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Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Last Word, Philly's Charles Morris Price School and The Poor Richard Club (From ICON Magazine, February 2012)


(From ICON Magazine, February 2012)

The neighborhood near Philadelphia’s 13th and Locust Streets in the late 1960s was a rustic patchwork of small pizza cafes, countercultural button and literature shops, a strip joint on the corner of Locust Street, and a host of easy luncheonette eateries like Dewey’s and Robert’s Deli. At the southeast corner of Broad and Locust Street stood the remains of The Hotel Walton (later renamed the John Bartram Hotel), a dark, Draconian looking palace designed by Angus “Anxious” Wade, an artist who later became an architect. Opened in 1896, the ornate interior included Pompeian brick, vaulted ceilings, symmetrical stairs, and Elizabethan strapped pattern ceilings. The hotel was demolished in 1966.

The area is also home to Camac Street, or “The Little Street of Clubs,” with its fine array of two-story 19th century structures that house some of the most artistic and Bohemian clubs in the city. Often referred to as Egg Head Row, on this one block radius between Walnut and Locust Street you’ll find the Sketch Club, the nation’s oldest artists club; the Plastic Club, the nation’s oldest arts club for women, and the Franklin Inn Club, founded in 1902 but located on Camac Street since 1907. The Franklin Inn Club was originally founded as a meeting place for literary artists and journalists with the intent to promote the city’s literary scene.

In 1966, a prominent new building in the area was the new Library Company of Philadelphia building at 1314 Locust Street. This pleasant looking soft Modernist structure blended well with the streetscape. Facing the Library Company on the other side of the street was the Poor Richard Club and the Club’s adjoining Charles Morris Price School of Journalism and Advertising. The Poor Richard Club was a private club made up of professionals from the field of advertising. Its aim was to encourage (and even enforce) ethical guidelines in advertising, as well as to promote business and social relationships among its members.

Say the words ‘Poor Richard,’ and most people think of Ben Franklin. While the Club was named after the imaginary ‘Philomath’ (or scholar) of Franklin’s Almanac, the Club and school were not founded by Franklin. Some confusion still exists around this fact, probably because the name Poor Richard has such rich historical roots that people naturally assume that Franklin had a direct hand in its founding.

A January 2011 obituary in the Palm Beach Daily News, for instance, noted that the town’s vice mayor, Leon Sol Zimmerman, “graduated from the Charles Morris Price School of Advertising,” which was founded by Benjamin Franklin.”

Philadelphia’s Poor Richard Club was founded in 1906, one year after the establishment of a Poor Richard Club in New York. From a humble 75 members by 1911, membership climbed to 350. From an original clubhouse in a large Victorian house at 239-241 Camac Street, the Club moved to 1319 Locust Street in 1925.

Old Philadelphia buildings generally live many lives. Before the amassed army of ad men in bow ties and spectacles laid claim to the Locust Street address, the Wilson Eyre, Jr. Colonial Revival domestic single dwelling building with its Armory-strong exterior of brick, sandstone and brownstone, was the home and office of Joseph Leidy, Jr. MD. While no relation to noted paleontologist Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), who headed The Wagner Institute of Science of Philadelphia, and was a Professor of Anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, Liedy, Jr was a city doctor who probably worked on patients in rooms that later became the classrooms for the Price School.
Wilson Eyre, Jr.’s Philadelphia projects include the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Mask and Wig Clubhouse, and the fountain at Logan Square. Noted for his country houses and Shingle-style residences, Eyre, Jr. although born in Florence, Italy, began his architectural career in Philadelphia. He was president of the Philadelphia chapter of the AIA from 1897 to 1902.
The Joseph Leidy, Jr. house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1980, one year after it was sold. The Poor Richard Club folded a few years later, followed by the Price School.

Today the building is the headquarters of the National Union of Hospital & Health Care Employees, District 1199C. While this name has a lackluster ring, the structure could have fared a lot worse: a Poor Richard’s Urban Outfitters or a University of the Arts affiliate student dorm (with its antecedent “I burned the pork chops” false fire alarms) would have meant a renovated (destroyed) interior. Historic buildings that are forced to reinvent themselves in order to avoid the wrecking ball inevitably lose much if not all of their original identity. Most people passing what was once the Poor Richard Club today see it as just another old Philadelphia structure, although I have often heard it referred to as an “an old church” “a small Masonic temple,” or “that Locust Street Armory building.”

News pertaining to life cycles of historic buildings cannot match the culture’s major distractions like Justin Bieber, the hog-tied antics of Lady Gaga, or the hellish world of the Kardashians. Scholars and the determined, of course, will always dig for history but most people will not. Still, if there’s such a thing as an ethereal depository of history, this means that the walls of the old Poor Richard Club are rich in archival memory.

In 1933, the Club was crucial in the establishment of the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial. The Club’s Annual Gold Medal of Achievement
was a national news event, beginning with award winners such as Amelia Earhart, Walt Disney (1934), Will Rogers (1935), Henry Ford II (1954), Bob Hope (1945) and Clare Booth Luce (1955). Even President William Taft spoke at the Club’s annual 1914 dinner, held at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.

The Charles Morris Price School Price School students did not enter through the Club but had a separate side door entrance. A narrow staircase of nearly 29 steps led to the foyer-office of the School Registrar. A main classroom, with windows overlooking Locust Street, accommodated about fifty students. With courses like Writing for Magazines, Creative Selling, Public Relations, News Reporting, Marketing, and Public Speaking, students in the late 1960s dressed in jacket and tie or professional business attire. Smoking was permitted in the classrooms—some students even brought their own ashtrays. Lunch time was an hour to explore the restaurants along the 13th Street corridor or on nearby Broad Street, such as the Havey House, with its signature plank steak, or steak served on a wooden board. A small bar at the corner of 13th and Walnut, Alvin’s Alley, famous for its dark oak interior, conversation, and cheap draft, attracted many male students after class. Alvin’s Alley was known as a reporter’s bar long before the days of Pete Dexter and Dirty Frank’s. Al’s had a Glenn Ford film noir look with a stench of stale beer scripted in the walls.

Price students came in two varieties: the advertising and marketing majors who wished to become business professionals and the writers or journalists, who either wanted to become reporters, magazine writers or novelists. The first group outnumbered the second; leaving the second smaller group wondering if they were even in the right school. Because the Price School was a professional “graduate” school, the age range of students ranged from 18 to 50.

Famous Price teachers at the time included the bespectacled and very bald Mr. Seltz, who could quote Dale Carnegie while standing on his head; the unflappable, and Irish-reserved and always well- dressed Mrs. Kearney; and Dean Kaplan, as tall as a redwood tree and who with his with his owl like tortoise shell glasses looked like something in a New Yorker cartoon.

Is There a Bathroom in The House? I doubt whether there’s a man or woman in the City of Philadelphia who hasn’t felt the need to use a public restroom while out on the town. It can happen while shopping, clubbing, or while taking a casual ride on the subway.

But finding a spot “to go” is not easy.

“Restrooms for Customers Only” signs are popular in city bars and restaurants. Of course if you are “gifted” at “May I use your restroom” politicking, then you stand a chance, otherwise you are out of luck and may be forced to consider doing the unspeakable: Going behind a dumpster.

Feeling the urge and finding a place to go may be easier in the neighborhoods, but if you’re in Center City, you may not have time to get to an appropriate spot.

When I was in Paris several years ago (a city that has public restrooms by the way), I was shocked to discover that hundreds of men openly relieve themselves late at night along the Champs Elysees. The French were oblivious to the sight; even police officers looked the other way. In Philadelphia, behavior like this can net you a one hundred dollar fine.

But honestly, what’s a gentleman or lady to do if there are no public restrooms?

“South Street,” Councilman David Cohen told Philadelphia City Council in 2004, “is the city’s second most visited tourist area—yet there are no public facilities available for all these tourists.”

The situation remains the same in 2012, although there’s no reason why Philadelphia cannot do what almost every European and Canadian city has done: install retractable urinals and toilets that are invisible during the day but quite obvious at night during the peak after bar hours.

It makes sense to me: If you don’t want tourists and urbanites to do “the nasty” in public, then provide public restrooms!

Last year The Philadelphia Daily News reported on the lack of public restrooms in the Italian Market area. The paper quoted many restaurant owners who said that they would not allow the public to use their “employee only” restrooms. Exceptions to the rule might include extreme hardship cases, like a mother and child in distress, or that one-in-a-million customer with a good “Please let me use the bathroom” line. Ordinarily Italian Market customers are told to go to the public restrooms at the Capitolo Playground at 9th and Federal. Unfortunately, the Capitolo restrooms are usually closed at night and locked up during the day as a protection from vandals.

Like the homeless situation that used to exist in Dilworth Plaza, many Philadelphia public restrooms have been closed because of the vagrant problem. It’s not uncommon to hear that once reliable city restrooms in city gas stations or mini-markets have been closed because the owners were tired of having them vandalized. Rather than constantly fix up the destroyed property, the owners opted to simply close them. As a result, everybody suffers.

Finding a public restroom is a little easier in New York City.

New York City has 468 subway stations but among those stations one can find at least 78 subway restrooms open to the public. 78 may not be much compared to what NYC had in 1940 (1,676 public toilets), but it trumps Philadelphia. There are no public restrooms on any of the stops along the Broad Street subway or the Market-Frankford El, minus of course, the new facilities at the Frankford Transportation Center and the terminal at 69th Street. But at the hundreds of small stops in-between, there’s nothing but a waiting platform and a private restroom for employees only.

Philadelphia on New Year’s Day, especially along the Broad Street concourse during the Mummer’s parade, attracts revelers who line up the way they do in Paris. While the police discourage such behavior, the sheer numbers of law breakers makes handing out tickets impossible.

Under the Rendell administration, the city tried to do install self-cleaning public restrooms in the city but the deal fell through when the city and the manufacturer couldn’t agree on how they were to be funded.

Can a major tourist attraction like Philadelphia afford to wait any longer?
As a City Councilman said in Detroit, “We spend a lot of time and energy promoting our downtown-then when people get here, there’s no place for them to use the bathroom.”

The Chinese may have the answer. The city of Beijing installed 7,700 public toilets in city streets because the government there feels that all travelers should find a toilet within an 8-minute walk in the business area.

After decades of inaction, last year Philadelphia did install a pilot pay toilet near City Hall. Complete with a self-cleaning apparatus and piped in music, the structure proved too good to be true. The pilot program simply vanished.

Now it’s back to business as usual, or to the streets of Paris…

Sell the Mansion but don’t go Crazy

Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput did a brave thing when he announced that the Archdiocese would be selling its 13,000 square foot, 3-story stone mansion at 5700 City Avenue. The sixteen-room, six-car garage structure sits on slightly more than 8 acres of land and has been described as a “baronial home.” Purchased for $115,000 in 1935 by Cardinal Dennis Dougherty at a time when mansions like this seemed appropriate for ‘Princes of the Church,’ the opulent residence has come to be seen as an embarrassment of riches in the wake of financially-driven closings of Catholic schools and parishes.

Yet Archbishop Chaput’s decision to sell the mansion and possibly live in the Cathedral rectory has some observers going off the deep end. “Sell everything,” they proclaim, “Sell the Vatican museum, sell St. Peter’s, sell tabernacles and centuries old liturgical art.” Such die-hard calls for 1st Century austerity fail to take into account the difference between opulent personal living versus the ancient Jewish belief that nothing was too good when it came to building or decorating “the place where God lives,” or the Temple in Jerusalem. For decades hard working Catholics gave willingly to build churches that would stand the test of time. Nothing was too good for a temple, be it marble altar rails, towering frescoes or a gilded high altar. Living a simpler “humbler” life should mean downsizing from a mansion to a house, not turning churches into concrete Brutalism bunkers.

Thom Nickels