The date, 1874, seems reasonable enough. So does the photograph’s title “Fairmount Bridge – East Approach.” But the buildings don’t seem to match the given address: “N. 25th St and Fairmount Ave.” And so we turn to the online version of G. M. Hopkins 1875 Atlas at The Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network to figure it out. The curve of the road, the stone wall and the steep slope on the left side of the image rather suggest we’re looking at the southeastern edge of the Fairmount Reservoir, what is now the site of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Today, the scene would be looking across Eakins Oval.
A closer look at the atlas yields a solid hint as to precisely where. “Approach to the upper deck of the bridge,” it says. And just above the word “approach” we especially like that a bend in the road that matches a bend in the masonry wall visible in the photograph. Now, oriented to that spot on the map, we are certain it’s a view to the northwest, toward what was once 25th and Spring Garden Streets.
Zooming in on the photograph, there’s a sign for the “New Bridge Hotel,” a short row of brick houses, and then a substantial domed church. And a thought occurs: we never knew of a church there. The Atlas tells us the church property is owned by James F. Wood. Hmmm. That’s not very helpful. But with the click of a box on the Interactive Map Viewer we switch to Smedley’s 1862 Philadelphia Atlas and we’re treated to some welcome information. At the northwest corner of 25th and Biddle Streets, just south of where Spring Garden Street runs into the foot of Fairmount, the word “Church” is plainly there in a rectangle. No name, no denomination—for that we’ll have to look elsewhere. And just one more click of a box away, we find what we’re looking for: The church is “St. Francis Xavier R. Cath. Church.” A small archival victory.
Where to turn to learn more?
The Callowhill Street Bridge, as they called it, did have an upper deck, as confirmed by PhillyHistory images here and here. In fact, it was new in 1874, which explains the construction debris in the curved road as well as the sign “New Bridge Hotel.” A double-decker bridge replaced the previous bridge, the “Wire Bridge at Fairmount” of 1842. And, if you want to go all the way back, the first bridge there “The Upper Ferry Bridge,” opened in 1812. It earned a distinctive nickname: “The Colossus” for the record-breaking size of its single wooden truss.
Biddle Street became Buttonwood in 1897 a fact that’s confirmed by G. W. Bromley’s 1910 Philadelphia Atlas. By then, however, the church is gone and a bath house stands in its place. What happened? The B. & O. Railroad’s Schuylkill River East Side Rail Road tunnel under 25th Street underwent expansion in the mid-1880s. In the process, blasting resulted in “significant damage to both the church and the adjacent rectory.”
What more can we read into the photograph? Off to the left, partially hidden in the distance, is a multi-story mill building. In 1875, that would be Fairmount Worsted Mills (formerly J.& W. Yewdale’s Worsted Goods Manufactory) occupying much of the south side of the 2400 block of Spring Garden between Osprey and Taylor Streets.
On the northeast corner of 25th and Biddle is a one-story mill identified as “Cotton Manufactory” by Hexamer & Locher on their 1858-60 Atlas. By 1895, that building has become part of S. B. Fleisher’s mill. Adjacent to it is Fleisher’s Star Braid Works and dye house. Within a few short blocks one would find an ice factory, several soap works, a carriage bolt works, machine tool manufacturers and factories making everything from carpets to iron roofing. All places of employment in the burgeoning neighborhood along the Schuylkill.
Is there anything to uncover about the church, which, we read on the 1895 Atlas, is “St. Francis Cath. Ch.”?
Luckily, one copy of a lithograph of the church building dating from 1880 (or so) survives at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. The compilers of the comprehensive Philadelphia on Stone at the Library Company included an entry for it in their catalogue. But other than informing us that “the church relocated to a new building at 24th and Green streets in 1898,” we remain in the dark as to who designed it and when its dome joined the city’s skyline.
The extant St. Francis Xavier Church a few blocks away on the 2300 block of Green Street is the work of architect Edwin Forrest Durang. But his extensive list of projects identifies only one St. Francis Xavier, not two.
We turn to a book entitled Cathlocity in Philadelphia, which happens to be word-searchable at archive.org. There, on pages 293 and 294 is an entry for St. Francis Xavier’s Church which provides some useful background. In 1839, Bishop Francis Kendrick recognized the need for new parishes in the western sections of the city proper. He noted the growth of “the coal-shipping industry, the wharves of which stretched alongside the east bank of the Schuylkill River” and new, largely Irish Catholic settlements known “The Village” and “Out Schuylkill.” Kendrick created two new parishes: St. Patrick based at 20th and Rittenhouse and St. Francis Xavier at 25th and Biddle. The community came together to dedicate a church at the former on June 1, 1841. The corner-stone of St. Francis Xavier’s was laid June 1, 1839 and that church, still without a dome, was dedicated on Sunday, June 6, 1841.
We learn that St. Patrick’s was “built under the direction of [architect] Napoleon LeBrun.” No mention of an architect for St. Francis Xavier.
But we take away a clue that is subsequently confirmed in Roger Moss’s Historic Sacred Places in Philadelphia. The dome, which Moss suggests may date to 1866, appears to be an echo of Pietro da Cortona’s San Carlo al Corso in Rome, which has often been cited as the source for the dome of the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on Logan Square. LeBrun also contributed designs for the Cathedral. Could this church at 25th and Biddle be another iteration of the same idea by LeBrun? Take a look at San Carlo’s dome and consider the possibilities.