Where Time Stood Still

 

John Grass Wood Turning exterior | Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott

John Grass Wood Turning exterior | Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott

Editors Note: This is the first installment of our weekly series profiling the eight remarkable sites that are part of the Hidden City Festival 2013. The Festival will take you to places you’ve never visited but might have always wondered about, from Germantown’s vacant Town Hall to a former fraternal lodge in Powelton. Each site has been transformed by a series of art projects that are participatory in nature–and that means we need you to take part! You can check all of it out here. 

When John Grass opened his woodturning workshop in 1863, Old City had already been a light manufacturing center specializing in clock and watchmaking, smithing and textiles for more than a century. The steam engine transformed the district in the 1830s and bigger concerns took over. Several of them, including Grass, specialized in woodturning for furniture, balustrades, tool handles, and flag poles. Grass came to the US from Bavaria in 1853 at age 15 and apprenticed in New York. His shop would come to specialize in tool handles often made for the nearby John Stortz tool company that is still in business and was previously featured in the Hidden City Daily.

All photos: Joseph E.B. Elliott

The Grass story is exceptional for the longevity of the business, but Grass himself was one of a wave of talented and entrepreneurial immigrant craftsmen, including Stortz, who transformed the American economic landscape in the late 19th century. And Old City, where his business was located until closing in 2003, was the crucible of Philadelphia’s Workshop of the World.

German immigrants Stortz and Grass’s son-in-law Louis Bower took over John Grass in 1911 and moved it to the present location on North Second Street, a building that had already had several lives: as an oyster house and tavern, a liquor store, and a steam packing, belting, and rubber goods factory. The Grass office and main workshop was located in the still-intact first floor. The shop continues on the second floor, where the lathes and other equipment date from as early as 1870. The machines were largely powered by overhead line shafting and belts, once driven by a steam engine in the basement, now replaced with an electric motor.

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.



Leave a Reply

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

Recent Posts
A Century Of Public Events On The Benjamin Franklin Parkway

A Century Of Public Events On The Benjamin Franklin Parkway

October 23, 2018  |  Last Light

Patrick Glennon takes a look at big public shindigs and the making of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway through rarely seen photographs from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania > more

Cherry Street Pier Raises The Bar For Dynamic Public Space

Cherry Street Pier Raises The Bar For Dynamic Public Space

October 19, 2018  |  Buzz

Cherry Street Pier is officially open for business. The 99-year-old maritime warehouse blends a public park with artist studios, food vendors, a beer garden, and incredible views of the Delaware River. Michael Bixler gives us a look inside > more

Defending Philly History From 3,000 Miles Away

Defending Philly History From 3,000 Miles Away

October 17, 2018  |  Vantage

Joshua Bevan knew he had to act after discovering the architectural beauty of Belmont. From his home in San Francisco he mobilized to nominate a neighborhood landmark for historic designation. In this essay Bevan describes his journey between the Bay Area and Philly to protect the McGaw Mansion > more

Design Coalition Aims To Bridge The Old-New Divide

Design Coalition Aims To Bridge The Old-New Divide

October 12, 2018  |  Walk the Walk

Move over Miami, the Philadelphia Design District is getting ready for some time in the spotlight. The coalition of gallery owners, artisans, and tech startups want to transform Old City into a hive of contemporary design, while preserving the neighborhood's historic character. Joe Brin takes a look inside the idea with co-founder Eugenie Perret > more

Germantown Boys & Girls Club Compromise Brings Peace To Penn Street

Germantown Boys & Girls Club Compromise Brings Peace To Penn Street

October 9, 2018  |  News

Owners of Germantown Boys and Girls Club reach an agreement with preservationists after two years of heated debate. Starr Herr-Cardillo has the news > more

Shakespeare & Co. Brings Old Bank Back To Life

Shakespeare & Co. Brings Old Bank Back To Life

October 4, 2018  |  Buzz

Manhattan-based bookstore and café revives an old banking storefront in Rittenhouse Square. Michael Bixler takes a look > more