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: Spruce St.

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


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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.


A Home for the Community Center Part III


In this, the third and last part of the story of t 1315 Spruce St., two buildings become one and later on Philadelphia ‘s LGBT Center finally gets its own home.


In 1929, after 22 years at the Spruce St. location, rather than move again, the Engineers Club decided to undertake major renovations and remodelling to make the two very different buildings’ exteriors reflect their interior usage. The picture, left, was taken in August of 1929, right before this makeover, when the  Club occupied the two buildings with awnings in the center.  Since the window levels on both buildings were different, they chose to entirely rebuild the front, rather than to just reface the old façades.  The architectural style they chose was Colonial Revival, which had become very popular after the country’s sesqui-centennial in 1926. The work was begun in late 1929, not long after the photo above was taken, and completed by the end of the year.

The result is shown at the right. Moving the entrance to the center gave a pleasing, symmetrical dignity to the façade. The matching pair of buildings on each side adds to the effect. Compared with the previous picture taken only a few months before, the transformation was incredible. New windows were installed and both old entrances were sealed off. The eastern 1315 entrance was not to reappear until fire codes required it in the 1960s. The front lobby space was entirely opened up, with only one supporting column where the old dividing wall had been between the two buildings. You can compare the new 1929 plan of the first floor, below, with the 1917 plan shown below in Part II.


The three pictures below were taken for insurance purposes in the ’30s. You can almost smell the leather and cigar smoke.

The club’s dining room, which is today’s Philadelphia Room.

The lobby and the Library alcove used for exhibit space now.

The rear main stairway and the fireplace that once graced the corner to the left of the dining room entrance.

THE 1940s AND 1950s

Renovations and improvements were continually made on the now hundred year old structure. The kitchen was renovated and new refrigeration added in 1945 and in 1948 the booths were installed in the bar downstairs. The building next door at 1319 had been torn down in the late 1930s and was already being used as a parking lot by the Burlington Apartments. In the mid-1940s the Club had to add reinforcements to the exposed west wall and paid to have the parking lot resurfaced to stop leaks into the basement of the club building.

In the late 1950s, there were still dormitory rooms for members for rent on the third and fourth floors and the basement bar continued to be a money-maker. The club looked once more into purchasing the 1319 lot, but it was not available. They turned their energies into re-doing the lobby and hired interior designers from Wanamakers to repaint, slipcover the furniture and add new rugs. A few floral prints were even added to the Ladiesʼ Reception Room to soften the “institutional effect.” The Society of Women Engineers, which was formed in 1950, affiliated in 1959, but the first woman did not join the Engineersʼ Club of Philadelphia until 1961. By 1969 there were 5 women members.


Throughout the 1960s, the Engineers continued to update the heating, lighting and cooling systems. When they decided to refurbish the public areas again they turned to socialite New York decorator, Dorothy Draper, left.

Dorothy Draper was the first woman in America to head her own interior design firm. Her style and use of color were big, brash and bold, using traditional elements in a grandiose, somewhat shocking manner. In 1939, she had published “Decorating is Fun!: How to be Your Own Decorator,” the first do-it-yourself interior design book.

Draper had been the darling of the wealthy Rittenhouse set in Philadelphia in the 1930s and ʻ40s. When the engineers hired her she was in her 70s, but still writing a syndicated home design advice column called “Ask Dorothy Draper.” The article below appeared in 1962. . . little did she know!

THE 1970s & 1980s

The last pictures we have of the clubhouse when it belonged to the engineers are from a brochure they published about 1979, just after the centennial of the Club. Below are some photos from that brochure. You can compare them with the 1930s pictures, above.

The Philadelphia Room. Red, white and brown galore.

The front lobby. Even MORE red carpeting.

The basement bar. Cocktails, anyone?

In the 1980s, the Engineers decided that the building was too large for them. They moved out in 1989, first, to temporary quarters in the Public Ledger Building on 6th and Chestnut Streets, then, to their present home at the Racquet Club on 16th Street. 1315 Spruce Street would remain vacant for 7 years. The company that owned the building wanted to demolish the huge old  building, and turn the space into a parking lot. They got permission to tear down the club, but not for the parking lot idea.


Since 1990, the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia, or Penguin Place, as it was then known, had been housed in a space at 201 Camac St. After years of renting less than ideal spaces around Center City and even existing as “The Center without Walls,”  the center committee had begun the search for a permanent building. The photos below are from a 1993 appraisal of the old Engineersʼ Club as a suitable new home for the Center. The building had only been empty 4 years, but the neglect was showing.

The lobby.

The Pennsylvania Room, tattered red carpet and all.

In 1996 the board approved the purchase of the building, and named it in honor of board member William Way, who had died of AIDS in 1988. Bill Way had embodied the spirit that kept the Community Center alive through the ʻ80s when it was “Penguin Place, the Community Center without Walls.” The William Way Community Center has flourished here for over 15 years now, at 1315 Spruce Street, the first building the community has owned.

For more information on the story of this building and block, stop by the Willam Way Community Center and ask at the desk to see the booklet “1315-1317 Spruce Street; A Brief History.”

A Home for the Community Center: Part II

This is the second part of the story of the building at 1315 Spruce St., in the heart of Philadelphia’s Gayborhood,  that houses the William Way Community Center and its splendid “Pride and Progress” mural.


In 1907, the Engineers’ Club of Philadelphia on Girard Street, (now Ludlow), was looking for a larger space to use as a clubhouse. The club had been formed in 1877, sparked by the meeting of engineers from all over the world at the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park the year before. In November of 1907, they purchased the old Potts residence at 1317 Spruce St. for $55,000, see newsapaper clipping, right. They entirely renovated it, putting in a smoking room, dining room, and library on the first floor, an assembly room on the second floor and a rathskeller and billiards room in the basement. The third and fourth floors were divided into small residences for the members. Most of these are offices today.

The Engineers’ Club held its first meeting in their new home in December of 1907, which also marked its 30th anniversary. The photo, left, shows the old Potts building with its second floor central bay window. To the left is the edge of 1319, which is where the parking lot now, and to the right is 1315, which has since been rebuilt. These two buildings show us what the entire original row of 1840s houses on Spruce St. looked like. Of those original rowhouses only 1305, 1309 and 1311 remain today.

The restaurant, where todayʼs Philadelphia Room is, opened in 1909.  At this time membership was all male, and only male wait staff was used in the dining room. A sign in the rathskeller indicated “Wines and liquors will not be served to ladies unless accompanied by members.”


Membership continued to increase over the next ten years and the club rented out offices in the building to other allied oganizations, much as the WWCC does today. Once again, they needed more space. The engineers were able to negotiate with the owners of 1315 Spruce and began to raise money to purchase that building. The photo, above, shows the second floor assembly room, spanning only three windows instead of today’s six, set up for the campaign to raise money to purchase the building next door. It was, in fact, the need for a larger assembly room that had been the major factor in deciding to expand.

In 1917, they did combine the two buildings. The plan was to carry out much of the initial work in a few weeks, to make the first and second floors as useful as soon as possible, see original plans, above.  You can see the new parlor and lounging room for the men and a new “ladies’ dining rooom” – this was still very much an all male club. One of the problems was that the floor levels between 1315 and 1317 were no longer even since 1317 had been entirely rebuilt by Mr. Potts. Importantly, the second floor renovation would double the size of the assembly room, allowing for a projection booth – very high tech for 1917. The engineersʼ Proceedings mentioned the difficulty in finding a steel beam that would span the third floor floor, allowing for an assembly room without support columns. (This is the same beam everyone needs to climb over today to get from the elevator to the third floor offices).

The picture, left, was taken in August of 1929. The Engineersʼ Club space now occupied the two very different looking buildings with awnings in the center. To the left, most of 1319 is also visible, and to the far right the Lenox Apartments, which had been constructed in 1917. It still doesn’t look at all like the building we see today.

Next time: A Beauty Makeover


The information and the photos here came from many places, among them :

– The amazing collection at the John J. Wilcox Jr. GLBT Archives at the William Way Center
– Microfilm of The Philadelphia Inquirer at the Free Library
– The Engineers’ Club papers and journals at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
– City Directories, Atlases and Boyd’s Philadelphia Blue Books, 1880-1920
– Ray Fuller’s Through the Years, a history of the Engineers’ Club published in 1970

A Home for the Community Center: Part I

When the William Way Community Center officially opened at 1315 Spruce Street on July 1, 1997, it had already been through four rented homes and a four year incarnation as “Penguin Place, the Community Center Without Walls.”  This would be the first building that it owned, a building with a long, wonderful history that connects it with the broader story of the growth of the city.


You can see from the 1842 map, left, that the block on the north side of Spruce between 13th Street and Juniper, all within the red circle,  was still vacant.  It wasn’t built up with  a string of identical “Philadelphia rowhouses” until the late 1840s.  The developer then sold off the individual units one by one, much as developers do with condo units today. Ads posted in the Inquirer called them “finished in very handsome modern style, and replete with all the modern improvements and conveniences.”  All of them had “L” shaped additions on the back to house kitchens. Just to the north, facing Locust Street, was the large estate and garden of General Patterson.  His mansion, below, seen looking southeast, would serve as the first home of the Historical Society at the SW corner of Locust and 13th Streets. It’s strange to see this large open space in the center of the crowded Gayborhood where the Historical Society, the Library Company and a few businesses fill out the block today.


The “handsome, modern” row of houses on Spruce would be sold off one by one to  solid, middle to upper-middle class Philadelphians: doctors, lawyers, civil engineers and merchants. Their respected names would all appear in the Philadelphia Blue Book published toward the end of the century. The dwelling at 1315 Spruce was sold to Benjamin Etting, a Jewish China trade merchant and a relation of educator and philanthropist Rebecca Gratz. Next door, to the west, at 1317, was John B. Budd a prosperous importer and exporter of goods with the Carribean who fed Union soldiers there during the Civil War. On the property map, right, from 1875, Etting’s name is mispelled as “E. Wing.” It’s these two rowhouses that would be combined in the next century to make the present home of the William Way Center. The home of Reading Railroad engineer Moncure Robinson at 1319 is now the parking lot which the “Pride and Progress” mural faces.

Benjamin Etting died in 1875 at the age of 80 and not long after 1315 Spruce was sold to B. Maurice Gaskill, publisher, merchant and University of Pennsylvania  graduate. John Budd at 1317 had died in 1868, and his widow remained there until her death in 1891.


The property at 1317 was then bought by Charles W. Potts, above, who owned a large steel and iron business that his father, W.F. Potts, had built.  Charles and his wife tore the original building down and constructed a larger,  grander and “more modern”  house, which became popularly  known as “The Potts Mansion.” This explains the grand staircase and the decorative woodwork on the west side of the lobby of the building, the 1317 side.  For the next ten years, the Potts’ social life was faithfully recorded in the society pages of the Inquirer; they gave teas, dinners and dances and traveled to Europe. When Charles died of a stroke in 1904, the list of art works from his estate that were auctioned off attested to his wealth and prominence. You can click on the newspaper clipping, left, to see a more detailed description of the Potts estate sale. After his death, the building would lie empty for three years.

Next time: The Engineers arrive.