It’s a good time to be a bicyclist in Philadelphia. Philadelphia has created 426 miles of in-street bike lanes, the most per square mile–condition not withstanding–in the U.S and fifth most in sheer number of miles. The number of bicycle commuters grew by 260 percent from 2008 to 2013, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the largest bike advocacy group in the region. The 2012 American Community Survey, a study by the U.S. Census, found that Philadelphia, among the ten largest cities, has the most bike commuters per capita. A more recent study indicates that almost four percent of commuters here bike to work, a third more than the ACS had estimated.
But since the 1810s, when Charles Wilson Peale raced around Germantown on his velocipede, Philadelphia has been bike crazy–never more so than in the thirty years around the turn-of-the-20th-century.
Of all that remains of this grand cycling era, perhaps the New Barber’s Hall, on West Oxford Street in North Philadelphia, former home of the Quaker City Wheelmen bicycle club, testifies best to the city’s passionate pedaling past. Notably, the same building is one of the last remaining venues of Philly’s great jazz age.
Bicycle Clubs Get Rolling
Following the invention of the Rover, the first mass-produced chain driven bicycle, in 1885, North America experienced a bicycle craze that would carry on into the early 20th century, with Boston and Philadelphia as its nexus. The paving of the old Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike (now Lancaster Avenue) with macadam transformed the ancient highway into a virtual bicycle freeway. The craze was most popular among the city’s nouveau riche, mainly because the areas in which they resided in North Philadelphia were among the first major roads in the area to get paved.
The street upgrades led to the formation of bicycle clubs for wealthy gentlemen and the construction of elaborate clubhouses for the budding cycling enthusiasts. Nearly all of these beautiful structures were demolished long ago, yet a small few have managed to survive. The clubhouse of the Quaker City Wheelmen at 1402 West Oxford Street remains the most impressive.
The clubhouse was originally one of two matching residences developed by industrialist Cyrus Cadwallader in the 1870s. Civil War veteran W.C. Seymour lived in the easternmost house. In 1890, want to retire to California, Seymour sold the building to the newly formed Quaker City Wheelmen.
The group was the fastest growing bicycle club of the era. Membership swelled. The new clubhouse on West Oxford Street was an ideal location. It was next door to a small bicycle factory–Century Bicycle Factory and later Shirley Bicycle Factory–it was across the street from the esteemed Columbia Club, and it was surrounded by newly paved asphalt streets.
Each bicycle club became known for its uniform. The Quaker City Wheelmen wore gray riding suits trimmed with black braid and paired with black socks.
Wheeling Out Renovations
Five years after the club took over the old Seymour residence membership was strong; the clubhouse needed an upgrade. Club members decided to alter and add to the existing structure instead of razing it and building new. The façade of the mansion, set back 12 feet from the street, was completely removed and replaced with an addition that would reach all the way to the property line along Oxford Street. It was covered with Pompeiian brick, a porch on both the first and third floors, and a large bay window. Workers removed the rear section of the house and built a new addition. The renovations were designed by architectural firm Schermerhorn & Reinhold, who, notably, were hired for the addition to the Montgomery County Courthouse a few years later.
The large, arched porch on the first floor–designed in the Bingham House style–served as the club’s entrance. Behind it was a parlor, reception room, and the club’s library. In the rear section of the first floor was a gymnasium, locker room, and a wheel room where members could store their bicycle wheels. On the second floor there was a billiard room, smoking room, and secretary’s office. The third floor consisted of a cafe and kitchen, janitor’s quarters, and access to the thin third floor porch.
When renovations were completed in December 1895 the club still owed $1,257.76 to contractors, and a mechanic’s lien was placed on the building. The contractor sued and the case was carried to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The bicycle club ended up winning the case, Warren v. Freeman, 187 Pa. 455, due to a technicality.
The Quaker City Wheelmen eventually became part of the League of American Wheelmen, giving them national prominence among America’s bicycle clubs. They hosted national meets, free public cycling events, dances, and card parties. The cyclists attempted to publish their own bicycling magazine, Cycling.
The Wheelmen sold the clubhouse eight years later, in 1902, to another bicycling club, the Americus Wheelmen, a Jewish association (most clubs and societies were closed to Jews at the time). Americus members hosted regional cycling events and, not to be ignored, formed a minstrel troupe that would perform an Ethiopian vaudeville show at charity events. In 1906, members of the Americus Wheelmen formed the Americus Social and Literary Club, also headquartered at 1402 W. Oxford Street.
Steering In A New Direction
By 1919, the clubhouse had taken on an entire new identity as Arion Hall, a meeting hall and performing arts center for Maennerchor and Damenchors German-American singing societies. Arion Hall was home to the Zweckverband, a joint board of trustees of the various societies called the Singer’s Building Association.
In 1953, a group of four African American barbershop owners formed the National Barber’s Sunshine Club, a trade organization for local barbers, and purchased the building for their headquarters, which was colloquially renamed Barber’s Hall. In addition to hosting the Sunshine Club, the building also became a music venue and event space. Jazz musicians staying at the Chesterfield Hotel next door would often drop by to play at the club between gigs. It quickly became a legendary hotspot to see performances. John Coltrane, Robert “Bootsie” Barnes, Grover Washington, Jr., and The Temptations all played at Barber’s Hall. The Sharmeers, a female doo wop group, wrote their first hit, “A Schoolgirl In Love,” there in the late 1950s. After a fire in 1963, the whole building was reconfigured with a restaurant space on the first floor, a bar and lounge on the second, and storage on the third.
In 1978, current owner Jacob Adams and his brother purchased the building for $70,000 and fully converted it into a bar and event venue. In 1999, the location was renamed the New Barber’s Hall. In addition to being famous for $.25 chicken wing nights and karaoke nights, the place is also a popular live music venue and event space for wedding receptions and fundraisers. The venue also hosts community events like kiddy discos and easter egg hunts.
Redevelopment pressures and gentrification around Temple University continue to encroach upon the neighborhood. New Barber’s Hall was one of the focal points of a special report on the situation published in The Inquirer in 2014. In the article, owner Jacob Adams discussed the temptation to sell to developers, whom he says are constantly contacting him about selling the building. Adams states in the story that he would never sell the old clubhouse, however, the temptation must be pretty hard to resist. In early 2006, he listed the building for sale for $2.2 million, but withdrew the listing 16 days later.
Meanwhile, New Barber’s Hall continues on not only as a fine example of late 19th century cycling clubhouses, but one of the few remaining legendary music venues of North Philadelphia.
The Quaker City Wheelmen’s Club was reactivated in 1976 and exists today as QCW Cycling, a non-profit that fosters development of new and younger cyclists.