The great Jane Jacobs, as we saw in our last post, had a lot to say about cities in general and Philadelphia in particular. We couldn’t resist sharing more:
On demolishing City Hall: “I’m glad they didn’t!” declared Jacobs in 1962. “That courtyard space is one of the most attractive things of its kind in any city I ever saw. More should be done with it, of course, though you don’t want anything chic or flossy or cutesy.”
“Philadelphia’s embrace of the new, after long years of apathy, has by some miracle not meant the usual rejection of whatever is old. When a city can carry on a love affair with its old and its new at once, it has terrific vitality.”
“Downtown Philadelphia has dozens upon dozens of reborn blocks. This is an immensely healthy development, worth far more than the street widening and highway bisection which – in ignorance or in ruthlessness – help thwart such upgrading in many cities.”
“Hundreds of thousands of people with hundreds of thousands of plans and purposes built the city and only they will rebuild the city. All else can only be oases in the desert.”
“And still the deserts of the city have grown and still they are growing, the awful endless blocks, the endless miles of drabness and chaos.”
“Little good can happen to people or to buildings when a sense of neighborhood is missing.”
“The street works harder than any other part of downtown. It is the nervous system; it communicates the flavor, the feel, the sights. … Users of downtown know that downtown needs not fewer streets, but more, especially for pedestrians.”
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Near 3rd and Spruce Streets Jacobs “looked over the first buildings of the Society Hill project. ‘I don’t ‘like them,’” she said of some new buildings in Society Hill, “They’re pretending to be something they’re not.”
Visiting 10th and Tasker Streets in South Philadelphia, Jacobs observed: “There were people sitting on front steps, talking out windows. Children played on the sidewalks under the eyes of neighbors and parents. There were corner stores. … ‘This looks healthy to me… This is much better than Society Hill will ever be. It’s the kind of area a city ought to cherish and respect. These people live here. The people who set policy for the city ought to listen to these people down here.’”
[Sources: [Jane Jacobs], “A Lesson in Urban Redevelopment: Philadelphia’s Redevelopment, A Progress Report,” Architectural Forum 103 (July 1955); Frederick Pillsbury, ”’I Like Philadelphia with some big IFs and BUTs.” An Interview with Jane Jacobs,” The Sunday Bulletin Magazine, June 24, 1962.]
‘You’ve got to get out and walk!’ urban journalist Jane Jacobs implored her readers.
It was 1958 and her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wouldn’t appear for another three years. Jacobs ideas were still forming, still considered “radical and outlandish.” In time, her approach would prevail and come to influence both urban theory and redevelopment.
So why not take the occasion of Jacobs’ 104th birthday, to share some of her thoughts on urban design in general, and Philadelphia in particular? Jane Jacobs had much to say about both.
“Look at some lively old parts of the city,” she wrote. “Notice the tenement with the stoop and sidewalk and how that stoop and sidewalk belong to the people there. … Notice the stores and the converted store fronts. …think about these examples of the plaza, the market place and the forum, all very ugly and makeshift but very much belonging to the inhabitants, very intimate and informal. … the least we can do is to respect—in the deepest sense—strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.”
That “weird wisdom,” wrote Nathaniel Rich in The Atlantic, “was the wisdom of crowds: the customs and habits that people in cities, left to their own devices.” And it was often counter to what planners wanted. “The planners had been guided by aesthetic concerns, favoring clean lines, geometric shapes, and vast boulevards that were beautiful so long as they were seen from the window of an airplane. But Americans didn’t need a new utopia,” says Rich. “They already had a system that, while messy and imperfect, produced a thriving society.”
As Jacobs studied “the ecology of cities,” she would reveal “nothing less than a new ‘system of thought’ about the city.” And, when “compared to the bird’s-eye view and arm’s-length approach of professional theorists,” according to Peter L. Laurence, Jacobs’ “approach, like her activism, was eye level and hands on; her urban theory was the corollary of her activism, and vice versa.”
Jacobs’ “great accomplishment, writes Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, “would be to translate that ‘weird wisdom’ into terms we could all understand.”
And, one might argue, it all started in 1954, when the editors of Architectural Forum assigned Jacobs’ to cover the legendary Philadelphia city planner Edmund N. Bacon. According to Alice Sparberg Alexiou, Bacon, “like everybody else at the time believed wholeheartedly in the bulldozer approach to urban renewal.”
According to Alexiou, Jacobs would later recall Bacon taking her “on a tour of a black neighborhood . . . to show her a recent renewal project. ‘He took me along a crowded street, where there were a lot of recent arrivals in the Great Migration, . . . Obviously they were very poor people, but enjoying themselves and each other. Then we went one street over [where there were the new high-rise projects]. Ed Bacon said, ‘Let me show you what we’re doing.’ He wanted me to see the lovely vista. There was no human being on the street except for a little boy kicking a tire. I said, ‘Where are the people?’ He didn’t answer. He only said, ‘They don’t appreciate these things.’”
In an instant, “Jacobs realized that the high-rise projects that Bacon was so proud of had been designed with total disregard for the people who inhabit them.”
“What a revelation that was to me!” said Jacobs of her encounter with Bacon. She returned to New York with the realization that “all the hyped new projects the planners and architects were building in cities… bore no relation to what people actually needed.”
Jacobs had learned the truth by trusting “what her own eyes told her, what she had seen in Philadelphia.”
[Sources: Alice Sparberg Alexiou, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006); [Jane Jacobs], “A Lesson in Urban Redevelopment: Philadelphia’s Redevelopment, A Progress Report,” Architectural Forum (July 1955); [Jane Jacobs], “The Missing Link in City Redevelopment,” Architectural Forum (June 1956); Peter L. Laurence, “Jane Jacobs Before Death and Life,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, (March 2007); Frederick Pillsbury, ”’I Like Philadelphia with some big IFs and BUTs.’” An Interview with Jane Jacobs,” The Sunday Bulletin Magazine, June 24, 1962; Nathaniel Rich, “The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs,”, The Atlantic, November 2016; Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, “An Ad Hoc Affair: Jane Jacobs’s clear-eyed vision of humanity.” The Nation, February 3, 2017.]
Philadelphians did all they could to welcome Julia and Ulysses Grant to their newly-adopted city.
Not long after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Grants moved into the townhouse at 2009 Chestnut, a gift of, as Julia referred to them, “a number of strange gentlemen of Philadelphia” who spared no expense outfitting the place.
As we saw in our previous post, Grant thanked the city’s generosity by making an unusual gift: the log cabin in City Point, Virginia where he directed the final months of the Civil War. Both the General and Julia had fond memories of the place, which also served as the family’s temporary home. According biographer Ron Chernow, “When Julia joined [the general there] …she domesticated the rough-hewn cabin…and took her meals on equal terms with his officers. She brightened up the table by draping a makeshift cloth over it and had a way of cheering the men with her vivacity and attending to anyone who was ailing.”
“I am snugly nestled away in my husband’s log cabin,” she once confided to a friend.
It must to have been a fond reunion, then, when the family, newly settled in Philadelphia, took the two-mile carriage ride from their new townhouse to Lemon Hill Drive in Fairmount Park where the cabin had been reassembled, log-by-log and brick-by-brick.
But even without the presence of this “oversized souvenir,” as Thomas Hine would later call it, the Grants really had hoped to stay in Philadelphia.
“I have a horror of living in Washington,” the General privately admitted “and never intend to do it.” But, as Chernow relates, living in the District of Columbia “proved inseparable from high command. [Grant] fantasized about living in Philadelphia and commuting to the capital weekly.” But “upon occupying the house in May  Grant discovered he had woefully underestimated the time he had to spend in Washington. Predictably he became a prisoner of his heavy workload and Julia, after four years apart from her husband, hated being stranded in another city.”
The Grants also underestimated the cost of upkeep. And in November 1865, after only a few months in their Chestnut Street mansion, they “rented out the Philadelphia house … and relocated to Washington, decorating their new home, with furniture from Philadelphia.” For the next twenty years they rented out the Philadelphia house, finally disposing it in 1885 at auction.
Meanwhile, Grant’s cabin, which the Inquirer predicted would be “an ornament to Fairmount Park” and “an object of great historical interest to Americans” remained an attraction until it, too, lost its allure.
“In the 1940s and 1950s,” we learn from archaeologist David Orr, “ the cabin barely survived the threats of fire and vandalism; by the 1970s, correspondence between the National Park Service and the City of Philadelphia … culminated in a letter requesting the transfer of Grant’s Cabin to the National Park Service to relocate it to its original City Point site.”
“The 117-year-old cabin, rotting and scarred with graffiti,” reported The New York Times, “has been difficult for the city to keep secure.”
“It is a blessing it is going,” admitted John McIlhenny, historian for the Fairmount Park Commission, which voted in 1981 “to give the building to the National Park Service. I am certainly glad it’s going home” said McIlhenny. Once again a demolition crew numbered each log and chimney brick and cut “the larger pieces of the building…along the rafters and joints, so that they could be put on a truck.”
”We had to throw a lot of rotten stuff on the trash heap,” admitted Henry Magaziner, the historical architect. But what could be saved was shipped back to Virginia and “re-erected slightly askew” on its original site, as not to disturb archaeological assets.
Is Grant remembered in Philadelphia today?
About a mile from the former site of Grant’s Cabin, at the intersection of Kelly Drive and Fountain Green Drive, stands a monumental equestrian statue by sculptors Daniel Chester French and Edward C. Potter.
French, according to the Inquirer, selected the site “himself after a careful consideration of many available spots in the park.”
“We endeavored in the figure of Grant to give something of the latent force of the man, manifesting itself through perfect passivity,” said French. “The expression is sober thoughtful,” observed the Inquirer. “The spectator fancies that the man is pondering over some stupendous military maneuver. The work is rather restful than dramatic, a quality which gives to the bronze representation some small suggestion of that reserved force which was—according to those who know him best—the secret of Grant’s mysterious power over this troops.”
“If the statue impresses the beholder by its force as having character and stillness,” said French,” it will have fulfilled its mission.”
In 1896 the statue was cast in fourteen sections at the Bureau Brothers Foundry, 21st Street and Allegheny Avenue. And on April 27, 1899, it was ceremoniously unveiled.
Today (the day of this post) is 121 years after that dedication and 198 years since the birth of Ulysses S. Grant.
[Sources: Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017); David G. Orr, “Cabin in Command, The City Point Headquarters of Ulysses S. Grant,” chapter in Huts and history : the Historical Archaeology of Military Encampment During the American Civil War, edited by Clarence R. Geier, David G. Orr, Matthew B. Reeves. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, ); David Gerald Orr, “Work in Progress: The City Point Headquarters Cabin of Ulysses S. Grant,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 1 (1982), pp. 195-199; Thomas Hine, “Cabin Used by Gen. Grant Being Repatriated to Va.” The Inquirer, Sept 11, 1981; “The Grant Statue,” The Inquirer, September 26, 1897; “Gen. Grant’s Philadelphia House. The New York Times, May 11, 1885; “Grant’s Civil War Cabin Set to Move,” The New York Times, September 13, 1981.]
In December 1864, philanthropist, abolitionist, and Presbyterian educator George H. Stuart made an offer to Ulysses S. Grant. “I incidentally asked him if there was anything I could do for him in Philadelphia.”
“No thank you,” quickly responded General Grant, who was occupied fighting the Civil War.
Then the General paused. “But on second thought, he said: ‘Yes, perhaps you can help me.’” Grant’s wife Julia, then in Burlington, New Jersey, had been “anxious to move to Philadelphia” had been “deterred by the high rates that are asked for houses.”
Could Stuart possibly help “get a furnished house ready for Mrs. Grant?”
The well-connected Stuart immediately reached out to monied friends and associates, including A.J. Drexel, George W. Childs, and Jay Cooke, and “found no difficulty raising the money” – $40,000 in all – the equivalent of more than $633,000 in today’s dollars.
Stuart and a few of his top donors wrote Grant a letter dated January 2, 1865 confirming their plan to buy a house: “It affords us great pleasure to present to yourself and family a house furnished and ready in our ‘city of homes.’ As citizens of Philadelphia, feeling that it would be a high honor to have you a fellow-townsman, we present it as a token of the welcome which our entire city extends to your family while you are still fighting the battles of the nation and which we will most heartily extend to yourself when the war shall be over.”
Ensconced in his sparse cabin at City Point, Virginia, Grant responded immediately: “It is with gratitude and pride that I accept this substantial testimonial of the esteem of your loyal citizens. … I will not predict a day when we will have peace again, with a Union restored, but that that day will come is as sure as the rising of to-morrow’s sun. I have never doubted this in the darkest days of this dark and terrible rebellion. Until this happy day of peace does come my family will occupy and enjoy your magnificent present. But until then I do not expect nor desire to see much of the enjoyment of a home fireside.”
Then Grant got back to the business of war.
Three days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, on April 12th, the group purchased the four-story brick townhouse at 2009 Chestnut Street, furnished it, stocked its dining room with “fine silver,” filled its closets with “snowy linen” and its larders with supplies. When Ulysses and Julia Grant arrived in the city on May 3rd, they had no idea the house was a fait accompli.
Stuart’s committee had arranged for “a handsome luncheon” welcoming the Grants at the house “the purchase of which had been kept as a profound secret from him and his family.” With another of his co-conspirators, Stuart went down to the Walnut Street wharf “to meet and escort General Grant and his family to their future residence. After reaching the house, where they were introduced to the ladies assembled,” related Stuart, “I suggested to Mrs. Grant that she go upstairs and take off her bonnet, which she thought was unnecessary, as they were only going to stay for lunch.”
“When all were assembled in the parlor,” Stuart continued, “I opened a silver case, which had been presented by J. E. Caldwell & Co., and which contained the handsomest engrossed deed that I had ever seen… Standing with my back to the fireplace opposite to General Grant as he sat upon the sofa, I said to him, ‘ Permit me, General Grant, to present you with a deed for this house and lot, from a few of your Philadelphia friends and admirers, with their best wishes that you and your dear family may live long to enjoy this your new home…”
The stunned General “arose seeming quite overcome with the gift, and, thanking us with tears in his eyes… Soon after, we repaired to the large dining-room, where a bountiful repast had been spread with all the delicacies of the season…”
“It will be gratifying for our citizens to know that Lieutenant General Grant will hereafter be a permanent resident of Philadelphia,” declared the Inquirer the following day. “He will vote at our elections, associate with our citizens, will doubtless take an interest in our municipal concerns, and in every sense of the word, will be a citizen of the city of Philadelphia.” And then the newspaper offered good wishes: “May the General’s future life in this city be as happy and peaceful as the past four years of his career have been stormy and tempestuous.”
The next morning, Stuart pulled up to the house in Chestnut Street in an open buggy to introduce the General to his new city. He introduced Grant to Independence Hall, where a crowd gathered, and Fairmount Park, where, as president eleven years later, Grant would ceremoniously open the Centennial Exposition. On this ride, Grant doubtless contemplated ways to thank the city for its generosity.
By mid-July, 1865, Grant had arranged a gift. “In return for the house which I was instrumental in presenting to him,” Stuart later wrote, “General Grant presented … the log cabin in which he had spent the last months of the war.”
This was no ordinary log cabin, according to Adam Badeau of Grant’s staff.
“The last four months of the rebellion . . . were passed by [Grant] within its walls. Here he received the reports of his great subordinates almost daily, and sent them each their orders and their rewards. Here he watched Sherman’s route as he came across the continent to the sea. . . Here he received the President, Gen. Sherman, Gen. Sheridan, Gen. Meade, and Admiral Porter. . . Here the last orders for all these generals were penned before the commencement of the great campaign which terminated the war.”
Where would Philadelphia install such a venerable souvenir? Possibly “one of the public squares of Philadelphia,” suggest one report. “Fairmount Park or Rittenhouse Square will be selected,” said another. Stuart “chartered a vessel to bring the cabin to Philadelphia” and by early August, a crew had re-assembled it on a bluff near Lemon Hill, overlooking the Schuylkill “exactly as it stood on the banks of the James River.”
“We now have in our midst,” reported the Inquirer of August 4th, “…no less a relic of General Grant than the . . . log cabin erected expressly for his head-quarters at City Point, Va. . . . This cabin will, as long as it can be kept together, be an object of great historical interest to Americans, and every visitor to the city will be desirous of viewing it.” Grant’s cabin immediately attracted “hosts of visitors.” Photographers seized the moment. Peregrine F. Cooper offered souvenir photographs individually and “$60 per thousand.” Cooper wasn’t the only photographer to visit Grant’s Cabin, which quickly became a staple of Philadelphia tourism.
Today, more than a century-and-a-half later, the bluff in Fairmount Park stands overgrown and empty. And 2009 Chestnut is an anonymous commercial space.
[Sources: The Philadelphia Inquirer, “General Grant And Family Take Up Their Residence in Philadelphia,” May 4, 1865; “Presentation of a Log Cabin,” July 13, 1865; “From Fortress Monroe,” July 13, 1865; “Arrival of General Grant’s Log Cabin,” July 15, 1865; “Relic of the War – General Grant’s Log Cabin,” August 4, 1865; “Gen Grant’s Log Cabin,” August 8, 1865; [Advertisement] “A Fine Photographic View of General Grant’s Log Cabin at Fairmount Park, August 19, 1865; “General Grant’s City House,” December 16, 1879; George H. Stuart, The Life of George H. Stuart, Written by Himself (Philadelphia, J. M. Stoddard and co. 1890).]
The start of a long-simmering naming debate for Center City can be traced to the waning years of the 19th century.
“Barber, first-class, wants situation in center city,” reads a classified ad in the Inquirer from 1898. But the next year, another ad reads “Errand boy, about 14 years old, strong, active; center of city. And then in 1900 we see; “Bartender, age 30, good mixer; capable of taking charge: 7 years central city reference.”
Which would it be? For the next half century, any of the three would suffice.
“Central City” seemed to dominate for a few years. “Housework –an honest and respectable girl wants general housework in small, private family. Central city reference” and “Barber, first-class, wants situation in 10-cent shop. Married, young man, speaks German and English, central city” and “Licensed Saloon (Central City) – Handsomely equipped; running $800 weekly; sickness cause: great sacrifice; $17,000.”
But then “center of city” seemed to make a comeback. In May 1906 we find a headline: “How Realty Rises In Center Of City.” In 1910 we see another: “1000 New Lamps Flood Center of City with Light / Mayor Turns Switch Inaugurating System of Illumination / Brilliance Extends River to River.”
In Our Philadelphiaof 1914, Elizabeth Robbins Pennell likes the relatively clunky “centre of the town.” One example: “with the Law Courts now in the centre of the town and the new Stock Exchange at Broad and Walnut, and stores everywhere, nobody could live in town; the noise of the trolleys is unbearable; the dirt of the city is unhealthy; soft coal has made Philadelphia grimier than London…”
Classifieds support the usage of “of.” “Bartender – Young German for centre of city” or “Shisler Built Homes $1900 to $3800” only “20 minutes to center of city.” Or one of a dozen appearances, for houses in the Olney neighborhood promoting “One Fare to Center of City.”
A Philadelphia Tribune headline from 1932 reads: “Maniac Slays 1, Wound Pair, Ends Own Life: Hundreds Dodge in Center of City As Bullets Sizzle By.” (“Death and Destruction barked from a maniac’s gun last Thursday night near Ninth and Market streets and hundreds of Philadelphia’s citizens escaped death by dodging while sizzling hot lead whizzed through the air.”)
If Christopher Morley had been inclined, his Travels in Philadelphia, published in 1920 would have mentioned Center City at least once. He was not so inclined.
That’s not to say the usage of “Center City” was nonexistent. We find one from 1916: “Saloon Saloon – Near center city / Bar averages $450 weekly; old established. Selling account sickness.” And in 1920 we see a mention of the” YMCA building, 1421 Arch, “in the Center City Building.” In 1926, there are two more appearances: An ad for Greenwood Terrace near the Jenkintown Station: “Suburban Charm with Center City Convenience” and an ad for ”C.T. Electric Trucks. … which delivers the Inquirer “to the newsdealers of the center city area.” And in 1929, the Philadelphia Gas Works put out the word for its “Center City Dump” at 22nd and Market Streets. (“Save time and expense by dumping conveniently instead of hauling to outskirts of the city. 50 cents per load…”
In 1937, “Center City” gave way to “Central City” in the Federal Writers’ Project’s Philadelphia, a Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace. “There was a time when the central city was dotted with abattoirs. Now, however, excepting two large slaughterhouses on Gray’s Ferry Avenue, and one at Third Street and Girard Avenue, all are far from the city center.” And: “The central city section had already begun to take on the appearance of a metropolis. The main streets, such as Market, Chestnut, and Broad, were crowded with buildings and shops of substantial size.” And “By 7:30 there is a lull in the central city as the sphere of activity shifts to the home.”
Newspapers of 1930 put forth the headline: “$50,000 in Jewels Stolen at Door of Central City Hotel” and “Boy Boot Blacks Banished From Mid-City Streets.” The article suggests that the proposition, “Shine Mister?” by “hundreds of juvenile bootblacks on central city streets, will be heard with diminishing frequency…” And a page-one headline: “Federal padlocks for central city hotels, cafes and clubs may follow as a result of “wet” New Year’s Eve and other parties staged on their premises…”
“Central City” appeared to be an almost uncontested choice in 1930. “3 Central City Blazes Quelled Within Hour” read a headline. When Strawbridge and Clothier opened its new store in Ardmore, an ad promised that its location “will offer special allurement to the motorists who do not wish to run the gauntlet of central-city traffic.”
Headline in February 1940: “Parking Meters Backed for Six Months’ Tryout – Experts Favor Them for Central City.”
“Street Widening Called Key to Mid-City Traffic” read another headline that Spring. “The ultimate solution of central city traffic congestion and its resulting high-accident rate must be major reconstruction of its traffic arteries…” And in December of the same year, “Yule Traffic Control Urged by Businessmen – Tow Squad Busy in Central City.”
And the Cushman’s Sons bakery had many locations. “There’s a store near you” promised the ad, citing the Main Line as well as Logan, Tioga, West Philadelphia, Germantown, Chestnut Hill and no less than four shops in “Central City.”
As recently as 1969, the Inquirer criticized “Stop-Gap Airport Transportation” suggesting “SEPTA’s proposed bus line from central city to the airport” was only a stop-gap measure.
We know one thing for sure: “Center City” would win out. In 1940, “Center City” appeared in the Inquirer less than 200 times compared with more than 1,200 for “Central City.” In 1950, the imbalance grew even greater. More than 1,700 appearances of “Center City” and more than 2,400 for “Central City.” By 1960 the score would flip to more than 3,400 impressions of “Center City” and less than 900 for “Central City.” By 1980, “Center City” would appear more than 10,000 times. By then, “Central City” faded to just over 500 impressions.
The 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition’s most iconic image is the oversized replica of the Liberty Bell, illuminated by hundreds of incandescent bulbs. However, there was another structure that captured the imagination of the fairgoers: the Persian Building, designed by Philadelphia architect Carl Augustus Ziegler. Situated on the banks of Edgewater Lake, the mosque-like dome and towers rose above the squat rowhouses of South Philadelphia like a shimmering apparition. Inside, visitors could admire ancient manuscripts, tapestries, and other priceless art and artifacts.
One would expect that the Persian government would have selected one of its own to design its pavilion, but Carl Ziegler had a track record of designing intricately detailed, historically inspired structures. Born in 1878, Ziegler attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his certificate in proficiency in architecture. He then worked in the offices of several prominent architects who masterfully blended impeccable historical detailing with modern needs, most notably Cope & Stewardson (designer of dormitories at Princeton and Penn) and Frank Miles Day (designer of the Jacob Reed building). In 1898, he joined up with architects Louis Duhring and R. Brognard Okie to form the firm of Duhring, Okie & Ziegler. This team became most famous for their Pennsylvania “farmhouse” revival country homes. Their rough-hewn simplicty was a stark contrast to the stiff Gilded Age palaces previously so in vogue with the city’s elite.
In 1924, Ziegler broke from the Duhring firm and struck out on his own as a historical consultant, where he helped supervise the restoration of Independence Hall and Carpenter’s Hall. The 1920s marked resurgence in the popularity of the Colonial Revival and Georgian modes. Yet Ziegler showed himself to be quite adept at learning other historical styles, and the polychrome Persian Building was truly beguiling, standing out in quality and detail from the fairground kitsch that surrounded it. He continued to practice until the 1940s, by which time his encyclopedia knowledge of historical styles (including Persian) had fallen out of favor.
Sadly, the Exposition proved to be a failure, attracting only about 4.6 million paid attendees rather than the 30 million the organizers preducted. Like almost every other structure at the Sesquicentennial Exposition, the Persian Building met the wrecker’s ball. Today, the fairground is the site of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park and the Sports Complex.
James D. Ristine, Philadelphia’s 1926 Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition(Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2009), pp.70-71.
Charles Walker’s gritty diary of labor in the bowels of an Aliquippa, Pennsylvania steel mill helped popularize the “men of steel” macho. Four years later, the same steel manufacturer that employed Walker, Jones and Laughlin, upped the ante commissioning a giant statue for the Sesquicentennial Exhibition, the world’s fair in Philadelphia. This grandiose sculpture, “the Spirit of Steel,” featured three classically-inspired heroic males making steel, the central figure holding a winged I-beam aloft, an offering to the world.
These heroic, men-of-steel interpretations further solidified the legend of the Pennsylvania steelworker as American folk hero. The fictional legend of Joe Magarac would take it even further. In 1931, Owen Francis introduced a comic-strip-style, Paul Bunyanesque man-of-steel in Scribner’s Magazine. This gentle immigrant giant would “appear out of nowhere to protect steel workers from molten steel and other dangers” in the mills. Magarac was both management and labor-friendly, working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year enthusiastically squeezing out steel railroad rails “from between his fingers.”
These exaggerated, overwrought masculine images of the American steel worker came to an abrupt halt in the 1980s, when American steel manufacturing was caught off guard when “Germany, Japan, and other steelmaking nations built brand-new capacity” leading to a sharp decline in production, employment and optimism. It resulted in a halving of industrial employment and the collapse of the entire industry. By the end of the 20th century, Pennsylvania’s “out-of-date steel plants” and the laborers who had perpetuated the legend had all but disappeared.
Steel’s bleak future would have been unimaginable on the sunny Wednesday afternoon of August 4, 1926 when visitors to the Sesquicentennial in deep South Philadelphia considered the day’s options. In the stadium, one could watch the “Mounted Police Gymkhana,” an “exhibition of relay racing, rescue racing, Roman riding, pyramid riding, mounted wrestling, trick riding and platoon formation.” A “Super-Contest of Rodeo Champions,” also scheduled in the stadium, promised “the greatest context of brain and brawn … ever witnessed.” In the Sesqui Bathing Pool the Women’s Swimming Championships were underway. In the Sesqui auditorium, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Brahms symphony No. 1 in C Minor. And at 2 o’clock, that busy day, a crowd gathered for the steel statue’s dedication. There, in the promenade extending Broad Street into the fairgrounds the Sesqui’s own military band provided music before speeches by Mayor Kendrick and steel executives before Gloria Vittor, the five-year-old daughter of sculptor Frank Vittor, yanked the cord releasing drapery over the gigantic grouping.
The Inquirer described the heroic figure and it’s setting: on the right side of the monumental figure “stands a furnaceman, exerting his strength to tilt a huge ladle of molten steel into ingot molds. On the left side there is a smith swinging a huge hammer and typifying the traditional worker in iron and steel. Flames from the furnaces sweep up around the legs of these three figures. On the pedestal on which they stand there is done in bas-relief a series of striking sculptural pictures of scenes in the steel industry; men working before open-hearth furnaces; others chipping steel and loading it upon ‘buggies;’ trains of cars hauling coal and iron ore, fleets of steel barges transporting products upon the interior rivers; blast furnace plants in operation and rolling mills pouring forth tongues of flame.”
That night, “fifty 500-candle power searchlights, concealed in the base of the group [flooded] multi-colored rays of light upward around the pedestal and the stalwart figures of the steel workers,” added the Pittsburgh Gazette Times.
The Italian-born sculptor Frank Vittor had established himself in Pittsburgh eight years prior to the Sesquicentennial. Vittor “created the individual plaster pieces in his Pittsburgh studio using live models in order to realistically depict the muscles and facial details,” we learn from historical curator Nicholas P. Ciotola, “He then shipped the completed work by freight trains to Philadelphia, where he assembled it and coated it with a composition of wax, oil, and paint to protect the plaster from the elements. When unveiled, The Spirit of Steel weighed two tons and stood towering ninety feet high – taller than all of its surroundings on the event grounds.”
Vittor received a gold medal from the Sesquicentennial Exhibition Association for his sculpture. He would attract other opportunities to glorify the story of steel. In the 1930s, Vittor received a commission “for what would become his most lasting tribute to the industrial might western Pennsylvania,” four figures: pioneers, transportation, electricity, and, of course, steel, for the pylons of Pittsburgh’s George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge.
Unlike the monumental plaster “Spirit of Steel” at the Sesquicentennial, these were carved in stone.
[Sources: Making Steel, Stories from PA History, ExplorePAHistory.com (WITF and PHMC); Clifford J. Reutter, “The Puzzle of a Pittsburgh Steeler: Joe Magarac’s Ethnic Identity,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 63 (January 1980); Nicholas P. Ciotola, “From Honus to Columbus: The Life and Work of Frank Vittor,” in Italian Americans: Bridges to Italy, Bonds to America. Edited by Luciano J. Iorizzo and Ernest E. Rossi, (Teneo Press, 2010); “Steel Industry Statue at Sesqui-Centennial Dedication Wednesday,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, August 1, 1926; “Steel Men to Give Statue Wednesday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 1, 1926; [Daily Schedule] The Sesqui-Centennial International Exhibition, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 4, 1926; Statue “Steel” Unveiled, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 5, 1926; Frank Vittor [obituary] The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan 25, 1968.]
For more about the story of Pennsylvania steel, see this post: “Men Of Steel.”
“Steel is perhaps the basic industry of America” wrote Charles Rumford Walker, an Ivy Leaguer with a passion for Big Steel. In the summer of 1919, Walker “bought some second-hand clothes and went to work on an open-hearth furnace” at the Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.
“In a sense it is the industry that props our complex industrial civilization, since it supplies the steel frame, the steel rail, the steel tool without which locomotives and skyscrapers would be impossible.”
Walker “believed that basic industries like steel and coal were cast for leading roles either in the breaking-up or the making-over of society.”
As a “hot-blast man on the blast-furnace” stationed at a pit deep inside the mill, Walker learned “the grind and the camaraderie of American steel-making.” Here are excerpts from his book Steel; The Diary of a Furnace Worker.
The pit was an area of perhaps half an acre, with open sides and a roof. Two cranes traversed its entire extent, and a railway passed through its outer edge, bearing mammoth moulds, seven feet high above their flat cars. Every furnace protruded a spout, and, when the molten steel inside was “cooked,” tilted back-ward slightly and poured into a ladle. A bunch of things happened before that pouring. Men appeared on a narrow platform with a very twisted railing, near the spout, and worked for a time with rods. They prodded up inside, till a tiny stream of fire broke through. Then you could see them start back in the nick of time to escape the deluge of molten steel. The stream in the spout would swell to the circumference of a man’s body, and fall into the ladle, that oversized bucket thing, hung conveniently for it by the electric crane. A dizzy tide of sparks accompanied the stream, and shot out quite far into the pit, at times causing men to slap themselves to keep their clothing from breaking out into a blaze. There were always staccato human voices against the mechanical noise, and you distinguished by inflection, whether you heard command, or assent, or warning, or simply the lubrications of profanity.
As the molten stuff rose toward the top of the ladle, curdling like a gigantic pot of oatmeal, somebody gave a yell, and slowly, by an entirely concealed power, the 250-ton furnace lifted itself erect, and the steel stopped flowing down the spout. … When a ladle was full, the crane took it gingerly in a sweep of a hundred feet through mid-air, and … the men on the pouring platform released a stopper from a hole in the bottom, to let out the steel. It flowed out in a spurting stream three or four inches thick, into moulds that stood some seven feet high on flat cars. …
I looked up and saw the big ladle-bucket pouring hot metal into a spout in the furnace-door, accompanied by a great swirl of sparks and flame, spurting upward with a sizzle.
“At last,” I said, “I ‘m going to make steel.”
“Get me thirty thousand pounds,” said the first helper when I was on the furnace that first night. Fifteen tons of molten metal! … The overhead crane picks [up the ladle] and pours [molten steel] through a spout into the furnace. As it goes in, you stand and direct the pouring. The craneman, as he tilts or raises the bucket, watches you for directions, and you stand and make gentle motions with one hand, thus easily and simply controlling the flux of the fifteen tons. … It was like modeling Niagara with a wave of the hand. Sometimes he spills a little, and there is a vortex of sparks, and much molten metal in front of the door to step on. …
At a proper and chosen instant, the senior melter shouts, “Heow!” and the great furnace rolls on its side on a pair of mammoth rockers, and points a clay spout into the ladle held for it by the crane. Before the hot soup comes rushing, the second-helper has to ‘ravel her out.’ … Raveling is poking a pointed rod up the tap-spout, till the stopping is prodded away. You never know when the desired but terrific result is accomplished. When it is, he retires as you would from an exploding oil-well. The brew is loose. It comes out, red and hurling flame. Into the ladle it falls with a hiss and a terrifying “splunch.” … The tap stream at steel heat is three feet from your face, and gas and sparks come up as the stream hits the ladle. You’re expected to get it in fast. You do. …
In a few seconds the stream fills a mould, and the attendant shuts off the steel like a boy at a spigot. The ladle swings gently down the line, and the proper measure of metallic flame squirts into each mould.
“Some people may think that this is the most virtuous place under the sun, but let them look over these pages, and perhaps they may open their eyes in amazement at the amount of crime committed nightly in “this City of Brotherly Love.”
So began an anonymously-authored Guide to the Stranger, or Pocket Companion for the Fancy Containing a List of the Gay Houses and Ladies of Pleasure in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, published in 1849.
“Many hundred men, yes, I may say thousands, are weekly led into the snares employed by the wily courtezans [sic],” whose estimated numbers “are ten thousand and upwards.”
Actually, we have no way of knowing. But we do know from the Library Company’s online exhibition—Capitalism By Gaslight—that “the trade thrived … that prostitution grew into “a highly lucrative business for some girls, young women” and the “widowed or abandoned” who “turned to prostitution to support themselves and their children.” The so-called oldest profession “allowed young women (many of them African Americans) a modicum of economic and social independence they could not have had otherwise. Savvy women worked their way up to become successful madams who lived in relative comfort.”
Prostitutes, or sex workers—“disorderly women as they were frequently called—were familiar figures in the landscape of the disorderly city” wrote historian Marsha Carlisle. “They moved freely and openly in parks, on the streets, and in places of amusement. Along with paupers and peddlers, they used public spaces to their own advantage. … Their brothels were households in mixed neighborhoods, but their working environment included the streets, the parks, the theaters and local taverns.”
Prostitutes based in the dozens of brothels west of Washington Square solicited in nearby theaters (Arch, Chestnut and Walnut Street Theatres) whose owners appreciated the fact that sex workers attracted paying customers. According to Carlisle, “prostitutes had displayed themselves from the third tier of the theater from the beginning of American drama. They came to the theater from the brothel households in groups, often several hours before curtain time. Once there, they made contact with customers, old and new, in the upper gallery, to which there was a special entrance for their use.” At one point, Philadelphia’s theaters were said to “swarm” with “crowds of painted prostitutes,” who “exhibited their shamelessness” in the “broad glare of the lamps.”
Mary Shaw and her clients could easily escape the “broad glare.” Shaw’s well-appointed “bed house” flourished just a few steps south of Walnut Street, just down Blackberry Alley. The guide credited Shaw as a landlady “of the cleverest sort” known “for her amiable disposition and kindness of heart” in addition to a most convenient location. No less than seven other brothels lined Blackberry Alley (now Darien Street) which ran two blocks from Walnut to Spruce.
Yet, there’s no historical marker to be found.
At #4 Blackberry Alley, according to our guide, the “talented, accomplished, motherly, affectionate” Mrs. Davis maintains her “temple of pleasure” doing “all in her power to add to the comfort of her friends and visitors.” All of her boarders were “young, beautiful, volatile and gay. . . . You will find few houses like it. None better.”
A few steps further to the south, Susan Wells’ house, was rated “quiet and comfortable.” Hal Woods’ was considered “tolerably fair.” Therese Owens’ got labeled a “second class house.” Furthest south, nearly where Blackberry Alley opened to Spruce Street, one would find Ann Carson’s “genteel loafer crib…”
Houses, whether highly recommended or not, tended to provide reliable protection from the authorities. After police picked up the 15-year-old Maria Walsh parading the streets wearing “a revealing calico dress,” no bonnet, and “bright copper earrings” (“signs of a public woman”) she was charged with vagrancy and sentenced to a month in jail.
But owning real estate didn’t always keep the authorities at bay. According to Carlisle, “Blackberry Alley became the target of a nine-house raid that resulted in the arrest of sixteen men and thirty-eight women” in 1854.
Some brothels warranted dire warnings. Just two blocks west of Blackberry Alley, on Locust between 10th and 11th Streets, lived and worked “the bald and toothless” Mrs. Hamilton. “Beware of this house,” warned the guide, “as you would the sting of a viper.”
Around the corner at No. 43 Currant Alley (now Warnock and Irving Streets) still stands Mary Baker’s “very good house” where clients would be “free from danger. The young ladies are all gay and beautiful.”
Another cluster of houses were found further to the west, at 12th and Pine Streets. They ranged from Mrs. O’Niel’s “Palace of Love,” to Mrs. Rodgers “good house—perfectly safe” to that of Catharine Ruth (alias Indian Kate) where readers were advised to “be careful.” Not far away, Liz Hewett ran “a tolerable second rate house” and “My Pretty Jane,” operated her “shanty” a “resort of very common people.”
A block south on Lombard, above 12th Street, one might encounter Madam Vincent’s “low house.” Readers were warned to “be cautious when you visit this place, or you may rue it all your lifetime.”
South of South Street, beyond the city proper, were areas beyond even the slightest suggestion of policing. “One of the worst conducted houses in the city” the guide reported of Sarah Ross’s, located at German Street (now Fitzwater) and Passyunk Road. “The girls, though few in number, are ugly, vulgar and drunken. We would not advise anybody of common sense not to say there.”
And the guide ventured into the notorious heart of Moyamensing, Bainbridge Street between 4th and 8th, finding “numerous brothels of the lowest order…houses of prostitution of the lowest grade, the resort of pickpockets and thieves of every description.” Nothing less than “the underbelly of the city,” confirmed Carlisle, who shared tales of the feared “Duffy’s Arcade,” a gallery of windowless 8-by-10-foot rooms, and the “gambling hell and brothel” known as “Dandy Hall.” Only one visit to these places could lead to “utter ruin and disgrace.”
“The stranger is earnestly admonished not to go there” urges the guide.
But historians, the keepers of public memory, must.
In 1923, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT) placed an order for 135 double-end passenger cars and 385 single-end passenger cars from the J.G. Brill Company for their extensive web of trolley lines throughout the city. According to the Electric City Trolley Museum Association, the PRT’s purchase represented the largest single order for surface passenger equipment in American history of that time. What the Baldwin Locomotive Company was to steam engines, J.G. Brill was to trolley cars. These 5200 series steel trolley cars were a vast improvement over their wooden predecessors. They were equipped with two Brill 39E2 trucks, two General Electric (GE) #275 motors, and General Electric K68 controllers. Despite their modern engineering, they still bore a strong resemblance to the old horse-drawn streetcars of only a few decades earlier. An additional series of updated 5200 trolleys, known as 8000s, arrived a few years later.
The president of the PRT from 1911 to 1929 was a British immigrant named Thomas H. Mitten, who oversaw the vast expansion of Philadelphia’s public transportation system after the Widener family turned its attention to other enterprises. Mitten’s renewal of Philadelphia’s aging Victorian-era trolley fleet might have been part of his desire to improve labor relations: the PRT had long been plagued by strikes and other forms of labor unrest. To make the PRT workers happier, Mitten organized employee outings to Willow Grove Park, started a formal worker education program (with the goal of improving trolley operations), as well as sick, death, and pension benefits. Mitten also announced that workers would draw their wages from a pool of 22 percent of gross passenger revenues. Some heralded the Mitten Plan as a new era of harmony between capital and labor. Others saw it as merely another form of “welfare capitalism.”
On October 1, 1929, Thomas Mitten was found dead in a lake near his summer home in the Poconos. It remains unclear whether his death was an accident, suicide, or foul play. Regardless, the city had launched an investigation into Mitten’s personal finances. In 1927, Mitten had purchased a bankrupt bank and resurrected it as the Mitten Bank Securities Corporation. He then gave the PRT workers the opportunity to put their holdings of PRT stock into accounts at MBSC. Mitten then swapped out his workers’ stock holdings for $18 million worth of MBSC stock. Within a few weeks after Mitten’s death, the stock market crashed, and both the MBSC and the PRT spiraled into bankruptcy, destroying the life savings of 26,000 deposit holders. Financier Albert Greenfield oversaw the reorganization of the PRT, which would finally emerge in 1940 as the Philadelphia Transit Company.
In the late 1930s, the first of the Art Deco “Streamliner” trolleys appeared on Philadelphia’s streets. However, scores of Thomas Mitten’s updated and overhauled 5200s and 8000s remained in operation well into the 1950s.
James Wolfinger, Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016), pp.95-97, 119.