November 27December 4, 1997
Blasts from the past along Center City's back street.
by Margit Detweiler
In the early 1800s, much of the area we now think of as 13th Street was open fields. The street developed as the city spread from the Delaware River, not seeing much action until the mid-19th century.
Even then, commercial development lagged behind that of neighboring thoroughfares.
"In the second half of the century, the center of town seemed to skip 13th Street," says Philadelphia historian Ken Finkle.
But commercial use increased in the 20th century, as Philadelphia became a major manufacturing center and the third largest city in the country. A 1943 ad for the auction of Chancellor Hall at 206 S. 13th (now the Chancellor Building, home of City Paper) cites its "ideal location in the center of the Philadelphia Business District."
But the business boost was a decidedly mixed blessing: as offices and banks moved into the area, the mid-section of 13th Street became a sort of sneaky red light district, just under the nose of big brother Broad Street.
"It's an amazingly rundown street for being smack in the middle of town," says former Center City District manager Paul Steinke. "When Center City District began eight years ago, 13th Street was a major area of concern. It's a lot better than it used to be." New lights and trees, increased police coverage and the efforts of neighborhood business and property owners have recently helped to improve the area.
Still, the past comes back to both haunt and illuminate 13th Street in a way that's innately Philadelphian. The following is a handy guide to a few bits of history along the city's most unlucky-numbered street, in the mid-section from South to Vine (the boundaries of William Penn's city).
South Street Tattoo (SW corner of 13th & South)
Tattoo artist Sonny Tufts claims the building, a tattoo parlor since 1987, was a Muslim mosque in the '60s and a makeshift heroin den. "I think it was a CIA mosque if you ask me," says Tufts. "But that depends on how big you are into conspiracy theories."
Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany (330 S. 13th St.)
According to St. Luke's in-house history, "By 1839, settled Philadelphia extended to Broad Street. The city's fast-growing southwestern section needed another Protestant Episcopal church." The church, which exemplified the Greek architecture then popular in Philadelphia, was completed in 1840.
The Beale and Lewis Houses (240-42 S. 13th St.)
"A rare extant example of the work of [Frank] Furness and [Allen] Evans and that firm's adaptation of the Queen Anne style... The buildings exemplify upper-class residential development which took place in that immediate area in the late 19th century. While... commuter rail service gave wealthy Philadelphians access to suburban areas in the 1870s and 1880s, most elite Philadelphians chose to maintain in-town residences during that period." (From Pennsylvania Historical Commission Records)
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania/ Robert Patterson Mansion (SW corner of 13th & Locust)
The site of HSP was formerly the site of an ornate house built by General Robert Patterson, the Irish-born head of the Philadelphia/ Baltimore Railroad Company. He was also a cotton processor who had large estates in Louisiana. His mansion had large gardens that extended west to Juniper and south to Irving. He willed the building to HSP, who moved their collections there in 1882 and sold the garden to Germantown merchant Francis Stokes. Around 1905, HSP commissioned a new building designed by architect Addison Hutton.
The College of Physicians (NE corner of 13th & Locust)
Now a parking lot, this was the first location (1863) for the College of Physicians and the first home of the Mütter Museum. When Dr. Thomas Mütter's collection got too big, the building moved to its present location at 22nd and Ludlow in 1910.
Orsati's (SE corner of 13th & Locust)
Though this corner is most infamous as the site where police officer Danny Faulkner was shot by Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1981, it was originally the address of the Philadelphia Board of Realtors, whose 1924 building later became home to Orsati's (after owner Arnold Orsati)a glitzy restaurant with a rathskellar in the basement.
"That area was the place to go for evening activities in the '50s," says Marvin Factor, who now owns the building. "It was right near the Celebrity Room, where people like Frank Sinatra played, and the Latin Casino. That whole area was loaded with little clubs, and our building was the premier restaurant."
The Factors bought the building in 1981, "right after the police officer got killed on our steps," says Factor, and rented it out to various businesses (including, until recently, the AIDS Fund).
The Factors plan to open a 25-room luxury hotel this year in the three-story building.
The Judge and Yoko Health Spa (205 S. 13th St.)
The old Yellow Pages ad promised that the spa would provide "a wonderful, very relaxing hour specially designed to relieve your tension of the day." But last year Yoko, the 13th Street home of body shampoos, etc. (and we do mean etc.), was found to be one of the city's more notorious outlets for prostitution. It also happened to be co-owned by Judge Myrna P. Field, who said she thought it was a restaurant. A group of Center City activists helped shut it down.
The Philadelphia Club (214-220 S. 13th St.)
One of the WASPiest, most exclusive private clubs in the country. Formed in 1833, the club once met in the Adelphi Building on Fifth Street, and purchased the 13th and Walnut building in 1850.
The Empire/ Albemarle Hotel (135-45 S. 13th St.)
A gorgeous hotel with a mansard roof and cast iron cresting, the Empire has grown shabby over the yearsbut its turn-of-the-century sign is still visible. The upstairs has been converted to offices and apartments and the downstairs houses a variety of incense and hairdressing shops.
The Binder Building (29-41 S. 13th St.)
Home of the Binder Company hairdressers and makers of wigs, toupees and soaps. According to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Richard Binder, who commissioned the building in 1887, was one of the most successful hairdressers in 19th- and early 20th-century Philadelphia. Before the 1860s most hairdressing was done in the home. Binder was one of only 100 hairdressers in Philadelphia, most of whom did not have stores. Now the spot hosts the Carmel Deli, but the Binder sign is still visible.
St. John's Church (17 S. 13th St.)
Almost entirely destroyed by two fires in 1899, this Roman Catholic church was restored the following year. According to an article from Center City Philadelphian, 1968, "Altars, pews, windows, frescoes and statues were destroyed with one exception, the Statue of the Immaculate Conception."
A.P.J. Texas Weiners (47 N. 13th St.)
A hot dog stop since the '20s, this spot has a great neon sign and great Texas Tommys.
House of William Burton (221 N. 13th St.)
A friend to Edgar Allan Poe, Burton was a British comedian/actor who moved here in 1834. He also wrote plays, short stories and published Gentlemen's Magazine. He opened the Cooke's Circus theater and introduced actress Charlotte Cushman as a star.
(Notable Sources: The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, The Pennsylvania Historical Society [Perkins and Campbell collections].)