“So, you want to know about our doors?” The enthusiastic, but elderly voice on the other end of the line was Arthur Tofani, Jr., a retired Modernist architect now in his 90s. Before his distinguished career, Tofani grew up in his family’s millwork shop on South 8th Street. In his question came the answer to one of my own.
For years I’ve played a kind of slow-moving, building nerd bingo, spotting the varying typologies of a particular sort of paneled wood door with beveled glass panes, each with a distinctive starburst design etched in their center. Most stars feature 16 slender rays radiating from an inch-wide dot. The windows come in different shapes–a triptych, a keyhole, a porthole, a heart, or a curve-topped square–but the starburst is as constant as the North Star.
My own house has a door with a starburst glass pane, as does its twin next door. For years I’ve taken pleasure in spotting these doors in the neighborhoods flanking Center City, playing a long, idiosyncratic game of I Spy. They’re common enough, but no local architectural historians I asked knew anything about these seemingly native Philadelphia specimens, much less their source. Answering that question would require a bit of digging.
Dr. Amanda Casper, a friend and historian whose dissertation was on practices of row house alteration, pointed me to collections of building trade catalogs from the early 20th century. I got lost browsing thousands of samples, but, alas, no starbursts. Casper’s hunch: they might be locally made. She suggested asking older neighbors who might know more.
I turned to a favorite neighborhood elder, Al LaTorre, proprietor of Society Hill Mail & Parcel at 8th and Kater Streets, who has one of these doors. He said they were made by a company at 8th and Dickinson Streets. That revealed a page in Southwark history, written by my Jane’s Walk Philadelphia friends, Heather and Mehron Moqtaderi. Lo, there was the shop–Arthur Tofani Lumber & Millwork–in photographs. Was this the holy grail of star doors? They helped me contact Arthur Tofani III, who indulged a request to see if his dad recognized this sort of door as the work of his family’s company. Yes, he said, they made similar doors and his father would be glad to talk with to me.
“I was in the plant from when I could walk,” Arthur Jr. said. “And when I say I was always in the plant, I wasn’t playing with sawdust.” As a young boy he learned to run and work on all of the shop’s machines, despite his mother’s protestations about safety. By the time he was a teen could read architectural drawings and understood wood construction methods. He credits those early experiences as the spark for his interest in pursuing a career in architecture. It was an interest he shared with his father. Arthur Tofani II moved to Rome from a small town in Italy intending to study architecture, but ended up coming to the United States instead.
At first, Arthur Sr. worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. But, as his son put it, he “wasn’t one for taking orders.” Instead he opened Arthur Tofani Lumber & Millwork Company in 1913, specializing in staircases, windows, frames, and doors. Arthur Sr. died of pneumonia at the age of 52 in February 1937, leaving three children and his wife, Liberata.
Just months later, on July 5, 1937, the Tofani millwork shop was destroyed by fire, burning for five hours according to an Inquirer report. Independence Day firecrackers were blamed as the likely culprit. But Liberata Tofani had worked with her husband since they married in 1919, and she knew the business. Liberata managed to rebuild it, digging out of debt with suppliers. She ran the company successfully for decades–a rare, woman-led company in the building trades.
Tofani knew exactly the doors I was interested in. He said his family’s company made them in the first half of the 20th century, as did a crowded field of competitors and “copycats.” He recalled that they were an early and popular design, possibly beginning in the 1920s. Popular style is a funny, lingering thing. While post-war taste was tilting toward Colonial Revival and then the Atomic Age, this sort of door could have easily been made well into the 1940s. Tofani could not recall. He was busy earning an architecture degree from Penn in those later years.
The company never had a pattern book, he said. Nearby houses had so many examples of their millwork that South Philadelphia streets effectively served as the company’s showroom. “People saw them and told you the one they wanted. We never had a salesman go out.” That, he said, was also a regret. Had it been more aggressive in sales, he wonders if the company might have survived longer.
The customers of Arthur Tofani Lumber & Millwork were private owners, perhaps replacing a door, as well as builders and vendors who would order everything–doors, frames, stairs, and windows. “We manufactured a lot of products and we repeated a lot of products.”
The company purchased the distinctive starburst glass from the H. Perilstein Glass Company, a prominent local glass manufacturer founded in 1898. In the early 20th century, Perilstein had a complex of buildings, including an etching shop, clustered on the 500 blocks of Lombard, Rodman, and S. 6th Streets. Tofani recalled the glass company’s salesman, Jack Watkins, “was always in our place taking patterns… using brown paper on a door, running a crayon around it. The glass always had a starburst.”
Although various millwork companies likely purchased the same glass from Perilstein, not all starburst doors are the same. “Ornaments were unique with each company,” Tofani explained. “They weren’t important enough to be copied.” And these help him tell the difference between a Tofani door and a competitor.
Of my front door, with its curvy topped square glass window, “It’s not quite the shape we would do. And to my eye the sill is ugly.” I see what he means, but I still like it. As for my immediate neighbors, whose door has a round window, Tofani confirmed, “You can tell it’s definitely ours. Other people didn’t have the respect for the architectural details that we had.”
Regardless of the maker, star doors seem to have an enduring appeal, says Chris Stock, owner of Philadelphia Salvage Company. Actually, he dubbed them “Hollywood” doors, for the stoop stars that they are. He estimates they get one in every few months to be repaired, refinished, and sold. Finding a salvaged front door depends on just the right combination of size, style, and swing, so they tend to sell slowly. But Hollywood doors, he said, sell in three or four weeks, which he says is strikingly fast. “I love bringing these doors back to life,” Stock said. “Whenever we get one in, people go nuts for them.”
A photographic survey of Philadelphia’s “star doors.” All images by Ashley Hahn.