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.
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.
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.”
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.
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