A Home for the Community Center: Part I

by ilcorago

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.


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 “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.


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.