Callowhill East Redevelopment Project

June 10, 2012 | by Harry Kyriakodis

The second City Museum (and the Betz Brewery) in the top left of this scene of destruction. It shows the scope of the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project, ca. 1969. About thirty percent of Northern Liberties was wiped out in a failed urban renewal effort. Temple University Urban Archives.

About the Author

Harry Kyriakodis 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.


  1. Gary Garmouche says:

    I am trying to find more information about the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project but it’s virtually unrepresented on Google, at least under that title. I tried to find the source of the photo but no joy. Where can I find more information?

    1. Harry Kyriakodis says:

      Here are excerpts from my book, Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward: The late 1960s Callowhill East Redevelopment Project, discussed in chapter twenty-one, eliminated most east–west streets and several north–south streets from the Philadelphia street grid in that locale. Out of necessity, the Willow Street sewer had to remain, which is why Willow Street itself was not stricken from the grid. The sewer still flows to the Delaware at Pier 25 under Cavanaugh’s River Deck.
      Most of Noble Street was also eliminated as a result of the Callowhill East project. The street was probably named after Richard Noble, an English surveyor who charted parts of Pennsylvania in William Penn’s time. Known as Bloody Lane in the late 1700s and early 1800s because a murder had been committed somewhere along its length, Noble Street was once a major Philadelphia roadway and went straight to Broad Street until the 1960s. One remaining bit of the street is the bumpy block-long stretch immediately south of the Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage building.

      One remaining bit of the street is the bumpy block-long stretch immediately south of the Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage building.

      By the 1950s, this quarter had entered the peak of its Skid Row hopelessness. Chapter twenty-one looks into how the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project eliminated the weary neighborhood in the late 1960s. The North Meeting House was 130 years old when it was razed as part this failed urban renewal effort. In its place today is a drab office facility.
      All evidence of the Society of Friends having dwelled in the Liberties has vanished and is forgotten. Just as with the Green Street house, no one could ever tell that a Quaker meetinghouse was once along Sixth Street. An unmarked fragment of Noble Street remains as the lone vestige of earlier (better) days.

      Skid Row and the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project

      Callowhill Street was named after William Penn’s second wife, Hannah Callowhill. When it was laid down in 1690, it was called “New Street” because it was the first east–west road opened north of Philadelphia proper. The street has always been part of Northern Liberties, since it goes through the area north of Vine Street.
      A market was in the middle of and alongside Callowhill Street from Fourth to Seventh going back to the 1700s. This is why the street along those blocks is unusually wide. The Callowhill Street Market was an active shopping center well into the twentieth century.
      Chapter four discussed the North End town of Callowhill, which formed around the Norwich Market at New Market and Callowhill Streets. This mart and the Callowhill Street Market stimulated the development of the entire Callowhill ward. This zone was an integral part of NoLibs.
      By the late 1800s, Callowhill became a dense residential/industrial district. Hostels provided rooms to single laborers who worked in the coal yards and factories—including the Baldwin Locomotive Works west of Broad Street—that edged the Willow Street Railroad. Married men with families found housing in countless row homes built throughout this neighborhood.
      Evening Public Ledger writer Christopher Morley was fascinated by this part of town. In one article, published in Travels in Philadelphia (1920), he wrote about Callowhill Street:

      Every street has a soul of its own. Somewhere in its course it will betray its secret ideals and preferences. I like to imagine that the soul of Callowhill street has something to do with beer. Like a battered citizen who has fallen upon doleful days, Callowhill street solaces itself with the amber.

      Morley further commented that “one may meet along those pavements certain rusty brothers who have obviously submitted themselves to the tramplings of the brewer’s great horses.” This bit confirms that this sector, by 1920, was at the core of Philadelphia’s Skid Row/Tenderloin district. It was, in fact, replete with cheap boardinghouses, decrepit warehouses, seedy bars and the like even before the turn of twentieth century. The Callowhill quarter was no longer a fine place to live (see chapters six and ten).
      In spite of its obvious decline, Morley nevertheless found this area appealing, even charming:

      It is curious those comely old dwellings, with their fluted dormer windows, their marble facings and dusty fanlights, standing in faded dignity and wistfulness among factories, breweries and railroad spurs. . .
      If one has a taste for poking and exploring, he will find many a little court or cul-de-sac where hardly a stone or a window has changed for a hundred years. One does not need to travel abroad to find red walls with all the mellow stain that one associates with Tudor manors. . .
      It is a perpetual delight to wander in such byways, speculating on the beauty of those rows of houses in days gone by. What a poetry there is in the names of our streets—Nectarine, Buttonwood, Appletree, Darien, Orianna! Even the pawnbrokers are romantics. . . What a city of sober dignity and clean comfort Philadelphia must have been in the forties. . .

      How the Callowhill neighborhood changed in the hundred years since the 1840s. During the Depression, the place was a melting pot of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Many were poor African American families who had moved to Philadelphia from the South in the decades before. Boys and girls of all races played barefoot in the streets, and neighbors swept their humble doorsteps each morning.
      But poverty prevailed; unemployment had reached thirty-three percent by 1940. Even the Baldwin Locomotive Works had left the city by the 1920s. Numerous blood banks provided quick cash, but finding regular work around Skid Row was difficult. Some unemployed men took day-labor jobs and were routinely picked up and transported to agricultural sites outside of Philadelphia. Others worked as longshoremen and stevedores on the Delaware River docks, although such waterfront activity was in decline.
      Yet others lounged in flophouses, missions, gambling dens, brothels, burlesque theaters, grubby corner bars, and such places—often inebriated. This was where Philadelphia’s down-and-out spent much of their time. Franklin Square, a few blocks south, was a favorite spot to wile away the day—and the weeks, months and years. Tuberculosis was high, and the blood that the men sold was sometimes infected.
      Paperback author David Loeb Goodis (1917-1967) set many of his 1950s and ’60s crime novels in Philadelphia’s Tenderloin, chronicling the despair, grime and violence of the slum and its dwellers. The bleak district had, in a way, reverted to the rough-and-tumble early days of the North End.
      City planners of the 1950s accordingly regarded the region from Vine to Spring Garden—and beyond, to Girard—as blighted and derelict. Yet unlike Philadelphia’s Society Hill (about a mile south), the shabby but still-functioning neighborhood was not considered for rehabilitation. This is so even though it was relatively the same as Society Hill at that point, in terms of neglected nineteenth century properties, closeness to Independence National Historical Park (then being formed), and so forth. All that was lacking was a colonial pedigree. 052
      With little if any protest, almost all of the structures in this quarter were condemned in the late 1960s as part of the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project. This was half of a joint program with the Franklin Urban Renewal Area, together making up the Franklin-Callowhill East Urban Renewal Area. (“Franklin” refers to Franklin Street, a north–south road that once passed through those parts.)
      The federally-subsidized scheme, managed by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, encompassed a rectangular zone from Second to Ninth Streets between Callowhill and Spring Garden Streets. Some twenty city blocks were leveled in this monstrous undertaking, which also removed several cross-streets from the Philadelphia street grid. Christopher Morley would have been brokenhearted at the devastation wrought by this botched urban renewal project.
      All too many historic buildings (some described in this book) were decimated, and hundreds of modest eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dwellings and workshops were pulled down. Residents of Callowhill were displaced, as were many small businesses (e.g., corner bars and grocery stores). Some operations chose to relocate outside of Philadelphia, while others wound up out of business altogether.
      The project’s goal was to create extensive tracts of open land for use as an inner-city industrial park, with easy access to both Interstate 95 and the Vine Street Expressway. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) offered the cleared ground to manufacturing concerns and even constructed some industrial facilities. However, since the city’s deindustrialization was fully underway by the 1970s, the plan ultimately proved unsuccessful.
      One of the factories built was the Somerset Knitting Mills at Seventh and Spring Garden. The PIDC erected this 280,000-square-foot structure in 1975. Low income workers made sweaters there along the lines of Philadelphia’s grand textile tradition. The plant did fairly well before closing in 1992 when production shifted overseas. Somerset’s owners were fortunate in that they were able to sell the building to the American Red Cross, which turned it into a state-of-the-art blood testing and storage facility called the Musser Blood Center. (It’s intriguing that such a place would end up where so many Skid Row blood banks used to be.)
      All of Callowhill is now an urban wasteland of parking lots and faceless warehouses with no architectural appeal—or windows, for that matter. The isolated and unfriendly structures are used for varied purposes during the day, but the locale is deserted day and night for the most part. (Only recently have a smattering of nightclubs and condo lofts opened there.) This forbidding no-man’s-land cuts off Old City Philadelphia to the south and Northern Liberties to the north, forever separating what was once a natural link between the two areas since the late 1600s.
      What’s more, this section of the city was part and parcel of the North End going back to that period, and it is still technically part of NoLibs. Most Philadelphians, however, do not regard it as such; Northern Liberties is said to start north of Spring Garden Street. This has been the mindset since the 1970s. 053
      If the Callowhill ward had been rehabilitated or merely left alone, it could have turned into another Society Hill Philadelphia. After all, it’s very close to Center City—closer than the rest of the Liberties—and the building stock was similar to Society Hill’s. This section of NoLibs would have eventually experienced a more deliberate redevelopment if city planners had just let it stand. Callowhill would have become prime real estate and a desirable place to live by the 1990s if gentrification had happened as organically as it did in Old City and the rest of Northern Liberties.
      This sad state of affairs (along with the Marshall Street Mall plan ten years prior) should serve as a warning about poorly contemplated city planning and the unintentional consequences of urban renewal projects.
      Concurrent construction of the Vine Street Expressway and Interstate 95 through NoLibs made Callowhill even drearier. In particular, the Vine Expressway obliterated every building in between Vine and Callowhill Streets for a full six blocks. Such is the result of city planning that favors an automobile-dominated society.

      Urban Revitalization and Housing Innovations

      The North End’s eastern part was unaffected by the ham-fisted “solution” to the Skid Row problem depicted in the last chapter. On the other hand, Interstate 95 was thrust through the waterfront edge of Northern Liberties at about the same time (the 1960s).
      Most working-class homes built during the late 1700s and early 1800s were located within three or four blocks of the Delaware River. These wooden-frame houses, dubbed “bandboxes” or “trinities,” were slender two- or three-story dwellings with low ceilings and one room per floor. Initially made for Quakers, they were normally painted a dull lead color favored by Friends of modest means.
      The homes often faced narrow alleys and courtyards or were hidden behind larger buildings—as was the Edgar Allan Poe House. These layouts encouraged artisans, shopkeepers and craftsmen to settle in the Liberties. Several abodes standing on the north side of Fairmount Avenue by Front Street may be of this vintage. Workshops and factories of all sort were interspersed amid this housing, as were coal yards, livery stables, taverns and more.
      These simple row homes were generally replaced with the brick row houses that are still scattered throughout the area, such as along much of Fourth and Fifth Streets north of Poplar. All of these residences, early and later, were suited for people of diverse economic classes and trades and offered poorer citizens and newly arrived immigrants an ideal place to live.
      More prosperous Quaker families lived in Georgian-style mansions—some with carriage houses in the rear—in the western section of the ward, from Fifth to Eighth Streets north of Vine. Erected in the mid-1800s, these homes were usually bought by Friends with “new money” stemming from the ward’s industrial activity. As noted before, this quarter, centered between Northern Liberties and Spring Garden, was once among the best parts of Philadelphia.
      Remaining examples of these grand mansions are on the 700 block of both Eighth Street and Franklin Street. The most impressive one on Franklin has been heavily modified over the years to serve many occupants and has served as the offices of the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations since the 1960s.
      When Quaker, Jewish and other early Philadelphia aristocrats and industrialists began vacating the district in the 1880s, the townhouses often became boardinghouses and tenements packed with German Jews, Irish Catholics, Russian Jews and other immigrant families. 054
      By World War II, these once-fine dwellings were falling apart. They were old, overcrowded and substandard (unsafe; not up to code; or rented “as-is” without heat, electricity or running water), having accommodated waves of immigrants for more than half a century.
      Philadelphia was also experiencing the lethal combination of white flight, job loss and escalating crime, which caused the city’s housing stock to decline precipitously. The population throughout all of NoLibs dropped 62 percent (from 7,253 to 2,745) between 1960 and 1980, one of the steepest declines in the city. The median value of owner-occupied housing was about $5,000 in 1970, less than half of the citywide median. Much of the western portion of zip code 19123—indeed, most of the Liberties—had become a slum.
      Philadelphia City Council took decisive action in 1945 by establishing the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (RDA), the country’s first city agency to attack blight and remove slums in municipal environs. Federal funding via Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 covered most costs. The RDA began work on a series of projects in the vicinity of Spring Garden and Poplar Streets, between Fifth and Eighth. The zone was collectively known as the East Poplar Urban Renewal Area, as this neighborhood is called East Poplar.
      The Authority’s first development there was Penn Towne, a series of apartment buildings that was the first new Title I construction project in the United States. Completed in 1953, the scheme was drawn up by Louis Kahn, who, as mentioned before, was familiar with this part of Philadelphia. Oskar Stonorov was the architect.
      A simultaneous RDA effort was Friends Housing Cooperative, in which a group of old houses was rehabilitated for low-income families. The undertaking encompassed a block of town homes from the 1860s around a landscaped courtyard. This was also the first Title I rehab project in the nation. 055
      Friends Housing Cooperative was a venture of two Quaker organizations—the American Friends Service Committee and Friends Neighborhood Guild—that were concerned about urban housing. The latter group was founded in NoLibs as Friends Mission Number One in 1879. Its initial aims were to provide a moral and spiritual uplift to poor immigrants moving to the Liberties. It gradually changed from a mission to a settlement house for the benefit of Central and Eastern European newcomers. Headquartered at 701 North Eighth Street, Friends Neighborhood Guild has worked to improve housing in the East Poplar corridor since the 1950s.
      The fourth Title I project in the United States included another Philadelphia innovation: the acquisition of land for public housing. The Spring Garden Homes were finished in 1956 and covered eighty-seven acres between Spring Garden and Girard west of Fifth Street. This plan included the Marshall Street precinct.
      The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority became a national leader in inner-city redevelopment with these and other projects that sought to rejuvenate blighted locales. (This is despite the failures noted in previous chapters.) These days, East Poplar is stable and has occasionally been called Liberties West—at least according to the name of the townhouse apartments there. It’s just sad that practically all the first-rate dwellings formerly in that area are gone.
      Guild House is at 711 Spring Garden Street. This elder-housing development is one of the most famous buildings of the twentieth century, as it marked the shift away from architectural modernism. Completed in 1964, the six-story structure was financed by Friends Neighborhood Guild. Philadelphia architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi used regular materials and common decorative facets to make Guild House conspicuously unlike existing 1960s architecture. The postmodernist structure is a National Historic Landmark.
      The two-story log cabin on the 800 block of Lawrence Street is another neighborhood landmark. This house was built by hand in 1986 by artist Jeff Thomas, his inspiration being the “back to the land” movement of the 1970s. He assembled the house using a truckload of thirty-foot logs from West Virginia. The rustic abode is the only log cabin in a city of brick houses, a vision of Appalachia amid expensive townhouses and smart eateries of today. It stands as a tribute to the bohemian artists (like Thomas) and others who moved into the Liberties and established the neighborhood’s eclectic ambience. Across the way on Lawrence are new rental homes as of late-2012. 056
      Not far from the cabin is the setting of another symbol of the North End’s eclecticism. The Orkney Street Summer Solstice Potluck BBQ for World Peace takes place yearly at the Fifth Street home of Janet Finegar and Jonathan Sher. A NoLibs tradition since 1995, it is described as “a big party with a pretentious name” to which everyone is invited. The event traces its roots to a weekly potluck dinner that helped acclimate Soviet exchange students to American life.
      Thirty-two townhouses were constructed in the late 1980s on the southeast corner of Fourth and Poplar, once home to a brewery and a Dolly Madison ice cream plant. Known as Madison Court, the $3 million project was the first prefabricated townhouse development in Philadelphia. The modular homes were trucked to the site with cabinets, wiring and plumbing preinstalled. Willard Rouse, III, a private developer, raised these moderate-income row houses while also building One Liberty Place, the first skyscraper in Center City Philadelphia to exceed the height of William Penn’s statue on City Hall.
      Avant-garde housing, showcasing progressive architecture, continues to be constructed in Northern Liberties. The Capital Flats development on Laurel Street occupies the bygone packing plant of Capital Meats. After closing in 1989, the complex came to be the site of persistent fires, break-ins and illicit encounters. Since 1999, it’s been home to eight contemporary apartments that are rich in both history and creative design.
      Close at hand is Thin Flats, a residential project that explores the conventional form of the Philadelphia row home. This is the first LEED-H Platinum duplex housing in the nation. Plus, the first passive (well-insulated, virtually airtight) townhouse development in the city is Stable Flats on George Street. These “flats” projects are by the Philadelphia architectural firm calling itself Onion Flats.
      A loft redevelopment on the southwest corner of Fifth and Brown is called Liberties Lofts. Consisting of sixty-one rentals, the ex-industrial structure dates from 1924 and was known as the G.A. Bisler Building. Brothers Gustav and Emil Bisler started a paper box-making firm in 1874 when Philadelphia was the nation’s largest producer of paper boxes. The plant had long made candy boxes until it closed in 1990 due to changes in automation; its parent company was then Whitman’s Chocolates. Tenants of the refurbished building enjoy a rooftop deck with a sweeping vista of Center City.
      The Cigar Factory Lofts at Fourth and Cambridge is a comparable conversion. Remade into loft condominiums in 2005, the building was originally constructed in 1900 by Theobald & Oppenheimer, one of Philadelphia’s largest cigar makers. The city at one time was a leading manufacturer of tobacco products and local cigar factories employed scores of Philadelphia’s earliest Cuban and Puerto Rican migrants. Most of Theobald’s seven hundred employees were immigrant women.
      Incidentally, another cigar works in NoLibs was the G.H.P. Cigar Company on the southwest corner of Third and Brown (now a parking lot). Latino immigrants made cheap El Producto cigars there into the early 1970s. The building was raised in the late nineteenth century for the Hagedorn-Merz Company, a shirt manufacturer that was one of the largest in the world. Years earlier, the cornerstone of Redmen’s Hall was laid on that same spot in 1867. This was the lodge of the Improved Order of Red Men, a secret fraternal organization akin to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. In fact, its meeting place was directly across Brown Street from Odd Fellows Hall. A parade to dedicate Redmen’s Hall was held on August 11, 1868.
      The American Stores warehouse was built in the early 1900s at Fourth and Willow, cater-corner from the Betz Brewery. The enormous L-shaped building was abandoned for years until 2007 when it was renovated into a 132-unit condominium called 444 Lofts. Each unit features oversized windows, exposed brick walls, and concrete ceilings, columns and floors. The condo complex’s address, 444 North Fourth Street, is squarely at the center of the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project area. This was one of the few buildings allowed to survive in the Callowhill district at the end of the 1960s.
      American Stores Company was incorporated in 1917 when the Acme Tea Company merged with four small Philadelphia grocery stores and became a holding company. It operated chains of drugstores and supermarkets (including Acme Markets) throughout the United States, growing to run some 1,800 stores by 1925. This building was the firm’s headquarters for a while. In 1979, American Stores was acquired by the Skaggs Companies, which took the company name and relocated its offices to Salt Lake City. Subsequently bought by Albertsons, American Stores was then broken up, although Acme supermarkets are still around.
      A new apartment complex at 212 Brown Street is called American Lofts. Conceived in 2005, the building was initially meant to be condominium but went into foreclosure during construction. It was then purchased to be a rental property. While its upper floors provide terrific views of Center City, the eleven-story edifice is out of scale with surrounding buildings. (It does seem to overpower Holy Trinity Orthodox Church across American Street.) Height restrictions now ensure that no structure in Northern Liberties will ever be as tall as American Lofts.
      The largest development in the Liberties (to date) is Waterfront Square Condominium, a three-tower multiplex along the Delaware River north of Spring Garden Streets. This project was scheduled to have five buildings with a total of 780 condominiums units, but it’s unlikely that the remaining two towers will be erected due to financial troubles. Still, that such an immense housing development should occupy this locale would have dumbfounded Philadelphians half a century ago. Not far away is SugarHouse Casino, another development that would have shocked people years back.
      Across Delaware Avenue at Brown Street is Waterview Grande.__ Opened in 2012, this 192-unit luxury apartment is in a massive warehouse that formerly housed the Eighth Floor dance club. Both this structure and the adjoining one—connected by a sky-bridge and undergoing a similar conversion—were cold storage facilities dating from the 1930s.
      Waterview Grande is the first module of the “Pennthouses” at Penn Treaty Village, a huge project that will include up to ten blocks of rental lofts, retail enterprises and entertainment venues. Canal Street passes between the two warehouses as it leads the Cohocksink sewer to the Delaware River. The Belgian-blocked surface of this street will be the corridor along which Penn Treaty Village will be built. This project will surely improve the link between Fishtown and Northern Liberties, and will revitalize a section of the Philadelphia riverfront that has been long on potential. One aspect is a plan to turn the vacant Ajax Metal Works, at Frankford and Delaware Avenues, into a 3,000-person music venue, a bowling alley, restaurants and even a distillery.
      The North End’s landscape is transforming dramatically as industrial sites are rehabbed (or razed and replaced) into residential space through private development. Large and small in-fill housing projects proliferate all over. It’s a good thing, too, because the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association estimates an increase of over 2100 inhabitants, and rising, since the 1990s.
      The neighborhood is changing fast—faster than anytime in the past 330 years.

    2. Harry Kyriakodis says:

      There is more throughout the book… The photo, which I use in the book, comes from Temple’s Urban Archives…

      1. Laura Leoscher says:

        Good evening Mr. Kyriakodis. I have a question: My grandfather owned a meat packing plant (the philadelphia boneless beef company) at 2nd and Callowhill which was caught up in the redevelopment project.
        I sort of remember going down with my parents to see the building just before it was destroyed in 1969/1970, and I remember we took a picture of the family in front of the building. I was maybe 5/6 years old at the time. Only we cannot find it. Do you perhaps have a picture of the building? Thank you for your time. Laura

  2. Gary Garmouche says:

    Thank you! And for the record, I own two of your books. They are excellent! Thank you very much!

  3. Doreen Frick says:

    Hello. I am looking to discover what the occupation “cutter” refers to. In 1900 my husband’s grandfather was listed (I believe in the “Philadelphia Directory?”) as this occupation. I am assuming something with cigars, but not sure. I did not know he lived in Phila but his address shows him at 3137 N. Broad Street back then. I am very interested in your book as quoted above. Thanks for any info.

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