Quince Street: Crowded But Not Crushed, Part I

by ilcorago

Blue Lantern matches

A 1922 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the tiny stretch of Quince Street between Walnut and Locust Streets called it “. . . a tinge of the Philadelphia of old, crowded but not wholly crushed,” and even then, almost a hundred years ago, the tiny houses that lined it were already being referred to as “ancient dwellings.” The picture of one of the buildings that accompanied the article, below, right, would be hardly distinguishable from one taken today.

Quince St 208 1922Narrow Quince Street, running only four blocks from Walnut to Lombard Streets, first appeared in Philadelphia City Directories about 1813 as “Quince Alley.” By 1816, it was a full-fledged street, home to a racially mixed working class population of carpenters, waiters, dressmakers and coachmen. By the early 20th century, not unlike other small by-ways in the older part of the city east of Broad Street, it had become a bit shabby. Seventy year old fireplaces were bricked up, ornate woodwork was lost under layers of heavy paint and motley layers of wallpapers covered the original walls, much like what was going on in Society Hill. Well into the beginning of the 20th century, William J. Beattie, who lived at 208 S Quince, right next to where the Bike Stop is today, held the honor of being one of the last horse-shoers in the city.

THE BLUE LANTERN TEA ROOM

Quince S 211 1922 Blue LanternIn the early 1920s, a prosperous Philadelphia dentist named Dr. Eugene Pettit, went though a nasty, much publicized divorce and bought the three two-story rowhouses with dormers at 211, 213 and 215. He moved out of his Clinton Street home and into the top floor of 213, restoring much of the interior to its early 19th century glory and filling every corner of the attic space with the antiques, engravings, porcelains and furniture he had collected. The houses on either side, he rented to an antique dealer and to offices, but the ground floor of 213 Quince became the Blue Lantern Tea Room.  Tea rooms, like the contemporaneous Venture Tea Room on Camac, served “dainty lunches” and light dinners to well-heeled club women in the city. The Blue Lantern, as you can see in the 1922 illustration, left, by artist Frank Taylor, was marked by the large –you guessed it– blue lantern that hung outside until World War II. The Blue Lantern matchbook cover at the top of this post probably dates from the early 1930s, after the Forrest Theatre opened in 1927 on Walnut Street.

MAURICE THE MAESTRO

Quince 211 1958 Maurice

Quince S 211 Maurice 1953Maurice Rotenberg, grandfather of chef Marc Vetri, began his restaurant career in the 1940s, with a small lunchroom in Center City. A great lover of classical music, he decided to replace the pop tunes in his juke boxes with classical selections. The idea was a huge hit. In 1948, he bought the three building complex including 211 Quince Street, broke through walls and opened Maurice’s, above, an “Old World” style restaurant wired by technicians from Philco to pipe classical music throughout the nine tiny dining rooms, including the “Beethoven Shrine” on the third floor.

In the 1950s, celebrities like Eugene Ormandy, Tony Randall and Sammy Davis Jr. would drop in for lunch and to hear some of Rotenberg’s collection of over 30,000 classical records. After Maurice died in 1952, his wife Gussie ran the place for ten more years before retiring.

Long before Philadelphia’s restaurant renaissance in the 1970s, Maurice’s was offering a gourmet “J.S. Bach Club Sandwich” served up with the latest recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

THE STRAIGHT AND THE GAY OF IT

After Gussie left, the restaurant briefly became Antonio’s, serving Italian cuisine and steaks from about 1968 to 1971. You can see, below, that Antonio’s left Maurice’s signature treble clef on their sign, simply adding “Antonio’s Steak House” below it.

Quince 211 1970 Antonios

Still relying on the patronage of the theatre crowds from the nearby Forrest, the business would go through several name changes in the 1970s, from Antonio’s to the Foster House, to Flippo’s then to Curtain Call. Both Foster House and Flippo’s are listed in gay guides and Foster House had the honor of appearing in 1972’s “Gay Today” article by Art Spikol, which also mentioned the Horizon House, see the last post, below, February 28.

Spikol described the Foster House this way:

The 200 block of South Quince Street is not much bigger than an alley, and runs between 11th and 12th in center city. There is a parking lot on the corner and a few bars on the street–one of which, called the Foster House, is small and quaint, and at night, with its colored lights shining on the sidewalk, surrounds itself with the slightly unreal, super-animated aura of a Disney movie.

It is only eight o’clock, and the Foster House is still relatively empty–two guys talking quietly at the bar, a lesbian couple at a nearby table. The walls are covered with a planned graffiti, and the black-light illumination makes white glow purple. A fun house, with nooks and crannies and little steps leading to a small room in the rear where our meeting is to take place.

Spikol then goes on to describe his meeting with four young gay male activists, including the 21 year old Mark Segal and the 29 year old Kiyoshi Kuromiya.  He bravely endures a four-hour consciousness raising lecture on 1970s gay liberation politics from them, ending the article with an admission that, just possibly, for all his liberalism and understanding, he’s been a sexist male, “right down the line.”

Next time: BREAKING BAD

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