The Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the dramatic diagonal boulevard that cuts through Philly, is celebrating its centennial this year. Yet it seems so ingrained in the urban fabric of Philadelphia that it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.
“Philadelphians don’t have a sense, generally, that the Parkway was a big change,” says David Brownlee, a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania. “They sort of think it was always there.”
Jacques Gréber’s design of what was initially called Fairmount Parkway (later renamed in 1937 after one of Philadelphia’s most beloved residents) was excused by its early 20th century planners for slicing into the grid plan originally envisioned by William Penn. The grand promenade’s deviation was permitted because it was designed to serve a lofty purpose: Namely, to connect Center City with Fairmount Park and house the city’s premier cultural institutions.
But the area that became Benjamin Franklin Parkway post-Civil War was far from a blank slate. No one is quite sure of the exact sum total, but guesstimates place the number of buildings demolished to clear way for the Parkway somewhere between 1,300 and 2,000. These structures included rowhomes, schools, churches, and industrial buildings that collectively employed thousands of Philadelphians.
The mass demolition was justified by a combination of factors, explains Brownlee, who is currently writing the second edition of his seminal book about the Parkway’s history, Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“It was a relatively new area and it was a relatively unglamorous, mixed-industrial and residential area,” he says. “People were compensated pretty darn well for what was taken, and not to forget—there was a bold and shiny, new vision of what it could be.”
Demolition began ceremoniously in February 1907 with the removal of a brick from the chimney of 422 North 22nd Street, and continued for a decade preceding the official beginning of construction on the Parkway in 1917.
According to Rob Armstrong, the preservation and capital projects manager of Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department, creating an urban park of the Parkway’s magnitude would be impossible today.
“I don’t know of any other big city in the U.S. that has demolished so much of its taxable, valuable properties for the purpose of creating a park,” Armstrong says.
Shiny vision or not, the Parkway nevertheless displaced innumerable individuals, enterprises, and institutions. The 10 demolished buildings illustrated here represent small sampling of structures (and their stories) turned to dust in the Parkway’s midst.
Demo begins, brick by brick
On February 22, 1907, a “For Rent” sign still hung between the first floor windows of the rowhouse at 422 North 22nd Street, taunting the recently evicted residents of the block. Nobody would be renting an apartment at that address ever again.
Announcements in the press forewarned residents that director of Public Works, John R. Hathaway, would be removing a brick from the chimney of 422 North 22nd Street that day, as the beginning of “the work of tearing down buildings along the route of the Parkway.”
He came armed with a ceremonial pick, photographers, and a group of elegantly dressed Parkway supporters to memorialize the event. The selected date, George Washington’s birthday, was intended to add a certain fanfare to the demolition as well.
The row of adjoining houses that spanned from 420 to 426 North 22nd Street was owned by Elizabeth Gerche, and purchased by the City of Philadelphia for $16,000 on September 4, 1907. Gerche received her buy-out more than six months after the buildings were razed.
According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article from February, 1907, Hathaway of the Public Works intended to preserve that first brick “as a souvenir of the inaugural step in the physical construction of this thoroughfare.” It is unclear whether he did, and if so, where the brick is today.
A mayor’s personal loss
When Rudolph Blankenburg was elected the mayor of Philadelphia in 1911, he knew that one of the functions of his new role would be to ensure the demo of his own townhouse at 214 W. Logan Square. The luxurious, extra-wide marble residence had been home to Rudolph and his wife, Lucretia Mott Longshore, since 1894.
Lucretia came from a Quaker family that staunchly advocated for women’s equality. At the invitation of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia got involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and was president of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association between 1892 and 1908. When Rudolph was Philadelphia’s mayor, she was widely referred to as his “co-mayor.”
The couple’s home was eventually purchased by the City in 1918, and the Blankenburg’s were awarded damages in the sum of $59,000. Today, the site faces Logan Square.
A school for all trades
The Parkway’s pedestrian boulevard passes right through what was once the Thomas Wood School, at the corner of 23rd and Shamokin Streets. Originally called the Livingstone School, its name was changed in 1899 to honor a longtime member of Philadelphia’s Board of Education.
At the time, it was one of only five Philadelphian schools to offer a summer school. This program differed from the academic year curriculum and taught students real-life skills, such as cooking, housekeeping, and sewing for the girls, and carpentry, clay modeling, and drawing from nature for the boys.
An iron foundry for the railroad industry
The unusual display of decorative ironwork at the Barnes Foundation may have appeared much more at home in the iron foundry of the Bement, Miles & Co. factory that once occupied the nearby 2000 block of Callowhill Street.
The factory was designed, at least in part, by Wilson Brothers & Company, prolific architects and engineers during that period who were also responsible for designing Reading Terminal. By 1891, the factory building included a foundry, woodworking shop, storeroom, and pattern maker shop, and employed about 700 hands.
The machine tool and steam hammer manufacturing company saw many evolutions and various owners in the late 19th century, but the enterprise first began as a small engraving business in 1848 owned by Elijah D. Marshall. But it was William B. Bement, a designer and son of a blacksmith, who proved instrumental in leading the firm to its eventual success as a major producer of machinery for the railroad industry.
Where wagons were made
When Joseph F. Michell immigrated to Philadelphia from his native Switzerland at the young age of 16, he could not have imagined that he would become one of the city’s premier wagon builders, as well as the first Philadelphian to drive a four-in-hand brake. By the age of 21, he was a partner in the carriage-designing firm of Michell, Schwarz & Keachline.
Michell would spend more than three decades as a vehicle manufacturer, eventually opening his own firm at 2215 Callowhill Street, Joseph F. Michell & Son. It’s unclear which of his two sons joined him in business, but it would have been up to that Mr. Michell to deal with the eventual demolition of the company building. Joseph died of heart disease upon entering his workplace while the building was still standing, on September 24, 1913.
No saving grace for a church
The modest Protestant Episcopal Church of the Redemption, built in the Gothic style, was consecrated in April 1851 following a four-year construction period. The church was ornamented with an open porch, belfry, stained glass windows, and pointed roof. Its interior could seat around 500 worshippers.
Among these church-goers were the family members of Alexander Crow, Sr., the founding owner of Caledonia Carpet Mills, a short distance away. Crow’s own funeral services were held there on a Saturday morning in October 1889, and attended by his extended family and employees.
The city officially purchased the church’s structure on July 5, 1912 and paid the congregation $37,400 in damages. During the church’s last service on June 30, 1912, parishioners came from all over the city to worship there one last time before the congregation moved to West Philadelphia and merged with St. Anna’s Mission.
Caledonia Carpet Mills
Despite the impressive size of both the Caledonia Carpet Mills’ factory and staff (roughly 600 hands), the ingrain and Damask carpet manufacturer was essentially a neighborhood enterprise. Built between 1875 and 1886 on the 2200 block of Linn Street, the Mills were founded by Alexander Crow, Sr. who lived a couple blocks away at 2129 Spring Garden.
Crow and his son, Alexander Crow, Jr. (who in addition to inheriting the family carpet business was elected Sheriff of Philadelphia in 1896), were known as generous bosses. As early as 1880 the Crows’ made a tradition of treating the firm’s entire workforce to an annual, all expense paid, summer excursion to Cape May, complete with transportation, live entertainment, and meals.
Crow, Jr. must have seen the writing on the wall when demolition of the first building to make way for the Parkway took place near their factory. He held a public sale of their machinery soon after, on March 20, 1907. The following year, he was awarded damages in the amount of $310,000 by the City of Philadelphia for the destruction of his mills (less than half of the $698,000 that he originally claimed).
A first for Philly’s med schools
In the mid-19th century, Philadelphia was a prominent center for medical training. As the city’s first medical school to offer a three-year course leading to a medical degree, Medico-Chirurgical College played an important role in training the city’s young physicians, dentists, and pharmacists.
After operating out of the second floor of a bank on Market Street for several years, in 1886 Medico-Chirurgical College moved to a building on the north side of Cherry Street between 17th and 18th streets. It eventually expanded to become a six-building complex, and included a hospital, clinics, dispensary, amphitheater, and a laboratory. It enrolled many as 700 students and a had 143-person faculty by 1909.
Its now-demolished campus was designed by well-known Philadelphian architects, including John T. Windrim and Frank Miles Day.
Star Alpaca Braid Works
The site of the Eakins Oval was once associated with a different shape: a trademark star. The S.B. & B.W. Fleisher factory that produced “Star” Alpaca Braids, a dressmaking material, was located there among several other textile manufacturers.
The Star Braid Works occupied the width of a city block on 25th Street between Buttonwood and Hamilton Streets. Also part of the enterprise was a nearby building along the Schuylkill Banks, which now the site of Paine’s Park, a popular skateboarding park.
An advertisement printed by “Star” Alpaca Braids around 1890 boasted that the company had over 7,000 signatures of recommendation from dressmakers across the United States. Several local dressmakers were listed as evidence, as well as a statement that the braids “are made of the very best materials, with the greatest care and efficient workmanship, and upon the most improved machinery.”
The largest ice plant in the world
In an era before electric refrigeration, many homes relied on daily ice deliveries to preserve fresh food. By the 1840s, Philadelphians were using 30 tons of ice—daily.
Companies like the Knickerbocker Ice Company emerged to satisfy this increasing demand. Knickerbocker became a Philly staple soon after its formation in the early 1840s, and by 1894 the company employed several thousand men who harvested, stored, shipped, and distributed ice. By 1889, Knickerbocker’s ice plant at 22nd and Hamilton Streets was among the largest of its kind in the world.
Knickerbocker’s objections to the demolition of their prized plant did not dissipate without a fight. In January 1908, the city awarded the company $250,000 in damages, among the highest prices paid for any structure along the Parkway’s intended route.