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: October, 2012

Straight Snapshot: An Empty Lot That’s Full of Stories

We rarely think about the negative spaces in the fabric of a neighborhood: those odd gaps between buildings that now hold only a dumpster or two, or the countless generic parking lots surrounded by chain link fences and guarded by boom gates. They weren’t always there; all the utilatarian, asphalt covered lots around the Gayborhood once had other lives and told other stories. Many Philadelphia parking lots date from the 1930s and 1940s, when the increasing number of private cars made it profitable to tear down expensive-to-maintain buildings, leaving the city pockmarked with empty lots for parking. Often meant to be temporary, most lots have lived on for sixty, seventy and eighty years; they require little investment and provide a high return.

NE CORNER: LOCUST & 13th STREETS

The E-Z Park lot on the northeast corner of Locust and 13th Streets has been there so long, it’s hard to imagine walking down Locust St. without getting a glimpse of Voyeur nightclub peeking out from St. James Street. During the day, the space is filled with the cars of shoppers and workers in the nearby offices. At night, it provides parking for theatre-goers and patrons of the Gayborhood’s many bars and restaurants. It’s also a convenient shortcut between Woody’s, Uncles and Voyeur. The lot’s history is bound up with medical pathologies and a plan to provide free books for Philadelphia’s citizens.

CALLING DR. MUTTER

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, founded in 1787,  is the oldest private medical society in America. In 1859, Dr. Thomas D. Mütter, left, the Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Jefferson Hospital, donated his pathology collection to the College. He also added a $30,000 endowment to administer the collection, with the stipulation that the College build a fireproof building to house it within five years. Soon after, they purchased three lots on the northeast corner of 13th and Locust Streets and razed the rowhouses there, creating a parcel sixty feet along Locust St. and a hundred and ten feet along 13th, running back to Centre Street (now St James Street).

For the design of their new home, they hired 22 year old Philadelphia architect James Windrim, who would later design the Masonic Temple on Broad St. and the Academy of Natural Sciences on the Parkway. His plans called for a fairly simple, two story pressed brick structure. In 1883, they added a third story, see photo, above, from about 1900. The first floor would house the Mütter Museum of medical pathologies and a meeting room. On the second floor were a lecture room and the medical library, below. The Inquirer applauded the construction of the new building not only for “elevating the character of Philadelphia, but, for advancing improvements in medical science.”

Even with the added third floor, by 1900 the College had outgrown the space. In 1908, they laid the cornerstone for a new College building and Mütter Museum on 22nd Street. In 1909, they abandoned the Locust Street location and moved to 22nd Street, where they remain today.

MOVING THE FREE LIBRARY

The first Free Library of Philadelphia, which had been chartered in 1891, opened in 1894 in three rooms in the southwestern part of City Hall. The rooms were so small that patrons couldn’t browse the shelves, they had to call for books at the front desk. In only a few months, it was obvious that the City Hall space wasn’t large enough. Early in 1895, the Library moved its 20,000 volumes to the old Concert Hall at 1219-1221 Chestnut Street, holding a grand opening on Washington’s Birthday. The Free Library was to stay there for fifteen years. When it needed to expand again, the Trustees looked to the former College of Physicians building at Locust and 13th, see ad, right. The Inquirer argued that although location was not as central, the new building would have much more space for collections. In addition, it was near the Historical Society which was diagonally across the street and the Library Company which was a half block up Locust at Juniper. The paper speculated that Locust St. might become a new, if temporary, literary center of the city; temporary, because plans were already being discussed for a new central library building on the unfinished Fairmount Parkway. The photo, below, is of the 13th Street Free Library in 1916. In the background at the left, you can now see the majestic St. James Hotel, which had opened in 1901 on the southeast corner of 13th and Walnut Streets. The photo, above left, is of the Free Library’s Children’s Department, located two doors east at 1233 Locust St.

In 1929, the Free Library did, in fact, move to a new home on the Parkway where it is today. Soon after, the 67 year old building at Locust and 13th Streets was torn down and within a year cars were parked on the spot, see photo, left, from 1931. Locust Street, of course, never became a literary center, but developed into an entertainment district after World War II, full of nightclubs and musical bars. By the 1960s, those nightclubs had begun to decline into seedy showbars and finally, strip clubs. Perhaps the corner stayed a parking lot simply because it wasn’t a very desirable neighborhood to build in any more. The photo, below, is from 1959, looking at the wall at the east end of the lot.

In the 1970s, a flurry of urban rehab activity changed the face of the north side of Locust between Camac and the 13th St. lot.  1331 and 1231 Locust were razed and rebuilt and 1335, Lombardi’s Musical Bar in the photo, above, was torn down to expand the lot. Only 1227 and 1229 were left of the original buildings.

The new building at 1333 Locust, where the Philadelphia FIGHT and the AIDS Library are now, provides a large, blank  western wall which serves as a canvas for “Philadelphia Muses,” above. The mural was done in 1999 by Meg Saligman for the Mural Arts program as a tribute to the nearby Avenue of the Arts. Many of the characters represented in the mural are local community members; Opera Company director Craig Hamilton, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Meredith Rainey and Philadanco’s Kim Y. Bears among them. Today, they all  look down from that wall onto the busy Gayborhood corner, transforming that dreary, 80 year old parking lot into what Saligman calls “a fantastical artscape.”

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. . . and what about the Venture Inn?

There are probably more stories about the history of the Venture Inn at 255 S Camac St. than about any other gay bar in Philadelphia. The stories run like this: “It was the stable of the house owned by the Barrymores,” “It was part of the Underground Railroad,”   “It was already a popular eating and drinking spot by the time of the 1876 Centennial.”

What’s the truth?

HAZEL ALLEY

For some reason, the two block length of Camac Street running from Walnut to Spruce was developed by about 1800, much earlier than the surrounding blocks. About 1813, the street appears in directories as Hazel Alley, then a bit later as Dean’s Alley and by the end of that decade as Dean Street. It would remain Dean Street for most of the 19th century, until about 1898, when the hodge podge of street names  in Philadelphia were regularized. It was then renamed Camac, because it was in a line with Camac Street which ran above Master Street in North Philadelphia. I cut down Camac St. whenever I’m walking in the area. It’s a lovely street; most of the row of houses on the north side of Camac between Locust and Spruce Streets date from the early 1820s. The Venture Inn, at 255 S Camac, was originally the stable to 217 Spruce Street and was built a bit later, in the 1830s. In the picture, left, from 1900, the Renaissance-inspired circular relief of the infant on the northern wall that we still see today is visible. It’s copied from decorations on the 1419 Ospedale degli Innocenti orphanage in Florence. I’d love to know why it’s there and when it was put on.

Let’s start with the Barrymore legend. The story seems date back to an article that appeared in the 1937 WPA Guide to Philadelphia. The Guide stated that John Barrymore’s grandparents, Louisa and John Drew, lived at 255 S Camac St. in the 1850s. There are problems with that. Not only was 255 definitely still a stable then, but city directories list the Drews as living further north, on Buttonwood Street, in that period. Perhaps the story had something to do with the nearby Barrymore Apartments at 238 Camac Street, which were built around the time the Guide was written. No Barrymores ever lived there, either.

• • •

CAMAC STREET UNDERGROUND

In the 1850s and early 1860s, when the Underground Railroad was most active, 1217 Spruce Street and the stable behind were owned by the Harrison family, who were well-to-do manufacturers of chemicals and the white lead used in paint, above. The grandfather Thomas Harrison, was indeed a Quaker and a member of the abolitionist society in Philadelphia. The photo, left, is of his grandson Thomas, who was living at 1217 Spruce St. in the late 1850s. Was he or the family involved with hiding fugitive slaves? Possibly; but there are several things to consider. First, although all Quakers were abolitionists, only a small minority of Quaker families were ever involved in the Underground Railroad. Second, despite the use of the term “underground,” the network usually did not involve actual tunnels like those that exist on Camac Street. There are many tunnels scattered throughout Center City. The fact is that most of them were used to hide illegal Prohibition hooch and not fugitive slaves. Lastly, by the 1850s, the Harrisons were two generations removed from their abolitionist grandfather. All of that being said, if there is a link between the Venture Inn building and the Underground Railroad network, the most likely one would be through the Harrison family.

A RECTORY

From 1889 to 1902, 1217 Spruce Street was the home of Civil War veteran Reverend Leverett Bradley. The Rev. Bradley, right, was the rector of St. Luke’s Church a block away on 13th St. In 1898, under his rectorship, the parish of St. Luke combined with the congregation of the Church of the Epiphany on Chestnut and 15th Streets to become the gay-friendly Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany that we know today.

After the ill Rev. Bradley moved out in 1902, the former Spruce St. rectory became home to Dr. Ernest Kelsey and his two daughters who entertained there regularly, giving afternoon teas and luncheons to other families listed in Philadelphia society’s “Blue Book.” From here on the story of the house and the stable diverge.

TEA ROOM, GARDENS & BOOKSTORE

By 1911, the stable behind the Spruce Street house had its own address: 255 S Camac St. Inquirer employment ads appear that year that read “Laundresses, housemaids waiters and cooks wanted. Miss Platz at the German Scandinavian Office at 255 S Camac, between 12th and 13th.” Miss Platz ran her employment service for white Protestants there until the fall of 1916.

In 1919, entrepreneur Blanche L. James opened 255 S Camac St. as the Venture Tea Room. This is the first time that the building houses any kind of restaurant. The postcard, below, from the Free Library’s collection,  shows the interior of the Venture Tea Room and Art Shop in the early 1920s.

It’s possible that the post card ended up in the Free Library collection because the Special Libraries Council of Philadelphia regularly dined there before their meetings. Tea rooms in the 1920s were places run by independent, short skirt wearing “new” women who could show off both their self-reliance and their Bohemian flair, selling handcrafted bric-a-brac, antiques and curiosities along with tea and dainty cucumber luncheon sandwiches. From 1925 on, Blanche partnered with Corinne Meyers and Rose Kessler, running the Venture Bookshop, Gardens and Tea Room a block north at 201 S Camac, (the building that later became the Camac Baths.) A 1928 tourist guide book called it “A Droll Little Building in White.”

THE VENTURE INN

In 1931, now owned by George and Helen Cappo, the restaurant was first advertised as the Venture Inn. After World War II it is run by Dick Nolan and, like so many other small restaurants and bars in the Washington West area, it was a “musical bar,” serving up food, drinks and live entertainment. The featured pianist there through the 1940s was Temple graduate Charles Swierleft, top row, second from the right, who sang with a vocal trio called “The Three Dandies,” wrote several musical comedies with Beaumont Breustle and had a show on KYW radio with vocalist Patti Marsh.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the Venture Inn became a Center City hangout for college age kids, see photo below, right from 1951. Interviews I’ve conducted with older gay men from the William Way Center’s “Silver Foxes” confirm that fact. In 1962, a Philadelphia Magazine article about Philadelphia’s gay subculture called “The Furtive Fraternity,”  listed the Venture Inn among the bars in the city which were places that homosexuals frequented. This was the first mention I’ve found of the Venture Inn as having any gay clientele.

THE INN COMES OUT

In 1973 the Venture Inn went from being a “gay friendly” bar to being a gay bar, when it was bought by Hans Lang, who had previously owned The Midway on 12th Street, which is iCandy today. See an early ad for the Venture Inn, above. Since 1973, the Venture Inn has been well known both as a gay bar and a restaurant.

In May of 1977, the business came under the ownership of Ted Wasserman, photo left, Ted’s in the center. Ted would operate the Inn for the next 30 years. By 2000 both the building and the clientele were beginning to show their age and the Venture got a reputation as attracting an “older crowd.” In 2004, rumors floated around that Ted was looking to sell. The business didn’t change hands until 2007, when Bob Berkowitz, the present owner, took over. Bob brought in a new kitchen staff and got the place and the business back on its feet – in 2008, the Venture Inn won the Philadelphia Rainbow Award for best Bar/Pub.

The stucco façade of the Venture Inn has just been totally refurbished and painted a medium gray with a new navy blue awning over the door. It really looks great; it’s worth a walk down charming Camac Street just to see.

• • •

So, what’s the truth?

The Venture Inn does have a long and unique history; not a Barrymore in sight, but, yes,  possibly an Underground Railroad connection. In any case, I doubt that any other U.S. city can boast a gay bar that’s tucked a way on a 200 year old side street and is housed in a building that had been a stable to Quaker abolitionists and a Prohibition era tea room.

• You can see the fifteenth century Andrea della Robbia terracotta tondi on the loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti here.

A Home for the Community Center Part III

WWCC Door

In this, the third and last part of the story of t 1315 Spruce St., two buildings become one and later on Philadelphia ‘s LGBT Center finally gets its own home.

A BEAUTY MAKEOVER

In 1929, after 22 years at the Spruce St. location, rather than move again, the Engineers Club decided to undertake major renovations and remodelling to make the two very different buildings’ exteriors reflect their interior usage. The picture, left, was taken in August of 1929, right before this makeover, when the  Club occupied the two buildings with awnings in the center.  Since the window levels on both buildings were different, they chose to entirely rebuild the front, rather than to just reface the old façades.  The architectural style they chose was Colonial Revival, which had become very popular after the country’s sesqui-centennial in 1926. The work was begun in late 1929, not long after the photo above was taken, and completed by the end of the year.

The result is shown at the right. Moving the entrance to the center gave a pleasing, symmetrical dignity to the façade. The matching pair of buildings on each side adds to the effect. Compared with the previous picture taken only a few months before, the transformation was incredible. New windows were installed and both old entrances were sealed off. The eastern 1315 entrance was not to reappear until fire codes required it in the 1960s. The front lobby space was entirely opened up, with only one supporting column where the old dividing wall had been between the two buildings. You can compare the new 1929 plan of the first floor, below, with the 1917 plan shown below in Part II.

THE 1930s: A GENTLEMAN’S CLUB

The three pictures below were taken for insurance purposes in the ’30s. You can almost smell the leather and cigar smoke.

The club’s dining room, which is today’s Philadelphia Room.

The lobby and the Library alcove used for exhibit space now.

The rear main stairway and the fireplace that once graced the corner to the left of the dining room entrance.

THE 1940s AND 1950s

Renovations and improvements were continually made on the now hundred year old structure. The kitchen was renovated and new refrigeration added in 1945 and in 1948 the booths were installed in the bar downstairs. The building next door at 1319 had been torn down in the late 1930s and was already being used as a parking lot by the Burlington Apartments. In the mid-1940s the Club had to add reinforcements to the exposed west wall and paid to have the parking lot resurfaced to stop leaks into the basement of the club building.

In the late 1950s, there were still dormitory rooms for members for rent on the third and fourth floors and the basement bar continued to be a money-maker. The club looked once more into purchasing the 1319 lot, but it was not available. They turned their energies into re-doing the lobby and hired interior designers from Wanamakers to repaint, slipcover the furniture and add new rugs. A few floral prints were even added to the Ladiesʼ Reception Room to soften the “institutional effect.” The Society of Women Engineers, which was formed in 1950, affiliated in 1959, but the first woman did not join the Engineersʼ Club of Philadelphia until 1961. By 1969 there were 5 women members.

THE 1960s: MAKING YOUR HOME GAY

Throughout the 1960s, the Engineers continued to update the heating, lighting and cooling systems. When they decided to refurbish the public areas again they turned to socialite New York decorator, Dorothy Draper, left.

Dorothy Draper was the first woman in America to head her own interior design firm. Her style and use of color were big, brash and bold, using traditional elements in a grandiose, somewhat shocking manner. In 1939, she had published “Decorating is Fun!: How to be Your Own Decorator,” the first do-it-yourself interior design book.

Draper had been the darling of the wealthy Rittenhouse set in Philadelphia in the 1930s and ʻ40s. When the engineers hired her she was in her 70s, but still writing a syndicated home design advice column called “Ask Dorothy Draper.” The article below appeared in 1962. . . little did she know!

THE 1970s & 1980s

The last pictures we have of the clubhouse when it belonged to the engineers are from a brochure they published about 1979, just after the centennial of the Club. Below are some photos from that brochure. You can compare them with the 1930s pictures, above.

The Philadelphia Room. Red, white and brown galore.

The front lobby. Even MORE red carpeting.

The basement bar. Cocktails, anyone?

In the 1980s, the Engineers decided that the building was too large for them. They moved out in 1989, first, to temporary quarters in the Public Ledger Building on 6th and Chestnut Streets, then, to their present home at the Racquet Club on 16th Street. 1315 Spruce Street would remain vacant for 7 years. The company that owned the building wanted to demolish the huge old  building, and turn the space into a parking lot. They got permission to tear down the club, but not for the parking lot idea.

THE WILLIAM WAY COMMUNITY CENTER 1996 –

Since 1990, the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia, or Penguin Place, as it was then known, had been housed in a space at 201 Camac St. After years of renting less than ideal spaces around Center City and even existing as “The Center without Walls,”  the center committee had begun the search for a permanent building. The photos below are from a 1993 appraisal of the old Engineersʼ Club as a suitable new home for the Center. The building had only been empty 4 years, but the neglect was showing.

The lobby.

The Pennsylvania Room, tattered red carpet and all.

In 1996 the board approved the purchase of the building, and named it in honor of board member William Way, who had died of AIDS in 1988. Bill Way had embodied the spirit that kept the Community Center alive through the ʻ80s when it was “Penguin Place, the Community Center without Walls.” The William Way Community Center has flourished here for over 15 years now, at 1315 Spruce Street, the first building the community has owned.

For more information on the story of this building and block, stop by the Willam Way Community Center and ask at the desk to see the booklet “1315-1317 Spruce Street; A Brief History.”