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Crafting Pennsylvania Steel’s Macho Myths

Dedication of the Steel Statue, Sesquicentennial International Exhibition, August 4, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

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 By the end of the 20th century, Pennsylvania’s “out-of-date steel plants” and the laborers who had perpetuated the legend had all but disappeared.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.”

Steel Statue under construction by Bostwick Steel Lathe Company, July 7, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

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.”

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Behind the Scenes

The Old Rittenhouse Hotel: Have You Dined and Danced in ‘The Box’?

The entrance marquee of the Rittenhouse Hotel, 22nd and Chestnut, October 25, 1920.

The original Rittenhouse Hotel was opened in 1893 on the 2200 block of Chestnut Street. Its designer was the now-forgotten Angus S. Wade.  Wade was a Yankee transplant, born in Montpelier, Vermont in 1868.  As a young man, he moved to Philadelphia to train in the studio of the highflying Willis Hale, the favorite architect of trolley tycoon Peter A. B. Widener.  Like his mentor, Wade was more of a theatrical set designer than an architectural artist. He skillfully layered ornamentation onto rather formulaic structures.  His buildings, although beguiling and playful on the surface, lacked the lively silhouettes and bold massings that characterized the oeuvre of Frank Furness.  As commercial structures, Angus’s buildings were meant to charm and entice, rather than impress or trascend, the passerby.

The Rittenhouse Hotel fulfilled its theatrical role admirably, serving as a fashionable lodging house during its namesake square’s Gilded Age heyday. An advertisement for the Hotel Rittenhouse in a 1904 edition of The Apothecary advertised that the establishment was only half a block from the College of Physicians, and that it “gave special attention to ladies traveling alone.”   The hotel offered both so-called “European” and “American” plans.   The former meant that patrons could pay $1.50 (about $43 today) and up per night for rooms only, and the latter $4.00 (about $115 today) and up per night for rooms and all meals in the dining room.

 

1909 advertisement for the Rittenhouse Hotel that appeared in The Apothecary.

By the end of World War I, however, Victorian hostelries like the Rittenhouse Hotel were looking dated, even chintzy.  A photo taken in the autumn of 1920 shows that the entrance marquee adorned with theater style lights that advertised the hotel’s night club  (“The Box”) rather than the hotel’s name.   The featured band at “The Box” was the “Tierney Five” ensemble, which probably played a mixture of ragtime and early hot jazz.  The advertisement is oddly suggestive: a dancing girl superimposed on the profile of an old man.

“Have you dined and danced in The Box?” the advertisement queried.

Advertisement for “The Box” from October 15, 1920, ten days before the photograph was taken. What did the Tierney Five sound like? Probably something like the Louisiana Five. 

Since Prohibition had gone into effect only ten months earlier, it is probable that “The Box” was also a speakeasy.   If so, it probably earned more money for the owners than the hotel rooms. The sign certainly is a clue!

The dowdy “grande dame” came crashing down in the 1940s, and was replaced by Louis Magaziner’s modernist Sidney Hillman Medical Center. The current Rittenhouse Hotel arose on the site of the old Alexander Cassatt mansion in the 1980s.

Sources:

“Angus S. Wade,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 24, 1932.

Robert Morris Skaler and Thomas Keels, Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square (Mount Pleasant: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), p.33.

The Evening Public Ledger, October 15, 1920, p.4.

The Apothecary, Volume 21, MCP Publications, 1909, p.27.

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Neighborhoods Snapshots of History

Mysterious Photos of the Comegys Mansion at 4203-4205 Walnut Street

The Comegys mansion (right) at 4205 Walnut Street, 1963. The house to the left at 4207 Walnut Street is now the main building of Walnut Hill College.

The name of Benjamin Bartis Comegys (1819-1900) lives on in a West Philadelphia elementary school that bears his name.  However, a cursory Google search of the man reveals very little information aside from his obituary and funeral notice.    His father Cornelius P. Comegys served as governor of Delaware between 1837 and 1841.  His son Benjamin moved to Philadelphia at the age of 18 after receiving a “common school education” and was “attracted to a mercantile pursuit.” In the days before an undergraduate business degree, that meant starting off as a clerk in a bank, in which the young man learned the basics of accounting and bookkeeping on the job.  After eleven years at the counting house of Thomas Rockhill & Company, Comegys was hired by the Philadelphia National Bank, eventually rising to the position  to its presidency. In 1887, he reached the pinnacle of the Philadelphia business establishment by joining the board of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

When he died after a brief illness in 1900, the funeral at the Second Presbyterian Church at 22nd and Walnut attracted a delegation of mourners from Girard College, Jefferson Medical College, as well as heavy hitters from the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Philadelphia National Bank. Among the pallbearers were Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt and shipping tycoon Clement Griscom.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“The church service was one prepared by Mr. Comegys himself. Beethoven’s Funeral March from the Twelfth Sonata, the anthem ‘Happy and Blest Are They Who Have Endured,’ from Mendelssohn’s St. Paul, and the recessional, ‘I know That My Redeemer Liveth.'”

The Comegys family mansion at 4205 Walnut was a free-standing Italianate villa, is featured prominently in a series of City Archives photos dating from the late 1950s and early 1960s.   Fifty years after Comegys death, West Philadelphia was no longer the affluent stomping grounds of the Clarks, Drexels, and their ilk. The house was at the time was still occupied, although it appears to have been divided into apartments and was listed as two addresses: 4203-05  A photograph shows a family gathered for a meal in one of the rooms, still furnished in the Victorian style but with metal filing cabinets shoved into a corner and children’s art on the walls. Who they are remains a mystery, although the tag “E.T. Comegys House, 4203 Walnut Street” gives a clue.  (Benjamin Comegys had two daughters and a son who died young, and an Lieutenant Edward Theodore Comegys of Baltimore was killed in action during World War I).

Anonymous family dining at 4203-05 Walnut Street, 1963. Does anyone have any information on who these people are?

Another photos is the one of the library of 4903-05 Walnut which is remarkable condition considering the house’s shabby condition.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“A valuable library was among Mr. Comegy’s most loved possessions. Next to his relatives and friends his books held his affections. He insisted that there were few lives so busy that they could not find time for the cultivation of a taste for art, science and literature. Though he never pretended to be a great scholar, his selection of books, next to the choice of friends, would probably be the highest proof of his sterling character. His library represents the work of his whole life.”

Sadly, by the time the photo was taken, Benjamin Comegy’s library at 4205 Walnut Street was devoid of books.

The library at 4203-05 Walnut Street, April 20, 1959.
Comegys mansion listed for sale, April 20, 1959.

The Comegys mansion at 4205 Walnut Street, like so many other West Philadelphia houses of its size, eventually met the wrecker’s ball. It is now the site of a Seven Eleven and International Food & Spices Indian grocery store.

Sources:

“Career of B.B. Comegys Ends at Ripe Old Age,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1900, as quoted in “Find A Grave,” https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/102563143/benjamin-bartis-comegys, accessed March 19, 2020.

“B.B. Comegys is Buried,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 1, 1900, as quoted in “Find A Grave,” https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/102563143/benjamin-bartis-comegys, accessed March 19, 2020.

Michael Robert Patterson, “Lieutenant Edward Theodore Comegys, First Lieutenant U.S. Army Air Service,” Arlington National CemetEry Website, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/etcomegys.htm, accessed March 19, 2020.

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Men of Steel

Steel Statue at the Sesquicentennial Exhibition, 1926. Jones and Laughlin Company, Pittsburgh, PA (PhillyHistory.org)

“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.

A trainload of steel is poured in a few minutes.

Source: Charles Walker, Steel; The Diary of a Furnace Worker (Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1922).

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Will History Forget Philadelphia’s Sex Workers?

Title Page, A Guide to the Stranger, or Pocket Companion for the Fancy, 1849, (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

“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.”

Samson Street to South Street, 8th to 13th Streets. Detail of map derived from locations within “A 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.“ 1849  (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

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.

243 South Warnock Street in 1958. Formerly No. 43 Currant Alley, the brothel of Mary Baker, “a  very good house.” (PhillyHistory.org)

 

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.

[Sources: A 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 (Philadelphia: 1849); Marcia Carlisle, “Disorderly City, Disorderly Women: Prostitution in Ante-Bellum Philadelphia,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 110, No. 4 (Oct., 1986), pp. 549-568; Capitalism by Gaslight: The Shadow Economies of 19th-Century America (The Library Company of Philadelphia: 2012).]

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Historic Sites Public Services Snapshots of History

Irving T. Catharine, Philadelphia’s School Design Czar

The Joseph W. Catharine School, S.66th Street and Chester Avenue. October 26, 1937.

The buildings of Frank Furness and Louis Kahn are known world-wide. Yet below the architectural superstars were the work-a-day architects who made their livings designing prominent structures that still dot the city. These included department stores, theaters, police and fire stations, parish churches, and warehouse blocks.  These architects saw their business as a service, and made comfortable livings in good economic times, especially if they had a steady corporate, ecclesiastical, or public client.

Irwin Thornton Catharine (1884-1944) was one such architect.  His name might be forgotten, but during his career he was one of the city’s most prolific builders. Trained in architecture at the Drexel Institute, Catherine’s career received a strong boost in the education sphere due to (in typical Philadelphia fashion) a family connection: his father Joseph Catharine was the long-time chair of Philadelphia’s Board of Education.  Appointed to the position of Superintendent of Builing in 1923, the junior Catharine was now insulated from the economic uncertainty that plagued the architectural profession.  From 1918 to 1937, he supervised the construction of 104 new public schools within the Philadelphia city limits, oversaw additions to 26 old ones, and substantially renovated at least 50 others. Working within a limited but defined budget, Catharine’s work was both elegant and utilitarian. During the 1920s, Catharine’s studio produced buildings in a stripped-down collegiate Gothic style, blocky three or four-story structures punctuated by turrets, high arched windows, and a grand central entrance. By the 1930s, however, Catharine shifted to a more streamlined variant of the Art Deco style, popularly known as “Moderne”, at Bok High School and John Bartram High School, although he also toyed with Mediterreanean motifs at South Philadelphia’s Charles W. Bartlett Junior High School (now the Academy at Palumbo).

Charles W. Bartlett Junior High School, 11th and Catharine Streets, November 26, 1932.

In addition to soaring auditoriums, libraries, rooftop playgrounds, and gymnasiums, Catharine added a novel feature to public school buildings in the 1920s: indoor public bathrooms on each floor (replacing the outdoor latrines in many older school buildings), with marble partitions betwen the toilets.  In a 1925 newspaper interview, Catharine claims to have solved the pesky graffiti problem in school bathrooms:.”Once every [toilet] partition put up was wood; nowadays white marble is used,” he said. “And the children have been the direct cause of this. There is something in the nature of every boy which makes him want to carve his initial or whole name in a wall. If he isn’t clever enough with his pocket knife, he writes his name. White marble partitions and walls make it impossible for him to use his knife.”

Auditorium of the Joseph W. Catharine High School.

One of his last projects was a school at S.66th and Chester Avenue, named in honor of his father Joseph.

Irwin T. Catharine died in 1944.  After World War II, Philadelphia’s school designs veered away from Catharine’s brick and stone historicism and toward the the steel and concrete of the International style.

Sources: 

“Irvin T. Catharine,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2020, https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/22844, accessed February 27, 2020.

“63-Prop, Philadelphia Public Schools Thematic Nomination,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form,” United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, October 20, 1986, https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/64000730_text, accessed February 27, 20202.

Philip Jablon, “Why All Philly Schools Look the Same,” Hidden City Philadelphia, June 29, 2012.

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Uncategorized

Thomas Mitten’s 5200 Trolleys

The intersection of 49th Street and Baltimore Avenue, with two 5200 trolleys. Photo dated April 20, 1955.

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.

“Trolley Tracks: Trolley Beginnings,” Philadelphia Trolley Tracks,  http://www.phillytrolley.org/Phila_trolley_history_1924/Phila_trolley_history_1924.html, accessed February 14, 2020.

“The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania, December 7, 2012, https://hsp.org/blogs/fondly-pennsylvania/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-philadelphia-rapid-transit-company, accessed February 14, 2020.

“5205 – Historic Background,” Electric Trolley Museum Association, http://www.ectma.org/5205html.html, accessed February 14, 2020.

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Unveiling Equestrian Statues

General John  F. Reynolds Statue (at the northeast corner of City Hall) with Broad Street Station – City Hall, April 25, 1911 (PhillyHistory.org)

We were pleased to find an international inventory of equestrian statues. It reaches way back to ancient times. Marcus Aurelius from the year 176 is there (of course) along with Alexander and many other greats from Europe and beyond: Brazil to Vietnam; Mongolia to Somalia; Congo to Uzbekistan.

From the 1600s through the 1700s, the number of equestrians remained surprisingly modest: only 15 or so per century. Then came the 1800s, the golden age of bronze statuary, with more than 250 equestrians. We find the European monarchs (many of all the Louis, Georges, Phillips and Napoleons) as well as American generals from the Revolution through the Civil War.

You might expect horse-borne poses passé in the age of the internal combustion engine. But the 20th century proved a hotbed of hundreds more the world over. There are counter-intuitive, catch-up monuments, like that of the ancient Roman General Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo whose success drove a jealous Emperor Nero to demand his suicide. This statue in The Netherlands dates to 1964.

The 20th century list includes equestrians of King Rama V Chulalongkorn in Bangkok, Thailand, aka King Rama V (1908), Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey (1927) and Bassel al-Assad, the older brother of Syria President Bashar al-Assad, who died in a car accident in 1994.

When was the dawn of Philadelphia bronze age? Not when you might expect. As the nation’s capital in the 1790s, a Washington on horseback was proposed to top  off a “Monument designed to perpetuate the Memory of American Liberty” but they didn’t get around to casting the Father of His Country for another 60 years, and about another 100 in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, in the 1850s and 1860s, Andrew Jackson made two appearances (Washington, D. C. and New Orleans) and George Washington made three (Richmond, Washington, D.C. and Boston) before finally landing a Philadelphia appearance in the 1890s.

Worldwide, more than 400 equestrian statues were dedicated between the 1880s and the 1920s. Of those, 135 were American. Twelve are in Philadelphia starting with General John Fulton Reynolds in 1884 and, three years  later, General George Gordon Meade. From 1890 to 1911 the city enjoyed a rush of nine more equestrian bronzes, five more generals, a Medicine Man, Joan of Arc and Remington’s Cowboy.

Detail, St. George’s Hall, Arch Street at 13th. ca. 1895 (PhillHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

But seven years before launching this rash of mostly legend-leaning generals, Philadelphia’s very first equestrian, a figure straight out of authentic mythology, was installed on the pediment of Saint George’s Hall, 13th and Arch Streets. On June 6, 1877 a cryptic headline in the Inquirer reads only “St. George.”

“Quite a number of persons were collected yesterday at Thirteenth and Arch streets to witness the unboxing of the statue of ‘St. George and the Dragon,’ which arrived on Monday evening by the ship ‘Hawthorne.’ It was cast in antique bronze by Messrs. Elkington & Co., of London and Birmingham, and is one of the handsomest specimens of art ever brought to this country. It weighs 3400 pounds, and including the horse, is twelve feet in height. Owing to its great size, it was cast directly on the Thames, so as to be ready for shipment….”

Saint George’s building-pedestal lasted only another 26 years and the sculpture followed its owner, the Society of the Sons of St. George, to a new home further west on Arch Street before spending four decades in deep storage. In 1975, the bronze was unveiled a third time in Philadelphia, on Martin Luther King Drive at Black Road in West Fairmount Park.

Reynolds, on the other hand, an early casualty at Gettysburg (he was fatally shot in the back of his neck during the first minutes of the three-day battle) held his ground, a patch of sidewalk at City Hall, for 135 years and counting.

[Disclosure: the author is on the board of directors of the Association for Public Art.]

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Notes on the Philadelphia Violin

Looking South from 11th and Sansom Streets, January 13, 1934 (PhillyHistory.org)

“What enables anyone, in any country, to make a really good violin?”

Musician, collector and instrument dealer David Bromberg had pondered this question for years. And he had an answer. Sure, a violin maker would need “some talent with woodworking” but they’d also had “to have seen a great violin. That’s the secret,” Bromberg added. “It’s true even in the town of Cremona. In order to make a really good violin, you have to have seen something great.”

Flying blind, as it were, didn’t stop the occasional 18th-century American. The Museum of the Moravian Historical Society in Nazareth, Pennsylvania preserves the earliest dated example of American violinmaking, an instrument crafted by the 19-year old John Antes in 1759.

If “colonial American makers were limited by the quality of the instruments on hand to copy” that situation would rapidly change when the European masters embarked on American tours.  According to Bromberg, “the European virtuosi treated America as their piggy bank—if they were broke, they came to America to make money. Along the way, they made a valuable contribution to American violin making, thanks to the great instruments they carried.”

“It’s possible that if you were able to trace the itinerary of these virtuosi, you’d see the lutherie improving behind them as they went,” claimed Bromberg.

Detail, Looking South from 11th and Sansom Streets, January 13, 1934 (PhillyHistory.org)

One early instance: an 1843 visit by the Belgian Alexandre Artôt, “the first European virtuoso known to have visited the United States.” Violin maker Ira J. White happily welcomed Artôt and his Stradivarius into White’s Boston shop.  Not long after, the Norwegian soloist Ole Bull stopped by with his Guarneri.

When Ole Bull’s tour brought him to Philadelphia, he visited the shop of John Albert. And Henri Vieuxtemps brought his Guarneri to the Arch Street shop of Albert’s son, Charles F. Albert, himself an “artisanal violin maker and restorer.” (Much later, the Vieuxtemps Guarneri found its way into the hands of Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman). And on one occasion, the younger Albert got to repair the Stradivarius of Polish-born Henryk Wienawski, who was to perform at the Academy of Music.

Albert successfully eliminated a wolf, an unwanted overtone, from Wienawski’s Stradivarius. After trying out the repaired instrument, according to Albert’s obituary, the master “embraced Albert, and “kissing him on the forehead, [and] exclaimed: ‘young man, you have done what no other man could do for me whether in Europe or America.’”

100 Block of South 11th Street, 1963 (PhillyHistory.org)

At the start of his performance at the Academy, according to The Inquirer, Wienawski “walked about a little among the players as if he were wishing to introduce his beautiful Stradivarius to the other violins in the orchestra, so that they might go well together… “

And go well together they did.

“How can we speak with sufficient praise of Wienawski’s remarkable gifts?” wrote The Inquirer, “he is altogether unequaled by anyone we have heard, [his performance] “all full of soul and fire.” Wienawski had “a magnetic dash which was quite contagious among the orchestra, who followed him with almost equal impetuosity. … “

Albert proudly framed the bridge he removed from Wienawski’s violin alongside the virtuoso’s autograph.

“American luthiers became as good as any luthiers in the world when they had access to iconic instruments…” wrote Bromberg, “It reached a point where America was making things as good as anything found anywhere.” Yet, the idea that Americans couldn’t match the Europeans persisted. Meanwhile, Philadelphia became a center of good, and occasionally great violin making by such makers as the Pennsylvania-born Joseph Eastburn Winner, John Pfaff from Bavaria, Joseph Neff from Baden, the brothers John G. and Frederick August Klemm, Charles A. Voigt, Charles Hammermiller, the Primaveras and the de Luccias. And then there was Martin Nebel, who traded under the name of Charles F. Albert on 11th Street, keeping the Albert name alive into the 1960s. And then there were the Moennigs, whose shops in Philadelphia survived for more than 100 years, lasting into the 21st century.

What did these accomplished Philadelphia luthiers have in common? More than one might think. Many incorporated American woods into their instruments: spruce from Blue Mountain and maple from the Poconos,  working in a local flair unknown to European luthiers.

[Sources: Erin Shrader, “David Bromberg on His Collection of 270 American-made Violins,” Strings Magazine, May 5, 2015; Christopher Germain, et al. The American Violin ( AFVBM Foundation, 2016); Rubinstein And Wienawski,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 30, 1872; “Famous Violin Maker Dead,” [Obituary for John Albert], The New  York  Times, January 3, 1900;  Charles F. Albert Succumbs to Cancer, The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 2, 1901.]

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The Inconvenient Truths of Rittenhouse Square

Detail of Mansions on Rittenhouse Square between 18th and 19th Streets, November 3, 1921 (PhillyHistory.org)

In the last third of the 19th century, fueled by wealth from the industrial revolution, Philadelphia’s Victorian aristocracy established itself on Rittenhouse Square. In rows of mansions, versions of the city’s classic rowhouses on steroids, lived the alpha families, the one percent, who controlled at least half of the city’s wealth.

“The lower 80 percent,” according to Dennis Clark, might have controlled only 3 percent of the city’s wealth, but they were indispensable “to prepare and serve the meals, shop, clean the household[s], do the laundry, and care for all the details of the privileged establishments…”

In fact, “it was impossible to pursue the extravagant lifestyle of mannered elegance and luxury without servants,” wrote Clark, even if “those most readily available were from a group alien in outlook, habits, and background.” Rittenhouse Square became a “scene of an interdependent relationship” between rich on the square and poor from nearby immigrant communities of Schuylkill, Devil’s Pocket, Ramcat and other nearby South Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Differences between the communities, created a “social dilemma” for both “the great households of Rittenhouse Square” and the overcrowded rowhouse neighborhoods where most of the Irish servants lived.

Detail of Mansions on Rittenhouse Square west of 19th Streets, November 3, 1921 (PhillyHistory.org)

In 1870, noted Clark, “there were 24,108 domestic servants in the city of whom 10,044 were born in Ireland. Among the remainder a large portion or of Irish parentage.” In late-19th century Philadelphia, “Irish” and “servant” became “virtually synonymous.”

And for many White Anglo-Saxon Protestant families, this presented a problem that couldn’t be overcome. Diarist Sydney George Fisher wasn’t alone in his bias that the Irish occupied “the position of an inferior race in the business of life, because by nature and education [they were] fitted for it.” Housekeeping expert and author Eunice White Beecher warned “not one Irish woman in one hundred” could “be transformed into a neat, energetic, truth-telling servant.” Plus, Clark added, “these servants were seen as threats to the religious integrity of the family and the peril to the Protestant purity of its children.”

For the Irish, “a similar ambiguity characterized their connection with Rittenhouse Square. It was demeaning for them to be forced to serve families whose wealth was founded upon notoriously exploitive mills, factories, and railroads.  … Many a railroad pick-and-shovel man looked with deeply mixed feelings upon his daughters’ employment in the great houses of men whose railroads had meant for him a lifetime of miserable toil.”

Life on Rittenhouse Square was a mutually inconvenient, if essential, compromise until the early 20th century, when demographic and economic changes, in addition to a new appetite for life in the railroad suburbs, undid the old order. “As those whose families had reigned resplendent on Rittenhouse Square in the 1880s declined or decamped, the square became drab and unkempt. The great houses were shuttered, demolished, or converted to apartments. The flocks of servants to tend them we’re no longer affordable or fashionable. The girls from ‘Ramcat’ were becoming secretaries or nurses; some were even going to high school and college.”

1830 Rittenhouse Square, southeast corner of 19th Street, November 3, 1921, detail  (PhillyHistory.org)
Apartment – Southwest Corner – 19th and Rittenhouse Square. October 26, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

The square also took on a new look.

“Like tall chimneys, apartment hotels are circling around Rittenhouse Square” fretted the Inquirer in the Spring of 1924. Sale signs “tend to change completely the serenity which long dwelt in that abode of the socially elect.”

The 52-room mansion at the southeast corner of 19th Street and Rittenhouse Square where the Scott family hosted scores of soirées, receptions and teas only a decade before, was among the first to go. “Tearing Down Scott’s Mansion” bluntly stated an advertisement for scrap building materials in February 1913. The place was reduced to so much “lumber, doors, windows, [and] good hard brick,” all sold “cheap.”

Soon after, on the same site, rose the square’s first Beaux-Arts apartment building, designed by architect Frederick Webber. The next mansion to fall was that of the Drexel family, directly across 19th Street.  And in its place rose another 18-story apartment house, this one designed by Sugarman, Hess & Berger.

“Construction Boom Strikes Rittenhouse Square Section,” read one headline in 1924. “Landmarks are Razed for Fashionable Apartment Structures,” read another. And so, demolition of mansions and construction of high rises continued until a time when even apartment dwellers protested that such buildings would “shut off sunlight from the square.”

Nevertheless, development persisted.

[Sources: Dennis Clark, “Ramcat and Rittenhouse Square,” in William W. Cutler, III and Howard Gillette, Jr. The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975 (Westport: Greenwood Press); “Tearing Down Scott’s Mansion,” [advertisement] The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 22, 1913; “Girard’s Talk of the Day,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 1924;  “Construction Boom Strikes Rittenhouse Square Section,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 1924; “Seminary Moves to Green Hill Hotel,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 3, 1940.]