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Gladys Bentley and the “Noble Experiment” at 1523 Locust Street

Gladys Bentley escaped her family’s North Philadelphia rowhouse at the age of 16 and, for more than a decade, didn’t look back.

She joined the Harlem Renaissance, which in 1923 was kicking into high gear. A jazz performer, Bentley became “one of the boldest performers of her era.” Her reworked popular songs with homespun risqué lyrics packed, among other venues, the notorious Clam House, a speakeasy on 133rd Street. “Bentley sang her bawdy, bossy songs in a thunderous voice, dipping down into a froglike growl or curling upward into a wail” wrote The New York Times in a belated obituary. Appearing in a trademark white top hat and tuxedo, Bentley became Harlem’s most famous lesbian and “one of “the best-known black entertainers” in America.

Advertisement in The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12, 1937

In 1934, Bentley headlined at New York’s new Ubangi Club, attracting, according to The Philadelphia Tribune, her “Gay White Way clientele that goes all the way to make up New York after dark.” Her act featured “a chorus of boys whose entertaining is of that different style and appeal.”

Langston Hughes would write of Bentley’s “amazing exhibition of musical energy—a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard—a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”

Bentley’s return to North Philadelphia in September 1935, at the Memphis Club on Warnock Street below Girard Avenue, was less than a mile from her childhood home. “Miss B is a show in herself,” wrote the Inquirer, “holding the audience from the moment she appears on the floor.”

In the summer of 1937, Bentley would perform in Center City at the Piccadilly Room, 1523 Locust Street. Billboard called her billing intriguing, a “noble experiment,” where, in one building, artists of both races performed. The “policy of separate white and Negro niteries under one roof will be tried by 1523 Locust,” reported Variety. One manager ran “colored shows” headlined by Gladys Bentley “presenting the gayest harlemania” in the intimate Piccadilly Room, upstairs front.” Elsewhere in the same building at the same time, Bubbles Shelby was featured as the white headliner.

Locust Street at Sydenham Street, Looking West. July 9, 1940. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

Bentley quickly drew top billing. She “gives out the risk–gay ditties in that intimate manner that leaves no mistaken meaning. To rousing returns, she offers Just Give It To Tim, Gladys Isn’t Gratis Anymore and a Wally Simpson-inspired He Did It For Love. And for the more intimate circles sings Goody Goody. New to the villagers here, she’s dynamite.”

Home of the 1523 Club and the Piccadilly Room, 1523 Locust Street, Looking West. July 9, 1940. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

But the experiment didn’t last. Ann Lewis completed her six-week run at the Piccadilly Room, returned to Harlem, and told a reporter that “racial prejudice is breaking up the management’s attempt to feature…a white and colored revue just opposite each other.” Bentley and others quit the show “when the feeling between the two races became near the breaking point.”

In fact, “the double bill of entertainment” was figured to be “an experiment doomed to failure.”

Philadelphia, “though very much in the North, has always surfaced a definite racial feeling between white and colored” wrote reporter Billy Rowe. “Not many months ago before the passing of the civil rights bill in the state of Pennsylvania, Negroes suffered Jim-Crow tactics used below the Mason-Dixon line in theaters and other Nordic owned enterprises.” After the passing of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Bill of 1935, the “age-old practice” continued and “as a direct outcome of such fights for equality a new hatred was born in the city of brotherly love.”

Bentley would soon leave New York again, this time for Los Angeles, “to become a leading entertainer there and in the Bay Area,” appearing onstage at Mona’s 440 Club, “the first lesbian bar in San Francisco.” In short order, Mona’s would become Bentley’s West Coast home away from home.

[Sources: “Gladys Bentley Stars at Ubangi Club” in The Philadelphia Tribune, August 23, 1934; “Bentley, Memphis Club,” The Inquirer, September 15, 1935; “Putting White and Negro Niteries Under 1 Roof,” Variety, May 12, 1937; “Night Clubs Star Stage Celebrities in Revue Programs,” The Inquirer, May 12, 1937; “Piccadilly Room, 1523 Club, Philadelphia, The Billboard, June 12, 1937; Billy Rowe, “Black and Tan Revue Can’t Hit: Philly’s Piccadilly Room Tries New Experiment,” The Pittsburgh Courier, July 3, 1937; Giovanni Russonello, “Gladys Bentley (1907-1960): A gender-bending blues performer who became 1920s Harlem royalty.The New York Times.]

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The Egyptian Revival – South Philly Style

In the decades after Napoleon invaded Egypt (as read in the previous post) any number of 19th-century architects adopted the Egyptian style. Philadelphians William Strickland, John Haviland, Robert Mills, Stephen Decatur Button, and Thomas U. Walter all lavished features from the Nile on increasingly eclectic façades in the 1820s, 30s and 40s.

Moyamensing Prison, Debtor’s Wing, Photograph by G. Mark Wilson, ca. 1923 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Sometimes we make attributions as to who was responsible for what, but in the case of the debtors wing at South Philadelphia’s Moyamensing prison, we know for absolute certain that it was Thomas U. Walter’s. There’s archival evidence. But there’s more. The architect’s name was literally carved in stone—on the building.

Torn Down Pillars, 1400 South 10th Street, October 5, 1971 (PhillyHistory.org)

See the image above. No…really look at it. You can detect barely legible lettering on what was the protected, inward-facing, side of a brownstone Egyptian-revival column. Obtaining a TIFF file from PhillyHistory.org we were able to zoom in and read “T. U. WALTER, ARCHT.”—the architect’s signature, as it were.

Detail of Torn Down Pillars, 1400 South 10th Street, October 5, 1971 (PhillyHistory.org) (PhillyHistory.org)

Ruins can speak! They share cryptic stories.

Has this tasty bit of ancient-modern archeology survived?

1400 South 10th Street – Torn Down Pillars, October 5, 1971 (PhillyHistory.org)

We read on one blog a rumor that the Smithsonian might be the steward of what’s left of the columns, but so far that does not seem to be the case. We did learn that the winged orb from over the entrance (below) does survive at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, thanks to the late Penny Hartshorne Batcheler.

Dumpster diving at its best? Or a pioneering preservationist just doing some much-needed forensics?

Whichever, we say many thanks to Penny!

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Exercising the Egyptian Option in Northern Liberties

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt with 400 ships, 54,000 men and one artist. Dominique-Vivant Denon “made good use of his time, sketching furiously when the troops paused for brief moments.”

Denon brought back to Paris images far more detailed than the pyramids and broken sculptures Westerners had been familiar with. The 23-volume Description de l’Égypte, published from 1809 to 1828, included no fewer than 837 engravings capturing “Egyptian culture from every possible vantage point.” For the first time, Europeans and Americans could get to know the temples and ruins from Thebes, Esna, Edfu, Philae and more.

Odd Fellow’s Hall, Northwest Corner of 3rd and Brown Streets, March 3, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

These exotic images led to appreciation and emulation in Philadelphia. For the first time, architects could add an Egyptian option to their expanding array of eclectic motifs that included the classical, the Gothic and the Oriental.

What was so appealing to Americans about the Egyptian? Some liked the allusion that their fertile valleys might be compared to the Nile. (The Mississippi was occasionally referred to as the American Nile.) The Schuylkill floodplain near Valley Forge became known as the “Egypt District.” Americans appropriated ancient names: Cairo, Memphis, Thebes, and Karnak – suggesting that their cities might also flourish for millennia.

Americans adopted Egyptian motifs for one cemetery gateway and another. In perpetuity, they would entomb their dead in marble crypts the designs of which were replicated from published sources.

The first American building in the Egyptian style was William Strickland’s Mikveh Israel synagogue on Cherry Street from 1825. Over the next several decades, more Egyptian-inflected buildings would rise in Philadelphia, including a prison, an insurance company, a waterworks, and an Odd Fellow’s Hall (pictured above).

Egyptian Hall, Masonic Temple, 1 North Broad Street (PhillyHistory.org)

What kept the Egyptian influence from even wider adoption? Possibly the rising anti-slavery movement. After all, wasn’t memorializing ancient Egypt akin to celebrating the institution of slavery? Or maybe Christian America just couldn’t promote Egypt’s pagan past? Whatever–once it took hold, architects, designers and the public couldn’t resist an occasional sampling of the Egyptian option.

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Origin Story: Philly’s First Public Christmas

Philadelphia’s First Community Christmas Tree, frontispiece in The First Year Book of The Child Federation ( 1913-1914)

“To the waifs of fortune,” one news story began, to the “men, women and children whose lives have been passed in bleak wandering as outcasts of society, there will be afforded a taste of Christmas joy.”

The donors backing Philadelphia’s Child Federation, the newly-founded philanthropic organization whose usual mission was the reduction of infant mortality, augmented their first year’s giving with a grand gesture of public beneficence: installing a giant, 63-foot Christmas tree on Independence Square.

Twenty thousand citizens packed the square on December 24, 1913 and “turned their faces toward” the city’s “first Christmas tree that ever was set up for all the people of the city.” Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg “flashed on 4,200 red, white and blue lights” before Lucretia, his wife, illuminated the large “electric star” at its pinnacle.

The gathered crowd then enjoyed a concert by the 45-piece First Regiment Band, ancient Christmas chorales performed by the famous Moravian trombonists from Bethlehem, and the 700 voices of the United Singers of Philadelphia featuring “Holy Night,” “Peaceful Night,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

Independence Square, Christmas Tree, December 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

At the center of it all was a mammoth Norway spruce found at the Parry farm near Rancocas, New Jersey, after a five-state search. Nine days earlier, the tree had been shuttled down the Delaware River from Bridgeboro to the Vine Street pier. If all had gone according to plan, the tree would have been greeted by officials, a band and 2,000 schoolchildren.

But dusk came and went without the tree. The band waited patiently; the schoolchildren not so much–they were corralled for hours on the dock by mounted police tasked with keeping the “youngsters from falling into the Delaware.”

“There was really considerable comedy, instead of Christmas spirit, reported the Inquirer.

Eventually, the “long-lost tug and its tow were sighted off Port Richmond” but the band and the school children had gone home. Even the mounted police “gave it up . . . and galloped away.”

Arriving alone in chilly darkness, the tree was “unceremoniously dumped along the waterfront at Vine Street” to “the sibilant maledictions of a crew of riggers.” The reception committee had diminished to a handful of “disappointed officials, night custom inspectors, a detail of policeman, six wharf rats, four teamsters, several Jerseyites waiting for a ferry, and 87 newspapermen.”

Navigating the tree the last mile through the streets was delayed as riggers realized there was no way to avoid the overhead trolley wires. It took “a long conference, several protracted telephonic conversations” before a decision to postpone work until after midnight “when the trolley company could raise overhead wires.”

The tree arrived at Independence Square just before dawn.

Upright and decorated, it was an immediate popular attraction. An estimated 350,000 visited before the tree was taken down, stripped of its branches and recycled as a flag pole at the Kingsessing Recreation playground, 50th Street and Chester Avenue.

The idea of a public display of Christmas, built around a monumental tree in a prominent civic space, had gotten off the ground. It would continue to grow as a civic, if not always philanthropic, competition.

[Sources: [The First Year Book of The Child Federation Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1913-14 (1914); from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Big Christmas Tree in the Square Planned,” October 1, 1913; “Giant Xmas Tree Found for Independence Square,” November 23, 1913; “Gay Reception For Tree Fails,” December 16, 1913; “Gigantic Spruce Hauled Through Streets,” December 16, 1913; “Big Tree Put Up,” December 21, 1913; “Bethlehem Star In Great Spruce Shines on 20,000,” December 25, 1913.]

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Ordering “Plated Flannel” for the Civil Service

According to the first annual report of the City’s Civil Service Commission, Philadelphia received more than 4,500 applications more than 170 different types of positions in 1906. Twenty seven job-seekers applied to be bricklayers, 84  hoped to be hired as  carpenters, 692  as clerks, 68 as elevator operators, 37 as engineers, 50 as firemen, 2 as guards at the House of Correction, 156 as guides at City Hall. Twenty three hoped to become drain inspectors, 10 as masonry inspectors, 11 as meat inspectors, 116 as street cleaning inspectors, 54 as janitors, 27 as “janitresses,” 90 as machinists, 364 as patrolmen, 131 as mounted patrolmen, 11 as photographers, 18 as plumbers, 23 as plumbers helpers, 112 as stenographers, 12 as telegraph operators, 48 as telephone operators, 9 as tinsmiths, 14 as waitresses, and 180 as watchmen. That same year the Commission held civil service examinations for 3,801 candidates. More than 2,200 were “placed on eligible lists.”

Civil Service Commission Exam, August 31, 1933. Photograph by Maurice D. Abuhove (PhillyHistory.org)

By the 1920s, Philadelphia’s employment rolls made it the single largest employer with as many as 30,000 in 663 positions as diverse as, Walter Licht tells us, ambulance chauffeur, clock attendant, herdsman, traffic statistician, and writ server.”

“By the 1950s this process had ballooned” still further, according to Licht. In 1953 alone the city processed 48,775 applications, arranged for 34,215 civil service tests, notified the 10,479 who passed of their eligibility, and appointed 4,543 to actual jobs.  

Civil Service Exam for Iron Workers, July 8, 1930. Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess (PhillyHistory.org)

In many cases, especially for office jobs, the civil service exams were in a written format, but when it came to the trades like stenography, welding or ironwork, among others, the Commission devised and administered practical exams.

In October 1905, Frank M. Riter, the head of the Commission, personally tested eight applicants hoping to be hired as waitresses at the Philadelphia Hospital (presumably the Philadelphia General Hospital). According to The Inquirer, Riter displayed his own “startling knowledge of the science of waiting” as he posed questions.

Civil Service Exam for Stenographers, December 4, 1912 (PhillyHistory.org)

“What is the meaning of ‘draw one,’ ‘brown the wheat,’ ‘off the ice,’ ‘one in the dark,’ ‘wheat bread devil’ and ‘plate the flannel?”

“What is the proper way to shoot a plate of biscuits?”

“How many oysters should be in a small stew? How many in a large stew?”

“If a customer orders four sinkers, at three for five cents, a cup of coffee, without milk and a plate of ‘ham and,’ what should be the amount of his check?”

In 2021, we have no idea. But we do know sinkers were doughnuts and “ham and” was, and in some quarters still is, slang for ham and eggs. The rest, especially plated flannel, remains a mystery.

Not for long, one hopes.

[Sources:  Walter Licht, Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992)]; “First Annual Report of the Civil Service Commission of the City of Philadelphia, January 2, 1907” in Annual Message of the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia with the Annual Reports of Directors of Departments, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1907): Riter, the Versatile, Plays Head Waiter, The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 18, 1905.]

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“The man with the pull” got the job

Thirteen thousand Philadelphians worked for the city at the start of the 20th century, about the same time Lincoln Steffens dubbed Philadelphia “the most corrupt and the most contented” city in America.

How did payroll and patronage play out on the street?

City Hall – Civil Service Bulletin Board, November 10, 1905 (PhillyHistory.org)

According to historian Walter Licht, an estimated 10,000 city jobs were “distributed to loyal party workers,” who, “in return for employment…pledged portions of their salaries to the political machine, a long-standing practice that had not been ended with reform legislation.” In fact, Licht continued, “investigations revealed that 94 percent of all employees in the city actually paid between 3 and 12 percent of their annual incomes to the coffers of the Republican Party organization for a total take of $349,000.”

Philadelphia was addicted to this corrupt, pay-to play (or pay-to-work) system. Sure, the city “had gone through the motions following the lead of the United States government in establishing a competitive examination system for appointments to federal jobs,” but legislation creating a civil service board for Philadelphia in 1885 “hardly curbed spoilsmanship.” In the City of Brotherly Love “the mayor and his department chiefs were able to bend the system to their needs.”

And everyone knew it. As Theodore Roosevelt put it 1893 (he was an advocate of Civil Service reform): “I should rather have no law than the law you have in Philadelphia. “

In 1905, the “reform forces succeeded once again in securing legislation at the state level” creating “a new civil service commission for Philadelphia, a seemingly more independent agency.” Mayor John Weaver apparently embraced the reform, vacating and replacing leadership and appointing Frank M. Riter to run the new commission. The mayor “annulled” earlier eligible lists” providing Riter with a clean slate and a fully-funded office poised for reorganization and reform. As for his part, Riter was determined to secure “public confidence” having committed his commission to “full publicity and absolute fairness.”

By October, 1905, after Riter’s rash of new civil service examinations had been advertised, implemented and scored, he installed in City Hall courtyard “a large bulletin board…for displaying the results of examinations.” Everyone could read the results whether the positions were guards at the House of Correction, plumbers in the Electrical Bureau, or patrolmen.

Yet the corruption continued. Only a few weeks before the installation of Riter’s bulletin board, the Inquirer revealed that Sheldon Potter, the Director of the Department of Public Safety, “disregarded Civil Service rule” and made appointments only days before receiving the list of eligible candidates from Riter.

Civil Service Examination – Police Sergeant in City Hall – October 17, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

The Inquirer also implicated the mayor with circumventing the rules. “Weaver Insincere In Civil Service,” read a headline, “appointments show men with high averages ignored for political favorites.” Civil War veterans had been “especially discriminated against by administration policy.”

“In no respect is the insincerity of so-called ‘reform’ shown up more glaringly than upon the bulletin board of the civil service bureau on the seventh floor of City Hall, the Inquirer pointed out. There can be seen posted long lists of eligibles for various kinds of city positions. … It is here that the utter failure of the administration to live up to its professions of a square deal for every applicant is conspicuously set forth. … A half dozen veterans of the Civil War, standing high on the list have been deliberately passed over and political favorites of the Mayor and his friends, far down on the list, have been given preference. Not only have the veterans been ignored, but other applicants with high averages have been left out and men far below them in the averages of the civil service tests have been given the appointments. … The man with the pull got the job regardless of his special fitness for it, and the man with the high average or near the top of the list has been ignored.”

Civil Service Commission – Recreation Instructor’s Examination, August 1, 1934 (PhillhHistory.org)

Still, Riter continued as if corruption had been effectively curtailed. His commission continued to offer examinations and to advertise the results. From March through December 1906, Riter’s office tested and scored 4,551 applicants for more than 170 positions—everything from clerks to bricklayers, carpenters to elevator operators, engineers to firemen, patrolmen to drain inspectors, stenographers to telegraph operators, tinsmiths to waitresses.

Who got the jobs? . . . Well, that was not his to say.

[Sources: Walter Licht, Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992)];  “Potter Disregarded Civil Service Rules,”October 7, 1905; “Weaver Insincere In Civil Service,” October 12, 1905; – Riter, the Versatile, Plays Head Waiter,” October 18, 1905; Secretary Riter’s Bulletin Board, October 25, 1905; The First Annual Report of the Civil Service Commission of the City of Philadelphia, Jan 2, 1907. All in The Philadelphia Inquirer; “First Annual Report of the Civil Service Commission of the City of Philadelphia, January 2, 1907” in Annual Message of the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia with the Annual Reports of Directors of Departments, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1907).]

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Slaking thirsts at the Semiquincentennial

Philadelphia’s two world fairs—the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 and the Sesquicentennial fifty years later in 1926, introduced all kinds of stuff that folks didn’t know they’d need, want, or would come to stress over.

In 1876, the newfangled included the telephone, the typewriter, ketchup, and kudzu, introduced to control erosion. Visitors climbed to the torch of an unfinished Statue of Liberty through her forearm. They stared wide-eyed at the ominous Krupp cannon from Germany.

Representing “progress” at the Sesquicentennial was the Dixie Cup, its disposability marketed as good public health practice. Other innovations included a teller’s window made of “Safetee Bullet Proof Glass” for the Franklin Trust Company. Home improvements featured rolls of Blabon’s checkered linoleum for the modern “electric kitchen” where up-to-date consumers swapped vintage, wooden ice boxes for sleek, white Frigidaires. Homes, furnished by J. B. Van Sciver, would be tidier with the help of a Eureka Vacuum Cleaner , if not a Hoover.

Tufts soda fountain at the Centennial Exhibition, 1876, (Free Library of Philadelphia, Print and Picture Collection.)

All of that ogling during a hotter-than-usual Centennial summer generated a great thirst. No problem. Philly pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires offered up samples of his newly concocted root beer. James Walker Tufts from Pinehurst, North Carolina took the refreshment supply chain a step farther, purchasing purveying rights for his “Artic Soda,” sold from one or another monumental, marble-countered fountain.

Valley Forge Beer Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

Thirsty Sesqui guests had their choice of concessions. Hires retuned, serving from a giant, tipped-over barrel. One could get a caffeine fix at the George Washington Coffee Concession. Valley Forge Beer purveyed their (most likely non-alcoholic) brew. Even lighter fare was sipped at the Clicquot Club Ginger Ales stand. At Emerson Drug Company’s booths one could find Ginger Mint Juleps, or, if need be, a Bromo Seltzer.

All of which gets us thinking, not only about the past, but about the future. What will we be slaking or toasting with five years hence, in 2026, at the…what are we calling it…the Semiquincentennial?

Clicquot Club Ginger Ale Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)
Ginger Mint Juleps from the Emerson Drug Company Concession Booth, Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)
Hires Root Beer Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)
Emerson Drug Company Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

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Going Big and Going Home: Philadelphia’s Mass Transit Story

Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg made a promise. His administration would be non-partisan. At the inaugural in December 1911, according to historian Lloyd M. Abernethy, Blankenburg proposed to operate “on a sound business basis with experts rather than politicians at the heads of municipal departments.” The mayor “surrounded himself with able and dedicated professionals” and spent four years envisioning, modernizing and improving city services—especially mass transit.

Philadelphia had 600 miles of streetcar lines, but the passenger experience was slow and disconnected. The city’s “meagre 14.7 miles of high-speed trackage compared very unfavorably with other major cities: Boston had twice as much; Chicago, 10 times more; and New York 20 times as much.” Blankenburg recruited an experienced railroad executive, A. Merritt Taylor, to direct his new transit department. And Taylor immediately took a deep dive assessing the situation and developing a comprehensive, city-wide plan that would quadruple the city’s high-speed trackage to nearly 60 miles.

It took two years for Taylor to complete his study and present his vision for a mass transit system. In an essay entitled “Philadelphia’s Transit Problem,” Taylor pointed out that “large cities of the United States are constantly outgrowing the capacity of existing facilities for public service.” These systems “may be likened to the arterial system of the human body.” They can “become inadequate and choke the circulation which they are designed to carry.” They often “fail to expand as the body grows” falling short of meeting the city’s “increasing requirements.” That, Taylor said, would lead neighborhoods to “wither.”

Without a healthy transit system, “the body as a whole must suffer.”

“Rapid Transit Lines Recommended for Immediate Construction with Princial Surface Transfer Lines,” February 12, 1915 (PhillyHistory.org)

Philadelphia, Taylor pointed out, wasn’t a city of tenements and flats. Rather, it “has always been a city of individual homes spread over a comparatively large area.” Now we are “confronted with the necessity of providing rapid transit facilities to eliminate existing congestion of traffic and the excessive loss of time in traveling the increasingly great distances between available residential areas and places of employment.”

This “practical, scientific and complete study of what is needed” led to a series of “crystallized” recommendations in a report published in 1913. To sell his plan, Taylor and his allies released a battery of illustrated articles, maps and presentations—including a giant, electrified model.

Tentative Location of Future Rapid Transit Lines, Report of Transit Commissioner / Rapid Transit Development / City of Philadelphia, July 1913.

Taylor’s “program,” wholeheartedly endorsed by Mayor Blankenburg, urged the immediate construction of twenty-six miles of high-speed lines, subway and elevated, that would effectively connect with the existing “surface system” extending “the advantages of rapid transit … as equally as practicable to every front door in Philadelphia.”

“Passengers will be enabled to travel in a forward direction … between every important section of the city and every other important section of the city, conveniently, quickly and comfortably by way of the combined surface and high-speed lines, regardless of the number of transfers required in so doing.”

Rapid Transit Lines recommended for immediate construction with surface feeder lines, November 18, 1914 (PhillyHistory.org)

At the groundbreaking for the Broad Street Subway, the first major element in the plan, Taylor asked the public to think of the system as “one great machine [designed to] transport passengers quickly and conveniently between all points on the combined system . . . by the joint use of the surface system and the high-speed system for one five-cent fare.”

“Any citizen could ride from any part of Philadelphia to any other part of the city, for five cents and within thirty minutes time,” echoed the mayor. “When such a condition becomes an accomplished fact, then our great body of skilled labor, 300,000 strong, can choose its residence in any part of the city, irrespective of the location of the factory or office in which they find employment.”

Detail of “Rapid Transit Lines Recommended for Immediate Construction with Principal Surface Transfer Lines,” February 12, 1915 (PhillyHistory.org)

The cost of the system: about $46 million, with another $12 million more for equipment. (In today’s dollars, that would be an investment of $1.5 billion). Without delays, according to the mayor, “these high-speed lines could be in active operation by 1919 or 1920, thereby giving Philadelphia one of the most comprehensive transit systems in the world.”

But as was often the case, politics trumped transformation.

After many delays, the Broad Street Subway opened in 1928. By then, the “Taylor Plan” was largely abandoned. The system’s most visionary element—possibly its proudest single feature—a subway-surface line running from City Hall, under Logan Square, up the Parkway to the Art Museum before travelling north on 29th Street to Henry Avenue and beyond to Roxborough . . . never materialized.

[Sources: A. Merritt Taylor. Report of Transit Commissioner: City of Philadelphia, July, 1912. [Philadelphia, 1913], Vol 1; “Taylor Plans $57,578,000 Transit Development for Philadelphia.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 31, 1913; Conference of American Mayors, Philadelphia, and American Academy of Political and Social Science. “Proceedings of the Conference of American Mayors on Public Policies as to Municipal Utilities,” (Philadelphia, American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1915); “Mayor Launches Work on Subway as Crowd Cheers,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 12, 1915; A . Merritt Taylor. “Philadelphia’s Transit Problem.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 57 (1915): 28-32; Donald W. Disbrow. “Reform in Philadelphia Under Mayor Blankenburg, 1912-1916.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 27, no. 4 (1960): 379-96; Lloyd M Abernethy, “Progressivism, 1905-1919,” in Russell Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982).]

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Did the Samuel Memorial Deliver?

Ellen Phillips Samuel had a vision she’d never get to see. After her death and that of her husband, a sizeable chunk of the family fortune would become an endowment to create a sculpture park along Kelly Drive between Boathouse Row and the Girard Avenue bridge.

“On top of this embankment,” wrote Samuel in 1907, “it is my will to have erected at distances of one hundred (100) feet apart, on high granite pedestals of uniform shape and size, statuary emblematic of the history of America, ranging in time from the earliest settlers of America to the present era, arranged in chronological order, the earliest at the south end, and going on to the present time at the north end.”

Samuel Memorial – North Terrace Looking North (to the Girard Avenue Bridge). Photographed March 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

American art had never encountered such a challenge—or such an opportunity. In Europe, only the Siegesallee in Berlin, completed in 1901, might have provided something of a model. But this massive, white-marble creation was mocked as over-indulgent and vulgar, an “Avenue of the Puppets,” a collection of “shining marble horrors…enough to rob Berlin of sleep.” Not something to emulate in United States—or anywhere else, for that matter.

Samuel Memorial – Laborer, by Ahron Ben Shmuel, 1958. Photographed March 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

Samuel did have a handle on the depth and range of American history. Her ancestors aided the cause of the American Revolution and were interred at the Mikveh Israel cemetery near 9th and Spruce Streets where she and her husband were involved as stewards. At family gatherings, the Samuels doubtless debated the who’s who of American history. Her husband’s nephew and namesake, Bunford Samuel, compiled 40,000 portraits of historical figures over a twenty year period. The younger Bunford’s “Index to American Portraits” cataloged no fewer than 58 portraits of Christopher Columbus, 61 of Benjamin Franklin, 16 of Alexander Hamilton and 14 of Benedict Arnold. Would any of them find a home on the proposed pedestals along the Schuylkill? Ellen Samuel was too savvy to dictate that. There would have to be significant discourse before any decisions were made. Along the way, the project might even become controversial, making it even more interesting, and perhaps all the more valuable.

To start the search process, Samuel would solicit proposals in a global crowdsourcing effort. “It is my desire that notices be inserted in the leading newspapers of the world, asking for designs.”

Samuel Memorial – Preacher by Waldemar Raemisch, 1952, installed 1958. Photographed March 31, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

How would American history be represented along this stretch of Schuylkill in America‘s most historic city? After Ellen Samuel’s passing in 1913, J. Bunford couldn’t contain his anticipation, or his mistrust, that others might not stay true to his wife’s wishes. He reminded would-be designers that “Mrs. Samuel never intended that any artificial construction, or that standing trees should be removed to carry out her idea and ruin the sylvan beauty now existing in this locality…” This would not be a project dominated by balustrades or any architectural elements. According to Samuel, only historical figures on pedestals would stand amidst the park’s foliage.

And to make absolutely certain the project would begin as it was supposed to, Samuel got ahead of things and commissioned the first figure. In keeping with the spousal will that the series begin with “the earliest settlers of America,” Samuel selected the 11th-century Icelandic explorer and colonist Thorfinn Karlsefni who, according to his own research, “came nearest to the ideal.” By demonstrating the start of the project, Samuel would be able “to see, whilst I live, how the first statue would look placed in the situation selected by my wife…”.  

At the Karlsefni dedication in 1920, the president of the Fairmount Park Art Association, Charles J. Cohen, reassured all in attendance that this first figure in the sculptural timeline would “be followed by… seventeen of similar proportions, all…emblematic of the history of America” standing 100 feet apart, as the will dictated. When complete, added Cohen, this memorial would make “a splendid adornment to our Park.”

Then, as the will directed, the project went into hibernation until after J. Bunford’s passing in 1929. After it restarted, critic Dorothy Grafly noted: “No sculptural project within recent years had posed so many problems and stirred so much discussion.” The Art Association’s Samuel Memorial Committee reviewed all options and would set the direction. One member of the committee, R. Sturgis Ingersoll, later recalled its activities and inclinations and how, ultimately, the project strayed from Samuel’s will.

Samuel Memorial – Settling of the Seaboard by Wheeler Williams, 1942. Photographed March 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

“For several years,” wrote Ingersoll, “the alternatives seemed to be to erect a row of portrait statuary of the important political and spiritual shapers of our destinies, or sculptural symbols of such abstractions as Faith, Democracy, Wisdom, Patriotism and Justice.” But the committee took a broader view, concluding “that the subject matter of the statuary should be an expression of the ideas, the motivations, the spiritual forces, and the yearnings that have created America.” And with neither of the Samuels alive to say otherwise, the committee supported commissioning architect Paul Cret to create a design “consisting of three terraces with groupings of statues at both ends of each terrace.” The committee decided on sculptural sequences starting with “the early settlement of the eastern seaboard,” “the creation of a nation by the political compacts of 1776 and 1787…and the trek westward.” Figures would embody the “consolidation of democracy and liberty” and represent “the freeing of the slaves and the welcoming to our shores of countless Europeans.” The committee’s plan would bring the story up to the present focusing on “the physical development of man-made America,” and, finally “the spiritual factors that shaped our inner life.”

Samuel Memorial, The Immigrant, by Heinz Warneke, 1933. Photographed March 31, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)
Samuel Memorial – The Slave, by Helen Sardeau, 1940. Photographed March 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

In January 1933, the Samuel Memorial Committee presented its program at the annual Fairmount Park Art Association’s annual meeting where it received unanimous approval. Then, “for the ensuing decades,” according to Ingersoll, that plan was “quite closely adhered to.”

In order to cast a wide net and help identify sculptors to populate Cret’s three terraces, the Art Association and the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted three international sculpture exhibitions in 1933, 1940 and 1949. (Not exactly the donor’s prescribed method, but in a similar vein, the committee believed.)  In the first of these exhibitions the public was treated to more than 360 works of art by more than 100 sculptors from around the world. The second exhibition featured more than 430 works. The third exhibition featured more than 250, enabling completion of the Samuel Memorial just after the mid-century.

Did the Memorial deliver on Samuel’s promise to present “statuary emblematic of the history of America”?

“Virtually anyone who has contemplated the Samuel Memorial, even in passing, can sense that there is something unsettling about the choice of sculpture,” wrote Penny Balkin Bach in Public Art in Philadelphia. Instead of achieving Samuel’s mission, the memorial stands as “emblematic of that period of turmoil and transition when artists and patrons were in search of new forms and meanings in an increasingly volatile world.”

[Sources: Penny Balkin Bach, Public Art in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia, Temple University Press: 1992); Dorothy Grafly, “Sculpture at Philadelphia: The Samuel Bequest,” The American Magazine of Art, September 1933, Vol. 26, No. 9 (September 1933); R. Sturgis Ingersoll, “The Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial,” in Fairmount Park Art Association, Sculpture of a City: Philadelphia’s Treasures in Bronze and Stone (New York: Walker Pub. Co., 1974); Joseph Bunford Samuel, A Word Sketch of Fairmount Park, [Philadelphia: Printed by J. B. Lippincott Company, 1917];  Joseph Bunford Samuel, The Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefini who visited the Western Hemisphere in 1007 (Printed for Private Distribution by J. Bunford Samuel, 1922). News accounts: “Portraits by the Ten Thousand,” The New York Times, November 14, 1896; “An American Portrait Index, The New York Times, March 29, 1902; “Berlin Drive a Great Failure,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 26, 1903; “Samuel Estate’s Value is $781,431,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 14, 1913; “Model of Park Statues Shown,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 30, 1916; “Park to Contain Statue of Viking,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 16, 1919; Fairmount Park’s Great Statuary Bequest, The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 15, 1929; “Terrace Statues in Park Finished After 48 Years,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 12, 1961.]

Disclosure: The writer is on the board of directors of the Association for Public Art, formerly the Fairmount Park Art Association.

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Making “Better Mothers, Better Babies and Better Citizens”

Interior of Health Center No. 2 – Corner of 8th and Winton Streets (2128 South Eighth Street) – Children’s Clinic. May 2, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

A building meant to serve as a saloon, we learned last time, morphed into Philadelphia’s first official community health center. It opened at 12th and Carpenter Streets in 1914 and survives today, fixing cars, not babies.

The philanthropic Child Federation reconfigured the place into an experimental demonstration site meant to address the city’s high infant mortality rate. “The large room on the first floor has been divided by a partition into two rooms, the front one being utilized as a receiving office, the rear one as a secretary’s office. Two of the rooms on the second floor are used as physicians examining rooms, and the rooms on the third floor as classrooms.”

How properly to fill the nursing bottle is demonstrated by Miss Irene Leslie (left) and Mrs. Betty Chodowski, municipal nurses, at Health Center No. 2, 2128 South Eighth Street. Evening Public Ledger, May 3, 1917 (Library of Congress)

Classes in maternal and infant health would become the main events in these new health centers, but could only be effective if they grew in number. And grow they did. By 1916, two more centers opened, one at Front and Tasker Streets (it would subsequently be relocated to Eighth and Winton Streets), another at 1136 North 2nd Street and a fourth at 3101 Grays Ferry Road. By the early 1920s, six more would open in other neighborhoods across the city.

Detail – Interior of Health Center No. 2 – Corner of 8th and Winton Streets – Children’s Clinic. May 2, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

According to Wilmer Krusen, the city’s director of public health, “The Philadelphia plan is to establish health centers or sub-health departments in those sections of the city where infant mortality is greatest and the general infectious diseases are most prevalent.”

Here’s a list of Philadelphia’s first eight health centers, all up and running by 1919:

Health District No. 1 — Twelfth and Carpenter Streets.

Health District No. 2 — Eighth and Winton Streets.

Health District No. 3 — 1136 North Second Street.

Health District No. 4 — Twenty-third and Wharton Streets.

Health District No. 5 — 2624 Kensington Avenue.

Health District No. 6 — 3826 Germantown Avenue.

Health District No. 7 — 5238 Lancaster Avenue.

Health District No. 8 — Front and Tasker Streets

Within a few more years, two additional centers would open at 2016 Lombard Street and 6029 Woodland Avenue.

From “Illustrating Philadelphia’s Vigorous Campaign to Reduce Summer Baby Mortality,” Evening Ledger – Philadelphia, May 3, 1917

What took place in these facilities? “Mothers are encouraged to bring their babies to the health centers at least once a week where they can be weighed and examined,” wrote Krusen. “Such babies are not treated, but are referred to the family physician, or to a dispensary. Health lectures are frequently planned and exhibits are always open to the public. Health literature, dealing not only with the care of the baby and child but also with the infectious diseases and health matters in general, is freely distributed.”

“The mothers are taught how to nurse their babies and how to detect signs of illness. Where the milk of the baby must be modified, this is explained and performed by the nurse.”

According to Krusen: “The mother, learning that others are interested in her children soon becomes enthusiastic over their progress. They attend the clinic just like children attend school. The centers are thus educational institutions which tend to make better mothers, better babies and better citizens.”

A special pictorial section in The Evening Public Ledger of May 3, 1917 gave a good idea what took place in these health center classes. Municipal nurses Irene Leslie and Betty Chodowski could be found instructing new mothers, grandmothers, and others in attendance at Health Center No. 2 (2128 South Eighth Street) on “how properly to fill the nursing bottle,” the right and wrong way to swaddle babies (enabling circulation and some leg movement) and what to feed an 18-month-old. (The recommended diet and feeding schedule: 6AM: Glass of milk; 8AM: Orange juice, piece of stale bread, no butter; 10AM: half of a ‘one-minute egg,’ junket, piece of toast; no butter; 2PM” Glass of milk, tablespoon prune pulp with juice, two slices stale bread; no butter; and 5:30PM – Glass of milk, tablespoonful cooked cereal with milk, piece of stale bread; no butter.”)

“It is the personal contact between the public and representatives of the health department as accomplished at the health centers which goes a long way toward securing the hearty cooperation of the people in all matters dealing with the protection of the public health,” wrote Krusen. The “health centers in Philadelphia have assumed so many public health functions that they are now considered as local branches of the Health Department.”

By 1917, public health officials counted only about a dozen health centers in the entire country—and the majority were in Philadelphia. Within the next several years, however, nearly 400 American communities would have their own.

And then there was the rest of the world.

“The health center idea has been conceived by public health workers in response to a universal need,” wrote Walter H. Brown, M.D., Associate Director of the American Red Cross. “It is more than a mere coincidence that we find some form of the social device developing almost simultaneously in England, France, Belgium, Wales, Australia, Canada, Cuba—as well as in our own country. This can only mean that we are dealing with an idea of unusual value.”

[Sources: “Illustrating Philadelphia’s Vigorous Campaign to Reduce Summer Baby Mortality,” Evening Ledger – Philadelphia, May 3, 1917 – Accessed via the Library of Congress; Walter H. Brown, M.D. Associate Director, Department of Health Service, American Red Cross, “Symposium on the Health Center III. Present Status of the Health Center,” American Journal of Public Health: JPH, Volume 11, Issue 1, January 1921; 218-220; Wilmer Krusen, M D, LL.D. Director, Department of Public Health and Charities of Philadelphia, “The Health Center Plan in Philadelphia,” Health News, Monthly Bulletin NY State Dept of Health – February 1919; Wilmer Krusen, M D, LL.D. Director, Department of Public Health and Charities of Philadelphia, Progress / Dept of Public Health and Charities Monthly Bulletin – Special Issue – September  October November, [1919]; J. A. T. “Symposium on the Health Center. I. The Historical Development.” American Journal of Public Health, Vol 11, No. 3, March 1921, pp. 212-213.]