Two blocks south of the avenue which lends the Grays Ferry neighborhood its name, this ornate semi-cube has held down the corner of 26th and Wharton Streets for 120 years. Though heavily altered, Wharton Hall’s red brick and rusting cast iron embellishments indicate a deeper history. A meeting hall turned Catholic school turned glorified photo hut, this grand edifice shows its age, but it’s far from dead.
Exactly when this fine building was constructed or who the architect was remains a mystery, but perhaps we can narrow it down. The corner of 26th and Wharton did not exist until about 1891, when the street grid in this area, though platted long before, was still the subject of debate among city officials. Specifically, street names, widths, and which old diagonal highways to retain were of concern. (Point Breeze Avenue, originally Long Lane, was one such survivor.)
The first known reference to this building appears in a New York Times article from July 2, 1894, declaring that the American Railway Union, who was going through the Pullman Strike at the time, organized a Philadelphia branch of their organization and signing up 275 railway workers in “the hall at 26th and Wharton”. Therefore, we can assume that this building must have been built some time between 1891 and 1894. The Baist’s Property Atlas from 1895 labels this address “Wharton Hall”; one can still make out that faded name through the rust in the main pediment over the Wharton Street entrance.
The architect, however, is a matter of complete speculation. The design and materials used seem like something Frank Furness would enjoy—but we know that the he was not responsible for the design. However, Furness, at his height, had a multitude of imitators. Additional speculation comes from the fact that Wharton Hall was owned by John I. McDuffie, the contractor and real estate speculator who built the majority of the nearby rowhouses. There’s a good chance his company designed and built the hall itself. His firm even maintained offices in the building for a short period.
Wharton Hall spent its early days as a local meeting/banquet hall and a boxing venue. It was managed by one George Brown and was iconic enough to retain its name after its started taking on other uses in 1904, when it became the warehouse of Douglas Ottinger’s furnishing business. Keeping its name intact, Wharton Hall later became home to Lodge #387 of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Members of this lodge participated in the city-wide trolley strike riot that occurred on February 21st, 1910. One of the trolley lines looped around on 26th Street, right in front of Wharton Hall. On about noon of that day, a trolley car was cleared of passengers and set on fire. It was used as a hidden barricade for subsequent cars, which would also be set on fire once they reached the loop. A 16-year-old girl was shot by a stray bullet by police officers that responded to the scene.
In 1917, Michael M. Fox, an Irish immigrant who came to Philadelphia at age 17 and made himself into one of the most important businessmen in South Philadelphia, warehoused coal, lime, wood, and cement in Wharton Hall. A few years later, the ground floor supported a billiards hall.
In the 1920s, Italian immigrants were populating the neighborhood around the hall. Removed from the established Italian-American Catholics on the east side of Broad, these new residents needed an Italian Catholic Church of their own. In response, Father William A. Pelosi, with the blessing of Cardinal Dougherty, established the King of Peace Italian Roman Catholic Church in a converted garage catercorner to Wharton Hall in January 1926.
Later that year, the converted garage burned down and the unusual church building which still stands was constructed. When children of parishioners were blocked from attending Catholic schools in the area, Father Pelosi founded King of Peace Church’s own school in 1927. With enrollment expanding, they commissioned the Hoffman-Henon firm to convert Wharton Hall into a brand new Catholic school building. King of Peace Catholic School building opened in 1932 and graduated its first class of 13 boys in 1934.
King of Peace made use of Wharton Hall for the next two decades while the 1890s-built components of the building started to fall apart. The heat didn’t work and students purportedly feared the fire escapes. Cardinal O’Hara, successor to Cardinal Dougherty, visited the school in 1954 and was appalled at its condition. He ordered that a new school building be constructed as soon as possible. The new building opened just down 26th Street in 1956, leaving Wharton Hall without an occupant.
In 1957, a stainless steel manufacturer attempted to use the building for its operations but was denied a permit by the Zoning Board of Adjustments. After that, Quick Photo Service Inc. took the first floor, selling wholesale photographic supplies and providing photo-processing services for neighborhood residents well into the late 20th Century. The building has had numerous owners since. Purchased for $19,000 in 1998, the vacant building was later sold to its current owner, local marble and granite dealer Angelo Tartaglini, in 2005 for $175,000, an 800% markup.
Last October, a major renovation was proposed to turn the first floor into a 50-seat nightclub/banquet hall and the floors above into apartments. The Zoning Board of Adjustments refused the application for a permit, citing the nightclub use as requiring a special exception. A second application in December with plans for “a sit down restaurant on the first floor [and] four dwelling units above” went through, and construction permits for the project were pulled in June. The work is to be a total gutting and rebuilding of the interior, including new wiring, plumbing, and a sprinkler system.
After years of emptiness, Wharton Hall, at least on paper, has a future. Hopefully, in another 120 years, some future writer will ponder the architect and construction date of the beautiful apartment building at 26th and Wharton.