Q: Tom, you call yourself an “amateur historian.” What sparked your passion for writing about “Forgotten Philadelphia”?
A: When I wrote Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries in 2003, I realized how many vanished rural cemeteries featured wonderful Victorian architecture. For instance, what is now Temple University Parking Lot #1 was once Monument Cemetery, with a monumental Gothic gatehouse by architect-engraver John Sartain. Shortly after that book was published, I received a copy of Nathan Silver’s Lost New York, first published in 1967. I learned that Silver’s book had inspired several other “Lost” books (for Boston, London, New Orleans), but not one for Philadelphia.
Q: The book shows how “landmarks” in the Philadelphia area became “landfill” over time. What kind of research did you do to excavate the stories of these forgotten (or in some cases, should-be-forgotten) places? Looking at photos of Rittenhouse Square 1865, or sketches of colonial Philadelphia are fascinating glimpses into history.
A: Philadelphia is blessed with several libraries and repositories that have incredible visual and written records of the city throughout its history. My main sources were the Library Company of Philadelphia, Urban Archives of Temple University, Athenaeum of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I also had access to some wonderful private and commercial collections, such as the Philadelphia Print Shop in Chestnut Hill.
Q: Philadelphia, you write in your introduction, has well, let’s call it an “appetite for destruction.” What prompted all of the razing in the city? Is Philadelphia really known as one of the biggest destroyers?
A: Philadelphia’s growth from its founding until the early 20th century was exponential—from fewer than 25,000 inhabitants during the Revolution to more than two million in 1950. During Philadelphia’s peak growth period, the 19th century, its population increased by 30-40% per decade. Given this kind of growth, destruction was inevitable, especially in congested Center City. What amazes me is how much actually survived! We probably have more colonial and Federal structures than any other U.S. city, and we’re one of the top five cities in terms of 19th century architecture..
Q: You structure the book chronologically, and end with a chapter on “Projected Philadelphia” which explains places like the “Chestnut Hill-Main Line Parkway” that were conceived but never created. Why did you choose this approach?
A: I really wanted to explore the relationship between the city’s history and the creation and destruction of its architecture. This made a chronological narrative the most logical approach. You can’t understand the rise and fall of Broad Street Station without understanding the growth and decline of railroads and manufacturing in Philadelphia. The last chapter, “Projected Philadelphia,” came about because I believe that you can tell as much about a society by its unfulfilled wishes—the structures it planned but never achieved—as you can by its existing and lost architecture.
Q: There are many important sites to talk about. Ben Franklin’s Slate Roof House, for example, which is famous but also the lesser known Palumbo’s nightclub-restaurant complex, and even the contemporary white elephant that was NewMarket. What criteria did you use for including an entry?
A: I used a modified version of the guidelines used to nominate structures to the National Register of Historic Places:
1. Outstanding examples of American architectural design;
2. Examples of design by noted architects;
3. Introduced major architectural or technical innovations;
4. Crucial to the city’s political, industrial, economic, or social history;
5. Associated with notable Philadelphians;
6. Representatives of a class of structure that played a major role in Philadelphia’s history;
7. Marked important shifts in the city’s history.
And, of course, some were just plain fun—who could resist the giant Liberty Bell studded with thousands of light bulbs that marked the entrance to the ill-fated 1926 Sesqui-Centennial (the book’s cover illustration)?
Q: William Penn, founder of Philadelphia was a visionary, you write, adding that he soon “ran headlong into reality” when trying to plan the city. In your estimation, do you think he did a good job, and that he laid a strong foundation for Philadelphia?
A: I think Penn’s high expectations for his city created a dynamic tension between vision and reality that haunts Philadelphia today, more than most American cities. Yet when many people think of Philadelphia, they think of the original city laid out by Penn and featured in Thomas Holme’s map 325 years ago: the grid between Vine and South Streets, with one central square and four secondary squares. Today, this is still Center City, home to the municipal government, and to most of our major businesses, civic organizations, and cultural institutions.
Q: The city was in part, modeled on Europe, and parts in particular, on Paris—e.g., the Parkway being a local Champs-Élysées. What can you explain about the urban planning and how it paved the way/was paved over time?
A: William Penn laid out Philadelphia using a grid pattern, the most advanced urban planning of the day. It was meant to eliminate the worst features of medieval European towns—the narrow alleys and closely packed houses that bred disease and fire. It was also a visual embodiment of the Age of Reason: straight lines, symmetry, rational order. Philadelphia adhered to this grid as it expanded, except for the old, diagonal Indian trails that became roads like Germantown Avenue. This irritated some European visitors like Charles Dickens, who bemoaned the city’s boring regularity. It wasn’t until the City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century that city planners tried to break away from the grid with grand boulevards like the Parkway. Yet we’ve never escaped Penn’s original plan—even Philadelphia’s greatest city planner, Edmund Bacon, tended to reinforce Penn’s grid rather than reinvent it!
Q: You include many theatres, churches and municipal buildings. Are there any trends you detected in how the city changed/transformed?
A: The 19th century was the age of great public architecture in Philadelphia. Not just civic structures like City Hall, but great train stations, hospitals, almshouses, churches, schools, markets—Philadelphia announcing that it was a world-class city. Then, in the early 20th century, consumer culture blossomed in Philadelphia. Thanks to its manufacturing wealth, the city had a large and prosperous middle class that wanted to be entertained. There was a definite shift away from the “serious” buildings of the 19th century to a proliferation of pleasure palaces: sports arenas like Shibe Park and Municipal Stadium, department stores like Gimbels and the new Wanamaker’s, hotels like the Bellevue-Stratford and Ritz-Carlton, movie theaters, amusement parks, public swimming pools, and so on.
Q: You certainly have some favorite places highlighted. You write rapturously about the Broad Street Station and the Chinese Wall. What do you miss/wish you had seen/would you like to still see standing today?
A: The Mastbaum, the “Taj Mahal of Philadelphia theaters,” that stood at the northwest corner of 20th and Market Streets. It was Philadelphia’s largest and grandest movie theater, much more elaborate than the surviving Boyd. Imagine going through five vast lobbies, all riots of marble and gold leaf, before entering a 4,700-seat theater. Then, watching the chariot race from Ben Hur on a huge screen while a 200-piece orchestra played the score! And don’t forget live entertainment, including Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, and the Roxyettes, a 48-girl chorus line that was Philly’s answer to the Rockettes. Now that’s entertainment!
Q: What do you think was the biggest gaffe in the destruction of a public or private building in the city?
A: There have been notorious cases of miscommunication between the Historical Commission and the Department of Licenses and Inspections that resulted in the destruction of Benjamin Rush’s birthplace and the Cannon Ball house. But in my mind, the biggest gaffe was the wholesale, officially sanctioned destruction of 19th-century structures in the postwar urban renewal period. “Victorian” became a dirty word in city planners’ minds. We lost some masterpieces of Philadelphia architecture during this period, including the Jayne, Penn Mutual, and Drexel buildings. Not to mention the Guarantee Trust Company and many other examples of Frank Furness’ work.
Q: What building would you most like to see razed today?
A: Tempting as it would be to blow up the Kimmel Center, I’d have to nominate Interstate 95, along the Delaware River, as the structure I would most like to see unbuilt. Not only did this development destroy hundreds of 18th and early 19th-century structures, including a fairly intact neighborhood in Southwark, but it cut Philadelphia off from the Delaware River, its spiritual home. Forty years later, we’re still trying to undo the damage wrought by this highway, and failing. Even if we spend $1 billion plus to bury the rest of it within the Center City area, we will never bring back what’s been lost.
Q: What is so intriguing is that the book shows that it was social, cultural, economic and even political forces that fomented urban change. Was there a particularly good era for architecture?
A: My favorite periods would both be in the 19th century—the generation after 1800, and the generation after the Civil War, when Philadelphia architecture was incredibly vital and inventive. During the first period, Philadelphia was the undisputed center of American architecture. Architects like Benjamin Latrobe, John Haviland, and William Strickland created some of the nation’s greatest buildings: the Centre Square Water Works, Second Bank of the United States, Eastern State Penitentiary, Bank of Pennsylvania, Merchants’ Exchange. Then, after several decades of hibernation, a uniquely Philadelphia architecture emerged after the Civil War in the work of Frank Furness and his competitors. Furness, in particular, brilliantly combined historical elements with the latest technology in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, First Unitarian Church, and the Guarantee Trust.
Q: Of all the possible ways to improve the city’s landscape, what do you recommend?
A: Going back to Interstate 95, I think a serious effort to bury more of the highway, despite its hefty price tag. Anything we can do to reconnect the city to the river and create more open space (not piled high with casinos, night clubs, and big box stores) would make the city more livable for its inhabitants and more attractive to outsiders. Look at what Baltimore, a city afflicted with many of the same urban problems plaguing Philadelphia, has been able to do with its Inner Harbor.