200-Plus Years Of Transforming Girard Square

 

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Building the next generation of Girard Square. After nearly a year of demolition and foundation pouring, Market East is beginning to climb out of its construction hole. Enjoy the (mostly) unobstructed views of Reading Terminal Headhouse from 11th and 12th Street while you can | Photo: Michael Bixler

Steel is finally emerging from the foundation of the former Snellenburg’s department store at 11th and Market Streets, as a 17-story first phase residential and retail tower of National Real Estate Advisors’ East Market takes shape. If all goes according to plan, the project will add 130,000 square feet of new retail space to Center City and a mid-block pedestrian esplanade that takes its cues from the neighborhood shopping street. This project, which along with PREIT’s forthcoming redevelopment of the Gallery will dramatically alter the function of Center City, is only the latest in centuries of reimagining this square block.

Dawn of a City Square

The square block, including property going south to Chestnut Street, was sold by Richard Penn, William Penn’s grandson, to printer John Dunlap in the late 1700s. Dunlap, born in Ireland, was an apprentice to his uncle William Dunlap, a printer and publisher, and subsequently made a large fortune from these trades. On October 27, 1771, he began the publication of the Pennsylvania Packet (sometimes called The General Advertiser), a weekly newspaper regarded as one of the most important daily newspapers in the early United States. Dunlap also printed some of the first copies of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1790, he built a mansion on the southeast corner of 12th and Market Streets, one of the city’s finest. Two years after the mansion was complete, William Short, the U.S. Minister to France, took up residence. Edmond-Charles Genêt, republican France’s minister in the U.S. (whose main goal was to collect unpaid U.S. Revolutionary War debt), moved in the following year. Despite American warnings, Genêt recruited and armed American privateers to join French seagoing expeditions against the British, in 1793. By pulling Americans into the war with the British, Genêt undermined President George Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation of April 22, 1793. Washington sent Genêt an 8,000-word letter of complaint and then demanded that France recall him as ambassador, in a political kerfuffle that became known as the “Citizen Genêt Affair.” The President later granted Genêt asylum in the United States as he’d become a liability to the more radical Jacobin revolutionary government who sought his head.

John Dunlap's mansion, watercolor on canvas by John James Barralet, 1807 | courtesy of PLACES IN TIME: Historical Documentation of Place in Greater Philadelphia (www.brynmawr.edu/iconog/washw/geofr.htm)

John Dunlap’s mansion at 12th and Market Streets. Watercolor on canvas by John James Barralet, 1807 | Courtesy of Places In Time: Historical Documentation of Place in Greater Philadelphia, Bryn Mawr College

After living in the mansion for a decade starting in 1797, Dunlap sold both the house and the whole square block to French-born banker and philanthropist Stephen Girard for $101,820. Dunlap continued to live in the mansion until he died in 1812. The house was next occupied in 1815 by Baron de Kantzow, U.S. Minister of Sweden. Two years later, Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon and former King of Sicily and Naples and King of Spain, moved in with his family. According to a story cited in history journals from the early 1900s and verified by a servant of Girard, Joseph Bonaparte wanted to purchase the square from Girard. At a dinner he threw for Girard, Bonaparte offered to pay any fair price for the property, to which Girard then asked “Well, now, what will you give? What do you consider a fair price?” Bonaparte replied that he would cover the whole block with silver half dollars. The clever Girard responded, “Yes, Monsieur, if you will stand them up edgewise.” No agreement of sale was made.

By 1825, the Baroness Lallemand of France, Stephen Girard’s niece, lived in the house with her husband.

Trust In Commercial Development

An 1890s advertisement for Hood, Bonbright & Company, showing their retail operation, which in 1901 came under Snellenburg's control | From the Free Library of Philadelphia

An 1890s advertisement for Hood, Bonbright & Company, showing their retail operation. Snellenburg’s moved into the building in 1901 | Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia

The block became known as both “Girard Estate” and “Girard Square” after Stephen Girard’s death in 1831, and was absorbed by the real estate portfolio of the Girard Trust. Today, the estate is still administered by the board of directors of City Trusts who are tasked with managing property and funds that Girard, and roughly 115 other trusts, left to the City of Philadelphia for charitable purposes.

Girard originally intended to build Girard College, his residential school for poor white orphans, on the four-acre block, but later changed his mind because Girard Square, if developed, could generate income to run the college. Girard specifically directed in his will that the block should be “built upon and improved in such a manner as to secure a safe and permanent income.” By 1909, the Board of the Girard Trust reported that “This block, exclusive of improvements, is now worth more than six million dollars, and earned in the year 1909, in addition to interest on the cost of the improvements, nearly two hundred thousand dollars net, which is more than enough to support the College as originally planned by Mr. Girard.” The school’s campus opened at 2101 S. College Avenue in January 1, 1848.

The Girard Trust bisected Girard Square with an east-west street—named Girard Street (later Ludlow Street)—and two alleys in the 1830s. The trust then built approximately sixty rental houses and stores on the block. The elegant, Greek Revival townhouses along Chestnut Street became known as “Girard Row.” This block was later leased almost entirely by piano vendors and repair shops, thus becoming the center of Chestnut Street’s “Piano Row.” Dunlap’s storied mansion was demolished as the square was developed.

By the 1880s, the Trust was looking to increase revenue from its holdings on the square. Tenants of the houses and stores there were ordered to vacate the properties, which were then razed for a six-story retail structure in 1886 on the southwest corner of 11th and Market Streets. The Board of Directors of City Trusts viewed the decision as a prudent investment to increase profits for the Estate while also furthering Girard’s desire to ornament the city. Thus began Girard Square’s retail era.

The Trust’s new development was the first large-scale commercial building on the block and the largest and most imposing retail structure in Philadelphia, predating the Wanamaker Building at City Hall by almost twenty-five years. It was first leased to dry goods merchant Hood, Bonbright & Company (later known as Hood, Foulkrod & Company).

Behind the new retail development, the Stephen Girard Building, a 13-story high-rise along Twelfth Street designed by James H. Windrim, was constructed as new offices for the Girard Trust and to generate rental revenue for the estate. The Girard Building officially opened on December 18, 1897. Despite threats of demolition under earlier plans for Girard Square in 2008, the building will be integrated into redevelopment plans for East Market.

Stitching Together a Local Landmark

This was Snellenburg's first building along Market Street, at Twelfth and Market Streets in the early 20th century | From the Free Library of Philadelphia

Snellenburg’s at Market and 12th Street in the early 20th century; the older Hood, Foulkrod store in the left backround | Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Snellenburg & Company, founded by German immigrant Joseph Snellenburg, started in 1873 as a small South Street clothier. Son Nathan took over and expanded the business by moving the store to a larger building at 5th and Passyunk in 1882. While retaining and operating the South Philadelphia store, Snellenberg’s expanded operations again to the southwest corner of 11th and Market Streets–the old Hood, Foulkrod store. The company was granted a 15 year lease, at $81,000 payable annually, by the board of Girard Estate that began on January 1, 1901.

In 1916, Snellenburg’s built a new six-story store, designed by James Windrim, at southeast corner of 12th and Market (the site of the Dunlap mansion) and eventually connected that building to the former Hood, Foulkrod building, thereby appropriating the entire frontage of Market Street between 11th and 12th Streets. In 1917, Nathan and his brothers Samuel and Joseph Jr. added a men’s annex and store offices at 34 S. 11th Street.

“The Thrifty Store for Thrifty People” competed with Lit Brothers for bargain-hunting shoppers. Snellenberg’s eventually opened department stores elsewhere in Philadelphia and as far away as Atlantic City and New York City. At one time, the company employed as many as 3,000 people to manufacture and sell its clothes.

In 1928, Albert M. Greenfield’s Bankers Securities Corporation bought the Snellenburg chain, likely making it the first department store along Market Street to fall out of family hands. Nearly three decades later, at 2PM on February 15, 1963, Snellenburg’s customers were brusquely escorted out of the Market Street store and the doors closed for good. Some 500 employees were similarly ushered into the building’s auditorium and told they no longer had jobs. Such was the graceless end of Snellenburg’s 90 year run in Philadelphia.

The company’s suburban stores came under the control of the Lit Brothers chain, which dissolved in 1977. Meanwhile, the old men’s annex on Eleventh Street became the headquarters of the Community College of Philadelphia in 1965. Students and faculty called the facility “Snellenburg U.” It subsequently became the Philadelphia Domestic Relations Court for many years. The concrete office building, also part of East Market, will house Mom’s Organic Market and modern warehouse-style offices.

The old flagship store at 12th and Market was shortened to two stories in the 1970s as part of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s Market East project. The squat brown clad building set the tone for Center City’s diminishing standard. The dreary complex, still at that time owned by the Girard Trust, was called Girard Square.

The two-story amputated stump of Snellenburg’s soldiered on as retail space for decades until it was razed in the winter of 2015 for the pending East Market project (See Michael Bixler’s photo essay on the demolition of Girard Square HERE). The new mixed-use redevelopment will eventually consume the entire block of the original Girard Square from Market to Chestnut, between 11th and 12th.

The Girard Estate still owns the land today. The East Market ownership–National Real Estate Advisors, JOSS Realty Partners, Young Capital LLC and SSH Real Estate–controls the site through a 75-year, pre-paid ground lease.

What Remains of Snellenburg’s Success

A 1940s photo of Snellenburg’s clothing factory and warehouse on North Broad Street | Courtesy of PAB, Athenaeum of Philadelphia,

All physical traces of Snellenburg’s on Market Street are now gone, but there are still places in Philadelphia that carry the legacy of Philly’s famed department store into the 21st century, no finer example being Snellenberg’s former warehouse and factory complex at 642 North Broad Street. The building has been the headquarters of the Philadelphia Corporation For Aging since 1990.

The site, at Broad and Wallace Streets, consists of two grand limestone and red brick buildings constructed between 1903 to 1905. The main building facing Broad Street is a huge and handsome seven-story Romanesque structure with a central tower split into a north and south side. Commonly called the Wallace Building, this former factory and warehouse was used by the company to manufacture boy’s and men’s clothing.

Snellenburg’s boasted that all of its apparel was “Good Philadelphia-made clothing.” The company was regarded as the largest clothing manufacturer in Philadelphia. Their apparel was inexpensive to purchase because it was manufactured locally, while maintaining a high level of quality. The National Export Exposition gave its first award for men’s clothing to Snellenburg’s in 1899.

Like the Reading Terminal Commerce Building a few blocks south on Broad Street, the Snellenburg factory and warehouse was built by William Steele & Sons, a longstanding Philadelphia construction firm that specialized in large-scale commercial and industrial buildings. The Snellenburg’s Clothing Factory complex reportedly cost $100,000 to build, which seems like a small amount for such a imposing set of buildings. They were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

A private driveway still runs between the main building and its adjacent western building. The roadway was used for the delivery of raw material and shipping of finished product. Overhead, a skyway connects the two buildings on the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors.

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Snellenburg’s Clothing Factory, one of the last vestiges of the department store empire, has been the headquarters of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging since 1990 | Photo: Michael Bixler

The North Broad Street corridor was a place for large storehouses for major Philadelphia retailers in the early 20th century. To the immediate south of the Snellenburg compound, Wanamakers and other retailers occupied an immense factory and warehouse at 640 N. Broad Street. The nine-story building, called the Mulford Building after the H. K. Mulford Company pharmaceutical firm, currently houses Lofts 640 and the restaurant Osteria on the ground floor. The luxury apartments and the Italian eatery have notably contributed to the resurgence of North Broad. Wanamakers also owned a facility immediately north of the Snellenburg’s Clothing Factory, across North Street. That space is now a parking lot.

Today, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, a private, non-profit organization serving Philadelphia County’s elderly since 1973, occupies the old Snellenburg factory. One of the region’s largest non-profits, PCA’s mission is to improve the quality of life for older Philadelphians and people with disabilities while assisting them in achieving high levels of health, independence, and productivity. The PCA’s offices were first at 1317 Filbert Street. PCA then moved to 111 N. Broad Street in 1985, and later relocated to 642 North Broad Street in 1990, almost 25 years ahead of North Broad Street’s developing renewal.

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.

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4 Comments


  1. Very interesting article, thank you Harry. Wow a 8,000 word complaint letter, don’t write them like that any more! My mother loved Snellenburg’s clothes. Remember taking the trolley with her down town to shop there. Thank you for the very informative article Harry.

  2. Thank you Mr. Kyriakodis! A wonderful succinct slice of our storied (and apparently then de-storied in some cases 🙂 history. It sounds like you have a wonderful collection of Philadelphia books. I wonder if it or parts of it are ever available for public view? Also if you have recommendations for those interested in opportunities to view historical Philadelphia books? Finally, what tours do you work with?

    • Thanks!

      I’ve had many people over my place to not only look at my collection, but also to do research. If you’d like to come over to Pier 3 Condo sometime, let me know and I will be here that day, if I can arrange it.

      As for tours, well, I do several tours with the Preservation Alliance (like “Underground Philadelphia,” “A walk Over the Ben Franklin Bridge,” “Post-Industrial Philadelphia–East Callowhill,” “Post-Industrial Philadelphia–West Callowhill,” and the “Historic Northern Central Waterfront.” Its too early in the season for any of these tours to have been scheduled, but the “Underground Philadelphia” tour is one that Hidden City Philadelphia is sponsoring a couple times this spring. Details are posted at the right side of the main Hidden City website page…

      Harry

  3. Snellenbergs originally had a pushcart on South St . And opened a few stores on the 300 block . Then built a 4 story building at South and Passyunk . The building is still there missing a few floors . The son of the Snelleberg that built that store was one of the first Americans killed in World War 1

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