A weekly series of foul-mouthed investigations into empty lots, dead-ass proposals and other design phenomena in Philadelphia. Find more stories like this at Philaphilia.blogspot.com.
310-316 South 13th Street
This is the emptiest lot I can think of. It doesn't look too serious: a 60-foot wide parking lot behind a University of the Arts dorm. Nonetheless, the emptiness of this lot becomes clear when you realize that this piece of land has NEVER had a building on it. Ever! This 60-foot gap on 13th Street has been there forever. Only a few feet under that asphalt is some original virgin Philadelphia soil. Now that's an empty lot.
How did this happen? Well, it starts with the Old St. Mary's Catholic Church. At the end of the 18th Century, they were running out of space in their burial ground on 4th Street. They and other Catholic Churches in the city were looking to build a proper cathedral and Catholic cemetery somewhere in the city's more wild reaches to the west, which back then meant anywhere west of 9th Street. Though land was purchased at 9th and Walnut for a cathedral, it never happened. However, on May 5th, 1800, the Church spent 149 British Pounds for two lots on 13th Street between Budd (now Cypress) and Pine Streets and started burying bodies there right away. This ground would become known as St. Mary's Burial Ground and/or St. Mary's Cemetery for the next 99 years.
When the plot started being used as a burial ground, 13th Street was so far outside the developed portion of the city that it was difficult to discern whether it was 12th or 13th Street. Numerous records from the early 19th Century refer to the ground as being on 12th instead. It's very likely that they got 13th confused for 12th and Juniper confused with 13th. The lot was fenced-in around 1808 in order to discern it from another burial ground at the corner of 13th and Budd (Cypress) that served the Union Presbyterian Church that once stood across the street.
Eventually, the rest of the city caught up with the cemetery. By 1840, the area was fully developed and the grand St. Luke's Episcopal Church (later named St. Luke and the Epiphany) was built immediately south of St. Mary's Cemetery. Therefore, there was a Presbyterian Burial Ground, Catholic Cemetery, and Episcopal Church on three consecutive properties. St. Mary's Burial Ground was massively overcrowded by this point and the methods used for internment were cited as violations by the Board of Health for 15 years prior. New burials were taking place at a new plot, known as St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery, at 11th and Moore Streets (now the site of SS Neumann-Goretti Catholic High School).
The burial ground in 1875. Image from the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
For the next three decades after that, the 13th Street burial ground only took new internments for descendants of the bodies that were already there. The last reported burial on the site of this lot was in 1875, by which time the old Presbyterian burial ground next door had been moved and built upon. By the end of the 1890s, St. Mary's Burial Ground was looking like shit. The whole place was overgrown and the gravestones had decayed to the point of being unreadable. A call was put out to families to come claim their ancestors, stating that the ground would be sold and the bodies moved.
In 1899, the land was sold to the St. Luke of the Epiphany Church next door and became part of their property. In May of 1899, the remaining skeletons were all rounded up and re-buried at the 11th and Moore location, the unreadable gravestones buried along with them. St. Luke of the Epiphany sat on the land for the next 20 years. No one knows what their plans for the site were, but by 1920 they gave up and sold the land to legendary building contractor/real estate speculator John McShain, Sr, who would also sit on it for awhile.
Around the same time, a new style of office building was being created -- ones designed to hold numerous companies of a particular industry. The Architect's Building, the Medical Arts Building, and the Professional Building were early Philadelphia examples of this. An office building of this type would also be created for the many many philanthropic Social Service agencies of the period.
The Children's Aid Society and the Society for Organizing Charity were the biggest boosters of this new Social Service Building, claiming that real estate prices in what we now call Center City were too high for most philanthropic organizations and that there was no fireproof storage for the immense pile of records all these groups produce. These organizations were transitioning into more official and professionalized systems, which also contributed to the need for dedicated office spaces. The site of the old burial ground on 13th Street was chosen due to its proximity to the city's worst neighborhoods of the period.
A whole slew of the city's richest motherfuckers, most of which were in direct competition with each other, threw together the $548,000 required to build this new 10-story Social Service Building. For the architect, they chose the one that had designed most of their houses, Horace Trumbauer. The cornerstone was laid in January of 1924 and the building was completed in the Spring of the following year. This was likely Trumbauer's most understated and ordinary design, just brick and windows with very little embellishment. The building would be massed on the Juniper Street side of the old burial ground, leaving the 13th Street side as a street-level service entrance and play area.
The building was a huge success. By 1929, it housed 30 individual organizations. In 1960, the play area/service entrance was altered into a surface parking lot. The small brick wall and iron fence was erected at the same time, giving the lot the appearance it has today. The Social Service Building stayed in use under its original purpose until 1998, when it was sold to a developer with the intention of being turned into apartments. In 1999, the University of the Arts purchased the half-altered building and haphazardly made it into dorms, due to a huge debacle with NIMBYS over building a new dorm at 313 South Broad. They have used the building (and therefore the empty lot) ever since.
It's pretty incredible that a lot in this part of Philly is so empty that it's never had construction on it -- and it probably never will. UArts values its few parking spaces. It's very doubtful that they would ever give this up. The bodies that used to be buried here are now piled up in a mass grave at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, PA. As has happened in the past with former burial grounds, it's likely that there are still some human remains sitting there underneath the parking lot. So when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, be ready for some 13th Street undead.
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