At a Center City Residents Association meeting last week, representatives of Pearl Properties formally introduced their plans to build a 26-story, 110-unit apartment tower at the corner of 19th and Chestnut Streets. The new tower would include the corner’s existing two-story limestone Art Deco building that most recently housed a Qdoba restaurant. While a handsome enough building, 1900 Chestnut was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2004 because of its circa-1935 Art Deco façade, but recent research by a local historian reveals the building has even more significance due to the man who built it: Raymond Pace Alexander.
The Alexander family biography reads as a startling chronicle of Civil Rights in Philadelphia. Raymond Pace Alexander’s parents were both born into slavery in Virginia, and both left (separately) for Philadelphia to escape the Jim Crow era South. After graduating from Central High School in 1917 as valedictorian, their son did his undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania and received his law degree from Harvard. His wife Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, a partner in his firm, became the first African American woman to earn a law degree at Penn. Her father, Aaron Albert Mossell, was the university’s first black graduate.
Alexander’s reputation as the namesake of the city’s preeminent African American law firm led to his tenure as President of the National Bar Association from 1933 to 1935, and his appointment to the Court of Common Pleas in 1959, the first African American judge in that role. His docket included challenging the policies of two Chester County school districts, a victory that factored prominently into the effort to end segregation in Pennsylvania public schools. He also successfully cleared the names of six black defendants—”the Trenton Six”—falsely accused of killing a white shop owner in Trenton in 1948, a case he won on appeal with the assistance of Thurgood Marshall. (In 1967, Marshall became the first African American Justice on the US Supreme Court.) Alexander also served on Philadelphia City Council from 1951 to 1958.
His firm’s rise of influence was slow and steady. Alexander first established offices in 1923 at Broad and Lombard, and later moved to the 12th floor of the Commonwealth Building at 12th and Chestnut. But as the number of his largely black clients passing through the office grew, the building’s owners refused to renew the lease, and the firm again relocated, this time to cramped quarters at 1901 Chestnut (now home to Burger.org).
By 1934, the practice was comfortable and capable of attaining Class A office space, exactly what Alexander wanted. But with standardized integration still decades away, he had trouble finding it, being turned away from the Land Title and Lincoln-Liberty Buildings he desired. At the latter, Wanamaker’s management (who’d built it as an annex to the original Wanamaker’s store) went so far as to say “we have no racial prejudice, but… [we don’t want to] risk racial criticism.” So Alexander bought the old home across the street from his office, demolished it, and hired architect Frank Hahn to draw up modern new offices.
The “racial criticism” quote above comes from the August 1936 issue of The Brown American, whose cover featured a photo of Olympian Jesse Owens—the same month he won the gold medal in the 100 meter sprint in front of Adolf Hitler in Berlin. In a feature story focusing on the building’s merit as a status symbol for Alexander’s firm, the lead sentence reads, “In Philadelphia, when one thinks of the law in connection with Negroes, the trend of thought usually goes directly to 1900 Chestnut Street.”
A year earlier, reporting on the building’s dedication, the Philadelphia Independent described the building: “Each room, and there are eight, including a law library that is reputed to be the most complete in the city, are so designed to resemble the interior of ocean going steamer cabins.”
The Raymond Pace Alexander law firm took the offices of the upper floors, while the first floor was leased out to Bonschur and Holmes Optical Company. That company grew at perhaps an even greater pace, securing stable contracts with the US military leading up to and during World War II.
In 1942, when Bonschur and Holmes needed additional space for management while production cranked out bomb sights and precision instruments, Alexander’s firm moved down the street to 40 South 19th Street and the optical company took over the building. Remarking on the move, columnist Jack Saunders wrote for the Philadelphia Tribune on October 17, 1942: “For a number years the Alexander law offices at 1900 Chestnut Street were considered a landmark of Negro business and professional progress in Philly and vicinity; folks came from far and near just to scan the Alexander edifice, returning to their home locales electrified and over-abundantly proud of the fact that a Negro was the owner of such a magnificent building.”
Alexander continued his practice in numerous offices across Center City and North Philadelphia until his death in 1974, but 1900 Chestnut stands most significantly to his legacy.
In addition to the City’s historic designation, it’s a legacy archivist and local historian Jim Duffin hopes to see commemorated with a state historical marker. While admitting it’s early on in the process, Duffin told Hidden City via email that he has the support of the Preservation Alliance, a number of historians, and the authors of two books on Alexander.
Of the ostensible placard, Duffin said, “I think 1900 Chestnut Street is really the best site to place a marker commemorating the importance of Raymond Pace Alexander for Civil Rights as well as service to Philadelphia’s African American community. Though there has been a lot of good work in recent years, Philadelphia’s African American history is still generally unknown or hidden—1900 Chestnut Street a prime example of this in that almost no one today knows that this building was built by and for African Americans and served as an important symbol to the community in its day. For an African American to be able to build a brand new office building just blocks off of Rittenhouse Square in the midst of the Depression is an amazing feat. Acknowledging the important contributions African Americans made to the City through historical markers is one step to change this.”
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Back at the Center City Residents Association meeting, neighbors weighed the usual concerns of parking, blocked sightlines, and wind. As proposed, Pearl Properties’ apartment tower would rise to 26 stories and 295′, requiring a zoning change from the current CMX-4 to CMX-5. Pearl had hoped to circumvent the typical Zoning Board of Adjustments hearing by drafting a bill for City Council that would rezone the site (which also includes the adjacent buildings all the way to the edge of the Boyd Theatre property), but the CCRA board voted against supporting that legislation.
CCRA Executive Director Steve Huntington, a retired attorney who remembers Alexander’s 16th Street offices, said, “Pearl Properties has been very receptive to meeting with us.” Explaining that CCRA’s opposition was strictly procedural—”we do not opine on aesthetics,” he noted—Huntington explained the organization’s process for review. “The developer first meets with a [CCRA] task force. The task force presents to our Zoning Committee, and the Zoning Committee presents to the Board. The board determined that the project, as presented, was not worthy of legislative change.”
Reed Slogoff, principal at Pearl Properties, said that their plan all along has been to incorporate the existing building into a modern highrise translation. The building’s main entrance, for example, would not be on the corner (where Qdoba’s entrance was), but on 19th Street, at the Art Deco “1900” entrance Alexander’s firm used. The design for the new tower comes from Philadelphia’s DAS Architects, who have partnered with Pearl on The Granary and The Sansom, two new-construction luxury developments opened in the past year.
Of the 1900 Chestnut process, Slogoff said, “Over the course of several months of meetings, presentations and concessions, Pearl Properties shared its plans with CCRA, stakeholders, Philadelphia Planning Commission and Council President Clarke. During this process, we received significant excitement and positive feedback, along with support from City Planning for the higher density remapping of this important corner. Unfortunately, to our great surprise and disappointment CCRA has expressed its ‘unanimous opposition’ to the planned development.
“We are now in the process of revisiting alternative development options and approaches for the site.”
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Hidden City would like to thank Jim Duffin for his assistance and thorough research at the Alexander Archives at the University of Pennsylvania.