Snapshots of History

Looking back to find hope for the future of Philadelphia’s vacant land

A vacant property as seen in Society Hill in 1959.

By Yael Borofsky for the PhillyHistory Blog.

Even with recent forward inertia by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) and the City of Philadelphia to implement a Landbank of vacant lots and the PRA’s recent release of vacant parcel availability map, the problem can seem sometimes feel intractable considering that there’s an estimated 40,000 vacant parcels in the city.

PRA’s new mapping tool shows about 9,000 city-controlled parcels, which it hopes will help systematize development of those lands. Matched with Google Street View, similarly as we’ve explored in this article, PRA’s vacant parcels map offers a more concrete sense of the neighborhoods that are blighted by these sometimes overgrown, sometimes barren slabs of urban soil.

As a result, in a tangible way, the problem, though vast, doesn’t feel so hopeless. Looking back through time (and the Department of Records’ vast archive), the City and its residents have successfully turned vacant blemishes into thriving businesses, homey residences, historic landmarks, and public parks.

Pictured at top left is 508 South 4th Street in October of 1959.

In the historic photograph are what appears to be a vacant lot with two businesses beside it — one shuttered, the other seemingly alive.

The Historical Commission has ownership records for the lot dating back to 1808 that suggest a printer from Lancaster named William Hamilton and his wife, Juliana, owned a residential home there. It was sold in 1815 to a hatter named Sam Robinson for $1,400.

The lot changed hands a number of times between then and 1954. According to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places the lot — with or without a building in place  — was designated as a historic place on January 22, 1963, not long after the Historical Commission was founded, probably as part of a mass designation of the block or Society Hill neighborhood. But between 1954 and 1963 the Historic Commission contains no additional records on the lot.

To the left, that same property is pictured on Google Street View as of 2009 (508 is the residence on the right with the light brown door). As you can clearly tell, years later, the lot has been transformed into useful residential parking.

As part of the Society Hill Historic District, the property was re-designated to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in the 1990s. It is currently worth nearly $200,000 according to the Office of Property Assessment.

The vacant lot at 1017 Mount Vernon Street.

Or take this lot, pictured below left, as another example.

This vast tract of empty urban land — located roughly at 1017 Mount Vernon Street — was undoubtedly a source of consternation when this photo was taken. That same desolate space is now a colorful children’s public playground.

According to OPA records, the site is owned by the city and, as far as we can tell, is called the “10th and Lemon” park. The property was sold to the City in 1981 according to OPA.

A brief entry on the blog PhillyPlaygrounds tells us that this particular lot has “a very low playset with a single plastic slide and a chain of monkey bars,” some sort of climbing equipment, swings, a taller slide, and a shallow pool, presumably for summer water activities.

Here’s what 1017 Mount Vernon Street looks like today.

The playground is described as a fun spot for “toddlers and brave older kids” who undoubtedly prefer running around the brightly painted park to a lot full of dead crab grass.

While vacant land policy may continue to evolve over the coming months and years, these two repurposed vacant properties remind us of what we’re hoping to achieve, 40,000 times over.

Historic Sites

What’s Preserved and What’s Forgotten: The Louis Bergdoll and Sons Brewing Company Grain Elevator

City Park Brewery in 1948, after the brewery shut down,
from Pennsylvania Ave at 29th and Parrish.

The looming brick complex pictured left, situated at 29th and Parrish, is the brainchild of Otto C. Wolf, a Philadelphia staple in brewery architecture. Louis Bergdoll had the complex built to house his City Park Brewery in 1856 and it produced a popular lager for the city until Prohibition in 1920.

“It’s the crowning achievement of Wolf,” said beer historian Rich Wagner of the brilliant buildings located just north of the Art Museum. Today, the complex is known as The Brewery, a condominium named in homage to the Louis Bergdoll and Sons Brewing Company’s City Park Brewery.

Though we’ll never know for sure, City Park Brewery reportedly turned out one of the best tasting beers of its day.

Despite attempts by the Bergdoll family after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the brewery was never fully operational again. Its demise isn’t unlike the narrative many of the Brewerytown breweries, including those along Philadelphia’s beer-laden Girard Ave., which shuttered for good.

“The brewmaster shot himself in the basement of the brewery,” Wagner says the story goes. “He was the brains of the outfit and when he blew his out that left them with nothing.”

It’s not the only bout of bad luck associated with the Bergdoll name, according to this 1924 Evening Tribune article about the curse associated with the original Bergdoll’s widow and surviving family.

Wagner, who is the author of the book Philadelphia Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Cradle of Liberty, (reviewed by Daily News beer columnist Joe Sixpack here) says it is “the most outstanding example of brewery preservation in the state” because it preserves what Wagner says was the “most beautiful brewery complex when it was in business” — as well as the memory of a once dominant brewery.

“Industry buildings can tend to be utilitarian,” Wagner said. “But in this day and age the brewers were bombastic. They wanted to have the biggest castle on the block.”


The grain elevator in 1932 at 29th and Pennsylvania Ave.

The existence of the Brewery Condominium, as its been known since it was revamped in the 1980s — a complex made of three buildings eponymously dubbed The Main House, The Brewery House, and The Ice House — tells only half of the Bergdoll Brewing Company’s story.

The other half can be told by what’s not been preserved: the grain elevator and malt house.

Ironically, the exclusion is emblematic of the fate of Philadelphia’s malting industry, which helped define Philadelphia beer brewing culture in the years before prohibition.

Malting is a process by which barley is turned into malt, a critical ingredient for brewing beer. The process involves allowing large quantities of barley, fresh from the fields, to sprout before being roasted, Wagner explained.

The malting industry in Philadelphia got its start with Anthony Morris in 1687, whose firm, the Perot Malting Co., had an office in Philadelphia into the 1960s, Wagner said. Most other maltsters weren’t so lucky after Prohibition dried up most of their customers.

The Louis Bergdoll and Sons Brewing Company, like quite a few other breweries in the city, produced its own malt. But Wagner says that of the approximately 20 malt houses in the city at the time, none operate today, as far as he knows.

This grain elevator (pictured left) marks a point where the barley that would become the malt for City Park Brewery’s beer entered the city, probably from Toronto, Wagner said. It’s also where the extra malted barley that wasn’t used at the brewery was shipped out.

According to the Hexamer map below, the Bergdoll Brewing Co. built the grain elevator in the early 1890s, not long before Louis Bergdoll passed away.

Large shipments of barley would be unloaded off railcars into the building and sent, probably in buckets, Wagner said, via conveyor system to the malting house. Then the brewed beer, high in demand, could make the block and a half trip back to the grain elevator for storage and eventual shipment out to thirsty beer drinkers.

The grain elevator was across the street but connected to the brewery’s campus, almost like a sort of strange external organ pumping barley around the complex and ultimately taking up the final, bubbling product and pushing it out to the world.

Wagner estimates that the grain elevator and malting house could have helped Louis Bergdoll and Sons Brewing Company malt about 200,000 bushels of barley a year.

Why wasn’t this critical and outward facing piece of the brewery’s architecture preserved?

Wagner thinks that between the building materials and its location immediately adjacent to the rail line, the grain elevator may have been too difficult to preserve.

If you look closely at this Hexamer map (close-up below) from 1892, you can see that the building was located directly on the rail tracks and made of cement, brick, corrugated iron, and a metal roof. It had “double flooring boards … with layer of Asbestos between,” according to the itemized account on the map.

Not exactly the ideal foundation and location for a condominium complex, particularly not “compared to those beautiful buildings of the brewery that are built to withstand the weight of tanks and tanks full of beer,” Wagner noted.

Still, the grain elevator’s decay reminds Philadelphia of its beer-drenched roots as much as the beautifully redone brewery residential complex just across 29th Street.

Map courtesy of Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. It can be seen in greater detail here.