At the corner where South Kensington blurs with North Philadelphia’s Ludlow neighborhood, this empty eight (and ten) story building has for decades sent out a beacon of blight—visible for so far as a reminder that, in spite of nearby progress, a grimmer reminder of industry’s exodus and all it brought stands in plain sight. But this great old building not only represents massive potential for redevelopment, it also serves as one of the more conspicuous reminders of a time when Philadelphia stood at the top of many industries—even chamois cloth!
Brothers Charles and Henry Drueding probably never thought when they came to America as teenagers from Clappenburg, Germany that they would build such a huge and successful business empire. Both attended the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy with the goal of running a pharmaceutical chemical plant and pharmacy. They opened one at the corner of Lawrence and Master Streets in 1877, but their lives changed in a big way in 1883.
It was then that they invented a process of tanning sheep and lambskins into an artificial version of chamois material. Real chamois came from a difficult-to-hunt animal of the same name that lives in the European Alps and the Caucasus Mountains. At the time, chamois only came to the United States via import, a rare and expensive item. The Drueding Brothers put into operation the next best thing.
The process was by no means simple. The sheep or lambskins were first cleaned of wool using a 12-hour procedure involving sodium sulfite, milk, and lime. The skin is then stretched, head and limbs removed (and sent to glue manufacturers), and put into a “splitting machine” that would strip the wool side from the flesh side of the skin. The flesh side, known as the “flesher,” would then be thoroughly soaked with codfish oil several times before being hung to dry at 100 degrees. The oil would then be removed using hydraulic pressure and alkali. To finish the job, the skin would then be placed in a revolving wheel covered in flint to remove all remaining substances. The result was a leather that was strikingly similar to actual chamois.
Though the American sheep leather industry had attempted creations of artificial chamois for decades, Drueding Brothers were the ones who found a way to successfully manufacture it at a large scale and market it for sale.
…And market it for sale they did. In a few short years, Drueding Brothers could not keep production up to keep up with demand. Even after other manufacturers replicated the process and produced their own fake chamois skins, Drueding Brothers held 70% of the market. Their four-story factory gained a two-story addition in 1898 and by 1906, the pace of production called for a new and modern factory. In October of that year, they announced the construction of a six-story factory across tiny Orkney Street from their extant facility designed by William Steele & Sons, a design/build firm that still exists today, based in Blue Bell. Steele designed lots of factories across North Philadelphia and Kensington, as well as Shibe Park and the former Aldine Theatre, now the CVS at 19th & Chestnut. By time it was under construction in 1908, the new Drueding factory had grown to eight stories.
Production and distribution expanded beyond just chamois skins—other types of leather products became part of the operation, while byproducts of the chamois-making process became their own business. Among these byproducts were the skivers and fleshers (the split pieces of sheep skins) and moellon degras, a fatty oil left over from the tanning process that could be reused to make dressing leather.
During World War I, the federal government tasked Drueding Brothers with some wartime production. During the course of the war, they produced 6.5 million hat sweats, 550,000 steel helmet tube retainers, and thousands of barrels of moellon degras for the war. They also provided skivers and fleshers for other wartime leather tanners.
By this point, the Drueding brothers’ sons, Harry, Casper, Walter, and Bernhard, all worked for the company. Only about a decade after their new plant had opened, they were ready to build an even larger one right behind it. This new addition, also designed by William Steele & Sons, rose to nine stories, completed in 1920.
In 1930, Drueding Brothers followed in the footsteps of other large Philadelphia factories and set about creating a hospital for their 700 employees. Opened at the northeast corner of Master and Lawrence Streets on June 27, 1931, Drueding Infirmary was staffed by nurses made up of the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer, brought over by the Drueding Brothers from Würzburg, Bavaria through the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The Druedings were said to have spent a million dollars on the construction, equipping, and staffing of the new hospital.
In 1958, the realities of post-WWII urban life nailed Olde Kensington and Drueding moved their primary operations to Goldboro, North Carolina. While Philadelphia lost its best chamois maker and yet another factory closed, the Drueding Infirmary stayed operational as an old age home. In 1985, the establishment was given over to the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer, who, with the modern Druedings’ help, reopened it in January 1987 as Project Rainbow at Drueding Center, the city’s first transitional housing center for homeless mothers with children. Now known as just the Drueding Center, their web site says that they’ve served 625 families and 1,250 children in their 29-year existence.
After Drueding Brothers moved out, their factories stood empty for some years until the Jules Segal & Sons Company purchased the 1908 and 1920 buildings. The original Drueding factory at Lawrence & Master was acquired by the Redevelopment Authority, who unceremoniously demolished it for a parking lot.
Jules Segal & Sons first used the former Drueding factory for clothing manufacturing and offset printing, but by the mid 1970s added umbrella manufacturing and wire warehousing to the repertoire. (In the local parlance, it’s thus best known as the “umbrella factory.”) In 1978, local developer Don Reape proposed a conversion of the building into 155 units of senior housing under the designs of architect S.A. Kessler. Though the plan was given a variance by the Zoning Board of Adjustments in October of that year, the project never went forward.
In 1984, one Robert Afanassiev purchased the property under the name Rala Corp. The vacant building stayed under this ownership until ersatz developer Silica Investments (the same defunct group that was supposed to redevelop 223 Chestnut St) acquired it for $1 Million in 2004.
Around 2006, they proposed an extensive residential conversion into 141 condos with a parking garage in the still-city-owned space next door. Nothing came about from this proposal, called the “The Umbrella Factory“, presumably due to the 2008 crash.
In 2009, they listed the former Drueding Brothers complex for sale for $10 million and reduced the price down to $7.88 million before the listing expired in May 2010. It was then relisted in July 2010 at the same price point, only to expire a year later unsold. They made one last attempt to list the building in September 2011 for just shy of five million, only to withdraw the listing 64 days later.
In 2012, a plan to renovate the building into 148 apartments emerged under the designs of Plato Marinakos, the architect infamously tied to the 2013 building collapse, but that too never materialized.
Finally, however, there seems to be hope on the horizon for old Drueding. Michael Samschick’s Core Realty, the local developer recently responsible for the residential conversion of the former Terminal Warehouse Company buildings into Penn Treaty Pennthouses and the long-abandoned Ajax Metal complex into the Fillmore Philadelphia, purchased the building in January 2015 for $3.9 Million and pulled permits last October for a full residential conversion, 172 apartments under the designs of local firm JKRP. Contractors have been on site in recent months, working into the evening.
Redevelopment of this monster will be a huge benchmark in the rebirth of Olde Kensington and surrounding neighborhoods. It will push the success of the city’s renaissance even further and be a beacon of hope for other buildings of its type.
The Drueding family still influences change in the region today as B.J. Drueding Builders, constructing extremely large homes in the Main Line and Delaware County.