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.

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.


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


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.


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


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


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.

Dewey’s Famous


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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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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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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.


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


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.”

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!’”



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



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.


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.


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!


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


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.


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.


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.


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.”

. . . and what about the Venture Inn?

There are probably more stories about the history of the Venture Inn at 255 S Camac St. than about any other gay bar in Philadelphia. The stories run like this: “It was the stable of the house owned by the Barrymores,” “It was part of the Underground Railroad,”   “It was already a popular eating and drinking spot by the time of the 1876 Centennial.”

What’s the truth?


For some reason, the two block length of Camac Street running from Walnut to Spruce was developed by about 1800, much earlier than the surrounding blocks. About 1813, the street appears in directories as Hazel Alley, then a bit later as Dean’s Alley and by the end of that decade as Dean Street. It would remain Dean Street for most of the 19th century, until about 1898, when the hodge podge of street names  in Philadelphia were regularized. It was then renamed Camac, because it was in a line with Camac Street which ran above Master Street in North Philadelphia. I cut down Camac St. whenever I’m walking in the area. It’s a lovely street; most of the row of houses on the north side of Camac between Locust and Spruce Streets date from the early 1820s. The Venture Inn, at 255 S Camac, was originally the stable to 217 Spruce Street and was built a bit later, in the 1830s. In the picture, left, from 1900, the Renaissance-inspired circular relief of the infant on the northern wall that we still see today is visible. It’s copied from decorations on the 1419 Ospedale degli Innocenti orphanage in Florence. I’d love to know why it’s there and when it was put on.

Let’s start with the Barrymore legend. The story seems date back to an article that appeared in the 1937 WPA Guide to Philadelphia. The Guide stated that John Barrymore’s grandparents, Louisa and John Drew, lived at 255 S Camac St. in the 1850s. There are problems with that. Not only was 255 definitely still a stable then, but city directories list the Drews as living further north, on Buttonwood Street, in that period. Perhaps the story had something to do with the nearby Barrymore Apartments at 238 Camac Street, which were built around the time the Guide was written. No Barrymores ever lived there, either.

• • •


In the 1850s and early 1860s, when the Underground Railroad was most active, 1217 Spruce Street and the stable behind were owned by the Harrison family, who were well-to-do manufacturers of chemicals and the white lead used in paint, above. The grandfather Thomas Harrison, was indeed a Quaker and a member of the abolitionist society in Philadelphia. The photo, left, is of his grandson Thomas, who was living at 1217 Spruce St. in the late 1850s. Was he or the family involved with hiding fugitive slaves? Possibly; but there are several things to consider. First, although all Quakers were abolitionists, only a small minority of Quaker families were ever involved in the Underground Railroad. Second, despite the use of the term “underground,” the network usually did not involve actual tunnels like those that exist on Camac Street. There are many tunnels scattered throughout Center City. The fact is that most of them were used to hide illegal Prohibition hooch and not fugitive slaves. Lastly, by the 1850s, the Harrisons were two generations removed from their abolitionist grandfather. All of that being said, if there is a link between the Venture Inn building and the Underground Railroad network, the most likely one would be through the Harrison family.


From 1889 to 1902, 1217 Spruce Street was the home of Civil War veteran Reverend Leverett Bradley. The Rev. Bradley, right, was the rector of St. Luke’s Church a block away on 13th St. In 1898, under his rectorship, the parish of St. Luke combined with the congregation of the Church of the Epiphany on Chestnut and 15th Streets to become the gay-friendly Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany that we know today.

After the ill Rev. Bradley moved out in 1902, the former Spruce St. rectory became home to Dr. Ernest Kelsey and his two daughters who entertained there regularly, giving afternoon teas and luncheons to other families listed in Philadelphia society’s “Blue Book.” In 1908, Kelsey had work done on the back stable, putting in a new door and windows to make the space more usable. It also gets its own address: 255 S Camac St. From here on the story of the house and the stable diverge.


By 1911, Inquirer employment ads appear that read “Laundresses, housemaids waiters and cooks wanted. Miss Platz at the German Scandinavian Office at 255 S Camac, between 12th and 13th.” Miss Platz ran her employment service “for white Protestants ” there until the fall of 1916.

In 1919, entrepreneur Blanche L. James opened 255 S Camac St. as the Venture Tea Room. This is the first time that the building houses any kind of restaurant. The postcard, below, from the Free Library’s collection,  shows the interior of the Venture Tea Room and Art Shop in the early 1920s.

It’s possible that the post card ended up in the Free Library collection because the Special Libraries Council of Philadelphia regularly dined there before their meetings. Tea rooms in the 1920s were places run by independent, short skirt wearing “new” women who could show off both their self-reliance and their Bohemian flair, selling handcrafted bric-a-brac, antiques and curiosities along with tea and dainty cucumber luncheon sandwiches. From 1925 on, Blanche partnered with Corinne Meyers and Rose Kessler, running the Venture Bookshop, Gardens and Tea Room a block north at 201 S Camac, (the building that later became the Camac Baths.) A 1928 tourist guide book called it “A Droll Little Building in White.”


In 1931, now owned by George and Helen Cappo, the restaurant was first advertised as the Venture Inn. After World War II it is run by Dick Nolan and, like so many other small restaurants and bars in the Washington West area, it was a “musical bar,” serving up food, drinks and live entertainment. The featured pianist there through the 1940s was Temple graduate Charles Swierleft, top row, second from the right, who sang with a vocal trio called “The Three Dandies,” wrote several musical comedies with Beaumont Breustle and had a show on KYW radio with vocalist Patti Marsh.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the Venture Inn became a Center City hangout for college age kids, see photo below, right from 1951. Interviews I’ve conducted with older gay men from the William Way Center’s “Silver Foxes” confirm that fact. In 1962, a Philadelphia Magazine article about Philadelphia’s gay subculture called “The Furtive Fraternity,”  listed the Venture Inn among the bars in the city which were places that homosexuals frequented. This was the first mention I’ve found of the Venture Inn as having any gay clientele.


In 1973 the Venture Inn went from being a “gay friendly” bar to being a gay bar, when it was bought by Hans Lang, who had previously owned The Midway on 12th Street, which is iCandy today. See an early ad for the Venture Inn, above. Since 1973, the Venture Inn has been well known both as a gay bar and a restaurant.

In May of 1977, the business came under the ownership of Ted Wasserman, photo left, Ted’s in the center. Ted would operate the Inn for the next 30 years. By 2000 both the building and the clientele were beginning to show their age and the Venture got a reputation as attracting an “older crowd.” In 2004, rumors floated around that Ted was looking to sell. The business didn’t change hands until 2007, when Bob Berkowitz, the present owner, took over. Bob brought in a new kitchen staff and got the place and the business back on its feet – in 2008, the Venture Inn won the Philadelphia Rainbow Award for best Bar/Pub.

The stucco façade of the Venture Inn has just been totally refurbished and painted a medium gray with a new navy blue awning over the door. It really looks great; it’s worth a walk down charming Camac Street just to see.

• • •

So, what’s the truth?

The Venture Inn does have a long and unique history; not a Barrymore in sight, but, yes,  possibly an Underground Railroad connection. In any case, I doubt that any other U.S. city can boast a gay bar that’s tucked a way on a 200 year old side street and is housed in a building that had been a stable to Quaker abolitionists and a Prohibition era tea room.

• You can see the fifteenth century Andrea della Robbia terracotta tondi on the loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti here.

• Y

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.
* * *

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.