In the mid 1800s the advent of ice-cooled train cars transformed the meat packing industry. Before then, trains carried livestock to various cities, where butchering was done by local firms. When it became possible to transport partially-butchered, or dressed beef, the major meat packing companies, many of which were based in Chicago, established branch locations in other cities and grew to national prominence.
One of the largest was Armour & Company, which expanded out from its Chicago headquarters by building stock depots coast to coast in over 50 cities. In Philadelphia, their stock depot at 909-31 Noble Street was built around 1909 and designed by architect Robert C. Clark. At that time, it was one of 45 meatpacking plants within the city and one of Armour & Company’s largest. A permit to demolish the entire building was issued by the City to owner NLC Realty, L.P. on June 15.
A nomination to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, originally submitted in 2017 by The Keeping Society of Philadelphia, described it as a “four-story building of reinforced concrete and masonry construction designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style showing influences of the Chicago School, or Commercial style.”
Later in the 20th century it continued to be used for food storage and distribution by Lipoff’s Center City Grocery Company. A ghost sign still adorns the building’s west elevation.
Today, it is the only remaining meat packing building in the industrial area of Callowhill. It’s current owner NCL Realty, L.P., part of National Chemical Laboratories, Inc. (NCL), also owns the entire block, save one parcel. A manufacturer of cleaning products, NCL Realty L.P.’s main headquarters is just around the corner from the Armour & Company’s Stock Depot, in the former Esslinger’s Brewery at 401 North 10th Street. That facility was also nominated by The Keeping Society of Philadelphia and added to the Philadelphia Register in 2018.
In February 2018, the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation recommended including the former stock depot building to the local register, citing its distinguishing architectural characteristics, exemplifying the economic and historical heritage of the city, and potentially yielding information important in history.
In April of that year, the City’s Department of Licenses & Inspections issued violations that labeled the building “unsafe,” a category somewhat less serious than “imminently dangerous.” At its May 2018 meeting, the full Historical Commission unanimously found that the property satisfied four Criteria for Designation, but declined to legally designate it as historic.
Lately, it may appear to some that industrial buildings have not been well regarded by the Historical Commission. In July, it reversed its 2021 designation of the Diston-Tacony Industrial Waterfront Historic District, despite public support and the Historical Commission staff’s recommendation to designate, but with a more narrow scope of the district. Earlier this year, a nomination for Point Breeze Gas Works was withdrawn, despite having received several dozen letters of support and one letter opposed from Mayor Kenney.
And while the Historical Commission enthusiastically voiced support for the inclusion of three Philadelphia industrial buildings on the National Register of Historic Places in September, it was noted by a member of the public, perhaps a bit ironically, that none of them had been designated to the local register.
Philadelphia is rapidly losing the physical evidence of its history as the “workshop of the world.” The Callowhill neighborhood is dotted with former industrial buildings enjoying a new life as residences, offices, or maker spaces. The Armour & Company’s Stock Depot building is nestled up against the Reading Viaduct and within site of the Willow Street Steam Generation Plant, both of which appear to be inching towards a productive future via adaptive reuse, so it’s not hard to imagine a similar fate for it. “That building struck me first as an artist before as an architect,” said Sam Olshin, principal with Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, referring to an oil painting of it that he’d created years ago. “It commands that street, with features desirable for an adaptive re-use: character, durability, high ceilings, and flexibility. It could bridge the gap between Chinatown and the Spring Garden neighborhood.”