Urban Fantasy: The Carousel Maker Of Broad & Erie

 

Advertisment showcasing the carousel at Glen Echo built by the Dentzel Carousel Company, 1920. | From the Gustav and William Dentzel Companies archives via Carouselhistory.com

For over a century, through boom, decline, and uncertainty, the North Philadelphia intersection of Broad Street and Germantown and Erie Avenues has kept a certain urban beat: bright lights, colorful signs, and the bustle of public commercial life. It’s fitting then, that amidst this enduring urban carnival the G.A. Dentzel Carousel Company would produce decades of merry-go-round creatures.

The city grid reached this far north only a decade before Dentzel set up shop here, in the 1890s. The first wave of concentrated urban development wiped out three old villages, Coopersville, Franklinville, and Nicetown. In 1894, the postal service put up the “Station R” post office at 3635 Germantown Avenue to serve the area. The architect is unknown, but the building makes its presence known. The windows on the façade are placed in a vertical formation, unusual for this time period, a design usually found in mid-19th century churches and late Art Deco buildings of the 1930s. Thin Pompeiian bricks cover the rest of the front, along with pronounced medallion declaring the year of construction.

Six years later the post office expanded into another nearby building still standing at 3363 North Broad Street and the Dentzel Carousel Company took over the post office.

Gustav Dentzel came to America from Germany in 1867 with the intention of continuing his family business, carousel building, in the United States. Dentzel observed that the few other carousel makers in the U.S. were only sculpting horses, so he expanded the menagerie of carousel animals to include the entire animal kingdom, including ostriches and kangaroos. In 1900, the year he moved to Broad and Erie, Dentzel made a major push to expand his business. He purchased the old post office building and the adjacent lots. His aim was to increase production in order to produce for the global market. He hired master Italian and German sculptors to make his carousels the very best in the world, what would become known as the “Philadelphia Style.” Dentzel apprentices formed their own carousel companies, making the company’s style the standard for most carousels ever since. The style is not only characterized by the vast diversity of animals, but by the richness of detail.

Sculptor Salvatore Chernigliaro puts the finishing touches on a team of steeds, 1920. | From the Gustav and William Dentzel Companies archives via Carouselhistory.com

Dentzel’s company was world famous by the time his workers built the country’s largest carousel for Point Breeze Park in 1906 and another for Woodside Park, built in 1908, that’s still in use at the Please Touch Museum. After his death in 1909, Dentzel’s son, William, took over the family business until it ceased operations in 1928. The company was revived by William Dentzel Jr. in the 1960s and still operates today under William Dentzel III in Port Townsend, Washington.

After the carousel manufacturer moved out in 1917 the factory complex was purchased by the Starr & Moss Company, a jeweler looking to expand into other types of retail. All but the old post office building was demolished. Starr & Moss commissioned architectural firm Heacock & Hokanson to design speculative store buildings on the Germantown Avenue side of the property, along with an addition on the back of the existing structure. When complete, the old post office building was renamed the Starr & Moss Building.

At the Please Touch Museum the lead horse and a jubilant swine circle the Woodside Park Carousel built by the Dentzel Carousel Company in 1908. | Photo: Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons

Starr & Moss leased out most of the retail spaces, but kept one as a record store. The company’s new phonograph department had soundproof booths for sampling records. In 1920, Starr & Moss added optometry to the diverse array of services offered, employing Dr. G.S. Geary to see customers upstairs. By 1930, Starr & Moss had moved out of the old post office, but retained the store buildings along Germantown Avenue where the company expanded into appliance sales.

In 1922, Brawer Brothers Silk Company, of Paterson, New Jersey, opened a second retail location here and shared the building with another silk company, the Iroquois Silk Company from New York City. By the 1930s, Strand Ham-stiching Shop occupied the retail space, while the upper floors became meeting spaces for local clubs and organizations like the Norcen Building and Loan Association. Members of the Tioga republican Club made use of the second and third floors as a gambling house, at a time when the city Republican party machine, the Organization, profited from various illicit activities.

In 1936, real estate developer and realtor Clarence Shilcock, who was known for building several of the neighborhood’s theaters, acquired the property from the Irving Building and Loan Association and converted the upper floors to four apartments. His real estate firm, Shilcock Realty, managed the apartments for the next four decades, while a series of clothing stores occupied the first floor.

Sun Ray Drugs is the current occupant of 3635 Germantown Avenue. Note the dedication medallion front and center. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Shilcocks hung on to the old post office building until 1979. By that point, Clarence and Beulah’s son, James, who had opened his own branch of Shilcock Realty, in Rosemont, had grown the company into a Mainline stronghold.

Since 1979, the building has been through three owners and a series of clothing stores, including Sneaker Villa. Now, Sun Ray Drugs occupies the ground floor. One day in the not-so-distant-future, the transit-rich, vibrant corner of Broad Street and Erie and Germantown Avenues will come back to full prominence again, and the old Station R will likely still be standing to witness it.

About the author

GroJLart is the anonymous foulmouthed blogger of Philaphilia, where he critiques Philadelphia architecture, history, and design. He resides in Washington Square West. GroJLart has contributed to Naked Philly, the Philadelphia City Paper's Naked City Blog, and Philadelphia Magazine's Property Blog.

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  1. King of Pizza next door has some of the best traditional pizza in the city.

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