The Lost World of North Broad Street

Mention North Broad Street today, and the image that comes to mind is one of desolation and decay. But in the late nineteenth century, this thoroughfare was a boulevard for the Gilded Age industrial rich. Rittenhouse Square might have been Philadelphia’s most prestigious residential address, but North Broad Street was arguably the most colorful and fanciful. There was a Frank Furness-designed temple for Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Willis Hale-designed baroque castle for Peter Widener, and the world’s largest opera house designed by William H. McElfatrick. These large structures, to borrow a phrase from architectural historian Robert Morris Skaler, were “great exclamation points” on the brownstone and brick streetscape.i Most of these structures proved to be as ephemeral as they were exuberant.

Because this new neighborhood was north of the Market Street railroad viaduct, the city’s old elite, who clustered around Rittenhouse Square, deemed it declassé. Yet North Broad Street was convenient for rich industrialists for two reasons. First, many of their factories and mills were located in adjacent industrial areas; a North Broad Street residence gave its entrepreneurial owner easy access to his thriving enterprises. Second, the area’s main developer was streetcar magnate Peter Arrell Brown Widener, a brilliant, self-made former butcher who was the kingpin of Philadelphia’s nineteenth century industrial and real estate boom. Widener’s massive Germanic mansion at 1200 North Broad—at the center of his city land holdings–was as much a real estate advertisement as a monument to his own taste.

For aggressive, driven men like Widener, the “Workshop of the World” offered endless ways to make a fortune. The city was a Victorian Silicon Valley, a laboratory for entrepreneurship and technology. Widener himself diversified his holdings into shipping, manufacturing, gas lines, and real estate. By 1900, he was the richest man in Philadelphia, worth over $100 million. Many of those who bought homes near the Widener mansion were also poor boys who had struck it rich—such as the swashbuckling promoter William Warren Gibbs, a one-time business partner of Widener’s who lived at 1216 North Broad. Gibbs was said to sit on more boards of directors than any other man in America. The area was also popular with German Jews who, despite their wealth and culture, were shunned by the Philadelphia establishment. The social discrimination against Jew and gentile denizens of North Broad Street ran deep and lasted long after their descendants had decamped to the suburbs. As one social chronicler observed, it took “families such as the Wideners several generations and removals to live down the fact that they had not merely had a house but a mansion on North Broad Street. The bigger the house, the more flagrant the offense.” ii

As a response to these snubs, one-time farm boys from New Jersey and Jewish immigrants from Frankfurt formed their own clubs and institutions. North Broad Street was analogous to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which was developed at exactly the same time. For Philadelphia’s nouveaux riches, a brick Rittenhouse Square rowhouse might have been the more “proper” and “traditional” option, but a freestanding, ornate mansion on North Broad was the more “fun” and “modern” one.

One modern residential concept pioneered on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was the so-called apartment hotel. One of the first of its kind was the Dakota Apartments on New York’s Central Park West, completed in 1885 and a huge financial success. These buildings were luxury apartment buildings with the amenities and service of a grand hotel. Suites of rooms often came fully furnished and usually included servants quarters. Well-to-do families or unmarried people who did not want the burden of a townhouse found this to be a convenient arrangement. In addition, the hotel’s ample ballrooms could accommodate bigger parties than most private city homes.

Inspired by the success of the Dakota, Philadelphia developers built apartment hotels of their own. The Lorraine (at Fairmount Avenue) and the Majestic (at Girard Avenue) were two such structures that graced North Broad Street. The Lorraine, designed by Willis Hale and finished in 1894, was the more architecturally cohesive of the two. Built of yellow Pompeian brick, the Lorraine soared ten stories above the neighborhood — the first high-rise residential structure in Philadelphia. Many of the suites boasted fireplaces. The ground floor contained a columned lobby and twin lounges. Perched on the tenth floor were two barrel vaulted ballrooms, whose high arched windows provided spectacular views of the city.

Further up North Broad Street, the architects of the Majestic cleverly incorporated the old William Lukens Elkins mansion into their establishment. The original brownstone house—which boasted a pillared facade similar to the Union League’s–contained the main public rooms, while high rise towers on the south and east sides of the lot housed the guest rooms.iii

Sadly, the Majestic was pulled down (old Elkins mansion and all) in 1971, but not before its façade had been mutilated by storefronts. In 1948, Father Divine, spiritual leader of the Peace Mission, purchased the Lorraine for the bargain basement price of $485,000. After adding his name and a red neon sign to the building, he transformed it into the first racially-integrated hotel in the United States. iv Abandoned since 2003, it survives, but the Divine Lorraine is a soot-smeared, gutted ghost of its former self.

Along with hotels, private clubs were key fixtures of North Broad Street social life. Since many North Broad Street residents were excluded from older establishments, they set up their own clubs that were just as grand as their Center City counterparts. v One such establishment was the Columbia Club, a turreted Queen Anne structure built in 1889 at 1600 North Broad Street. A massive flying eagle crowned its balconied façade. The most imposing of the North Broad Street clubs was the Mercantile Club, once located at the intersection of North Broad and Jefferson Streets. The membership consisted primarily of German Jewish families such as the Gimbels and the Snellenburgs (owners of big Center City department stores), as well as prominent attorneys and professionals. The luxurious facility boasted public spaces such as a Turkish smoking room. vi Oddly enough, the Mercantile Club was reluctant to admit Jews of non-German ancestry until the 1920s. Albert Greenfield, an immigrant from the Ukraine and the largest real estate operator in the city, was nearly blackballed. vii

The exuberant Gilded Age grandeur (or swagger) of North Broad Street proved all too fleeting. Today, almost all of North Broad Street’s social and residential gems have fallen to the wrecker’s ball. A few remnants of past glory – a score of crumbling rowhouses, a rotting old hotel, and a few heavily altered mansions – remind passersby of a time when North Broad Street was the street of dreams of Philadelphia’s Gilded Age.


[i] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.53.

[ii] Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphian: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1963, p.529

[iii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.90-91.

[iv] Mike Newall, “Left Behind: A Rare Look inside North Broad’s Divine Lorraine, a hotel with a heavenly past on the cusp of a (commercial) resurrection,” The Philadelphia City Paper, January 13-19, 2005. Accessed June 1, 2010.

[v] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: Philadelphia’s Broad Street, South and North (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2003, p.104.

[vi] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: Philadelphia’s Broad Street, South and North (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2003, p.98.

[vii] Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphian: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1963, p.571.

Events and People

Delayed Centennial Gift

One unusual attraction at the Centennial was a disembodied copper arm bearing a torch. Forty two feet high, it was a portion of a sculpture by French artist Frederic Bartholdi entitled “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Visitors could pay 50 cents to climb a ladder to the top of the torch. The kiosk at its base offered brochures and subscription information. When complete, the literature boasted, the statue would be just over 150 feet tall from foot to torch. The people of France had already offered to pay to complete the rest of the statue. All Americans had to do was to pay for the construction of a base, hopefully built on an island in New York harbor.

Bartholdi dreamed of giving America a 100th birthday present since 1865. The project’s chief promoter, jurist and poet Edouard de Laboulaye, felt that the abolition of slavery following the Civil War proved that America indeed could live up to its original promise of liberty and justice for all. He was also disappointed that earlier French experiments in democracy had failed; his nation was now under the rule of Emperor Napoleon III.i

Bartholdi and de Laboulaye were part of a long tradition of French intellectuals, most notably Alexis de Tocqueville, who were fascinated by American democracy. France, after all, had been the crucial European supporter of American independence during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette, a young French nobleman, fought alongside General George Washington and became a surrogate son. Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin, the lead negotiator of the alliance, was the toast of French society, who lionized him as the ideal American–much to John Adams’ chagrin.

Bartholdi’s workers fashioned a Greco-Roman style likeness of Liberty out of hammered copper plates. Each plate was shaped by hand and was only 3/32 of an inch thick.ii There were two obstacles to Bartholdi’s vision, however. The first was that the copper statue could not support itself; the artist needed a skilled engineer to design an internal iron “skeleton” that allowed the statue to withstand the force of the wind. He finally found one in Auguste Gustave Eiffel, who went on to fame as designer of a 1,000 foot high tower that still graces the Paris skyline.

The second problem was the construction of the statue’s base, which the French hoped the recipients would pay for. The arm was sent to the Centennial as a part of a public relations campaign. The public could purchase subscriptions ranging from a dime to $100 to help pay for the pedestal. But the public response at the Centennial was unenthusiastic. The country had been in the grips of a massive economic depression since 1873. To many Americans, a big copper woman seemed like a frivolous gift in this time of need. Moreover, it seemed incongruous compared to such exhibits celebrating American technical prowess: the Remington typewriter, Bell’s telephone, and Corliss’s engine. And no American city seemed eager to offer her a home, including Philadelphia. After the fair was over, the arm was packed up and displayed in New York’s Madison Square. However, the response from New Yorkers was also lukewarm; the arm was shipped back to France.

It took another ten years before the American people fulfilled their end of the bargain. Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant and the editor of the New York World, had led a newspaper campaign to raise funds for the pedestal.iii Not only that, but poet Emma Lazarus wrote a poem in 1883 called “The New Colossus” to tell the American people what the statue really stood for:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The statue arrived in crates in 1885, and was formally dedicated on October 28, 1886 – just over ten years after the arm first appeared at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

Postscript: In 1918, a year after America entered World War I, Lady Liberty made a brief return to the city of her American debut. A miniature of the statue (complete with pedestal) was exhibited in front of City Hall as the centerpiece of a patriotic display promoting the war effort.


[i] “Statue of Liberty National Monument: History and Culture,” National Park Service, the Department of the Interior. Accessed May 22, 2010.

[ii] “Statue of Liberty, National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Accessed May 25, 2010.

[iii] Seymour Topping, Pulitzer biography, Joseph Putlizer, 1847-1911. Accessed May 24, 2010.

Historic Sites

The Corliss Engine

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On May 10, 1876, the crowd held its breath as President Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil started the massive Corliss engine, which stood at the center of Machinery Hall. Nearly 190,000 visitors had flooded the fairgrounds on opening day, and a choir of 1,000 sang the “Centennial Hymn,” composed for the occasion by John Greenleaf Whittier.

With a hiss of steam and the clank of pistons, the Corliss engine shook to life, as did the fair it powered. The great engine, according to historian Esther M. Klein, “symbolized the nation’s growth.” i  Journalists like William Dean Howells saw it in poetic terms. “It rises loftily in the centre of the huge structure,” he wrote, “an athlete of steel and iron with not a superfluous ounce of metal on it; the mighty walking beams plunge their pistons downward, the enormous flywheel revolves with a hoarded power that makes all tremble, the hundred life like details do their office with unerring intelligence.” Howells also felt that technology was America’s answer to the art and culture of Europe. “Yes, it is still in these things of iron and steel that the national genius most freely speaks,” he concluded, “by and by the inspired marbles, the breathing canvases, the great literature; for the present America is voluble in the strong metals and their infinite uses.” ii

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The unveiling of the Corliss engine in 1876 was the equivalent to the release of the iPad in 2010. The Corliss engine was not just a demonstration piece: through a system of shafts and underground tunnels, it directly powered 800 machines throughout the Centennial Exposition. One of the marvels on display would revolutionize the world: a new invention by Alexander Graham Bell. Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil put his ear to its speaker and heard Bell reading Hamlet’s Soliloquy. “My God, it talks!” the emperor spluttered. iii

The steam engine was hardly new technology: it had been in practical use since the early 1700s, when it was first used in British coal mines.  John Fitch operated America’s first commercial steamboat between Philadelphia and Camden, but he did not attract enough backing to continue his business. Starting in 1802, two Watt steam engines powered the first Philadelphia Waterworks at Centre Square. Five years after that, Robert Fulton built the first commercially viable steamboat, which plied the Hudson River between New York and Albany. Much progress had been made in the decades leading up to the 1876 Centennial. The Corliss engine in Machinery Hall was of a type used to power large, fast coastal and river steamers. It’s variable valve timing, an idea patented by inventor George Henry Corliss in 1849, made this engine 30% more efficient than earlier steam engines. The Centennial engine towered 45 feet in the air and boasted a flywheel 30 feet in diameter. Its two cylinders, each nearly four feet in diameter, contained two rotating steam and two rotating exhaust valves. The pistons turned a crankshaft at 36 revolutions per minute, and the engine itself was rated at 1,400 horsepower. iv

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On a ship, the beam that connected the pistons to the flywheel stuck up above the superstructure, and the flywheel then spun a pair of paddlewheels. Because of the beam’s rocking motion, passengers called these “walking beam” engines. Outside of steamship use, Corliss engines freed America’s burgeoning industry from dependence on waterpower. Corliss engines powered textile looms, rolling mills, saw mills, and pumping stations. They were also remarkably durable machines, often lasting decades before wearing out.

Nearly three decades after the Centennial, steam power spawned and was eventually supplanted by a new force: electricity. Historian Henry Adams spent hours gazing at another massive Corliss engine at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This time, the Corliss engine did not directly power the fair’s machinery. It powered an electrical dynamo, which in turn powered thousands of incandescent bulbs and electrical appliances.

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Unlike the steam engine, with its visible mechanical components, electricity was invisible to the naked eye. To Adams, it appeared the dynamo was replacing the Virgin Mary as the “greatest force the Western world ever felt,” and the prospect was frightening. “The dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight,” he continued, “but to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity.” v

As for the Centennial Corliss engine, it remained in service long after the exposition closed. George Pullman, president of the Chicago-based railroad car manufacturer, purchased the engine to power one of his factories. The old engine was not scrapped until 1910, after thirty four years of service. By then, the old fashioned Corliss engine, with its clunky pistons and cumbersome “walking beam,” was completely obsolete. It had been supplanted by Charles Parsons’ compact, much more efficient steam turbine, which are still used in power plants and ships to this day.


[i] Esther M. Klein, Fairmount Park: A History and Guidebook, World’s Largest Municipal Park (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania: Harcum Junior College Press, 1974), p.29.

[ii] About the Corliss Engine, Dr. George F. Corliss, MU EEC Accessed May 16, 2010.

[iii] “More About Bell,” The Telephone, The American Experience, PBS. Accessed May 16, 2010.

[iv] About the Corliss Engine, Dr. George F. Corliss, MU EEC Accessed May 16, 2010.

[v] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1918.

Events and People

Japan-a-mania at the Centennial

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America had been trading with Asia since the early years of the Republic. In fact, some of the nation’s first great fortunes were made in the China Trade; the merchant princes of Boston and Salem would ship American goods and Indian opium to China in exchange for tea, silk, and porcelain.

Yet Japan, that mysterious island nation, remained aloof from the Western world. Aside from the Dutch, who maintained a trading post in Nagasaki, westerners were forbidden to set foot on Inflatable Bungee Run Japanese soil. The Japanese aristocracy was afraid that European culture, specifically Christianity, would “contaminate” their way of life and threaten their autonomy.

By the mid-nineteenth century, America (now a two-coast power) was looking for more trading partners in the Pacific. President Millard Fillmore decided to use a bit of gunboat diplomacy to shake Japan out of its slumber. In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy led a fleet of steam-powered warships to Edo harbor (modern day Tokyo). Perry presented the ruling shogun with a proposition: open up to American trade or Edo would be bombarded into oblivion.

The shogun gave in. Samurai swords were no match to American cannons.

In 1868, a group of nobles overthrew the conservative shogunate and “restored” power to the 16 year old Emperor Meiji. This group’s goal was to drag Japan into the modern age. National survival was at stake. If Japan remained stuck in the past, they argued, a Western power could easily conquer and exploit it. Britain and France, for instance, were carving up a prostrate and technologically backwards China into “spheres of influence.” Japan would not be next.

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Progress was swift. By 1876, Japan had set up a European-style parliament and was building up a modern army and navy. Railroads were connecting ancient Japanese cities. The Meiji regime decided that a grand display at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition would be the perfect vehicle to show the world how far Japan had come.

Yet it was traditional Japan, not the newly-industrialized one, which captivated the millions of visitors to the Japanese pavilion, bazaar, and gardens. The American public was starved for novelty, especially in architecture and the decorative arts, which were smothered in the rich gravy of Victorian taste.

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Amidst all this overstuffed and ornate excess, the Centennial’s Japanese exhibit was a breath of fresh air. The Atlantic Monthly said the clean lines and simple elegance of Japanese design made everything else look “commonplace and vulgar.” For the Japanese, “the commonest object of pottery of cotton-stuff for daily use has a merit of design and color which it does not owe to oddity alone.” i Even respected architect Richard Morris Hunt, a devoted Francophile, was stunned by the attention to detail and quality of craftsmanship he saw. The Japanese garden and bazaar, he wrote, provided “capital and most improving studies to the careless and slipshod joiners of the Western world.” ii

Following the Centennial Exposition, America went Japan-crazy. Upper class Bostonians, with their Trascendentalist philosophical leanings and love of nature, were particularly smitten. Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow lived in Japan from 1882 to 1889, collected 40,000 pieces of Japanese art which he donated to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and even converted to Buddhism. The eccentric heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner — known as “Mrs. Jack” — also fell under the Buddhist spell for a while. Her conversion was one of many things she did to flout Proper Bostonian conventions.iii Art critic Okakura Kakuzo, a mutual friend of both Bigelow and Gardner, designed the display of Japanese art at Mrs. Jack’s mansion. Kakuzo also arranged a performance of the ancient tea ceremony at her 1903 housewarming party.iv This house would eventually become the famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition further stoked American fascination with Japan. One person who prowled the Japanese pavilion was a young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright.v Wright, an avid collector and dealer of Japanese prints on the side, was integrating Japanese design elements into his “Prairie style” houses. When designing suburban and country houses, Wright made a point of building his structures “into” rather than “on top of” the natural landscape, a very Japanese design philosophy.

Across the Atlantic, Japanese prints sold by dealers such as Wright had a profound influence on the painters Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. In 1887, Van Gogh did a self-portrait in the Japanese style, showing himself as he wished to be: “a simple monk…worshipping the eternal Buddha.” vi

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In Philadelphia, the Japanese presence in Fairmount Park did not vanish with the closing of the exposition. After the Centennial, the Park Commission imported a Buddhist temple gate and placed it on the site of the Japanese bazaar. After this structure burned in 1955, the Fairmount Park Commission secured the “Shofuso,” an interpretation by architect Junzo Yoshimura of a seventeenth century aristocrat’s country house. This handcrafted structure, with its cypress frame and hinoki bark roof, had been presented by the America-Japan Society to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It also boasted sliding doors decorated by renowned artist Kaii Higashiyama.vii

In 1958, the Shofuso was carefully shipped to Philadelphia and reconstructed in the new tea garden. It still stands to this day, maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers. During the year, the Shofuso hosts events showcasing Japanese culture to Philadelphians. These include tea ceremonies, bonsai workshops, craft and martial arts classes, and the Sakura Sunday – Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival.

After 134 years, few visual reminders of the great Centennial Exposition remain. But miraculously, the patch of ground where the Shofuso stands continues to host the Centennial’s longest running exhibition.


[i] The Atlantic Monthly, as quoted by Dorothy Gondos Beer, “The Centennial City, 1865-1876,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.470.

[ii] Richard Morris Hunt, as quoted by Dorothy Gondos Beer, “The Centennial City, 1865-1876,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.470.

[iii] Cleveland Amory, The Proper Bostonians (New York, New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1947), p. 130.

[iv] Overview, Isabella Stewart Garnder Museum Accessed May 6, 2010.

[v] Melanie Birk, editor. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fifty Views of Japan: the 1905 Photo Album (San Francisco, California: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1996), p.105.

[vi] Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles (New York, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), p.7.

[vii] History, Shofuso: Japanese House and Garden Accessed May 5, 2010.


After the Fair: The Development of Parkside

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After the 1876 Centennial Exposition closed, all but two of the fair’s buildings, as well as the surrounding temporary hotels on Elm Avenue, were torn down. Even the Main Exhibition Building – its 21.5 acres of floor space made it the largest building in the world — wasn’t spared from the wreckers.i Only Memorial Hall, a massive granite edifice capped by a glass-and-cast-iron dome, remained as a visible reminder of the exposition that attracted over 10 million visitors and showcased industrial Philadelphia to the world.


As part of Fairmount Park, the now-cleared fairground was protected in perpetuity as green space. The area around it remained largely undeveloped. Most of West Philadelphia was dotted Inflatable Football Soccer Dart with forests, shantytowns, farms, and summer villas. One big institution west of the Schuylkill was the University of Pennsylvania, which had pulled up stakes from Center City and moved to its new campus in 1873. The Philadelphia Zoo opened its doors on West Girard Avenue a year later. Would the area around the Centennial fairground return to its previous pastoral state?

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The answer was decidedly no. From 1870 to 1890, the city’s population nearly doubled from 674,000 to just over 1 million. Center City was congested and open space was at a premium. Industry befouled the air with coal smoke and other noxious fumes. For those who could afford it, a new West Philadelphia neighborhood fronting a verdant park – with its tree-shaded promenades and carriage trails — could be an attractive alternative to Rittenhouse Square or Fairmount.

The problem was access. After the demolition of the Centennial depot, the Pennsylvania Railroad did not provide a commuter service to the area as it did to the Main Line and Chestnut Hill. Finally, in 1895, following the growth of Powelton and Mantua to the south, a new trolley line connected the former Centennial fairgrounds with the rest of the city. Around the same time, Memorial Hall became the new home for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, packed with treasures from William Wilstach’s private collection.

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The area now seemed ripe for residential development. Frederick Poth and Joseph Schmidt, two enterprising German-American brewers, envisioned a modern, upper-class district of large houses and spacious apartment buildings.ii With the Zoo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as nearby cultural attractions, perhaps their development could be Philadelphia’s answer to New York’s Upper Fifth Avenue?

The new development would be called Parkside, which also became the new name for Elm Avenue. The exuberance of the Centennial Exposition would be reflected in its residential architecture. The developers commissioned architects such as H.E. Flower, Angus Wade, John C. Worthington, and Willis Hale to design eclectic homes for prosperous professionals and businessmen. Flemish gables, copper bay windows, tiled dormers, and terra-cotta cornices sprouted from houses built of orange Pompeian brick. Spindly, conical towers topped the Queen Anne-style Lansdowne Apartments.iii One critic described Hale and his colleagues as providing a “stylistically pragmatic architecture expressive of a self-confident individualism and optimistic commercial expansion.” Others were not so kind. “Every precaution has been taken, and with success, to insure that the building shall lack unity, shall lack harmony, shall lack repose and shall be a restless jumble,” complained one critic of Hale’s work.iv

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No matter. Parkside’s big, superbly-crafted houses were a hit among newly-affluent Philadelphians, many of German origin. During Parkside’s glory days, weekend coaching enthusiasts flocked to the carriage trails. To the pedestrians, this parade presented a magnificent spectacle of rippling horseflesh, gleaming brass work, parasols and top hats. Parkside gained a place in art history when Eakins set his famous painting “The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand” on Lansdowne Drive, just north of Memorial Hall. One of Eakins’ artistic goals was to accurately depict a horse’s real gait as it had been recently discovered by photographer Eadward Muybridge.v

In 1912, workers completed the Richard Smith Civil War Memorial, a triumphal gateway flanked by two columns and adorned with bronze statues of Generals Meade, McClellan, and Hancock. Sunday strollers discovered that if they sat on benches on one side of the memorial, they could hear conversations from people on the other side. These seats became known as the “Whispering Benches.”

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However, Parkside’s splendor was fleeting. Despite the trolley connection and bridges spanning the Pennsylvania railroad tracks, Parkside still remained relatively isolated from the rest of the city. Commuting to the city’s central business district was still a headache, and many of the original residents moved either to more convenient Philadelphia neighborhoods or to the suburbs. By World War I, the area’s demographics shifted from wealthy German-American to middle-class Eastern European Jewish. For most, it was a big step up from the tiny row houses of South Philadelphia. Parkside’s first synagogue opened on the 3900 block of Girard Avenue in In 1929, the Philadelphia Museum of Art moved into its new home in Fairmount, depriving Parkside of a major cultural attraction. Memorial Hall was converted into a community gymnasium, then a police station. Not surprisingly, the underutilized structure suffered from deferred maintenance. The Great Depression dealt a major blow to the neighborhood, and most the big houses fronting Parkside Avenue were cut up into apartments.


Following World War II, the Great Migration coupled with “white flight” transformed Parkside into a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Landlords found the big houses difficult to maintain as multi-family residences, and either abandoned or neglected them. The old Girard Avenue commercial corridor also suffered from divestment. In recent years, efforts have been made to revitalize Parkside. The neighborhood was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, and community groups have renovated many of the mansions along Parkside Avenue into affordable apartments. Quicker access to the neighborhood from other parts of the city came in 2005 with the restoration of Girard Avenue trolley service. In 2009, the Please Touch Museum moved into a restored Memorial Hall. The neighborhood also boasts the Philadelphia Stars Negro Baseball League baseball diamond and monument. This May, the Philadelphia Historic Commission will designate East Parkside a local historic district, granting its structures stronger protection against demolition and alteration. Today, Parkside can once again proudly boast of being Philadelphia’s “Centennial District.”


[i] Dorothy Gondos Beer, “The Centennial City, 1865-1876,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.462.

[ii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.117.

[iii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.121.

[iv] James Foss and Montgomery Schuyler, as quoted in Willis Hale, Architect: 1848 – 1907,

[v] Gordon Hendricks, “A May Morning in the Park,” The Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, vol.60, no.285 (Spring 1965), p.48.

[vi] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.117.

Historic Sites

England’s Green and Pleasant Land on the Banks of the Schuylkill: The Story of St. James-the-Less, Part Two

By advocating English Gothic as the only acceptable style for Anglican churches, the Philadelphia followers of the Cambridge Camden Society wanted to take a stand against trends they felt were very unattractive in the boisterous new nation: a dangerous secularism built upon the unfettered worship of commerce, technology and the power of reason. Even so, the young nation as described by observers like Alexis de Tocqueville was largely indifferent or even hostile to such diversions as liturgical ceremony, spiritual mysticism, and antiquarianism. Tocqueville noted the result of the lack of government-sanctioned aristocratic and clerical prerogatives on the American psyche: “When ranks are confused and privileges are destroyed, when patrimonies are divided and enlightenment and freedom are spread, the longing to acquire well-being presents itself to the imagination of the poor man, and the fear of losing it, to the mind of the rich. A multitude of mediocre fortunes is established … They therefore apply themselves constantly to pursuing or keeping these enjoyments that are so precious, so incomplete, and so fleeting.”1 Of course, Robert Ralston and his fellow Philadelphia sponsors of St. James-the-Less had fortunes largely based in banking and manufacturing, not in inherited rank and feudal landownership.

In keeping with the Cambridge Camden Society’s mission for authenticity, no architect per se was hired to design St. James-the-Less. John E. Carver, the general contractor, worked from measured drawings of St. Michael’s, Long Station in Cambridgeshire, which had been built c. 1230.2 The project’s sponsors saw this model as the purest example of a modestly-sized but exquisitely crafted British parish church, one that was designed and built by local craftsmen out of local materials. Rather than being delicate, lofty, and grandiose, St. James-the-Less is compact, rugged, and muscular. The nave windows are small, creating a very dark, mysterious nave compared to the open, light-filled ones of neoclassical Philadelphia churches.

The chancel, where the priest performs the sacrifice of the mass, is recessed and partially screened from the congregation, a liturgical statement meant to convey the mystery of the sacrament. The masonry walls are rough-hewn and composed of stones of irregular shapes. The gable peaks are capped by stone crosses, while the doors are painted a bright red and are ornamented with wrought iron hinges and handles. Unlike large Gothic cathedrals, which used flying buttresses to augment the load bearing capacity of their walls, St. James-the-Less relies only on its thick masonry piers and walls to support its roof.

The choice of setting for St. James-the-Less was as important to its architecture. Ralston and his colleagues wanted a site that would be appropriate to a country parish church. According to a 1983 history of the church, “The Ridge Road had long been a main avenue of travel, but many of the tracts that are now built up in rows of houses were then woodlands, or were occupied by country places of considerable size.”3 Since factories and dense residential development were slowly creeping northward, the vestry of St. James-the-Less hoped that their new church would be used not just by the wealthy, but also by the working class employed in the mills and factories. The church and its grounds would be a spiritual and physical oasis for families who lived in dense row house districts with little green space and few aesthetic charms. To borrow two images from William Blake’s famous poem “Jerusalem,” St. James-the-Less was to be nestled in a land of “pleasant pastures green,” a world away from the “dark, satanic mills” of the smoke-belching metropolis.

Construction on the church began in 1846, with an initial budget of $6,000. The Bishop Alonzo Potter dedicated the structure in 1850, but the total cost for the church had risen to over $30,000–approximately $700,000 in today’s money–largely because of the expensive decorations that the patrons insisted on adding to the interior.4

The impact of tiny St. James-the-Less on American architecture was immense. Parishioners were stunned at the proportions and craftsmanship of the building while visitors left the church determined to build their own country Gothic churches to the same exacting standards. Within the next few decades, English Gothic churches sprung up throughout the Philadelphia region and beyond. According to architectural historian Phoebe Stanton: “Many of the Protestant Episcopal churches that followed in the United States were informed with its [St. James-the-Less] feeling for materials and for simple but delicate articulation of ornament and scale … Whether or not one approves the appropriation of a medieval plan for nineteenth century use and the introduction of a deep chancel as a part of church plans and liturgical practice, one must be grateful for the accident which brought to America a building that demonstrated the aesthetic truths medieval buildings had to offer the nineteenth century architect and patron.”5 The most notable architectural descendents of St. James-the-Less include architect John Notman’s St. Mark’s Church at 16th and Locust and the Hewitt brothers’ St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in Chestnut Hill, both of which use the English country church plan.

Aside from some minor interior cosmetic changes, St. James-the-Less remained largely unchanged during the 19th century, even as the mills, foundries, and crowded row house blocks crept up the Schuylkill banks and encroached on its formerly sylvan setting. The church served as a place of worship both for the working class of East Falls and the wealthy Center City Philadelphians, many of whom are buried in the cemetery, which by the early 20th century had completely filled the grounds.

Although the church itself remained unaltered, the physical plant of St. James-the-Less expanded to serve the needs of an increasingly urban and working class neighborhood. In 1916, a new rectory and a large parish house/school building were constructed across Clearfield Street from the church. Perhaps the most striking new addition to the St. James-the-Less compound was the Wannamaker Memorial Tower, built to serve both as the church’s carillon and the Wannamaker family tomb. Eschewing the rustic language of the original church, these buildings take their cues from the liturgical architecture of architects such as Ralph Adams Cram, with their use of intricate stone tracery, gargoyles and other decoration.

Today, St. James-the-Less – a seminal piece of American architectural heritage, a pastoral respite from the blighted neighborhoods of Hunting Park Avenue, and a National Historic Landmark – sits shuttered and dark. Still wholly intact inside and out, St. James the Less sits perched on its hill above the Schuylkill River waiting for a new life.


1 Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Edited and translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

2 Phoebe B. Stanton. The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture: An Episode in Taste, 1840-1856. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. 94.

3 Paul W. Kayser. A Brief History and Guide to the Church of St. James the Less. Philadelphia: St. James the Less, 1983. 2.

4 Paul W. Kayser. A Brief History and Guide to the Church of St. James the Less. Philadelphia: St. James the Less, 1983. 4.

5 Phoebe B. Stanton. The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture: An Episode in Taste, 1840-1856. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. 113.

Historic Sites

England’s Green and Pleasant Land on the Banks of the Schuylkill: The Story of St. James-the-Less, Part One


In 1846, several prominent members of the Philadelphia Episcopal Church met at the country estate of Robert Ralston in the village of Falls of Schuylkill. They were merchants, manufacturers, and other men of property, but they had not gathered to raise capital to build another factory or lay more miles of railroad track. Instead the meeting at “Mount Peace” produced the following goal: “To build a church which should be a country house of worship, as similar as possible to the best type of such a church that England could furnish, a veritable home of retirement and meditation, a quiet house of prayer.”1 All of the men were members of a small organization known as the Cambridge Camden Society, a tight-knit group of academics, architects and patrons of the arts who sought to radically transform British and American church design.

During the 1830s, the Cambridge Camden Society was formed in England to revive the authentic Gothic style in church architecture. Its corresponding spiritual equivalent, known Inflatable Caterpillar as the Oxford Movement, was led by a group of Oxford University professors, theologians and students. Anglican thinkers such as John Henry Newman, Edward Pusey, and John Keble felt that the Church of England had become liturgically lax and hoped to revive many of its traditional, Roman Catholic practices.2 The Oxford Movement and the Cambridge Camden Society wanted to reassert the centrality of the Mass over preaching in the Anglican service, as well as a reincorporation of pre-Reformation symbols and practices in the liturgy and design. St. James-the-Less was intended by its Philadelphia sponsors to be an authentic and perfect jewel of the emphatically medieval and British Gothic style.

As is common with cases of spiritual and aesthetic nostalgia, Ralston and his coterie planned St. James-the-Less in reaction to what was seen as a soulless, materialistic present. The Cambridge Camden Society became disenchanted with the classical revival that had been the dominant form of church architecture during the 18th century. Anglican churches built during the 18th and early 19th centuries in England and America based their floor plans and detailing on Greek and Roman models, most notably those adapted by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Examples of neoclassical Anglican churches in Philadelphia include Christ Church at 2nd and Market Street (1727) and St. Peter’s Church (1760). These churches are characterized by an open nave without side aisles, simple ornamentation, large windows letting in ample sunlight, and a lack of liturgical representative artwork. Firmly identifying with the Protestant rather than the Catholic traditions of the Church of England, these churches were meant to emphasize preaching and congregational hymn singing over communion and liturgical processions.


The Federal and Greek revival styles, steeped in the language of pagan classical antiquity, were wildly popular in Philadelphia during the first decades of the 19th century. To the sophisticated urban mercantile elite, the adaptation of the classical language for the young nation was a logical choice. The young republic, led by classically virtuous men such as George Washington, was the heir to Greek democracy and the Roman Republic. Nicholas Biddle, the erudite Philadelphia banker and man of letters, felt that the Greek revival style, with its associations with reason, restraint, and egalitarianism, should be the national style for the American Republic.3 The most perfect monument to Biddle’s idea is the Second Bank of the United States at 5th and Market Streets, designed by William Strickland and based on the Parthenon. As a practical matter, builders and architects could easily adapt the classical style to all manner of uses. By the 1830s, sober Greek porticos, entablatures and other decorative details adorned the row houses, banks, and schools throughout Philadelphia.

As the American Revolution and the hostility to all things British faded into distant memory, a number of prominent Philadelphians began to look to architects who were inspired by the English church’s medieval, pre-Reformation heritage. The Gothic style – almost exclusively used for church architecture since the Middle Ages – was not easy to adapt to a merchant’s row house block near Washington Square or a bank on Market Street. Gothic had inextricable associations with markedly “un-Republican” concepts, namely monarchy, feudal aristocracy, and clerical hierarchy. It also connoted mystery and complexity rather than reason and simplicity.


  • 1Paul W. Kayser, A Brief History and Guide to the Church of St. James the Less. Philadelphia: St. James the Less, 1983. 2.
  • 2 “What is the Oxford Movement?” Pusey House Chapel and Library, 2006.
  • 3 Joseph Downs. “The Greek Revival in America.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 5 (Jan., 1944), 173.

Historic Sites

Aquatic Freeway

During the heady years of the late 19th century, the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers were as congested as the interstates that flank them today. Oil tankers, freighters, coal barges, and an occasional ocean liner clogged the Delaware River during the daylight hours. The Schuylkill River, although narrower and Inflatable Dome Tent shallower, was overrun with smaller vessels, such as the wooden sailing schooners showing in the above photographs. And as on the Schuylkill Expressway, accidents happened!

According to the photograph caption, the two ships collided during the “freshet” of May 1894. A freshet is a sudden spring thaw leading to flash floods. The freshet of 1894 killed 12 people throughout the state and, according to the New York Times, caused $3 million in damage in Williamsport alone, washing away buildings, bridges and railroads.1 These wrecked schooners, jammed against the South Street Bridge on the Schuylkill River, represented a small fraction of the damage.

During the Early Republic (1790 to 1850), the banks of the two rivers bristled with the masts and yards of sailing ships of all kinds: clippers heading to the Far East, navy frigates sailing up the River to the Federal Street Navy Yard for repairs, packets bound for England, and schooners headed for the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks and the Chesapeake Bay.

The sea-going paddlewheel steamer appeared in the 1830s. Although these new ships were no longer bound by the whims of tide and trade winds, they still carried full sets of sails in case of mechanical breakdown. Sailors and naval architects are generally a conservative set. The 10,000 ton luxury liners City of New York and City of Paris, built in 1889 for the Inman Line, had three masts that could be fully rigged for sails. Since they had two sets of propellers capable of moving the ship at over 20 knots, the sails were included more out of habit than out of necessity.2

The sailing ships involved in the collision were schooners. Schooners were the workhorses of the East Coast and the Great Lakes. They were used as “pleasure craft, cargo carriers, privateers, slavers, fishing boats and pilot boats.”3 Schooners were relatively small vessels – seldom longer than 125 feet – and usually had two masts. They were rigged with triangular rather than square sails. The tops of these sails were supported at the top of the masts by yards known as gaffs. Big triangular sails allowed schooners to sail close to the wind, and they required a relatively small crew to sail. Two schooners survive to this day at New York’s South Street Seaport. The first is the iron-hulled Pioneer, built in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania to haul sand up and down the Delaware River. 4 The second is the Lettie G. Howard, built in 1893 in Essex, Massachusetts as a fishing schooner.5

The rich cousins of the humble schooners were the great square riggers, boasting masts twelve stories high and up to three hundred feet long. In their day, they were the queens of the high seas, ferrying cargo and passengers across the oceans. Square riggers required large crews to hoist and trim sails, and best sailed when perpendicular to the wind. One of the few surviving tall ships is the Mosholu, constructed in the late 19th century, and is built of steel rather than wood.

Despite the ascendancy of the steam engine in the mid-19th century, sailing ships continued to play the Delaware River and eastern seaboard up until the 1910s. Schooners in particular were cheap to operate, and could easily haul cargo such as lumber, grain, and manufactured from a large port such as Philadelphia to smaller communities that lacked modern docking facilities. Or vise versa. By 1900, many sailing ships had auxiliary engines for river navigation, but they were still ungainly and hard-to-steer. Captains used to heeling hard-to-the-wind under sail now found themselves threading between bridge piers and dodging other ships the constricted shipping channels. In addition to navigating a constantly-shifting obstacle course, captains also had to fight treacherous currents and currents that swirled the muddy rivers.

After World War I, sailing ships quickly faded from the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, replaced by efficient but ugly barges and coastal steamers. Most ended their days in scrap yards. A few have survived to this day. They serve as static attractions like the Mosholu, cadet training ships such as the Coast Guard’s Eagle, and floating ambassadors of goodwill such as Philadelphia’s barkentine Gazela. One tall ship, the Sea Cloud, now serves as a luxurious small cruise ship.



1 The New York Times, “Flood Swept Away Millions” May 23rd, 1894 9F01E6D71F39E033A25750C2A9639C94659ED7CF&oref=slogin&oref=slogin (Accessed October 8, 2007.).

2SS City of Paris, 1889, Glasgow City Archives. (Accessed October 4, 2007.). (Accessed October 4, 2007).

4South Street Seaport Museum, Pioneer. (Accessed October 4, 2007).

5South Street Seaport Museum, Pioneer. (Accessed October 4, 2007).

Historic Sites

An Iron Baron’s West Philadelphia Castle

Nathaniel Burt wrote of Philadelphia iron-making entrepreneurs such as the Whartons, Brookes, Rutters and Potts: “Along with the New York patroon and the New England shipowner, he does provide something of a landowning equivalent to offset the more purely trading wealth of the region’s old families.” 1 Thus the Whartons became the lords of Batsto, the Brookes’ of Birdsboro, and the Potts’ of Potttown and Pottsville.

The house at 3905 Spruce Street, built by the iron baron Joseph Potts in 1876, befits the residence of businessmen who helped make Pennsylvania a center of the American industrial revolution. As landowners and founders of the iron-mill towns of Pottstown and Pottsville, they also possessed something of a feudal mystique.

When Old Philadelphia families started crossing the Schuylkill into West Philadelphia in the years following the Civil War, the social rule of thumb of living between Market and Pine continued, with families clustering around the newly-moved University of Pennsylvania. 3905 Spruce sits comfortably within these prescribed boundaries, although in the 1870s West Philadelphia was still largely rural and undeveloped.

3905 Spruce is built in a Ruskinian Gothic style that mirrors Penn’s nearby College Hall. The mansion, designed by the Wilson brothers, on one hand possesses elements of a feudal castle with its pointed windows, chiseled chimneys, and slate roof. At the same time, the house was a showcase for the products of the workshop of the world, with its cast-iron roof decorations and conservatory and polychrome exterior brick walls. The interiors were a tour-de-force of the Philadelphia woodcarvers art, boasting a massive three-level carved oak central staircase, pocket doors of birds-eye maple, and fireplaces supported by snarling griffins and bordered with tiles.

Potts’ son William graduated from Penn in 1876 – the year his father’s house was completed, and subsequently became a very generous financial supporter of the school. By 1917, the neighborhood had become less fashionable, and Penn was swallowing up many surrounding properties around the Potts castle. That year, William Potts donated the family mansion to Penn and decamped, like many of his social compatriots, to the Main Line suburbs.2 The building was used subsequently housed Penn’s International House and later the WXPN radio. During those years, the house suffered rough treatment and deferred maintenance.

But at least the Potts mansion was left standing. Most of the compounds of the Philadelphia aristocracy belonging to the Drexels, Clarks, Swains, and Sinnotts have been replaced by denser row house development or razed by the University of Pennsylvania. Remnants of this enclave of industrial wealth, such as St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and two Drexel mansions currently used as fraternity houses, now sit high and dry in a desert of concrete high rises and brick plazas known as the “Superblock.”

Today, the weary Potts mansion stands stripped of its ornamental features such as the domed roof on the cost iron conservatory, the glass-enclosed porch facing Spruce Street, and its port-cochere. Its brick walls and slate walls are smeared with grime, and the chimneys lean precariously. Nonetheless, it was benevolent neglect that allowed much of the house’s extraordinary interior detailing to survive intact. The house built by Joseph Potts is one of the few survivors of the Golden Age of West Philadelphia. Its association with one of the regions most distinguished industrial families, and the high quality of construction and craftsmanship makes Potts mansion at 3905 Spruce makes one of the most significant and underappreciated historical and architectural jewels of University City.


1 Nathaniel, Burt The Perennial Philadelphians (University of Pennsylvania Press), 1999. 180.