Center City Philadelphia Post-Industrial Walking Tour, by Harry Kyriakodis
Center City Philadelphia Post-Industrial Walking Tour, by Harry Kyriakodis
Tuesday, July 29, 2008, 6-8 pm; Meet at Starbucks at 20th & Callowhill Streets, at 6pm
Take a guided walking tour through the fascinating post-industrial landscape of downtown Philadelphia. This 1.5-mile tour focuses on a four-block-wide swath of the city between Vine and Spring Garden Streets from 20th to Broad Streets. The considerable history of this part of the city going back to the early 1700s will be discussed. Learn how this neighborhood — once a country estate — played an important part in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 and how it became the center of American locomotive production, as well as home of the third Philadelphia Mint, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Community College of Philadelphia. This tour also discusses some of the major national figures who lived and worked in this storied area: PA/Philly founder William Penn, Andrew Hamilton (the original "Philadelphia Lawyer"), President John Adams, merchant/mariner/millionaire Stephen Girard, plus industrialists Matthias Baldwin, William Sellers & Asa Whitney. And learn how and why the following former and contemporary names became associated with this neighborhood: "Northern Liberties," "Springettsbury Manor," "Bush Hill," "Penn Township" "Spring Garden District" and "Franklintown." Numerous interesting old building, bridges and abandoned railroad facilities will be seen along the way.
Summary of Post-Industrial Center City Walking Tour
From 20th and Callowhill Streets to Broad Street
By Harry Kyriakodis
I've lately been fascinated by the post-industrial landscape of the four-block-wide swath of Center City Philadelphia between Vine and Spring Garden Streets, from the Schuylkill to the Delaware Rivers. This bleak corridor has a long and peculiar history, some of which accounts for the way it is today. Focusing on the western part of this district...
The shadow of William Penn (1644-1718), founder of both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, figures prominently in the story. In 1681, King Charles II granted all of what is now the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Penn in repayment of a debt owed to Penn's father. Penn and his fellow Quakers came to this region in the 1680s. After establishing Philadelphia, Penn reserved for himself and his family a large tract of land immediately north of the original northern city boundary (Vine Street) and south of the "Liberty Lands" of northern Philadelphia County. (The Liberty Lands were areas out in the countryside that were given to the first purchasers of property in the city proper, with the thought that these buyers would build large estates for themselves or establish towns outside of Philadelphia.) Some accounts have it that northern limit of Penn's tract was immediately north of present-day Callowhill Street, at least in the eastern part of this corridor. As the tract proceeded west of modern-day 6th, 8th or 12th Streets, it spread out northwards to include the land between Callowhill and Spring Garden Streets, and even as far north as Fairmount Avenue as the tract approached the Schuylkill River. Whatever the exact boundaries, this corridor was outside the original city of Philadelphia, and it was not an actively-settled part of the Liberty Lands of Philadelphia County, since the Penn family retained control of it for some time. Penn's country estate was known as Springettsbury Manor, named after his first wife, Gulielma Springett.
When the British occupied Philadelphia from 1777 to 1778, their fortifications ran between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers through this area, more or less along the north side of today's Spring Garden Street. This region was mostly open space at that time. Then, in the 1790s, there were plans to build a canal between the two rivers along this corridor. (Thousands of years ago, the Schuylkill did actually flow to the Delaware via this very same path.) Part of the Delaware and Schuylkill Canal was dug before the company went bankrupt, and the abandoned right-of-way was used in the 1830s by the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad. At that time, this undeveloped district was a bonanza to emerging industries, which needed lots of open space for their operations, as well as convenient access to both rivers, plus good land and then rail routes to the rest of Pennsylvania, and points north. The Philadelphia & Columbia eventually became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad, except for the part in Philadelphia, which went to the Reading Railroad. Thus, much of the route of this tour parallels the old Reading Railroad's City Branch, an open subway completed in the 1890s to eliminate traffic problems caused by tracks that crossed most of the city's north-south streets at grade from the Schuylkill River to Broad Street. The tracks of this abandoned line have been removed and nature has reclaimed much of the old right-of-way.
Numerous interesting structures line the route, beginning with The Granary, at 20th and Callowhill Streets. Grain elevators were once a common sight in Philadelphia, but only this one remains. It was built in 1925 by the Reading Railroad, using a continuous poured in place concrete process. Abandoned in 1949, part of the structure was converted into offices in 1976. The silos were left untouched, but the machinery towers were transformed into a penthouse apartment with terraces. The entire structure was reconfigured into office space in 1986. Commonly called "the Granary," it was owned by the Granary Associates, an international design firm, until 2007. That year, that firm sold the Granery and moved to 1500 Spring Garden Street. The building has been vacant since then and an investment real estate company is offering it for lease, although its days may be numbered, given the recent popularity of this area. Interestingly, this site is just about where the Springettsbury Manor house once stood.
Facing the Granery on the west side of 20th Street is a Whole Foods supermarket. At one time, however, the entire city block was once the site of Bement, Miles & Co., maker of machine tools, lathes, and so on for railroads, locomotive factories, steel plants, and shipbuilders. The machine shops here were among the best in the United States, and its products were found in almost every industrial plant in the country. The company was founded in the mid-1800s by William Bement and lasted until 1899, when it merged into the Miles-Bement-Pond Company. The factory was torn down and the property became an athletic field, then a supermarket. There are now plans for a high rise condo or apartment development on the site, and Whole Foods is slated to move elsewhere.
The western part of Center City, of which this area is part, at one time had a lot of asylums, hospitals, houses of refuge, orphanages, and prisons. Throughout the city's entire history, these types of institutions were always built in the countryside, west of the city's western edge, because people didn't want such facilities located near where they lived. And all of this area was once west of where just about everyone lived... One such facility was Eastern State Penitentiary, about 5 blocks that way, and another was the Preston Retreat, once located at 20th and Hamilton Streets. This was a "lying-in hospital" in which "indigent, married women of good character" could receive obstetric care. It was completed in 1840, but due to the financial issues, the building did not open as a maternity hospital until 1866. Obstetric care became available in America for the first time at the Preston Retreat. The patients were women up to age thirty who complied with the strict admissions requirements. Later known as the Preston Maternity Hospital, the facility eventually ranked number one in the world for safety at childbirth. The place was demolished in 1963 and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority sold the property to the Korman Corporation to build apartments. That's now the City View Condominiums.
Continuing eastwards on Callowhill Street: Around 1734, the Penn family gave attorney Andrew Hamilton the land from 12th to 19th Streets, and Vine Street to Fairmount Avenue, in payment for legal services to the Penn family. Hamilton is credited with the design of Independence Hall, and, because of his great legal skill, was the original "Philadelphia Lawyer." In 1740, he built a large mansion in this vicinity. (In those days, of course, this corridor was the suburbs of Philadelphia, and there were no regular streets around here until the early-1800s.) The mansion and estate were called Bush Hill, and offered a commanding view of the then-distant city of Philadelphia. Vice President John Adams and his wife lived in the house in 1790 and 1791. During Philadelphia's terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1793, a quarantine hospital was set up in the mansion, administered by Stephen Girard, Philadelphia's famous mariner-merchant-millionaire. Girard used his managerial skills to help those who were sick and dying. He risked his life in doing so out of the goodness of his heart and not for any personal gain.
In 1807, Bush Hill and all the other estates north of Philadelphia became part of the very large borough called Penn Township, which was much of today's North Philadelphia. Then, in 1827, the area from Vine to Spring Garden Streets was annexed to the existing Spring Garden District, east of here. The Spring Garden District became part of Philadelphia with the great consolidation of surrounding municipalities into the city in 1854. It was around that time that the Bush Hill Estate started being partitioned. At that time, this area was a pleasant suburb of Philadelphia.
But even as far back as the 1830s, small manufacturing shops were established in this neighborhood to take advantage of both the open space and, moreover, the newly-operating Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, which brought in raw material (including coal) and shipped out finished products. Soon, the formerly suburban Spring Garden District became an industrial corridor, river to river, on either side of the railroad, which extended east on Noble and Willow Streets.
The Bush Hill Iron Works was once located more or less on the site of Hamilton's mansion. Originally established in 1809 by local inventor Oliver Evans, the firm achieved a high reputation for the manufacture of sugar, saw and grist mill machinery, and millwrighting in general, as well as boilers. Here also were Rush & Muhlenburg (makers of stationary steam engines) and the I-T-E Circuit Breaker Company (on the site of Franklin Town Park).
The William Sellers Machine Tool Works was a maker of shafting, mill gearing, and machine tools known all over the world. The firm moved to Sixteenth and Hamilton Streets in 1855 from nearby Kensington. During the Civil War, William Sellers proposed a system of screw threads in a paper delivered at the Franklin Institute, which endorsed his idea and lobbied the U.S. Army, Navy, and the America's largest railroads to adopt it, which they did. By the 1880s, the new system of standard screw threads became widespread as machines with interchangeable parts, from typewriters to locomotives, flooded the national economy. Known as the United States Standard Screw Threads, this was the first American system of standardized screw threads. Because of this, if you take a quarter-inch nut from a hardware store in Philadelphia, it will reliably fit a quarter-inch bolt in San Francisco. That whole system was apparently invented right here, and changed American manufacturing forever...
Whitney & Sons Car-Wheel Works was located by the Reading trench at Sixteenth and Callowhill Streets. Once the largest in the nation, Whitney's factory was known from one end of the country to the other, and even overseas. This facility would eventually use seventy tons of pig iron a day to make wheels for the principal railroads in the United States. Asa Whitney received many patents that helped advance railroading, but it was his 1848 patent for annealing cast iron wheels that made his company famous. This annealing process produced wheels that were exceptionally strong, enabling them to be cast in one piece and then forced onto an axle at forty tons of pressure. Such wheels could handle much higher loads and speed, thus marking a new era in railroad history.
The best-known Philadelphia industrial giant of that era, however, was the Baldwin Locomotive Works, a sprawling factory complex spread over several blocks between Callowhill and Spring Garden Streets west of Broad Street. Matthias Baldwin built a substantial brick factory here by 1836, having moved to the area from another part of the city. His company eventually became the largest maker of heavy machinery in America's Gilded Age, making Philadelphia the locomotive capital of America. Baldwin was once the largest producer of locomotives in the world, if not the world's largest manufacturer of anything! By the early 1900s, an army of some 19,000 men, divided into day and night shifts, worked at the Baldwin complex. The huge plant comprised over 63 acres and bustled with industrial activity almost 24 hours a day every weekday. The company did business here for 94 years before moving to greener pastures in the 1920s. The buildings were all torn down in the mid-to-late 1930s; there's not a single trace of Philly's Baldwin Locomotive complex today.
Started by William Norris (1802–1867) and Col. Stephen H. Long, the Norris Locomotive Works was also located around here. This company produced about a thousand engines between 1836 and 1860, and was actually the dominant American locomotive producer during most of that period. It was even selling its popular locomotives to European railways in the early 1840s. The Norris Works was the largest manufacturer of locomotives in the United States until it was surpassed in the 1860s by Baldwin, which acquired the adjacent Norris property in 1873.
Brick rowhomes were built all around these manufactories to house workers who walked to work. But by the 1970s, the area was filled with abandoned factories, department store warehouses, coal yards, and a few hundred century-old rowhouses. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Franklin Town Corporation moved over a hundred families out of the area and tore down everything to create Franklin Town, a "city within a city" that was supposed to have over 4000 residential units, 1700 hotel rooms, movie theaters, restaurants, and tree-lined streets. Other than a few residential towers and Franklin Town Park, hardly any of that happened. There's some sentiment in the neighborhood for retiring the "Franklintown" moniker and finding another name, like "Baldwin Park," to honor Matthias Baldwin.
This area now makes up the campus of the Community College of Philadelphia. The college's main building on Spring Garden Street was once the third Philadelphia Mint. Built in 1901, this was the finest and best-equipped mint in the world in its day, as well as the largest money manufactory in the world. In one year, this mint made 501,000,000 coins. In addition, 90,000,000 coins for foreign countries were turned out. The Philadelphia Mint operated here until 1969 when it moved away, just like other industries in this area. It was acquired by the college in 1973. If you collect 20th century American coins made before 1970, most were probably produced right here.
Proceeding east on Callowhill Street to Broad Street: At 100 feet in width, Philadelphia's Broad Street is, as its name implies, the city's broadest north-south street. Broad Street is the longest straight urban boulevard in America. This is well-accepted, even though City Hall sits squarely in the middle of the street in the center of town, requiring traffic to circle the building. An old Philly saying is: "Broad Street is the straightest street, but when you get to City Hall, it gets real crooked." The Broad Street Subway passes under the Reading City Branch at the point where Broad Street rises in front of the Inquirer-Daily News Building.
Originally known as the Elverson Building, this 18-story landmark is home to The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News. When operations began there in 1925, it was touted as the most modern newspaper plant in the world. Engineering-wise, the building met the challenge of carrying the immense floor load of the press room and hundreds of tons of presses and stereotyping equipment two floors above street level while suspending the entire structure above the Reading's tracks in such a way that vibrations from trains would not affect the building. The adjacent structure — now School District of Philadelphia headquarters — was constructed in 1948 to house the rotogravure presses that used to print sections of the Sunday Inquirer and publications like TV Guide. This was once the largest rotogravure plant in the world. These printing facilities were moved to a new state-of-the-art printing plant at Conshohocken in 1992.
Across Broad Street is the Reading Railroad's Terminal Commerce Building, touted as the largest commercial warehouse building in the nation when completed in 1930. It offered about 13 million square feet of floor space to the numerous firms located there. The structure even had a freight station beneath it, which replaced the Reading's North Broad Street Freight Station that had been on the site. This was the first freight station underneath a warehouse in the United States. The Reading Railroad sold the hulking structure in 1955, whereupon it became known as the North American Building. It has recently been repositioned as a "carrier hotel" housing telecommunications, computer and other high-tech equipment.
The above is only a small part of the interesting history of this fascinating post-industrial corridor that runs along the north of Center City...