Events and People Historic Sites

The Butler Family Feud (Part I)

The Pierce Butler mansion, 8th Street and Washington Square, c.1855.
The Pierce Butler mansion, 801-807 Chestnut Street, c.1855.

Although outlawed after the Revolution, slavery continued to be a critical part of the Pennsylvania economy virtually up to the Civil War. In an era before joint stock corporations, businesses were family affairs. A successful merchant or landowner would pass along his enterprises directly to his descendants, not to trained professional executives. Many prominent Philadelphia families had significant assets in Southern states: plantations that produced lucrative crops such as wheat, indigo, cotton, and tobacco.

One Philadelphia clan fought hard to maintain their way of life–even while perched north of the Mason-Dixon Line–was the Butler family. Pierce Butler, an immigrant from County Carlow, Ireland (albeit the son of a baronet), was one of South Carolina’s largest landowners and slaveholders.  Scarred by the destruction of much of his property (real estate and human) during the Revolutionary War, Butler was determined to rebuild and maintain his family wealth at all costs. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Butler represented South Carolina in Philadelphia, and the man behind the drafting of the infamous “three-fifths clause,” which gave Southern states disproportionate representation in Congress while leveraging their non-voting, enslaved populations.

Pierce Butler I of South Carolina (1844-1822).
Pierce Butler I of South Carolina (1744-1822).

With almost unlimited resources at his disposal, Butler chose to build a northern “summer house” in the nation’s new capital, a rather odd choice considering that Philadelphia’s summers were just as unbearable than those in South Carolina, and as borne out in 1793, just as disease-ridden. Although his daughter Sarah was living there, the move was almost certainly political: Butler probably wanted to keep a close eye on Congress and fight any measures that would threaten his economic holdings and those of his peers. To announce his arrival in Philadelphia society, he build a large, freestanding house at 801-807 Chestnut Street Built in the highest Federal style, it much a monument to the power of Southern money as it was a statement of Butler’s refined taste. Even after the capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800, Butler continued to spend much of his free time in Philadelphia.

Pierce Butler died in 1822, with an estate that included 1,000 slaves and 10,000 acres of agricultural land. In his will, he disinherited his son Thomas, and instead bequeathed his multi-million dollar fortune to his two grandsons Pierce and John, on condition that they change their last name from Mease to Butler.

No doubt infuriated at this rejection by the imperious and eccentric Butler patriarch, Thomas Butler planned a grand city house at the corner of 13th and Walnut Street to rival his father’s palace to the east, but he died before it was completed.

Fanny Kemble in a portrait by Thomas Sully, 1833. Wikiart.
Fanny Kemble in a portrait by Thomas Sully, 1833. Wikiart.

Like many young men who never had to truly work for a living, Pierce II was simultaneously a charmer and a ne’er-do-well. He successfully wooed the acclaimed British actress Fanny Kemble during her American tour. She proved to have more brains and feistiness than her high-living and empty-headed husband anticipated.  For Pierce II, having a good time (and looking good while doing it) was his raison d’être.

This attitude drove Fanny nuts. “You can form no idea, none, none, of the intellectual dearth and drought in which I am existing,” she wrote a friend about her life at Butler Place, her husband’s country estate (near the present site of LaSalle University).

In 1838, Pierce Butler II took his wife to South Carolina to see the source of the family’s wealth, and the “culture” in which he grew up.

Slave auction in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1861.
Slave auction in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1861.

Kemble was appalled not just at the treatment of the slaves, but also her husband’s utterly callous attitude towards such brutality.  What shocked her the most was how the overseer Roswell King Jr. fathered so many children with the enslaved women under his supervision. For Butler, however, this was the natural order of things. She returned to Philadelphia a committed abolitionist. Within a decade, Fanny and Pierce were divorced.  She took custody of their two children and raised them herself.

Butler Place, located near the intersection of Nedro and Old York Road. LaSalle University.
Butler Place, located near the intersection of Olney Avenue and Old York Road. LaSalle University.

Part II to follow


Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.440.

Fanny Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1864), p.10.

Stephen W. Berry, ‘The Butler Family,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, September 3, 2014,, accessed November 18, 2015.

“Pierce Butler, South Carolina,” Constitution Day,

Events and People Historic Sites Neighborhoods

Powelton Avenue: The First Stop on the Main Line?

Footage of the last steam trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1954.

For those who regularly ride the Main Line trains: have you ever wondered why there are no stops between 30th Street Station and Overbrook?  After Overbrook, however, the train stops nearly every two minutes. There’s an old  — and very politically incorrect — mnemonic device for memorizing the towns on the Main Line: “Old Maids Never Wed and Have Babies. Period.”  Overbrook, Merion, Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr. Paoli.

30th Street Bridge.ashx
The bridge spanning the Schuylkill River in 1876, which connected Center City with the now-vanished Baltimore and Ohio station at 24th and Chestnut, designed by Frank Furness.

Thankfully, this phrase has fallen out of popular use.  As the Philadelphia Inquirer quipped in a 1988 article that quoted it: “But let’s not forget what the Main Line, at the bottom line, really is. The term is so ingrained in our local patois that we tend to detach it from the real meaning. The Main Line is – well, the main line. Tracks and sidings. Signals and stations. Switches, whistles.”

The demolished Baltimore & Ohio station at 24th and Chestnut, designed by Frank Furness. Source: HABS/HAER
The 44th and Parkside ballpark, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad YMCA. Source: Wikipedia.

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s development of its right-of-way was a shrewd real estate deal.  Rather than haggle with Philadelphia city government and acquire parcels piecemeal, they could buy up huge swaths of farmland outside of the city limits and develop it as they saw fit.  Until the turn of the twentieth century, there were two other stops before the Main Line trains chugged from 30th Street, through West Philadelphia, and across City Avenue: Powelton Village and Parkside.   According to architectural historian Robert Morris Skaler, Powelton became a popular residence for executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad and Baldwin Locomotive Works, and “even had a special railroad stop at Powelton Avenue for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s executives to travel by train to their offices.”  The Pennsylvania Railroad also had a stop at 52nd Street and Lancaster Avenue, labeled as the Hestonville Depot in an 1872 map. This stop later grew into a sprawling rail yard that cast a sooty, noisy pall over much of the adjacent Parkside neighborhood. Nearby was the 44th and Parkside ballpark, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad YMCA in 1903 and home of the African-American league Philadelphia Stars.

52nd Street and Lancaster Avenue 2.21.1949ashx
The intersection of Lancaster Avenue and 52nd Street, the location of the now-closed 52nd Street depot and passenger stop. Photograph taken February 21, 1949.

Therefore, it could be argued in fact that Powelton Village was the first stop on the Main Line, the stretch of track connecting Philadelphia with Pittsburgh.

Much of the grand residential architecture that survives in Powelton today is a harbinger of the grand suburban development that grew up around the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line tracks in the 1890s and early 1900s. Powelton is a hybrid of streetcar and railroad suburban development: for the second half of the nineteenth century, it was serviced by both horse drawn (later electric) streetcars and by Main Line trains.  The surviving freestanding mansions on Powelton Avenue, Baring Street, and Hamilton Street are large and ornate,  yet they are set within walking distance of each other rather than being secluded on larger lots as they were on the Main Line. They are also located within a few minutes walk of the former Powelton Avenue stop.  Unlike the Main Line developments, there are also a significant number of twin houses and row house blocks intermingled with the free-standing houses.

36th and Baring 12.14.1962.ashx
The Henry Cochran mansion at 36th and Baring Street, built in the 1890s by architect Wilson Eyre Jr. Photograph dated December 12, 1962

Several well-known Philadelphia architects got in on the act of building up Powelton.  Wilson Eyre Jr., designer of many large houses in Rittenhouse Square and the Philadelphia suburbs, also worked on at least two houses in Powelton Village.  One was a substantial freestanding mansion for wine merchant Henry Cochran, located on the corner of 36th and Baring Streets.  Another was a renovation of a narrow twin house on the 3500 block of Hamilton Street.  In both of these projects, Eyre displayed his characteristic sense of whimsy and invention, much of it medieval in inspiration. He also avoided the gaudy grandeur that characterized so much late Victorian architecture.  Among other commissions, Eyre was responsible for the University Museum, the Mask & Wig clubhouse, and suburban estates such as Horatio Gates Lloyd’s “Allgates” mansion in Haverford. In the words of the Historic Commission’s Diana Marcelo: “Eyre detested an overload of ornamentation. He had a feeling of proportion, and a tendency toward extended horizontal planes. His buildings had crisp lines and much expression, achieved by a careful blend of varying materials.”  The Cochran house bears more than a passing resemblance to the early residential work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In many ways, Eyre’s Powelton and Wright’s Oak Park were similar suburban communities.

St. Andrew's PE Church 12.14.1962.ashx
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (now St. Andrew and St. Monica’s Episcopal Church) at 36th and Baring Streets. This was the location of Max Riebenack’s funeral in September 1903. Photograph dated December 14, 1962.

The neighborhood prospered for a few decades thanks to the station stop and the infusion of railroad money. From the 1870s until the early 1900s, because of its proximity to the old 30th Street depot, Powelton Village was a neighborhood of choice for Pennsylvania Railroad executives.  Max Riebenack was perhaps  the most prominent of the PRR executives who lived in West Philadelphia. Riebenack was an American success story: a German immigrant whose parents brought him to America as a six year old boy in 1850. By 1895, he had risen to the position of comptroller of the Pennsylvania Railroad, working alongside executives like Alexander Cassatt, mastermind of New York’s Pennsylvania Station and its tunnels.  Yet rather than move to Rittenhouse Square or the Main Line, Riebenack preferred to live “North of Market” in West Philadelphia, close to fellow German immigrants such as brewer Frederick Augustus Poth. With his newfound wealth, Riebenack purchased a plot of land for $14,000 (the equivalent of about $300,000 today)  at the corner of 34th and Powelton Avenue.  He then commissioned architect Thomas Preston Lonsdale to build a spiky roofed Queen Anne style mansion that rose high above the street.

As a high-ranking executive of one of the largest corporations in the world, Max clearly liked living large, joining many clubs during his time on North 34th Street, both in town (the Union League) and in the suburbs (the Merion Cricket Club). The house, now Drexel University’s Ross Commons, was built for grand entertaining. The Philadelphia Inquirer breathlessly described the Riebenack’s silver wedding anniversary as follows:

“A largely attended reception was given last night at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Max Riebenack, at Thirty-fourth and Powelton avenue, on the occasion of the silver anniversary of their wedding.  The house was handsomely decorated and an orchestra furnished music in the spacious hallway from behind a fern-covered nook.  The house was lighted up throughout with electric lights and crowded with guests. Mr. and Mrs. Riebenack were assisted in receiving their guests by Mrs. Conrad T. Clothier.  Many of the presents were handsome and valuable.”

Max Riebenack
Max Riebenack, Comptroller for the Pennsylvania Railroad and builder of the mansion that now serves as Drexel University’s Ross Commons. Source:

Unfortunately, Max and Eleanor Riebenack suffered two terrible personal tragedies. In 1903, their thirty year old son Max Jr. died of typhoid fever in the family home on Powelton Avenue.  Five years later, another son, Henry  – an inventor and former track star at the University of Pennsylvania —  also died of disease, this time at the family’s beach house in Atlantic City, New Jersey. By the time Max Riebenack himself died in 1910, the neighborhood’s most fashionable days had past. When the Powelton Avenue stop closed, the neighborhood became much less accessible to Center City and the PRR’s offices at Broad Street Station.  Many of those with money moved to the Main Line towns past City Avenue, and the large mansions they left behind were converted into boarding houses.

So ended Powelton’s short reign as the “first stop” on the Main Line.


Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.77.

“West Philadelphia: The Basic History, Chapter 2: A Streetcar Suburb in the City: West Philadelphia, 1854-1907,” West Philadelphia Community History Center.

“227. N. 34th Street, Philadelphia,”

Sally Downey, “Tracking the Main Line from Overbrook to Paoli: The World from the 17 Stops of the R5 Local,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 5, 1988.

Diana Marcelo, “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Wilson Eyre Home” (Philadelphia, PA: The Philadelphia Historical Commission, April 1976.)


Behind the Scenes Events and People Historic Sites

Nicholas Biddle, Philadelphia Hellenophile

The Second Bank of the United States, 420 Chestnut Street, 1859.
The Second Bank of the United States, 420 Chestnut Street. A photograph from 1859.

Before he locked horns with President Andrew Jackson over the fate of the “many headed monster” (a.k.a. The Second Bank of the United States), banker Nicholas Biddle fancied himself something of a poet and aesthete.  Born to wealth and blessed with brilliance, Biddle graduated from Princeton University — at the head of his class — at the tender age of 15. This was only after the University of Pennsylvania refused to grant the Philadelphia wunderkind a bachelors degree a few years before.

The young Nicholas Biddle.
The young Nicholas Biddle.  Source: Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitalization Project.

Like John Quincy Adams, Biddle (1785-1844) was well-traveled from an early age.  In 1804, he accompanied the American minister John Armstrong to France as his personal secretary, and sat in the pews of Notre-Dame as Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France.  In England, the dashing and probably cocky Nicholas had the gumption to verbally spar with University of Cambridge dons about the differences between ancient and modern Greek. Biddle’s sojourns were hardly unique. By the early 1800s, scores of Americans had visited Europe either as diplomats or merrymakers on the “Grand Tour.” Another Philadelphian, the late Dr. Benjamin Franklin, was still revered in France, where his bespectacled visage still adorned countless Parisian homes. John Quincy Adams had been as far afield as St. Petersburg, where he served as America’s first minister to Russia.

But Nicholas Biddle was only the second American to visit Greece, the birthplace of modern democracy. In May 1806, the young Philadelphian sailed from the Italian port of Trieste and landed in Zante, Greece. For three months, he roamed through the land which had been “the first brilliant object that met my infancy.”   Like many well-educated men of his time, Biddle supported Greece’s struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire.  Another aristocratic man of letters, Lord Byron, died fighting with the Greek army twenty years after Biddle’s visit. Composer Ludwig van Beethoven wrote incidental music for August von Kotzebue’s 1811 play The Ruins of Athens for a performance in Budapest. Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s engravings of classical ruins were wildly popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and inspired the Americans architects such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe.

"Lord Byron in Albanian Dress," an 1813 painting by Thomas Phillips.
“Lord Byron in Albanian Dress,” an 1813 painting by Thomas Phillips. Source: Wikipedia.

Biddle, himself possessed of Byronic good looks, was conscious of the influence that Greek philosophers had on American political theorists.  “Where are her orators?” he wrote of the Greeks. “Gone forth to enlighten distant nation without a solitary ray for their country. Whilst foreign erudition has lighted its lamp at the flame of their genius, their works are unknown to posterity.”

As Biddle gazed at the ruins of the Acropolis in Athens, he came to believe that this architectural language was best suited to the ideals of new American Republic, which strangely like Greece was heavily based on chattel slavery. To Biddle, the best Greek buildings had an understated majesty. This was a result of their purity of form, use of the “Golden Ratio” of 1 to 1.618, and richness of materials over mere ornamentation.

The Doric Order as used on the Parthenon. The vertically grooved sections of the lintel are called triglyphs, while the blank portion are called metopes. The metopes usually were the backdrop for sculpture.   Source: Wikipedia.
The Doric Order as used on the Parthenon. The vertically grooved sections of the lintel are called triglyphs, while the blank portion are called metopes. The metopes usually were the backdrop for sculpture. Source: Wikipedia.

The Parthenon, commissioned by Pericles and designed by the architect Iktinos in the 5th century B.C., was built using the most “masculine” of the Greek orders: Doric.  In the Doric order, columns were massive and fluted, and topped by smooth flared capitals. The architrave – the stone lintel supported by the columns – was likewise spare, decorated with grooved triglyphs and metopes that mimicked earlier wooden post-and-lintel construction.  Because of its austerity, the Doric was the least popular order in neoclassical Western architecture, particularly in the churches and palaces that Biddle saw in France and Rome.  The other two orders, Ionic and Corinthian, were more elaborate and romantic in their aesthetic.  In the new American capital of Washington, D.C., architect William Thornton used the Corinthian order on the Capitol Building, while James Hoban used Ionic for his “presidential palace,” more popularly known as  the White House. But to Biddle, the Doric’s restraint appealed to his purest classical sensibilities, in which less was indeed more. And Doric was not tainted with associations with Imperial Rome and the European absolutist monarchies that followed it.

Piranesi's drawing of the Ionic order as used on the Roman temple of Portunus. Source: Wikipedia.
Piranesi’s drawing of the Ionic order as used on the Roman temple of Portunus. The Ionic order is used on the White House. Source: Wikipedia.
The Corinthian order, as used on the Pantheon in Rome. Source: Wikipedia.
The Corinthian order, as used on the Pantheon in Rome. The Corinthian order is used on the U.S. Capitol. Source: Wikipedia.

Biddle might have revered the ancient Greeks, but he was disgusted by the state of Athenian affairs in 1806.  He, like many Westerners, blamed Greece’s sorry state on the Turks.  The Parthenon was a victim of this long occupation.  In 1687, after having stood nearly intact for centuries, the Parthenon, which the Turks were using as an arsenal, was hit by a shell from Venetian guns.  Biddle gazed on the crumbling ruins with despair. “Are these few wretches, scarcely superior to the beasts whom they drive heedlessly over the ruins, are these men Athenians?” he wrote. “Where is their freedom?  Alas! This is the keenest stab of all. Bowed down by a foul oppression, the spirit of Athens has bent under slavery. The deliberations of her assemblies were once their laws; they now obey the orders of a distant master, and on the citadel itself, the protectress & the asylum of Grecian freedom, now sits a little Turkish despot to terrify & to command.”

Overture and chorus from “The Ruins of Athens” by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The ruined Parthenon in the 1830s, with a mosque built in the center.
The ruined Parthenon in the 1830s, with a mosque built in the center. Source: Wikipedia.

The “little Turkish despot” Biddle referred to was most likely not a man, but the small mosque that the Turks had built in the middle of the ruined Parthenon.

When Biddle returned to Philadelphia, he must have looked with dismay at the architecture of his own sober Quaker City.  Most of its buildings were of plain red brick with white wood trim, various versions of the British-influenced Georgian or the somewhat newer Roman-influenced Federal style. Over the coming years, as Biddle rapidly ascended local and national power structures, Biddle made it his mission to transform the City of Brotherly Love (φιλεω “to love” and αδελφος  “brother”)  into the Athens of America.  He founded and edited Port-Folio, the nation’s first literary magazine. Soon after he married the heiress Jane Craig, Biddle remodeled his country residence “Andalusia” on the Delaware River and his city home on the 700 block of Spruce Street in the Greek style.  When appointed as the head of the Second Bank of the United States, Biddle commissioned the architect William Strickland to build an adaptation of the Parthenon as its new home. Completed in 1824, it was made entirely of Pennsylvania blue marble.

The Nicholas Biddle house at 715 Spruce Street, on the left, in February 1959. It has since been restored to its full glory.
The Nicholas Biddle house at 715 Spruce Street, on the left, in February 1959.


Nicholas Biddle House at 715 Spruce Street in 1972, post restoration.

Nicholas Biddle’s mortal struggle with President Andrew Jackson is well-known, as is his hubristic fall from grace.  Yet the beautiful Greek-influenced buildings he commissioned in and around Philadelphia still grace his native city, which was once known as the Athens of America.


William Harris, “The Golden Mean,” Humanities and Liberal Arts, Middlebury College.

R.A. McNeal, ed. Nicholas Biddle in Greece: The Journals and Letters (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), p.50, 219.

Entertainment Historic Sites

Philadelphia’s Own House of Hits

Ed Rendell with Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff
Ed Rendell with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff

You may have heard that the Philadelphia International Records building at 309 South Broad St, which since 1970 had been owned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, was recently demolished to make room for a condo and hotel development that new owners Dranoff Properties plan to open at 301-309 South Broad St.  The loss of this building is devastating from a preservationist point of view, while almost inevitable given that it never recovered from a 2010 arson fire. Not only does it have a plethora of history as a building that Gamble and Huff had owned since 1973, but before that, it was the headquarters of the equally legendary Cameo-Parkway label in the 1950s and 1960s. Each of these eras represent two distinct periods in which the sounds coming out of Philadelphia, and that building specifically, were not only some of the most popular but some of the most moving and important recordings of each respective time period.

The history of the building is impressive, to say the least. Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” a paradigm-shifting song that was a massive hit in 1961, was recorded there during the initial era. And during that time period, other Philadelphia artists like Charlie Gracie, Bobby Rydell, the Dovells, the Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp and The Tymes also recorded there.

The second era saw hits like Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” The O’Jays’ “Love Train” and the original versions of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (both by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, featuring Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals). Overall, Gamble and Huff (on many occasions assisted by the producer and songwriter Thom Bell) have over 50 Gold and Platinum records and over 50 Top 10 hits.

After the hits dried up by the late ’80s, it became a major tourist attraction that has always been the site of film documentaries, television specials, receptions and events such as one honoring Motown founder Berry Gordy. While we can debate if a museum to honor Philadelphia’s rich musical legacy (such as ones that exist in Memphis, Detroit and in other cities’ legendary recording studios) is necessary and while it’s also understandable why the building was sold, it’s almost certain that 309 South Broad Street would have been a great site for it. Now, unfortunately, we will never know.


Historic Sites

Elfreth’s Alley

On Market Street, between 5th and 6th Streets and next to the Independence Visitor Center, there are plaques on the sidewalk dedicated to the families, artisans, and businesses who had shops on that very block during the 18th century. However, a mere ten minutes walk from that location, visitors are not only able to get similar historical information, but they’re also able to view the still-standing colonial houses which have been on the same alley since as early as 1728.

Elfreth’s Alley in 1910

Elfreth’s Alley maintains the claim of being the oldest residential street in the United States. It dates back to 1702 when two blacksmiths surrendered portions of their land in order to create an alleyway that led to the river. The current Elfreth’s Alley houses were built between 1728 and 1836. Luckily, census records are able to provide insight into the changing lives of Philadelphia citizens for over 300 years. Through those centuries, the houses have usually held more than one family at once. The residences included dressmakers, silversmiths, ship builders, and more. For instance, in the 19th century Josiah Elfreth, whose grandfather was the alley’s namesake, lived at 137 Elfreth’s Alley for a period of time with his wife and children. Also, in the 18th century, German Adam Clampfer owned both 130 and 132 while he kept a tavern and store on 134 Elfreth’s Alley. According to records previously found on the association’s website, the Clampfer family owned the 132 Elfreth’s Alley property for over a century. With such a complex and long history, it is easy to see why preservation of such a street is important to the City of Philadelphia.


Elfreth’s Alley in 1938.

It is not a surprise then, that preservation efforts for Elfreth’s Alley began in 1934. That was the year that the Elfreth’s Alley Association was founded. At that time, the City of Philadelphia had rebranded Elfreth’s Alley as the 100 block of Cherry Street and it was set to be destroyed. Not only did the organization save the street, but they were also able to turn the 100 block of Cherry Street back into Elfreth’s Alley. It is a credit to the Elfreth’s Alley Association that tourists from all over the country and the world are able to explore the cobblestone street and its history.

Elfreth’s Alley in 1957

However, preserving the street and its buildings are not the only important jobs taken up by the modern, non-profit Elfreth’s Alley Association. They also promote conservation efforts in an attempt to research more about the history of alley’s residents. In 2012 and 2013, archaeological teams headed by Deirdre Kelleher from Temple University were able to dig into the rich history of the street, finding artifacts from both the professional and personal lives on the Elfreth’s Alley residents.

This year, the Elfreth’s Alley Association will receive a PA Historical Marker for their hard work in preservation, research, and education. It will read: “Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia County – Impeccably preserved vernacular neighborhood in the heart of Philadelphia – one of the nation’s oldest and a National Historic Landmark. There have been extensive studies of these homes, their owners, and the area’s transformation over its nearly 300 years of existence, shedding light on a very diverse working class community.”

Elfreth's Alley - now
Current view of Elfreth’s Alley – from the Elfreth’s Alley website



Elfreth’s Alley Archaeology 

Elfreth’s Alley Museum 

Visit Philly!

Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program

Behind the Scenes Historic Sites Neighborhoods Snapshots of History

“I Live the Life I Love” – Echoes from the Mask and Wig (Part II)

M and W 5.9.1962
The Mask and Wig Club at 310 S. Quince Street, May 9, 1962.

Note: this is a sequel to “Echoes from the Mask and Wig” published on May 2. 

Two weeks ago, I received a phone call from Don Fisher, who graduated from Penn in 1975 and was sort of a Tommy Lee Jones type: as an undergraduate, he balanced working on the Mask and Wig crew/ business staff with breaking through the opposing football team’s defensive line at Franklin Field.  The former president of Mask and Wig’s graduate club, he had read my piece “Echoes from the Mask and Wig,” and told me that he had more information about my step-grandfather Joe Follmann, who was pianist and music director for the collegiate song-and-dance troupe in the late 1920s.

“I believe Grandpa Joe was a scholarship student,” I told him. “And I know that today, the audition process for Mask and Wig is extremely difficult.”

“The Club was a lot harder to get into in those days,” Fisher told me. “And I will tell you this: he must have been hot stuff in his time.”

The undergraduate members of the Mask and Wig Club, Joseph F. Follmann Jr. is in the center of the third row. The University of Pennsylvania Record, 1930. The Mask and Wig Club Archives.

Here’s what I did know: my grandfather  was an excellent pianist, equally at home playing Beethoven and jazz standards His parents were working class German-Americans from West Philadelphia — according to my mother (his step-daughter) his mother was a Bavarian Catholic and his father a Prussian Protestant who may have worked as a coal miner in his youth.  There’s a photograph in my parents’ house showing him around the age of 10, with long blonde hair and dressed in a sailor’s suit. He is standing at the knee of a grizzled looking old man reading a book —  most likely his own grandfather.

Grandpa Joe’s obsession with economy — served up with  stereotypical Teutonic severity  — continued into his adulthood, even after he had achieved financial stability.

Leaving the lights on in an empty room was a pet peeve.

Many of his fellow students at the Wharton School were being groomed for leadership in tightly-held businesses.  In those days, there were many such family concerns in Philadelphia, from manufacturers (Disston and Baldwin) to magazines (Curtis) to banks (Philadelphia Savings Fund Society) to railroads (the Pennsylvania).   In those heady years just before the stock market crash, Grandpa had no desk at a family business waiting for him after graduation.  Studying finance was a practical route; what he really wanted was to be a professional musician. Perhaps Grandpa was dreaming of following in the footsteps of Ted Weems, who had also graduated from West Philadelphia High and Penn seven years ahead of him and had cut a big figure in the American “collegiate” hot jazz scene during the booming Roaring Twenties.

Mask and Wig dorm undated
University of Pennsylvania quadrangle dormitories, designed by Cope and Stewardson, showing the Mask and Wig wing. 36th and Spruce Streets. undated.

The Mask and Wig — which so was so prosperous that it had donated money to build a quadrangle dormitory — was a particular preserve of the “Old Philadelphia” elite, who had the time and the funds to indulge in such musical skylarking.  Their show program books were chock full of advertisements from prominent — and now largely vanished — Philadelphia businesses. The clubhouse, a converted church a long trolley ride from campus, had been lavishly renovated by Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre Jr. in the 1890s, and its first-floor bar adorned with murals by celebrated artist Maxfield Parrish.  In those days, one did not formally join the Mask and Wig Club until senior year,  after a year or two of working as a choral alternate…little more than a grunt. According to the show programs, Grandpa was listed as a choral alternate his sophomore and junior years, and he was not formally elected to full membership until his senior year.

Grandpa’s eagerness comes across in the photograph of The Mask and Wig undergraduate club in the 1930 University of Pennsylvania Record — amidst his stone-faced, bolt-upright compatriots, a fresh-faced Grandpa Joe looks alert as he leans jauntily to one side, his eyes sparkling.  His ears stick out from his head, just the way I remember them when he was older. He had made it, his hard work at the piano and at his composer’s desk had paid off, and he was proud.  He had been the music director and co-writer of that year’s show  John Faust, Ph.D, a comic spoof on the German legend popularized by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

faust cover
The program cover for “John Faust, Ph.D,” 1930. The Mask and Wig Club Archives.

This was a time when songs from Mask and Wig and other collegiate groups became national hits, covered by the likes of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra.  Perhaps Grandpa hoped that one of his songs would hit the big time. Grandpa continued to contribute to the club well after graduation.  In fact, he contributed songs to Mask and Wig shows for the next two decades — most notably in the 1937  production Fifty/Fifty — and culminating in the show Doctor, Dear Doctor! of 1951.  By then, the Club’s roster of undergraduate members had diversified considerably from the blue-blooded old days. Grandpa conceived the book and produced the show,  basing it it on Jean-Baptiste Moliere’s 1666 play Le Médecin malgré lui (A Physician in Spite of Himself).  A photograph from the show’s program shows Grandpa Joe — looking a bit more as I knew him, balding and with more pronounced jowls — smiling with delight as he pours over a set of scenery mock ups with a colleague.

“You know those ancient bronze busts of Roman senators?”  my grandmother once said. “Well, he looks just like them.”

Click for Part III

Follmann show co writer 1951
Grandpa Joe (left) looking at scenery sketches for “Doctor, Dear Doctor.” The Mask and Wig Club Archives.


Historic Sites Neighborhoods Snapshots of History Urban Planning

The History and Background Behind The World’s First Statue of Charles Dickens

Although I have lived in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Cedar Park since 2006, I have not really given too much thought to the history of the Charles Dickens statue in the “Park A” part of Clark Park at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue. In fact, the statue is of not only Dickens but his character “Little Nell” (i.e. Nell Trent, a character from his 1841 novel The Old Curiosity Shop). I had heard that it is the world’s only statue of Dickens, but this is technically not true, as there is another one in Sydney, Australia and a very recently erected statue of his likeness in his birth city of Portsmouth. Still, I found it quite odd that of all the places on earth where a statue of Dickens could possibly exist, one was here in Philadelphia and not in London, which at least in theory would make much more sense. Thus, I decided to do some investigating.

Photo of statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in 1910.
Photo of statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in 1910.

As it turns out, the statue was commissioned in 1890 by Washington Post founder Stilson Hutchins to be completed by New York City-based artist Francis Edwin Elwell. Initially, the idea was that it would indeed be placed in London. When Hutchins backed out of the deal, Elwell finished it anyway. The statue was then shipped to London and put on display with the hope of finding a buyer. However, this was unsuccessful namely because Dickens expressed a strong desire to not be depicted in such form. In fact, his will does not allow any “monument, memorial or testimonial, whatever. I rest my claims to remembrance on my published works and to the remembrance of my friends upon their experiences of me.”

The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park circa 1959.
The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park circa 1959.

After Elwell shipped the statue across the Atlantic and back, it won two gold medals at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892-3. Despite the awards it received, the work failed to find a buyer and so it was then sent to languish in a Philadelphia warehouse.

Then in 1896, the organization that became the Association for Public Art (back then it was called the Fairmount Park Art Association) negotiated to keep the work in Philadelphia. In 1900, the FPAA purchased it for $7,500 (about $213,000 today) and in 1901, it was placed in its current location and it has stayed there since then despite numerous failed requests to move it to a more prominent location. In November 1989, the sculpture was vandalized but ultimately fully restored.

The entrance to Clark Park circa 1927.
The entrance to Clark Park circa 1927.

Every year in February, Dickens’ birthday is celebrated in Clark Park. In 2013, the celebration included Morris dancing, sampling of Victorian-era desserts, readings from his books and other events.

The statue of Dickens and Little Nell is the only statue that is placed in Clark Park and while we’re not exactly sure of how it got there in the first place, the likely answer is due to Clark Park’s namesake Clarence H. Clark himself. Clark was a wealthy financier and developer who sat on the artworks committee of the FPAA committee. Thus, it was purchased by the FPAA in 1900 and placed at 43rd and Chester in 1901.

In addition to the statue of Dickens and Little Nell, the park also contains a large stone from an area called Devil’s Den in the Gettysburg Battlefield during the Civil War. The stone was placed in the park in June of 1916 and was set up there to remember Union soldiers who were treated at the site, which was once Satterlee Hospital, and “services of the patriotic men and women” who cared for them.

Another example of public art in Clark Park is an initiative set up by the University City District called Heart and Soul. Last summer, 4 decorated pianos were set up all over the park with the goal being spontaneous, random piano performances by whoever wandered by and sat down to play.

Historic Sites Neighborhoods

Venice Island Recreational Facilities: Coming Soon! (Again)

In the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, between the Schuylkill River and the canal, there is a small patch of land, under two miles long, referred to as Venice Island. With the exception of a new apartment building, it has been somewhat of an eyesore for the neighborhood in recent decades, with leftover buildings and equipment from when the canal was still in use as late as the 1940s. However, the Philadelphia Water Department, along with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Manayunk Development Corporation, have spent the last few years planning and fighting the elements in order to make the lower part of Venice Island something more than a parking lot used when grabbing brunch on Main Street.

In preparation for the upcoming Lower Venice Island Park and Performance Center’s grand opening, coming later this year, here is a look back at the area and its evolution from being part of a working canal in an industrial neighborhood.

Lock Number 68’s sluice house
Lock Number 68’s sluice house

In the early 19th century, coal usage was rising in the United States. With regions towards the middle of Pennsylvania having large coal reserves, easy transport was needed in order to get the coal to the major cities. As a result, the Schuylkill Navigation system came about: a 108-mile system of locks and dams that carried thousands of ships from the coal-mining cities of Pennsylvania, starting with Port Carbon, down to Philadelphia and further. The Schuylkill Navigation Company allowed areas along the route to purchase the energy thanks to water through turbines or similar equipment. This includes Manayunk, which saw a rise in its textile industry and neighborhood population during the 19th century as mills began to build along the canal.

Finished in 1819, the Manayunk section of the Schuylkill Navigation system contained three locks: 68, 69, and 70. Lock Number 68 was found on the upper section of Venice Island and pictured here.

With the rising use of railroads to transport coal, use of the canal dwindled and it eventually closed to commercial and recreational boats in the 1940s, leaving equipment abandoned on Venice Island. These photographs taken on the lower side of Venice Island provide a look into the Manayunk daily life in the 1950s, around a decade after the canal was no longer in use. It was purchased by the City of Philadelphia and incorporated into the Fairmount Parks Systems.

Lock tender's house on the side of the mainland (left) with the sluice house (right).
Lock tender’s house on the side of the mainland (left) with the sluice house (right).
Close up on the canal Lock 68.
Close up on the canal Lock 68.

Recreational areas have been a popular aspect of Venice Island and the surrounding area. There were playgrounds there as early as the 1950s (seen below) and the tow path on the Manayunk side of the canal is currently part of the Schuylkill River Trail that extends ten miles. Luckily, the new plans for the space also include such public areas like basketball courts and a children’s area! For more information on the Lower Venice Island Park and Performance Center, head to the project’s official page on the Philadelphia Water Department website.

Venice Island Playground
Venice Island Playground
Venice Island Playground


Peters, M. & Smith, K. (1993). The Manayunk Canal. Retrieved from

Levine, A. L. The Manayunk Canal and the Schuylkill Navigation System: A Brief History. Retrieved from

Philadelphia Water Department. (2014).Venice Island. Retrieved from

Elk, Sara Jane. (1990). Workshop of the World. Oliver Evans Press. Retrieved from


Behind the Scenes Historic Sites Snapshots of History

Echoes from the Mask and Wig Club

The Mask & Wig Club, 310 S. Quince Street, October 5, 1956.
The Mask & Wig Club, 310 S. Quince Street, October 5, 1958..

Many years ago, when I was helping my grandmother decide which records to donate to the New York Public Library from her extensive collection, I found a set of fragile shellac discs protected by  brown paper sleeves.  They were old dance records from the 1920s that had belonged to my grandfather Joseph Follmann Jr., who passed away in 1989.

The record of the 1927 production of "Hoot Mon."  Ujifusa family.
The record of the 1927 production of “Hoot Mon.” Ujifusa family.
A recording by the Mask & Wig pit orchestra of "I Live the Life I Love," probably with my grandfather conducting. Note the record label: the Pennsylvania Athletic Club Building is now the Parc Rittenhouse on the east side of Rittenhouse Square.  Ujifusa family.
A recording by the Mask & Wig pit orchestra of “I Live the Life I Love,” probably with my grandfather conducting. Note the record label: the Pennsylvania Athletic Club Building is now the Parc Rittenhouse on the east side of Rittenhouse Square. Ujifusa family.

These were 78s, and thus could fit only one song on a side.  The songs included “Say That You Love Me” by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians and “Old Man River” by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra.  All were recorded at the Victor Studios in Camden, New Jersey.  Among them were two discs of songs from old Mask & Wig productions.

My grandmother had a 78 setting on her record player  — or as she called it, a “victrola.”  We put on a record of “Gems from ‘Hoot Mon,'” from the 39th annual production of the Mask & Wig Club, which included the foxtrot “We’ll Paddle Our Canoe” recorded by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra and the Mask & Wig Glee Chorus.  Then there was  “I Live the Life I Love” from a record labeled “50/50,” the name of the 1937 show. According to alumnus Don Fisher, my grandfather was credited as the conductor and rehearsal pianist — he loved the Club so much he came back seven years after graduation to assist with the show.

The sound was scratchy and thin, the voices high pitched and nasal.

We saved the records.

I was only ten when Grandpa died, yet I knew that he loved the Mask & Wig Club, that legendary theatrical troupe started by a group of University of Pennsylvania students in 1889 and whose song-and-dance antics have been delighting Philadelphia (and American) audiences ever since.  Among the group’s notable alumni was Bobby Troup, who composed the jazz standard “Route 66.”  

Among the pictures in my parents’ home is a photograph of Grandpa Joe seated with the West Philadelphia High School orchestra.  He was a pianist, so unlike the other members who are proudly holding their flutes, violins, and trumpets, he is sitting hands folded next to the portly, mustachioed conductor.  There is also a framed certificate of his election to the Club dated May 1, 1929, and his Club rosette sits in an old Penn shot glass.  “Made in France,” the rosette’s brass clasp reads.

West Philadelphia High School, 48th and Walnut Streets, from an architectural rendering date December 1910.
West Philadelphia High School, 48th and Walnut Streets, from an architectural rendering dated December 1910.

Grandpa served as music director of the Club his senior year, composing many of the songs and the pit band. In those days, the Club toured around the country in a special Pullman train, graciously provided by the Pennsylvania Railroad. He graduated from the Wharton School in 1930 with hopes of becoming a professional musician. According to family lore, he even played piano at the Folies Begere in Paris and recorded with dance bands such as Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, whose most famous song was “Collegiate,” a hot jazz riff on the carelessness of Roaring Twenties college life: “trousers, baggy, all our clothes look raggy, but we’re rough-and-ready. Yay. Rah Rah. Very, very, very, seldom in a hurry. Real collegiate are we.”

Members of the Mask & Wig Club rehearsing at 310 S. Quince Street in 1930, my grandfather's senior year.
Collegiate. Members of the Mask & Wig Club rehearsing at 310 S. Quince Street in 1930, my grandfather’s senior year. Source: Wikipedia.

Yet the life of a professional musician is always tough, and during the Depression it was nearly impossible to be  “seldom in a hurry” to make ends meet.  He went into the insurance business and married a stage actress, dividing his time between New York and Philadelphia.  He became close friends with a number of people in the Philadelphia arts scene through his involvement with the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, befriending actors such as Richard Basehart (who played Ishmael in the classic movie Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab) and Eleanor “Siddy” Wilson (an actress and artistic polymath from the Wetherill paint family, who created abstract canvases well into her 90s).

Grandpa Joe lost his first wife to cancer in the 1950s, and took a cruise on the Holland-America liner Maasdam. It was onboard this ship that he met my grandmother, tragically widowed at a young age with two children — my uncle and mother. The two were married shortly afterward, and Grandpa Joe moved permanently to New Rochelle, New York.   Grandpa retired from his job as an insurance executive in the 1960s, taught as an adjunct at NYU’s Stern School of Business, wrote a few business books,  and continued to play the piano, both jazz and classical.

My brother Andrew and I spent a lot of time as young children at our grandparents’ Upper East Side apartment.  The piano was at the center of the living room, a 1926 Steinway that Grandma and Grandpa had purchased together. A two foot high statue of Beethoven, painted to look like bronze, sat on the piano case, along with two brass candlesticks.  Grandpa loved playing the Peter’s theme from Serge Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” for my brother and me, and we could not get enough of it. Sometimes, he would put my hands over his as he ran his fingers over the keys.

I never learned how to play.  I tried the oboe instead.  “That’s one difficult instrument,” Grandpa scoffed.  He was right.  After I had braces put on, I got lazy, stopped practicing, and that was the end of that.

In his early 80s, Grandpa Joe began suffering from memory problems.  One day, he sat down at the Steinway and started to play a piece he had composed many years ago, according to my grandmother a short “filler” piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Yet he could not remember it.  My grandmother said he closed the piano, walked away, and never opened it again.  He died soon after from a heart attack.

The Mask & Wig records are now at my parents house, locked away in a case along with other records from Grandpa Joe’s extensive classical library that did not get donated to the New York Public Library.  Yet there is no turntable  to play them now, either at 33 or 78 RPM.

Beethoven is there too, standing with his arms folded amidst a forest of houseplants.  He did, after all, like taking afternoon walks in the Vienna woods.

Grandpa Joe's caricature at the Mask and Wig Club house, directly behind the piano in the ratskeller. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
Grandpa Joe’s caricature at the Mask and Wig Club house, directly behind the piano in the ratskeller. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Behind the Scenes Historic Sites Neighborhoods

Parkside Revisited (Again): A Look Inside 4230 Parkside Avenue

Note: the author has previously covered Parkside in “After the Fair” and “The Slifkin Family.”  A walk-through of the house with the author and University of Pennsylvania lecturer Hanley Bodek will be featured on an upcoming segment of WHYY’s Friday Arts

The 4200 block of Parkside Avenue, May 17, 1954.
The 4200 block of Parkside Avenue, May 27, 1954.

On the outside, the houses on the 4200 block of Parkside Avenue are grand indeed, a brick parade that marches proudly along West Fairmount Park. Their roofs are a jumble of scalloped and stepped gables topped by terra cotta urns and copper cornices. Their yellow Roman brick facades boast bow-front windows, latticed dormers, and terra cotta angel faces.  Alleyways are secured with high scrolled iron gates, possibly made by the workshop of Samuel Yellin.

Built in the 1880s and 1890s by brewer/developer Frederick August Poth, they were pitched towards Gilded Ages executives and factory managers, as well as prosperous business owners and professionals.  Some were probably occupied by the top leadership of F.A. Poth & Sons, who could commute to the brewery by taking the eastbound trolley across the Girard Avenue bridge. These homes were meant to impress and dazzle passers-by on foot, trolley, or coach.  Less was not more in those days.  And why not?   Philadelphia was one of the richest cities in the world in the 1890s, and many of the architectural, mechanical, and decorative features were made right here, in the self-proclaimed workshop of the world.  And these homes were located across the street from the site of the 1876 Centennial Expositions, one of the crowning events in Philadelphia’s history.

Poth must have taken a special interest in his Parkside development.  He sold his freestanding mansion at 33rd and Powelton to his daughter Mathilde and son-in-law Joseph Roesch, and moved with his wife into a brand-new mansion at 4130-40 Parkside Avenue.  He died there in 1905.

During the early 20th century, Parkside changed from an upper-class German-American neighborhood to a middle class Eastern European Jewish one. During the Depression, most of these big twin homes were divided into efficiency apartments and rooming houses, and lost most of their interior fixtures.  Yet at least one of these homes survives with its original floor plate and some of its interior detailing intact: 4230 Parkside Avenue, situated directly across from the Centennial Exposition’s Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum).

The 4200 block of Parkside Avenue, May 27, 1954.
The 4200 block of Parkside Avenue, May 27, 1954.
4230 Parkside Avenue. Note the polished granite columns. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

I recently got a look inside the house, thanks to the current owner.  It has been vacant for over a decade. The inside of the house is cavernous and musty, with soaring ten foot ceilings.  The walls, once wainscoted with dark stained paneling, are painted white or gray.   After passing through the front hallway, I marveled at the massive grand staircase, which rose three stories up through the center of the house.  The newel post was probably once topped with a finial, or even a bronze statue light fixture. The dining room, filled with wood scraps and other debris, can easily hold a table set for a dozen.   The second floor library, which faces the park,  still has its original shelves topped by carved cornices.  The bay window once had curved glass panes and sashes, now replaced by standard flat ones. Almost all of the massive wood mantelpieces, save the one in the basement butler’s pantry, had been yanked out years ago, leaving their outlines behind.  The brass fireplace grates and polychrome tiles remain, giving a hint of the fine craftsmanship that once graced these Parkside homes.   A pencil diagram, probably drawn by the carpenters who built the house 120 years ago, is still extant in the dining room.

The main staircase of 4230 Parkside Avenue.  It rises three stories. There are two other service staircases in the house, one of which has been floored over. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
The main staircase of 4230 Parkside Avenue. It rises three stories. There are two other service staircases in the house, one of which has been floored over. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
Pencil sketches once hidden by a mantelpiece (now stolen probably left by the construction crew that built this house in the late 1880s or early 1890s.  Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
Pencil sketches once hidden by a mantelpiece (now stolen probably left by the construction crew that built this house in the late 1880s or early 1890s. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
The dining room. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
The dining room. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The house’s layout is not completely intact. A previous owner had attempted to convert the mansion into a boarding house, adding shoddily-built bathrooms and partitions.  A piece of plywood covers over the archway between the foyer and the parlor, which originally was separated by sliding pocket doors.  A large, twisted chunk of pressed copper lies in the kitchen.  It originally came from the rear window bay, torn off by thieves scavenging the vacant house for scrap metal.  Squatters once stored drugs underneath floorboards and behind radiators.

Tile fireplace surround and brass grate in the front parlor. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
Tile fireplace surround and brass grate in the dining room. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

At 5,300 square feet, this was a house built for a very large family. There are six bedrooms, located on the second and third floors. The built-in armoires remain in place, as is some of the decorative plasterwork.  The window of the third floor front bedroom perfectly frames the Please Touch Museum.  A large cedar closet, located off the master bedroom, could have stored many wool suits with room to spare.

View from the third floor front bedroom, towards Memorial Hall, once the main building of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, later the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now the Please Touch Museum
View from the third floor front bedroom, towards Memorial Hall, once the main building of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, later the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now the Please Touch Museum
Built-in armoire in the master bedroom. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa
Built-in armoire in the master bedroom. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa

When Frederick Augustus Poth built 4320 Parkside Avenue, it was at the cutting edge of Victorian domestic technology.  One expert who has renovated many large homes in Fairmount described the house as equivalent to today’s Toll Brothers mansions, built for an aspirational and demanding clientele.  Although equipped with several gas fireplaces, the house was originally heated by steam radiators, powered by a hand-stoked coal boiler in the basement.  The house may have originally been piped for gas lighting, as electricity did not become widespread in American homes until the early 1900s.  With its flickering pale glow, gas lighting was an improvement over pre-Civil War whale oil candles. But houses such as 4230 Parkside were almost invariably dark and gloomy, with their stained paneling, overstuffed furniture, heavy drapery, and piles of curios and knick-knacks. Dust must have been a problem, especially for anyone with allergies.

Plaster moulding in the second floor library.  Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
Plaster molding in the second floor library. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
The front parlor, full of debris. The window looks out on Parkside Avenue. Note the Delft-style tiles.
The front parlor, full of debris. The window looks out on Parkside Avenue. Note the Delft-style tiles.

In their fleeting glory days, these Parkside Avenue homes were Downton Abbey in miniature.  In Victorian Philadelphia, immigrant servant labor, usually Irish, was inexpensive and plentiful.  A house like 4230 Parkside would have a staff consisting of a cook, laundress, maid, governess, maybe even a butler.  They worked long hours, received only one weekday evening plus every other Sunday off, and received an average salary of $3.50 per week (about $45.00 today), well below the modern minimum wage.* They were quartered downstairs.  The butler’s pantry, accessed by a separate back staircase that is now floored over by a later bathroom addition, survives almost intact.  The kitchen, located at the rear of the first story, has lost all of its original fixtures except for the china cabinet and the lower half of its wall tiles.  The cook toiled over a mammoth coal fired iron range, which lacked the temperature controls we take for granted today.  The iceman would make frequent deliveries to restock the icebox.

The butler's pantry/servants' dining room, located in the basement. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
The butler’s pantry/servants’ dining room, located in the basement. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
China cabinets in the kitchen, located in the rear of the house on the first floor. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
China cabinets in the kitchen, located in the rear of the house on the first floor. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The future of the house remains in question.  Two doors down, however, the owner of a nearly-identical house has recently completed a total restoration. The copper trim has all been renewed, the brick scrubbed, a new balastrade added to the front porch. He has even replaced the curved sashes and panes in the second floor bay windows.  The view of the park and the newly-restored Please Touch Museum from the new roofdeck must be spectacular.

Is this a harbinger of things to come?

*Glessner House Museum:

Roof details. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
Roof details. Note the stepped Dutch gables and the terra cotta corbel. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.
Memorial Hall, built for the 1876 Centennial Exposition and now the Please Touch Museum.  Photographed on March 22, 1924, when it housed the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Memorial Hall, built for the 1876 Centennial Exposition and now the Please Touch Museum. Photographed on March 22, 1924, when it housed the Philadelphia Museum of Art.