Philadelphia once had two independent police forces: the regular men in blue and another force called the Fairmount Park Guards. Formed in 1868, the Park Guards was at one point the third largest police force in Pennsylvania—behind only the police forces of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. A century later, in 1972, the two police forces finally merged.
The Fairmount Park Guards patrolled the park by foot, horseback and even bicycle to provide information and security to Fairmount Park visitors. They also kept watch over the park’s greenery and its collection of mansions, statues and fountains, all while routinely returning lost children to parents. Furthermore, the guards patrolled the Schuylkill River to prevent accidental drownings and to provide assistance whenever someone fell through the ice when the river froze.
When not making their rounds, guards were often found resting or doing paperwork in wooden shelters known as guard boxes (or houses, shacks, or shelters). The Fairmount Park Commission had installed over a hundred guard boxes throughout the park for the officers. The small structures were generally built in one of two architectural styles—Gothic Revival (or Victorian) or Craftsman. Besides those built in the 19th century, additional shelters were constructed by the Works Projects Administration from 1935 until 1943. Each one had a telephone and wood or coal stove.
In an interview last year on KYW Newsradio, Lucy Strackhouse, executive director of the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, recounted that the Fairmount Park Commission decided in the 1950s to get rid of the remaining shacks, many of which were approaching a hundred years old. Most were either destroyed or simply given away. As late as the 1970s, the city was actively auctioning them off for as little as ten dollars each.
The few remaining shelters serve as monuments to the century of dedicated service that the Fairmount Park Guards gave to Philadelphia. Some are cared for by the Trust. “We have about twelve of them left at this point, and we guard them very carefully,” said Strackhouse. Many are in critical need of repair. One, at Belmont and Montgomery Drives, was lost a few years ago to a head-on car collision, its left over parts salvaged for the repair of others, and kept in a clandestine “guard box graveyard.” The graveyard has slowly vanished as restoration work has progressed.
About two years ago, as Christopher Mote reported on these pages, the Trust collaborated with the National Park Service to restore an 1870s era guard box at the southeast corner of Washington Square. A second guard box is in the square’s northwestern quadrant. Earlier, the Trust restored the guard house on Eakins Oval used by the parking attendant there.
Last year, the Trust, along with the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, Kurtz Roofing and Construction, and the West Chelten Neighbors Association, restored the Saylor Grove Guard Box next to Lincoln Drive at Wissahickon Avenue. The reconditioned box, granted a 2014 Grand Jury Prize by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, was reinstalled on a new foundation in spring 2013, and now sports its original Victorian color scheme. The restoration of this box is part of the Trust’s mission: to preserve, develop, and manage historic properties and other cultural resources in Fairmount Park. The Trust has incorporated the Saylor Grove Guard Box into an interpretive area to educate park users on the importance of the Park Guard—and their guard boxes—to Fairmount Park’s history.
Perhaps the most conspicuous of guard boxes was at the traffic triangle at 21st Street and the Ben Franklin Parkway, just east of Eakins Oval. Built around 1873 (or perhaps even earlier), this six-sided Gothic Revival guard shelter was ten feet in diameter with a concave octagonal roof and gingerbread trim. It also had columns and large pointed-arch windows on every side. Like most all of the Fairmount Park Guard Houses, it was shaped like a pagoda, for Victorians were fascinated by Asian architecture and objects.
This guard box was probably first set up at East River (now Kelly) Drive and Green Street. It was later moved a bit to the northwest corner of East River Drive and Fairmount Avenue, where it continued to serve for decades as an entranceway into Fairmount Park. In 1973, the old shack was restored by the Fairmount Park Commission to mark the Bicentennial and was immediately moved about a quarter mile to the southeast. It received a place of honor on the triangular spot where the inner lanes of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway split to create Eakins Oval at Art Museum Drive. By then, the little shack was better known as the Centennial Guard House because it must have been fabricated as part of a batch of guard boxes for use during the Centennial International Exposition of 1876, and also because it became prominently known around town after the disposition of most of the other boxes. (Other boxes could rightfully have been called the “Centennial Guard House.”)
The Centennial Guard House was removed in 1986 so that the traffic triangle could be planted with flowers. The resulting garden is surrounded by a three-foot concrete wall that was designed to prevent pedestrians from trampling the plantings. In November, 1986, the place was christened “The Binswanger Triangle,” for the Binswanger family that planted the flowers—with the blessing of the Fairmount Park Commission, whose members back then included Frank G. Binswanger, Sr. (The Binswanger family is also responsible for a just installed grove of trees at Belmont Plateau, as we reported last week.)
Meanwhile, the Centennial Guard House languished for a few years beside a rusted dumpster in the Fairmount Park maintenance yard on Monument Road off Martin Luther King Drive. The Fairmount Park Commission had notions of restoring it and placing it next to the Horticultural Center in West Fairmount Park, but those plans evidently did not come to pass. In addition, the local chapter of the Victorian Society in America was set to rebuild the Centennial Guard House in the 1990s, but nothing came of this. The whereabouts this once-elegant and romantic guard box are unknown.
A fine replica of the Centennial Guard House stands in the center of Rittenhouse Square, replacing an earlier guard box that had been there for many years. So detailed and fine is this $126,000 reproduction that one might think that it is the very same guard shack that once stood near Eakins Oval. But this is not the case. In the 1980s, the Friends of Rittenhouse Square had this shelter custom-made in England according to designs by Campbell-Thomas Architects and then shipped it to Philadelphia.
One guard box would probably be better forgotten: in Cobbs Creek Park at 63rd and Catherine Streets, an unarmed Park Guard inside his guard house was killed on August 29, 1970, as part of an attempt to blow up the shack with grenades. Sgt. Frank R. VonColln was shot in the back five times while talking on a telephone; his gun was still in his desk. Officer VonColln was the one of only a few Fairmount Park Guards ever killed in the line of duty.
Several blocks away, a second officer had been shot and wounded a few minutes earlier. Two Philadelphia Police Highway Patrolmen investigating the crimes were the third and fourth shooting victims in Cobbs Creek the following day. Police commissioner Frank Rizzo blamed the attacks on “organized revolutionaries” who had set out to “shoot pigs.” Five suspects, all members of a radical group associated with the Black Panthers, were eventually brought to justice.
Perhaps this sad affair helped to hasten the incorporation of the Park Guards into the regular Philadelphia Police force some two years later. VonColln’s name has since been attached, as a memorial, to the baseball park alongside the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
In 1990, the Philadelphia Ranger Corps, the Friends of Pennypack Park, and the Metropolitan District Council of Carpenters collaborated to rebuild the guard house at the Pine Road entrance to Pennypack Park. The structure was to serve as a headquarters for the Pennypack Park rangers. It is still staffed some weekends by FOPP volunteers.
There are two guard boxes on Bucks County Community College’s campus and one was recently restored by students in the historic preservation program. Interestingly, another guard box serves as a garden shed for a house that was for sale a few years ago on West Pastorius Street. Yet another is being used as an information booth at a mall in Cape May, New Jersey. (A comment (below) indicates that this shack may be the very one in which Officer VonColln lost his life.)
A handful of other guard boxes still remain, serving various purposes, throughout the Fairmount Park system.
Author’s Note: This piece was gathered in the course of research for my third book, The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014). This Arcadia Publishing title is a postcard history book that traces the development of the Parkway and the various institutions along the Parkway through the use of period postcards and other images, followed by explanatory captions.