If you’ve ever taken your eyes off the hunky doormen and looked above the front door at Icandy at 254 S 12th St., you’ve noticed an intriguing inscription on the façade that reads “THE LEONCAVALLO.” Did you ever wonder what Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of “Pagliacci,” has to do with a gay nightclub? Well, here’s the story. . .
AFRICAN-AMERICAN ART at 254
The single building you see now is really two rowhouses that have been joined together; numbers 254 and 256. If you look at the roof line, you’ll see the difference; 254 has a fourth floor. In the 1890s, 254 S 12th St. was home to the William and Emma Warrick family. The Warricks were very successful upper middle class African-American entrepreneurs – they owned one of the first chain of barber shops and beauty salons in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Their daughter, Meta Warrick Fuller, left, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, then in Paris. She became one of the first leading black female sculptors in America, creating powerful pieces that celebrated African-American themes and folktales, below. It’s her state historical marker that you see in front of the building.
GRUESOME TROUBLE AT 256
Around the turn of the last century, number 256, next door, was home to a medical institute that treated “female ailments.” These “ailments” included everything from menstrual cramps to superfluous body hair to unwanted pregnancies. The staff always included female physicians, and long-term patients could board there. There were dozens of these tiny “clinics” all over the city. Dr. Elizabeth Conde, who ran this one, advertised regularly in the Philadelphia Inquirer, below.
In 1904, in a grisly and shocking turn of events, Dr. Conde, whose real name was Elizabeth Ashmead, was arrested along with her son and Matthew McVickers who also worked there. They were charged with multiple counts of malpractice, including covering up the deaths of several young women. Another member of this citywide “syndicate,” David Mosier, gruesomely accused her of disposing of live aborted babies in the basement furnace, below.Both Mosier and Elizabeth Ashmead were convicted. She served three years in Eastern State Penitentiary, emphatically denying all allegations. During the lurid trial, the rest of the infamous Ashmead family had to move out of the 12th Street home to avoid publicity; neighbors and strangers would come by to point at the house and “women shuddered at the sight of its sedate brick walls.” The empty building was broken into several times and plumbing and gas fixtures were stolen. After serving her sentence, Elizabeth Ashmead was caught again at least twice trying to set up “clinics” both in Philadelphia and later in Millville, New Jersey. In 1911 she was convicted of using the mails for illegal purposes in Wilmington, Delaware and was sentenced to five years in the Kansas State Penitentiary. That’s the last we see of Ashmead, aka Dr. Conde, in this area.
THE LEONCAVALLO LINK
For a few years after the Ashmead incident, a hairdresser named “Mme Eve” sold hair preparations and baldness remedies from 256. About 1911, the first floor at 256 became a storefront, going from a private space to a public one. It was soon rented by one of the foremost Italian chefs in the city, Francesco Basta, who had run an Italian restaurant at 605 S 10th Street. It happened that Basta was not only a fan of Italian cuisine, but of Italian opera as well. In 1892, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci was performed for the first time. It was not a critical success, but audiences around the world went wild over it. Tenor Enrico Caruso made the role of the clown Canio his signature role. Chef Basta named his new restaurant after the opera’s popular composer, putting Leoncavallo’s picture on the restaurant’s menus, left. The story that the family tells is that Signor Leoncavallo himself suggested the name to Francesco. The Leoncavallo soon became a very popular rendezvous for singers, artists and musicians. Both Caruso and Leoncavallo dined there. Francesco Basta, right, who had created a space imbued with an aura of warmth, camaraderie and love of music, died in 1917 at age 57. The Basta family would continue to run the business there for another 50 years. At the time of Frank’s death the resaurant only occupied the building at 256 S 12th. Below is a rare picture from the Temple University archives of the Leoncavallo from about 1912, before the two buildings were joined together and the new façade put on:
The plate glass window at 256 reads “Original Leoncavallo Restaurant, Frank Basta, Cook.” The simple sign readings “GOWNS” in the window of 254 advertises the dressmaker who lived there.
■ 254 S 12th St. has such a long, interesting history that I will continue the story in another post. Next time: “Icandy, Part II: The Swinging Sixties and Beyond”