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.

Category: 12th St.

A Room for Us All

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In 2013, Giovanni’s Room Bookstore, at 12th and Pine Streets, turned forty. At the time, it was the oldest existing LGBT bookstore in the country; a real treasure for Philadelphia’s LGBT community. What was to be a celebratory entry here turned into a memorial when the bookstore closed in May of 2014. 

Giovannis 232 South 1976


1974 Giovannis RoomGiovanni’s Room has always been more than just a bookstore, it’s been a meeting place, a community center when there was no community center, a safe haven for those just coming out, and a resource for finding information on all things LGBT. The first store, above, opened at 232 South Street on August 1, 1973. Its three original founders, Bernie Boyle, (now deceased), Tom Wilson Weinberg and Dan Sherbo, left, had been members of the Gay Activists Alliance and worked on The Gay Alternative, a gay literary magazine published in Philadelphia. It was a time when gay liberation was new and the air was electric with possibility.

They named the business after James Baldwin’s 1956 novel—joking that Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” sounded a bit bleak and foreboding. The three men were inspired by Craig Rodwell‘s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore in New York, the first gay bookstore in the country. Boyle, Wilson Weinberg and Sherbo were fearless young radicals, with no business plan or experience, but with plenty of enthusiasm and optimism. When the bookstore opened its doors on the dilapidated, abandoned strip that was South Street in the early 70s, it was one of the few storefronts on the block that was not boarded up—but rent was an affordable $85 a month. At a time when gay bars were masked by painted over windows and  hidden in side streets, Giovanni’s Room was was a clearly visible gay  street presence in the city. Under Rodwell’s guidance, they made regular trips to New York, pushing shopping carts up the aisles of wholesale bookstores like Bookazine in the West Village, paying cash for books by Radclyffe Hall, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. The three men ran the store for almost two years, hosting poetry readings and discussion groups, barely managing to fill the shelves with an inventory of fewer than 100 books. In September of  1975, they sold the business to Quaker friend Pat Hillbelow, for $500.

1975 ca Pat Hill Giovannis


Pat HillArtist-activist Pat claimed that leaving her civil service job to run the store was “like running away with the circus.” She certainly didn’t do it for the money. There was none to be made; every cent went back into the store. Pat continued her predecessors’ tradition of using the space for public events, hosting women’s evenings, bands and a popular series called “Wine, Women and Song.” Next door, at  230 South Street, The Knave of Hearts Restaurant which had opened on Valentine’s Day of 1975, was at the forefront of what was to be known as Philadelphia’s “Restaurant Renaissance.” Pat had thought about raising money to buy the building at 232, but the Knave of Hearts owner Ty Bailey beat her to it. In late 1976, rather than undertaking a move,  Pat sold the business to Arleen Olshan and Ed Hermance for back taxes and the same $500 she had paid for it.

Giovannis 1426 Spruce 77-78


Hermance & OlshanArleen and Ed moved the store to 1426 Spruce Street, above,  just west of Broad, on the same block as the Allegro bar. The Kimmel Center stands there now. Pat had met Arleen through Philadelphia lesbian circles and knew she would be a good steward of the Giovanni’s legacy. Arleen in turn had met Ed through the early Gay Community Center, where she served as Co-Coordinator and Ed served as Treasurer. Together, they would run the first gender parity lesbian and gay bookstore in America, unusual in a time when lesbians and gay men were becoming drastically divergent.

The late 1970s saw a tremendous explosion in LGBT publishing and their stock grew from hundreds of titles to thousands. Olshan and Hermance made sure the store carried a wide range of titles and subjects, some of which they did not necessarily personally agree with but felt important to include: pornography, pederasty, S&M. No subject was tabu; Giovanni’s Room was to be a forum for the free exchange of ideas. Over time, adhering to this policy of openness earned them both controversy and praise.

Rita Mae & Arleen Olshan Giovannis Room

Olshan, center, and Rita Mae Brown, right

The store remained on Spruce Street only a little over two years. The family who bought the property in 1979 were not at all comfortable with an LGBT business in their building. Ed recalls that the family matriarch would stand in the hall and shout for him to bring the rent out—she wouldn’t set foot in the store. Ed and Arleen were told they had to move.

Giovanni's Room 1958

12th and Pine Streets, 1958


1 1 g r openingWanting to keep the bookstore on a main street, they looked at space in the new Center City One building, but were refused, on the grounds that “they would attract too many gay people to the area.”  With the help of loans from friends and family, they were able to buy the property on the corner of Pine and Twelfth Streets, above. Hours of volunteer labor turned the run down storefront and wholesale antiques warehouse into the largest LGBT bookstore in the country. By the mid-1980s, the stock reached nearly 15,000 titles. Through most of the 1980s, when Philadelphia city health services carried almost no HIV-AIDS related material, the store published an AIDS bibliography every year, serving as the primary source of AIDS information for many Philadelphians.

Ed Hermance


In 1986, Arleen left the business and Texas born Ed, above, became the sole owner. In 1986, Ed bought the building next door, breaking through walls to double the retail space. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the store entered its most successful period, with sales peaking at $93,000 the month following Bill Clinton’s election. By the late 1990s, Giovanni’s Room was the principal supplier of American gay, lesbian and feminist books to stores in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Over the years the store hosted about fifty readings annually, featuring authors like Leslie Feinberg, Samuel R. Delany, Alison Bechdel, Edmund White, Kate Bornstein, Greg Louganis, and many others of  local and international prominence. When New York’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore closed in 2009, Giovanni’s Room became the nation’s oldest existing LGBT bookstore. In 2011, Pennsylvania honored the store with a state marker to commemorate its significance to Philadelphia’s LGBT community.

Giovannis 1

Just as the store was being honored for its long and distinguished history, the twenty first century was taking its toll on bookstores everywhere. Local businesses like Giovanni’s Room were finding it impossible to compete with big-box chains and online megastores like Amazon. In 2013, Ed Hermance announced that he was retiring.  On May 17th, 2014, with the future of the building still uncertain, Giovanni’s Room closed its doors after 40 years of serving Philadelphia’s LGBT community. It will be sorely missed. Thank you, Ed.

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2014 3 11 G Room


On August 16, 2014, it was announced that Philly AIDS Thrift (PAT) had signed a two year lease on the building.  It opened as Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room on September 12. Clicking on the photo below will take you to the PGN story.

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PGN Photo: Scott A. Drake


• Photo of Boyle, Wilson Weinberg and Sherbo from the May 12, 1974 Sunday Inquirer Magazine.

•  Photo of Pat Hill by Joan C. Meyers

•  Other photos and flyers from the collection at the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives of Philadelphia

•  Much of the information contained here is from a fortieth anniversary oral history celebration, photo above, held at the William Way Center on March 11, 2014. The event was put together beautifully by John Cunningham. From left to right, moderator John Cunningham, Ed Hermance, Arleen Olshan, Pat Hill, Tom Wilson Weinberg and Dan Sherbo. Video by Peter Lien.

Odd Fellows in the Gayborhood

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Oddfellows lodges began as fraternal organizations and “friendly societies” in England in the 18th century. Here in America, most lodges were part of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which had split off from the original order in 1813.  In 1843, the African American Philomathean Institute in New York petitioned the IOOF to form their own lodge.  Because of their color, they were treated with contempt and their charter was refused.

peter ogdenA Jamaican born sailor, Peter Ogden, left, heard of the Institute’s efforts and offered to apply for a charter for them through his own lodge in Liverpool, England, which was part of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. The Victoria Lodge in Liverpool didn’t hesitate to grant Ogden a charter. In 1844, the Philomathean became the first GUOOF lodge in America. A few weeks later, Unity Lodge No. 711 in Philadelphia became the first African American Odd Fellows lodge in Pennsylvania. Instrumental in the founding of the Unity Lodge was John C. Bowers, right. John C BowersBowers was a Philadelphia abolitionist and civil rights activist whose story has largely been overlooked. He served as organist at St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, ran a clothing store at 71 S 2nd Street and was the secretary for the weekly newspaper, The Colored American. In 1862, he spoke out publicly against Lincoln’s plan to remove some five thousand black Americans to Haiti. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of him, “[John C. Bowers] was an active and enterprising citizen, warmly interested in all plans for the advancement of his people, [and] prominent in his hostility to slavery.” Since its beginnings, Philadelphia has always produced a wealth of strong black leaders.

Oddfellows postcard

An early 20th C postcard showing Ogden

By 1900, the GUOOF had grown to be the largest black fraternal organization in the country. Now headquartered in Philadelphia, it owned two buildings and had 19 lodges with over 1,000 members in the city. The Philadelphia organization even published its own newspaper, The Odd Fellows Journal. In 1905, the Grand United Order, operating from cramped offices at 602 Spruce St., hired architects Frank Watson and Samuel Huckel Jr. to design a new headquarters for them on the northwest corner of Spruce and 12th Streets. The slim five story Beaux Arts style office building they built neatly filled the narrow 120 foot long, 20 foot wide corner lot. The GUOOF would use that location as their headquarters for the next hundred years, renting out office space in the top four floors to other organizations and leasing the first floor to retail and commercial businesses.

1976 Hasty Tasty Outside


By the middle of the 1970s, the surrounding area was changing. What had been a marginalized section of Center City with a few seedy bars was becoming a real neighborhood with gay owned bookstores, health clubs and cafes. In 1975, restaurateur Jack Friel and his lover John Winfield opened the Hasty Tasty deli in the Odd Fellows building, above.  Friel was a prodigiously active entrepreneur in the expanding Gayborhood. At various times he owned Seasons on Drury St., Bramwell’s on Camac St., managed the Back Street Baths on Chancellor and worked with the Metropolitan Community Church. Jack , John and Dickie Lance, pictured below, ran the popular Hasty Tasty from 1976 until 1980.

1976 1 5 Friel&Lance Hasty Tasty

Jack & Dickie in 1976, photo by Harry Eberlin


1992 Duck Soup.jpg

031 Spruce & 12th 1201 St VideoJack sold the business to Larry Wenograd and Bob McCarthy, who ran it for two years as Windows on 12th, inspired by Windows on the World at the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. It then became the Land of Pizza for two years.

On June 1, 1984, Gayborhood icon Franny Price opened Spruce Street Video, left, on the floor above, advertising it as the first gay video store in the country. The street level restaurant then became Duck Soup, see ad above, from 1987 to 1995. The space would see its last incarnation as a late night gay hangout when Cheap Art, below, opened there in 1995.

2000 Cheap Art

Photo by Kristina Dymond


Cheap Art closed in the early 2000s and Spruce Street Video moved a few doors down to 252 S 12th St. The short lived HX Philadelphia magazine rented office space in the building from 2006 to 2007. In 2008, the Odd Fellows relocated their headquarters to Virginia. That marked a low point. For a few years, the building was boarded up and took on a forlorn, abandoned look, below.

Odd Fellows 2011

The GUOOF sold the building to APM Realty in 2009 and things began to look up. Permits and variances took time to get. The Spruce Street finally opened on February 5, 2012 as The Odd Fellows Cafe, run by Betty and Faith Ortiz, who also owned Spruce Street Espresso a block to the east. Odd Fellows Cafe only lasted 7 months, re-opening as YOLO in October of that same year. YOLO had an even shorter life, closing less than two months later.

On January 31st of this year, Toast, below, opened in the space. Today, the building is clean and neat and the façade is restored to its original Beaux Arts elegance. Toast, and its neighbor Shanti Yoga Shala, operate on the street level. The upper floors of the former African American lodge building hold eight two-bedroom residences.


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.


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 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.


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.


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


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.

Icandy, Part II: The Swinging 60s and Beyond

Last time, I began the story of the building site at 254-6 S 12th St., home to Icandy today.  I ended with the death of chef Francesco Basta, who had opened an Italian restaurant there called “The Leoncavallo” in 1912.
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According to Frank Basta’s great-great granddaughter, Valerie, who lives in New Jersey, it was Frank’s daughter, Adelina Basta Caporale, known as “Tootsie,” and her husband Adalberto Caporale, along with the children’s African-American nanny, Margaret, who carried on the operation after Frank’s death in 1917. In 1918, they purchased 254 S 12th next door and joined the two buildings together, see ad, below. The façade we see today dates from that 1918 renovation. Tootsie, who as a child had played the piano before Bonci and Caruso, lived into her 90s and worked hard at keeping the Leoncavallo going for another fifty years. None of Tootsie’s four children wanted to be in the restaurant business, so she closed it in the mid 1960s and retired. The photo, left, of a Leoncavallo menu from the 1940s, was generously sent to me by Valerie. Notice the Leoncavallo’s catchphrase,  “Leader in Chefcraft Since 1897.”


From 1965 until 1973, gay travel guides list the bar at 254-56 S 12th St. as The Midway. The earliest listings describe it as: “Mixed: appears straight but sufficiently active to make it worthwhile.” It also seems to have only had a beer license in the ’60s. The Midway’s first owner was Hans Lang then, later, Joe Kalman who also owned the Hotel DeVille on Kentucky Ave. in Atlantic City.

In 1975, the club changed its name to The Pepper Box, above, perhaps after one of the partners, Jerry Pepper. Notice that the bar was only open Monday through Saturday; because of Pennsylvania’s strict Blue Laws, only private clubs could serve alcohol on Sunday through most of the ’70s.  There was a deal for Kalman sell the business to Pete Hamilton in 1975, but the settlement fell through and the premises remained closed for a few months. For four months, from March to June of 1976, it was resurrected as a private membership club called the Cobbler Club.  If anyone has any more information about The Midway or The Pepper Box, I’d love to hear from you!


In August of 1977, Alan Kachin, right, took over ownership and Equus was born. Initially, there was some objection on the part of the Washington Square West Committee to granting the bar a dance license. Neighbors said they were not against gays, but against “undesirables.” In a vote a week later, Equus got the license.

Equus’ upstairs cabaret showcased an amazing array of performers including Eartha Kitt, Julie London, Charles Pierce, Tammi Grimes, Estelle Parsons and Christine Jorgensen. The piano bar often featured Northeast Philly’s own Karen Young, who was launched to national fame in 1978 by her hit, Hot Shot, written by Andy Kahn and DCA dj Kurt Borusiewicz. Equus was a first class restaurant, bar, cabaret, piano lounge and disco all rolled into one. The disco featured great Philly dj’s like Michael Cavallone, who also spun at DCA and who can still be heard at the Top of the Stop at the Bike Stop. A 1983 gay guide sums it up nicely: “If there’s a gay bar here with a national reputation, Equus is it. That’s because of its renowned cabaret . . .  and its sleek, deco-inspired dining room which carries a diverse menu of nouvelle cuisine.”  Below is Alan’s lover and Equus bartender David Fuller ca 1980:

Alan sold Equus in the summer of 1983 and eventually moved to Florida where he ran South Beach’s Hombre and Ft. Lauderdale’s Eagle. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to Alan, who still lives in the Sunshine State. He’s posted some of his Equus memories on his FaceBook page, here:


The club continued operating under the ownership of Mel Heifetz as Equus until 1989, when it reopened as  Hepburn’s,  a women’s bar, on October 6th. The refurbished bar was lavishly decorated with photos of Katharine Hepburn, left, in her famous cross dressing role of “Sylvia Scarlett.” Katharine, of course, was quite handsome in any gender. It was open seven nights a week, with a lounge, pool table and of course an upstairs dance floor where DJs Marsha and Cheryl spun.

A look at the Hepburn’s staff marching east on Pine Street at 10th Street in the early ’90s, below. Owner Mel Heifitz is in the red shirt, waving.

Hepburn's Gay Pride 90s


In 1995-6, 254-6 S 12th St. began its sixth and seventh commercial incarnations. Thanks to Bruce Yelkwho tended bar there and a reader named Tom, I discovered that the bar operated for a few months in late 1995 as Harmony Zone, (see an ad for the short-lived Zone above),then in January, 1996 it became 12th Air Command, left. Owner Richard McPeake, who bought Hepburn’s from its last owner Mel Heifetz, managed to create a very age-mixed tri-level bar with drink specials, drag shows and go-go boys. McPeake had worked at Steps, Gatsby’s in NJ and Philly, Key West and Hepburn’s. In the early 1980s, Richard had also written a Philadelphia bar and social news column for PGN called “The McPeake Report.” 12th Air featured “Jaded Lounge,” an event for Asian gay men and their friends the second Friday of every month. In 2007, he refurbished the club as well as the roof deck Sky Lounge. 12th Air also became the city’s first gay bar to advertise in Philadelphia Magazine.

In 2010, after running the bar for 15 years, McPeake decided it was time to retire.


In March of last year, 2011, ownership passed to Darryl DePiano, right. A Toms River, NJ native, McPeake had previously run The Nile in Wildwood. He named his new club Icandy. With its newly painted façade boasting two American flags and four rainbow flags, below, it packs the most visual punch of any bar in the Gayborhood. DePiano works at keeping it fresh and new. Each level of Icandy, “a unique nightlife experience,” is different, from the  first floor, the Tuscan Tavern, which DePiano calls the “gay Chickie and Pete’s,” to the top floor, which is home to the “Cobalt Arena,” the dance floor.

After seven incarnations, 254-6 S 12th St., like the Gayborhood itself, is still going strong.


According to Philadelphia Real Estate blogger Sandy Smith, iCandy is undergoing another renovation. Below is a photo that Sandy took and posted on March 9, 2013, of a fragment of what seems to be an original Leoncavallo wall tile:

Leoncavallo wall tile

I’ll have to drop by and see what else they’ve unearthed. Thanks, Sandy!

OCTOBER 1, 2014:

The damage that the façade sustained from the heavy rains this summer has been repaired, but the iconic “LEONCAVALLO” above the entrance is now gone. We’ll miss it.

Icandy, Part I: The Early Years

If you’ve ever taken your eyes off the hunky doormen and looked above the front door at Icandy at 254 S 12th St., you’ve noticed an intriguing inscription on the façade that reads “THE LEONCAVALLO.” Did you ever wonder what Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer ofPagliacci,” has to do with a gay nightclub? Well, here’s the story. . .


The single building you see now is really two rowhouses that have been joined together; numbers 254 and 256. If you look at the roof line, you’ll see the difference; 254 has a fourth floor. In the 1890s, 254 S 12th St. was home to the William and Emma Warrick family. The Warricks were very successful upper middle class African-American entrepreneurs – they owned one of the first chain of barber shops and beauty salons in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Their daughter, Meta Warrick Fuller, left,  studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, then in Paris. She became one of the first leading black female sculptors in America, creating powerful pieces that celebrated African-American themes and folktales, below. It’s her state historical marker that you see in front of the building.


Around the turn of the last century, number 256, next door,  was home to a medical institute that treated “female ailments.”  These “ailments” included everything from menstrual cramps to superfluous body hair to unwanted pregnancies. The staff always included female physicians, and long-term patients could  board there. There were dozens of these tiny “clinics” all over the city. Dr. Elizabeth Conde, who ran this one, advertised regularly in the Philadelphia Inquirer, below.

In 1904, in a grisly and shocking turn of events, Dr. Conde, whose real name was Elizabeth Ashmead, was arrested along with her son and Matthew McVickers who also worked there. They were charged with multiple counts of malpractice, including covering up the deaths of several young women.  Another member of this citywide “syndicate,” David Mosier, gruesomely accused her of  disposing of live aborted babies in the basement furnace, below.Both Mosier and  Elizabeth Ashmead were convicted.  She served three years in Eastern State Penitentiary, emphatically denying all allegations. During the lurid trial, the rest of the infamous Ashmead family had to move out of the 12th Street home to avoid publicity; neighbors and strangers would come by to point at the house and “women shuddered at the sight of its sedate brick walls.”  The empty building was broken into several times and plumbing and gas fixtures were stolen.  After serving her sentence, Elizabeth Ashmead was caught again at least twice trying to set up “clinics” both in Philadelphia and later in Millville, New Jersey. In 1911 she was convicted of using the mails for illegal purposes in Wilmington, Delaware and was sentenced to five years in the Kansas State Penitentiary. That’s the last we see of Ashmead, aka Dr. Conde, in this area.


For a few years after the Ashmead incident, a hairdresser named “Mme Eve” sold hair preparations and baldness remedies from 256. About 1911, the first floor at 256 became a storefront, going from a private space to a public one. It was soon rented by one of the foremost Italian chefs in the city, Francesco Basta, who had run an Italian restaurant at 605 S 10th Street. It happened that Basta was not only a  fan of Italian cuisine, but of Italian opera as well. In 1892, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci was performed for the first time. It was not a critical success, but audiences around the world went wild over it. Tenor Enrico Caruso made the role of the clown Canio his signature role. Chef Basta named his new restaurant after the opera’s  popular composer, putting Leoncavallo’s picture on the restaurant’s menus, left. The story that the family tells is that Signor Leoncavallo himself suggested the name to Francesco. The Leoncavallo soon became a very popular rendezvous for singers, artists and musicians.  Both Caruso and  Leoncavallo dined there. Francesco Basta, right, who had created a space imbued with an aura of warmth, camaraderie and love of music, died in 1917 at age 57. The Basta family would continue to run the business there for another 50 years. At the time of Frank’s death the resaurant only occupied the building at 256 S 12th. Below is a rare picture from the Temple University archives of the Leoncavallo from about 1912, before the two buildings were joined together and the new façade put on:

The plate glass window at 256 reads “Original Leoncavallo Restaurant, Frank Basta, Cook.” The simple sign readings “GOWNS” in the window of 254 advertises the dressmaker who lived there.

■ 254 S 12th St. has such a long, interesting history that I will continue the story in another post. Next time: “Icandy, Part II: The Swinging Sixties and Beyond”