Keeping It All in the Family: Part I
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
The 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”
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. 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.
NIGHTCLUBBING, PHILLY STYLE
1940s 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. Above 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.