The Automat For Keeps

June 12, 2013 | by Jon Vimr


Details, details: 15 South 11th Street, top | Photo: Bradley Maule

Details, details: 15 South 11th Street, top | Photo: Bradley Maule

Friday morning, the Philadelphia Historical Commission will vote whether to add 15 properties to the city’s Register of Historic Places, among them the polychromatic 1912 William Steele & Sons-designed building at 15 South 11th Street: the fourth Horn & Hardart Automat and for the last 33 years home to the Sound of Market music store. I wrote the nomination for the building, which was submitted by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Original brick and stone stairwell | Photo: Bradley Maule

Original brick and stone stairwell | Photo: Bradley Maule

Should the building be designated historic, the Commission will have the power to regulate exterior changes and the building will be protected from demolition or significant alteration. The building is controlled by Sound of Market owner Morish Gabbay. While Gabbay didn’t appear at the Commission’s designation committee meeting last month, when I spoke to Sound of Market employees they told me they have long admired the building and support the potential recognition of the “beautiful” structure. They would like to see the façade cleaned and broken windows repaired if the funds were available.

The building is a rare local example of the transitional period in commercial architecture from neoclassicism to art deco.

Founded in the 1880s as a modest carpentry firm in Kensington, William Steele & Sons evolved into a prolific architectural, engineering, and contracting firm responsible for over 50 major projects throughout the city, including the Witherspoon Building (1323 Walnut Street, 1893-5), Shibe Park (21st and Lehigh, 1908, demolished), the Terminal Commerce Building (401 N. Broad Street, 1929-1931), and the Market Street National Bank (1325 Market Street, 1930) among many others.

Influential in the early development of reinforced concrete construction and specializing in large-scale commercial and industrial structures, Steele & Sons was known for ‘Centralized Responsibility.’ After receiving a commission for a project, the firm would often purchase the parcel, design and build the structure, and even install the necessary equipment before leaving it with the new owner or primary occupant. Having mastered reinforced concrete construction, Steele & Sons was able to quickly erect largely indestructible buildings at a cost cheaper than many of their competitors.

The now-unoccupied fourth floor of 15 South 11th Street is a veritable concrete fortress | Photo: Bradley Maule

The now-unoccupied fourth floor of 15 South 11th Street is a veritable concrete fortress | Photo: Bradley Maule

In certain cases, Steele & Sons would actually retain ownership of the property and allow the primary occupant to operate the building on a long-term lease. This was one such case: Horn & Hardart would not obtain the title to the building until 1959—nearly fifty years after its completion.

Given that Steele & Sons was a local leader in the development of a commercial style integrating modest ornamentation and structural expression into mid-sized and large-scale office buildings or factories, it was fitting that the Philadelphia firm Horn & Hardart—known for high style standards—chose the firm for its fourth establishment.

Terra cotta supreme | Photo: Bradley Maule

Terra cotta supreme | Photo: Bradley Maule

The building is a relatively early example of reinforced concrete construction (it only began to see wide use in the early 1900s) and originally featured elaborate stained glass windows and wall murals from the renowned D’Ascenzo Studios. But the design is perhaps most notable for the extensive implementation of polychromatic glazed terra cotta.

A durable, nearly impervious material capable of clean, sharp architectural detailing, terra cotta was cheaper to produce than stone and allowed for subtle nuances of modeling and color. While polychromatic glazed terra cotta proliferated across New York City in the first decade of the twentieth century in high rises and theaters alike, at the time it was relatively rare in Philadelphia. Indeed a 1912 edition of the Brick and Clay Record identified the Horn & Hardart building as the first in the city to use the material. Seen mostly on the western façade, the material stands out in the triglyphs and metopes of the lower cornice, the pier caps and frieze band below the fifth story, and on the upper cornice. The most ornate element of the entire building, this projecting cornice features large dentil blocks set below a fascia band of green ovals and an aqua green ogee molding adorned with pale yellow fleur-de-lis, palmettes, and roundels. Though this decorative program turns the northwest corner for a single bay of the northern elevation, the remainder of the structure’s exterior has a more industrial, utilitarian appearance.

Undated photo of original Horn & Hardart interior (note “Automat” floor mosaic) | Image: D'Ascenzo Studio Archives, Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Undated photo of original Horn & Hardart interior (note “Automat” floor mosaic) | Image: D’Ascenzo Studio Archives, Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Horn & Hardart, 15 S. 11th St. | Image: The Steele Idea, 1919

Horn & Hardart, 15 S. 11th St. | Image: The Steele Idea, 1919

The first Horn & Hardart Automat, which opened at 818 Chestnut Street in 1902, is listed on the Philadelphia Register. Horn & Hardart introduced French drip coffee to the city and sold a vast assortment of baked foods displayed behind glass doors in coin-operated cases. Its immediate success led owners Joe Horn and Joseph Hardart to open a second just three years later. The construction of the 15 South 11th location predated the company’s first New York City establishment (1912) as well as its aggressive expansion in both cities during the 1920s and 30s. While Horn & Hardart architecture is perhaps best known for the many Art Deco and Art Moderne designs of Ralph Bencker, the ornate quality and high style aspirations of the company were evident in the Steele & Sons building.

By 1930, 46 Horn & Hardarts dotted the city. During the Great Depression it employed some 10,000 Philadelphian and peaked at 85 locations in 1958. Changing demographics and food retailing led to the company’s demise. In 1969, Horn & Hardart closed the 11th and Ludlow location and sold the building. Sound of Market, occupying the second and third floors, opened in 1980 and has grown from a vinyl record shop to the largest independent record store in Philadelphia.


About the Author

Jon Vimr Jonathan Vimr recently earned an M.S. in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on preservation planning and policy. Previously, he studied urban history at Oberlin College. He seeks to promote the variety of ways in which preservation can be a viable tool in creating positive economic, cultural, and environmental change.


  1. Jon Vimr says:

    Just to note in case someone asks, Steele and Sons didn’t design Witherspoon or the Market Street Bank, but they were contractors on both. The list seen in paragraph four is simply a smattering of the best known local projects they were involved with.

  2. Phil says:

    I worked in that building for two years. Never knew it was built for Horn and Hardart. Great history!

  3. LISA HURWITZ says:

    Which Horn and Hardart locations in the Philadelphia area have landmark protections?

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