Elegy For A Building Whose Life Was Cut Short


Philadelphia is full of graceful old buildings that have withstood the test of time, undaunted by redevelopment and tasteless remodeling. However, there are a few architectural standouts that disappeared with a blink of an eye. Pennsylvania Hall, at 6th and Arch, lasted barely three days before a mob destroyed it. The Haseltine Building, a contemporary of the Hale Building on Chestnut Street, stood for a scant seven and a half years in its original form before a fire cut its life short. This beautiful structure, built to be a landmark, deserves to be remembered.

A Work of Art

Haseltine Building around 1895 | Source: Directory of the Principal Office Buildings of Philadelphia

Haseltine Building, 1895 | Source: Directory of the Principal Office Buildings of Philadelphia

Philadelphia-born, Charles Field Haseltine became a successful dry goods merchant. After serving in the Civil War, he returned to Philadelphia to start a fine arts business, Haseltine Galleries. His first location on the 1100 block of Chestnut Street gained a good reputation among artists and collectors, causing the business to expand rapidly. Haseltine was what was then known as a “joiner”–a member and often a leader of various city social clubs and organizations, affiliations that no doubt aided in the expansion of his client, customer, and artist connections.

In early 1887 he approached British-born architect William N. Lockington to design a seven-story commercial building that would both house an expanded Haseltine Gallery and provide office and retail space for other firms. William N. Lockington is a somewhat mysterious figure. His entire architectural resume consists of just this one building. It should be noted, however, that Lockington was a well-known architectural writer. In his article, “Philadelphia’s Architecture,” published in the October 1887 edition of Builder and Decorator, Lockington disparagingly called Philadelphia “the most conservatively unarchitectural of the large American cities.” With the Haseltine Building commission, Lockington appears to have been on a mission to fix that condition.

Lockington’s design for the 54′ x 235′ lot at 1416-18 Chestnut Street was described in later years as a mixture of Renaissance and Gothic. The façade was polychromatic, with buff brick separated by bands of red terra cotta. Indiana Limestone and copper features were placed all over the ornate exterior, while Lockington made the windows and arches various different sizes and shapes on each floor. The building stood seven stories tall on Chestnut Street and eight on Sansom, with a shorter portion in-between lit by a massive skylight. The first two floors of the building were designed to be fireproof.

The Hale and Haseltine Buildings pictured together as examples of great American architecture | Source: The Iconographic Encyclopaedia of the Arts and Sciences, Volume 4

The Hale and Haseltine Buildings pictured together as examples of great American architecture | Source: The Iconographic Encyclopaedia of the Arts and Sciences, Volume 4

After a call for bids from contractors was put out in March 1887, Haseltine met with 10 firms a month later to go over each proposal. Haseltine chose the lowest bidder through a verbal agreement that day, but in later weeks decided that the contractor, a Mr. Leskie, wasn’t up to the gargantuan task of getting this building done. Haseltine chose someone else. Leskie sued and Haseltine challenged him in court. The whole kerfluffle pushed construction back for a year. The local courts took Leskie’s side, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court eventually ruled that Haseltine was correct and that an implied verbal contract wasn’t strong enough to commit Leskie to the work.

The Haseltine Building was finally completed by the autumn of 1888. While the street level and basement were well known as a the large showroom and warehouse of the Philadelphia branch of the Steinway Piano Company, the second floor of the building, Haseltine’s gallery, one of the finest places to buy artwork in the city, was the main attraction. The gallery took up the entire footprint of the building. Haseltine claimed it was the largest establishment of its type in any city in the world. The 39 offices in the upper floors were highly sought-after spaces, and some were even used as art studios by the very artists whose work was for sale in the 2nd floor gallery.

Up In Smoke

Haseltine Building Fire Damage | Source: Fireproof Magazine, Volume I

Haseltine Building fire damage | Source: Fireproof Magazine, Volume I

At 3AM on February 2nd, 1896, a fire broke out in the basement of the building and quickly spread to the upper floors of the “fireproof” building. The conflagration went on for five hours, taking out the two buildings to its east and west. All three buildings were unoccupied at the time, but panic ensued when the fire reached the rear of the Lafayette Hotel where 250 guests were sleeping. The guests including Atlanta mayor Porter King and celebrity actress Olga Nethersole, were evacuated late at night. The Lafayette was saved when the fire burned out the supports holding up its water tower, causing a huge deluge to snuff out the blaze. The only casualties were minor injuries sustained by nine firemen and one hotel guest who tripped on the stairs while evacuating.

Well over $1 million in losses were attributed to the fire, making it one of the most expensive in the city’s history. The entire stock of the Steinway Piano store was lost. $400,000 worth of paintings in Haseltine’s gallery burned, including major works by George Slous and Tony Robert-Fleury. $10,000 worth of South American “curios” held in a collection by one of the dentist’s offices in the upper floors was gone. Next door, the American Baptist Publication Society had losses that could not be counted in dollars and cents: the Society’s entire 10,000 volume library, its original charter, and all of its historically valued possessions.

In the aftermath, the fire made national news and people questioned how this alleged fireproof building could have possibly burned down. The blame fell on the thin metal lathing that was behind the plaster on the ceilings of each floor, which proved insufficient to keep the heat from the fire from effecting the load-bearing steel beams of the building, causing them to sag and eventually fail.

Much to the chagrin of Charles Haseltine, in June 1896 the City determined the remains of the building to be unsafe and condemned the building. Haseltine appealed the decision and the City had architect Amos J. Boyden, master builder George Watson, and structural engineer Howard S. Richards take a thorough look at the building to see how much of it could be saved. The trio determined that the building only needed to have a couple of floors removed on the Chestnut and Sansom Street-facing sections, but the middle section needed to be completely demolished. Parts of the façade needed to be removed and many of the window and door lintels had to be replaced or reinforced.

Ghostly Remains

Charred remains of the Haseltine Building, 1898 | Source: Conking-Armstrong Terra Cotta Company Portfolio

Charred remains of the Haseltine Building, 1898 | Source: Conking-Armstrong Terra Cotta Company Portfolio

Though five stories of the Chestnut Street façade survived, the upper floors were windowless. The vacant building was put up for sale and stayed on the market for five years until it was sold to lawyer William Elliott for $525,000, who sat on the property for another 14 years. John Wanamaker bought the property in 1914 for $2.75 million.

Haseltine Galleries reopened at 1824 Chestnut Street and stayed there until Haseltine’s death in 1915.

The Franklin National Bank purchased the old Haseltine property from John Wanamaker in 1915 and was celebrated for finally removing the blighted remains of the old building in favor of a new office building, which stood for 43 years until a parking garage, still extant, replaced it.

It is anyone’s guess if the Haseltine Building would have survived today had that the fire not occurred. If it did, there’s no way of knowing what condition it would have ended up in, of course. The façade may have been removed or its functional obsolescence may have led to demolition. However, maybe, just maybe, it would still be standing like the Keystone National Bank Building (now called the Hale Building), put up around the same time and at present undergoing a long-anticipated renovation.

One positive outcome of the fire: the American Baptist Publication Society replaced its headquarters with the beautiful Crozer Building, which is still beautiful and lauded today.

The Crozer Building, like the Haseltine, took advantage of terra cotta for its facade, using pieces made by the Philadelphia-based Conkling-Armstrong Terra Cotta Company. This company was quite prolific but in Center City only the façades of the Crozer Building, Witherspoon Building, and the remains of the Hamilton-Diesinger Building are left. You can find a 1914 portfolio of the firm’s work that includes the Fireman Gargoyles here and a portfolio with examples from the Crozer, Witherspoon, and Hamilton-Diesinger Buildings HERE, along with façade pieces from the University of Pennsylvania’s Dental School Building.

About the author

GroJLart is the anonymous foulmouthed blogger of Philaphilia, where he critiques Philadelphia architecture, history, and design. He resides in Washington Square West. GroJLart has contributed to Naked Philly, the Philadelphia City Paper's Naked City Blog, and Philadelphia Magazine's Property Blog.

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  1. I like many styles of architecture and I know this is subjective, but I’ve always thought the Hale Building is a monstrosity – ill proportioned and overly and frenetically ornamented. It looks to me like the Haseltine Building suffered from the same defects. At the end of the 19th century, much Philadelphia architecture was seen as ugly, idiosyncratic and backwards. These might be two prime examples of those flaws. Everything old is not beautiful or sacred.

    • You took the description of the Hale Building right out of my mouth.

    • Hale was a master of idiosyncratic and eclectic architecture in Philadelpia. The Divine Lorraine is another example of his style. Unfortunately, not all buildings could be designed by Furness. Buildings, such as the Hale, make Philadelphia what it is today.

  2. What Mr. Wanamaker paid for that property in 1915 – WOW! That is a huge figure.

    I’m sure this structure would have still been here today, had there been no fire. The building sounds large enough to make it to the mid-20th century and parking lots would have taken their space on perhaps smaller, insignificant buildings. What a loss! Thanks for giving the Haseltine it’s due.

  3. i love those old buildings like..its the 1880’s…by that logic city hall and anything by Frank Funess should be torn down…that was Philly flexing its muscles at its height of its workshop of the world era

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