Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lost Building of the Week-- July 11th

Preston Retreat

500 North 20th Street

                    Talk about some lost-ass shit. This one right here is unbelievable. A super-bulky Greek Revival structure by one of the most dick-kicking architects in the city's history. This would be considered a great asset had it survived into our time, but the shortsightedness of mid-20th Century urban renewal took it the fuck out.
                    This building's origin is the result of Badass Motherfucker-in-Chief Representative Senator Councilman Banker Shipping Tycoon Jonas Preston, MD. This dude was born in Chester in 1764, raised by a single mom in Wilmington, and graduated from medical school at the University of Pennsylvania at age 20... he would have graduated even earlier but some courses were delayed because of the Revolutionary War. After his schooling, Preston tried to be a farmer in Chester but it didn't work out. He was so pissed about his failure that he went off to find himself in Georgia for awhile, hanging out with his "close friend" (wink wink) General Wayne.
                   He then returned to Chester and started a medical practice (why he tried to be a farmer with a medical degree is beyond me). Preston married a Newtown, PA heiress named Opral Reese after convincing her mother that he was good with money, despite being "somewhat of a dandy". Preston would go on to live in Newtown and fight in the skirmish related to the Western Insurrection. Upon his return, he was considered a hero to everyone but the Quakers, who kicked him the fuck out of their circle of Friends.
                Preston then served in PA's House of Representatives and then the Senate. His wife left him in 1811 due to him being away from home all the time (also the dandyness). Preston's second marriage was to Jane Thomas, who in 1816 nagged him to relinquish his offices (which at this point also included Bank Commissioner and President of the Bank of Delaware County) and move away from boring-ass Newtown to the most amazing and kick-ass city in the world, Philafuckingdelphia.
              Preston hit Philadelphia like a bag of hammers. He was already well-known before getting there so his election to City Council upon his arrival was no surprise. He became director of the Bank of Pennsylvania and the Schuylkill Navigation Company.. at the same time. Despite working 3 full time jobs, Preston would take time out to treat poor mothers-to-be at Pennsylvania Hospital and the Friends' Asylum in Frankford. It was this volunteer work with destitute pregnant mothers that would define his legacy (not the repping, senatoring, councilmanning, bank presidenting, or shipping tycooning).
              When Preston died in 1835, he left $250,000 of his $400,000 estate for the purpose of "...indigent, married women of good character..." to be provided with "proper obstetric aid". His shares of the Schuylkill Navigation Company would also be contributed to the cause. On June 16th, 1836, the Pennsylvania Legislature created his dream society, and called it the "Preston Retreat". The first meeting of the committee in charge, held at the College of Physicians, declared the location of the new Retreat would be an eight-acre plot on Hamilton Street between Schuylkill 2nd (21st) and 3rd(20th) Streets.
              An architectural competition was held, and all the entries ended up being in the Greek Revival style.. expected for the time. The winning design was from the illustrious Thomas Ustick Walter.

The rendering from April, 1837. Image from the PAB.
                      This motherfucker looks like what you would get if you asked the Hulk to design a Greek Revival building. Walter's design was the only one that didn't even come close to filling the whole 8 acres, creating a walled park for the enjoyment of the patients there. The cornerstone was laid in in a full-dress Masonic ritual on July 17th, 1837 and took three years to build. It cost $85,000 (1.8 mil today), going $30k over budget. 
                   Since they went so over-budget and since the Schuylkill Navigation Company's shares went way down during the construction period, the Retreat wasn't able to open, even though the resident doctor and his family moved in. The building would stay empty, save for the Doctor and his family, for the next six years (nice deal for the doctor, eh?), while Schuylkill Navigation Company's stock dwindled even further. Eventually, Preston's widow was pissed off about how her husband's dream was falling apart, so she urged the committee that formed the Retreat to let the Foster Home Association use the building rent-free until the Retreat could afford to open... 19 years later.
                  Finally, in 1865, some of the land in Schuylkill County owned by the Schuylkill Navigation Company became extremely valuable due to the discovery of a shitload of coal. The sale of this land made the opening of the Retreat possible, albiet 25 years late. $25,000 had to be spent renovating the already-deteriorating kind-of unfinished building.
                  The Preston Retreat took in its first destitute married pregnant moms on May 15th, 1865. In a time when the infant mortality rate was 10%, the moms at the Retreat only had a rate of about .09%. The success of the Retreat was known far and wide as a one of the most sterile hospitals in the country, impervious to the assload of life-threatening epidemics that would roll through the city every few years.
                 Once the building hit about 70 years old, it became obvious that it was in need of an upgrade. They got architectural badass Edgar V. Seeler, who worked in the super-lost Drury Building, to create an addition that would not detract from the beauty of the building but add 30% more space. In 1909, a whole extra floor would be added to the building and the cupola would be preserved and rebuilt on the roof of the new story.

Addition under construction.
                   As part of the upgrade, they wired the place for electricity (!!!), added an elevator and fire escapes. The building would now be ready for the 20th Century. The Retreat treated thousands of pregnant moms for the next 5 decades and became affiliated with Pennsylvania Hospital; it became a training spot for maternity nurses.
                   Pennsylvania Hospital absorbed the Retreat in 1960, closing the 20th and Hamilton building forever. The Retreat sort of lives on... the Pennsylvania Hospital named their 1970-built maternity building the Preston Building. The old Preston Retreat building would become property of the Redevelopment Authority, who unceremoniously demolished the balls out of it in May of 1963.

Sad-ass picture of the building right before demolition... complete with barren trees and shit.
                    An empty lot would be left behind for the next ten years, until phase one of the City View Condos was built. In 1990, artist Winifred Lutz was called in for a Percent-For-Shit public art piece for the Condo complex. She showed respect for the site of the Preston Retreat by making the art piece consist of segments from the columns of the old building. Instead of calling the piece Shit Made From the Kick-ass Columns of the Preston Retreat or Preston Retreat in Yo' Face, Mahfucka, she called it How to Retain Site Memory While Developing the Landscape.

Its also a 1/3 size model of Jonas Preston's cock.
                      If the Preston Building still stood today, it would be a landmark for the failed Franklintown experiment. It probably could have become part of the Community College or the anchor of a housing complex like the Naval Hospital site. The condo towers that replaced it could have been built on the 75 other empty lots in the neighborhood. What a waste.


  1. I believe those column sections were unexpectedly discovered when the site for the second tower of that complex was being prepared, around the date you cite. (I think it was a hotel at that time—Buttonwood Suites or some such.) Apparently when the hospital was demoed, they just bulldozed the columns into the hole and covered them over. There was a lot of old demo waste below the surface which had to be removed from the site.

    Instead of removing all of the columns (expensive, since they're so heavy), they salvaged some of the sections by using them for the art requirement.

    The column you picture is at the entryway, in front of the parking garage. There's a second column standing on the 21st Street side, next to the tennis courts.

  2. Why did she only do a one-third size replica?

  3. Obstetric care became available in America for the first time at the Preston Retreat. Later known as the Preston Maternity Hospital, the facility eventually ranked number one in the world for safety at childbirth. You'd think that there'd be a historic marker or something there

    The plot was also the site William Penn's country estate known as Springettsbury Manor, named after his first wife, Gulielma Springett. He never actually lived here, as the manor house was built by one of his sons after Penn left America for the last time. The Penn family retained control of it until the time of the American Revolution, after which time it was demolished. Again, you'd think that Pennsylvania would put up a historic marker of some kind.

  4. Thanks for all the info, Harry and qguy. I guess the lost street named Gulielma was named after Gulielma Springett? It was an interstitial entered from 15th between South and Lombard.