Manayunk: a place to drink

If you’ve only been up to Manayunk to see the Philly Cycling Classic, it may seem a little too apt that people believe the name of the place is derived from a Lenape word for “a place to drink,” but that’s the story. Originally known as Flat Rock, after a rock alongside one of the bridges, Manayunk received its modern name in 1824, an anglicized version of the word “manaiung,” which is believed to mean, “where we go to drink”—referring to the Schuylkill River as a source of water.

#7 Green Lane Over Schuylkill River - Schuylkill Navigation Canal and Reading Railroad - Looking Northwest From Canal Bank.
#7 Green Lane Over Schuylkill River – Schuylkill Navigation Canal and Reading Railroad – Looking Northwest From Canal Bank.

The name of the town is important, because for a while, during the years when Philadelphia was known as “The Workshop of the World,” the denizens of Manayunk were there own breed of people. There are still some left, but once upon a time it was a blue collar community with a distinctive character. People from Manayunk were called “Yunkers.” Odds are, you just read that word wrong. If you were from there, you’d know “Yunker” is pronounced “yoonker” and “Manayunk” is pronounced “Manayoonk” to its old timers.

Leverington Avenue Bridge-Looking Southwest from Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Bridge. Simister Mills Company
Leverington Avenue Bridge-Looking Southwest from Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Bridge. Simister Mills Company.

The original Lenape word could also mean “raging waters.” According to Deborah Del Collo’s Roxborough, the Schuylkill was, in those days, a raging river. It’s hard to imagine the ambling water way that way now, but it had to be calmed down. The story of Manayunk’s development is dependent on navigable waters.

Manayunk was a sparsely populated, bucolic farming settlement of only a few dozen people until the the Schuylkill Navigation Company began selling waterpower in 1818 or 1819 (accounts differ). From the beginning of power from the dam, however, things began to change rapidly in the area and the town began to grow as quickly. The first census of the area was conducted by a local pastor in 1827. He found 1,098 people living in the town, most of them working for textile mills.

The growth would continue. If you think of the textile industry before the Civil War at all, you probably think of the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. In Workshop of the World—A Selective Guide to the Industrial Archeology of Philadelphia, the writers argue that Manayunk differed from Lowell in that its various mills were all privately held by families. This gave the families much more leeway in how to conduct their business, so that the Mananyunk mills were making a greater diversity of cloths, dyes and patterns. They were also ploughing much of their profits back into the business, so that in time the mills would dominate the banks of the Manayunk Canals.

Leverington Avenue Bridge-Down Stream View. S. Keely and Sons Lumber and Millwork. 1929.
Leverington Avenue Bridge-Down Stream View. S. Keely and Sons Lumber and Millwork. 1929.
This photo tells a little more of a story than it may immediately appear to. By 1929, the canals were all but completely out of use. In 1870, the canal industry had been defeated by the railroads and had sold the Philadelphia and Reading Railroads 110 year leases to their property.

At first, Manayunk’s mill owners were more inclined to invest in their plants than in housing for workers. Workers had to find their own places to live or build their own homes. As the 19th century wore on, that would change. More and more mill owners owned real estate and began to build cheap tenement housing further up the hill, away from the homes of the more prosperous nearer the mills and the rivers.

Stairway Connecting Upper and Lower Levels of Dupont Street at Silverwood Street. 1932.
Stairway Connecting Upper and Lower Levels of Dupont Street at Silverwood Street. 1932.

In 1854, the township would be annexed into Philadelphia and officially be part of the city forever more.

The town would have three industrial cycles. Shipping on the canal would peak in 1859 and end in 1917. At the end of the Civil War, Manayunk would be recognized as a major textile center, but that would unravel with the Great Depression. However, Manayunk would remain important as an industrial center, primarily by way of paper mills, up through the 70s to early 80s. Then it would go into a period of decline.

In the 2000s, Manayunk started to come back, but primarily as a residential area. Today, Main Street Manayunk is a social and shopping destination and a gathering place for the new denizens of the neighborhood. There’s been some tension in the neighborhood as longtime residents grapple with gentrification. Even as the Bike Race and the Manayunk Arts Festival bring a decidedly different sort of traffic to what has become something of a bedroom community within the dense Southeast Pennsylvania region,  some vestiges of an older Manayunk hang on, such as the Hi-Spot Lanes bowling alley on Hermit Street.





The Philadelphia Ice Cream Tradition of Innovation

700 Block of Sansom. 1963. DOR Archives.
Abbott’s Ice Cream advertised for sale on Sansom Street, 1963.

By Brady Dale.

With spring and summer upon us (not to mention an announcement that even Yuengling has entered the ice cream business, the history of local ice cream has been on our mind.

Philadelphia has long been a leader in ice cream production, and the city is still home to Bassett’s Ice Cream, which started here in 1861. In a previous Philly History post on another famous brand, Breyer’s Ice Cream, we wrote about the ups and downs of a company that changed hands many times before it finally left Philadelphia in 1993. Breyer’s started here in 1866 and its first store was at Frankford Ave and Somerset, in Port Richmond, which the company opened in 1882.

By 1900, the North Bros. Manufacturing Company (acquired in 1946) was a leading manufacturer of ice cream freezers and other ice related equipment. So even if companies made ice cream elsewhere, they still needed Philadelphia goods to make it happen. Founded at 23rd and Race Street, the company really became big when it moved its operation to Lehigh and American Streets.

Abbott’s Dairies, Chestnut and 30th St. 1930.

Abbott’s Dairy shut down in 1984, after 108 years. It is too bad. It sounds like it was a fun company. In 1937 they put out a book called Raggedy Ann and Maizie Moocow, with an ice cream driven plot (meant to illustrate the healthful benefits of ice cream). It’s dairy truck drivers are remembered to have been known to throw kids free ice cream sandwiches, in Philadelphia ReflectionsIn truth, Abbott’s core business wasn’t ice cream so much as dairy. It had a home delivery business that started selling non-dairy products in 1967. By 1975, non-dairy sales by milkmen were making up some 20% of their home delivery sales, according to The Times-News.

Here’s a photo of some Abbott’s trucks in South Philadelphia. Here’s a photo of stacks and stacks of Abbott’s branded ice cream.

Ice cream for sale near UPenn’s campus, 1952.

Let’s talk ice cream innovation, too. To start, let’s focus on something that’s been subject to a long history of debate: the city origin of fried ice cream. Today, the inventive dessert is often found in Asian and Mexican restaurants, though it’s connection to those cuisines is debatable. Some say the desert was introduced at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but other sources around that time credit it to Philadelphia. A recipe called “Alaska Bake,” effectively the same thing as Fried Ice Cream, turned up in the Philadelphia Cook Book in 1886.

Philadelphia is also the birthplace of another spectacular snack. While the Jack & Jill Ice Cream Company was still operating here, one of its VPs created the Choco-Taco in 1984, an ice-cream confection that continues to engender cavities to this day.

There’s something about ice cream that’s meant for travel. While the milkmen is a fondly remembered icon of the past, the ice cream truck is still going strong. One of the pioneers of wandering trucks luring children’s allowance away from them started here in 1956, the still familiar Mister Softee.

Fulleborn's Bakery, Germantown, 1957. DOR Archives.
Bassett’s and Dolly Madison Ice Creams for sale in Germantown, 1957.

Unfortunately, this last story is not as great as it could be. All the good details seem to have been lost to the winds of time. Augustus Jackson was an African-American man who was born in Philadelphia in 1808 and worked as a chef at the White House. He came back to Philadelphia after a while, though, in his early 20s, and started an ice cream company. We don’t know its name. There are accounts of Jackson all over the web. They say he was prosperous, that he invented new flavors that are still popular today and that he improved the process of making ice cream. That’s where the trail goes cold. He never filed for any patents, so the details of his contributions to the creamy confection business seem to have been lost. If anyone knows any more, please let us know in the comments.

Here’s to your first ice cream cone this season: Let it not melt.


Stetson Hats: the western icon made here

By Brady Dale, for Technically Philly.

Workers at the Kensington Stetson Factory, 1897.

It’s often worth taking in the names engraved on old Philadelphia buildings. Sometimes, they are surprising.

For example, If you’ve stopped into RAW: Sushi and Sake Lounge, at 1225 Sansom Street, you may have noticed that its ornate entryway says “John B. Stetson Company” in several places. Stetson Hats are one of the greatest names of the Philadelphia manufacturing tradition. The Stetson Company, at its peak, employed 5,000 people in its factory at 5th and Montgomery St.

Still Philadelphia has several photos of teams of men and women at work on different parts of the hat assembly process, which was celebrated across the country and a strong representation of American manufacturing at the turn of the century.


A drawing of the Stetson factory, shown along Germantown Ave.

The building at 1225 Sansom was the backdoor of a large Stetson store on Chestnut St. The front side has since been torn down. The Stetson Store’s designated address was 1225 Chestnut st, as evidenced by these photos of a collectible matchbook advertising the store.

Collectible matchbook for sale on Ebay.

Though the store wasn’t really the epicenter of the Stetson empire, it is one of the few remaining physical artifacts in the public space of the legacy of John Stetson in the city. Another being the John B. Stetson School, at E. Allegheny Ave and B. St. Seen below, which was once a charter school, as pictured below.

Stetson School, click for more info

While the hats were made here on the East Coast, they do have frontier origins. John Stetson had been trained as a hatmaker by his father. He was working as a trapper in Colorado, and made his first wide-brimmed hat out of felt made from the fur of his catches. He showed fellow trappers that it was faster and lighter than hats made from tanned hides. When he brought his creation back to Philadelphia, he decided to make a business of it.

He opened his first hat shop in Northern Liberties, at 7th and Callowhill, and by all accounts had almost immediate and wild success. The hats weren’t cheap, but they were ideal for cowboys who wanted to keep the sun off their face and to show that they were doing well financially. After growing out of this first little shop, Stetson set himself up at 4th and Chestnut. In 1872, the company would open its the Kensington factory, shown in the illustration above. at  By 1917, the company is reported to have been earning $11,000,000 per year (approximately $200,000,000 in today’s dollars).  Ninety-nine years later, in 1971, the factory was torn down. There are photos of its demolition in Temple University’s collection of old photos from The Evening Bulletin.

More info, click here.
Stetson Factory in the snow


1897 Stetson Hat Factory Workers, George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin CollectionTemple University Libraries, Urban Archives.

The City of Philadelphia as it Appears in the Year 1894: A Compilation of Facts Supplied by Distinguished Citizens for the Information of Business Men, Travelers, and the World at Large, by The Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, 1894. On Google Books.

Northern Liberties: The Story of a River Ward, by Harry Kyriakodis, History Press: 2012. On Google Books.


Story of Philadelphia, by John St. George Royce, Google Books, pages 399-401.

Entertainment Events and People

Big Band Jazz in Philadelphia

Broad Street’s former Pearl Theater was the site of a historic moment in 1932.

Bennie Moten and the Kansas City Stompers, key parts of the Big Band Jazz movement in the first half of the century, played so well that, according to The One O’Clock Jump by Douglas Henry Daniels, the crowd demanded encore after encore, until the theater owners opened the doors of the theater to the public. Here’s the sound that had everyone talking.

One member of the band that night was the legendary Count Basie, who just before the historic show, was recording with Moten’s band for Victor just across the river in Camden. Basie, pictured here, would leave Moten’s band in 1929, taking with him members that would form the core of the Count Basie Orchestra. Then Basie would take over Moten’s whole operation after his untimely death in 1935.

Big Band Jazz and swing music took hold so firmly that it dominated music for a decade, from 1935 to 1946. Philadelphia played a key role in that era, with many of the most notable bands coming through Philadelphia and some even rising up from the city.

The Pearl Theater played host to all the big names in big band jazz, including Duke Ellington. Jimmy Heath, one of the surviving musicians of Philadelphia’s jazz heyday, remembers seeing him at the Pearl in 1932, when he was six years old. He writes about it in his autobiography, I Walked With Giants (Temple U. Press, 2010).

Duke Ellington’s orchestra played a benefit show at the Municipal Stadium, September 7, 1962.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra played a show to 95,000 people in at the Municipal Stadium. The show was to benefit the children of policemen and firemen killed or injured in the line of duty. To get a sense of scale, see this photo from the preparations at the stadium. Ellington played Philadelphia repeatedly over the course of the height of his career. In Duke’s Diary: The Life of Duke Ellington by Ken Vail, it records his orchestra playing the Earle Theater for a week in 1952. The Earle was the most expensive theater ever built in Philadelphia at the time, with an ornate interior and exterior and seating for 2700. It had been located at 1046 Market St and was demolished in July 1953.

The Calvin Todd Orchestra, 1944
Jimmy Heath playing with the Calvin Todd Orchestra, 1944. From I WALKED WITH GIANTS by Jimmy Heath [Used by permission].
Jimmy Heath became a road musician out of Philadelphia at 18 years old, traveling with Omaha’s Nat Towles Orchestra. He writes in his book that he came back to Philadelphia in 1945. Heath saw Dizzy Gillespie as the swing era began to wane at the Academy of Music. Then he started his own band in 1946 and, for a time, John Coltrane himself was one of its members, first gigging with Heath’s band in 1947.

Also in the 40s, Philadelphia’s Pearl Bailey had begun to take off. She had relocated to New York City by then. After becoming a headliner at The Village Vanguard, she became a part of Cab Calloway’s big band orchestra; however, born and raised in Philadelphia, she has its Pearl Theater to thank for kicking off her career. She won an amateur dance contest there and got booked for her first professional job. Two weeks, at $35 per week. She was 15 years old, in the early 1930s.

Jimmy Heath Orchestra, Club Elate, 1947, from I WALKED WITH GIANTS
Jimmy Heath playing alto sax, leading the Jimmy Heath Orchestra, 1947, at Club Elate at Broad and Fitzwater [From I WALKED WITH GIANTS, Used by permission].
Accounts of Philadelphia during the 40s describe jazz clubs all over the city. All along South Broad and up in North Philadelphia, musicians would stay up late into the night and jam together. New York jazz musicians were coming to Philadelphia with the Bebop sound. The Bebop style of jazz was taking over from big band as musicians collaborated and shared ideas. Get a sample with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s “A Night in Tunisia.”

Philadelphia’s Odean Pope, a saxophonist, said that Philadelphia was an important place for spreading and sharing those ideas, which would lead to the next era in jazz.


Events and People

A century of Philadelphia parties

Get on the Party Car — we’re touring the city’s history of celebrations.

By Brady Dale.

With Spring set to usher in the city’s inexhaustible festival season, we can’t help but dream about gathering with friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Big parties are an anchor of any city and Philadelphia has a long, proud history of them. From the dozens of legendary Fourth of July’s to the annual Mummers Day Parade, parties are a local tradition. Here’s some parties of all shapes and sizes you can see documents of in the photo archives here on Philly History.


Founder's Day 1908, S. Broad St, Philadelphia, PA
Founders Day Celebration, Broad and Spruce, 1908.

The Founders Day Celebration in 1908 celebrated 225 years of Philadelphia as a city. From an earlier post on this site about that specific celebration.

Historical Day on Friday, October 9, featured a large historical pageant held on Broad Street. The pageant was divided into nine divisions with multiple floats illustrating the historic events that occurred in each division. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, a local historian and one of the pageant’s organizers, felt that the event should provide a historical and civic education to Philadelphians, rather than simply serving as another form of entertainment.


Clean Up Week Parade, Philadelphia, 1914
Broom Army marches south of City Hall, 1914.

The Clean Up Week Parade. Let’s bring it back? Here’s another great photo of this ensemble.


Hundreds of people gather in 1927 at the city’s market house, at 2nd and Pine.

A party at the New Market House, at 2nd and Pine, which was established in 1745.  There had already been a market attached to the court house at 2nd and Market, a bit to the north.

That first court house went up in 1707. According to Market Street, Philadelphia by Joseph Jackson (1918, a free ebook on Google Play). The court house got a market added to it in 1710.  The court house was the site for local elections and, notably, proclamations:

In all the pictures of the old Court House there is seen a little balcony projecting from the second story. … from the same balcony, in provincial days it was customary to read all proclamations. It was from this place that the citizens of Philadelphia in 1714 heard proclaimed that George I was their new king.

The court house was demolished in 1837, according to Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. You can see a drawing of the original court house in this History of Philadelphia.


Opening of the Philadelphia airport in 1938, marked with a model airplane show.

The opening of the airport gave the city something to celebrate. The marked the event exactly as we would today. By bringing out guys who build model airplanes to demonstrate their hobby for a cheering crowd.


United Service Organization Party, 1942. Historic Photo

New Year’s Eve formal dance at the Benedict Club, U.S.O.-N.C.C.S., 157 North 15th Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Photographed by Edward Hagan. The Benedict Club was apparently a space designated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for social affairs during war time, based on this record.


1951, the Curtis Institute’s Christmastime Costume Party.

The Curtis Institute’s Holiday Party goes back all the way to 1926. Here’s a photo of a costume party, in the tradition, from 1951.


Luncheon Party of Italian Mayors, 17th and Locust, 1962

This photo might seem a little sedate for the 1960s, but it is worth marking the fact that a group of Italian Mayors came to Philadelphia. Not so long ago, our Mayor Nutter joined a delegation of city leaders to go to Florence, after all.


July 4th parade, 1977

To make sure that July 4th, 1977, was really a party, Mayor Frank Rizzo got Frank Sinatra to come back to town and receive the Freedom Medal.


1987’s Africamericas Festival took place in North Philadelphia.

North Philadelphia’s Africamericas Festival included a wide array of avant garde and traditional arts, and culturally spanned from America to Africa to the Caribbean. More from

“When the City Representative’s office told me that they wanted to do the festival in North Philadelphia, I viewed it as a chance to do something positive for the area,” said coordinator Kofi Asante, a performing artist who has worked with such cultural organizations as the Arthur Hall Afro American Dance Ensemble, the Avante Theatre Company and the Black Theater Festival.

Also in the 80s, John Travolta marked the occasion of completing Blow Out with Brian DePalma.


West Oak Lane Neighborhood Festival, 1997.

Mayor Rendell greets future voters. In 1997, ten neighborhoods held festivals around July 4th to welcome America. West Oak Lane’s included a gospelrama, as well as the usual festival atmosphere.

Do you have photos from parties in years gone by? Upload them somewhere and let us know how to find them.



Looking back on the vision for the Ben Franklin Parkway

by Brady Dale

N 15th St & John F Kennedy Blv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Events and People

Philadelphia Marathon: 54 races later, its first winner still stands out

Philadelphia Marathon 2001 Address: Benjamin Franklin Pky & N 21st St
Philadelphia Marathon 2001
Benjamin Franklin Pky & N 21st St

The Philadelphia Marathon was host to to is 54th annual race last weekend, with more than 30,000 participating runners. That’s an incredible amount of growth from its humble beginnings in the 1950s; the second Philadelphia Marathon drew about twenty runners, according to this account. The pioneers of that race might be surprised today to see that major American marathons often include more participants and attendees in one day than some small cities have in population all year.

One of those pioneers — who was truly critical to the growth of running in our country — was a man named Ted Corbitt.

Corbitt won the first Philadelphia marathon in 1954 and stands as the only person to win it more than two times: he won again in 1958, 1959 and 1962. Seven other men and three women have won the race twice.

Ted Corbitt’s place in running history is an intriguing one, because by all indications, he doesn’t fit the mold of a ferocious athlete. His athleticism is without question: his best race, 1958, when he finished the course in 2:26:44 would have bested 1979’s top finisher, Richard Hayden. But all accounts of the man express a gentle spirit and an exceptionless equanimity. He just loved running and other runners. That’s even reflected in the words of encouragement he offered in the book First Marathons: First Encounters with the 26.2 Mile Monster, as quoted in his New York Times obituary:

The marathon demands patience and a willingness to stay with it. You must be willing to suffer and keep on suffering. Running is something you just do. You don’t need a goal. You don’t need a race. You don’t need the hype of a so-called fitness craze. All you need is a cheap pair of shoes and some time. The rest will follow.

Tedd Corbitt leads the pack. Photo courtesy of

His other achievements include:

  • He took part in developing a method to measure and certify long distance race courses that is still in use today.

  • He helped to start running organizations like the Road Runners Club of America and the New York Road Runners Club, which plans the New York City Marathon.

  • He ran 199 marathons and ultramarathons.

  • At 84, he completed a 24 hour race, walking 68 miles.

  • He competed in the 1952 Olympics marathon in Finland.

Running on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Running on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Additional past two-time winners with notable achievements:

  • Adolf Gruber (1963, 1964) was a notable Austrian runner, who won four American Marathons in 1963 and the Austrian championship twelve times in a row. At the end of his running career, he failed as a tobacconist because he couldn’t hide the fact that he disliked smoke from his customers. An annual race is still run in his honor.
  • Moses Mayfield (1970, 1971) was a Philadelphian and member of the Penn Athletic Club. He was still training young runners in 1992.
  • Jan Yerkes (1981, 1982), a Bucks County native, was also the first Villanova woman to compete in the NCAA women’s cross country championship, starting a legacy that would make Villanova the dominant school in that competition ever since.
Philadelphia Marathon 2000
Spring Garden St & Kelly Dr

Historic Sites

The Philadelphia Athenaeum: a historical treasure with a seemy underbelly

A film copy image of the Athenaeum dated to 1962.

Through May and June, Hidden City Philadelphia hosted the Hidden City Festival and raised a bit of a ruckus about some under-appreciated artifacts of Philadelphia’s history. One of those is the Athenaeum, located at 219 South 6th Street. In the landscape of Philadelphia historical sites, the trove of architectural books and other media at the Athenaeum sits barely out of range of the Liberty Bell limelight, often ignored by tourists intent on seeing the infamous cracked bell and overlooked by locals in pursuit of the cool grass in Washington Square park.

As described in the institution’s own annual report (2012), it’s “one of the few surviving Philadelphia historical organizations not founded by Benjamin Franklin.” According to the Inquirer, there are approximately 100,000 books in the library, 250,000 architectural drawing and 300,000 photos in its archives.

Perhaps the library’s humble founding mission — “connected with the history and antiquities of America, and the useful arts, and generally to disseminate useful knowledge” — contributes to its relative anonymity. But the Athenaeum itself is itself such an architectural curiosity that it and its contents warrant a more careful look.

The Athenaeum was founded in 1814, but the building that stands today was designed in 1845 by John Notman. The smallish structure is a beacon of Italianate architecture and represents one of the first brownstones in the city. In 1977, the building received the honor of being dubbed a National Historic Landmark.

Inside, the Athenaeum’s astoundingly vast collection is an ode to Philadelphia’s history of architecture and interior design, predominantly from 1800 -1945. Open for free (but by appointment) to students and researchers, the repository is a mine of old Philadelphia imagery and antiques. The library is one of the last remaining subscription libraries in the country and membership is required to borrow a book.

The Athenaeum’s Main Library Room.

But what lies below the Athenaeum is even more surprising than the fact that Philadelphians and tourists alike regularly pass by such an architectural and intellectual treasure. That’s because this somewhat unassuming building lies on top of the foundational remnants of the Walnut Street Prison — the country’s first state penitentiary.

The jail was built in 1777 and is reported to have been a place of laborious misery for inmates until 1790 when Quakers expanded the building and changed its philosophy of incarceration. Instead of unadulterated punishment, the Quakers emphasized repentance and reflection, hoping to elicit remorse and reform the prisoners through solitary confinement — a new approach at the time. Indeed it was the Quakers who transformed the hellish jail into a different kind of hellish penitentiary, spawning what was to be referred to as the “Pennsylvania System” of incarceration.

The institution, which was demolished in 1835, became the precursor for the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Today, the Athenaeum, is just one year shy of its 200th birthday and it’s had a facelift or two to prove it (In 2012, the East Balcony was repaired). And beneath it all, the remains of another social and architectural wonder. Thanks to the Hidden City Festival, perhaps this month and for the foreseeable future, this odd nexus of history, architecture, and imprisonment is finally getting some of the recognition —and maybe some of the tourist attraction — it deserves.



Historic Sites

Where did Breyer’s Ice Cream Go?

Ice cream wasn’t invented in Philadelphia, but that much is true for wholesome, all-natural Breyer’s brand (first, a Philadelphia family business). A recent article in the New York Times bemoaning the latest corporate iteration of Breyer’s — “frozen dairy dessert” — reminded many of this bittersweet fact.

The Breyer’s factory at 700 South 43rd Street in disrepair.

Breyer’s aficionados claim the current “dairy dessert” product is hardly recognizable, but that, in some way, has a sort of melancholy logic. Today, the Breyer’s factory (pictured) that was once described as a chilly, bustling facility that employed about 500 workers at its peak, no longer exists. It’s been paved over and serves as part of the University of the Science campus in University City. Even the Breyer’s factory that still stands at 9th and Cumberland  is difficult to associate. The hollowed out structure that Hidden City recently highlighted looks more like a prison than a place where a nation’s favorite dessert was churned.

The combination of corporate treat and crumbling concrete would probably also puzzle William A. Breyer, the original creator of the eponymous ice cream. He hand-churned the first batch of ice cream in 1866 in North Philadelphia. Then, beginning in 1882, he opened five shops throughout the city. At the time, Breyer wasn’t the only Philadelphian making a living producing ice cream, but after turning over the business to his son, Henry Breyer, his version probably became the most famous.

The younger Breyer constructed the factory at 700 South 43rd Street in 1924, then just two years later sold the company to the National Dairy Products Company.

At one time, the green mint leaf Breyer’s insignia was everywhere. Below you can see a few examples of corner stores and parlors displaying the logo to attract ice cream lovers across the city.

One of the trademark Breyer’s green mint leaf logos on a storefront at 4th and Vine in 1964.

The Breyer’s ice cream float on display in the 1926 Industrial Parade.

But the ubiquity of the staple confection belied its somewhat volatile ownership. Between 1926 and 1995, the company changed hands three times, moving from the Breyer family to the  National Dairy Products Company to Kraft to Unilever. Unilever NV bought the company in 1993 then ditched Philadelphia shortly thereafter.

It’s been almost two decades since Breyer’s manufactured ice cream in Philadelphia. The plant had been in operation for about 71 years when Unilever NV shuttered it in 1995. At the time, the company reportedly claimed that the cost to modernize the facility — approximately $15 million dollars — was too high. According to the same article, Ed Rendell valiantly tried to keep the tell-tale green mint leaf branded ice cream in Philadelphia, but the corporation shifted production to Framingham, Massachusetts, where a bigger, more modern plant was waiting (though it’s no longer produced there, either).

Although, by the time of its closing, the company had multiple manufacturing locations, the Philadelphia Breyer’s factory was the companies oldest. And the green mint leaf that represented its product both pervaded the city and welcomed visitors to it.

The Breyer’s company smokestack as seen from the nearby train tracks in 1955, likely somewhat before the Breyer’s billboard went up.

At the time the Breyer’s factory closed, an Inquirer reporter wrote, with no small amount of nostalgia:

“Its Philadelphia factory is crowned by a large billboard bearing the Breyers insignia – a green mint leaf – that can be seen from the Schuylkill Expressway and passing Amtrak trains.”

For anyone that loves ice cream, it really is a bit sad. After all, what better way to invite visitors or welcome back travelers than with the promise of a cool scoop of “home” made ice cream.


Snapshots of History

The Uncertain Future of Germantown High School

It’s been a little over two years since wrote The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Public Schools. In that time, 23 underutilized schools have been officially slated for the chopping block and the Philadelphia School District has only fallen further. As Ken Finkel noted then, many of the institutions being shuttered were built before World War II. Now buildings which were once hopefully constructed to educate Philadelphia’s youth are meeting a far less aspirational end.

Germantown High School is one of those crestfallen schools. Just shy of it’s 100th birthday, the school at Germantown Avenue and High Street in Northwest Philadelphia was constructed during an era when there were at least as many horses at the build site as cranes.

Construction workers and horses begin construction on
Germantown High School in 1914.

At the time, the neighborhood was predominantly residential neighborhood with a smattering of textile mills. The school’s early offerings were heavy on trade-oriented training. A 1922 survey of public schools noted that the school potentially had one of the best machine shops in the city at the time, not to mention a host of other workshops, including a joinery shop, a patternmaking shop, and a forge shop.

The report, which details some of the curriculum standardization challenges facing Philadelphia schools at the time, later reveals that even in 1922 the school was underutilized. Though the school had two cookery units for home economics classes, only one was in use because there were not enough teachers to manage both, according to the document. Today, the report seems to offer eerie foreshadowing. Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports that Germantown High School is at least two thirds empty, with just a 31% utilization rate.

In 2011, the school became a Promise Academy — a model of “turnaround” school championed by then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who recently passed away. In 2012, the school had graduation rate of 47 percent and less than 20 percent of students in Germantown’s target neighborhoods attend the high school thanks to the rise of charter and magnet schools in the city. These factors, combined, with the age of the building, made it a ripe choice for the SRC.

Now the school has become a central focus of current students, alumni, and others in the community who have been fighting to keep it off the School Reform Commission’s shut down list, to no avail.

Germantown High School nears completion in 1914.

According to many recent reports, Germantown students will be sent to Martin Luther King High School, but a 40-year history of violence and mistrust between gangs hailing from the neighborhoods around the two schools has many concerned about the transition. In the early 1970s, the Philadelphia School District “paired” the two schools such that students attended King for 9th and 10th grades, then transferred to Germantown for 11th and 12th. It was a fated attempt to reduce crowding and extinguish the neighborhood rivalries, reported Philadelphia Public School Notebook, and the pairing quickly disintegrated.

Though the school gets national recognition for educating legendary comedian and actor Bill Cosby (who eventually dropped out), that’s not enough to prevent a shuttering that seems ever more inevitable.  What will become of Germantown High School? If you have an idea of a new use for this nearly 100-year-old institution, submit your idea at the Newsworks poll available here.