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.


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

Snapshots of History

The Uncertain Future of Germantown High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germantown High School nears completion in 1914.

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

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

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.

Events and People Snapshots of History

Happy Holidays from PhillyHistory Blog

The first public tree goes up in Independence Square in 1913.

Lists reflecting on the bests and worsts of the waning year are nearly as abundant as egg nog and cardboard-flavored cookies in the weeks leading up to the holidays. But unlike the transience of yearly in memoriams, Philadelphia’s rich tradition of holiday decorations is long and vibrant.

We hope you’ll think of this collection of holiday photos in Philadelphia not as a list, but as ongoing documentation of the persistence of cheer and lights and, sure, brotherly love, in a city that has kept the holiday spirit alive even in times of hardship.

As PhillyHistory and PlanPhilly have explained, the tree pictured right in front of Independence Square marked the city’s first public Christmas tree and seems to have heralded a tradition of “civic Christmas trees” that has subsequently lit the city during the darkest winter days.

But everyone knows the city doesn’t just celebrate with trees. A collection of carolers gathered in Reyburn Plaza in 1958, with two children sitting, apparently enchanted, in the foreground. In 1956, the city installed a live Santa and a child-sized train set in Reyburn Plaza, but according to the St. Joseph Gazette, no children arrived to ride the train or convey their Christmas lists to Santa. Our guess is that they were relying on the “real” Santa at the Wanamaker Building.

Today we know the holiday seasons would be incomplete without the audiovisual familiarity of jingling bells and red kettles from the Salvation Army. That was true in 1962, too. Below, volunteers celebrate the unveiling of the Salvation Army Christmas billboard that year.

Although the red kettle tradition actually began in San Francisco, Philadelphia was the site of the first Salvation Army meeting in 1879, nearly a century before this photo was taken.

Mayor John Street, looking festive, took a ride in a carriage at the city’s annual tree lighting and holiday festival in 2002. Since Street’s tenure, the yearly ceremony has expanded to include a Christmas Village. This year, due to the construction on Dilworth Plaza, the celebration took place at Love Park across the street.

And with that look at the holidays through years, here’s a graceful, 1962 holiday message that means the same today as it did then:

A lit sign carrying warm wishes over the frozen water at Kelly and Girard.

As a holiday bonus, here is a smattering of trees from 1959, 2002, and 2004:

The 1959 Christmas Tree display at City Hall.

Christmas in Love Park (2002).

The city’s 2004 tree at twilight.

Events and People Snapshots of History

When Presidents Come to Town

By Yael Borofsky for the PhillyHistory Blog

Jimmy Carter stops off in a classroom in pursuit of a re-election bid.

Although Philadelphia’s days as the nation’s capital were glorious, but short-lived, that hasn’t stopped commanders in chief from stopping off in a city that practically oozes with symbols of democracy. As election day and all the associated controversy approaches (make sure to vote!), we wanted to give you a look at a few of the former Presidents who have come to Philadelphia — to campaign, rally support, sign legislation, and otherwise attempt to harness the force of Philadelphia’s great political history — and a reminder of what they said.

Technically, President Jimmy Carter isn’t campaigning in this 1980 photo, but he might as well be. Here, Carter is on a trip to Philly which took him to the Italian Market and beyond in his effort to drum up support for his re-election bid. Things didn’t work out for Carter, who lost out to President Ronald Reagan that year. Still, it’s nice to know that picture perfect visits to elementary schools are not a new thing.

President Gerald Ford shared a table with then-Mayor Frank Rizzo [Photo], likely during or after the dinner celebrating the reconvening of the first Continental Congress on September 6, 1974. Ford celebrated the city in his remarks that day, saying “Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, was the cradle of American liberty. “Love” and “liberty” are two pretty good words with which to start a nation.”

Nixon looks out his car window onto Independence National Mall.

About three years after President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, the president of privatization and Watergate infamy came to Philadelphia to sign a revenue-sharing bill — the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972 — at Independence Hall. The bill redirected tax revenue to states and municipal governments who could manage the money as they needed. Nixon, in his remarks given at Independence Square, said:

“The signing today of the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972–the legislation known as general revenue sharing-means that this new American revolution is truly underway. And it is appropriate that we launch this new American revolution in the same place where the first American Revolution was launched by our Founding Fathers 196 years ago-Independence Square in Philadelphia. It is appropriate that we meet in this historic place to help enunciate a new declaration of independence for our State and local governments.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson came to Philadelphia in 1967 [Photo] to visit the Philadelphia Opportunities Industrial Center at 19th and Oxford St., which had recently been opened by Reverend Leon H. Sullivan in 1964 to offer job training and educational support to minority groups in the city.

President John F. Kennedy at Independence Hall in 1962.

In his remarks at the POIC, Johnson lauded the work of the institution to lift up Philadelpia’s African American and minority population during a time when discrimination and inequality were destroying the fabric of cities across the country:

“Now when you really talk about what is right, you don’t appear to be nearly as interesting as you are when you talk about what is wrong. But I have seen so many things that are right here this morning that I wish everyone in America could not only see them, but emulate them–and follow them … What I have seen here with Reverend Sullivan is not just an institution–it is a unique training program. I have seen men and women whose self-respect is beginning to burn inside them like a flame–like a furnace that will fire them all their lives.”

On July 4, 1962 President John F. Kennedy was celebrating Independence Day in arguably the most important place to celebrate the holiday — Independence Hall. In an address to Philadelphia city leadership and the 54th National Governors Conference Kennedy remarked:

“Our task–your task in the State House and my task in the White House–is to weave from all these tangled threads a fabric of law and progress. We are not permitted the luxury of irresolution. Others may confine themselves to debate, discussion, and that ultimate luxury-free advice. Our responsibility is one of decision–for to govern is to choose.

Thus, in a very real sense, you and I are the executors of the testament handed down by those who gathered in this historic hall 186 years ago today.”

President Herbert Hoover addresses a crowd in Reyburn Plaza.

It’s not possible to see President Herbert Hoover in this picture taken in Reyburn Plaza at City Hall in October of 1932, but the scene is impressive. Hoover was stopping off in Philadelphia that day as part of a campaign tour through the mid-Atlantic region on his way to New York City and drew what looks to be a sizable crowd. Hoover, however, was not to be reelected.

This somewhat famous photo of President Abraham Lincoln [Photo] (JFK referenced it in the speech mentioned above) raising the American flag in front of Independence Hall could only be made better if you could actually see the man whom nearly every American could recognize with hesitation. Here, on February 22, 1861, Lincoln came to Philadelphia to welcome the state of Kansas to the Union in front of a crowd on the ground and in the trees.


Snapshots of History

Photo Gallery: Dilworth Plaza through the years

Former Mayor Richardson Dilworth (1956-1962) in 1957. Dilworth died
in 1974, three years before Dilworth Plaza was completed.

Dilworth Plaza is currently a hollowed-out pit of fenced-in concrete on the west side of City Hall, but soon it should be so much more. Center City District’s plans for the new plaza are modern, chic and supposedly practical in a way that the original construction, which took more than a decade and spurned plenty of controversy, was not.

You can see an EarthCam photo of Dilworth Plaza’s progress here.

But even before Dilworth Plaza was named for the man on the left, former Mayor Richardson Dilworth, the location had served a wide range of purposes throughout the years. Until construction began earlier this year, the plaza was most recently made nationally famous as the site for Philadelphia’s Occupy Protests.

While we anticipate what the new Plaza will do for Center City, let’s take a brief photo tour of the purposes the space has served in the past.

Dilworth Plaza Photo Tour


A pre-event for Take our Daughters to Work Day in Dilworth Plaza.


A show of Christmas festivity on Dilworth Plaza in 1981.


Redevelopment of Market Street including a view of the construction at Dilworth Plaza.
A second view of the redevelopment and construction progress.


Two photos (above and below) of a 1961 car crash that occurred right on the spot that would become Dilworth Plaza.


A shot of the Department of Streets booth during Employees Week in 1959 on what would become Dilworth Plaza.

A shot of the Fairmount Parks Commission booth during Employees Week in 1959 the eventual Dilworth Plaza.

A look at the City Commissioners Employee Week booth.


An indirect view of the western side of City Hall which would one day be Dilworth Plaza.


A 1903 view from the west side of City Hall, which would eventually become Dilworth Plaza.

Snapshots of History

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

A vacant property as seen in Society Hill in 1959.

By Yael Borofsky for the PhillyHistory Blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vacant lot at 1017 Mount Vernon Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historic Sites Neighborhoods Snapshots of History Uncategorized

William H. Shoemaker Junior High School

William H. Shoemaker Junior High School under construction, 7/1/1926.
William H. Shoemaker Junior High School under construction, 8/3/1926.
William H. Shoemaker Junior High School under construction, 12/2/1926.
William H. Shoemaker Junior High School under construction, 12/29/1926.
William H. Shoemaker Junior High School completed, 6/28/1927.

“A school system that is not costing a great deal these days is not worth a great deal.”

– The Centennial Anniversary of the Public Schools of Philadelphia: A Recapitulation, March 1918.


During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Philadelphia’s Quaker schools (Friends Select), and its Protestant church schools (Episcopal Academy) provided rigorous education for the sons and daughters of the well-to-do.  In the meantime, the Roman Catholic archdiocese set up an extensive network of parochial schools. Sectarian private schools not only provided community and opportunity, but also reinforced cultural and class identity.

Although the city’s ethnic and religious communities were very good at taking care of “their own,” public education for all proved an uphill struggle for civic leaders. Girard College, a private institution, did provide education to the disadvantaged, provided they were “poor, white, male orphans.” Central High School, founded in 1836 and known as the “People’s College,” provided quality, non-sectarian secondary education for those who met the admission requirements. Some students, like future artist Thomas Eakins, were from middle class families.  Others, such as future pharmaceutical magnate Dr. Albert Barnes, came from abject poverty.  Girls High School, formed along similar lines, followed in 1848.

Although the Philadelphia School Board was formalized in 1818 (with Roberts Vaux as its first superintendent), it was not until the early twentieth century that the city implemented the comprehensive K-12 public education system we know today. By 1918, Philadelphia’s public school system boasted 230,000 pupils taught by 6,300 teachers, housed in over 300 educational structures.*   That same year, school superintendent Garber chastised those who held the view that “there are two classes of society, a higher and a lower, and that it is a mistake to endeavor to break down the barrier between the two.”** Education, leaders like Garber argued, was the great leveler of American society, allowing those born in modest circumstances to rise into the ranks of the middle class and beyond. Philadelphia’s public school system, he concluded, should be the “inveterate foe of ignorance, poverty, disease, crime, and all forms of human waste and neglect…”***

During the booming 1920s, the School Board shifted into high-gear and built two co-ed high schools in West Philadelphia: West Philadelphia High School and Overbrook High School. The School District also started a revolutionary, three-year junior high school program that prepared grammar school graduates for the rigors of secondary education.   Among these new schools was William H. Shoemaker Junior High School, located at 5301 Media Street in the Haddington-Carroll Park section of West Philadelphia. In contrast to adjacent, affluent Overbrook, this was a middle and working class district which grew up along the Lancaster Avenue trolley tracks.  Originally a sleepy country village, Haddington exploded following construction of the Market Street Elevated rail line to the south. The majority of Haddington-Carroll Park’s residents lived in modest, two-story brick rowhouses.  Family stores and manufacturing operations sprouted up along Lancaster Avenue. According to Margaret S. Marsh’s study of the area’s early twentieth century demographics, the mostly-white residents of Haddington-Carroll Park were clerks, bookkeepers, teachers, and small businessmen.  As in neighboring Parkside, there was also a significant Jewish population. The proliferation of clubs and fraternal organizations created, as Marsh wrote, “‘instant’ community for the thousands of newcomers,” and “assured potential members of association with people of similar background.”**** At the same time, a growing number of African-Americans from the Deep South migrated to Haddington in search of work and opportunity. Not surprisingly, they often faced hostility and discrimination from neighbors and employers.*****

As a counterweight to social and racial segregation, schools like William H. Shoemaker Junior High (named for a prominent judge) provided a forum where various ethnic and religious groups could come together for the common purpose of education. Construction began in 1925 and was completed two years later.  It was most likely the work of Irwin T. Catharine, principal architect for the Philadelphia School system between 1918 and 1937.******   Architecturally, it bore a strong resemblance to West Philadelphia and Overbrook High, with its neo-Gothic detailing, pointed-arch windows, and spire-topped towers.  Inside, the school boasted a tiled grand staircase and a two story Georgian auditorium. Hallways were wide and spacious, classrooms steam-heated and lit by large windows. Shoemaker’s appearance may have been an homage to the “collegiate Gothic” of nearby Penn and Princeton, thus giving the middle and working class children of Haddington-Carroll Park a taste of the grandeur previously reserved for the privileged.

A photograph of the first graduating class of William H. Shoemaker Junior High School (1929) gives a rare glimpse into Haddington-Carroll Park’s past.  The children are all in uniform: coats and ties for boys and blouses for girls. Not surprisingly, most of the children are white, but there are a few African-Americans standing in the rows. Looking at the area demographics at the time, it is clear that Shoemaker Junior High was sandwiched between two increasingly segregated neighborhoods. In 1930, Southern Haddington was over 43% non-white, a trend that would accelerate during the Great Depression.  Upper Haddington-Lower Overbrook, by contrast, was only 7.5% nonwhite.*******

First graduating class of William H. Shoemaker Junior High School. Courtesy of Shoemaker Campus — Mastery Charter Schools.

After World War II, institutionalized “red-lining” by insurance companies and “block-busting” by realtors, compounded by the departure of industry, transformed the area around Shoemaker into a segregated slum, with few economic opportunities for its almost entirely African-American population.  Family businesses on Lancaster Avenue were shuttered and houses destroyed by neglect or arson, a trend repeated in urban areas throughout the nation. By the 1980s, a drug epidemic turned the streets surrounding the school into a war zone.   The structure itself crumbled from deferred maintenance, and the Philadelphia Inquirer rated it as the second most dangerous junior high school in the city.********

In 2006, Mastery Charter Schools took over management of the school. Renamed Mastery – Shoemaker Campus, the school has staged a remarkable turnaround. According to Mastery’s website, violent crime has dropped 90%, and 100% of its graduates have been accepted to institutions of higher learning.*********  Most of the building has been completely renovated and modernized, and is now completely air conditioned.

The un-renovated part of the school, about 30% of the building according to director of operations Dan Bell, is sealed off.  Plaster dust coats chairs and desks. An old piano sits in the deserted music room. Mountains of old books cascade out of a storage closet. Mean-spirited graffiti is scrawled on the plaster walls.

While most of the school bustles with life, energy, and the promise of the future, these silent spaces bear silent witness to the grandeur, optimism, sadness, and pain of Shoemaker’s past.

Special thanks to Robert S. Richard (City Year) and Daniel Bell (Shoemaker Campus — Mastery Charter Schools) for making this article possible. 

The old cafeteria. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
The auditorium, in use since 1927. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
A piano sits in the former music room. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa

*John P. Garber, The Centennial Anniversary of the Public Schools of Philadelphia: A Recapitulation (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Trades School, March 1918), p.15. Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Cities P53-562-b.

**John P. Garber, The Centennial Anniversary of the Public Schools of Philadelphia: A Recapitulation (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Trades School, March 1918), pp.8-9. Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Cities P53-562-b.

***John P. Garber, The Centennial Anniversary of the Public Schools of Philadelphia: A Recapitulation (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Trades School, March 1918), p.16. Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Cities P53-562-b.

****”Philadelphia Public Schools Thematic Resources,” National Register for Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form. December 4, 1986.

*****Margaret S. Marsh, “The Impact of the Market Street ‘El’ on Northern West Philadelphia: Environmental Change and Social Transformation, 1900-1930,” from William W. Cutler III and Howard Gillette Jr., The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975 (Hartford, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 174.

******Margaret S. Marsh, “The Impact of the Market Street ‘El’ on Northern West Philadelphia: Environmental Change and Social Transformation, 1900-1930,” from William W. Cutler III and Howard Gillette Jr., The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975 (Hartford, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 182.

******* Margaret S. Marsh, “The Impact of the Market Street ‘El’ on Northern West Philadelphia: Environmental Change and Social Transformation, 1900-1930,” from William W. Cutler III and Howard Gillette Jr., The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975 (Hartford, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 184.

********Shoemaker Campus Information,

*********Shoemaker Campus Information,