In a previous piece, I unearthed the story of the Green Street Meeting House that once graced the north side of Spring Garden Street between 3rd and 4th Streets. This was where the Hicksite-Orthodox Separation of 1827–the first major schism within the Religious Society of Friends–originated. The strip mall that eventually filled the site currently sits in the crosshairs of real estate development. The tired, little plaza will likely be razed in the near future, adding one more layer to the history of the block. Another storied meeting house was once located just a few blocks away at 6th and Noble Streets where GHPA’s Chinatown Medical Services building now stands. This dreary area of Callowhill was decimated by urban renewal in the 1960s and never quite recovered. Until now. In August, the Northern Liberties Target store opened next to the new Yards Brewery complex. Callowhill developer Arts+Crafts Holding purchased the Electric Factory in 2017, renaming the legendary concert venue Franklin Hall in October. Add new condominium projects taking form, increased pedestrian street activity, and the surrounding patchwork expanse of surface lots and you have a perfect collection of ideal conditions for reinvesting in this long lost slice of the city.
If You Assemble, They Will Come
The monthly meeting of the Society of Friends of Philadelphia for the Northern District was first held on November 24, 1772. The Friends first met at the Bank Meeting House, which was located by the Delaware River on west side of Front Street between Arch (then Mulberry) and Race (then Sassafras) Streets. In 1790, the meeting moved to a new meeting house on the south side of Key’s Alley (now New Street) between Sassafras and Vine Streets, and between Front and 2nd Streets. The spot is now covered by I-95. The shortened name for the Friends Meeting for the Northern District was “North Meeting,” so the house on Key’s Alley became known as the “North Meeting House.” The first assembly there took place on September 21, 1790.
The number of Quakers attending the meeting increased rapidly, so the house of the aforementioned Green Street Meeting was erected in 1814. Green Street Meeting House passed to Hicksite Friends as a result of the great Quaker schism of 1827. Meanwhile, the North Meeting House on Key’s Alley remained an Orthodox house. Its members eventually sought a new site in which to assemble due to overcrowding. In 1835, the group purchased a piece of property for roughly $28,000 on the southwest corner of 6th and Noble Streets for a new house of worship. The western part of the site faced what came to be known as Marshall Street, a road, like Noble, that no longer exists in that locale.
The new North Meeting House was constructed of brick and must have been an immediate local landmark when it was completed in the summer of 1838. The two-story building’s dimensions were 118 by 65 feet, and the main room was big enough for some 1,200 Friends. The large house, surrounding grounds, and enclosing brick wall cost $70,194.53 in total. The Northern District Meeting held its first monthly meeting there on August 12, 1838.
The North Meeting found itself within the nucleus of the best Quaker population of the city. When the meeting house was built that section of what is now Philadelphia was not yet incorporated into the city. It was situated two blocks north of the original northern city limit (i.e., Vine Street) and right on the boundary line (6th Street) between the Northern Liberties District and the Spring Garden District of Philadelphia County.
As the original “Quaker City” grew increasingly congested, Friends moved out of the city, usually heading northward to undeveloped areas that were quiet and peaceful. Quakers who were wealthier built large townhouses in the Spring Garden and Northern Liberties area, which became a favorite residential section and early suburb of Philadelphia.
The new North Meeting House served as a significant place for conservative Quaker worship for over seven decades, with many influential Philadelphians as members. The North Meeting House was also used for educational and community functions through the years. Philadelphia’s Friend’s Select School, Aimwell School for Girls, and the Philadelphia Adult School held classes there.
No Quaker burial ground was ever established at or near the meeting house at 6th and Noble. However, the North Meeting did manage a small community house at 451 North Marshall Street for some time beginning in 1907. The “North House Settlement” helped those of any faith who lived in the vicinity and were in need. Classes in music, carpentry, cooking, homemaking, hammock-making, gymnastics, and so on were offered, as was a men’s Bible class and a First-day (Sunday) school.
Crowding Out the Quiet Life
The North House Settlement was instituted to meet the changing needs of the community, for the once-tranquil region had lost its appeal after the Civil War. The Spring Garden and Northern Liberties neighborhoods became less residential and more commercial. Quakers began moving from the area to other sections of Philadelphia and out of town entirely. As a result of the transformation, membership in the North Meeting began to dwindle. Indeed, as far back as the 1870s, Friends meeting attendance was greater in the local suburbs and countryside than in the Quaker City itself.
Many once-fashionable dwellings around 6th and Noble were turned into tenements that soon became crowded by Irish Catholics, German Jews, Russian Jews, Poles, and other immigrant families. The area between Race and Spring Garden Streets–from east of about 10th Street to the Delaware River–became Philadelphia’s Skid Row district, replete with cheap flop houses, grubby bars, dilapidated warehouses, and so on. The North Meeting House was squarely in the center of this zone.
A Quaker writing in 1909 summarized the situation: “It is hard to realize now, as we walk up 4th, 5th and 6th Streets from Vine to Green, that many of these houses which are now tenement houses, teeming with a foreign population, 40 years ago were the homes of culture and refinement of Friends whose names and memories are dear to many of us.”
Imposing factories and warehouses also began to crowd the Callowhill neighborhood around the old North Meeting House, ranging from glass warehousing to box manufacturing. The John F. Betz Brewery was two blocks away. The Reading Railroad built rail sidings across 6th Street for the Willow Street Railroad, which served these industries.
Around 1910 the Philadelphia Electric Company built their Marshall Substation at 6th and Noble Streets directly across from the meeting house. A few homes were torn down to make room for the industrial brick building. Miraculously, the old substation is still around. It was used by PEC for many decades and later converted into a nightclub before being shuttered years ago.
General Electric eventually purchased the entire block bounded by Noble, Marshall, Willow and 7th Streets—formerly the site of several dozen townhomes. In 1917, GE occupied a six-story factory on the southern part of the property. The company later built an annex that was much closer to the old North House. The plant made electrical components like switchgears and employed over 1,000 people at its peak. The complex survives today, with the tall building serving as office and warehouse space and the annex formerly home to the Electric Factory concert venue, now called Franklin Music Hall.
The besieged meeting house at 6th and Noble was hardly a suitable place for quiet Quaker contemplation by the early 20th century. As with many churches in the older sections of Philadelphia, it had outlived its usefulness as a place of worship. Some 90 Friends were still listed on the North Meeting’s books in 1914, but most lived outside of the city and only a dozen were still active there. The Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia for the Northern District was thus “laid down” that year, and its remaining members joined the Arch Street Meeting.<
Appetite for Destruction
The North Meeting House was sold in 1918 for $75,000 to the Richard Smith Estate for use as a children’s playground. The Smith Estate in the early 1900s managed the Smith Memorial playground in East Fairmount Park, as well as other recreation centers in the city. This was part of the American Playground Movement, developed in the mid-1890s by social workers, child psychologists, and child-saving reformers who were concerned about the health and welfare of urban children.
What came to be known as the Northern Liberties Playground opened to the public on August 5, 1918. Modern heating and plumbing were installed in the old building and the grounds were expanded south to Willow Street through the purchase and removal of dwellings immediately south of the meetinghouse. Children played in the open space around the old meeting house, which was transformed into a community center. A basketball court was built inside the former Quaker meeting room. Children were closely monitored by staff as they played around the old building. The average monthly attendance for 1926 was 4,184 boys and 3,364 girls. As such, the house’s repurposing proved to be a great benefit for that part of Philadelphia and its residents.
But this was not to last. During the Great Depression, the Smith Estate ran into difficulties, and the Northern Liberties Playground was closed in 1934 to cut expenses. In the following year the former meetinghouse and community center was converted into a sewing room under the WPA Sewing Project, a Works Progress Administration work relief effort. The Smith Estate rented the building to the Federal government for a dollar a year. There, poor white and African-American women from the Northern Liberties and Spring Garden areas operated 150 power sewing machines installed in the main meeting room. The women were taken from relief rolls and given jobs ranging from $61 to $71 per month to sew clothing that was distributed to hospitals, orphanages, and the like.
The WPA Sewing Project ended in 1941. The playground may have reopened during or after World War II, but the neighborhood center closed for good by 1963, when the building was repurposed for warehousing. The Colonial Lumber Company took over the meeting house and covered the building’s surrounding grounds with corrugated metal canopies for lumber storage. Except for its distinctive roof, the venerable meeting house became nearly invisible.
By the 1950s, the southern portions of the Spring Garden and Northern Liberties areas, from Vine to Spring Garden Streets, were inhabited primarily by low-income African-American families. Most had moved to Philadelphia from the South during the last two or three decades looking for steady work and a better life. They soon found that factory jobs were quickly disappearing in Philadelphia.
The neighborhood had also entered the peak of its hopelessness as Skid Row. Unemployed men walked the streets searching for work. Some found day labor gigs and were routinely picked up and transported to agricultural sites outside of Philadelphia. Other men wasted away in flop houses drinking cheap hooch and sterno. Franklin Square, three blocks to the south, was a popular spot for men on the skids to wile away the day—and the weeks, months and years.
The Callowhill district was completely run down in the 1960s and city planners considered it blighted and problematic. Yet, unlike Society Hill about a mile south, the shabby, but still-functioning neighborhood was not considered for rehabilitation by Edmund Bacon and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. The state of Callowhill was similar to Society Hill in terms of an abundance of neglected 19th century properties. All that was missing was a Colonial pedigree.
However, with little protest almost all of the surrounding structures were condemned and demolished in the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of the Franklin-Callowhill East Urban Renewal Area project. Managed by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, this federally-funded project encompassed a rectangular zone from 2nd to 9th Streets between Callowhill and Spring Garden Streets, and spanned a square mile. Some 20 city blocks were included in the mammoth undertaking.
Hundreds of 19th century dwellings and commercial buildings were razed and numerous streets—including Noble and Marshall—were removed from the Philadelphia street grid in that vicinity. The goal of the redevelopment project was to create large tracts of open land for use as an inner-city industrial park. But this plan was ultimately unsuccessful as the city’s crippling deindustrialization was fully underway by the 1970s.
North Meeting House was roughly 130 years old when it was razed as part of the City’s urban renewal plan. In its place today is a drab, windowless office building currently occupied by Chinatown Medical Services. Indeed, all evidence of the Society of Friends in Callowhill, Spring Garden, and Northern Liberties neighborhoods has been lost to time. And just as with the Green Street Meeting House, it’s impossible to tell that a community of Quakers once thrived along 6th Street. Only an unmarked fragment of Noble Street remains as evidence of the area’s earlier days.
By the early 1980s the Callowhill neighborhood’s fall from grace was complete and it remained a disheartening part of Philadelphia for decades. Today pockets of life are sprouting up within this urban wasteland of expansive parking lots. Attractive industrial relics like the Willow Street Steam Plant, Armour & Company’s Stock Depot (aka Center City Grocery and Produce) at 909-31 Nobel Street, and the Marshall Substation glow in the morning light with adaptive potential. As efforts ramp up towards revitalizing Spring Garden, this quiet section of Callowhill stands a good chance at being one of the most accommodating areas in the city for historic preservation and dense, new construction.
Michael Bixler contributed reporting to this story.