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: December, 2012

Keeping It All in the Family: Part II

Nest logo

This post continues the story of the odd building at the northwest corner of 13th and Locust Streets where Nest and Green Eggs Café are today.

1959 Locust & 13th W

THERE GOES THE GAYBORHOOD

In 1959, when the photo, above, was taken, the south side of the building at 1301 Locust was home to the Eden Roc Supper Club and the Cub Lounge. By now, the top name jazz performers formerly featured at Locust St. venues were giving way to tawdry “all-girl revues.” Many blamed the demise of the music club scene in Philadelphia on the popularity of television in the ’50s. It gave viewers easy access, right in their own homes, to the best talent in the country. On top of that, the downtowns of many American cities began to decay as the push to the suburbs began in earnest after World War II. To survive, many clubs resorted to giving the public something that television in 1950s America couldn’t: sex. By 1961, 1301 Locust had become the Copa Club, one of the notorious “bust-out” joints that lined Locust Street from 12th to Broad. These “bust-out” joints were seedy clubs where “B-girls,” who worked for the house, mingled with customers, conning male clients into buying them rounds of overpriced, watered down drinks, luring them with empty promises of sex. Even Philadelphia Magazine began referring to the strip as “Lurid Locust” and “Philadelphia’s Barbary Coast.”

WE’RE NOT IN FISHTOWN ANYMORE
1966 Kit Kats

The maze of tough, seedy venues in the complex, many of them mob owned, changed names frequently during the 1960s. At one time as many as six bars operated on the premises under the same license. Some of them, like The Hideaway, the after hours S.A. Club and the ZuZu Club, which had Philadelphia’s first “go-go boys,” catered to gays, trans people, drag queens and hustlers. When the Kit Kats, right, a naive young male vocal quartet performed at the Club 13 in the late 1960s, they had this to say:

“Friday night and Saturday night, when we were done at 2 am, part of our contract was, we would go upstairs and there was a private club that started at 2 am, and we’d start playing up there. But there they had some pretty bizarre shows! Like, we would take a break and on would come a female stripper. And by the end of her act she takes off her pasties – and it’s a guy! And all of a sudden, we looked at each other – I thought, ‘Hey, I’m from Fishtown, but we didn’t have this sort of thing in Fishtown!’”

CONSERVATIVE HONKY-TONK

1983

Philadelphia’s Locust strip was never plastered with the screamingly lurid photos and suggestive artwork that was the trademark of New York’s old Times Square. Liquor Control Board regulations here kept that kind of advertising off the fronts of buildings and relegated it to the lobby partitions just inside. The conservative Philly red light district would have neon signs, yes, but garish photos of busty strippers in g-strings and pasties? No.

In the late ’60s, affable South Philadelphian Tony “Crow” Gentile, above, would open the Living Room in the 1301 Locust complex, followed by his famous All in the Family Lounge. He claimed he named the club not after the TV show, but after his pole-dancing girlfriend Denise and a dozen or so of her female relatives all of whom worked there. Gentile’s plan was to keep Locust Street an adult entertainment district, but to clean up the worst parts and the “bust-out” joints and turn them into “gentlemen’s clubs;” in other words, to make the naughty a little nicer.

1972 09 06 13th & Locust 214-208

In the ’70s, the building housed the All in the Family Lounge in the north side, the Club 13 in the basement and the Skabidoo on the south, Locust St. side, see photo, from 1972, above. Visible to the right is the 13th St. Dewey’s, the so-called “fag” location of the popular Center City coffeeshop chain. Located upstairs in the complex in the late ’70s was the gay, private membership bar called Harmony Club, which presented cabaret acts and drag shows, below.

1977 Harmony Club

THE BUMPY ROAD TO GENTRIFICATION

13thBusAssoc

In the 1980s, a push to clean up the Locust strip gave birth to the 13th Street Business Association, an unorthodox coalition of bar owners, traditional business people and gay activists. Members, above, left to right, included the aforementioned strip bar owner Tony Gentile and Association co-chairs Michael Guzzardi, owner of the Chancellor Apartments and Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. It was perhaps this alliance and Gentile’s fight to make adult entertainment discreetly acceptable that made 1301 its last hold-out on Locust Street. In the early ’80s, part of the building became Whispers, below, an another after hours club.

1980s Locust & 13th  Whispers

Nile 1996

Things dragged on throught the 1990s. The Nile, above, served as an after hours dance club for African American youths until 1996, when it was closed because of licensing issues. Whispers gave way to La Mirage and then finally the glossy black granite façade of Signatures, below. All these businesses met opposition from Ruthanne Madway and her ad hoc committee,  Wash West Neighbors. It was a long battle. As late as 2000, in a spoof on Ed Rendell’s “Avenue of the Arts” for Broad Street, local papers still loved to refer to Locust St. as the “Avenue of the Tarts.” In 2002, when Signatures applied for an extension of its liquor license to cover what they promised would be a “classy, upscale restaurant,” Madway again fought tooth and nail, this time as executive director of the non-profit East of Broad Improvement Association. Signatures withdrew the application and, in 2005, after the LCB voted once and for all not to renew its amusement license, the club closed, leaving the building vacant for several years. (Thanks to Bill Ewing for added information on this.)

2002 Signatures Philly Bricks

During those next few years, plan after plan was rejected, as the LCB and the community struggled to find a use that they deemed “both appropriate at this location and not detrimental to the economic revitalization of the community.” One plan, an innovative design by AlwaysbyDesign architects to be called thirteen01, below, was turned down because it included entertainment and alcohol as well as dining. Finally, for a short time, the sign on the 13th St. side was changed to Remy’s, below, which the EBA also opposed and which never even opened. This was the final blow to the corner’s long history as an entertainment area.

2008 thirteen01 - always by designthirteen01: the design that was never built

2009 RemysRemy’s: the club that never opened

In 2011, Harriton High School alumni Matt Gorman, Scott Caplan and Farrell Ender opened Nest, a multi-level private membership day-care emporium. Green Eggs Café, the eco-friendly restaurant in the north end, doesn’t even serve alcohol. As for All in the Family owner Tony Gentile, he died in 1998, thirteen years before 1301 Locust would be home to an altogether different kind of family.

Nest

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Keeping It All in the Family: Part I

Nest logo

Across 13th street from the parking lot I discussed last time stands the enigmatic building that now houses Nest, a pre-school “early enrichment center” with a playspace, coffee lounge and kids’ hair salon; the ultimate family friendly space, right in the heart of the Gayborhood at 1301 Locust St.  It’s an amazing and ironically amusing transformation from the nest of hustler and strip bars that called the space home for so many years.

MIDDLE CLASS RESPECTABILITY

Locust & 13th NWThe corner began urban life in the late 1840s as part of a block of typical Philadelphia rowhouses built on the north side of Locust Street between 13th and Juniper Streets. It was an upper middle class neighborhood, inhabited by doctors, businessmen and lawyers.  In 1891, a number of respectable ladies assembled at the residence of Mrs. Crawford Arnold, 1301 Locust Street, on the northwest corner, to plan for the organization of the Pennsylvania Society of the Colonial Dames of America. This Society, “composed entirely of women who are descended in their own right from some ancestor of worthy life,” now has its home at 1630 Latimer Street, near Rittenhouse Square.

Photos through the 1920s show an anomalous pine tree shading the sidewalk on the 13th Street side of the building, see photo, above, left. How it got there, no one seemed to know, but a note on the back of the photo at the Library Company says that it was planted by Alexander Hamilton!

“FOR THE HOME OF TODAY”

Crane 1920s copy

In 1926, both 1301 and 1303 Locust Street were razed and the current simple deco building was put up. The reason for the low, boxy shape is that the building was designed by Ralph Bencker, who also designed Horn & Hardart Automats, as a commercial showroom for plumbing fixtures.1927 9 25 13th & Locust Crane Crane Plumbing Co. had begun in the 19th century, producing plumbing supplies, valves and pipefittings. In the 1920s, they became one of the first American manufacturers of decorator lines of matching bathroom fixtures; toilet, sink and tub ensembles like the ones pictured above. To showcase their products, they opened showrooms all over the country, with the largest in Atlantic City. The one here at 13th and Locust Streets just happened to be oddly graceless and out of proportion to the surrounding buildings. In the Dallin Aerial Survey photo, left, from 1927, the Crane Showroom is the long, low, bright, sanitary white building left of center near the bottom. The large, old Free Library building is across the street to the east, where a parking lot sits today. Just north of the showroom is the six story Gramercy Building, which had been built in 1915, and next to that, across Chancellor St., is a lot where the Chancellor Hotel would be built. Beyond the lot is the commercial complex that houses Woody’s today.

May 1946 The Cove

NIGHTCLUBBING, PHILLY STYLE

Cove copy1940s Philadelphia was home to a vibrant music and nightclub scene; entertainers  knew they had to make it in Philly to succeed on the national circuit. Perhaps the biggest and most famous Philadelphia club entrepreneur was Frank Palumbo, who had begun his career at his grandfather’s eponymous Palumbo’s on 9th and Catharine Streets in South Philadelphia. In the 1940s Frank owned a string of successful clubs in Center City: Ciro’s, The 20th Century Tavern, the C.R. Club and the famous Click! on Market Street near 16th. On March 19th, 1943, Palumbo opened The Cove, a dinner and cocktail spot, in the former Crane showroom at Locust and 13th Streets. 139 1946 06 15 BB Cove Lounge copyAbove is a souvenir photo of young ladies out for a night on the town on May 9, 1946 at the Cove. Top notch entertainers like Dooley Wilson (featured in the film Casablanca), The Mills Brothers and Fats Waller would make the club an overwhelming success. See the 1946 ad, left, for the Five Red Caps who later recorded for Mercury Records. The Palumbos soon hit on the idea of turning the building into a complex of small operations including The Cabin Restaurant upstairs and an additional Show Bar, since each room could operate under the same single license on the site. In November of 1946, the Palumbos, operating as The Cove, Inc., acquired ownership of the two story building for $165,000 dollars. In the early 1950s the building held Palumbo’s Twentieth Century on the ground floor and Club 13 in the basement. About 1948, Buddy Greco was discovered by Benny Goodman while playing there and in 1952, Dizzie Gillespie performed there. The Palumbo family still owns the building today under the 70 year old “The Cove, Inc.” name.

Next time: There goes the gayborhood.