The Philadelphia Gayborhood Guru

Stories of how Philadelphia's Gayborhood came to be, featuring photos, artifacts and documents from the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives.

Month: September, 2012

A Home for the Community Center: Part II

This is the second part of the story of the building at 1315 Spruce St., in the heart of Philadelphia’s Gayborhood,  that houses the William Way Community Center and its splendid “Pride and Progress” mural.

THE ENGINEERS ARRIVE

In 1907, the Engineers’ Club of Philadelphia on Girard Street, (now Ludlow), was looking for a larger space to use as a clubhouse. The club had been formed in 1877, sparked by the meeting of engineers from all over the world at the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park the year before. In November of 1907, they purchased the old Potts residence at 1317 Spruce St. for $55,000, see newsapaper clipping, right. They entirely renovated it, putting in a smoking room, dining room, and library on the first floor, an assembly room on the second floor and a rathskeller and billiards room in the basement. The third and fourth floors were divided into small residences for the members. Most of these are offices today.

The Engineers’ Club held its first meeting in their new home in December of 1907, which also marked its 30th anniversary. The photo, left, shows the old Potts building with its second floor central bay window. To the left is the edge of 1319, which is where the parking lot now, and to the right is 1315, which has since been rebuilt. These two buildings show us what the entire original row of 1840s houses on Spruce St. looked like. Of those original rowhouses only 1305, 1309 and 1311 remain today.

The restaurant, where todayʼs Philadelphia Room is, opened in 1909.  At this time membership was all male, and only male wait staff was used in the dining room. A sign in the rathskeller indicated “Wines and liquors will not be served to ladies unless accompanied by members.”

THE CLUB EXPANDS

Membership continued to increase over the next ten years and the club rented out offices in the building to other allied oganizations, much as the WWCC does today. Once again, they needed more space. The engineers were able to negotiate with the owners of 1315 Spruce and began to raise money to purchase that building. The photo, above, shows the second floor assembly room, spanning only three windows instead of today’s six, set up for the campaign to raise money to purchase the building next door. It was, in fact, the need for a larger assembly room that had been the major factor in deciding to expand.

In 1917, they did combine the two buildings. The plan was to carry out much of the initial work in a few weeks, to make the first and second floors as useful as soon as possible, see original plans, above.  You can see the new parlor and lounging room for the men and a new “ladies’ dining rooom” – this was still very much an all male club. One of the problems was that the floor levels between 1315 and 1317 were no longer even since 1317 had been entirely rebuilt by Mr. Potts. Importantly, the second floor renovation would double the size of the assembly room, allowing for a projection booth – very high tech for 1917. The engineersʼ Proceedings mentioned the difficulty in finding a steel beam that would span the third floor floor, allowing for an assembly room without support columns. (This is the same beam everyone needs to climb over today to get from the elevator to the third floor offices).

The picture, left, was taken in August of 1929. The Engineersʼ Club space now occupied the two very different looking buildings with awnings in the center. To the left, most of 1319 is also visible, and to the far right the Lenox Apartments, which had been constructed in 1917. It still doesn’t look at all like the building we see today.

Next time: A Beauty Makeover

SOURCES:

The information and the photos here came from many places, among them :

– The amazing collection at the John J. Wilcox Jr. GLBT Archives at the William Way Center
– Microfilm of The Philadelphia Inquirer at the Free Library
– The Engineers’ Club papers and journals at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
– City Directories, Atlases and Boyd’s Philadelphia Blue Books, 1880-1920
– Ray Fuller’s Through the Years, a history of the Engineers’ Club published in 1970

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A Home for the Community Center: Part I


When the William Way Community Center officially opened at 1315 Spruce Street on July 1, 1997, it had already been through four rented homes and a four year incarnation as “Penguin Place, the Community Center Without Walls.”  This would be the first building that it owned, a building with a long, wonderful history that connects it with the broader story of the growth of the city.

SPECULATIVE DEVELOPMENT ON SPRUCE

You can see from the 1842 map, left, that the block on the north side of Spruce between 13th Street and Juniper, all within the red circle,  was still vacant.  It wasn’t built up with  a string of identical “Philadelphia rowhouses” until the late 1840s.  The developer then sold off the individual units one by one, much as developers do with condo units today. Ads posted in the Inquirer called them “finished in very handsome modern style, and replete with all the modern improvements and conveniences.”  All of them had “L” shaped additions on the back to house kitchens. Just to the north, facing Locust Street, was the large estate and garden of General Patterson.  His mansion, below, seen looking southeast, would serve as the first home of the Historical Society at the SW corner of Locust and 13th Streets. It’s strange to see this large open space in the center of the crowded Gayborhood where the Historical Society, the Library Company and a few businesses fill out the block today.

THE FIRST RESIDENTS

The “handsome, modern” row of houses on Spruce would be sold off one by one to  solid, middle to upper-middle class Philadelphians: doctors, lawyers, civil engineers and merchants. Their respected names would all appear in the Philadelphia Blue Book published toward the end of the century. The dwelling at 1315 Spruce was sold to Benjamin Etting, a Jewish China trade merchant and a relation of educator and philanthropist Rebecca Gratz. Next door, to the west, at 1317, was John B. Budd a prosperous importer and exporter of goods with the Carribean who fed Union soldiers there during the Civil War. On the property map, right, from 1875, Etting’s name is mispelled as “E. Wing.” It’s these two rowhouses that would be combined in the next century to make the present home of the William Way Center. The home of Reading Railroad engineer Moncure Robinson at 1319 is now the parking lot which the “Pride and Progress” mural faces.

Benjamin Etting died in 1875 at the age of 80 and not long after 1315 Spruce was sold to B. Maurice Gaskill, publisher, merchant and University of Pennsylvania  graduate. John Budd at 1317 had died in 1868, and his widow remained there until her death in 1891.

IRON MAGNATE CHARLES W. POTTS

The property at 1317 was then bought by Charles W. Potts, above, who owned a large steel and iron business that his father, W.F. Potts, had built.  Charles and his wife tore the original building down and constructed a larger,  grander and “more modern”  house, which became popularly  known as “The Potts Mansion.” This explains the grand staircase and the decorative woodwork on the west side of the lobby of the building, the 1317 side.  For the next ten years, the Potts’ social life was faithfully recorded in the society pages of the Inquirer; they gave teas, dinners and dances and traveled to Europe. When Charles died of a stroke in 1904, the list of art works from his estate that were auctioned off attested to his wealth and prominence. You can click on the newspaper clipping, left, to see a more detailed description of the Potts estate sale. After his death, the building would lie empty for three years.

Next time: The Engineers arrive.