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: February, 2013

Lost Horizon

Horizon House

These fast disappearing walls, at the southeast corner of Lombard and 12th Streets,  are all that’s left of a nondescript building that played an important part in Philadelphia’s post-Stonewall gay political movement.

QUAKERS TO THE RESCUE

In 1952, Horizon House was founded by Quakers as a support group for the former patients of mental hospitals. In 1969, the agency built a center at Lombard and 12th Streets, below, designed by the firm of Francis, Cauffman, Wilkinson & Pepper. It was a severe, two story, drab brown brick building pierced with tall, very narrow windows, not unlike many of the houses being built at the time to fill in the gaps in newly gentrified and rehabbed Society Hill. The Center would expand its services to reach out to people with alcohol and drug addictions, those with developmental disabilities and the homeless. In 1972, they also rented out meeting space to Philadelphia’s newly formed Gay Activists Alliance. The Quakers have always been supportive of the city’s queer minority; in 1973, it was Quakers who were the only ones who were willing to rent a space for the first Gay Coffeehouse at 60 North 3rd Street.

Pain Center

THE G.A.A.

The Gay Activists Alliance was originally founded in New York City in late 1969 by members of the Gay Liberation Front who wanted to deal more specifically with the political side of Gay Liberation. By September of 1971, there was a G.A.A. Philadelphia, below, meeting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Christian Association building. (There was a lot of hair going on in those days). Within a year they had over 400 members. In 1972, they began meeting at Horizon House, which they made their home for several years.

GAA

Segal & Langhorne 1972Through the early 70s, G.A.A. was the most active and influential gay organization in the city. Presidents of the organization included activists like Tommi Avicolli, Jeff Escoffier and Harry Langhorne, shown left, wearing glasses, in 1972 with Gay Raider Mark Segal in front of City Hall. G.A.A Philly sponsored dances and social events, as well  as “zaps” against anti-gay lectures, programs and organizations. They fought police harrassment and became involved in local government, supporting political candidates and the passage of a Philadelphia Gay Rights bill.

GayzetteG.A.A. would give birth to the Gay Switchboard hotline, the Eromin Center, which provided mental health services, the Masterbatters baseball team, the Gay Coffeehouse and two publications; Philadelphia’s first gay newspaper, the Gayzette, right, and a monthly arts and literature journal called the Gay Alternative. Along with  Radicalesbians and the Homophile Action League, G.A.A. worked to organize conservative Philadelphia’s first gay pride march in 1972.  In 1973,  they sponsored a drag forum, below, Tommi Avicolli on  the right, with offshoot caucus Radicalqueens, the first trans political group in the city. Brash and outspoken, the Gay Activists Alliance helped give gay men, lesbians and trans-people visibility and a voice in our city and in its politics.

BEYOND PAIN

After Horizon House moved out of 501 S 12th Street in the 80s, the space became a warren of small medical offices and finally the Pain Center, which operated there nearly 15 years. Two years ago, the property was listed for sale. Today, the building is being demolished by developer Virgil Procaccino, who will build six single family row homes on the lot.

1973 RadicalQueens drag forum

GAY TODAY

Another small piece of Philadelphia’s gay history is vanishing, but luckily, in November of 1972, writer Art Spikol dared to sit in on a G.A.A. meeting held there.  The article he published in Philadelphia Magazine, simply called “Gay Today,” is a window into 1970s gay liberation era Philadelphia from a mainstream journalistic perspective.

This is some of what he wrote:

The first time I ever saw two men kiss was on a Thursday, at a place called Horizon House, on the corner of 12th and Lombard, at 7:45 in the evening. The building is dark gray and on a dark corner, and the light from the entrance turned its few steps yellow in the summer twilight. It was there that I walked in, through the lobby to the landing at the bottom of the stairs which would take me to the meeting room–from which, up above, two young men were now watching me. They turned quickly to one another, spoke a few words and smiled, and then turned back to me again. And just that quickly, not knowing if their words concerned me at all, I was feeling uncomfortable.

I climbed the stairs and walked through the door at the top and sat down at one of the cafeteria-style tables that ran along the walls of the meeting room. Around me were 40, maybe 45 people, members of the Gay Activist Alliance, all waiting, as I was, for the others to arrive.

The notes: Mostly young, late teens to early 30s. Mostly men, but some women. Casual. Long hair, moustaches, beards. Average. In appearance, anyway. Surprisingly average with very little, really, to indicate . . . anything.

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Straight Snapshot: The St. James

St James roof 2010

The tastefully elegant 12 story residence on the southeast corner of Walnut and 13th Streets has looked down over that busy intersection in the Gayborhood for a little over 100 years. It owes its existence to two men who’ve played an important part in shaping Philadelphia’s development, builder John Stafford and architect Horace Trumbauer.

Walnut & 13th SE

STAFFORD AND TRUMBAUER

In the 1890s, real estate developer John Stafford had made his fortune constructing hundreds of rowhomes in North Philadelphia. Toward the end of the century he turned to Center City and the construction of more prominent, public buildings. The trend toward large, high-end residential hotels was just gaining momentum in Philadelphia; The Gladstone Apartments had opened on Pine and 11th Streets in 1890. In late 1900, the real estate section of The Inquirer announced that the tenants of the four story dwellings on the southeast corner of Walnut and 13th Streets, above, left, had been given notice that Stafford intended to build a new, modern apartment building on the site. In December, it was revealed that he had hired Horace Trumbauer to design the project.

TrumbauerThe 33 year old Trumbauer, left, had gained a reputation as an architect for the elite of the city, designing many residences and estates along the Main Line. This new project of Strafford’s  was to be Trumbauer’s first large commercial design. Trumbauer’s firm would go on to design the Philadelphia Art Museum, the addition to the Land Title Building, the Widener Building, the Ritz Carlton Hotel and the central Free Library of Philadelphia.  Trumbauer would die of alcoholism in 1938.

stjames-1901

Trumbauer’s modern, steel-framed structure, right,  was to be called the St. James Hotel, presumably after the nearby newly named St. James Street, even though there was already a St. James Hotel to the north, on Arch Street. It would be a grand Second Empire structure, towering over 13th Street and boosting Trumbauer’s reputation and career. St James 1904It opened in 1901, a record breaking year for Philadelphia real estate development. The new St. James was furnished with restaurants, shops on the ground floor and a barber. Strawbridge and Clothier designed its silver service. Journalist Lincoln Steffens, below,  stayed there in 1903, while researching a muckraking series on political evils in American cities for McLure’s Magazine.  He’d forever  brand the city with shame, when he entitled  his article about Penn’s city “Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented.”  The St. James was a success and only three years later, Stafford bought the lots at 1226 and 1228 Walnut Street, immediately to the east, and doubled the hotel’s size, above, left. The Philadelphia Blue Book (a social directory), listed over a dozen prominent Philadelphians as residents of the St. James in 1906, including portrait painter Julian Story. The Philadelphia Dickens Club was formed there and the Rotary Club held their luncheons at the St. James  every Wednesday from 12:30 to 1:30.

Lincoln Steffens

BOOM AND BUST

In 1909, Stafford dissolved the St. James Hotel Company, which he incidentally owned all the stock of, and became the sole owner. He then built an annex to the hotel a few doors further east at Walnut and Camac Streets and constructed what would later be the Camac Baths to use as a laundry facility, power plant and housing for his staff. The buildings were all connected by tunnels that ran under Chancellor Street. I’m told that they are still there today.

1919 10 5 In ReceivershipStafford’s passion for real estate speculation was to be the undoing of the St. James. In 1918, creditors and mortgage holders began filing suits against Stafford, who claimed he was solvent, but short on funds because of his investments in other real estate ventures. By 1919, the hotel was in receivership and shortly after, went up for public auction. The building  was withdrawn from auction when no bids were made. A year later, it was purchased by Louis Cahan at sherriff’s sale and re-opened under new management, announcing its commitment to “courtesy, refinement and high ideals.” Cahan slowly rebuilt the St. James’ clientele and reputation.

1922 Bonwit

HOTEL, THEN APARTMENTS, THEN ST. JAMES NO MORE

1922 12 28 St James New YearsIn 1922, the Bonwit Teller lingerie shop, above, formerly at 13th and Sansom Streets, re-located to the street level of the hotel as “The St. James Shop.” Throughout the 20s, the St. James would continue to advertise nationally, not declining in stature or popularity until the Great Depression in the 1930s, when it was forced to rent out portions of the building as office space. Before World War II, the Philadelphia chapter of the entertainment industry’s Showmen’s Club made the newly air conditioned hotel their home. 1944 Walnut & 13th EThe photo, right, looking east on Walnut Street in 1944, shows how the St. James  dominated the 13th Street neighborhood, rising well above the three story rowhouses and commercial spaces in the area.

The building was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was added to the National Register in 1976. In the 1980s, the hotel became apartment units and was rechristened the St. James House, below.

1980s St James House

In 1993, the building changed hands again and became the Walnut Square Apartments. (In the 90s, “Squares” sprung up on dead end streets, in plazas and inside enclosed shopping malls all over the country, an odd nostalgia for America’s lost rural town squares).  All association with the St. James name has been erased and transferred to the newer St. James tower five blocks east on Walnut and 8th Streets.

The hundred year old building is not in great repair. The mansard roof leaks and there are stories of intermittant power outages, but the dignified Horace Trumbauer design still watches over this intersection of the Gayborhood and the late night crowds leaving Woody’s and Voyeur. I don’t know of any connections or anecdotes that link the St. James to the LGBT community’s history, but I’m sure they’re there.

1913 Walnut & 13th West

Looking west on Walnut St. from the St. James in 1913.