Monday, September 5, 2011

Old-Ass Building of the Week-- September 5th

Musical Fund Hall

808 Locust Street

Are you ready for this shit?
                      This building has a long fucking history. Its been used for so much different shit that its dizzying to even think about it. The whole neighborhood surrounding this motherfucker has changed multiple times in the last 187 years but this beast has managed to stick it out and push through into the 21st century like a fucking champ. Good for you, building.
                     The Musical Fund Society formed in 1820 to provide a pension for retired musicians (they called them "decayed") and to promote the improvement of musical taste. They would have meetings in churches and eventually managed to put on a few concerts in Washington Hall, a ballroom/Temporary Masonic Temple that was popular at the time. They gained a lot of national attention and started to plan out their own concert hall. It would be the shit. The acoustics would be engineered to be some of the best in the world.
                    The Fifth Presbyterian Church sold their building to the Society and they demolished the fuck out of it. They had one of their members who happened to be a super-kickass mega-architect, William Strickland, design them a musical nirvana. The cornerstone was laid on May 25th, 1824 and it opened on December 29th, 1824. The construction cost was $12,968.56.
                    It was a HUGE success. All of the rock stars of the early 19th Century made a point of performing here. The Society added gas lighting on September 26, 1847 so that they wouldn't accidentally burn the place down at night with the shitload of candles they needed. They packed the house constantly and by the 1840's they were having so many successful seasons in a row that they figured that they should almost double the seating capacity.
                       In 1847 the Society went up to the Five-Star Admiral of Dragon Eating, Napoleon Le Brun, and said "Listen, you bastard. We need you to overhaul this whole place. Extend the facade all the way out to the street and move the main stage to the back instead of the front!". Only 5 months later, the brand new Musical Fund Hall was complete. It re-opened on October 21st, 1847 with seats for 1,500, which back then was like building a doctors' office waiting room with seating for 50,000.

What the fuck? Where's the wheelchair ramp?
                        This time, the acoustics were EVEN BETTER than before and became the primary draw for musicians to play there. It wasn't just for musicians, however. Circus acts, athletic events, college commencements and graduations, anything else you can think of went on stage. The place even had a human zoo act in 1852!

Maximo and Bartola, the "Aztec Lilliputians", were put on display at the Hall. This place had everything!
                     Le Brun was so respected for his work that he ended up getting tapped to design the American Academy of Music. While that was being built, the Musical Fund Hall became home to the 1856 Republican National Convention. This is the fact everyone wants to beat you over the head with when they tell you about this building. The problem is, this fact is WRONG.
                    The first Republican National Convention took place at Lafayette Hall in Pittsburgh in February, 1856. The one at Musical Fund Hall took place in June. The Musical Fund Hall one was the first to nominate a presidential candidate, John Charles Fremont. Lincoln was there, trying to be the Vice-Presidential candidate, but he didn't win.   

The announcement of Fremont's candidacy. Rabble rabble rabble rabble rabble!
                    Once the Academy of Music was completed in 1857, the Musical Fund Hall's neighborhood became shit. Even though it was only 8 blocks west, the Academy was located in the nouveau riche Broad Street neighborhood and was large enough to accommodate full-costume-and-set opera acts, which were very popular. The Musical Fund Society said "fuck the Hall" and moved their performances over to the Academy in 1858.
                  From 1857 to 1895, the Musical Fund Hall became the second-string event venue in the city. There were conferences, lectures, plays, college events, and athletic competitions, but the Society strangely calls the period "the time of no concerts".
                  By the 1880's, the neighborhood was getting better and the Society felt stupid sitting on this once great Hall that had so much potential. In 1891, they called on one of the great architects of the period, Addison Hutton, to gut the place and pretty much rebuild it from the ground up. They wanted the Hall modernized to the Victorian period. Hutton went fucking nuts. He redesigned all the interior spaces, added an additional storey, then, in 1893, ripped the whole facade off and built a brand new one.
1900. Meh, I think I like the old facade better. Sorry, Addison!
                      The place re-opened in 1895 and was back to being an elegant and modern concert venue. The Society's Germania Orchestra played there for the next four years. Musical acts of all kinds rolled through, so many famous names that this article would reach the Oort Cloud if I listed them for you. It also continued being a meeting hall for various organizations, most notably a batch of unions that began rioting out the door of this Megacastle of Roundhouse Kicks in the first decade of the 20th Century.
                     The second great period of the Hall didn't last long. By the mid 1910's, the neighborhood was ass again. The Society tried another small renovation in 1914 but ended up mortgaging this beast to the Philadelphia Labor Institute ten years later. The Labor Institute didn't have much luck there and the building got repo'ed by the Society in 1937. For the next five years, they leased the Hall to a boxing promoter. It was in this period that windows got punched out in the facade, making all those rectangles on it make a lot more sense.
                     The Society was down on their luck in the mid 1940's and couldn't afford to repair the decaying building. They knew its day was over and sold it to a tobacco concern called Yahn and McDonnell Company in 1946. Yahn and McDonnell got architect Howard Carter Hill and converted the Hall into a gigantic humidor that stored 2.5 million cigars.
As Yahn & McDonnell. It wasn't exactly looking great at the time.
                  The tobacco warehouse stuck around until 1964 when the building was purchased by the Redevelopment Authority. It sat there falling apart for years while the Authority and others mulled over what the building would be used for. Some argued it should be offices, other argued it should be restored back to a theatre, others wanted other uses and as usual they all argued about it. A restoration study was done in 1970 but didn't get much further.
                 By 1979, the place was literally about to fall over. The windows were broken and the roof collapsed. Someone had to do something with this thing or it would be demolished.

Yeah, this'll buff right out!
                   Finally in 1981 a developer with some iron balls came along and converted the entire building into fancy-ass condos. It was a pretty risky move considering that this it what it looked like across the street:

Empty Lot of the Year, 1977.

                    Even when these new-fangled condos were complete, the neighborhood was still pretty bad. Eventually, new construction and renovations occurred all around and the Musical Fund Hall is now a pretty nice place to live... if you're rich as fuck, of course. You can buy a badass unit there right now! 
                    It current has two different kinds of historical markers on the outside, one to commemorate the "first" Republican National Convention and another commemorating some of the famous folks that have appeared there. The latter plaque was placed by residents who cared so much about their political persuasion that they didn't want be mistaken for Republicans by living there, like someone was going to wait outside and beat them in the street when they left for work. If you really wanted to get down and dirty and find all the history of this thing, the building would end up with like 60 plaques.

                    This building is such a goddamn survivor. While other much nicer and historically significant buildings in this city were built and demolished without a thought during its lifetime, this one managed to survive and will survive for many decades to come. This beast has been around for such a long time that I must tell you that I've barely scratched the surface of telling you its full history. What a cool building.


  1. What an odd building. It does have an interesting history, but of all the ones to make it this far... really???

    We need to invent a time machine so we can go back and save Broad Street Station.

    Good job in the research for this one. It's a hell of a story.

  2. The Marquis de Lafayette attended a concert at Musical Fund Hall, and Charles Dickens and William Thackeray spoke there, besides Abraham Lincoln!