A Tradition Of Demolition At 3rd and Willing’s Alley

 

The future site of something bigger? The curious, two-story Irani House, on the former lot of the Willing Mansion and Pennsylvania Railroad’s old headquarters, was built in the mid-1970s for pioneering female pediatric orthopedist, Dr. Roshen Irani. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Some urban street corners remain intact for centuries, while others change shape over time. One would be hard-pressed to find a property in the city with more lost built history than the southwest corner of 3rd Street and Willing’s Alley. The lot’s journey, from a Colonial-era mansion, to Italianate office tower for the Pennsylvania Railroad, to a gas station, a playground, and, lastly, a two-story block of restrained Postmodernism is a tale indicative of Philadelphia’s unyielding habit of demolition for redevelopment.

Willing’s Alley was named after the first permanent building to occupy this property, the Willing Mansion, designed and built in 1745 by John Palmer for wealthy merchant Thomas Willing. The building’s layout was based on Willing’s family home in England. The Willing Mansion contributed to the establishment of a burgeoning neighborhood known as “The Hill” given how one had to climb two steep hills to reach it from the commercial district on the Delaware riverfront.

Willing Mansion, year unknown. | Source: Thomas S. Hacker Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Thomas Willing, who would later become delegate to the Continental Congress and the first President of the Bank of the United States, married Anne McCall, granddaughter of Edward Shippen, the second mayor of Philadelphia. The couple had eight children. Willing’s second daughter, Elizabeth, was married in the mansion to Major William Jackson, aid-de-camp and private secretary of George Washington, in November 1795. The newly inaugurated President along with Alexander Hamilton and several other key figures of the Revolutionary War were in attendance.

After the Willing Family moved out, Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter, of Mutter Museum fame, used the mansion for his first office in the 1830s.

By the start of the mid-19th century, the neighborhood had changed. What were once the most elegant homes in the city were now mostly boarding houses, the Willing Mansion included.

On April 20th, 1856, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company purchased the Willing Mansion property to be razed for their new headquarters. The decision may have been influenced by a large fire at the Bingham Mansion (now the site of Bingham Court) earlier that year that heavily damaged several surrounding buildings. Locals lamented the demolition of the Willing Mansion, seen as a symbolic gesture, perhaps, of commercial industry erasing Philadelphia’s elegant 18th century landmarks in favor of profit margins and progress.

The PRR held a competition for the design of the new office building, but only two architects entered submissions; John Notman, most known for his design of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, and Stephen Decatur Button, who would later go on to design the Arch Street Presbyterian Church and the gatehouse at Mount Moriah Cemetery. On August 30th, 1856, Button was chosen as the winner.

Button was set on making PRR’s new headquarters impressive. In addition to having a commanding height (for its time) and a highly ornate, Italianate façade, the new PRR office building would also be the first fireproof building constructed in the city. He employed a method using rolled iron I-beams, which just entered production in the United States two years earlier, for the floors and ceilings, with brick arches in-between. Concave plaster molds were then placed under the arches, almost like a modern drop ceiling with acoustical tiles.

The Pennsylvania Railroad Office Building, 1871. | Source: Free Library of Philadelphia

In September 1857 the Pennsylvania Railroad General Office Building opened. While the Panic of 1857 was driving other railroad companies out of business, PRR expanded by purchasing the entire transportation works of railroads and canals owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The company continued to expand over the next 15 years. By 1871, the PRR was the largest privately-owned business in the world and a model for how to organize a large and complex corporation.

By the end of 1872, PRR moved to a new, much larger office building at the corner of 4th and Willing’s Alley, right behind their former General Office. The new building was also designed by Stephen Decatur Button and was lauded for its fireproof technology.

The Lehigh Valley Railroad, having acquired thousands of acres of coal lands and a number of new rail lines, purchased PRR’s old headquarters and used it for the company’s general offices. LVR continued to use the property after they relocated their main offices to Bethlehem, PA in the 1890s.

LVR suffered significant financial loss after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The rail company moved out on July 31, 1938 and sold the old PRR headquarters to New York developer Hyman Fisch, who demolished it and built a gas station on the site the following year.

Fisch sold the gas station to the Salvation Army in 1945. The pumps were removed and lot was surrounded with a chainlink fence and barbed wire, and playground was built, part of the charitable organization’s Day Nursery in the old Westmoreland Building. The playground stayed in use until 1963, when preparations for I.M. Pei’s Bingham Court design began, which placed a pedestrian street through the old Willing Mansion property, leaving a vacant segment along one side.

The Irani Home, viewed from the 3rd Street entrance to Bingham Court, could easily be mistaken for a PECO substation or an old city jail. | Photo: Michael Bixler

After Bingham Court was complete in 1967, the vacant property that remained alongside the complex was purchased by Dr. Roshen Irani in the mid 1970s for the construction of a custom-designed home. The Iran-born Dr. Irani was one of the first female pediatric orthopedists in the country and wrote well-known papers on treating leg fractures in children.

The Irani House was designed by architect Charles F. Kain’s Zenith Engineers, Inc. Dr. Irani lived the house until her death in 2007. The home was bequeathed to nearby Old St. Joseph’s Church, which now uses the building for office and meeting space.

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.

Send a message!



5 Comments


  1. If we must lose buildings like the Willing’s Mansion let it at least be for buildings like the Irani House.

  2. Any idea why Zenith Engineers embedded keys in the steps leading up to the door next to the garage on the Willings Alley side? Tourists ask me about them all the time.

  3. Is this near the location of Anthony Benezet’s school for free black children?

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Wayne Junction Moves Forward With Revitalization

Wayne Junction Moves Forward With Revitalization

September 20, 2017  |  News

Developer Ken Weinstein unveils transit-oriented development plans for Wayne Junction district. GroJLart has the story > more

Inside Northeast Philly's Temple Of Ryerss

Inside Northeast Philly’s Temple Of Ryerss

September 19, 2017  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. takes us on a fall field trip to the Ryerss Mansion, an eccentric, little-known house museum in the Great Northeast > more

Unlisted Philadelphia: Locust Theatre

Unlisted Philadelphia: Locust Theatre

September 14, 2017  |  Unlisted Philadelphia

Ben Leech spotlights unique and significant buildings not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places with his architectural illustration series, Unlisted Philadelphia. In this installment, a marvelous movie house in West Philly > more

Monument Lab: A City-Wide Art Museum That Asks Us To

Monument Lab: A City-Wide Art Museum That Asks Us To “Leave Fingerprints”

September 13, 2017  |  Vantage

We ought to write our own history, say the organizers of Monument Lab, who launch their multi-week public art and civic introspection festival today in the wake of Charlottesville, Dallas, and Durham. Nathaniel Popkin catches up with Monument Lab founder Paul Farber, who asks us all, "What is an appropriate monument for Philadelphia today?" > more

An Original Keeps It Classy On Chestnut Street

An Original Keeps It Classy On Chestnut Street

September 12, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

From furniture and furnace manufacturing to a 1980s video arcade, 1606 Chestnut Street has kept busy for 127 years. The Shadow has the details on this Center City standout > more

Skid Row Deaths Of 1963 Echoes Today's Opioid Crisis

Skid Row Deaths Of 1963 Echoes Today’s Opioid Crisis

September 8, 2017  |  Vantage

Steve Metraux takes a look at the "Canned Heat Wave" poisoning of 1963 that took the lives of 31 people on Skid Row. The public health scholar says the parallels between this tragic incident and Kensington's opioid crisis is telling > more