Architecture

Philip H. Johnson: The Architect That Swindled the City

August 20, 2021 | by Adrian Trevisan

If you have spent any time exploring the city on foot you have probably passed by at least one building designed by Philip Johnson. Not the modern architect Philip C. Johnson, famous for his groundbreaking Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, but Philadelphia’s own Philip H. Johnson who was known in his day as the municipal government’s “architect in perpetuity.”

From 1903, when he signed a binding contact with the City of Philadelphia, to 1933 when he died, Johnson received a commission on every building that the Department of Health and Charities constructed, whether he was involved in the design or not. Johnson appears to not have actually studied architecture, but instead owed his career to Israel Durham, his brother-in-law who, as head of the Philadelphia political machine known as the Organization, ran the City in the early 1900s. To understand how a man with Johnson’s murky antecedents, questionable education, and debatable talents ended up designing the City Hall Annex, the Philadelphia Civic Center, and a lengthy list of hospitals, libraries, firehouses, recreation centers, and National Guard armories, we must first learn a little about Durham and the Organization.

This illustrated magazine cover from 1905 shows Charles F. Murphy, Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, and Israel W. Durham, the political bosses of New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia at the turn of the century, placing a medal labeled “Bossism” around their necks. | Image: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Durham, the son of a Philadelphia flour merchant, entered politics at an early age. By 1895 he had risen to control the Organization as a subordinate of Republican state leader Boies Penrose. From his base in the Seventh Ward, Durham both controlled the internal working of Philadelphia’s Republican Party and dictated which party members would be elected to posts. They, in turn, ensured that Republican-controlled companies received most of the projects that the City of Philadelphia put out to bid, creating a steady flow of money–some of it legitimate–into the party’s coffers and Durham’s pockets. Durham and the Organization were able to fend off occasional efforts by reform candidates until his death in 1909, and his successors continued to do so for many years after his death.

Around 1900, Durham’s younger sister, Margaret, met and fell in love with a young man named Philip H. Johnson and married him in 1901. Not much is known about Johnson’s early life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1869. The 1900 U.S. Census shows him living with his parents in a row house on 12th Street in South Philadelphia. His father was a machinist who had also been born in Philadelphia. According to later newspaper accounts, Johnson first worked as a rodman for the Bureau of Surveys and was reportedly fired for incompetence. He then transitioned into construction, working for builder and Republican Party City Chairman Allen B. Rorke on the Philadelphia Bourse and the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. In 1898, Johnson was hired as the engineer and superintendent of construction of the second Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, a doomed project known as the Cobb Capital. After being delayed and over budget, the unfinished building was eventually vacated for the Huston Capital.

The Philadelphia Convention Hall and Civic Center in 1954. The building on the left was what remained of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. | Image courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

While working on these construction projects Johnson was also nurturing his standing within the Organization. In 1899, he was a member of a subcommittee of the Young Republicans’ Club (YRC) focused on increasing membership. By 1904, Johnson had become president of the YRC, presiding over the 24th anniversary dinner of the organization. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that he “sang the glories of the past and sounded the future hopes of the Young Republicans” in his keynote speech. Apparently without irony, one of the speakers following him “declared that no city on earth was the equal of Philadelphia in its moral tone and general freedom of vice.”

Early mentions in the press of Johnson’s work indicate a relationship with the Organization. His offices were in the Betz Building, adjacent to City Hall, which also housed the headquarters of the Organization. In May 1900, one of Johnson’s first recorded commissions was a beach house in Atlantic City for Senator George A. Vare, one of three brothers who essentially ruled South Philadelphia through their street cleaning and construction business. Johnson then designed a police station at 20th and Fitzwater Streets and a factory on Callowhill Street. He was chosen in March 1901 to design the Pennsylvania Building at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The commission was quickly followed by state pavilions for fairs in South Carolina and Missouri. All of these expo buildings received favorable reviews in the press. The Philadelphia Inquirer described the Buffalo pavilion as “one of the most commodious and attractive of the state buildings at the Exposition” and Johnson as “the young Philadelphian who has made an enviable reputation in his profession.”

A portrait of Phillip H. Johnson taken in 1905. | Image courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

In 1901, Pennsylvania opened a competition for the design of a new state capitol. Durham and his political allies initially intended to have Johnson chosen as the architect of the project according to allegations which arose during a subsequent investigation into graft during the building’s design and construction. As recounted in The Philadelphia Times, the report concluded that this would result in too much controversy because it was widely known that Johnson was Durham’s brother-in-law. Instead, architect Joseph M. Huston was commissioned for the project with, according to the report, Johnson as “a silent partner with at least a half interest in the pecuniary proceeds, if not in the fame attending the award.” There were also allegations that, after being selected, Johnson and Huston first tried to have the quarry supplying the marble double its price and provide a percentage of its profits to them. When the owner refused, they looked into the possibility of opening a quarry nearby that could supply similar marble. When this failed, the architects allegedly rewrote the specification of the design to exclude the quarry’s marble. Johnson denied this vehemently and was never charged, but Huston spent six years in Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue.

All of this leads us to March 31, 1903. On that fateful date Johnson signed a contract with the City of Philadelphia which would earn him the sobriquet “architect in perpetuity.” Tucked inconspicuously among the details of the requirements for the design of four hospitals–the Hospital for the Indigent, Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane, the Philadelphia General Hospital, and the Municipal Hospital for Communicable Diseases–was a clause by which the City agreed to employ Johnson “as architect of the said new hospital buildings and such other buildings to be erected in the future as may be necessary for executive and departmental purposes.” With nine words, the city had agreed to pay Johnson for all buildings designed for the Department of Health and Charities in the future, whether he designed them or not. He was also in a prime position to be awarded projects from other departments of Philadelphia municipal government.

Philadelphia General Hospital circa 1940s. | Image courtesy of Digital Image Collection, University of Pennsylvania Archives & Records Center

This appears to have escaped broad public notice until 1914 when The Evening Public Ledger ran a series of articles entitled “The Hands of Esau” devoted to “Showing the Methods by Which the Organization Betrays the Taxpayer.” The 12th article in the series bore the title, “Remarkable Case of Philip H. Johnson, Architect, Whose Fees Amount to Three-Quarters of A Million—Astounding Contract under Which He Operates.” The report laid out the case against Johnson in detail. After summarizing a 1913 lawsuit in which the City sought unsuccessfully to have the contract broken, the article goes on to describe Johnson in scathing terms, among them that he was known to “’the Boys’ along Broad Street” as “Phil,” a sign of intimacy in these very formal times.

The article was followed by an editorial in The Evening Public Ledger in which Johnson’s designs were described as “ridiculous.” Spurred by this, the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) announced an inquiry into Johnson’s qualifications to investigate where he had studied architecture and from what institution he had graduated. At an AIA meeting held in January 1915, the article reported that “Several members said frankly that they had never heard whether Johnson had taken a course in architectural work.”

The results of the investigation are elusive, leaving one to wonder if the Organization leaned in to protect one of its own. The local chapter’s opposition did not last, however. When Johnson applied for membership to the AIA 13 years later his application was accompanied by a unanimous endorsement and glowing testimonials from chapter leadership. As a consequence, the requirement that applicants submit a portfolio of their work and complete basic information about education was waived. Johnson became a full member of the AIA on November 15, 1928 and continued to practice architecture, and receive money from the City, until his death in 1933.

The Juvenile Court and Detention Center at 22nd and Arch Streets in 2012. | Photo: Peter Woodall

The list of buildings that he designed for the City of Philadelphia is long. It includes the City Hall Annex, the Civic Center, the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases at Byberry, the Juvenile Court and Detention Center as well as numerous recreational centers. Several of Johnson’s municipal commissions are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Three buildings–the former firehouse at 2130 Fairmount Avenue (now the restaurant Jack’s Firehouse), Engine Company 11 at 1016 South Street, and the City Morgue at 13th and Wood Streets–were designated historic in part because Johnson designed them. While not architecturally unique, they are solid and, at times, elegant structures. Johnson also seems to have kept abreast of technological developments, incorporating, for instance, a system of hidden electric locks in the Juvenile Court and Detention Center and studying other municipal convention centers to ensure that the Philadelphia Civic Center was a flexible, multi-purpose space.

These are not simple buildings, and it begs the question of how a man with no architectural training could have designed them. Perhaps there was a learning curve. “Somehow the Johnson jobs invariably need a lot of patching after the buildings are up.” The Evening Public Ledger expose from 1914 goes on to cite a bathhouse without proper water connections, a hospital for the insane with a capacity of less than 1000 instead of the required 5000, and several buildings without adequate power plants.

Ladder Company 1, now Jack’s Firehouse restaurant at 2130 Fairmount Avenue. Built in 1904 and currently listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Perhaps Johnson hired others more qualified than he and passed their work off as his own. As with so much about Johnson, his work environment remains unclear. He is not listed as having any partners in the Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s online database nor are there any mentions of professional partners in the many newspaper articles about Johnson. His younger brother Orlando’s brief 1924 obituary described him as an architectural engineer and stated that the brothers worked together in the planning and construction of many municipal buildings. An article in The Philadelphia Inquirer written after Johnson’s death mentions Thomas W. Boyd, “a close friend who was employed by Mr. Johnson for many years as an architect and engineer,” and lists H. Stanley Atkinson, Charles S. Spiess, and Frances A. McDonnell as employees in his office.

The education and work of these associates are not well-documented either. Of them, only Atkinson can be found to have studied architecture, receiving a certificate of proficiency in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1916. However, Atkinson and Spiess practiced together for two years after Johnson’s death, but appear to have practiced separately subsequently. Boyd is the only individual who received credit for architectural work before Johnson’s death, designing two houses in 1907 while working out of an office in Pittsburgh. It would seem reasonable to conclude that these associates were responsible at least in part for Johnson’s work, but with no conclusive documentation this can only be viewed as conjecture.

The City Morgue, now an annex of Roman Catholic High School, 324 N. 13th Street. Built in 1928 and  currently listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. | Photo: Michael Bixler

And what, you might ask, did Johnson do with all of that money? He moved out of his family’s row house in South Philadelphia, first to a home on Pine Street and followed by a house on Pelham Road in the fashionable Pelham section of Mt. Airy. He also discovered yachting, perhaps when he escorted his fiancé and her younger sister to a party celebrating the opening of the Philadelphia Yacht Club’s new Essington clubhouse in the summer of 1900. By the time of his death, Johnson appears to have owned three yachts—the West Wind, the Gray Dawn, and the 100-foot Margaret, which was named after his wife. He owned a vacation house named Sunset Ridge on Hobe Sound in Florida and was a prominent member of the yachting scene in Philadelphia, Florida, and Long Island Sound, where he was commodore of the Larchmont Yacht Club. By 1900, he had also risen to become commodore of the Philadelphia Yacht Club. In the words of the The Evening Public Ledger article from decades before, “pretty good for an ex-rodman!”

Ironically, it was at the Philadelphia Yacht Club’s annual dinner to celebrate his reelection as its commodore that Johnson suffered a heart attack, which proved fatal two weeks later. Members of the club were reportedly grief-stricken, but journalists were gleeful, taking the opportunity to review the infamous City contract and total up the amount of money he had made from it–approximately $2,000,000 which would equal approximately $42,000,000 today. Reporters noted dryly that three months before his death the City Solicitor had informed City Council that the City owed the architect $3,540 for a building which had never been built and that the budget of the department in question required a supplemental appropriation of $1,770.22 to cover the bill. For Johnson, this was a fitting end to a highly unusual career.


Explore the municipal architecture of Phillip H. Johnson. Photographs by Michael Bixler.

City Hall Annex, now The Notary Hotel, at 23-31 North Juniper Street. Built in 1925.

Kingsessing Recreation Center at 4901 Kingsessing Avenue. Built in 1916.

Engine Company 13 at 1517 Parrish Street. Built in 1901.

Wyoming Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia at 231 East Wyoming Avenue. Built in 1930.

Cecil B. Moore (ex-Funfield) Recreation Center at 2551 North 22nd Street. Built in 1916.

George A. Vare Recreation Center at 2600 Morris Street. Built in 1924.

Engine Company 11 at 1016 South Street. Built in 1902.

Kingsessing Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia at 1201 South 51st Street. Built in 1919.

Waterview Recreation Center at 5826 McMahon Street. Built in 1916.

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About the Author

Adrian Trevisan is fascinated by the people behind the buildings. What was their environment? What were they trying to do? He is especially drawn to little-known figures and enjoys assembling pictures of their lives from a wide variety of sources. A 2020 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Historic Preservation program, Trevisan brings a business and economics viewpoint to the discussion, formed through a previous career in marketing and management consulting.

6 Comments:

  1. Van Potteiger says:

    Adrian,
    Thank you this explains alot.
    We just completed the renovation of the National Guard Armory @ 32nd & Lancaster for the Arlen Specter USSquash Center. Johnson was the Architect for this building completed in 1919.
    I could not find any place where any of his drawings have been listed as being archived.
    We had one plan of the stable area and one truss detail sheet that were not his. Photos also not available. We are planning a visit to the City Archive & Indiantown Gap to see what might be available. We are planning an exhibit to highlight the original building & Guard unit that was stationed at the Armory. The Armory project has been great.
    Thank you for your article shedding light on Mr. Johnson.

  2. Adrian, thanks for this fascinating and well-researched article on Philip H. Johnson and his (or someone’s) architectural career. When I was writing “Sesqui: Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926” (Temple University Press, 2017), I came across notes taken by a Bulletin reporter for an interview with Charles Evans, a partner in the construction firm of Evans-Steele. According to Evans, Johnson held court at a weekly round table at the Manufacturers Club with leading contractors, construction executives, and suppliers to divvy up deals on municipal projects. Evans told the reporter that Johnson “has been heard to openly boast around the Penn Athletic Club and the Manufacturers Club that the city lost $100,000 on [the Byberry Hospital] job.” One minor quibble: in paragraph 3, it looks like Boies Penrose’s first name was autocorrected to “Boise.” Overall, a really well-done look at Philadelphia architecture during the heyday of the Organization and its pay-to-play culture.

  3. Judy Neiswander says:

    What a great article – thank you so much!

  4. Nice article! Boy, those days …

  5. Mel Seligsohn says:

    This is a wonderful article. As a native son, I’ve often wondered abouthow these generally “ok but not much better” buildings came about. If only Frank Furness had figured out how to scam the city, or even better Lou Kahn. Kahn had to go elsewhere to get his masterpieces built.

  6. James says:

    For years I have been wondering if Phillip A. Johnson was the one who designed City Hall Annex at the boy wonder age of 22 years old. I thought this was the coolest thing he ever designed and how awesome Philadelphia was in trusting the design to a 22 year old KID! I tried to corroborate this through Wikipedia to no avail as there was no mention about Phillip A Johnson having designed Philadelphia’s City Hall Annex!

    Were Phillip A Johnson Phillip H Johnson ever related to each other ? If so, did they ever meet and was the older Johnson a mentor to the younger Johnson?

    Very interesting article to read with my morning coffee!

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