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.

Tag: Key West

An Architectural Endeavor on Juniper St.

Juniper S 207 cupola

The building at 207 S Juniper St. which was home to Key West until 2008 has a lot in common with the building around the corner which housed Sisters until very recently. They both began as carriage houses, they both spent part of their lives as steakhouses, both owe a lot to Mel Heifetz and, unfortunately, they are both now closed. The Juniper Street building, however, took an interesting architectural detour in the early 20th century.

Juniper S 207 1912 Mellor & Meigs


Architects Walter Mellor and Arthur Ingersoll Meigs set up their original office in 1907 in the newly built Lafayette Building (now the Hotel Monaco), on the corner of 5th and Chestnut Streets. They were to become one of the most successful club and residential design firms in Philadelphia, designing over 130 projects over a thirty year span. In 1912, they bought an old carriage house at 207 S Juniper Street to “reclaim” as their new offices, above. They entirely remodeled the building in a rustic, English Cotswold style, adding a large wall of small paned windows on the Juniper Street façade, another on the Chancellor Street side second floor drafting room, below, and setting a charming cupola atop the south east side. (At the time, Mellor himself was living in a stable-turned-residence in Germantown.) The whole effect was of a picturesque nostalgia for a rural past in the midst of what was becoming a busy urban commercial area. In 1915, The Architectural Record described their new offices as being part of the successful movement for the reclamation of small, hidden urban properties that was happening in Boston and Philadelphia, which the magazine called “the two English cities in America.” In 1928, their concession to 20th century technological needs was the addition of an automobile garage to the southern end of the building. The firm prospered on Juniper Street for over 25 years, until Walter Mellor died in 1940.

Drafting Room


1973 Mitchells


In 1946, the site underwent another metamorphosis and opened as Mitchell’s Restaurant, above. Mitchell’s was a solid, archetypical mid-century Philadelphia steak and seafood restaurant. It was the kind of place where couples from Northeast who came into Center City for a night out would find cocktails and a consistently good meal. For forty years, Mitchell served short ribs, brisket and boiled beef with horseradish to well dressed theatre goers.  In the late 1970s, as competition grew from the innovative menus being served at the new restaurants that were part of the city’s “restaurant renaissance,” business began to drop off. Mitchell’s tried to reinvent itself in 1981, changing its classic menu to include Phila-centric dishes named “Mummers Melange,” “Ben’s Baby Lamb” and a surf and turf combo called “Penn’s Landing.” The new look didn’t work; Mitchell’s closed soon after.


By March of 1983, the new owners of 207 S Juniper St. were advertising in the Philadelphia Gay News as Your Place…or Mine, serving a simple American lunch and dinner and showing movies nightly on a giant video screen. Your Place was only to last a few months. Below is a rare photo of the building taken during that short time. As always, click on this, or any photo for a larger image view.

Your Place


To pay back a debt to long time gay rights supporter Mel Heifetz,  the owner gave over a half interest in the operation to him and Heifetz found himself in the bar business. Not long after, the original owner bowed out. On December 22, 1982, the bar reopened as Key West. Its lavish decor was inspired by the tropical Monster disco in Key West, which Heifetz loved; see opening night photo, below. (That’s Danny Ferris tending bar.)

Key West Opening Dec 22 1982

A stunning waterfall dropped all the way the from the top floor to the first, drawing the eye up three stories; there had been nothing like it in Philadelphia. The second floor held the bar and disco and on the first floor was the dining room, below, and cabaret.

Key West Buffet 80sThe Key West dining room set for a buffet

The cabaret featured local and national performers like Big Ed and his oversized cowboy hat; Mr. Ruby Rims, Amy Ryder; Carol O’Shaughnessy; and Jewish lesbian entertainer Lynn Lavner. Key West’s first manager was Richard McPeake, who was involved in the management of several Gayborhood clubs and who also wrote a column for Au Courant newspaper.

Big Ed.jpgBig Ed

1982 Key West - Ruby RimsMr. Ruby Rims keeping au courant


From the late 1990s through 2008 when it closed, Key West was owned and operated by Chick Winn. With a sports bar, two pool tables, a second floor disco and a top floor Sky Lounge, it served a far more eclectic clientele than many Gayborhood bars. It’s been shuttered for five years now. According to an article here last by fellow blogger Sandy Smith, the property was in the hands of Mark Bee, owner of the Silk City Diner on Spring Garden street. There was some activity there several months ago; the old signage was removed and the façade cleaned up, but things have been quiet lately. It’s one of those quirky, tucked away downtown buildings that does so much to give Center City a charming livability. It deserves a restoration and a new life.

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Very special thanks to Mel Heifetz and Jim Ross who took the time to share their memories and photographs of Key West with me.

Mel Heifetz Key West openingA dapper Mel Heifetz at the Key West opening

Straight Snapshot: And All That Jazz

It’s time again to explore one of those holes in the fabric of the Gayborhood. This time it’s the E-Z Park lot at 1311-1315 Locust Street, in the center of the block, across from the Library Company.

Locust 1319-21 Universalist Church of the Messiah


It would be hard to identify the location of the 1885 photograph, above, on today’s Locust Street, since every one of the buildings in the photo is now gone. This is the northeast corner of Locust and Juniper Streets, looking east. The building on the left, on the northwest corner, was a wonderful Frank Furness designed Library Company building, razed in the late 1930s, a victim of the Great Depression. In its place now stands the dingy four level parking garage next to Mamma Angelina’s pizzeria. In the center was the Universalist Church of the Messiah, designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, the Philadelphia architect famous for designing the dome of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Both the church and the next few rowhouses beyond it to the right were torn down around 1894 for two elegant new urban residences, below, designed by Wilson Eyre Jr.Locust & 13th 1319-1321 1894 copy

By the 1890s, the Historical Society had already moved onto the corner of 13th and Locust, the College of Physicians was diagonally across from that and the Library Company was in the building mentioned above at Locust and Juniper. Directly across the street from the Library, where the Sylvania is today was the Episcopal Academy. It was appropriate that Eyre designed two buildings in this intellectual neighborhood for archaeologist and writer Clarence B. Moore and the brilliant paleontologist Joseph Leidy, who was called “the last man who knew everything.” Locust Street was going upscale and highbrow.


Clement B Newbold 1912When wealthy banker and financier Clement B. Newbold, left, was planning a city home for himself and his young bride to complement their Jenkintown estate, he would hire architect Frank Miles Day, who had worked with Eyre, to build an immense townhouse on the double lot at 1313-1315 Locust Street next to the Leidy residence. Moore’s wife, the former Mary Scott, right, Mrs Newboldwas the socialite daughter of the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Thomas A. Scott; their combined fortunes were substantial. The couple spent two months traveling on their honeymoon in early 1897 while the Locust Street house was being completed. When it was done, it was acknowledged to be one of the most handsomely furnished houses in the city.

The façade of the house presented a formal central entrance flanked by two bays which housed a library and reception room. The entrance hall opened onto an incredible two story central hall and a dramatic double staircase, below, leading to the upper floor. Beyond the grand hall were a drawing room, dining room, breakfast room and a garden that wrapped behind the Moore and Leidy houses next door. Some of the buildings where Key West was until a few years ago were stables to this house.

Locust & 13th 1313 interior

Their life together was a whirlwind of Philadelphia Dancing Assembly balls, concerts, Horticultural Society functions, summers in Bar Harbor, Maine and winters in the Carolinas. Mary was a beauty and the darling of what the newspapers called “the young social set.” Their life seemed golden. The dream came crashing down for the couple in 1905, when, while recovering from an appendicitis operation, Mary suddenly died. From then on, Clement spent less and less time at the large, empty house on Locust Street.


Charlemagne Tower JrIn 1909, Newbold leased the house to his distinguished friends, Mr. and Mrs. Charlemagne Tower Jr.  Charlemagne Tower, left,  taught history and archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania and had had a long diplomatic career, serving as Minister to Austria and as Ambassador to both Russia and Germany. The Towers were friends with Leidys next door and were prominent members of Philadelphia’s social scene. At the beginning of World War I, Mrs. Tower turned their city residence into a meeting place for the American Red Cross. The Towers lived there happily with their daughters until 1916, when tragedy again visited the house, and the twenty year old youngest daughter, Gertrude, was killed when an automobile she was riding in overturned in Fairmount Park. The family retired from the Philadelphia social scene to their summer home in Waterville, NY and 1315 Locust Street was left in the charge of a caretaker.

1920s chorus


1922 12 31 PI  MurraysThe house stayed mostly vacant for about 6 years. In 1916, the police reported that intruders had broken in on Christmas night, helped themselves to a turkey dinner and several bottles of the best wine and made off with some of the silver. In December of 1922, an Inquirer ad, right, announced that the former Tower home, scene of so many highbrow society functions, was going to open as Prohibition-era Philadelphia’s newest jazz venue, to be called Murray’s, “The rendezvous for smart people.” It would be a branch of the famous Murray’s Cafe in New York, with after-theatre entertainment, including a revue featuring 26 chorus girls under the direction of Broadway designer Andre Sherri.


JohnnyJohnsonThe venue opened the day after Christmas in 1922, packed with members of society and city officials who could dance to the music of Johnny Johnson, left, and his Orchestra. The proximity of Locust Street to the first-class hotels and theatres on Broad Street made it the perfect locale to become a small late night entertainment district. Murray’s was the first music cafe to open on Locust, long before the many “musical bars” that would open there after World War II that would later turn into gay bars.

1931 Locust & 13th 1313In the mid 1920s, Murray’s Cafe became the swanky Club Madrid, run by Joe Moss, and was reputedly one of Philadelphia’s 12,000 Prohibition era speakeasies. Club Madrid lasted only until about 1930, a victim of the end of Prohibition and the beginning of the Great Depression. By 1931, the huge, expensive-to-maintain building was razed, right (that’s the Chancellor on 13th in the background). 

1313-15 Locust Street was a residence for the city’s elite for 25 years, a Prohibition era jazz club and speakeasy for 10 years and now it’s been a parking lot for over 80 years. In this picture, below, from 2011, you can also see the short-lived JR’s Lounge, now Spiga, on the right. In Philadelphia, buildings and businesses come and go, but parking lots are forever.

2011  1313 Locust


Just to add a little Prohibition era atmosphere to the story of 1313-15 Locust Street, here is a YouTube clip of Johnny Johnson and his Statler Pennsylvanians from 1927, playing the jazzy “We (My Honey and Me),” recorded at the RCA Victor studios, right across the river in Camden:

Icandy, Part II: The Swinging 60s and Beyond

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Hepburn's Gay Pride 90s


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

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


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

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


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

Leoncavallo wall tile

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

OCTOBER 1, 2014:

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