Little Clubs On A Wooden Street

 

Camac Street's famous wood blocks | Photo: Bradley Maule

Camac Street’s famous wood blocks | Photo: Bradley Maule

Since the earliest decades of the 20th century, Philadelphians have had an almost obsessive infatuation with Camac Street. And why not? The narrow thoroughfare is known as the “The Little Street of Clubs,” home to the Plastic Club, the Sketch Club and the Franklin Inn Club. And as if that isn’t quaint enough, the 200 block of Camac is also the only street in Philadelphia paved with wooden blocks.

Camac Street, from the July 1931 issue of World's Work magazine.

Camac Street, from the July 1931 issue of World’s Work magazine.

Indeed, Philadelphians have been finding Camac Street quaint for more than a hundred years, and have worked to keep it that way for almost as long. The wood blocks themselves were an anachronistic and genteel touch installed early in the 20th century, shortly after the arrival of the little clubs, because they made less noise than horse hooves and carriage wheels on Belgian (granite) blocks. Wood block streets had enjoyed a brief heyday in the mid-19th century, but were rarely replaced because they wore out too quickly and absorbed horse urine, which made them smell bad.

According to Bob Skiba at GayborhoodGuru, the two block length of Camac Street running from Walnut to Spruce was developed much earlier than surrounding blocks. About 1813, the street appears in directories as Hazel Alley, then Dean’s Alley and Dean Street.

This bit of street took the name “Camac” in 1898 or so because it was in line with Camac Street in North Philadelphia, named after Captain Turner Camocks (various spellings of the name were used), a wealthy Irish copper mine owner who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1804 and was related to the Penn family through marriage. About a half dozen other streets on either side of Center City have been absorbed into Camac since then.

Camac Street south of Market Street was initially a modest little avenue with numerous small homes sporting tiny gardens. The Venture Inn—now a gay bar and restaurant—was built as a tavern long ago but was later used as a stable for the carriages of wealthy Philadelphians. Meanwhile, Camac Street kept its pleasant respectability until it entered a period of decline around 1880.

The street during that era is pungently described in the 1937 WPA Guide to Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace  as “the scene of brawls by day and crimes by night, requiring at times an entire squad of the city’s police to maintain order. For twenty years the street, lined with brothels and taverns, rotted in a mire of debauchery.”

camacblocks7

Photo: Bradley Maule

The movement of art and scholarly clubs onto the street began when the Philadelphia Sketch Club moved into 235 S. Camac in 1902.  The street’s biggest cheerleader was Karl Bloomingdale, president of the Poor Richard Club, which moved to 239 S. Camac in 1906. Bloomingdale and other members of the club started lobbying for the street, wishing to resuscitate the feeling of old-time Philadelphia, however Camac wasn’t fully restored until the early 1920s in preparation for the Sesquicentennial. Image conscious city officials considered the dirty and neglected streets of Old City and Society Hill an embarrassment to the city, so they spruced up and promoted the 200 block of South Camac Street as a charming colonial thoroughfare that visitors could see. The revival of Elfreth’s Alley followed.

The Sesquicentennial improvements included the installation of lampposts of colonial design and the addition of hitching posts, like those used in Revolutionary days, in front of each house on the street. The houses themselves were outfitted with flower boxes in the windows and sidewalks were also improved.

From Our Philadelphia (1914), by Elizabeth Pennell (Illustrated by Joseph Pennell)

From Our Philadelphia (1914), by Elizabeth Pennell (Illustrated by Joseph Pennell)

This revamping of a city street was something new in Philadelphia. Besides showing Philadelphians the charm of small urban streets, the 1920s refurbishment heralded larger neighborhood restorations that came with urban redevelopment in the mid-twentieth Century. The colonial-inspired streets and alleys of Society Hill, in particular, are prime examples of this. And to this day, the local reverence for small neighborhood streets and alleys throughout Old City, Northern Liberties, Southwark (Queen Village) and the rest of Philadelphia can trace its roots back to the rehabilitation of South Camac. In fact, there is a group dedicated to preserving, repairing and restoring them–the Philadelphia Society of Small Streets, founded in 2011.

When Camac was repaved in 1997-98, the Philadelphia Department of Streets wanted to replace the deteriorated blocks (which had miraculously survived since the early part of the century) with a more durable material, but local residents persuaded the city to keep this section of the street in historical condition. Local legend has it that Camac is the only wood block street in the country, but that turns out not to be true. There are examples in ChicagoCleveland and Pittsburgh, and perhaps in other cities as well.

Camac Street had been included in a 1993 survey of historically significant streets in the city, and since then, the lane’s 200 block has been protected by the Philadelphia Historical Commission as one of the many streets in a “thematic district” of historically significant streets that cannot be altered without the commission’s approval. And when a street within such a thematic district requires repairs, damaged pieces must be replaced in kind.

The Poor Richard Club on Camac Street. From Frank H. Taylor, Poor Richard’s Dictionary of Philadelphia (1916

The Poor Richard Club on Camac Street. From Frank H. Taylor, Poor Richard’s Dictionary of Philadelphia (1916

Maintaining a wood block street turned out to be trickier than anyone realized, however. In the late 1990s, the Streets Department failed to use an adhesive to attach the wooden blocks to the underlying sand foundation. When wet weather came (including the September 1999 rains of Hurricane Floyd), the wooden cubes expanded more than anticipated, loosened and came out. (A modicum of dampness, previously supplied by horse urine, had apparently kept the original blocks of Camac Street snug over its gravel or sand bed for decades.) After a few blocks were dislodged, the resulting holes caused more blocks to loosen. Some people walked off with a few of the blocks, while someone apparently tried to set others on fire.

Part of the problem was that the last wooden streets in Philadelphia were constructed in the 1920s and modern contractors did not know the proper procedures for laying down a street made of wood cubes. Further, the Department of Streets had problems finding wood that was sufficiently dense. It finally located a Pennsylvania mill that would cut the 1,000 oak blocks needed for the replacement job. The wooden blocks were properly installed in 2000 and then again apparently in 2008.

 

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.



16 Comments


  1. Thank you for this; this street is the best! Would really love to hear (and see) more about how the bricks are laid.

  2. The curent Venture Inn was built in 1670? That would make it the oldest building in the city. Sounds wrong to me…

    I love that little street and always loved those blocks – was it intended to cut down on noise do you think?

  3. Good article. I remember, albeit vaguely, my parents often talked about Camac Street. I believe we had a relative who lived on it.

  4. What happened to the Camac Steam Baths?

  5. What is the oldest building in the city? The Hop Angel Brauhaus restaurant in Fox Chase was supposedly built in 1683, so it must be in the running.

    • I had found this elsewhere and it’s a good candidate:

      “Boelson (Boelsen) Cottage, on West River Drive, is thought by some to date to 1660. In any case, it appears to be the oldest recognized building still standing in Philadelphia.”

  6. I’m pretty sure that Van Pelt between Chestnut and Sansom is also paved with wooden blocks, although they are mostly buried under asphalt. (I lived there in the late 90′s and it’s possible they’re gone now, what with the new building right there.)

  7. Thanks for the story, Harry and the shout out.

    The only place I’ve ever found it stated that the Venture Inn was ever a tavern in the early 19th century was in advertising published by the Venture Inn itself. As far as I can tell, the structure began life in the early to mid 19th century as a humble stable for the townhouse at 1217 Locust St.

    I find it amusing that from the 1920s through WWII, those two tiny blocks of Camac St. were promoted as “Philadelphia’s Greenwich Village.” (Greenwich Village was touted as the home of “those long haired men and short haired women.)

    As for the wooden blocks, several attempts were made as early as the 1830s to pave streets with them, but they disintegrated much too quickly. Later, with the use of creosote as a preservative, an attempt was made again in the early 20th century. All of lower Market Street was covered with wood, prompted by the repaving that was necessary after 1908 and the construction of the subway. According to an old Inquirer article, there were once over 90 miles of wooden street in Philadelphia. This tiny piece of Camac is one of the last remnants.

  8. Marlborough between Allen and Richmond is wood block under the asphalt, although now that the one spot has been exposed the blocks are coming out.

  9. Through serendipity, we were blogging about the same thing at the same time:
    http://kourelis.blogspot.com/2014/03/leonora-herman-camac-street-1924.html
    A painterly footnote to your post, from Franklin & Marshall College’s college museum

  10. Where did you get the information that the street was named after Turner Camocks? I believe it was named after Dr. William Camac.
    http://www.enjoyingphiladelphia.com/philadelphia_zoo.html

    • Well, I got that from here and there… Here’s what I had (before editing), which shows the connection to Camac Lane, named after Turner Camocks…
      Harry

      According to GayborhoodGuru (http://thegayborhoodguru.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/and-what-about-the-venture-inn/), the two block length of Camac Street running from Walnut to Spruce was developed much earlier than surrounding blocks. About 1813, the street appears in directories as Hazel Alley, then as Dean’s Alley and Dean Street. This bit of street was took the name “Camac” in 1898 or so because it was in line with Camac Street in North Philadelphia.

      That street was named after Captain Turner Camocks (1751-1830), a wealthy Irish copper mine owner who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1804 and was related to the Penn family through marriage. Mr. Camac built the first ice houses in Philadelphia and started a line of wagons to bring fish daily from the New Jersey coast to Philadelphia. He was reportedly buried in Christ Church burying ground.

      The original Camac Street started out as a tiny byway, Camac Lane, that passed unevenly through the Camac estate (a.k.a. Camac’s Woods). This property once made up much of the southwestern part of the district of Kensington. The Turner Camac House, at about 11th Street and Montgomery Avenue, was once an early landmark of Philadelphia. The estate was swept away by the expanding city in 1870.

  11. Thanks for the information, very interesting. My surname is Camac. I have always been under the impression that the street was named after my ancestor, Dr William Camac.

    ….http://www.enjoyingphiladelphia.com/philadelphia_zoo.html
    ‘Many prominent civic leaders coalesced behind the idea of the creation of a Zoo. The movement was led Dr. William Camac, a well-regarded physician, and for whom Camac Street in Center City is named.’

    Are you familiar with his contributions? I am seeking some clarity of information. Your article states the street was named after another gentlemen, I’d like to know where the name originates. Thank you

    • I think you are correct Kathy. The Camacs were a distinguished and well known family. I have no doubt the street, even though it jumps about, was named for one of them.

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