Thursday, June 26, 2014

99 Years Ago in Philadelphia: End of June, 1915

After Flourishing 6 Decades, Camden's "Squattertown" Finally Destroyed

              In late June, 1915, Camdenites had about enough of Squattertown, the large shanty town that had existed for 60 years on city-owned land on the Delaware Riverfront at Spruce Street in Camden. Highway Commissioner Albert Sayers made it his goal to literally wipe Squattertown off the map. Camden residents of the day called it a "rendezvous of petty criminals, drunkards, and general trouble-makers" leading a "lazy existence".
             Sayers spent a whole afternoon warning the residents of Squattertown of its imminent destruction the next day, convincing most to leave. However, about 40 stayed behind in defiance. These 40 got their assess handed to them the next day, when every cop in town assisted by 100 day laborers descended upon Front and Spruce Streets, armed with picks and axes, ready to rumble. Horses were brought in to pull apart the ersatz structures in Squattertown and the whole kit and kaboodle was dumped into the adjacent Delaware River.
            99 Years later, Squattertown is called "Tent City", but it no longer on the riverfront.  Pretty much the same exact scene as above took place recently, when the city came in and destroyed it all over again.

The site of Squattertown as it appears on Google Streetview.

Thief Steals From Little Girl, Gets Ass Kicked

           Nine-year-old Katie Shuster was given a special task by her father: cash a $35 check and bring me back the dough. Katie followed her Dad's instructions and brought her baby brother with her in his stroller. Upon returning from her three block trek between the house and the bank on 52nd Street, she encountered the likes of John Williams, a local whacko in the neighborhood that everyone knew as "Nervy".
           Seeing the 35 bucks in the baby's stroller, Nervy grabbed the cash and ran, but must have not realized how many witnesses were about, including cops. All at once, scores of people started running after Nervy, having had enough of his bullshit over the years. Storekeepers, women who were shopping, newsboys, "white wings" (street cleaners), and a few policemen started chasing Nervy through the streets and alleys of West Philadelphia. Nervy managed to outrun them all, running into a vacant house at 5425 Chestnut Street and hiding in a closet. The owner of the house, one John Griffith, just happened to be checking on the place at the time, finding Nervy in the closet.
           Griffith, who also knew about this guy and also had enough of his bullshit, locked him in the closet and called the cops without even knowing about the recent robbery. The cops came along and, upon seeing who was locked in the closet, proceeded to beat the everloving shit out of him before locking him up.

The D.F. McConnell Modern Porch House where Nervy tried to hide via Google Streetview

Successful Test of the Curtis Building's "Water Blanket" 

The Water Blanket test with a nice portrait of Fire Marshal Barnum, whose office was in the same building.
                   City dwellers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were obsessed with fire prevention. Fires were always a big concern because any single one that grew too big could take out the entire city. 1915 was an especially bad year for Philadelphia fires. One that occurred in May was located in a building that was right next door to Christ Church, and nearly took it out-- causing even more paranoia than usual
              To prove that new buildings in the city were equipped with the finest in fire prevention, a demonstration was held at the new Curtis Publishing Company Building for 2,000 spectators and every fire official for 100 miles. While the building had been open for a little while at this point, this was when installation of the "Water Blanket" was just completed. This "Water Blanket" was a big-ass waterfall that would go down the side of a building to prevent a fire in a building nearby from spreading. On the 9th floor of the Curtis Building, several water tanks holding 168,500 gallons each were installed, letting down a deluge of 2500 gallons per minute through sprinklers located above the windows on every other floor on the Sansom and 7th Street sides of the building (the other sides don't face other buildings).
             For the demo, there was a fire drill for the company's 4000 employees, after which Battalion Chief Moodle activated the machine from a switch on the 5th floor (one of many in the building), surprising the fuck out of anyone nearby who didn't know it was about to happen. The system squirted down all of its water over a 30 minute period and made news across the globe.
             The Curtis Publishing Company loved itself some fire prevention. In addition to the Water Curtain system, the building hosted its own city fire station and had a volunteer company made up of Curtis employees. The system was tested one more time in 1922 and I can't seem to find any other record of it being used after that. Even though the building had been renovated and renovated again since, one can still spot the little sprinkler heads sticking out of the facade on the Seventh and Sansom Street sides of the building.

Water Blanket test via Fire and Water Engineering, Volume 58

Who the FUCK Are the Stonemen!?!?

Screen test for a deleted scene in Star Trek V.
              Late June, 1915, suspicions arose across the city regarding a new fraternal organization known as the Stonemen's Fellowship. It was founded in 1910 by Episcopal leader H.C. Stone at the Holy Trinity Memorial Chapel at 22nd and Spruce Streets and only had about 200 members at the start of 1915. However, by late June, that number grew to 6,500. The organization hosted huge banquets every week and allowed members to make use of a huge clubhouse at 2216 Spruce Street (long gone) that offered all the same level of amenities that the big-time motherfuckers like the Union League and the Philadelphia Club did.
              The weird part was that there were NO DUES for membership and all the offerings of the club were FREE of charge. Also, members were allowed to belong to any Christian denomination or political group, or none at all! Membership grew so rapidly in early 1915 that the club was forced to start having meetings in UPenn's gymnasium. The goals and philosophy of the club were kept a tight secret, even to members. One had to achieve the third degree to even get a hint.
             Philadelphians, especially church leaders, began questioning the motives of this new organization, who was funding it, and how the fuck they were recruiting so quickly. Some even thought that this might be some kind of devil-worshipping club and that the benefits of membership for free were the ultimate temptation. Rumors of whacky rituals didn't help matters, neither did stories of individual members recruiting over 80 neophytes a day. The club had no officers, H.C. Stone himself the sole leader.
             As it ends up, the goal of the club was to start a massive Protestant Unification that was planned to sweep across the nation. By the end of 1915, the club had 100,000 members. Ten to thirty thousand at a time would travel to other cities to recruit new chapters, and it always worked, especially because the press would write about how 30,000 members of the same club just reserved all the seats on 20 trains at a time, causing travel woes for others. The unification was to create another church called the Church of God, which members would get baptized into upon reaching third degree membership. While the club stated that there were no conditions for membership, they were decidedly anti-Catholic. When the anti-Catholic part of the club's mission was revealed, there was a huge loss in membership.
            The Stonemen's Fellowship's funding source was never found, but many think that there were a couple of Old Philadelphians involved. Members included some of the city's biggest movers and shakers, including Director of Public Safety (Police Commissioner) George D. Porter and George Wharton Pepper of UPenn. The club seemed like it was going to take over the world and much was written about it until 1917, when World War I claimed a huge part of the membership. After the war, the club was pretty much over and forgotten, though they did exist in a small way as late as the 1930s.

A picture of Stone in 1917, presiding over a memorial for 300 members who died at the start of the WWI.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fill This Front: Freshii Space

1414 South Penn Square, Suite 1

             Kind of a quick one today, because this storefront hasn't existed for a very long time. Nonetheless, for 1/4th of that time, this little spot has been about as empty as empty gets. There's no goddamn excuse for this, of course, considering that this location gets so much fucking foot traffic that you could open a puppy underwear store here and killlLL!!!
             The Residences at the Ritz building, where this storefront is located, took fucking forever to get built. The corner it sits on, at the southwest corner of City Hall, was blocked off for like 4 years due to its construction. Before it was blocked off, it was mostly a driveway for the parking lot that was here, and before that, was blocked off due to the deconstruction of the old One Meridian Plaza. Therefore, when the RATR was completed, this was the first time this little block had any street level use since February 23rd, 1991.

February 23rd, 1991.
                   In January of 2011, Toronto/Chicago-based chain Freshii came along to occupy one of the two retail spaces on the newly-rebuilt corner. Freshii's decidedly pretentious website describes the restaurant as a place to "help citizens of the world live longer & healthier by making healthy food convenient & affordable" (barf). The chain started in 2005 and has over 80 locations in a whole shitload of different cities and countries... so why not give Philadelphia a try, right?

Freshii in the space in May 2011 from the Google Streetview Time Machine
                 HAhahahahahahaha. I laugh because Goel Management, the Chicago-based company that handles Freshii's American locations, made the same mistake other big chains sometimes make when they expand into Philly: they staffed the placed with real Philadelphians. After its massive free-food giveaway Grand Opening on January 18th, 2011, the restaurant immediately started going downhill. The Yelp reviews of the place show all the indications of the location getting infected with the classic Philadelphian fast food worker: Reports of super-slow service by asshole workers who couldn't get orders right, the menu options dwindling smaller and smaller as time went on, a lack of freshness to the food, the restaurant itself getting dirtier and drabber over the coming months. All the shit that happens when you have a lazy and incompetent staff that think that if no one is puking all over the place or shitting on the floor, everything must be going just fine.
                  Despite all this, they managed to stay opened for over 2 years, probably because nearby office workers who are somehow unwilling and unable to prepare their own healthy lunch felt forced to come here, thinking this was the only place to get a healthy meal on the outside. They officially closed on October 31st, 2013. What a shame. This was meant to be the first of 30 locations in the Delaware Valley. Guess how many there are now? ZERO.
                Baltimore's, D.C.'s, and Boston's locations of the chain are doing just fine. Hell, the place is even kicking ass in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Westport fucking Connecticut-- but Philadelphia's singular spot couldn't make it. It was that classic Philadelphian incompetence, the same thing that makes our airport suck ass and our fast food locations way worse than their suburban counterparts (which is saying something).
              After the place closed, the folks at the RATR put up a bunch of renderings and text about the new Dilworth Plaza across the street which gives me the hope that MAYBE the city or Center City District is the one leasing the space right now, effectively using it as a billboard. Its gives me the hope that maybe something will open here once the construction it complete. After all, the space doesn't seem to be listed anywhere. Nonetheless, if you are the type of badass that has the ability to jump on a space like this, now's the time.
             This spot gets an unbelievable amount of foot traffic and is soon to be across the street from the newly re-designed Dilworth Plaza, which will hopefully be just as successful as the new Sister Cities Park. The space is directly adjacent to an extremely successful La Colombe coffee location, is right next to City Hall (where lots and lots of people work), a buttload of office buildings (where lots and lots of people work), and the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Directly above live many dangerously wealthy people with tons of disposable income. The space is relatively small but has a huge window frontage and those cool metallic columns in front. What do you have to lose? AGC Realty manages the sales of the condos above, I wouldn't be surprised if they handle the storefront leases as well. Give them a call and get in there before Dilworth Plaza is done! FILL THIS FRONT!!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Butt Fugly Building: Society Hill Club

250 South 5th Street
Better off covered in trees
               Ever wonder why Society Hill is rife with the NIMBYest of NIMBYs? Ever wonder what crawled up their butts and died, causing their souls to be infected with a hate for all new development, big and small? Well, this isn't the definitive reason, but a symptom of that problem. I am talking about the old Society Hill Club, now Philadelphia Sports Clubs. Its story embodies all the fears and anxieties that NIMBYs assume will come with any new development. It, along with the complex its attached to, is a NIMBY-creator.
              First of all, what an ugly bastard. Putting a fancy entrance on a building doesn't mean that the rest of the building will look good. Its a big, doo-doo brown brick box with a bunch of mismatched windows. There's a big-ass flat metal cornice-like decoration thingy at the top that is thankfully covered by the street's trees. As if this ugly bastard wasn't enough, facing the pedestrianized 500 block of Locust Street is this:

                     Back in the early 1970s, a developer simply called "Philadelphia Banker" came along and bought up a huge swath of properties between the Southeast corner of Washington Square and 5th Street owned by the Redevelopment Authority. They promised to build a gigantic mixed-use development that would include townhouses, retail, a parking garage two residential towers, and this, a giant fitness center for the neighborhood. They immediately went about demolishing the shit out of a buttload of historic homes, an ancient firehouse, and the old Heywood Wakefield plant.

Destroyed to make room for the Society Hill Club. These motherfuckers made my coffee table! Image from the PAB.
                  Then, the land remained an empty lot for a few years [NIMBYism intensifies]. Denny Development Corp then took over the project, building the underground parking garage (Washington Garage), the lowrise townhouse part of the project (St. James Court) and the fitness center, the Society Hill Club. All of it was designed by Cope, Linder, and Walmsley (now Cope Linder).
                  When it opened at the end of 1974, this place was considered the fucking shiznit. It featured a state-of-the-art gym, a pool that was both indoor and outdoor, a fancy restaurant called Cobblestones, and offered nude sunbathing on the roof. That's not a joke. The building was also expandable vertically, built to take on a few more floors on top if necessary.
                    On top of being a gym, the Society Hill Club became a quasi-community center, where the Society Hill Civic would meet so that they could vote down whatever great development was coming their way. From here, the SHCA opposed all kinds of wonderful shit for the neighborhood, most famously killing the plan to build the African-American Historical and Cultural Museum of Philadelphia in an empty lot at 6th and Pine, located in the city's oldest black neighborhood. It ended up at 7th and Arch, only to have the federal lock-up built across the street.
                 After this part of the complex was built, the developer handed off the project to a related company called Empire Associates. They sat on it for the next 4 years, making the southeast corner of Washington Square an empty lot and the roof of an underground parking garage [NIMBYism intensifies].
                 Finally, in 1978, Empire came back and got permission from the RDA (despite vociferous opposition from the SHCA) to add more height to the planned towers in order to make the development profitable enough to get built. They also brought in a few other developers to help get it all going (also despite vociferous opposition from the SHCA). Despite promising residents that the construction would not disrupt their peaceful neighborhood, much turmoil was created over the 5 (FIVE!) year construction period.
                First of all, those who relied on the Washington Square Garage for parking got fucked. Not only was there a constant stream of construction vehicles coming in and out, they closed off all the pedestrian entrances, making it only accessible by the vehicle ramps [NIMBYism intensifies]. Then, for that five year period, construction debris fell into the Society Hill Club's pool from the towers, mostly in the form of candy bar wrappers and hoagie remains from the worker's lunches [NIMBYism intensifies]. Moreover, the once sun-drenched pool at the Club was now covered in shadow for most of the day and the nude sunbathing was no longer an option [NIMBYism intensifies].  Once it was all finished in 1986, public art had to be added, so Independence Place, as it came to be known, installed this piece of shit called Total Environment [NIMBYism intensifies]. Meanwhile, the Club, as ugly as it was, kept going strong.

The Society Hill Club in 1987, ugly metal cornice thing now visible. Image from the PAB.
                In 1989, the Club was featured on Good Morning America due to its role in the Rambo Aerobics craze that year (look it up). The same year, the SHCA started to warn the operators of the club that the big ugly fence around their tennis court was starting to get fucked up and should probably be replaced. See that picture of the fence at the top of the post? Obviously it never was [NIMBYism intensifies]. In November of 1990, out of the blue, the Society Hill Club closed with no warning [NIMBYism intensifies].
              After it closed, neighbors held out hope that maybe it was just a temporary closure and they'll be back soon. Then years started to pass [NIMBYism intensifies]. Numerous chain gym operators attempted to lease the place but the owners rejected them time after time for one reason or another [NIMBYism intensifies]. In 1995, a young go-getter named Eric Blumenfeld came along and stated he would buy the place and get it all spruced-up. The deal fell through [NIMBYism intensifies]. By 1997, bums were living in the place and the pool was leaking into the surrounding streets [NIMBYism intensifies].
             Finally, after being shuttered for 7 straight years, developer-hero Hal Wheeler came along and bought the place for $900,000. He renovated the entire building and was able to secure a 15-year lease with Town Sports International, who opened it as a Philadelphia Sports Club in 1998. In 1999, Wheeler flipped the place for 2.2 million to Yaron Properties. In 2007, they sold it to D.C. developer Douglas Properties for 4.65 million, who promised to build out those extra floors from the original plan as residential. Of course, that never happened.
             So you see, this is how NIMBYs are made. A string of broken promises, year after year of vacant lots and/or buildings, and a ton of inconvenience created when the shit finally gets off the ground. No wonder the SHCA makes a career out of rejecting shit.

Evolution of a Society Hill resident.