The first time I visited the Norris Square neighborhood I was there photographing the shuttered, and now demolished, St. Boniface Catholic Church. Since then I have spent considerable time in Norris Square and in Kensington as a whole. That was a decade ago and the amount of redevelopment and change that I have witnessed in that short time has been staggering. Revitalization has steadily made its way up Front Street and seems have finally has crossed over into West Kensington. Now, only a few blocks away from where St. Boniface was, the next stage of growth and investment in Norris Square is taking place at Gotham Hosiery, a towering former textile mill that is currently being renovated for apartments.
The Making of a Mill
Kensington has been a heavily industrialized area since the early 1800s. In many ways the neighborhood still retains much of its working class character with an assortment of industries still scattered throughout the area. But it is hard for anyone of my generation to fully comprehend the dense, intermingled industrial and residential landscape as it once was. At the turn of the century the long disused railroad tracks, now being removed from the center of American Street, was a bustling rail corridor, at points four tracks wide, with spurs and sidings shooting off down streets and into adjoining properties like branches off of a vine. A block to the southwest where Gotham Hosiery would eventually call home was a massive freight yard, complete with a locomotive repair facility and roundhouse. Another rail line ran straight down Trenton Avenue, this one also sporting a freight yard and maintenance facilities. Factories lined almost the entirety of these two roads, with plenty of others filling in the blocks between, interspersed with the houses in which their workers lived and the churches that they attended. But we all know the ending to this story. The economy changed and so did the neighborhoods. The mills closed or moved and many of the residents followed suit. Since Philadelphia’s industrial decline many of the mills and factories have been long since demolished or ravaged by fire. But some have remained, not only standing, but defiantly occupied and industrious throughout the years.
The land at 2nd and Norris Streets can trace its industrial development to the 1870s. An 1875 map of the property indicates it as being used by an O. H. Krause, an early German-American chemist from New Jersey and member of the American Chemical Society, who in 1878 would patent a process for liquifying sugars. A later advertisement by Krause selling bottles may suggest he was involved in early soft drinks. Exactly what the property was used for while Krause owned it is not entirely clear. However, it is evident that when the property passed out of his hands the land was developed into part of the most prolific industry in Kensington: textiles. By the 1890s, a textile mill occupied the site consisting of two factory buildings: a three story brick mill along Norris Street and another four-story mill opposing it across a central yard. The two mill buildings were connected by a boiler house and smaller auxiliary buildings along North Philip Street, roughly forming a “U” shaped complex that opened up onto 2nd Street. This complex was occupied by what appears to be an assortment of firms before ending up in the hands of Universal Hosiery Company sometime around 1900, although the exact date is unclear. More muddling still, while numerous industrial registers confirm Universal Hosiery was located here from 1900 until ultimately selling it in 1916, the property seems to have hosted various tenants who leased space in the mill complex. A 1910 atlas identifies the property as being occupied by a silk mill operated by Geo. Lindley et. Al, perhaps the owners of Universal Hosiery. A 1917 Sanborn map names the Atlas Paper Box Company as the occupant of the 3rd and 4th floor of the taller building, the last tenant remaining after the property was sold. Universal Hosiery’s ownership of the mill carried on until 1916, at which time the complex was sold to Gotham Hosiery Company, a rapidly-expanding textile company based in New York City.
The Rise and Fall of Gotham Hosiery
Gotham Hosiery was founded on January 2, 1911. The company began with just four machines producing what it termed “garter-proof” stockings made of fine silk. Only a few short month’s later the company had patented a new locked-stitch pattern, making its material much more durable to prevent runs in its stockings. From that particular stitching, Gotham Hosiery’s soon to be famous Gold Stripe brand stockings were born. The company rapidly became popular and changing fashions fueled demand. Long skirts were giving way to shorter hems, and the less form-fitting, thicker stockings of the past fell out of favor. The company’s Gold Stripe line was not only form-fitting, but the manufacturing process also helped the product retain its form rather than stretch out as competitors stocking often did, all while being sheer and resistant to tearing. Gotham Hosiery soon opened its own retail shop. By 1912, it was already signing contracts for distribution with new merchants, causing the company to double its production capacity in New York City. The reputation for quality and durability of its stockings was spreading across the country. By 1915, the two retail shops the company operated were selling over 15,000 pairs of stockings a month on their own. Gotham Hosiery needed to expand once again. In October 1916, the company finalized the purchase of Universal Hosiery Mills at 2nd and Norris Streets in Philadelphia. When Gotham Hosiery first took possession of the property it only occupied the first two floors of the four-story mill building while it waited for the aforementioned tenant’s leases to expire. In the meantime new machinery was brought in. By the end of 1917, Gotham Hosiery occupied the entire mill complex, producing 11,200 pairs of stockings each month at this location alone. However, this was still not enough.
Gotham Hosiery could not keep up with the ever-growing demand for its product, even with its total production capacity now tripled and with the Philadelphia mill eventually producing 33,000 pairs of stocking a month. By 1920, it had become the most popular brand of hosiery in the country. The company decided to fully expand both its plants in New York City and Philadelphia. Although Kensington was not nearly as dense as Manhattan, industrial land was still at a premium. In 1921, several houses just north and adjoining the Gotham Hosiery plant were purchased and demolished. What was built might have been at home in Manhattan, but was something of a monolith in Kensington. The new plant would rise to 10 stories tall, dwarfing everything around it in a neighborhood where buildings averaged two stories, with most topping out at four. Today, it remains the tallest building in the neighborhood by a good margin.
To design the new buildings in both Philadelphia and New York Gotham Hosiery employed William Steele & Sons, a Philadelphia-based company that made quite the name for itself as a premier industrial architecture and engineering firm. The result was a fairly austere building, typical of its era, that was primarily constructed of sparsely-adorned concrete and brick with large windows stretching across the lengths of the floors. While spartan, it was not completely barren of ornamentation. By the main entrance stairs off of 2nd Street some small, but appropriately Gothic, embellishments adorned the plant’s facade. Inside of its newest mill the company stenciled motivational slogans on the walls, reminding their employees that “Perfect stockings made by Gotham mean satisfied customers. Satisfied Gotham customers means steady work,” and other similar corporate lines. These stencils remain on the walls almost 100 years later and will be preserved and incorporated into the current residential renovation project by owner and developer E-Built LLC.
Gotham Hosiery’s newly-completed 10-story mill and its adjoining structures became the primary manufacturing facility for its Gold Stripe line, with the New York City mill being utilized for the finishing and dying of the products before going to stores. Even so, the company still struggled to keep up with demand so much that it ceased taking advance orders entirely. Instead, it only took orders as they came each day, opting to fill them on a first come first served basis on the day they were received. Gotham Hosiery’s retail shops allowed staff to keep their pulse on the market, staying on top of buying trends and adapting styles and production to remain current and popular. It was an intelligent way to do business, and the company was thriving because of it. Gotham Hosiery’s popularity and success in the 1920s mirrored its initial meteoric rise in the previous decade. Profits soared 400%. In 1925, it began acquiring even more production facilities, beginning with the Oscar Nebel Company and the Largman-Gray Hosiery Company plants, both in Philadelphia. Prior to this expansion, Gotham Hosiery was already the largest textile employer in Philadelphia, with 758 employees in 1925. That number more than doubled with the new acquisitions. Two years later the company was employing 1,512 workers across its three Philadelphia locations. At this time, production had quintupled from 1920, but even this was not enough for Gotham Hosiery and the enormous demand for Gold Strip products. Soon it was contracting with firms all over the city to produce license-made Gold Strip stocking to fill its orders. Business truly was booming.
While Gotham Hosiery had risen to become the largest hosiery producer in the United States in just under 20 years, its decline would be even more rapid. In 1929, only a few short years after its ambitious expansions, the market was oversaturated and began to slow and then decline. This happened all while textile labor disputes, in some cases headed by Gotham Hosiery employees, began to take its toll on the industry. However, it was the stock market crash in October 1929 that would push Gotham Hosiery over the edge. With the economy in a freefall and the hosiery bubble bursting, the company reported its first ever annual loss in 1930 totaling $558,979, which today is equivalent to millions of dollars. The same year, production was temporarily halted at the Norris Street plant until 1931 when it reopened and was slowly built up to full capacity again by 1932. However, Gotham Hosiery’s business never managed to reach it’s pre-crash success. By 1935, the plant was shuttered for good. Gotham Hosiery managed to limp on as a company for another 40 or so years in a slow decline. It shuffled from city to city, office to office, and mill to mill, until finally going under with a whimper sometime around 1976. As it shifted assets, the company eventually sold the mill at 2nd and Norris Streets, which had been used since its closing in 1935 for machinery storage, in 1942 to the Progress Manufacturing Company, a light fixture manufacturer. But this firm’s occupancy was short lived and the mill was sold in 1943 to the Miller North Broad Storage Company, a warehousing operation.
A Kensington Stalwart Returns to Service
Universal Hosiery and Gotham Hosiery left indelible marks on the site and now it was Miller’s turn. In 1945, the 4-story mill building immediately south of the Gotham Hosiery building was demolished. A small addition to the 10-story warehouse was built, essentially comprising of a four-bay covered loading dock between the buildings and two protruding stair towers. The old mill continued to be used primarily as a furniture warehouse until being sold in the 1950s to Kiddie City, a toy wholesaler, which used it as a warehouse and distribution center for its wholesaling operation. A 1-story addition on the north side of the Gotham Hosiery plant was built. In 1968, as Kiddie City grew and it shifted from a wholesaler to a retailer, the company moved elsewhere and sold the old mill to Charles Schober Company. The family-owned wicker and rattan furniture company moved up the road from their previous office at 307 N. 2nd Street. The first floor was used by Schober Company as a showroom and offices with the upper floors being used for storing its wares. It continued to use the building for the following 50 years, making the company the longest occupant and steward of the building. In 1983, Schober Company demolished the last remaining portion of the original Universal Hosiery Mill, a three-story brick building along Norris Street and built a long one-story garage in its place. By 2015, the wicker and rattan business was not what it used to be, but the real estate market in Kensington was at the highest point since the company had purchased the property. It was an ideal time for the Shober Company to unload the massive, underutilized mill.
In early 2018, E-Built LLC, a Philadelphia-based construction and development company, announced that it was planning to purchase the property and adapt the building into apartments. After lengthy discussions and input from the Norris Square Civic Association, the project received unanimous zoning board approval. In November 2018, the property was sold to E-Built for $5.6M to undergo what is budgeted to be a $28M redevelopment project. In addition to private capital, $1.5M in funding is also being provided by the State of Pennsylvania via the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program due to the positive economic impact a project of this scale is projected to have on the area and E-Built’s commitment to include affordable housing in the plan. The first phase of the project is the renovation of the 10-story Gotham Hosiery building, which will be renamed “Gotham Tower,” into 102 apartment units on the upper floors. The first floor and part of the second floor will be set aside for four commercial units. E-Built plans to move its corporate offices into the building once work is completed.
The garage that was built in 1983 on the adjoining southern lot has already been demolished and 12 new townhomes are planned for the parcel. The site will also include parking for 63 cars and 52 bicycles. One of the more interesting and ambitious aspect of the plan is the pool, which will be installed on the roof of Gotham Tower. Tenants will be able to swim while taking in the outstanding views of the neighborhood and the city from above.
The project is impressive enough in its scope, made all the more important due to its location. Gotham Tower is the first large-scale redevelopment in Norris Square and it will likely serve as an anchor, driving further activity along this stretch of North American Street. Apartments are scheduled to be available for leasing by January 1, 2020. If all goes according to plan, by the spring of next year Gotham Hosiery may, for the first time in generations, be once again bustling with people and activity.
A look around Gotham Hosiery Mill during construction. Photographs by Robert Masciantonio.