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Nazis at the Trans-Lux

”A brand new idea in motion picture theaters here was launched last night,” boasted Inquirer film critic Mildred Martin. In the depths of the Great Depression, this brand new “intimate auditorium,” an Art Deco confection called the Trans-Lux, promised to transform traditional movie goers into 20th-century citizen-spectators.

Instead of screening Hollywood’s latest feature films, the Trans-Lux offered newsreels and other short films in a “small but charming and modernistic house seating only 493.” Relying on a counter-intuitive business plan that had recently proven itself in Manhattan, here was a distinct departure from gigantic, lavish movie palaces like the Boyd, the Stanley and the Mastbaum, with 2,500 seats, 2,916 seats and 4,700 seats, respectively.

Trans-Lux Theatre, 1519 Chestnut Street, January 13, 1935. (PhillyHistory.org )

Entering architect Thomas W. Lamb’s gleaming, streamlined design, patrons literally crossed the threshold of the latest media culture, participating in cutting-edge design, bleeding-edge technology, and up-to-the moment news.  

“The new theater’s architecture, decoration and mechanics are all entirely modern,” wrote Martin. “There is no projection booth in the balcony. Everything – projectors, films, electric wiring, operator – is behind the screen. Special lighting effects flood the Trans-Lux Theatre with a soft glow which makes empty seats clearly visible. No tripping over legs in the gloom, no waiting for ushers, no hunting for lost hats, no worry about the safety of children because the theater is so well lighted.” Amenities included “attractive mezzanine lounge[s] with modernistic effects… telephone booths and other conveniences.”

Detail. Trans-Lux Theatre, 1519 Chestnut Street, January 13, 1935. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Selected from the entire short subject output of all motion picture producers in America and foreign markets” newsreels at the Trans-Lux quadrupled what was available at “the average feature picture house.” Patrons viewed “a wide variety of topics” including “comedy, animal life, sports, cartoons, travelogues and novelty material of entertainment and educational value.” And they were offered hard news.

Beginning in 1935, this included newsreels under The March of Time brand, stories like the Dionne quintuplets, hobbies of Hollywood stars, and animated cartoons featuring Jack Frost and Popeye the Sailor. Regulars returned weekly for the latest adventure of Amelia Earhart, automobile racing accidents, and highlights bound for sporting history. And at the heart of every sixty-to-ninety-minute presentation was at least one newsreel of note.

Detail. Trans-Lux Theatre, 1519 Chestnut Street, January 13, 1935. (PhillyHistory.org)

In November 1935, this would be a 7-minute, 50-second March of Time production entitled Palestine (East of the Suez) that credited Adolph Hitler, “who has wrought upon Jews more evil than any man of his generation” with a wave of immigration from Germany to the Middle East.

“Fanned by the oratory of Hitler’s minister of propaganda, [Joseph] Goebbels, anti-semitism has swept Germany,” the narrator continued. “All books of Jewish authors are ordered burned in public squares. Authors, scientists, artists are driven from Germany. Bands of loud Nazi youth in storm trooper uniforms conduct terrorizing raids on Jewish citizens throughout the land, to the rest of the world’s shocked amazement.” Authentic film clips illustrated every line.

“These are the final blows of a long persecution which has been forcing Jews out of Germany by tens of thousands,” read the announcer. “World attention and sympathy for such refugees as Dr. Albert Einstein welcomed in America, has obscured the plight from Germany of some 80,000 German Jews to all parts of the world … 6000 to America, 23,000 to Palestine. . . . a new Palestine and the land of promise.”

In Ohio, a board of motion picture censors deemed some segments “irrelevant” and “anti-Nazi.” E. L. Bowsher, the state’s chief censor, forced theaters “to cut 150 feet of film” from each copy of the newsreel.

No censorship was reported at Philadelphia’s Trans-Lux, which was about to complete its first year. At that anniversary, Trans-Lux manager William Matteson praised “Philadelphia’s interest in a theatre devoted exclusively to newsreels and short subjects” adding “we are happy to state that our experiment has proved entirely successful.”

Before long, Trans-Lux chain was operating in a dozen cities.

In 1938, when The March of Time produced a16-minute news feature entitled Inside Nazi Germany, criticism came from all sides. According to film studies historian Joseph Clark, Inside Nazi Germany “was denounced as both pro-Nazi and anti-German propaganda.” The Warner Brothers chain of theatres refused to screen it. At the Trans-Lux Theatre in New York’s Time Square, according to Clark, “there were a few ‘Heils’ for Hitler and an opposing and equivalent number of ‘Pfui,’” and some fist-waving audience members had to be separated.” But Inside Nazi Germany was not censored there Quite the opposite. Trans-Lux executives introduced the newsreel on the night of January 20, 1938 with the following projected on the screen:

“NOTICE. The issue of March of Time you are about to see has caused much controversy. Our policy is to fearlessly present any worthy film released by a recognized American producer. We therefore present uncensored and impartially the following subject.”

Fifty-five years later, The Library of Congress designated Inside Nazi Germany as “culturally significant” and added it to the United States National Film Registry for preservation in perpetuity. The newsreel also survives online. But Philadelphia’s Trans-Lux theatre does not. In the 1950s it became a first run theater. In the 1970s its distinctive vintage façade was replaced.

Today, the building is a sneaker emporium.

1519-1521 Chestnut Street, October 29, 1934. (PhillyHistory.org)
Demolition of the Samuel T., Freeman & Co. auction rooms
to make way for the Trans-Lux Theatre.

[Sources: In The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Chestnut St. Site Leased at $500,000 for New Movie.” Aug 31, 1934; “Trans-Lux Theatre Opens Tomorrow,” December 30, 1934;  Mildred Martin, Trans-Lux theater has its inaugural, December 31, 1934; “Film Censors Ban Anti-Nazi Scenes,” October 27, 1935; Trans-Lux, “March of Time” [advertisement], November 3 1935; “Trans-Lux Year Old,” December 31, 1935.

The March of Time Newsreels [Synopses]. February 1935 – August 1951. PDF; “Deletion of film brings protest,” Evening Star, Washington D.C. October 27, 1935; March of Time, Volume 1, Episode 7, “Palestine (East of the Suez)” [1935]. Transcript.

Joseph Clark, News Parade: The American Newsreel and the World As Spectacle (University of Minnesota Press, 2020); Raymond Fielding, “Mirror of Discontent: The March of Time and Its Politically Controversial Film Issues,” The Western Political Quarterly , March., 1959, Vol. 12, No. 1, Part 1; URL; Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres, A‑Z: A Comprehensive, Descriptive Record of 813 Theatres Constructed Since 1724 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986)].

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“Philadelphia’s First Exhibition of Advanced Modern Art”

Morton Livingston Schamberg believed in the power of art, specifically modern art. As a Philadelphia-born and trained artist who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts then Paris, Schamberg put his work, and his faith, in New York’s Armory Show in 1913. He also stepped up as both practitioner and advocate for all things modern in his hometown, where Schamberg was way ahead of his time.

In a pre-Armory Show essay published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Schamberg provided what art historian Wilford Scott called an “eloquent defense of modern art.” Joseph Rishel, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, much later praised the essay as “lucid” but also “prudent, given the anticipation of hostility from his audience.”

Schamberg attempted “to place modern painting in some historical perspective,” stating that “the art of Cezanne, Matisse, of Picasso, etc. is based upon the same ideas as that of Italy, Greece, Egypt, India, China, Africa or Mexico, in fact, of the art of all the centuries since its first manifestations.”

McClees Gallery, 1507 Walnut Street. March 25, 1927. (PhillyHistory.org)

But much of the Philadelphia art establishment didn’t buy Schamberg’s argument. Helen Henderson, the Inquirer’s art critic, admitted that modern works seemed “replete with a thousand intoxicating possibilities” and might ultimately “rouse us from indifference.” But not quite yet. Most still considered work of the Post Impressionists as “weird shrieks” leaving art lovers with “nothing…of what they knew and loved but the frames.”

Schamberg had his work cut out for him.

Three years later, with fellow artist Lyman Saÿen, Schamberg seized the opportunity to assemble and present “a small but brilliantly chosen” and, according to Rishel, “boldly” titled “miniature version of the Armory Show.”

Finally Philadelphians might just be willing to dip their collective toe in the new and exciting.

McClees Gallery, 1507 Walnut Street. March 25, 1927 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Philadelphia’s First Exhibition of Advanced Modern Art” opened at the McClees Gallery, 1507 Walnut Street on May 17th, 1916. According to Sylvia Yount, formerly of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and more recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this was “the first major presentation of avant-garde art in Philadelphia.”

Henderson noted the success of Schamberg’s “little exhibition of modern art.” It “created no little interest in the city, proving how ready is the public to visit art exhibitions of a live and interesting character. The exhibition proved the most popular one ever held in this gallery, and attracted an unprecedented number of visitors.”

In addition to selecting, arranging and hanging the show, Schamberg embedded himself in the gallery as an on-site interpreter, engaging visitors interested in understanding modern art, much as Alfred Stieglitz did at 291, his gallery in New York. And more: Schamberg wrote a preface to the show praised by Henderson as “excellent and illuminating.” This would “very much assist the spectator to whom the pictures appear enigmatic.”

According to Scott, the selection was “intended to reveal how the modern artist had discarded the mere ‘story-telling’ elements of traditional art, in order to concentrate on the embodiment of ‘pure esthetic emotion’ of abstract compositions.” But words could only do so much. To achieve a complete understanding of this new “psychology of aesthetics” and to thoroughly grasp how non-representational art could lead to “purely visual pleasure,” that would require both “time and familiarity.” Schamberg concluded his preface with this advice: “The best answer could be found in the pictures themselves.”

And what, exactly, was hung in this watershed exhibition? Works by artists both foreign and American, including several on the threshold of iconic fame: Constantin Brâncuși, Georges Braque, Jean Crotti, Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy, Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Albert Gleizes, Henri Matisse, Henry L. McFee, Jean Metzinger, Walter Pach, Francis Picabia, Pablo Picasso, May Ray, Georges Rouault, H. Lyman Saÿen, Morton Livingston Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Jacques Villon, Max Weber.

Many titles aren’t specific enough to offer a clue, but others might be traced to extant works, including Jean Crotti’s The Mechanical Forces of Love; Marcel DuChamp’s The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes; Matisse’s Leather Hat (Marguerite in a leather Hat); Man Ray’s Nativity; Metzinger’s Landscape with Church and The House and the River; Rouault’s The Superman;; Joseph Stella’s Prestidigitator; Jacques Villon’s Acrobat (L’Acrobate); Max Weber’s Lecture-Phantasy (Lecture at the Metropolitan Museum).

We can only guess which Picasso Still Life was “imposingly hung in the place of honor,” according to Henderson, but we do know that Schamberg and others considered it “to contain the very essence of the modern movement.” We also know the same painting had been “greatly admired” when shown at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery two years earlier. And we know that Schamberg admired Picasso as an artist who “felt nature geometrically.”

Two years after the McClees Gallery show, the second wave of the 1918 Flu Pandemic hit its peak in Philadelphia. As Ben Wolf, Schamberg’s biographer, told it: “During an average day, upward of two thousand new cases might be reported.” Schamberg became ill and died on October 13th. He was buried two days later, on his 37th birthday, leaving behind an interesting and abbreviated legacy. His story concludes with unanswerable questions. As Kathleen Foster, curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art put it: Schamberg remains “one of the great ‘what ifs’ of American art history.”

[Sources: Philadelphia’s First Exhibition of Advanced Modern Art, May 17th to June 15th, 1916 [Checklist] McClees Galleries, 1607 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Penna.; Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art: Bicentennial Exhibition, April 11-October 10, 1976 (Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Museum of Art: 1976]; Joseph J. Rishel, Cézanne in Philadelphia Collections (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1983); M.L. Schamberg, Preface [Philadelphia’s First Exhibition of Advanced Modern Art, May 17th to June 15th, 1916 (McClees Galleries, 1607 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Penna.); Wiiford Wildes Scott, The Artistic Vanguard in Philadelphia, 1905-1920 (University of Delaware Ph.D. 1983); Ben Wolf, Morton Livingston Schamberg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963; Sylvia Yount, “Rocking the Cradle of Liberty: Philadelphia’s Adventures in Modernism” in To Be Modern: American Encounters with Cezanne and Company (Philadelphia: Museum of American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1996); and in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Post Impression Exhibit Awaited,” January 19, 1913; Helen W. Henderson, “Jolly Futurists and Classic Cubists Turn World’s Art Galleries Topsy-Turvy,” February 2, 1913; Art and Artists Pass in Review,  Apr 16, 1916; Art and Artists Pass in Review, May 7, 1916; Art and Artists Pass in Review,  May 21, 1916; Morton L. Schamberg [obituary], October 15, 1918.]

A special thanks to Matthew Affron, The Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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Billy Sunday’s “Jim-Dandiest” Evangelical Campaign

Alba Johnson, president of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, believed Philadelphia was due for “a moral awakening.” Citizens had drifted away from “the virtues which made the American people what they are: purity, modesty, contentment and thrift.” An obsession with material things, which Johnson characterized as “the universal craze for riches,” sapped the city’s “moral strength.” Philadelphia needed “civic reform.” But first, there would have to be a concerted effort to “reform men’s souls.”

In 1915, Johnson joined other makers and shakers to fund the construction of a giant tabernacle on the north side of Logan Square, where the Free Library now stands. From the inside, this temporary wood and tar paper structure looked like “a miniature forest of timbers.” It seated 20,000 and thousands more would stand in eight spacious aisles that converged at a large open space in front of the podium. The aisles were covered daily with fresh sawdust.

Billy Sunday’s Tabernacle on Logan Square, 1915. (PhillyHistory.org)

Billy Sunday, America’s “greatest high-pressure and mass-conversion” evangelical preacher, operated twice daily in this tabernacle, January into March. In all, more than 1.8 million turned out for Sunday’s 147 sermons. And more than 44,000 found themselves inspired to walk the “Sawdust Trails,” confirming their faith in a handshake with Sunday.

At the front was a 10-foot wooden platform with a small, steel-reinforced pulpit that Sunday would regularly climb to emphasize a point in his sermon. Sunday had played professional baseball before ending his athletic career in Philadelphia in the early 1890s and his continued athleticism marked him as “the acrobatic dervish of evangelism.” His traveling entourage always included a trainer.

Hours before the start of each service, hawkers fanned out for blocks, barking “Git yer hymn-book here! Git yer only authorized life of Billy Sunday!” As packed trolley cars approached 19th and Vine, conductors announced: “Backsliders get out here.” One visitor compared the atmosphere to that of a circus.

Inside, a choir of 1,800 voices started with “Stand Up For Jesus” followed by “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” Then Sunday walked on stage, charmed the audience, and launched into an animated sermon against the evils of a modern, open society, the “whiskey kings, the German warlords, slackers, suffragettes or the local ministry.”

“He begins to dance like a shadow boxer,” observed journalist John Reed. “He slaps his hands together with a report like a broken electric lamp. He poses on one foot like a fastball pitcher winding up. He jumps up on a chair. In the stress of his routine he may stand with one foot in the chair and another on the lectern.”

Evangelist Billy Sunday preaching on March 15, 1915 in a temporary tabernacle erected on the site of the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia . George Bellows for Metropolitan magazine, May 1915. (Free Library of Philadelphia)

“Sunday’s whole sermonizing scheme is worked out to science,” reported The Public Ledger. “He half hypnotizes his congregation with his booming demonic roars, which reached the furthest corner of the squat-roofed structure.”

“‘Come on,’ he shouts. ‘Come on, now.'” “Say ‘Yes’ to God. That’s all. He wants you; you want him! You’re going to hell! Come on, come on to him! Don’t sit there like fools. Hurry up! Come!!!”

Then the choirmaster started “an old time hymn, plaintive and soft, and a woman, sobbing, wavers down the aisle.”

“Are you coming?” yells Sunday, looking right at you or seeming to. “Jesus is here.” “And then the rush begins and finishes in a near fight for salvation. It seems so easy to be saved, so absurd to remain wicked. The rough Sunday charm “refers to God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost as if he rooms with them or had just bought them lunch.”

Women gathered under sign reading “Saved for Service Christ in Phila Phila for Christ” at evangelist Billy Sunday’s temporary tabernacle, erected by “Happy” Joe Spiece on the site of the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia (Free Library of Philadelphia)

 “He was red in the face now,” noted Reed, “and the sweat was pouring from him” as he climbed onto the pulpit, “sliding from one end of the platform to the other, crouching like a runner, leaping, crouching, every movement as graceful as a wolf’s.”

“He shakes his fist … and cries: ‘Christ is in this city! He has seen every stone laid in Philadelphia. He has heard every lie; seen every false vote; known every vicious thought; every sneer at high and holy things; every yielding to low ideals; Every corrupt practice, every oath, every theft.'”

“Sunday suddenly flung himself across the platform like a baseball player sliding for second.” “‘It’s too late, Philadelphia! . . . It’s too late! Come to Jesus!'”

“Do you know anybody you want to be saved? Stand up! Have you a husband, wife, children, that you would like to see converted?” Throughout the tabernacle they rose by hundreds. “Brother!” they shouted. “Sister!” “My babies! “My husband!”

“God will take you all! “cried Sunday. “Who is coming to Jesus Christ!”

“At the climax,” observed Reed, “the willing and the indifferent hit the ‘Sawdust Trail’ together. The willing came with the merest prompting, fluttering in emotional states of tears of joy, to shake the hands of the evangelist and to sign the convert’s card. The indifferent were usually locked in the arms of one or more herders, experts who discharged their duties in the task of swelling the ranks of those who came forward, whether they signed up or not.”

Sunday described those eleven weeks in Philadelphia as the “Jim-Dandiest” campaign of his preaching career.” Souvenir-seeking followers agreed.  As the tabernacle emptied out for the last time, “Men and women pulled down signs from the tabernacle posts and carried them away. They scooped up big handfuls of sawdust from the shadow of the pulpit, filled their pockets and their handkerchiefs with it and carried it home. They took the tin pans which have gathered the tabernacle offerings. They tore the bunting and flags from the rostrum, the flowers from the pulpit; they carried away everything loose that could serve as mementos of the campaign.”

In the weeks after Sunday’s departure, thousands of his converts swelled the church pews of Philadelphia. Ministers of all denominations estimated an increase of as many as 80,000 new members. But would they last? And, more to Alba Johnson’s hope, had Billy Sunday reformed even a single soul? And whatever would become of the idea for “civic reform”?

[Sources: “Find inspiration in “Billy” Sunday: Rev. J. H. Jackson tells of visit to Philadelphia tabernacle,” The Hartford Current, February 15, 1915; “Billy Sunday has preached to nearly 2,000,000 persons in Philadelphia,” The Washington Post, March 9, 1915;”Billy Sunday closes record campaign in Philadelphia,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 21, 1915 (Originally published in The Public Ledger.); “Billy Sunday saves 41,724; get $51,136.” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 22, 1915; “The end of Billie Sunday’s Philadelphia campaign,” The Sun, March 22, 1915; “Statistics of the Rev. Billy Sunday‘s great campaign in Philadelphia,” The Washington Post, March 23, 1915; “Back of Billy Sunday,” by John Reed.  Metropolitan, v. 42, May 1915; “Billy Sunday dies; evangelist was 71”, The New York Times, November 7, 1935.]

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Trundling Tanks and Flying Jeeps on the Parkway

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is officially being reimagined for its second century. The idea behind this 18-month planning process led by Design Workshop, an international landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm? Propose world-class, people-centric changes that would “dramatically improve” the Parkway’s “appeal, use, traffic safety, functionality, and beauty.”

An extensive survey, offered in ten languages, solicited information and opinions about uses and expectations focusing on the mile-long stretch between Logan Square and the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Everything is on the table, it seems: public space, public art, public transportation, signage, marathons, music festivals, water fountains, rest rooms, shade trees, traffic flow, and, of course, parking.

What does not seem to be on the table, at least in 2022, is anything like the display of military might displayed in the past. In April 1918, before demolition for the Parkway was complete, the first British tank demonstrated its destructive capabilities on the streets of Philadelphia. “At this time the parkway . . . was being cleared of buildings, and to show the wonderful work of the tank it was run over ditches, hills and rubble, and ended up with battering down a 2-foot brick wall of the house that was being demolished.”

British Tank on the Parkway. April 1918. Philadelphia in the World War, 1914-1919 (Philadelphia. War History Committee, 1922)

Skip ahead about a half-century and we’re looking at Cold War displays of America’s evolving military prowess. In 1960, Mayor Richardson Dilworth proclaimed “engineer week” and urged those in the trenches to embrace to the time’s greatest challenge. “This is the decade of space exploration and new frontiers in transportation, electronics, chemistry, automation and nucleonics,” reported the Inquirer, which pointed to “special exhibits of engineering achievements” on view at Reyburn Plaza, across from City Hall. This included a tank or two, General Electric’s new space nose cone, the Navy’s Sidewinder air-to-air missile, and the Piaseceki “Flying Jeep.”

Aerial Jeep, Display at Reyburn Plaza in Conjunction with Engineer’s Week. February 25, 1960 (PhillyHistory.org)

There was particular pride in the latter, which had origins in nearby Essington, Pennsylvania. The U.S. Army Transportation Research Command had started experimenting with flying jeeps in 1956. With Chrysler and Curtiss-Wright, Piasecki won contracts for working prototypes. The Piasecki AirGeep was first flown, unsuccessfully, in October 1958. It “proved grossly underpowered, barely able to fly over a fence, and it was sent back to the shop.” An upgraded AirGeep flew in June 1959, and, over the next several years, was further improved for the Army and, with floats and the name of “SeaGeep,” for the Navy.

Aerial Jeep, Display at Reyburn Plaza in Conjunction with Engineer’s Week. February 25, 1960 (PhillyHistory.org)

Actually, the public’s romance with the Flying Jeep had started in the 1940s when Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation of Southern California promoted its version of vertical flight, a vehicle that could “take off and land almost ‘on a dime.’” The Vultee Flying Jeep could “serve as the ‘eyes upstairs’ for artillery units… for laying signal corps wire over jungle and impassable terrain…and for photo reconnaissance work.” It was also deployed as a “flying ambulance to evacuate casualties from small jungle clearings and inaccessible battle zones.” The company boasted that “many a wounded American boy is alive and well because this tiny Consolidated Vultee plane speeded him to the base hospital in minutes, instead of the hours it would have taken stretcher bearers to make the arduous trip.”

[Sidewinder Air-to-Air Missile] Display at Reyburn Plaza in Conjunction with Engineer’s Week. February 25, 1960 (PhillyHistory.org)

There were even plans for civilian uses. “Your postwar Flying Jeep may not look exactly like this, the company suggested. “But you can be certain it will be safe, easy to fly, and an economical family plane. Well suited, too, for vacations, inter-city travel, for aero clubs and ‘Fly-it-Yourself” stations … for farmers sowing and dusting crops…for forest patrol and fire spotting . . . for policing and traffic control . . . an idea all-purpose plane.”

Tank. Display at Reyburn Plaza in Conjunction with Engineer’s Week. February 25, 1960 (PhillyHistory.org)

Richard Tregaskis, the war correspondent known for his book and the movie “Guadalcanal Diary,” wrote another “war thriller” titled “The Flying Jeeps.” Columbia Pictures bought it in 1950, although the project never took off. Still, the idea of low-altitude, personal flying had grabbed the public imagination and was not about to let go.

Aerial Jeep, ca. 1960

The Army’s imagination, on the other hand, was less robust. Experimental flights and redesigns continued until the Army deemed the Flying Jeep “unsuitable for the modern battlefield, and concentrated on the development of conventional helicopters.”

[Sources:  Philadelphia in the World War, 1914-1919, by Philadelphia. War History Committee (Philadelphia: 1922); “35 Groups Mark Engineer Week,” The Philadelphia Inquirer February 22, 1960; “Hollywood,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 25, 1950; [Advertisement] The Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation; The Philadelphia Inquirer February 1, 1945; Piasecki VZ-8 Airgeep, YouTube.]

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Kensington Then and Now

On Memorial Day, 1900, Robert McNeil opened his brand-new pharmaceutical and hospital supply store at Front and York Streets with a flag raising. This was the growing company’s second location. The first, outgrown since its 1882 dedication, was located close by at Howard and York Streets.

McNeil Drugs, Front Street and York Street, March 17, 1916. D. Alonzo Biggard (PhillyHistory.org)
McNeil Drugs, Front Street and York Street, March 17, 1916. (Detail) D. Alonzo Biggard (PhillyHistory.org)

McNeil’s pharmaceutical emporium would soon be filling 18,000 prescriptions annually, developing “a sickroom supply department, a truss and bandage fitting room and research and manufacturing laboratories.” The company provided physicians with needed supplies throughout Philadelphia and beyond.

McNeil Salesroom, Front and York Streets, from The Bulletin of Pharmacy, Vol. 21,
1907.

And over the generations, McNeil Laboratories would develop and manufacture a number of new pharmaceuticals. In 1953, they introduced Algoson, a preparation containing acetaminophen and sodium butabarbital. Two years later, after FDA approval, they introduced Tylenol Elixir for children, containing only acetaminophen. Discovered in the 19th century, Tylenol became an over-the-counter medicine in 1960.

By then, the company that made Tylenol a household word was acquired by Johnson & Johnson. McNeil Laboratories had relocated from Kensington to larger quarters at 17th and Cambria Streets in North Philadelphia. They would move again, to a 110-acre tract in Fort Washington, far beyond Philadelphia’s city limits.

Meanwhile, the burgeoning manufacturing neighborhood of 19th- century Kensington, once populated with smoke-belching factories and miles of brick rowhouses, was eroded by decades of deindustrialization and disinvestment. It gradually bore no resemblance to the community where businesses like McNeil had once set up shop. Rather, it became a place, as The New York Times put it, where “the streetlights were broken or dim, and the alleyways were dark. Most of the blocks were lined with two-story rowhouses, abandoned factories and vacant lots.” The beleaguered area’s alarming association with illicit opioid use, overdoses and drug trafficking repeatedly made national news and prompted repeated outcries from the community and city officials.

Commercial Kensington became “a congested mess of Chinese takeouts, pawn shops, check-cashing joints” not unlike the one at Front and York Streets, pictured below, where the McNeil pharmacy once thrived.

Front and York Streets, Google Street view.

[Sources: Jennifer Percy, “Trapped by the ‘Walmart of Heroin,’” The New York Times Magazine, Oct. 10, 2018; April 20, 2022; “A Successful Store in Philadelphia,” The Bulletin of Pharmacy, Vol. 21, pp. 370-371 (E.G. Swift, 1907); History of TYLENOL. McNeil Consumer Healthcare Company].

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Edwin Forrest Durang’s “Secret Sauce”

Entrance to Delaware Bridge – From Roof of Whitman’s Building, showing the 300 Block of Race Street. April 14, 1954 (PhillyHistory.org)

The National Guard’s Hall, completed in 1857, served as an armory for military drills but its 60-by-130-foot interior spaces made it an all-purpose venue of choice. Had it been completed a year earlier, its cavernous interior would almost certainly have been the site of the first Republican National Convention, a role that fell to the Musical Fund Hall near 8th and Locust Streets. According to the Historic American Building Survey, National Guard’s Hall would come to serve as a United States army hospital, a “destination point of military parades, the scene of much patriotic speechmaking, and the welcome and dismissal point for troops either on furlough or at the end of enlistment.” Its second-floor “grand saloon” which seated 1,800, regularly served as a venue for “lectures, fairs, concerts, balls” and gatherings of all sort.

The popular “Beck’s Band gave the first of their series of annual balls there largely attended . . . by a number of our most estimable citizens and their families.” reported The Inquirer in November 1860. The following Spring it housed the “Fourth Friendship Ball for the benefit of the St. Vincent’s Orphans Asylum.” Tickets were a dollar. By November 1862 the hall was transformed into a temporary Army hospital for Civil War casualties, 159 beds per floor according to Albert Liscom, a soldier from New England whose injured knee prevented him from marching into battle.

The National Guard’s Hall, 518-20 Race Street, April 14, 1954. Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

Edwin Forrest Durang, whose name suggests a theatrical rather than an architectural orientation, was responsible for the design. And scale, not style, was its primary asset—an accomplishment made possible by the use of 10 trussed girders, each 7-feet deep, spanning a sixty-foot width. That technology, combined with the premature death of John E. Carver, Durang’s employer, as well as the architect’s religious affiliation, positioned him to be the go-to designer for Catholic Philadelphia at a time of massive immigration and an increasing capacity to commission new buildings. By the end of the century, Philadelphia had 72 parishes and Durang would have established a monopoly as their go-to architect.

As architectural historian Michael Lewis tells us in Philadelphia Builds: “Durang made his debut as a Catholic architect with a pair of oversize parish churches,” St. Ann (1866-1869) in Port Richmond and Saint Charles Borromeo (1868-71) in South Philadelphia. “Each was a stone leviathan,” writes Lewis, and these churches “established the model that Durang would follow without significant modification for the next 45 years.” With “a spirited frontispiece, plain but solid walls to the sides, and a roomy auditorium of a space within,” these churches were “decorated more or less richly as the parishioners could afford.”

St. Ann’s Church, 2328 E. Lehigh Ave., Port Richmond, Philadelphia. Lithograph, ca. 1895 (Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. Graphics Collection.)
St. Charles Borromeo Church, 20th and Christian Streets, 1970. (PhillyHistory.org)

Durang’s churches tended to “vary wildly in style.” But “in one crucial aspect they are the same,” Lewis points out: “their façades have nothing whatsoever to do with the space behind. Like a piece of stage scenery, the extravagance ended at the front wall and did not go around the sides, which presented nothing more than an austere march of round-headed windows.” In essence, “there was little difference between a Durang auditorium and a church.”

Durang produced twenty of Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic Churches and renovated or rebuilt at least ten others. They included, among others, The Church of the Gesú and St. Veronica’s in North Philadelphia, St. Francis Xavier in Fairmount, Our Mother of Sorrows and St. Agatha’s in West Philadelphia, Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kensington, St. Mary Magdalene di Pazzi and St. Gabriel’s in South Philadelphia. Most survive to this day, standing among Philadelphia’s more than 830 extant historic sacred places.

Demolition of National Guard’s Hall, 518-20 Race Street, Philadelphia, PA. 1959. (Historic American Building Survey)

What didn’t survive? The National Guard’s Hall. Its demolition in 1959 helped clear the way for the northernmost block of Independence Mall, where the National Constitution Center now stands. If we no longer have the building, we do have photographs of its demolition revealing the truss, Durang’s “secret sauce” for creating a half-century of Philadelphia’s mammoth sacred and less-than-sacred spaces.

[Sources: Michael Lewis, Philadelphia Builds: Essays on Architecture (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2021); Gregory William Oliveri, Building a Baroque Catholicism: the Philadelphia churches of Edwin Forrest Durang (University of Delaware MA Thesis, 1999); Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places Their past, present, and future. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, October 2017) (PDF).]

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Gladys Bentley and the “Noble Experiment” at 1523 Locust Street

Gladys Bentley escaped her family’s North Philadelphia rowhouse at the age of 16 and, for more than a decade, didn’t look back.

She joined the Harlem Renaissance, which in 1923 was kicking into high gear. A jazz performer, Bentley became “one of the boldest performers of her era.” Her reworked popular songs with homespun risqué lyrics packed, among other venues, the notorious Clam House, a speakeasy on 133rd Street. “Bentley sang her bawdy, bossy songs in a thunderous voice, dipping down into a froglike growl or curling upward into a wail” wrote The New York Times in a belated obituary. Appearing in a trademark white top hat and tuxedo, Bentley became Harlem’s most famous lesbian and “one of “the best-known black entertainers” in America.

Advertisement in The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12, 1937

In 1934, Bentley headlined at New York’s new Ubangi Club, attracting, according to The Philadelphia Tribune, her “Gay White Way clientele that goes all the way to make up New York after dark.” Her act featured “a chorus of boys whose entertaining is of that different style and appeal.”

Langston Hughes would write of Bentley’s “amazing exhibition of musical energy—a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard—a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”

Bentley’s return to North Philadelphia in September 1935, at the Memphis Club on Warnock Street below Girard Avenue, was less than a mile from her childhood home. “Miss B is a show in herself,” wrote the Inquirer, “holding the audience from the moment she appears on the floor.”

In the summer of 1937, Bentley would perform in Center City at the Piccadilly Room, 1523 Locust Street. Billboard called her billing intriguing, a “noble experiment,” where, in one building, artists of both races performed. The “policy of separate white and Negro niteries under one roof will be tried by 1523 Locust,” reported Variety. One manager ran “colored shows” headlined by Gladys Bentley “presenting the gayest harlemania” in the intimate Piccadilly Room, upstairs front.” Elsewhere in the same building at the same time, Bubbles Shelby was featured as the white headliner.

Locust Street at Sydenham Street, Looking West. July 9, 1940. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

Bentley quickly drew top billing. She “gives out the risk–gay ditties in that intimate manner that leaves no mistaken meaning. To rousing returns, she offers Just Give It To Tim, Gladys Isn’t Gratis Anymore and a Wally Simpson-inspired He Did It For Love. And for the more intimate circles sings Goody Goody. New to the villagers here, she’s dynamite.”

Home of the 1523 Club and the Piccadilly Room, 1523 Locust Street, Looking West. July 9, 1940. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

But the experiment didn’t last. Ann Lewis completed her six-week run at the Piccadilly Room, returned to Harlem, and told a reporter that “racial prejudice is breaking up the management’s attempt to feature…a white and colored revue just opposite each other.” Bentley and others quit the show “when the feeling between the two races became near the breaking point.”

In fact, “the double bill of entertainment” was figured to be “an experiment doomed to failure.”

Philadelphia, “though very much in the North, has always surfaced a definite racial feeling between white and colored” wrote reporter Billy Rowe. “Not many months ago before the passing of the civil rights bill in the state of Pennsylvania, Negroes suffered Jim-Crow tactics used below the Mason-Dixon line in theaters and other Nordic owned enterprises.” After the passing of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Bill of 1935, the “age-old practice” continued and “as a direct outcome of such fights for equality a new hatred was born in the city of brotherly love.”

Bentley would soon leave New York again, this time for Los Angeles, “to become a leading entertainer there and in the Bay Area,” appearing onstage at Mona’s 440 Club, “the first lesbian bar in San Francisco.” In short order, Mona’s would become Bentley’s West Coast home away from home.

[Sources: “Gladys Bentley Stars at Ubangi Club” in The Philadelphia Tribune, August 23, 1934; “Bentley, Memphis Club,” The Inquirer, September 15, 1935; “Putting White and Negro Niteries Under 1 Roof,” Variety, May 12, 1937; “Night Clubs Star Stage Celebrities in Revue Programs,” The Inquirer, May 12, 1937; “Piccadilly Room, 1523 Club, Philadelphia, The Billboard, June 12, 1937; Billy Rowe, “Black and Tan Revue Can’t Hit: Philly’s Piccadilly Room Tries New Experiment,” The Pittsburgh Courier, July 3, 1937; Giovanni Russonello, “Gladys Bentley (1907-1960): A gender-bending blues performer who became 1920s Harlem royalty.The New York Times.]

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The Egyptian Revival – South Philly Style

In the decades after Napoleon invaded Egypt (as read in the previous post) any number of 19th-century architects adopted the Egyptian style. Philadelphians William Strickland, John Haviland, Robert Mills, Stephen Decatur Button, and Thomas U. Walter all lavished features from the Nile on increasingly eclectic façades in the 1820s, 30s and 40s.

Moyamensing Prison, Debtor’s Wing, Photograph by G. Mark Wilson, ca. 1923 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Sometimes we make attributions as to who was responsible for what, but in the case of the debtors wing at South Philadelphia’s Moyamensing prison, we know for absolute certain that it was Thomas U. Walter’s. There’s archival evidence. But there’s more. The architect’s name was literally carved in stone—on the building.

Torn Down Pillars, 1400 South 10th Street, October 5, 1971 (PhillyHistory.org)

See the image above. No…really look at it. You can detect barely legible lettering on what was the protected, inward-facing, side of a brownstone Egyptian-revival column. Obtaining a TIFF file from PhillyHistory.org we were able to zoom in and read “T. U. WALTER, ARCHT.”—the architect’s signature, as it were.

Detail of Torn Down Pillars, 1400 South 10th Street, October 5, 1971 (PhillyHistory.org) (PhillyHistory.org)

Ruins can speak! They share cryptic stories.

Has this tasty bit of ancient-modern archeology survived?

1400 South 10th Street – Torn Down Pillars, October 5, 1971 (PhillyHistory.org)

We read on one blog a rumor that the Smithsonian might be the steward of what’s left of the columns, but so far that does not seem to be the case. We did learn that the winged orb from over the entrance (below) does survive at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, thanks to the late Penny Hartshorne Batcheler.

Dumpster diving at its best? Or a pioneering preservationist just doing some much-needed forensics?

Whichever, we say many thanks to Penny!

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Exercising the Egyptian Option in Northern Liberties

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt with 400 ships, 54,000 men and one artist. Dominique-Vivant Denon “made good use of his time, sketching furiously when the troops paused for brief moments.”

Denon brought back to Paris images far more detailed than the pyramids and broken sculptures Westerners had been familiar with. The 23-volume Description de l’Égypte, published from 1809 to 1828, included no fewer than 837 engravings capturing “Egyptian culture from every possible vantage point.” For the first time, Europeans and Americans could get to know the temples and ruins from Thebes, Esna, Edfu, Philae and more.

Odd Fellow’s Hall, Northwest Corner of 3rd and Brown Streets, March 3, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

These exotic images led to appreciation and emulation in Philadelphia. For the first time, architects could add an Egyptian option to their expanding array of eclectic motifs that included the classical, the Gothic and the Oriental.

What was so appealing to Americans about the Egyptian? Some liked the allusion that their fertile valleys might be compared to the Nile. (The Mississippi was occasionally referred to as the American Nile.) The Schuylkill floodplain near Valley Forge became known as the “Egypt District.” Americans appropriated ancient names: Cairo, Memphis, Thebes, and Karnak – suggesting that their cities might also flourish for millennia.

Americans adopted Egyptian motifs for one cemetery gateway and another. In perpetuity, they would entomb their dead in marble crypts the designs of which were replicated from published sources.

The first American building in the Egyptian style was William Strickland’s Mikveh Israel synagogue on Cherry Street from 1825. Over the next several decades, more Egyptian-inflected buildings would rise in Philadelphia, including a prison, an insurance company, a waterworks, and an Odd Fellow’s Hall (pictured above).

Egyptian Hall, Masonic Temple, 1 North Broad Street (PhillyHistory.org)

What kept the Egyptian influence from even wider adoption? Possibly the rising anti-slavery movement. After all, wasn’t memorializing ancient Egypt akin to celebrating the institution of slavery? Or maybe Christian America just couldn’t promote Egypt’s pagan past? Whatever–once it took hold, architects, designers and the public couldn’t resist an occasional sampling of the Egyptian option.

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Origin Story: Philly’s First Public Christmas

Philadelphia’s First Community Christmas Tree, frontispiece in The First Year Book of The Child Federation ( 1913-1914)

“To the waifs of fortune,” one news story began, to the “men, women and children whose lives have been passed in bleak wandering as outcasts of society, there will be afforded a taste of Christmas joy.”

The donors backing Philadelphia’s Child Federation, the newly-founded philanthropic organization whose usual mission was the reduction of infant mortality, augmented their first year’s giving with a grand gesture of public beneficence: installing a giant, 63-foot Christmas tree on Independence Square.

Twenty thousand citizens packed the square on December 24, 1913 and “turned their faces toward” the city’s “first Christmas tree that ever was set up for all the people of the city.” Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg “flashed on 4,200 red, white and blue lights” before Lucretia, his wife, illuminated the large “electric star” at its pinnacle.

The gathered crowd then enjoyed a concert by the 45-piece First Regiment Band, ancient Christmas chorales performed by the famous Moravian trombonists from Bethlehem, and the 700 voices of the United Singers of Philadelphia featuring “Holy Night,” “Peaceful Night,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

Independence Square, Christmas Tree, December 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

At the center of it all was a mammoth Norway spruce found at the Parry farm near Rancocas, New Jersey, after a five-state search. Nine days earlier, the tree had been shuttled down the Delaware River from Bridgeboro to the Vine Street pier. If all had gone according to plan, the tree would have been greeted by officials, a band and 2,000 schoolchildren.

But dusk came and went without the tree. The band waited patiently; the schoolchildren not so much–they were corralled for hours on the dock by mounted police tasked with keeping the “youngsters from falling into the Delaware.”

“There was really considerable comedy, instead of Christmas spirit, reported the Inquirer.

Eventually, the “long-lost tug and its tow were sighted off Port Richmond” but the band and the school children had gone home. Even the mounted police “gave it up . . . and galloped away.”

Arriving alone in chilly darkness, the tree was “unceremoniously dumped along the waterfront at Vine Street” to “the sibilant maledictions of a crew of riggers.” The reception committee had diminished to a handful of “disappointed officials, night custom inspectors, a detail of policeman, six wharf rats, four teamsters, several Jerseyites waiting for a ferry, and 87 newspapermen.”

Navigating the tree the last mile through the streets was delayed as riggers realized there was no way to avoid the overhead trolley wires. It took “a long conference, several protracted telephonic conversations” before a decision to postpone work until after midnight “when the trolley company could raise overhead wires.”

The tree arrived at Independence Square just before dawn.

Upright and decorated, it was an immediate popular attraction. An estimated 350,000 visited before the tree was taken down, stripped of its branches and recycled as a flag pole at the Kingsessing Recreation playground, 50th Street and Chester Avenue.

The idea of a public display of Christmas, built around a monumental tree in a prominent civic space, had gotten off the ground. It would continue to grow as a civic, if not always philanthropic, competition.

[Sources: [The First Year Book of The Child Federation Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1913-14 (1914); from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Big Christmas Tree in the Square Planned,” October 1, 1913; “Giant Xmas Tree Found for Independence Square,” November 23, 1913; “Gay Reception For Tree Fails,” December 16, 1913; “Gigantic Spruce Hauled Through Streets,” December 16, 1913; “Big Tree Put Up,” December 21, 1913; “Bethlehem Star In Great Spruce Shines on 20,000,” December 25, 1913.]