Wednesday, December 17, 2014

99 Years Ago in Philadelphia: Middle of December, 1915

Big Fucking Snowstorm Hits Philadelphia, Worse in Other Cities

Picture taken at the height of the storm, somewhere on Market just west of City Hall.
            On December 13, 1915, Philadelphia was hit with a huge, unexpected snow storm that had been predicted by weathermen to be nothing but slush. It started out as just a little over an inch of snow all morning and appeared to have stopped completely. Then, all of a sudden, another 4 inches fell in blizzard form around noon and was done in a very short period of time.

The yards on top of the old "Chinese Wall" leading to Broad Street Station during the storm
               That's right, it was only a total of 5 inches. Nonetheless, the city was crippled. However, the effect in Philly was nothing compared to other northeastern cities. Trains were stuck all over the coast with passengers trapped inside. In the end, $2.5 million of damage was done. Telegraph and phone wires were down all over the northeast-- there was zero service of each kind between Albany and Philadelphia for days. Milk deliveries to Philly were suspended for at least one day-- all reserve milk was sent to hospitals and public institutions.
          It makes you wonder how these 1915 folks would have handled the badass winter Philly had last year.

View of Market East getting its ass kicked by the storm from City Hall

The Spirit of Giving, Kensington Style

The scene of Christmas Spirit from
            Hugh McCrane was a bum that primarily hung out at the corner of Front and York in Kensington who apparently loved himself some Christmas. Upon passing a store that had a large stuffed Santa Claus on display, he ripped the beard off of it and somehow stuck it to his own face. He then stole a bunch of baskets of apples from a nearby grocer and started handing the apples out to all the children on the street.
            The grocer himself was understandably pissed off by this and contacted his friend, Officer McClusker, who took McCrane into custody. Santa Bum was sentenced by Magistrate Glenn to 30 days at the House of Corrections. McCrane responded with an endless tirade of bad language.

Front and York today thanks to Google Streetview. Yes, that is the same building.

The Great Trunk Murder Caper

        In the basement of 4062 Frankford Avenue, the demolition of an old house lead to the discovery of a gruesome scene. One of the demolition workers, Louis Dehman, was digging up the cellar of the place when he found a wooden box containing a steamer trunk that contained a body that was completely covered in Quicklime aka Calcium Oxide.
       What came to be known as the "Trunk Murder" or "Box Murder" became big news over the next six months. The victim was 23-year-old Daniel J. McNichol, cousin of a State Senator. He had disappeared 20 months before and just happened to be carrying $2000 on his person at the time. 
          Edward F. Keller, partner of McNichol in a failed leather company, cooperated with police the day the trunk was found but soon became the prime suspect and was arrested the day after. Keller's story changed constantly thereafter but the circumstantial evidence against him piled up like a motherfucker. They found Quicklime at his house (which also happened to be the same kind of quicklime used at the leather plant), he told McNichol's pregnant fiance that he had abandoned her and moved to NYC, Norristown, and/or Detroit the day after he disappeared, Keller owned the commercial laundry business that had been using the building in which the trunk body was found (under a fake name) , and he was witnessed digging a hole in the basement. 
          Keller tried to claim that the man in the trunk was not McNichol at all and that McNichol was not only still alive, but in contact with him, claiming that he had become a bum in New York. This was all disproved pretty quickly using some science revolutionary to the period, aka checking the gold fillings in the corpses' teeth versus dental records. Keller also claimed that the laundry was located in a shitty neighborhood (it was) and didn't have locks on the doors (it didn't), so anyone could have buried that body there. In May, 1916, Keller was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10-12 years at Eastern State Penitentiary.
          After spending 8 years at Eastern State, Keller was released and found a job as a night watchman at the Corn Exchange Bank (this guy was such a pimp that he was able to get meet a woman and get married while in prison, who got him the job). On December 20th, 1925, he proceeded to steal $20,000 in cash from the bank. He fled from his home to the Lorraine Hotel (you know, the Divine Lorraine!) but then panicked and wanted to leave town. He hailed a cab and set about escaping Philadelphia forever. He opened his suitcase to admire the pile of money and died of heart failure, lying in the money he just stole. The same detective who solved the McNichol case (Detective Belshaw) was called to investigate the death of Keller. How ironic.
        The detective work connecting Keller to the McNichol murder was unprecedented in its use of science and forensics. The story still pops up every now and then, including a shitty 1991 MS-DOS video game called Murder!  and has appeared in detective training literature as recently as 2007.

Edward Keller

Fake Buttermilk and Other Offenses to Food Are Being Sold All Over The City!

             Special Agent Robert M. Simmons of the Pennsylvania State Dairy and Food Commission has made a disturbing discovery: 85% of the buttermilk being sold in Philadelphia is not real! In case you didn't know, back in 1915, people drank buttermilk, the by-product left over from the churning of butter out of cream, because it was believed that the shit made you into a super-healthy Stanless Steelsque mega-monster. 
             Special Agent Simmons discovered that some shady company was selling a specially-made powdered skim milk to most Philadelphia grocers that, when mixed with lactic acid, created an artificial buttermilk that tasted better than the real thing but had no nutritional value. Simmons also busted a bunch of stores for selling rotten "canned eggs", selling goat meat as lamb, and adding sulfer dioxide to cherries.
              Not a damn thing was ever done about it.

Those sulfer dioxide cherries are quite common today. Pic from

Monday, December 15, 2014

Old-Ass Building: Bell Telephone Diamond Exchange

1632 Diamond Street

Photo by Michael Bixler
                  Norf Philly has lots of architectural treasures to talk about but few seem to know about this old phone exchange... except me! Read it all at the Hidden City Daily!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fill This Front: 1208 Chestnut

1208 Chestnut Street

                Here I am, back on Chestnut Beast, to re-visit a building I've written about before. Not because it was once a Frank Watson-designed Cathedral of Ultimate Kick-Ass, but because its storefront has been empty for 2 and a half fucking years! How the hell are we supposed to bring back Chestnut East with this old bastard still sitting empty?
               The old Hamilton and Diesinger Building was an 8-story commercial building that had a humongous store space on its first floor that came with a cool mezzanine.

Special thanks to Philaphile Kevin McMahon for finding this photo for me.
         In about 1942 the building went up in flames and the top 5 floors had to be removed, leaving just one floor with its awesome rounded terra cotta bay window. Ever since, the building has existed as a single retail floor that goes all the way back to Sansom Street with miniscule 1250 square foot second and third floors.
       Many many stores have come and gone through this space-- restaurants, photo processors, bookstores, linen stores, several different shoe stores, you name it. Listing them all in order would be foolish. The latest store to inhabit this space was one of many Philly locations of the Brooklyn-based discount clothier Rainbow, who came along in 1998 or so and lasted until 2012.

Rainbow in January 2012, right before it closed.
        The ownership of the building seems a bit shady-- it was purchased in 1988 for $700,000 by a group of people based in some random office in NYC that is now some kind of management firm for writers or some such shit. Obviously, the info the city has about the owners of this building is out of date.
       Last February, L & I came after the place, citing the awesome terra cotta bay window as something unsafe. Pieces looked like they were about to fall off, I guess. The place got gated up and the bottom of the bay window was lathed and stuccoed over. The windows in the bay were also [kind of] restored Therefore, whomever manages or owns this building is still taking care of it to some extent. Ever since that repair, the place seems to be looking shittier and shittier by the day. Someone needs to come along and save this bastard.
       This space is a total of 7,750 square feet, 5,750 of which are on the first floor alone. That first floor is 25 feet wide on Chestnut Street and runs the entire 230 feet back to the 1200 block of Sansom Street, which is also somewhat retailed-up. If you were a real badass, you could open two different storefronts on either side of this thing, or be like my boys down at Cella Luxuria and have front and back entrances to the same store!
       This storefront is in a prime location on the re-emergent Chestnut East corridor. Some of our best bus lines run directly in front of this place and our highest use bus line, the 23, runs both east and west of it. One block away from an EL stop, not too far from the Broad Street Line, a few blocks from Regional Rail, this place has it all!!! I would try to hook you up with whomever manages or owns this place, but it seems no such information exists. There hasn't been a "for sale" or "for lease" sign in the two years its been empty, so I don't know what to tell you. The only listing I've found to rent the place has no contact info on it.
      This place may be the last piece of the Chestnut East puzzle to change. Add yourself to the list of heroes that are changing Chestnut East for the better. FILL THIS FRONT!!
Bad photo of the Sansom Street side.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Butt-Fugly Building: Wholesale Diamond Exchange

800 Chestnut St

             Dammit, 8th and Chestnut, why do you suck so much!?!? This was once the goddamn nexus of the city, where commerce, the press, and our finest hotels all met at one kick-ass corner. Nowadays, not only does it look like crap, it has looked like crap for half a goddamn century! The Northwest corner has had a surface parking lot on it for over 60 years. The Northeast corner has had a shitty parking garage on it for over 50 years. The Southeast corner has a bad alteration of a 1850's commercial building. Then there's this, the Southwest corner, worst of them all!
        Back when this corner kicked ass, this location was home to the Times Building. What building? THIS BUILDING:

Oh my gooooooooooood Image from the PAB.
                This building actually managed to survive all the way into the 1960s despite a series of fires and having its top floors chopped off. Even in its final form, it looked better than anything else at the corner.

See? Not as good but still not that bad. Image from the PAB.
              In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Public Federal Savings & Loan Association went on a crazy building spree, throwing up new branch offices all over the region. Included with this would be a brand new main branch. The location? This corner, 8th and Chestnut... probably chosen because of its proximity to their old office at 705 Chestnut. Luckily, the Annex of the old Times Building still stands.
             The architect for this and the majority of the other branch buildings put up during this building spree was Steven J. Matthews. This one was proposed in 1969 and was banking away by the time the 1970s began. Public Federal Savings & Loan was done with this spot by the early 1980s and a law firm later took over the place.
             In 1986, the Hyde-Pride Investment & Development Company of Los Angeles came along and wanted to open a Wholesale Jewelers Exchange in this location. It would be their third such spot like this and their first on the East Coast. The model was to get small-time jewelers who could never afford a whole storefront in the Jeweler's Row district to be able to rent a small space in the Exchange and therefore be able to represent in the city's main jewelry-buying location-- a Jeweler's Row within Jeweler's Row. The place opened in March of 1986 as the Sansom Wholesale Jewelers Exchange (though not location on Sansom Street) with only 6 out of the 45 booths open, but leases were already signed for many of them. It didn't take too long for the place to fill right up. 
            Jeweler's Row old timers were PISSED about this existence of this place, thinking it would force the prices of jewelry in the other stores to get slashed (jewelry is artificially scarce anyway) and that the place signaled the beginning of the end of Jeweler's Row. Well, its nearly 30 years later and this place and Jeweler's Row are still going strong. The same dudes who were complaining about this place are still in business, by the way. The exchange changed its name to the Wholesale Diamond Exchange and did a renovation of the exterior of the ugly building they're in around 2008.
            I advocate the destruction of this building in the name of re-engaging the corner of 8th and Chestnut. This corner is 2 goddamn blocks away from Independence Hall and one block away from the huge transit nexus at 8th and Market. Its has such massive potential but is held back by the mistakes of the mid-20th Century. If this and the huge parking garage catercorner to it were taken out, that would give 3 out of the 4 corners here prime for awesome development. This is a fantasy of course, its not like the owners of these buildings, who are no doubt making mucho $$$ off of them, will sell just because I said so.. but one can dream.
           However, consider this: there will eventually come a time when there will be preservationists who want to save shitty 1970s urban architecture. Its already begun regarding obsolete urban buildings from the 1940s and 50s, which no one ever cared about until they were endangered. Even an ugly, obsolete 1951-built Public Federal Savings and Loan building in Wynnewood has people going nuts over its possible destruction.
          Therefore, if this building doesn't get replaced now, people will be diving in front of the wrecking ball when the time actually comes. This corner needs HELP and NOW is the time to make it happen.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Why You Need to Support Hidden City Philadelphia

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

              Wow, that's a pretty nice video. They should have asked me to provide narration using Monster Voice. Meh, maybe not. Look, I'm not just saying this shit because I write and do tours for these folks. Hidden City Philadelphia is the most important publication in the city right now. It documents and disseminates stories and information about all that Philadelphia-related shit that would otherwise be lost forever.
                Hidden City assembles all the... shall we say... not-so-neurotypical whackos around our city that have boatloads of knowledge about the history, people, neighborhoods, and both the natural and built environments of Philadelphia and spreads that shit around so that you, the humans, can experience the same wonder and joy that our modest and underrated city gives to them (includes me).

              I bring this up because Hidden City is now engaged in their annual campaign to raise enough scrilla to keep that shit going. Without that dough, Hidden City won't be able to bring you all the great content it throws down every week and all the great tours/events it does throughout the year. After all, these guys deserve it. They took a chance on me, GroJLart, a random anonymous bum who knows about Philadelphia shit, and let me go nuts writing and giving tours about the kind of things I like to learn about.
              Even though it sounds like a strip club Christopher Columbus opened in the Dominican Republic, Indiegogo is where you have to go to contribute to Hidden City. Click on the link above and send these folks some currency. Help bring Hidden City into 2015 and beyond!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Fill This Front: Warner Bros. Studio Store

1625 Chestnut Space 240

Where the crappy arrows are pointing

              Whoa whoa whoa wait a minute here! It has come to my attention, though not totally confirmed, that this space at the Shops at Liberty Place hasn't had a permanent lessee in 13 years!!  HOLY FUCK. If true, that's a goddamn travesty! What the fuck is going on here? From what I can tell, the last thing to occupy this space in any kind of long-term way was the goddamn WB Studios Store!
               For those of you that don't remember, the Warner Bros. Studio Store was a crappy mall store where you could by Warner Brothers-related merchandise. They started out with only a few locations in 1993, the nearest one being at the Cherry Hill Mall. They later decided to pop up in every fucking mall you could think of in the next couple of years. Even shit-ass Quaker Bridge Mall had one.
            The WB Studio Store came to Center City Philadelphia in the 1994 Christmas Shopping season. The spot they chose? Space 240 at the Shops at Liberty Place. The place did just fine... it stayed open all the way until 2001, when the franchise quit the U.S. Ever since, the spot has stayed empty as fuck save for a few seasonal spots, if my sources are correct. Not only is it empty, but the place itself is in disguise!

Its behind this crap.
And this shit on the other side of the escalator
               A person who does not know the mall very well may not notice that when coming up the escalator on the southwest side, all the windows are covered with ads for the Shops at Liberty Place and a small hallway directs you into the second floor of the mall. This used to be part of that store space! Over the years, Liberty Place has managed to stay pretty nice but the emptiness of this space sticks out like a sore thumb, no matter how much they may cover it up with bullshit. Let's try to fill this fucker once and for all!
              This space is advantageous because it has window frontage on the second floor facing both 17th and Chestnut Streets. The space itself is 12,000 square feet (when the hallway is deleted), one of the largest single spaces you can get in the whole place. It also has a large skylight on its south frontage with a balcony that looks over the southwestern entrance to the mall! Its not like this thing can't hold on to a tenant-- as noted above, it held the same one for 6 straight years!

Skylight and balcony section of the southeast side of the space.
              Do I even have to tell you how much foot traffic and transit shit passes this space!?!? Nearly limitless. On top of that, directly above this space is one building full of high-paid employees, one tower that is half rich-as-fuck residents, and another building with an expensive-ass hotel that connects directly to the same mall! What the fuck are you waiting for!?!?!?
              Unfortunately, I can't find a listing out there for this one. Even if you want it, you'll have a hard time getting it! Well, fuck that. Cushman Wakefield leases the rest of the spaces so I'm sure if you call those folks up you can make a deal. Maybe you can lease one of the two separated sides! Either way, this space needs filling. Be the hero that will FILL THIS FRONT!!!!

17th Street-facing windows. There's more facing Chestnut.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Old-Ass Building: Brown Sisters Building

115-117 South 19th Street

Photo by Michael Bixler

            You've never even noticed this building, have you? This little bitch-bastard is a block off of Rittenhouse Square and is holding in some history. Find out all about it at the Hidden City Daily!