With Demolition Likely, RIP Dewey’s Famous

 

Dewey's Famous/Pirate Ship/Letto's Deli, 13th and Chancellor St. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Dewey’s Famous/Pirate Ship/Captain’s Quarters/The Pyramids/Letto’s Deli/???, 13th and Chancellor St. | Photo: Peter Woodall

LGBTQ people have regularly found a way to take nominally straight public places and make them their own, even sometimes without the rest of the world realizing. In the post-War city, particularly, gay men and women would commandeer a street corner or a section of a park as a comfort zone. Often, a chain coffee shop would do. Philadelphia was flush with Linton’s, Horn and Hardart, and Dewey’s. Two Dewey’s locations, in particular, on 17th Street (presently Little Pete’s) and on 13th Street, became nuclei in the gay landscape.

Dewey's at 8th and Market, 1941

Dewey’s at 8th and Market, 1941 | Temple Urban Archives

The Dewey’s at 208 South 13th Street, designed by Armand Carroll, a specialist in movie theater design, opened about 1955. The distinctive one story modern building, suggestive of the architecture of Western places, like Lake Tahoe, is now vacant. It will be demolished, according to a report by Philly.com, for a new restaurant on the site.

The Dewey’s chain began in 1940 in Philadelphia. Within a few years Dewey’s opened on Market, Arch and Walnut Streets, and around Rittenhouse Square. Some of these spots had tables, but most were simple lunch counters, serving hamburgers, hot dogs and malteds.

Dewey's post-fire, 1969

Dewey’s 13th Street post-fire, 1969 | Temple Urban Archives

The 13th Street Dewey’s was remodeled after a fire destroyed much of it in February, 1969. This Dewey’s was near to the bars on 13th, Camac, and Chancellor Streets and it was open all night–the perfect hangout after the bars and the after hours clubs closed. Widely known as the “fag” Dewey’s, it was noisily packed late into the night with a whole spectrum of drag queens, hustlers, dykes, leather men, and Philly cops looking for a cup of coffee, a cross section of life on 13th Street.

Before There Was Stonewall There Was Dewey’s

But the managers of other Dewey’s outlets around the city were intent on keeping the queer tolerant 13th Street Dewey’s the exception, and not the rule, within the chain. In 1965, the management of the 17th Street Dewey’s announced that the restaurant would refuse service “to a large number of homosexuals and persons wearing non-conformist clothing.”

Leafletting outside Dewey's, 1965

Leafletting outside Dewey’s | 1965 Drum Magazine, courtesy of the John J Wilcox Jr LGBT Archives

On Sunday, April 25th, more than 150 protestors–black, white, trans, lesbian, and gay–staged a sit-in, an amazing thing to do in Philadelphia in 1965, four years before the Stonewall riots. The protest was modeled on the Civil Rights activism of the period. Police arrived and three of the protestors, a young woman and two young men, who refused to leave were arrested.

1981 advertisement for the Pirate Ship

Image courtesy John J Wilcox Jr LGBT Archives

Journalist and activist Clark Polak and the Janus Society, a local gay rights group, distributed some 1,500 leaflets outside the restaurant in support of the protestors. On Sunday, May 2, they staged a second sit-in. This time, when the police were called, officers spoke with the protestors and simply left, declining to take any action at all. The management agreed to end the discrimination and the protestors left, having staged the first successful gay rights sit-in in the country. This marked an important step in the struggle for LGBT people to lay claim to the right to public space in 1960s Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Back on 13th Street

In the late 1970s, competition from national fast food chains pushed Dewey’s out of business. The 13th Street location was purchased by Lester Ketters, who opened the gay friendly restaurant The Ranch there in 1979. In 1981, Les and his partner Larry changed the name twice, first to The New Pirate Ship, in honor of an old, long gone gay bar called the Pirate Ship on Camac near Locust Street, then to The Captain’s Quarters. He then sold it in 1982. The space became The Pyramids, a Middle Eastern restaurant with Egyptian owners. It’s last incarnation was as the Letto Deli, which closed in early 2009 after the rent was hiked.

The last hop for the space came in 2010, when Jose Garces announced plans for a German restaurant to be called Frohman’s Wursthaus. But the restauranteur shelved the plan in 2012.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Gayborhood Guru blog and has been edited for publication in the Hidden City Daily

About the author

Bob Skiba has been the archivist at the William Way LGBT Community Center since 2006. He is the president of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides and leads walking tours of Philadelphia’s Gayborhood. Bob documents many of the area’s hidden history in his popular blog “The Gayborhood Guru.”



8 Comments


  1. Great article Bob! Your Gayborhood guru blog is great, and your articles will be a great addition to Hiddencity!!!

  2. There was another “modernistic” Dewey’s at 48th and Spruce, even larger than the 13th Street one, and in Center City one commanded the SE corner of 17th & Market. But my sentimental favorite was the hole-in-the-wall (standing room only) on the North side of Market, between Juniper and 13th. Their steakburgers (“Hamburgers are an ordinary item of commerce,” their sign read, “but steakburgers are a Dewey’s specialty.”) began as balls of ground meat, which were forcefully flattened into round patties on the grill with a large, heavy press. And an order for a hot dog was always called out to the grill man, “Single!” (unless, of course, you were ordering two, in which case…well, you get the picture).

  3. What a great article! I loved Lettos and had no idea of this amazing and important history. Thanks for sharing the research.

    • Kim – This is another example of a fairly undistinguished building with a great story behind it. There are so many in Philadelphia!

  4. Wow I never knew but I’m so glad I read this! So much history from just one building, when I moved to Philadelphia I saw the Divine Lorraine and I felt like there was so much devastation covering it’s beauty and then to find out that it was also on the demolition list made me incredibly sad! Actually, it was Ever Safe Moving Company that pointed to me that Philadelphia is a hidden gem of historic buildings and it inspired me to go out and explore the city more! Good post!

  5. Michael McGettigan

    Man, never heard about that 17th St. sit-in. Good to know that Philadelphia was still cranking out the “firsts” well into the 20th Century.

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