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: 13th St.

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.

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Dewey’s Famous

Deweys

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NO BETTER  FOOD AT ANY PRICE

LGBTQ people have always found a way to take nominally straight public places and make them their own. Sometimes these were only corners of hotel bars, certain street corners or sections of parks, but often they were coffee places or sandwich shops. From World War II until the 1980s, the Philadelphia area was home to many of these “old line, crockery, silver and glass restaurants.” There were 24 Linton’s, 44 Horn and Hardart’s and 18 Dewey’s. The Dewey’s chain began in 1940 in Philadelphia and within a few years there were Dewey’s sprinkled along Market, Arch and Walnut Streets and around Rittenhouse Square. Some had tables, but most of them were simple lunch counters, serving hamburgers, hot dogs and malteds, see photo, below, from 1941.

1941 Deweys Market & 8th

Of course, lesbians, gay men and trans people frequented all of these places, but two locations of Dewey’s have a special connection to the Gayborhood and to the history of gay activism in Philadelphia: the Dewey’s on 13th Street and the one on 17th in Rittenhouse.

Deweys 13th 1972UP ALL NIGHT

The Dewey’s at 208 S 13th Street opened about 1958. It was next to the Gramercy, where the boarded up Letto Deli is today, on the southwest corner of 13th and Chancellor Streets.  You can see it the sign for it in the right of the picture, left, taken in 1972. The restaurant was remodelled after a fire destroyed much of it in February of 1969. See photo, below. (There’s a cute Philadelphia fireman on the left in the group on the roof. Click on this or any photo here to see it larger.)

This Dewey’s was near to the bars on 13th, Camac and Chancellor Streets and it was open all night. It was the perfect  hangout after the bars and the after hours clubs closed. Widely known as the “fag” Dewey’s, it was noisily packed late into the night with a whole spectrum of drag queens, hustlers, dykes, leather men and Philly cops looking for a cup of coffee, a cross section of life on 13th Street.

Dewey's Fire 1969

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BEFORE THERE WAS STONEWALL, THERE WAS DEWEY’S

1965 Deweys leafletThe problem was that other managers of Dewey’s around the city were intent on keeping the queer tolerant 13th Street Dewey’s the exception and not the rule. In 1965, the management of the Dewey’s at 219 S 17th Street near Rittenhouse Square (now Little Pete’s) made it clear that they would refuse service “to a large number of homosexuals and persons wearing non-conformist clothing.” Modelled on current African-American civil rights protests, on Sunday, April 25th, more than 150 protestors, black, white, trans, lesbian and gay staged a sit-in, an amazing thing to do in Philadelphia in 1965, four years before the Stonewall riots. Police arrived and three of the protestors who refused to leave were arrested. They were young; two males and a female.

Journalist and activist Clark Polak and the Janus Society, a local gay rights group, were notified. Over the next week, in support of the protestors, they distributed some 1,500 leaflets outside the restaurant, see photo, above, right. On Sunday, May 2, they staged a second sit-in. This time, when the police were called, they spoke with the protestors and simply left, declining to take any action at all, see photo, below, of the police at Dewey’s in 1965 and the same location in 2010. The management agreed to end the discrimination and the protestors left, having staged the first successful gay rights sit-in in the country. This marked an important step in the struggle for LGBT people to lay claim to the right to public space in 1960s Philadelphia.

Deweys 1965-2010

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MEANWHILE, BACK ON 13th STREET

1981 Pirate ShipIn the late 1970s, the Dewey’s restaurants in Philadelphia began to fold, victims to competition from national fast food chains like MacDonald’s and Burger King. In 1979, the 13th Street location came under gay operation when Lester Ketters  opened a restaurant there under the name The Ranch. In 1981, Les and his partner Larry changed the name twice, once to The New Pirate Ship, left, in honor of an old, long gone gay bar called the Pirate Ship on Camac near Locust Street, then to The Captain’s Quarters. He then sold it in 1982 and it became The Pyramids, a Near-Eastern restaurant with Egyptian owners. It’s last incarnation was as the Letto Deli, which closed in early 2009 after the rent was hiked, see photo below, right.

13th St Dewey's 2011In 2010, Iron Chef Jose Garces planned to open a German restaurant called Frohman’s Wursthaus at 208 S 13th Street. Because of his reputation, in early 2012, after two years of planning,  it looked like there would be very little, if any, opposition from the Washington West Civic Association zoning committee. However, just a few months later, Garces announced that he had too many other projects up his culinary sleeve, and the Wursthaus concept was shelved. The 53 year old structure is still forlornly vacant today.

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Deweys Matches

UPDATE:  OCT 7, 2014 

For a few weeks now there’s been a demolition notice, below,  on the front door. It looks like tiny building will be no more soon.

DSC01193

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

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.

Straight Snapshot: An Empty Lot That’s Full of Stories

We rarely think about the negative spaces in the fabric of a neighborhood: those odd gaps between buildings that now hold only a dumpster or two, or the countless generic parking lots surrounded by chain link fences and guarded by boom gates. They weren’t always there; all the utilatarian, asphalt covered lots around the Gayborhood once had other lives and told other stories. Many Philadelphia parking lots date from the 1930s and 1940s, when the increasing number of private cars made it profitable to tear down expensive-to-maintain buildings, leaving the city pockmarked with empty lots for parking. Often meant to be temporary, most lots have lived on for sixty, seventy and eighty years; they require little investment and provide a high return.

NE CORNER: LOCUST & 13th STREETS

The E-Z Park lot on the northeast corner of Locust and 13th Streets has been there so long, it’s hard to imagine walking down Locust St. without getting a glimpse of Voyeur nightclub peeking out from St. James Street. During the day, the space is filled with the cars of shoppers and workers in the nearby offices. At night, it provides parking for theatre-goers and patrons of the Gayborhood’s many bars and restaurants. It’s also a convenient shortcut between Woody’s, Uncles and Voyeur. The lot’s history is bound up with medical pathologies and a plan to provide free books for Philadelphia’s citizens.

CALLING DR. MUTTER

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, founded in 1787,  is the oldest private medical society in America. In 1859, Dr. Thomas D. Mütter, left, the Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Jefferson Hospital, donated his pathology collection to the College. He also added a $30,000 endowment to administer the collection, with the stipulation that the College build a fireproof building to house it within five years. Soon after, they purchased three lots on the northeast corner of 13th and Locust Streets and razed the rowhouses there, creating a parcel sixty feet along Locust St. and a hundred and ten feet along 13th, running back to Centre Street (now St James Street).

For the design of their new home, they hired 22 year old Philadelphia architect James Windrim, who would later design the Masonic Temple on Broad St. and the Academy of Natural Sciences on the Parkway. His plans called for a fairly simple, two story pressed brick structure. In 1883, they added a third story, see photo, above, from about 1900. The first floor would house the Mütter Museum of medical pathologies and a meeting room. On the second floor were a lecture room and the medical library, below. The Inquirer applauded the construction of the new building not only for “elevating the character of Philadelphia, but, for advancing improvements in medical science.”

Even with the added third floor, by 1900 the College had outgrown the space. In 1908, they laid the cornerstone for a new College building and Mütter Museum on 22nd Street. In 1909, they abandoned the Locust Street location and moved to 22nd Street, where they remain today.

MOVING THE FREE LIBRARY

The first Free Library of Philadelphia, which had been chartered in 1891, opened in 1894 in three rooms in the southwestern part of City Hall. The rooms were so small that patrons couldn’t browse the shelves, they had to call for books at the front desk. In only a few months, it was obvious that the City Hall space wasn’t large enough. Early in 1895, the Library moved its 20,000 volumes to the old Concert Hall at 1219-1221 Chestnut Street, holding a grand opening on Washington’s Birthday. The Free Library was to stay there for fifteen years. When it needed to expand again, the Trustees looked to the former College of Physicians building at Locust and 13th, see ad, right. The Inquirer argued that although location was not as central, the new building would have much more space for collections. In addition, it was near the Historical Society which was diagonally across the street and the Library Company which was a half block up Locust at Juniper. The paper speculated that Locust St. might become a new, if temporary, literary center of the city; temporary, because plans were already being discussed for a new central library building on the unfinished Fairmount Parkway. The photo, below, is of the 13th Street Free Library in 1916. In the background at the left, you can now see the majestic St. James Hotel, which had opened in 1901 on the southeast corner of 13th and Walnut Streets. The photo, above left, is of the Free Library’s Children’s Department, located two doors east at 1233 Locust St.

In 1929, the Free Library did, in fact, move to a new home on the Parkway where it is today. Soon after, the 67 year old building at Locust and 13th Streets was torn down and within a year cars were parked on the spot, see photo, left, from 1931. Locust Street, of course, never became a literary center, but developed into an entertainment district after World War II, full of nightclubs and musical bars. By the 1960s, those nightclubs had begun to decline into seedy showbars and finally, strip clubs. Perhaps the corner stayed a parking lot simply because it wasn’t a very desirable neighborhood to build in any more. The photo, below, is from 1959, looking at the wall at the east end of the lot.

In the 1970s, a flurry of urban rehab activity changed the face of the north side of Locust between Camac and the 13th St. lot.  1331 and 1231 Locust were razed and rebuilt and 1335, Lombardi’s Musical Bar in the photo, above, was torn down to expand the lot. Only 1227 and 1229 were left of the original buildings.

The new building at 1333 Locust, where the Philadelphia FIGHT and the AIDS Library are now, provides a large, blank  western wall which serves as a canvas for “Philadelphia Muses,” above. The mural was done in 1999 by Meg Saligman for the Mural Arts program as a tribute to the nearby Avenue of the Arts. Many of the characters represented in the mural are local community members; Opera Company director Craig Hamilton, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Meredith Rainey and Philadanco’s Kim Y. Bears among them. Today, they all  look down from that wall onto the busy Gayborhood corner, transforming that dreary, 80 year old parking lot into what Saligman calls “a fantastical artscape.”

Straight Snapshot: The Chancellor Apartments

There are many locations within Philly’s Gayborhood that are not particularly LGBT identified spaces, but which have great stories of their own and are part of the historical fabric of the neighborhood. I’ll cover some of these stories in short “Straight Snapshots.” The first of these snapshots is about the Chancellor, at 204-206 S 13th Street, next to Woody’s.

THE CHANCELLOR HALL HOTEL

If you’ve walk by the Chancellor Apartments during the day, you’ve seen the busy stylists at work in Cut Hair Salon on the street level. The 24 story building, which towers over the rest of that block of 13th Street, is the 86th tallest in the city. The Classical Revival structure was built in 1928 as the Chancellor Hall Hotel, left,  by architect Arthur W. Hall, who designed several other apartment and office buildings in Center City. Early newspaper ads described it as  an “ideal location in the center of the Philadelphia Business District.”

After World War II, there was a popular restaurant called “The Forge Room,” above, in the space that Cut now occupies. The Forge featured live entertainment – pianists, vocalists and even an acrobatic dancer or two. Some of the floors above were leased out as office space, and this is where the fun part of the story begins.

ROCK & ROLL, PHILLY STYLE

In 1957, a new record company that featured local Philadelphia talent rented office space in the building. That company, Chancellor Records, took its name from the hotel, but its logo from the Scottish Chancellor family. Chancellor Records, owned by Bob Marcucci, had its first hit on Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart in “With All My Heart,” sung by Jodie Sands. However, the label really became famous for its two major artists, South Philly teen idols Frankie Avalon, right, and Fabian Forte, below, left. Both were hired for their looks as much as for thier talent. Marcucci was able to get  the young artists a lot of exposure on the influential local TV show, “American Bandstand,” hosted by Dick Clark. Frankie Avalon recorded the hits “De De Dinah,” “You Excite Me,” “A Perfect Love” and “Venus” for Chancellor. Fabian gave us “Tiger Rag,” “Hold Me,” “Lovesick,” “Just One More Time,” “Steady Date” and “Turn Me Loose,”  see record labels, below. Chancellor Records along with its stars, Fabian and Frankie Avalon, helped make Philadelphia a dominant force in the 1950s and 1960s pop music scene.


By the early 1960s, however, both Fabian and Frankie Avalon began recording less and less and concentrating more on making movies in Hollywood, and Chancellor Records faded from pop music prominence.

POST-TEEN SCENE

In the 1980s, when the All In the Family strip bar still lingered a few doors down in the building that family friendly Nest occupies today, many of the Chancellor apartments were used as housing for students from the Philadelphia College of Art, which would soon merge into the University of the Arts. They rented for from $275 to $500 a month then. In the 1990s, it housed the offices of the City Paper. Today, the Chancellor’s studios and one bedroom apartments are still home to a mix of Center City students, young professionals and elderly. I’d bet that among that mix are more than a few LGBT tenants.

When the Westbury Met the Parker

The next stop on the Philadelphia Gayborhood history tour takes us to the corner of 13th and Spruce Streets, toward the southern end of the ‘hood. This story tells how the Parker Hotel and the Westbury Bar & Restaurant ended up together. Only a few doors down from the William Way Center, the Westbury is the place you will find us Archives volunteers after an evening of sorting, processing and cataloguing.

THE SPRUCE: A PROHIBITION ERA “BACHELOR HOTEL”

Busy Thirteenth Street runs north and south and acts as the Gayborhood’s Main Street. The once seedy north end, near Chestnut St., has only recently blossomed into a chic restaurant and shopping row, through a lot of imagination and the hard work of people like Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran. The southern end of the strip, however, is still held back by that 12 story eyesore, the Parker Hotel, at 261 S 13th St.  It’s hard to believe that the Parker began life in 1924 as an elegant bachelor apartment building called the Spruce Hotel, left. The Spruce contained 209 furnished rooms meant either long term for  single males who worked in the downtown city area, or short term for those who were visiting Philadelphia. Each room had a wash basin, a wall cabinet with shelves and either a shared or private bath and shower, which is pretty much true today. The street level lobby contained a restaurant and lounge and in the basement were a barber shop and laundry, see postcard below. In 1926, when Jack Dempsey fought Gene Tunney at Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Municipal Stadium, Tunney stayed at the Spruce Hotel.

From the 20s through the 60s, the Spruce Hotel was also a favorite residence for popular musicians staying in the city, including many African Americans. The post-war period in Philadelphia was really a golden age of music bars and dinner clubs; the city was a major stop on the national circuit.

Samuel & Anna Friedman

During the mid 1930s, Samuel and Anna Friedman, above,  left the drug store they had run on Diamond Street and opened the Spruce Hotel Drugs, later the Parker Hotel Drugs, at the NE corner of 13th and Spruce Streets. The photo below, shows their drugstore and luncheonette in 1960. Many thanks to Stacia Friedman for sharing these photos of her grandparents and their store with me.

1960 June PH Pharmacy

In the late 1960s, the Friedmans sold the business and the space became a cocktail lounge called The Fireplace Room. By 1971, the Parker Hotel Bar, as it was now called, was listed in the new national Gayellow Pages as a Philadelphia gay bar.

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THE WESTBURY WHEN IT WAS WEST

Westbury GrillThe Westbury began life as the hotel bar of the Westbury Hotel, (later, apartments), at 15th and Spruce Streets. The Westbury Grill, as it was called, was a music bar and restaurant and was frequently mentioned in Billboard Magazine in the 40s. Here’s an ad, right, for the Westbury from 1948, when $1.50 bought a lot more of a dinner than it does today. The bar and restaurant were popular with the theatre and concert crowds from nearby Broad Street.

In this photo from 1950, below, which looks west on the north side of Spruce St. toward 15th St., you can just see the “Westbury Grill & Bar” sign through the trees in the upper center. The photo has the same neighborhood feel that the street has today.

The Westbury Bar began appearing in gay guides about 1962 and by the 70s it became a staple of Philadelphia LGBT nightlife, always listed as “very popular” in those guides. Some of them describe the old Westbury as “semi-leather and denim.” Here’s the sign, left,  from the original Westbury on 15th St., circa 1973. That neighborhood thrived in the 70s, with the Allegro on Spruce St. to the east and Roscoe’s to the west and Steps around the corner on Delancey St..

Below is a photo from The Atlantic City News of two Westbury bartenders from 1980; Chuck Bongarde, left, who had already been working there 10 years when the picture was taken and Jack Applegate, right, who would later take over the business:

Here’s the corner today, below, with the Westbury Apartments still there, and a shoe repair shop partially occupying the old Westbury Bar space.

THE NEW WESTBURY MEETS THE PARKER

After expanding rapidly in the 70s, Philadelphia’s “gay ghetto” began to shrink in the late 80s, with the epicenter definitely moving toward the 13th St. strip east of Broad, where it would coalesce into today’s Gayborhood. The Bike Stop, Woody’s, Uncles and the 2-4 had all opened east of Broad St. in those years. In 1986, the Westbury made the move and re-opened on the southeast corner of Spruce and 13th Sts. as “The New Westbury,”  occupying the old Parker Hotel Bar space. It was the only business to migrate from west of Broad St. to east in that era. The Westbury  finally dropped the “New” in 1992. The bar and restaurant were owned by Jack Applegate in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, then for a few years by Ned Katuran.

TODAY

The Westbury has been at its present location for 24 years. Owner Chuck Brault took over management from Ned Katuran in August 2009, when the bar underwent major renovations, morphing into the friendly neighborhood sports bar it is today.

UPDATE

On October 20th, 2014 a small fire broke out on the 9th floor of the Parker Hotel and the 12 story building was evacuated. The fire showed that the hotel’s sprinkler system was not up to code and the hotel has been closed.  The fate of the building, which is now being sold, is unclear. On Friday, November 14, the owner of the Westbury announced that the bar would not re-open and Philadelphia’s shocked LGBT community learned that it has lost one of its oldest bars. Goodbye, Westbury.

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