Historic Sites Neighborhoods Snapshots of History Uncategorized

Trolley Barns and Grand Hotels: A Brief Look at the Widener Empire (Part 1)


41st and Haverford Avenue, looking east, c.1900. The Philadelphia Traction Company’s trolley barn is the gable roofed structure on the right.

At the corner of 41st Street and Haverford Avenue, amidst the rowhouses of West Powelton, stands a cavernous brick building with a pitched roof. Looming over its neighbors, it is one of the few surviving structures of the Widener trolley car empire.

Originally, the Philadelphia Traction Company had three massive trolley sheds in West Philadelphia, each equipped with a blacksmith shop and other repair facilities. Another one survives at 41st and Chestnut Street, which was once able to house up to 300 horses.

During Philadelphia’s Gilded Age, the trolley car was the ubiquitous symbol of the Widener family’s power.  With the exception of the very rich, who had private coaches, almost every city dweller gave the Philadelphia Traction Company conductors his or her nickels and dimes while en route to work or running errands.  The trolley infrastructure is imprinted on the city’s urban landscape. Many of the rails and overhead wires have not been used in years, the bane of cyclists and drivers alike.  A century ago, the trolley shaped Philadelphia on a grand scale: it allowed the city to grow outward (a city of homes), as opposed to upward (a city of tenements and skyscrapers) like its rival New York.


The humble trolley also built one of the largest fortunes in the United States.

Peter Arrell Brown Widener (1836-1915), like the salty-tongued Cornelius Vanderbilt before him, knew the power of cold, hard cash. Widener was a believer in technology and progress, not propriety and tradition.  What mattered to him was harnessing a regular cash stream which flowed from the everyday needs of the masses.  Born poor and trained as a butcher, Widener made his first small fortune by supplying meat to the Union Army during the Civil War.  Like many so-called “war profiteers,” he rose from poverty to what the New York Herald smugly dismissed as the nation’s “Shoddy Aristocracy.”  The New York Tribune, for its part, defined shoddy as:  “poor sleezy stuff, woven open enough for seives [sic], and then filled with shearman’s dust. … Soldiers, on the first day’s march or in the earliest storm, found their clothes, overcoats, and blanket, scattering to the wind in rags or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain.”

Shoddy or not, Widener was shrewd.  After Appomattox, Widener took his $50,000 (about $700,000 today) and began investing in his native city’s transportation network.  Rather than trying to break into the  railroad business — the Pennsylvania Railroad was a state-chartered old boys club — Widener invested in the construction streetcar lines and developing the surrounding real estate.  A street-smart young man who loved shirt-sleeve poker and politics, he knew how neighborhoods worked. He also knew how to muscle his way into City Hall by briefly serving as City Treasurer.

Peter Arrell Brown Widener (1836-1915). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In the boom years that followed the Civil War, the city had plenty of room to expand.  The 1854 Act of Consolidation expanded the city from a mere 2 square miles to nearly 130.  Much of this new territory was undeveloped farmland and woods. Trolley cars, unlike capital-intensive railroads, were relatively cheap to build and operate.  They were ideal people movers, as long as the city’s population and manufacturing economy continued to grow. And for a while, they did. The burgeoning factories and mills of late 19th century Philadelphia not only provided thousands of manufacturing jobs, but also plenty of white collar managerial ones.  As noted by historians Philip Scranton and Walter Licht: “At its peak in the 1920s, our setting was the third largest metropolis in the United States, an expanse of 128 square miles occupied by two million residents, and a visitor to the city could hardly overlook the industrial base that supported this complex.”

Click for Part II


Brian Butko. The Lincoln Highway: Pennsylvania Traveler’s Guide (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2013). pp. 50–51

Andrew Heath, “Consolidation Act of 1854,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, accessed February 21, 2014.

Stephen Salisbury, “Sculptor Turns Bomber into a Greenhouse,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 2011.

Philip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986), p.5.

Ron Soodalter, The Union’s Shoddy Aristocracy, The New York Times, May 9, 2011.

Preston Thayer and Jed Porter, “Philadelphia Traction Company Barn & Stable,” Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

David Whitmire, “The Wideners: An American Family,” Encyclopedia Titanica, January 11, 2008. 

Historic Sites Neighborhoods Snapshots of History

Frederick A. Poth: Red Bricks and Gold Beer (Part 2)

Construction and surveying work in front of the former Frederick and Helena Poth mansion at 216 N.33rd Street, May 20, 1927. The Roeschs had vacated the house around this time, and it had become a Drexel Institute dormitory supervised by Dean of Women Ruth A.L. Dorsey.

In 1887, the brewer Frederick A. Poth purchased a large corner lot at N.33rd and Powelton Avenue from Quaker industrialist John Sellers Jr.  Sellers was one of Philadelphia’s richest men, a manufacturer of machinery and investor in West Philadelphia real estate.  Along with the lumber merchant John McIlvain, Sellers was also a stalwart of West Philadelphia’s Quaker community.   The Powelton Quakers tended to be a reserved, insular, and tech-savvy group. They were also usually shrewd business people, and often vocally anti-slavery. True to his faith’s “plainness” doctrine, Sellers lived in a boxy Italianate house at 3300 Arch Street. His cousin and mechanical polymath Coleman Sellers II — hydroelectric engineer for Niagra Falls and arguably the inventor of the first moving picture camera (the kinematoscope) — lived a few blocks to the north on Baring Street.

Industrialist and inventor Coleman Sellers II (1827-1907).

As they grew in wealth and prominence during the Industrial Revolution, Philadelphia Quakers struggled to balance their financial success with the trappings of weath.  The older generation before the Civil War continued to wear gray and black broadcloth, address people in the non-hierarchal “thee” and “thou,” and avoid intoxicating beverages.   The “frivolous” material temptations of the Gilded Age, however, proved too great for many members of the Society of Friends after the Civil War.

Few Philadelphian tycoons could be more quintessentially Gilded Age than the portly brewer Frederick A. Poth.  When he bought the corner lot from Sellers in 1887, the self-made German immigrant was one of the city’s biggest brewers, owner of F.A. Poth & Sons at 31st and Jefferson Street, located in the section of North Philadelphia still known as Brewerytown.  Poth — who still spoke in the gutteral accent of the “old country” — was many things: a tough businessman, an amateur singer in German musical societies, gentleman farmer (at his country property in Norristown), dedicated Mason, bon vivant clubman, and sharp real estate investor.  Soon after purchasing the Sellers lot, he immediately commissioned the relatively obscure architect Alfred W. Dilks Jr. to build a new family home.

Why Poth selected Dilks is a bit of a mystery, especially when he could have chosen the likes of the colorful Frank Furness (then hard at work on the University of Pennsylvania’s new library) or the buttoned-up Theophilus Parsons Chandler Jr. (a distinguished professor at the University and also Dilks’ mentor). Just before he started drafting designs for the Poth mansion, Dilks finished a speculative rowhouse development for Poth and his fellow brewer Edward Schmidt on the 3300 block of Arch Street.  The new houses were cheek-by-jowl with the sober John Sellers mansion. The 1985 National Register nomination of the Poth-Schmidt rowhouses sums up Dilks’s design approach: “As a consequence of Dilks’ training, and his understanding of contemporary taste, the buildings that he designed for Arch Street are among Philadelphia’s most important examples of the Queen Anne style, showing all of its essential features. Those include the Japanese influenced porch details, which alternate with the Mediaevalizing knee braces of other porch details; the empathetic use of brick detail to describe architectural weight; and the multiple textures from painted wood to smooth brick, to shadow catching hung tile. The buildings were further enlivened by formal variation within the group that adds to the richness of the ensemble. There are few equals to the Dilks achievement in the generally plain Quaker City.”

The F.A. Poth and Company brewery at 31st and Jefferson Streets, designed by Otto Wolf. Almost all of these buildings have been demolished. Source: The Hagley Museum and Library. Click on the image to go to the original source.

Definitely not plain, and very un-Quaker, indeed.   And a strange choice of architect for a man a later biographer would eulogize as being “a man of simple tastes.” Yet it was also industrial mechanization that had made the increasingly use of ornament not only possible, but affordable.  Although Dilks specialized in the so-called Queen Anne style, the house he designed for the Poth family at 216 N. 33rd Street can best be described as German “Beer Baron” baroque, a Rhineland castle transported to the banks of the Schuylkill River.  Compared to the flat surfaces of the surrounding Italianate  houses, Poth’s brick mansion is ornate and exuberant.  To trolley riders and pedestrians, its jagged roofline, protruding turrets, and fiery terra cotta details must have screamed for attention. The irony was that all of this historicist ornament in brick, wood, and metal was made possible — and economically feasible — by the mass-production celebrated at the city’s 1876 Centennial Exposition.  Mechanical jigsaws, for example, could churn out intricate gingerbread wood trim in minutes.  Mechanized presses could transform tin sheets into cornices and bay windows just as quickly.

The Powelton Club, located on the 3500 block of Powelton Avenue. It was in operation from 1894 until 1906. Poth and many of the neighborhood’s businessmen were members. Here is a description from the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated November 15, 1894:
“The building is 50 feet front by 100 feet deep, and stands on a plot 89 x 212 feet. It has been entirely renovated and rearranged, so as to insure all the conveniences and comforts of club life. The wide hallway is one of the striking points of the interior arrangements that give the building a quaint and yet pleasant effect. On either side of the hallway are the reception room and library, with accommodation for those who may want to either read or write. In the basement is a fine gymnasium, with all the modern appliances, together with shuffleboard, billiard and pool room and bowling alleys. Close beside these are the bath rooms, lavatories, etc.
“The second floor rooms are devoted to whist parlors, elegantly furnished. The third story is devoted entirely to apartments of the steward and store rooms. All the rooms have the old style of grate. The lighting throughout is by electricity and the building is heated by steam. The outside grounds will be used in summer for tennis and other sports.” Click on image to go to the original source.

To complete his urban ensemble, Poth commissioned fellow German-native Otto Wolf (the same architect who designed his brewery) to build another set of speculative rowhouses directly across the street from 216 N.33rd Street.   He then turned his sights north and west to the old Centennial district of Parkside. Here, he commissioned Willis Hale and other young architects to built a series of enormous, three-story Flemish revival twin homes fronting the old fairgrounds.

3301-11, 3315 Powelton Avenue, built for Frederick A. Poth on speculation by architect Otto Wolf. The houses remained in the Poth family real estate portfolio until the 1950s. Source: University City Historical Society. Click on image to go to original source.

By 1900, the Victorian streetcar suburb of West Philadelphia had reached its stylistic and economic peak.  The houses had evolved from simple suburban Italianate villas into full blown semi-urban mansions.  The man who had dreamed up the 19th century suburban ideal, the landscape architect Alexander Jackson Downing (1815-1852), had warned in his book The Architecture of Country Houses against castle architecture: “There is something wonderfully captivating in the idea of a battlemented castle, even to the apparently modest man, who thus shows to the world his unsuspected vein of personal ambition, by trying to make a castle of his country house. But, unless there is something of the castle in the man, it is very likely, if it be like a real castle to dwarf him to the stature of a mouse.”

The italics are Downing’s own.

Maybe Poth and his wife Helena did feel like a family of “Mäuse” in their Powelton “schloss,” for they did not live for long at 216 N. 33rd Street. About only about ten years, they gave their house to their daughter Mathilde and son-in-law George Roesch (a beef wholesaler), and moved to a new city residence in the middle of their Parkside Avenue development, which they called “Brantwood.”  Here, Frederick Poth died on January 21, 1905.  His sons inherited F.A. Poth & Sons, which like most of Philadelphia’s beer empires fell victim to the Prohibition in the 1920s.

“The Brantwood” at 4130 Parkside Avenue (October 5, 1945), a series of six large twin houses Poth built in the 1890s on Parkside Avenue. He and his wife Helena moved into one of them after giving their house on North 33rd Street to their daughter and son-in-law. After Poth’s death, the six houses were converted into apartments.

Although no longer conducted on the same scale as a century ago, the ancient art of making beer (ale as well as lager) is undergoing a renaissance in Philadelphia.  Although the Poth brewery has vanished, most of his residential buildings in Powelton and Parkside have survived, the legacy of a German immigrant who wanted to bring a bit of his native Rhine Valley to his adopted home.


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.


Behind the Scenes Historic Sites Neighborhoods Snapshots of History Urban Planning

The Carriage Houses of Van Pelt Street

247 and 249 S. Van Pelt Street, July 3, 1969. Ponies have given way to Porsches.

Two months ago, while giving a book talk at Bucknell University, I was fortunate to tour an actual working carriage house, attached to an 1840s brick mansion in the small town of Mifflinburg.  My host Karl Purnell had restored his family’s carriage house to its original condition and configuration. Within its walls were a horse named Mercedes and two antique carriages: a two-wheeled runabout and a six-seat surrey. The second story contained the hayloft — bales are hoisted up to this level by a set of block-and-tackle above the doors — as well as additional storage and quarters for the coachman.

Mifflinburg used to be known affectionately as “Buggytown” — during the late 19th century, the town was the largest manufacturer of carriages in the state of Pennsylvania.  The former William Heiss carriage works, one of the few intact carriage shops in the country, has been restored as the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum.  Amish farmers in the surrounding counties keep the tradition of carriage building alive, although obviously not in the flashy colors and trim of the 1860s and 70s.

Getting the horse and surrey ready for a ride took about half-an-hour.  First, Karl had to tack up the horse.  Then the two of us shoved the surrey out of the carriage house and turned it onto the street, using the mechanical brakes to keep the vehicle from rolling out of control.  Then Karl led the horse out of the stable and attached him to the carriage.  Then we were off, trotting down High Street.

Karl Purnell, the horse Mercedes, and his 1870s surrey, built in Mifflinburg, PA. April 4, 2013.  This house, with the carriage house in back, was similar in set-up to homes in early Philadelphia suburbs such as Germantown. Photograph by the author.

The short trip was a rare insight into 19th century life, when traveling anywhere — church, market, visiting relatives — was a significant undertaking and the instant gratification provided by a modern car was a foreign concept.  Compare all this work to pushing a button or turning the key, shifting into reverse, and backing the car out of the garage.  Then there’s caring for animals and finding parking…or a hitching post.

“The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand” by Thomas Eakins, 1879-1880. This is an iconic, world-famous image of Philadelphia during the horse-and-carriage era. The setting is Fairmount Park near today’s “Please Touch” Musem. Eakins meticulously studied and sketched the horses’ gait and physique before committing brush to canvas. Fairman Rogers, a long-time patron of Eakins, lived in a Frank Furness-designed mansion on West Rittenhouse Square, which was later occupied by Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt. Their horse-and-carriages may have been kept on Van Pelt Street.

In the late-19th century, the carriage works in Mifflinburg and other Pennsylvania towns supplied middle class and wealthy Philadelphians with their horse-drawn transportation. Companies such as Brewster, Wolfington, Fleetwood (later purchased by General Motors’s Cadillac division), William D. Rogers, D.M. Lane and Sons, and Heiss crafted a variety of colorful custom bodies using exquisite woods for the body, fine leather for seats, polished brass for the trim, and high-grade steel for the springs.  Shaping wood into wheel rims was particularly tricky: the wheelwright would have to steam the wood and then bend it over a “spoke turning lathe.”

In a congested urban area like late 19th century Rittenhouse Square, where real estate was at a premium, storing a horse and carriage was a logistical nightmare.  Unlike a car, horse and carriage could not be “parked” in an outdoor lot, but rather had to be stored indoors, usually in a structure apart from the main house. For the wealthy denizens of Rittenhouse Square, carriages were as much fashion as they were basic transportation — much like luxury automobiles today. On a typical Sunday in the 1880s, the parade of horseflesh and equipage on Walnut Street, in the words of Senator George Wharton Pepper, “made upon the onlooker an impression of urbanity, of social experience and of entire self-satisfaction. If during church-time they had confessed themselves miserable sinners, by the time they appeared on parade their restoration to divine favor was seemingly complete.”

By contrast, most 19th century Philadelphians either had to walk or pile into a horse-drawn omnibus, if they could afford the fare.  On hot summer days, the city reeked of horse excrement, and many people pressed flowers close to their noses in a futile effort to fight the stink.

Portrait of Berthe Morisot holding violets by Edouard Manet, 1872. Whether in Paris or Philadelphia, urbanites fought the stink of horse manure as best they could…

Van Pelt Street — a small, tree-lined alley located between Spruce, Locust, 21st and 22nd Street — is lined with several carriage houses once affiliated with the big townhouses along Spruce Street.  In a carriage house belonging to a well-to-do Rittenhouse Square household, the horses dwelled in stalls on the first story. Next to them was kept an assortment of carriages used according to the weather and the needs of the family: church, the opera, a picnic, house calls. The range of coach bodies available to potential buyers was bewildering:

  • Landau: a formal four-seater coach with a collapsible roof, pulled either by a pair or a four-in-hand. Appropriate for open-air city touring. Driven by a coachman. The curved landau roof bar would later find its way onto early motor cars.
  • Buggy: a two person carriage with either two or four wheels, and pulled by one horse. Usually driven by the owner.
  • Surrey: the ancestor to the modern station wagon or minivan. A four-wheeled box topped by a fringed-canopy, with 3-4 bench seats.  Driven by the coachman or owner.
  • Brougham: a two-passenger enclosed coach with four wheels. Driven by a coachman.  The namesake of the Cadillac “Fleetwood Broughams.”
  • Berlin: an enclosed four-person coach for foul-weather travel, pulled by a pair or a four-in-hand.  Driven by a coachman.

And so on.

To accommodate all of this coachwork and horseflesh, the carriage houses of Rittenhouse Square were quite large: two or three stories high, 20 feet wide, and 80 feet deep. Then there was all labor required to keep this urban menagerie in tip-top condition.  In addition to the coachman and grooms — who would feed the animals, maintain the carriages, and muck the stalls — a farrier frequently would visit to re-shoe the horses, crafting shoes to fit each individual hoof.

By the early 1900s, many of these carriage houses were converted into garages, housing cars like Mercedes, Wintons, Renaults, and Packards. The cars often had bodies with coach names such as phaeton and coupe. Coachmen were replaced with chauffeurs, who doubled as live-in mechanics. In the early 1900s, young men would race their family cars along the roads of Fairmount Park. Their clanking pistons and backfiring exhausts frequently scared horses out of their wits, causing them to bolt and run.  In response to this racket, the Fairmount Park Commission banned cars along the Wissahickon Creek between Germantown and Chestnut Hill.  Hence the name Forbidden Drive.  It remains a haven for pedestrians and equestrians to this day.

The carriage houses on Van Pelt Street were service buildings for the big townhouses like this on the 2100 block of Spruce Street. The kitchens were in the basement, and the servants lived in the dormer rooms in the attic. Irish domestics –often forbidden to speak Gaelic under their employer’s roofs — frequently referred to the neighborhood as “Rottenhouse Square.”

Today, Van Pelt Street’s carriage houses have been converted into private residences.  One serves as the clubhouse for the Orpheus Club of Philadelphia, the nation’s oldest male singing society.

The horses and carriages have long been exiled to the fields of Chester County, the grounds of the Devon Horse Show, and the roads of Lancaster County.

Riding in the 1870s surrey owned by Karl H. Purnell, April 2013. Filmed with the 1920 setting of the 8 MM iPhone app.

Don’t scare the horses! Footage of the 2009 London-to-Brighton Veteran Car Run, showing many of the 1890s and early 1900s automobiles that terrorized pedestrians and horses around Rittenhouse Square…these noisy and expensive “contraptions” led directly to the creation of Fairmount Park’s Forbidden Drive.


“Wood Bending: Applied Mechanics in Wheel-Making,” Hub, November 1878, pp. 388-389. From:

Carriage Museum of America

Mifflinburg Buggy Musem

Entertainment Historic Sites Snapshots of History

Before the Academy: Classical Music in the Quaker City

338 Spruce Street in 1961, home of Francis Hopkinson, the composer of “The President’s March,” otherwise known as “Hail, Columbia!”

During the late eighteenth century, Philadelphia’s Quaker elite had a dim view of the performing arts.  For a sect that prized plainness, industry, and silence, European high culture represented frivolity and unnecessary “fanciness.”  Having a harpsichord or fortepiano in one’s house could mean being “read out” of meeting, and Friends schools forbade keyboard instruments until the 1900s. As theater was banned in the city proper,  the town of Southwark (today’s Queen Village) became the de facto entertainment district for colonial America’s most populous city.

Yet things changed when President George Washington took up residence on Market Street in 1790.  Washington could not play an instrument or carry a tune.  The extremely image-conscious Washington loved the theater.  His favorite play was Joseph Addison’s play about the Roman Republican hero Cato.  He loved dancing even more. During the 1790s, when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, a coterie of musicians organized performances of orchestral music by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and other European masters. They also sprinkled their own compositions into the programs.  These American pieces were written in the  classical style but frequently quoted patriotic songs such as “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail, Columbia,” as well as Irish and Scottish folk songs.  And then there was Benjamin Franklin, who loved music so much that he invented a new instrument that became all the rage in Europe and America: the haunting, ethereal “glass harmonica.”

Mozart: Adagio & Rondo for Glass Harmonica & Quartet – Adagio

This stylistic pastiche shamelessly played on the cultural insecurity of Philadelphia’s literati, who yearned for sophistication but did not want to be seen as un-Republican British imitators.  During the French Revolution, composers would also insert bars of controversial, anti-aristocratic songs such “La Marseillaise” and “Ca Ira” into their works, provoking either wild applause or hissing from the audience.  Although Americans had recently ridden themselves of a king, not everyone was sure that the violent overthrow of Louis XVI was such a good idea.

“A Toast” by Francis Hopkinson, starting at 2:00.

One American in this coterie was Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson, a renaissance man of means who dabbled in writing plays and political satire, as well as playing the harpsichord and organ. He even composed a short revolutionary propaganda opera, entitled American Independent or The Temple of Minerva. Shortly before his untimely death in 1791, Hopkinson published “Seven Songs for Harpsichord or Piano Forte,” dedicated to George Washington.  Hopkinson seems to have thought rather highly of himself,  declaring in the dedication: “I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition.”

“The Federal Overture” by Benjamin Carr, c.1795. The French Republican sympathies of Carr’s Philadelphia audience are pretty obvious in this piece.  Note also the inclusion of the famous Irish gig “Mother Hen” and Francis Hopkinson’s “The President’s March” (aka “Hail, Columbia!”).

The most famous of President Washington’s “court composers” was Alexander Robert Reinagle.  The son of a Hungarian father and a Scottish mother, he immigrated to America from Edinburgh in 1786.  By the 1790s, Reinangle was writing concert music for professionals and amateur ensembles, holding concerts at the City Tavern’s Assembly Room and the Chestnut Theatre.  Compared to British and Viennese ensembles, Reinangle’s players were doubtless rather rough-and-ready.  Reinagle’s compositional style had its roots in the classicism of Haydn and C.P.E. Bach, which perfectly matched the simple, well-proportioned “Federal” style of architecture.

The Chestnut Theater itself, opened in 1794, was the work of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the mastermind of the Fairmount Waterworks.  Able to seat around 1,100 people on four levels, its stage was crowned by a sculpture of a soaring eagle in the clouds. George Washington was a frequent, enthusiastic attendee of Reinagle’s concerts; he even entrusted the composer with the musical education of his stepdaughter Nellie Custis.

Benjamin Carr: Rondo on “Yankee Doodle” (1804)

Another Philadelphia composer was London-born Benjamin Carr, who arrived in the city in 1793 as a voice and keyboard teacher.  In addition to teaching and composing, he served as organist and choirmaster at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church and then St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Carr’s most famous work is the “Federal Overture,” written for full orchestra in 1794.

The Musical Fund Hall, 1959, after being sold to a labor organization. The Victorian facade was added in the late 19th century.

Yet Carr’s most important contribution to the musical life of the city was co-founding along with artist Thomas Sully of the Musical Fund Society in 1820. Its charitable board sponsored the city’s first symphony orchestra. Headquartered in a magnificent auditorium designed by William Strickland, the Musical Fund Society was the forerunner of The Philadelphia Orchestra. The Society’s purpose was “first, to cultivate and diffuse musical taste, and secondly, to afford relief to its necessitous professional members and their families.” Designed by William Strickland, the Musical Fund Hall was a Greek Revival structure with an auditorium on the second floor.  Playing host to such distinguished guests as singer Jenny Lind and author William Thackeray, it was the city’s grandest concert hall until the Academy of Music opened on South Broad Street in 1857.


E. Digby Balzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1979), p.319.

Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres A-Z (New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1986), pp.84, 172.

Philadelphia Scrapple: Whimsical Bits Anent Eccentrics & the City’s Oddities (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, 1956), p.141.

Philadelphia Composers: Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809),

Francis Hopkinson, 1737-1791.

Historic Sites Neighborhoods Urban Planning

The First and Only to One of Many: How a Coffee Shop Helped Transform Spruce Hill

Excavation in front of 4239 Baltimore Avenue on June 18, 1912. The building housing the Green Line Cafe was originally a pharmacy with the owners living upstairs. Note the striped shades meant to keep the rooms cool during the hot spring and summer months.

Soon after moving to West Philadelphia in 1995, Douglas Witmer joked with his brother-in-law Dan Thut that one day they would open up a coffee shop in the Spruce Hill section of West Philadelphia.

Neither had business experience. Douglas studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His wife’s brother Dan had a background in history and had run a language school in Guatemala. After graduating from PAFA, Douglas realized that real estate was a great way to supplement his income as an artist and curator.  In the late 1990s, he and his wife purchased a multi-unit building at 44th and Osage.  Prices were low, and there was a healthy demand for student housing.

Witmer and his family loved Spruce Hill neighborhood.  Its Victorian architecture, academic flavor, and socio-economic diversity appealed to his creative sensibilities. “There’s no other place in America like this neighborhood,” Doug maintains.  “Take any spectrum you want – income, race, you name it – it’s really heterogeneous. It’s a walkable community, and it’s also a very green neighborhood. All these elements that make it unique.”

The longer they stayed in Spruce Hill, Douglas said, “the joke about starting a coffee shop became serious.”

Despite the bustling student scene, there was no coffee neighborhood in Spruce Hill, no where art could be displayed, residents mingle, and people could study, read, or just converse.

“We did it out of wanting to create something in the neighborhood that we wanted for ourselves,” he recalled.

In 2001, a three story brick building came up for sale at the corner of 43rd and Baltimore, on the northeast corner of Clark Park.  A florist shop occupied the ground floor, and apartments on the upper two stories.  Built around 1900 when Spruce Hill was a prosperous, upper-middle class neighborhood, it was originally a pharmacy, with the owners living above the store.

The structure was quite run down when Witmer and Thut purchased it from a large local property owner.   An underground creek running under 43rd Street had weakened its foundations, as well as those of several of the other houses in the area.  A dropped ceiling, boarded -up clerestory windows, and other alterations had compromised the original interiors.  Yet what really captivated Witmer and Thut was the bow-front window that commanded a view of Clark Park, visually connecting the future coffee shop to the bustling street and urban green space.

It was right across the street from a Green Line trolley stop. A century ago,  It was the streetcar that made West Philadelphia a desirable commuter suburb. So Witmer and Thut named their new coffee shop “The Green Line Cafe.”

Renovation of the coffee shop space in progress. The mirror on the left is the only original furnishing from the c.1903 pharmacy.  Photograph courtesy of Douglas Witmer.

The gun-renovation of 4239 Baltimore Avenue took about a year to complete. Douglas and Dan let their creative sensibilities make this space one-of-a-kind. “We don’t come from business backgrounds,” Douglas said.  “We were thinking more in terms of a space for the neighborhood to come together.”  The contractor removed the rotted floor and replaced it with salvaged, honey-hued pine boards, and sheathed the coffee bar with antique pressed tin.  Light from stained-glass windows streamed into the brightly-lit room.  A large mirror, topped by an egg-and-dart cornice, was the only surviving piece from the early 1900s.

The Green Line Cafe opened its doors in 2003.  It quickly became a home for neighborhood art shows and concerts, as well as a haven for families, writers, and cramming graduate students.  When the Clark Park Farmer’s Market set up shop on Saturdays, scores of people flooded into the cafe every hour, including many of the Amish farmers.

The coffee shop became financially successful enough for Witmer and Tuth to open up two more branches: one at 45th and Locust and another in Powelton Village. Penn’s massive redevelopment of the area, most notably the construction of the nearby Penn Alexander School at 42nd and Locust, gave a massive boost to adjacent property values. Soon, local real estate agents were using “Close to the Green Line Cafe” as a selling point in their apartment listings.

Green Line Cafe co-founder holding up the “Philadelphia Weekly” special on his establishment. Click on the picture to read the feature. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Witmer feels very lucky that a running joke with his brother-in-law turned into a successful business proposition.  The Green Line has provided an indoor “public” space complementing Clark Park, a gathering place for the diverse residents of Spruce Hill.  He just hopes that his coffee shop does not become a victim of its own success: “After 2005, we had five other businesses competing with us.  It’s a challenge from being the first and only to being one of many.”


The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park, April 10, 1910.


Behind the Scenes Historic Sites Neighborhoods

Gothic Ruins: A Last Glimpse Inside Northeast Manual Training High School

Northeast Manual Training High School, September 15, 1906.

The former Northeast Manual Training High School looks as if it had been plucked from the Princeton campus and dropped into the middle of North Philadelphia.  Constructed in 1903 at the intersection of North 8th Street and West Lehigh Avenue, the “Collegiate Gothic” building has walls of granite, traceried windows, and gargoyles sprouting from the central tower.  The auditorium boasted a magnificent pipe organ. This was not a school for the rich and privileged, but for the sons of working class Philadelphians.  The School Board believed that traditional beauty could be a form of uplift for the students, most of whom lived in tightly-packed, tree-less neighborhoods, befouled by smoke from the surrounding factories. Architect Lloyd Titus followed his client’s wishes, and created a dignified structure that loomed dreamily above the neighborhood’s squat rowhouses and warehouses.

It is an edifice built to last.  Over a century after its completion, there is not a crack in the foundations and walls are still plumb and level.

Yet on August 3, 2011, the school caught fire and the upper floors were completely burned out.  Nothing short of a total gut-renovation could make it fit for reuse.  The school, most recently known as the Julia DeBurgos Middle Magnet School, had been closed two years before the conflagration.  Because it was not properly sealed, the old school became a magnet for squatters, drug-addicts, and vandals, and quickly fell into ruin.  The four-alarm fire, possibly the result of arson, was the coup de grace.

Last Tuesday, I stood with demolition superintendent Devon Jackson in the groin-vaulted Gothic vestibule of the school’s auditorium, just as demolition started.   It was a dreary, gray day.  Rain spat through the vacant windows, and bright construction lights shone through the swirling dust.  Piles of rubble filled the courtyard. A few weeds still clung tenaciously to life, poking through the debris.

“The toughest part of the demolition is removing all the wood from the structure,” Devon explained.  It was not just in the floor planks and joists, but also buried behind plaster walls. Much of the wood that escaped the fire was either water-damaged or had succumbed to rot.

I asked Devon if it was OK for me to step into the auditorium.  It was a cavernous space, two stories high. The stage, surrounded by crumbling plaster moulding, still remained.  A tattered blue curtain shung from the proscenium. The seats had already been removed, the flooring material ripped up.  The pipe organ once stood behind the stage.

The pipe organ at Northeast Manual Training High School on December 18, 1934, damaged by fire.
Guion Bluford, a Philadelphia native and the first African-American astronaut, being honored on the auditorium stage, November 1983.

Eric Smith, Jackson’s supervisor at A.T. Russell Construction (the company in charge of demolishing the school), was alerted to the long-sealed organ shortly after demolition started, but by the time he arrived to photograph it, his workers had dismantled the instrument.  While wandering through the school, Smith saw pitiful reminders of the squatters who used the squalid structure as their home.  One illegal tenant had set up a suite of sorts, using a room for discarding his soiled clothes, one as a closet, and another as his bedroom.  Since the building had no working plumbing, he poked a hole in a chair and used it as a toilet.  Bottles he used for urination lay scattered around the space.

Taking down such a massive structure is no easy task, yet Smith predicts that his team of about 20 men will demolish it in a mere three months.  The first task is to gut the interior and salvage anything of value. Unusable wood components will be shredded into mulch, and sheetrock pulverized into gypsum fertilizer. The 10-inch veneer of exterior granite, as well as the gargoyles, cornices, and window tracery, will be sold to architectural salvage dealers, who have found a brisk market for such elegant pieces of history.  Men wielding sledgehammers and a swinging wrecking ball will then knock down the brick-and-masonry structural walls.

Smith knows he has a job to do and that economically the building is probably beyond saving.  Yet he still regrets its destruction.  “It’s a shame to see a building like that torn down,” he said. “You take a school hat’s been around for 110 years and then replace it with a Save-A-Lot, Burger King or a sneaker store. Change is necessary, but it would be nice if there was a better way to preserve structures like that. Even if you tried to save a portion of the building and preserve the history of the site.”

Note: to read Ken Finkel’s 2011 post about the former Northeast Manual Training (Thomas Edison) High School, click here.

To about read Steven Ujifusa’s May visit to the William S. Shoemaker Middle School in West Philadelphia, click here.


The burned-out shell of the former Northeast Manual Training High School. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
Stair tower. The railing have been removed. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.


The rubble-filled courtyard. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
Auditorium vestibule, with plaster groin vaults. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
Exterior bas-relief above the south entrance to the high school, part of an Art Deco addition. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
Auditorium. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
Gothic buttresses and windows. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Events and People Historic Sites Uncategorized

“The Cliffs”: Fairmount Park Ruins with a Link to Joseph Wharton

Joseph Wharton (1826-1909). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

During the winter months, drivers along the Schuylkill Expressway may notice the broken shell of a house near the Girard Avenue Bridge.  Its battered, honey-colored walls are marred by bright graffiti. Its roof is gone, windows vacant.

This forlorn ruin, once known as “The Cliffs,” was long ago the childhood home of one of America’s great industrialists, whose name is known throughout the world today.

Joseph Wharton was born in 1826, the scion of a wealthy Quaker family.   Despite his privilege, his parents put a damper on  extravagance.  They were members of the progressive Hicksite Quaker sect, founded by itinerant preacher Elias Hicks.  Along with a strict doctrine of simplicity, Hicks preached the abolition of slavery, and argued that the guidance from “Inner Light” was more important that strict adherence scripture.  Hicks wrote that, “the Scriptures can only direct to the fountain from whence they originated – the spirit of truth: as saith the apostle, ‘The things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God;’ therefore when the Scriptures have directed and pointed us to this light within, or Spirit of Truth, there they must stop – it is their ultimatum – the top stone of what they can do. And no other external testimony of men or books can do any more.”

Hicks’s radical theology lead to a split between conservative “Orthodox” and progressive “Hicksite” Philadelphia Quakers in the 1820s. Among the leaders of the Philadelphia Hicksite community was Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), who worked closely with 19th century civil rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass.

As a child, Wharton was deeply shaped by the Quaker faith, especially its doctrines of simplicity and practicality. His boyhood summers were divided “The Cliffs,” his mother Deborah Fisher Wharton’s family country house on the Schuykill River, and “Bellevue,” the Wharton river estate to the west. Built by his great-grandfather Joshua Fisher in 1745, “The Cliffs” was a Georgian house in the classic “Quaker plain” vein, an informal retreat where the Fishers escaped the city’s miserable, disease-ridden summers.  “Bellevue” was a somewhat more spacious and elaborate structure, compete with a ballroom that, according Wharton’s daughter Joanna Wharton Lippincott, “served the young Quakers as a delightful place for games of various kinds.”

Fireplace at “The Cliffs,” 1971.

Yet a life of leisure was not for  Joseph Wharton.  Choosing not to go to college, he apprenticed himself to an accountant to learn the basics of business.  After marrying fellow Quaker Anna Corbit Lovering in 1854, he struggled in his early ventures.  Then, working with master craftsmen, Wharton learned the new science of metallurgy, and prospered forging zinc, nickel, and iron.

Wharton didn’t stop there. He kept his eyes peeled for the next big thing, which was the metal of the future: steel: Under his management, Bethlehem Steel became one of America’s largest integrated steel and mining ventures.  Wharton crisscrossed Europe looking for the newest and best technologies, and built personal relationships with his managers. Supplying steel for skyscrapers, ships, and bridges made Joseph Wharton a millionaire many times over, on par with Rockefeller and Carnegie.

Something of an amateur scientist, Wharton also published a number of well-received articles — including ones on the Doppler effect and another on the global spread of volcanic pumice from the eruption of Mount Krakatoa near Manila.  He also tried his hand at verse. His daughter Joanna claimed that Ralph Waldo Emerson once praised his poem “Ichabod” (written in honor of Daniel Webster) at a dinner for Atlantic Monthly contributors:

So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn

Which once he wore;

The glory from his gray hairs gone,

For evermore.

Like many self-taught businessmen, he remained intensely interested in the day-to-day workings of his enterprises. As an old man, he led a canoe trip down the Colorado River to inspect one of his Nevada silver mines, and insisted on being lowered down the mineshaft in a bucket to inspect it.

A good Quaker to the end, Wharton believed that wealth was not just an end in itself, but should be used as a force for good in the world.  In 1881, he set aside $100,000 to start a school that would be the first of its kind — a business school — and chose his native city’s University of Pennsylvania as the beneficiary.  Wharton realized that America’s corporations needed trained professionals to guide them through the complex industrial economy that he had helped create. As Penn’s medical faculty trained future doctors, business scholars could train future business executives.

What wisdom did Wharton want to impart to his new school’s graduates? Business to him did not mean routine, but turbulence and change, and he hoped that his school would prepare them for, as he said, “immense swings upward or downward that await the competent or the incompetent soldier in this modern strife.”  The best schools, he observed, “have endeavored to do more than keep up the respectable standard of a recent past; they have labored to supply the needs of an advancing and exacting world…”

Yet it appears that Wharton became disappointed with the business school he founded. As he grew older, Wharton became more involved with Swarthmore College, a Hicksite Quaker liberal arts school that he co-founded in 1869   Unlike the Wharton School, Swarthmore College was a coeducational institution and was not strictly vocational.  It’s possible that Wharton, who did not receive a college education himself, lived vicariously through this school, frequently addressing the student body at commencement. “Not only, therefore, will you by obediently following your inward guide find for yourselves the right path,” he addressed one graduating Swarthmore class. “Each of you may thus be the grain of wheat or the dock seed, corn, or weed, to bless or ban future generations.  Therefore, as George Fox said, ‘Friends, mind the light.'”

Wharton died in 1909.  The two schools he founded continue to thrive, but the two country houses where Wharton spent his childhood summers did not fare as well.  In the 1870s, the city of Philadelphia confiscated “Bellevue” and “The Cliffs” and integrated them into Fairmount Park as part of the plan to protect the Schuylkill River from pollution.  “Bellevue” was demolished around 1900 and replaced by rowhouses.  “The Cliffs” remained intact until the 1960s, and then suffered from neglect and vandalism. In 1986, fire gutted it.

Today, the stone ruins of “The Cliffs,”still poke above the trees on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, just north of Girard Avenue.

Two women in front of “The Cliffs,” 1971.
The burned-out shell of “The Cliffs,” 2006. Source: Wikipedia.


Joanna Wharton Lippincott, Biographical Memoranda Concerning Joseph Wharton, 1826-1909. (Philadelphia, PA: J.P. Lippincott Company, 1910). Collection of the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

Samuel M. Janney, “The Doctrines of Elias Hicks,” The History of the Religious Society of Friends, from Its Rise to the Year 1828. (Quaker Heron Press, 2008, originally published 1869.

“Wharton School of Business: A Brief History.”

Historic Sites

When Myth Prevails and History Fails

Independence Hall, Rear View, June 24,1931. Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess.

Philadelphia, we too-often think, has a corner on history when it comes to Liberty, Freedom and all that was right with America. We have historical sites to prove it, so it must be true.

But what happens to the sites that tell the downside of history, sites that contradict the prevailing and preferred narrative? Well, those sites tend to disappear from the cityscape and from the public imagination. They become forgotten, and so are their stories—even when those stories would be valuable to illustrate a point.

Take, for example, the turning point in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, his March 18, 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech at the National Constitution Center. The constitution, said Obama, was “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.” “In a hall that still stands across the street,” he explained, “a group of men gathered and … launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.” Obama was referring to Independence Hall, which is actually two blocks from where he spoke. The hall across the street that the President didn’t know about, but would have wanted to, was Pennsylvania Hall. It, too, was an embodiment of an “improbable experiment in democracy”—and a failed one, at that. But Obama had no idea about this sordid chapter in American intolerance. He made do with what he could point to.

Unlike Independence Hall, Pennsylvania Hall no longer stands.  It lasted only three days before a rioting mob burned it down. Pennsylvania Hall doesn’t stand, and isn’t remembered. You won’t find an image here at and you don’t often find it talked about in the Philadelphia narrative of freedom, liberty and independence. And we didn’t hear about it in Obama’s speech.

The destruction of Pennsylvania Hall flies in the face of the preferred Philadelphia mythology. But the fact that the building doesn’t survive to remind us of its story is no  excuse. The lack of a site doesn’t make the incident any less true, or less potent. What we have in the story of Pennsylvania Hall is nothing less than a  reality check in a city where the past is sometimes framed in myth more than fact.

The Burning of Pennsylvania Hall, May 18, 1838. Credit: The Library Company of Philadelphia.

And what are those facts? Advocates for the abolition of slavery had been turned away from every other meeting place in the city, even those run by Quakers. So the abolitionists raised funds and built their own meeting hall. On May 14, 1838, Pennsylvania Hall opened on Sixth Street, south of Race. Free speech ran rampant as men and women of both races met and conversed in a place devoted to American ideals.

As discussions took place inside, angry crowds gathered outside. Night after night, the mob grew. On May 18th, shouts and threats gave way to rocks and flames and the mob set Pennsylvania Hall on fire. Philadelphia’s fire companies came out—but only to douse the roofs of nearby properties.

In the Spring of 1838, and for years to come, every American knew what happened in Philadelphia that night. The Athens of America had fallen. Pennsylvania Hall’s charred ruins stood for years as an eloquent scar in the now ironically intolerant City of Brotherly Love. Visitors at Independence Hall looked up Sixth Street and saw the ruins. The burning of Pennsylvania Hall would forever be associated with Philadelphia, or so it seemed.

Today, the ruins are long gone and their memory has faded. At the site of Pennsylvania Hall, where WHYY stands, we make do with the terse message cast on a blue and gold historical marker. But real, resonant history calls for more than a sentence on a sidewalk. Pennsylvania Hall has a story that deserves to be remembered.