In a "Warehouse" Fire, What’s Truly Lost

 

The Inquirer called it a vacant warehouse, but that doesn’t begin to describe the rich vein of industrial, commercial, and labor history hidden within the complex of buildings at Front and Girard that burned on Tuesday.

Perhaps the greatest beauty of this city is the way layers of history accrete over time. What was special about this site was that you could still see them all simultaneously: mill, distillery, coffee roaster, furniture and appliance wholesaler, cabinetmaker.

And Google gives us some help imagining. We’re not sure when the property was first developed but there is a tantalizing hint in this first photograph, from Google Streetview.

Above the second floor window of the now-demolished building was this marble nameplate, “Hope Mill, 1843”, probably taken from an earlier building on the site and installed as a record of history. We weren’t able to find any record of a Hope Mill in Philadelphia, but a Hope Street Mills was built in 1854 just two blocks away, on Hope Street between Thompson and Master. Ironically, the remaining Hope Street Mills building burned down in 2008.

Photo: Jeff Weisberg

The building with the “Hope Mill 1843” nameplate was the oldest in the complex and had interior walls made of stone rather than brick.

The Dougherty Distillery, makers of rye whiskey, started building on the site not long after 1850 and by the time of this Hexamer Survey of 1889, they had built out the full complement of structures, nearly all of which survived until this week. For a history of the Dougherty Distillery, click HERE.

The buildings were built with 1 1/4 inch yellow pine flooring – good fodder for fire. All of the buildings on the left side of the this picture up to the stable entrance on the right were destroyed. The four story building on the right, owned by John Galdo, survived the fire.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Those horses exiting the courtyard probably rode over these cobblestones. Many mid-19th century mill complexes, including Buck Hosiery, which burned earlier this year, had similar courtyards.

Philadelphia’s old breweries get most of the attention, but before Prohibition there were numerous distilleries throughout the city. We reported on another a few blocks away.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

Probably one of the original boilers from the distillery. It was located directly behind the distilling building (number 4, above).

As a bonded liquor warehouse, there was one government watchman and one representative of the company on site.

Prohibition killed Dougherty and L.H. Parke took over the complex in the 1920s. They were so proud of their roasting facility that they put it on the can.

Photo: Harry Byrne

Parke added a fancy new entrance soon after purchase.

Photo: Harry Byrne

And plastered their name all over the complex.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

We’re not sure when Parke moved out; the company was purchased in the early 1960s and through a series of mergers eventually became part of the multi-billion dollar US Foods Company, which serves restaurants, hotels, hospitals and schools. Fruchter Industries, a furniture and appliance wholesaler, moved in.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

The last tenant was the cabinetmaker Wood Superior. The buildings languished for almost a decade becoming a haven junkies and prostitutes.

Clarification: The L.H. Parke fire on July 10, 2012 destroyed a complex of connected buildings that had two different owners: 1118-1130 N Front St. is owned by Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments, and 1132-1140 N. Front St. is owned by John Galdo. A fence behind Galdo’s 1132-1140 parcel was frequently breached over a number of years, allowing trespassers access to a courtyard on Galdo’s property, as well as Galdo’s building at 1132 N. Front St. Licenses & Inspection cited the 1132 N. Front St. property for being “unsecured/unsafe” in 2007, 2009 and 2011. Trespassers also repeatedly accessed Blatstein’s buildings through unknown means.

Photo: Jeff Weisberg

The decorative metal columns and the wood beam construction was still lovely, despite the graffiti and peeling paint.

Photo: Hidden City Daily

And then came Tuesday’s fire.

Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.



9 Comments


  1. Rye! Shame it was killed by Prohibition & shame that Philadelphia doesn’t seem to care about its industrial heritage.

  2. Howard — we do need to care about it, but I don’t believe we can save it all. If no one has already done it, it might be good to do a survey and set priorities.

  3. Wow what a pit this puts in my stomach !
    this should be criminal ……

  4. Tragic, makes me so sad ;( So much history, beauty & potential lost!

  5. I would argue that the potential was lost long ago. The graffiti and trash and disrepair and squalor is just too much in some cases. Sure, it is sad that so much history has been lost, but the tragic part goes far deeper than mere buildings. What’s truly sad is all of this productivity and local industry has vanished. But, not every building can be restored to its past glory, and in many cases, the deterioration is just too much.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I’m grateful to know more about the building(s) located here. I parked there everyday to take the el to work. Not a day went by that I didn’t stop to imagine horses galloping over the cobblestones into the courtyard. From the el platform you could see holes in the roof and overgrown weeds strangling the beautiful courtyard. It’s a site I will miss admiring although it was very sad to see the state it had fallen into.

  7. Unless our shared history has a cocked (tri-corner) hat, it does not get much press. Industrial history is as fascinating as military or political.

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