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

by ilcorago

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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