The winding intersection at 49th and Grays Avenue is a unique boundary between West and Southwest Philadelphia. Once known as the #1 illegal dumping site in the city, the shabby little curve is now an access point to the new Bartram’s Mile segment of the Schuylkill Banks trail, the first major improvement to the area in decades. The last time this intersection was buzzing with street life it was adjacent to a major freight and passenger train thoroughfare and had its own Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad train station. It was also lined with factories, including the Sunlight Oil Corporation/Tidol factory (still standing) and the West Disinfectant Company (now just a weed-filled foundation). Following the intersection’s zippy curve is the bulbous, 226-foot wall of an old factory made famous by a preposterous pet project during the height of the Great Depression.
Loose Grips Build Ships
William S. P. Shields was one of Philadelphia’s most prominent businessmen in the late 19th century. The industrialist and real estate mogul owned large swaths of Southwest Philadelphia and marshlands along the Schuylkill River. He sold these properties to manufacturing firms and oil companies in the early 1900s, forming the industrial core of that area that still exists today. His influence in shaping industry in Southwest Philadelphia was so pronounced that Shields Street in Elmwood is named after him.
In 1927, Shields sold his property at 49th Street and Grays Avenue to Edward H. Reuss, Jr. Reuss was one of the top plumbing and power plant equipment manufacturers in the region. His company both produced equipment and installed it. Reuss was also an expert in the development of steam-heating technology. He developed technology used to create the steam-generating plants that heated the city’s skyscrapers.
At 4901 Grays Avenue, Reuss built a new plumbing and steam-heating equipment factory. He spared no expense by hiring esteemed Philadelphia city architect Philip H. Johnson to design it. Johnson is best known for the City Hall Annex, now a Marriott Courtyard hotel, and the legendary Philadelphia Convention Hall and Civic Center, demolished in 2005. The factory on Grays Avenue appears to be the only industrial building in his portfolio.
The building was completed in 1929. It was bad timing considering the Great Depression was just beginning to take shape. Reuss’ business nearly came to a halt in 1933. To keep busy while the economy tanked, Reuss decided to build a new yacht inside his factory. He was vice commodore of the Philadelphia Yacht Club and was well known for his love of boating. Reuss ordered a kit from Bay City Boats and made his own custom modifications. Over a period of eight months, Reuss built a 29-ton, 55-foot long pleasure vessel.
Getting the yacht out of the factory was a feat in itself. On June 1, 1934, Reuss wrapped the boat in burlap and had a large crane lift it onto a much smaller rail car waiting on the track that led from his factory to the railroad tracks in the rear. The railcar carrying the boat was then slowly lowered on to the tracks. The boat was allowed to travel 1 1/2 miles to the Schuylkill Arsenal Railroad Bridge’s swing span. From there, it was lifted by a crane and the swing span was opened. The boat was then lowered 75 feet into the Schuylkill River. Reuss christened the yacht, the Edkareu. It was later sold and renamed Telsie IV. The yacht was last seen sailing the Great Lakes under the alias, Har-Mo II.
Reuss moved his operation and vacated 4901 Grays Avenue in 1941. Various firms came and went over the next few years, including the National Container Corporation, Jez Metal Products Company, and Arcway Equipment Corporation.
In 1955, the Frederick H. Levey Company bought the factory and used it for their Machine Division, where they developed new ink and printing technologies and manufactured printing equipment. The company occupied the site until 1973.
The building’s current occupant, Crescent Iron Works, has carried the torch for industry on the corner of 49th Street and Grays Avenue for over four decades. The 520,000 square foot facility fabricates structural steel, metal ornamentation, and restores iron monuments. Their varied work includes steel stairs and railing at the National Constitution Center and metal sculpture conservation at City Hall.