Since the earliest decades of the 20th century, Philadelphians have had an almost obsessive infatuation with Camac Street. And why not? The narrow thoroughfare is known as the “The Little Street of Clubs,” home to the Plastic Club, the Sketch Club and the Franklin Inn Club. And as if that isn’t quaint enough, the 200 block of Camac is also the only street in Philadelphia paved with wooden blocks.
Indeed, Philadelphians have been finding Camac Street quaint for more than a hundred years, and have worked to keep it that way for almost as long. The wood blocks themselves were an anachronistic and genteel touch installed early in the 20th century, shortly after the arrival of the little clubs, because they made less noise than horse hooves and carriage wheels on Belgian (granite) blocks. Wood block streets had enjoyed a brief heyday in the mid-19th century, but were rarely replaced because they wore out too quickly and absorbed horse urine, which made them smell bad.
According to Bob Skiba at GayborhoodGuru, the two block length of Camac Street running from Walnut to Spruce was developed much earlier than surrounding blocks. About 1813, the street appears in directories as Hazel Alley, then Dean’s Alley and Dean Street.
This bit of street took the name “Camac” in 1898 or so because it was in line with Camac Street in North Philadelphia, named after Captain Turner Camocks (various spellings of the name were used), a wealthy Irish copper mine owner who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1804 and was related to the Penn family through marriage. About a half dozen other streets on either side of Center City have been absorbed into Camac since then.
Camac Street south of Market Street was initially a modest little avenue with numerous small homes sporting tiny gardens. The Venture Inn—now a gay bar and restaurant—was built as a tavern long ago but was later used as a stable for the carriages of wealthy Philadelphians. Meanwhile, Camac Street kept its pleasant respectability until it entered a period of decline around 1880.
The street during that era is pungently described in the 1937 WPA Guide to Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace as “the scene of brawls by day and crimes by night, requiring at times an entire squad of the city’s police to maintain order. For twenty years the street, lined with brothels and taverns, rotted in a mire of debauchery.”
The movement of art and scholarly clubs onto the street began when the Philadelphia Sketch Club moved into 235 S. Camac in 1902. The street’s biggest cheerleader was Karl Bloomingdale, president of the Poor Richard Club, which moved to 239 S. Camac in 1906. Bloomingdale and other members of the club started lobbying for the street, wishing to resuscitate the feeling of old-time Philadelphia, however Camac wasn’t fully restored until the early 1920s in preparation for the Sesquicentennial. Image conscious city officials considered the dirty and neglected streets of Old City and Society Hill an embarrassment to the city, so they spruced up and promoted the 200 block of South Camac Street as a charming colonial thoroughfare that visitors could see. The revival of Elfreth’s Alley followed.
The Sesquicentennial improvements included the installation of lampposts of colonial design and the addition of hitching posts, like those used in Revolutionary days, in front of each house on the street. The houses themselves were outfitted with flower boxes in the windows and sidewalks were also improved.
This revamping of a city street was something new in Philadelphia. Besides showing Philadelphians the charm of small urban streets, the 1920s refurbishment heralded larger neighborhood restorations that came with urban redevelopment in the mid-twentieth Century. The colonial-inspired streets and alleys of Society Hill, in particular, are prime examples of this. And to this day, the local reverence for small neighborhood streets and alleys throughout Old City, Northern Liberties, Southwark (Queen Village) and the rest of Philadelphia can trace its roots back to the rehabilitation of South Camac. In fact, there is a group dedicated to preserving, repairing and restoring them–the Philadelphia Society of Small Streets, founded in 2011.
When Camac was repaved in 1997-98, the Philadelphia Department of Streets wanted to replace the deteriorated blocks (which had miraculously survived since the early part of the century) with a more durable material, but local residents persuaded the city to keep this section of the street in historical condition. Local legend has it that Camac is the only wood block street in the country, but that turns out not to be true. There are examples in Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and perhaps in other cities as well.
Camac Street had been included in a 1993 survey of historically significant streets in the city, and since then, the lane’s 200 block has been protected by the Philadelphia Historical Commission as one of the many streets in a “thematic district” of historically significant streets that cannot be altered without the commission’s approval. And when a street within such a thematic district requires repairs, damaged pieces must be replaced in kind.
Maintaining a wood block street turned out to be trickier than anyone realized, however. In the late 1990s, the Streets Department failed to use an adhesive to attach the wooden blocks to the underlying sand foundation. When wet weather came (including the September 1999 rains of Hurricane Floyd), the wooden cubes expanded more than anticipated, loosened and came out. (A modicum of dampness, previously supplied by horse urine, had apparently kept the original blocks of Camac Street snug over its gravel or sand bed for decades.) After a few blocks were dislodged, the resulting holes caused more blocks to loosen. Some people walked off with a few of the blocks, while someone apparently tried to set others on fire.
Part of the problem was that the last wooden streets in Philadelphia were constructed in the 1920s and modern contractors did not know the proper procedures for laying down a street made of wood cubes. Further, the Department of Streets had problems finding wood that was sufficiently dense. It finally located a Pennsylvania mill that would cut the 1,000 oak blocks needed for the replacement job. The wooden blocks were properly installed in 2000 and then again apparently in 2008.