday of the “exuberant stylistic storm,” the “eclectic boom” of Philadelphia firehouses. So many were designed by so many talented Philadelphia architects. Yet so few survive. And that was the second wave of firehouse building, after 1871, when the city had an official fire department. (If you are interested in an overview of the issue, see Extant magazine for the Summer 2016 online at the Preservation Alliance, or read it here at Hidden City Daily.)

It wouldn’t have amounted to as much without the earlier glory days, when volunteer firefighter companies built their own halls, and staked out their own styles. The city was full of examples. Far more than sheds, these were symbols of civic power, statements intended to radiate good will, patriotism and good intent—so much so that the companies adopted those names. (All the better to distance themselves from the city’s younger, grittier and violent street gangs, who adopted names, by contrast, conveyed ill will.)

Fire companies were only a few rungs above gangs in the city’s expansive hierarchy of street politics. The firefighters also had their colors, insignia and banners. But more than gangs, they had their own buildings, clubhouses that projected civic and patriotic ambition. When fire companies organized their parades, they filled the city’s streets with exuberant patriotism not riotous chaos.

“Yesterday was a proud day for our noble hearted, indomitable, FIREMEN. It was a brilliant civic holy day,” boasted the Inquirer in 1849. “At an early hour, the bold and daring fellows begin to prepare for the celebration of the day, and ever and anon they were to be seen wending their way, with elastic step and manly bearing, to their respective houses.” No matter that the weather was cold and stormy, these “gallant men, who are always ready to stop the progress of devastating flames” were ready to show themselves “to good advantage.” This triennial procession would be “a large, imposing and magnificent spectacle” the likes of which the city had not quite seen.

Firefighters carried white silk banners, wore elegant hats with painted allegories, black hats and black capes. Companies had their ornately painted equipment pulled by teams of grey horses, or black horses, done up with wreaths and garlands. Popular marching bands filled the air with music. One of the oldest companies, Assistance Engine, had its 49 members dressed in blue hats, capes and white coats followed by the engine “drawn by four black horses, led by four colored grooms in Turkish dress.” Right behind them marched the 60 sharply-dressed members and brand new carriage of United States Hose, the company founded on the nation’s fiftieth birthday in 1826.

“Gratitude was eloquent in the smiling welcome and the hearty admiration which greeted the Firemen on every hand and from every quarter, from the aged and the youthful, the beautiful and the gay.” Public and Press praised “the taste displayed in the adornment of the engines, hose carriages, banners, trumpets, & c.—the elegance of the rosettes” and flowers.

Even during the Civil War, amidst news of casualties that dampened spirits United States Hose couldn’t resist an Independence Day blowout. Their Buttonwood Street quarters “was splendidly decorated during the day and evening with flags and transparencies. Early in the morning a flag was raised on the house with some ceremony, during which a patriotic speech was made by Mr. Graff. A transparency containing the words: “the United States,” was erected on the roof of the house. Thirty-four small white flags, containing the names of all the states in the Union were flying from the front of the building. Banners, representations of American shields, and the large number of variegated lanterns, also adorned the front of the house. A large flag was stretched across the street.”

United States Fire Company, 1960. Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

United States Hose, 423 Buttonwood Street, 1960. Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

Beck’s Band was engaged and occupied the balcony of the Hose House from early in the morning until dark, enlivening the neighborhood with music. A silver horn, worth $150, was presented to the company during the day. The presentation speech was made by John P. Weaver. The company housed a new carriage in the morning, and had of fine collation spread during the whole day, of which some 1600 persons, including a large number of ladies, partook. During the evening the house was brilliantly illuminated.”

The headquarters of United States Hose lasted about another century, somewhere into the 1960s. By now, each and almost every last one of the city’s original fire companies and hose houses are gone. (Do we even have an idea of what remains?) Living up to their names: Good Intent, Vigilant, Perseverance, Hand-in-Hand, Harmony, Reliance, Assistance, Humane and Independence, they kept the city standing.

Will the same be said of us?

[Sources consulted from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Firemen’s Triennial Parade,” March 28, 1849 and “The Fourth among the Fireman,” July 5, 1862.]

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The Rise and Fall of PhillyPalladian

Some say Andrea Palladio invented it. Others claim it was first published by Sebastiano Serlio who had borrowed it from one or another master of the Italian Renaissance: Raphael, Peruzzi, Bramante or Scamozzi—or maybe all of them. The architectural feature that’s been called the Palladian Window, the Venetian Window and the Serlian Motif went viral in the 1500s and never lost its grip on designers looking to make a strong statement in masonry, woodwork and light.

Nearly a half a millennium ago, Palladio designed Villa Poiana in Northern Italy. His Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza, of 1549 exerted its power both on the street and in print.  More than an appealing form, here rose a trope that drew on a special power: the image of the triumphal arches in ancient Rome.

No wonder found it so appealing, and so handy.

And no wonder England adopted the Palladian window as it morphed into an empire. “Ubiquitous” is the word. Colin Campbell illustrated in Vitruvius Britannicus (1715-25) some one dozen buildings using the device. In his A Book of Architecture, James Gibbs showed an equal number of plates of building schemes incorporating this three-part feature, including the rear elevation of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.” Nicholas Hawksmoor featured the window at Codrington Library at All Souls College, Oxford. And that was a century-and-a-quarter after Inigo Jones featured it into his Queen’s Chapel at Saint James Palace.

Then, the “pattern books of James Gibbs, Batty Langley, William Pain, and others” assured “that the Palladian arch was transported to 18th-century America.” But why such a warm welcome in Philadelphia? It seemed more than merely inviting the southern sun to stream into the new State House. Maybe the Palladian window expressed in masonry, woodwork and glass what the poets had been waxing about so loud and clear—inside and out—that Philadelphia was destined to become the Athens of America? The Palladian window made appearances in many cities in the New World, but nowhere, it seems, more than in Philadelphia.

Independence Hall - Exterior Repairs - Painting South Entrance Exterior Painters, October 23, 1922 (PhillyHistory.org)

Independence Hall – Exterior Repairs – Painting South Entrance Exterior Painters, October 23, 1922 (PhillyHistory.org)

Here’s are what PhillyPalladians we could find, in chronological order:

Christ Church, Second Street, north of Market Street, 1727-1744.

State House (Independence Hall), Chestnut Street, between Fifth and Sixth Street, 1730-1748.

Saint Peters Church, Third and Pine Streets, 1758-1761.

Mount Pleasant, East Fairmount Park, 1761.

Port Royal, Frankford Avenue & Orthodox Street, 1761-1762.

Zion Lutheran Church, Fourth and Cherry Streets, 1766-1769.

Woodlands, 4000 Woodland Avenue, 1770.

Lemon Hill, East Fairmount Park, ca. 1770.

Woodford, East Fairmount Park, ca. 1772.

William Bingham House, 3rd and Spruce Streets, ca. 1788.

Presidents House, 9th and Chestnut Street, 1790.

Cooke’s Building, Third and Market Streets, ca. 1792.

Chestnut Street Theatre, Chestnut Street, east of Fifth Street, 1791-1794.

Saint Thomas African Episcopal Church, Fifth and Saint James Place, 1794.

Penn National Bank, Frank Furness, 7th and Market Streets, 1882.

Weisbrod and Hess Brewery, A.C. Wagner, Martha Street between York Street and E. Hagert Street, 1885.

Engine 37 Firehouse, John T. Windrim, 101 West Highland Avenue, Chestnut Hill, 1894.

Philadelphia City Hall (Tower) , Broad and Market Streets, John McArthur, Jr., 1890s.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street. Addison Hutton, 1910.

Firehouse #49,  1513 Snyder Avenue, 1911.

Yes, the Palladian window offered Philadelphians classical flair and an unmatched grand flavor. It fulfilled needs of all kinds: civic, religious, business and domestic. The PhillyPalladians upped the game for buildings until the last decades of the 19th century, when something happened. The Palladian window migrated from grandiose gesture to general design vocabulary. And ever since, what once called forth images of Empire, settled in as a somewhat fancier option  of letting in some light and air.

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July 14, 1948: Convention Hall’s Most Historic Moment

Convention Hall, undated. (PhillyHistory.org)

Convention Hall Auditorium, undated. (PhillyHistory.org)

Of all the things that happened here—appearances by Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela; performances by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead; boxing matches featuring Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier (his pro debut); Atlantic Ten Conference and Big Five basketball games; and concerts on the hall’s monster M.P. Moller pipe organ—of all of these events, and more, what would be the most memorable, the most worthy of being considered a great moment in history?

Civic Center’s 1931 Convention Hall Auditorium also hosted four national political conventions. The Democrats nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt for a second term there in 1936, and in 1940 the Republicans nominated Wendell Willkie. No earthshaking memories there. Then, in 1948, there came conventions of both major parties. Thomas Dewey left as the candidate for the GOP, and the Democrats confirmed their choice of Harry Truman after “a huge floor fight.”


What took place 68 years ago when the Democrats met is worth remembering—big time. The incumbent Truman hoped to sail to his first nomination unruffled. But in working out the party platform issues that would come to define the second half of the 20th century, drama intervened.

Late into the July Philadelphia night, in a proverbial smoke-filled room, Democratic leaders debated the planks of their platform. And the next day, the 37-year old mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, delivered the speech of a lifetime to a packed, tense, hall. It’s considered one of the top moments in American political convention history.

“Because good conscience, decent morality, demands it—I feel I must rise at this time to support…the great issue of civil rights,” declared Humphrey.

He later filled in the story of the night leading up to his speech. “All we knew was that we, a group of young liberals, had beaten the leadership of the party and led them closer to where they ought to have been… I had taken on our establishment and won. It was a heady feeling.” But some delegates reacted to Humphrey’s speech with significant grumbling on the convention floor.

Now let me say this at the outset that this proposal is made for no single region.” He continued: “Our proposal is made for no single class, for no single racial or religious group in mind. All of the regions of this country, all of the states have shared in our precious heritage of American freedom. All the states and all the regions have seen at least some of the infringements of that freedom—all people—get this—all people, white and black, all groups, all racial groups have been the victims at time[s] in this nation of—let me say—vicious discrimination.”

“We have made progress … But we must now focus the direction of that progress towards the… realization of a full program of civil rights to all.”

“Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise on the guarantees of …civil rights…” Humphrey’s handwritten addition on his typescript, seen in this .pdf of what he wrote and read that day, conveys raw exuberance. He added powerful phrases, made them extra-large, and emphasized them with single and double underlining.

“My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of Civil Rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this Civil-Rights program is an infringement on States’ Rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of States’ Rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of Human Rights. …This is the issue of the 20th century,” declared Humphrey.

“I ask you for a calm consideration of our historic opportunity. Let us do forget the evil passions and the blindness of the past. …we cannot and we must not turn from the path so plainly before us. …now is the time to recall those who were left on that path of American freedom.” …

“My good friends, I ask my Party, I ask the Democratic Party, to march down the high road of progressive democracy.”

A contingent of Southerners objected to the party’s position demanding anti-lynching laws, school integration, anti-discrimination in employment and universal access to restrooms.

NPR’s Ron Elving  later told what happened next: “The Mississippi delegation walked out in its entirety, about half of the Alabama delegation. About three dozen delegates in toto walked out of the convention and vowed to nominate their own Dixiecrat candidate for president, Strom Thurmond from South Carolina” with their own Dixiecrat platform. Knowing this, and knowing how the issue is still very much with us, it’s riveting to hear Humphrey’s delivery.

This wouldn’t be the first time, nor would it be the last, when a major, memorable speech on race and rights was set in Philadelphia, a place whose associations with freedom and independence always seem to flavor the rhetorical stew. Humphrey’s masterpiece—he never had another quite like it—ranks with other great oratorical moments on the subject in Philadelphia. They include presidential candidate Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union”speech delivered at the National Constitution Center in 2008. And we cannot forget another, by Angelina Grimké at the opening of Pennsylvania Hall in 1838. As Grimké spoke, Pennsylvania Hall was under siege by a mob opposing her convention’s anti-slavery position. And a few days later, they’d burn the building to the ground.

The 1948 the drama looked different, but the confrontation about civil rights as human rights was eerily similar.

Convention Hall, Vincent Feldman, date.

Demolition of Convention Hall in 2005. Photographed by Vincent Feldman.

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The Randolph Mill Fire: Disaster, Indignation and Recognition

Randolph Mill and Pennsylvania Hosiery Mill in 1879. Hexamer General Survey, vol. 15 (GeoHistory Network/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Randolph Mill and Pennsylvania Hosiery Mill in 1879. (Between 5th St. and Randolph St., north of Columbia, now Cecil B. Moore Ave.) Hexamer General Survey, vol. 15 (GeoHistory Network/Free Library of Philadelphia)

The two front doors on Randolph Street were locked tight. They said this was “partly to keep intruders out, and partly to keep the male hands in” during work hours. You know, to “prevent their slipping around the corner to get a drink.” Worst of all, in spite of the three-year-old law requiring fire escapes, the five-story mill building had not a one.

On the night of October 12, 1881, when fire struck Landenberger’s Dress Goods Manufactory, destruction multiplied into horror and death.

A little before 10pm, neighbors heard the “shrieks of agony and despair…issuing from the building.” They looked to the windows on the third and fourth floors to see “the forms of men and women gesticulating frantically and screaming for aid, their retreat being cut off and the flames sweeping around them.”

“Don’t jump,” someone on the ground shouted. “We will get ladders.”

The fire spread faster. As an eyewitness described it, “the first thing we knew, down came a girl, and then another and another. When the first was picked up it was found that she had broken her back over the railing of the iron steps. The next leaped from the fourth story and was crushed out of shape upon the pavement. And so the work of desperation went on until nearly a score of victims had been cruelly and in most cases fatally injured.”

Mattie Conlan was somewhat luckier, “let down by a shawl from the third story window.” The smoke “rising round her and the flames streaming upward”—and she let go. Conlan’s injuries weren’t fatal. Kate Schaeffer and Annie Brady “jumped hand-in-hand from the third floor window. Brady died instantly.

What became of the 35 others working the night shift? According to newspaper reports, no one even knew exactly who they were. “Landenberger’s people positively refused to furnish the list of those who were in the building when the fire broke out.” And without a list, loved ones were at loose ends: angry, confused, and grieving.

Looking West from 5th and Cecil B. Moore St. to Randolph St., October 19, 1934 (PhillyHistory.org)

Looking West from 5th and Columbia, now Cecil B. Moore Avenue to Randolph Street, October 19, 1934 (PhillyHistory.org)

The following morning, as the coroner searched the ruins, relatives “begged pathetically to be allowed to enter the building and look for missing husbands or sons.” Five victims were retreived that day, including the 16-year old Elizabeth Franck, who had lived with her family at 1706 Waterloo Street. Her funeral services would be held at St. Jacob’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3rd and Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore). “Six young ladies clad in white” were Lizzie Franck’s pallbearers.

Even two days after the fire, searchers worked all day looking for bodies— “but discovered none.” James McMunn’s wife waited nearby, sadly watching. So was Joseph Glazer’s mother. Annie Straub’s brothers looked on “with anxious hearts.”

At the morgue, George Matheson barely recognized the body and polka dot blue and white dress of his 15-year old daughter, Mary. He had her remains transferred home to 1419 Hope Street. Later the same day, authorities sent by a contingent by “to see whether the body was not really that of the missing Annie Straub.” Matheson angrily turned them away, refusing access to Mary’s body. What he expected was a visit by Charles Landenberger who, Matheson snapped to a reporter, “might have come to see the family, as any gentleman would have done.”

“The feeling around the neighborhood was intense, and many people, while they unreservedly condemned the owner of the building, Joseph Harvey,” they also challenged Landenberger’s denials of culpability. He knew the upper floors were dangerous. He claimed to have urged Harvey, time and time again, to install fire escapes. So, they asked, “Why did he send so many people up there to work?

Surrounding streets filled up with expressions of distress. “Knots of employees of other mills were grouped here and there earnestly discussing the sad event, and strongly denouncing the false economy which failed to provide suitable means of escape from the burned mill.”

“Popular sentiment, urged on by the atrocity of this case, with its ugly exposure of indifference to human life and human suffering and sorrow” led to the organization of an “indignation meeting.” About 600 people crowded onto the lot adjacent to “the scene of slaughter” at Randolph and Columbia.

The coroner’s inquest into the fire and the nine deaths it caused produced an undisputed verdict: “…the fire was caused by the improperly constructed and inefficiently managed apparatus for lighting the building; …Joseph Harvey, owner of the mills, is criminally responsible for the loss of life, in neglecting to furnish proper means of escape in case of fire; …the city of Philadelphia is responsible for not enforcing the laws in compelling Joseph Harvey to erect proper fire-escapes.”

In fact, the Randolph Mill Fire turned out to be a pivotal disaster. A specially appointed committee of the Franklin Institute examined technologies and design possibilities for fire escapes and elevators and, as historian Sara Wermiel tells us, made “farsighted recommendations” leading to “an important advance in the field of life safety.”

So, PhillyHistory people, we ask ourselves: Do we remember and recognize any of this at the site today?

[Sources Include: Sara E. Wermiel, “No Exit: The Rise and Demise of the Outside Fire Escape,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 258-284; “Report of Committee of the Franklin Institute on Fire-Escapes and Elevators,” The Journal of the Franklin Institute, (Philadelphia, 1881), pp. 408-414; and in The Philadelphia Inquirer:  “Another Horror. Fatal Result of a Mill Fire,” October 13, 1881; “A Holocaust. The Mill Fire Disaster,” October 14, 1881; “Around the Ruins,” October 14, 1881; “At the Hospitals. How the Wounded Are Faring,” October 14, 1881; The Man-Trap. More About the Mill Disaster,” October 15, 1881; “Last Week’s Horror. The Disaster and Its Results,” October 17, 1881.]

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A Would-Be Disaster Design Solution: The Iron Skeleton Fire Escape

Front Elevations of 102-104 N Water Street, February 14, 1918 (PhillyHistory.org)

Front Elevations of 102-104 N. Water Street, February 14, 1918 (PhillyHistory.org)

How to safely exit a building on fire? The fire escape, of course.

But what about before law required the familiar “iron skeleton fire escape”? In the greater part of the 19th century, when fire struck in the rising city, urbanites were at the mercy of fate. On more than one occasion, Philadelphia’s garret sweatshops and New York’s tenements went up in flames. Those trapped inside the upper stories perished in “galleries of certain death.”

Inventors heeded the call. In March 1849, the Franklin Institute exhibited for public admiration the model for “a very ingenious contrivance,” a “new fire-escape.” No word as to how it might save lives, or if it ever did. Nor do we know exactly how many such contrivances, either ingenious or ridiculous, promised the trapped and doomed freedom to walk, jump or even fly to safety. But, as we saw in the case of Philadelphia’s Deadliest Fire, even after buildings were equipped with exterior iron fire escapes, they sometimes contributed to fatal disasters.

Philadelphia passed an ordinance creating a fire-escape regulatory board in 1876 and endowed it with the authority to order their installation “upon such buildings as they may deem necessary… to secure life and property.” Three years later, Pennsylvania passed a sweeping law declaring that any building “three or more stories in height, shall be provided with a permanent, safe external means of escape therefrom in cases of fire.”

The list of seemed comprehensive: “Every building used as a seminary, college, academy, hospital, asylum, or a hotel for the accommodation of the public, every storehouse, factory, manufactory, workshop of every kind, in which employees or operatives are usually employed at work in the third or higher story, every tenement house or building in which rooms or floors are usually let to lodgers or families, and every public school building.”  But somehow the 1879 list missed theatres. No problem, historian Sara Wermeil tells us, that mistake was corrected in 1885.

Pasquale Nigro, Fire Escape, U.S. Patent filed, May 15,1908. (GooglePatent)

Pasquale Nigro, Fire Escape, U.S. Patent filed, May 15,1908. (GooglePatent)

Benjamin B. Oppenheimer, Fire-Escape. No. 221,855. Patented Nov; 18, 1879 (Google Patent)

Benjamin B. Oppenheimer,
Improvement in Fire-Escapes.
No. 221,855. Patented Nov; 18, 1879 (Google Patent)

But to some, a greater mistake lay in the assumption that the exterior iron fire escape would be effective. According to Wermeil, Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan “condemned the ‘iron ladders clamped against the wall’ as ‘worse than useless, because they are deceptive; giving the appearance of an escape without the reality.’” They were, he wrote in 1868, “‘a most stupid contrivance’ because women, children, the aged and the disabled could not use them. With fires lapping out the window, he asked, ‘would not those balconies be turned into gridirons to roast the unhappy victims?’”

Sloan’s preference? Wall off internal stairwells with iron doors—a solution that became standard, but not until the 20th century.

Building owners and landlords took advantage of inadequate compliance and enforcement. A full decade after passage of the 1879 law, “the lives of fully 100,000 children are in danger,” reported the Inquirer. “City Councils have failed to obey the laws plainly lay down by the legislature of Pennsylvania. There are over 113,000 school children in Philadelphia distributed among 262 schoolhouses. Only 17 of these buildings are provided with fire escapes…  The remaining 245 schoolhouses, with over 100,000 pupils, are totally without any means of escape in case of fire.”

Frankford Elevated - Site of Bent 16 - 208 North Front Street , April 2, 1919 (PhillyHistory.org)

Frankford Elevated – Site of Bent 16 – 208 North Front Street , April 2, 1919 (PhillyHistory.org)

No surprise, really. Compliance failures continued for decades, as we know from the landmark disaster at the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, which killed 145 New Yorkers in less than half an hour.

Did Philadelphia somehow manage to avoid such a pivotal and devastating event? Hardly. We recently recalled the Market Street fire of 1901, where 22 died. And a full thirty years before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Philadelphia endured the tragic and scandalous Randolph Mill fire.

[Sources Include: Sara E. Wermiel, “No Exit: The Rise and Demise of the Outside Fire Escape,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 258-284; “The Model of a New Fire-escape,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 26, 1849; “Tenement Traps,” The New York Times, February 4, 1860; “The City’s Safety, Annual Meeting of the Board of Fire Commissioners. Report of the Chief,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 11, 1880; “Schools Not Protected,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 7, 1889.]

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Philadelphia’s Deadliest Fire

12th and Market Streets - Hunt-Wilkinson Company, 5-Alarm Fire. 22 Killed. (PhillyHistory.org)

12th and Market Streets – Hunt-Wilkinson Company, 5-Alarm Fire. 22 Killed. (PhillyHistory.org)

Walls of the Hunt, Wilkinson & Company furniture emporium came tumbling down the morning of October 25th, 1901. By lunchtime, firefighters declared the conflagration of the 8-story, 14-year-old building at 1219–1221 Market Street under control.

Twenty-two were dead, ranking this as Philadelphia’s deadliest fire.

Yet it’s missing from the top “25 Most Deadly Building Fires in America,” a list that recalls the 1908 Rhoads Opera House disaster in Boyertown, PA which killed 171. (That ranks #8.) Philadelphia’s 1901 fire had the same number of casualties as the Detroit’s Study Club dance hall disaster of 1929, the 24th worst disaster.

“Never in its history has Philadelphia experienced a fire which spread with such great rapidity,” reported the Inquirer. Never before were so many victims “speeded through gates of eternity,” reported the Atlanta Constitution.

“Rows of charred bodies at the morgue, a score of homes made desolate, a gaunt pile of twisted, steaming ruins on Market street between Twelfth and Thirteenth, are monuments to a fire” that was “swift as a whirlwind, sickening in its horrors.”

First responders were quick, “but the flames were quicker.” The fire rose quickly “from cellar to roof, eating into adjoining buildings and hanging in a seething, spark-dotted canopy over Market street.”

Hell reigned outside and in: “Sixty or more men, women and children were at work on the upper floors of the building. The roaring flames and the suffocating smoke that cut off retreat were their first and only warnings. Madly they groped for windows and the fire escapes, many meeting death where they stood, others reaching the iron railed balconies, only to find themselves and like rats in a trap, confronted with the alternative of being gridironed or the chance of being crushed on the stones below. Most of those killed were at work on the sixth floor, where women were engaged in sewing. It was reported that goods were stored against the windows, which prevented the women from getting out on the fire escapes, but this was positively denied by a member of the firm.”

“Thousands from the streets below witnessed tragedy upon tragedy, powerless to help. They saw women penned in by flame tearing out their hair in their frenzy. They saw men struggle on wires and gratings and burn as they hung between earth and sky. They saw others plunge from the windows or turn and stagger back into the pitiless cauldron. The stones of Commerce street, the narrow highway at the rear of the building, rang the dirge of more than one victim who jumped blindly and missed the net.”

“Squares away the screams of the dying could be heard. Tongues cannot tell the horrors that eyes saw.”

At one point, “all eyes turned to the fire escapes” outside a 7th-story window, where upholsterers “were running down the escape pell-mell.”

“The smoke ascending in their faces was growing blacker and blacker. A man appeared at the window with a woman. He put his arm around her waist. They began to climb down the escape and reached the sixth floor. He seemed to faint. They stopped to rest, and then made another struggle.”

“Cheer after cheer went up from the street at this. But the situation was growing more desperate every second. When the next wave of smoke passed the woman was seen standing alone on the landing. It was impossible for her to get down thought the flames beneath her. She heard the shouts and news the net had been spread below to catch her. She had one chance in a hundred to save her life by a leap. The firemen grabbed their net and looked up. They could not see her. The woman peered down. She could not see them. Persons father away tried to shout directions. It was a guess. It was her only chance. She leaped. Her form came straight through the air, feet foremost. She jumped well and clear. Thousands of eyes watched the flying form. They saw it strike the iron rail of the awning. She dropped a little to one side of the net outstretched to save her and struck the pavement.”

“Such was the death of Susan Gormley, 42 years of age, of 1727 Filbert street.”

A special jury of experts convened by the City Coroner collected evidence, reviewed testimony and found the structure in compliance with what safety codes existed. They couldn’t zero in on what started the fire, suggesting the deceased “could probably explain the direct cause.” And they recommended sweeping changes aimed at prevention, mitigation and “providing proper and sufficient means of escape.”

[Sources include: “Flames starting in basement of Hunt, Wilkinson & Co.’s Furniture Store, 1219–21 Market Street Form Funeral Pyre for Many and Cause Estimated Property Loss of $500,000,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 1901; “Eight Story Building Fire,” The Atlanta Constitution, October 26, 1901; “No Cause Found for Fatal Fire,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1901; The 25 most-deadly building fires of all time, firesciencedegree.com.]

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