Vintage Storefronts of Philadelphia


ONE OF THE THINGS that makes Philadelphia so not-New York is the abundance of old storefronts, even whole rows and blocks of them, that have endured through the decades without being demolished or remodeled out of existence.

Philly still has its retail “districts,” which in New York have been largely squeezed out by residential development. There’s Jewelers’ Row, a low-rise block of Sansom Street tucked into a commercial precinct of Center City; Fabric Row, on South 4th Street in Queen Village, where bolts of fabrics and trimmings fill the windows of numerous small stores with old, faded signs; and there’s Antiques Row on Pine Street in the neighborhood known as Washington Square West, where these photos were taken on a long Thanksgiving morning walk intended to preemptively head off the effects of certain gorging.

Or at least there used to be an Antiques Row. It was quiet in the streets, and drizzly, and I got the sense that things were not what they used to be. There are fewer of the dusty, cluttered shops than I remember from even a few years ago. Quite a few storefronts are vacant, and those that have changed hands haven’t been replaced with anything more upscale.

I fear that Philadelphia’s Antiques Row may be on its way out, and I certainly hope the vintage storefronts there survive whatever changes are coming. For now, though, it’s worth giving thanks for those that remain, in styles that go back to the early 20th century at least.


A few blocks away is gaudy South Street, full of head shops (or whatever they’re called these days) and tattoo parlors.

South Street may be under threat, too. A new Whole Foods recently took over an entire block, and further gentrification is likely to follow. It’s not my scene, but South Street’s exuberant tackiness is preferable to chain stores. Without places like South Street and Antiques Row, Philadelphia could become not-not-New York.




There’s Always More to Explore in Philadelphia


WAITING FOR MEN… that’s how I spent much of the past week, camped out in a vacant apartment in Philadelphia, planning a renovation there (I own two 19th century row houses in Philly).

In between appointments with contractors, the appliance repair guy, the HVAC guy and 1-800 GOT JUNK, I made forays to the hardware store or in search of a meal, and each time took a different route.

I saw houses like the yellow-shuttered charmer, below and top, on Queen Street in Queen Village, with all the Colonial hallmarks: dormer window, fanlight over the door, steeply pitched roof and brick set in Flemish bond.


The wood frame house, below, a rarity in Philadelphia (most of them burned long ago), was new to me.


I passed through serene Mario Lanza Park, below (named for the beloved opera singer who grew up nearby). I hadn’t been there in some time, and was relieved to find that one of my favorite Philadelphia murals, featuring a large weeping willow, is still there on the side wall of a building.


From there I made my way to Gloria Dei, or Old Swedes’ Church, and its peaceful churchyard (if you allow the roar of I-95 to become a sort of celestial hum).

Built 1698-1700 by Swedish settlers, it’s the oldest church building in Pennsylvania and among the oldest in the country. Its architecture and interior are very plain, much to my liking.


I had to see the Sparks Shot Tower, below, at Front and Carpenter Streets. It’s not a smokestack; it was built to make ammunition for the War of 1812 (they cooled molten balls of metal by dropping them from the top). It’s still there, to no purpose (but historic).


Since my reno is starting soon, I had to move out of the vacant apartment myself yesterday (just as well, since my air mattress was starting to need topping up at least once in the middle of each night).

A friend from England had asked me to photograph a painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, below, so that’s where I found myself on my final afternoon in town, taking in the fabulous Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism 1910-1950 exhibition that’s on until January 8.


My Philadelphia story is not over. I’ll be returning frequently over the next few weeks to check on the progress of this renovation, which will turn a one-bedroom apartment into a duplex, incorporating space at the top of the house that has been sealed off for decades.

Posted in HISTORIC PRESERVATION, PHILADELPHIA, TRAVEL | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Post-Election Philadelphia


PHILADELPHIA WAS A POIGNANT PLACE to spend time in the immediate aftermath of the election (after casting my vote in NYC, of course).

Everywhere you look, there are statues and portraits of presidents and patriots, reminders of genius, courage and high-flying ideals. As you walk the very streets and pass the very buildings where our country was founded, you have to wonder where our new President-elect fits into the picture. At what point, exactly, did the Roman Empire begin to  fall, and are we there yet?

Certainly there were internecine battles as vicious as the recent campaign in the run-up to the Revolution, and after. The Civil War was far more horrific than our recent electoral War Between the States, and we survived that.

So I have to say that, yes, the perspective gained by walking Philadelphia’s über-historic, über-charming streets (and Uber-ing through them as well, as a matter of fact) helped to quell the panic.

I had a visitor from Brooklyn, a friend who couldn’t bear to spend the first few days of the new reality alone. We steeped ourselves in great art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the country’s first art museum; visited the new Barnes Foundation and were moved by its monumental modern architecture and landscaping, overwhelmed by the sheer number of masterpieces; took an impromptu tour of the 18th century Powel House in Society Hill, a fine and under-visited house museum; checked out the Italian Market and the Maxfield Parrish-designed, L.C. Tiffany-executed stained glass mural at the Curtis Publishing building in Washington Square; and ate and drank at any number of restaurants and watering holes.

They say you can get used to anything, and indeed the initial shock has begun to taper off. But last week in Philly, we were tourists in a strange land. There was something especially surreal about that first post-apocalypse day, when people in blue Philadelphia’s cafés and cobbled streets exchanged rueful glances and sad smiles, the rain fell, and it seemed the world wept.


Below, the high Victorian splendor of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1876, filled with all-American art.


Architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt pulled out all the stops.


There are modern works too, including some great examples of the Ashcan School, O’Keefe, Hopper, Feininger et al.

We checked out a temporary exhibition, on through January, of Thomas Eakins’ provocative, mostly nude photographs, an early exploration of the new medium, below. Eakins, a Philadelphia painter, taught at PAFA, then and now also an art school, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (And we hippies thought we invented skinny-dipping.)


The powerful architecture and landscaping around the new Barnes Foundation building, below, off Benjamin Franklin Parkway (Philly’s Museum Mile), make it difficult to take a bad picture.


Photography is not allowed inside the museum, which represents one man’s collection of masterpieces (180+ Renoirs, Cezannes by the dozen, Matisses galore, Rousseaus, Modiglianis, Picassos, plus ancient Greek pottery, Navajo silver, other metalwork and furniture), all mounted for exhibit in rooms that recreate exactly the suburban home of Albert Barnes in precisely the arrangement he left at his death in 1951.

Below, houses that caught my eye, mostly in Washington Square West and Society Hill.


Here’s one that invites you in, as did the site manager at the 1765 Powel House, below, when we approached her at the door to inquire what time the next tour was. “I guess there could be one right now,” she said.


The ballroom, above. Washington danced here.


Jennifer Davidson, our lovely guide to the Powel House.

Below, one of Philadelphia’s best-kept decorative arts secrets: the glowing Maxfield Parrish/L.C. Tiffany stained glass mural, some 40 or 50 feet across, in the lobby of the Curtis Publishing building at the northeast corner of Washington Square. Called “The Dream Garden,” it was created in 1914-15 and is free for the viewing.



Some flavorful neighborhood scenes: a South Street cigar shop…


my go-to cafe, the Hungry Pigeon, in quiet Queen Village…


the nearby Italian Market, the likes of whose permanent outdoor stalls I haven’t seen in any other city…


a Polish restaurant in Port Richmond in north Philadelphia, a spot I have been known to hit on my way out of town for the cheese and potato pierogies with fried onions and sour cream, below. (Well, come on, after all that walking?!)


Here are just two of the literally thousands of building-size murals in Philly, a result of its unique Mural Arts Program, both offering glimpses into fantastical worlds: top, Center City; bottom, Bella Vista.


“Today I pray for…” says the blackboard outside Old St. Joseph’s Church in Society Hill, a tin pail of chalk at the ready.


Posted in MISCELLANEOUS, PHILADELPHIA, TRAVEL | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Philadelphia: Walking in Southwark


I’VE JUST SPENT three days in Philadelphia, where I camped out in a vacant apartment on an air mattress in a building I own in Queen Village, a made-up 1970s name for the neighborhood along the Delaware River, just south of South Street.

Before real estate folks came up with Queen Village, it was called Southwark by English settlers. It’s the oldest neighborhood in Philadelphia (and surely one of the oldest in the country, come to that), settled originally by Swedes in the late 17th century.

In the 18th and 19th, the riverfront — access to which is now compromised by I-95 and the multi-lane Columbus Boulevard — was all piers and warehouses, and the small row houses were occupied mostly by the families of people employed in the shipping trades.

I walked the atmospheric streets, narrow and cobbled, observing the 200+-year-old row houses, enjoying their individual quirks and how their owners have restored them.

Colorful paint jobs and sidewalk greenery characterize the properties, and there’s no shortage of seasonal décor like chrysanthemums, pumpkins and corn stalks. People even put café tables and chairs out on their 24 inches of sidewalk (secured with discreet chains).

I took special note of dormer and fanlight windows, each of which I hope to restore in my own 1810 building nearby (which will be the subject of other blog posts as I move forward with the project).

Note shutters, dormer windows, fanlights over doors, all typical of the area’s architecture.

These photos were taken mostly on Front Street, Second Street and the narrow lanes and alleys in between. I took no notes and couldn’t easily find these particular buildings again, but I’ve captioned what I can identify.

If you want to read more about Southwark’s history and architecture, go here.

Top, a glimpse through an iron gate into a cobbled courtyard on Second Street.


Don’t know quite what to make of this clapboard house, above. Looks like the left half may have been removed somewhere along the line.


Above, along with a few photos of clapboard houses below, is the particularly charming South Hancock Street, between Christian and Catherine Streets.


Back on Second Street, above, an intact vintage storefront of the early 20th century.


Above, the c. 1762 William Spafford House at the corner of Front and Bainbridge, a Georgian gem apparently still on the market after several years.


A fine and famous Front Street row, above: Workman Place, which has another group of small rental properties in a courtyard behind it. The dates give in my guidebook are “1748, 1812.” I honestly don’t know whether the facades above are the former or the latter. Any illuminating thoughts?

Below, the reason for the development of Southwark in the first place: the Delaware River, spanned by the Benjamin Franklin bridge, which opened in 1926.

The tall four-masted ship, built in Scotland in 1904, houses a restaurant called Moshulu. According to its website, it’s “the oldest and largest square rigged sailing vessel still afloat” and “the one and only restaurant venue on a tall ship today in the world.”



Downtown Brooklyn: Then and Now


I ALWAYS LOVED those hokey “Then & Now” books you could buy at souvenir kiosks in Rome, showing what the Forum and Colosseum looked like in their 1st century heyday, with acetate pages superimposed to show how they look today.

The photo above, courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society, was taken at the intersection of Fourth and Flatbush Avenues in the late 1920s. Despite the traffic chaos, you can make out the bottom of the then-new Williamsburg Savings Bank tower behind the elevated train tracks and the row of commercial buildings at left, which are still there — see below if you don’t believe me — but who knows for how long.


Recently, a new branch of TD Bank opened on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. It’s decorated with murals depicting early 20th c. neighborhood scenes. They were even giving away placemat-sized posters of the same images, which I was happy to take.

I then went and stood at each vantage point to see what remained — probably less than remains in Rome after two millennia. You can make out a few of the same buildings, but the charm has all been lost to the relentless march of commerce.


Above, looking west on Atlantic Avenue from Court Street, c. 1930. Below, same view today. The street light remains (or a replica), and quite a few of the row houses. I’m sure developers are itching to get their hands on all that open sky.


Below, a c.1922 image (note horse cart and earlier cars), northwest corner of State and Court Streets.


Two decades ago, the monstrosity below, in the form of a multiplex cinema and mega-bookstore was visited upon us. Thanks to historic district protection, the row houses on State Street, barely visible behind the trees, remain.


Below, my fave, the northeast and southeast corners of State and Court, looking up toward the Williamsburg Savings Bank clock tower, c. 1929, when the tower had just been built.


I moved to the area in 1979, and that corner looks very familiar. It’s only in the last decade or so that the undistinguished brick boxes, below, that replaced the vintage buildings came to be. You can just about see the clock tower down at the end of the block.


As Brian Wilson sang, I just wasn’t made for these times. If Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine comes along to take me back 80 or so years, I’m on it.


Fall Garden Assessment: All Credit Due to Nature


REALLY, I CLAIM VERY LITTLE CREDIT for my half-acre garden on the East End of Long Island. I may feel like I’m working hard, schlepping compost from the dump and seaweed from the beach and dragging hoses around by the hour when my prayers for rain go unanswered. But when I look at photos from even a year ago, I realize that the plants are pretty much doing it by themselves.

This year, I can’t say I’ve “put my garden to bed” for the winter. I decamped for the city a few days ago, when it got cold, and closed up the house for the season. I shut the fireplace flue, emptied the fridge, stripped the beds, the whole routine. But the garden, I just sort of left.

No point raking now. The dozens of trees — oak, hickory, maple — haven’t yet shed the bulk of their leaves. As for applying that protective winter layer of mulch, “they say” you need to wait until the ground freezes. (Why? That they never say.) Anyway, I didn’t do it.

In the past few weeks, I have added plants, of course: the fab pink muhly grass (top), glistening in the morning sun. Some Montauk daisies (gotta have those for local color; Montauk is 12 miles away). Several shrubs and some perennials from a wonderful wholesale nursery a friend in the business took me to. A couple more shrubs from a local couple who have a nursery of sorts in their suburban backyard. And a few dozen exotic lilies, mail-ordered from Van Engelen, the bulb company, which seem to do very well in my sandy soil.

So I dug and planted and watered in October, and only afterwards was astonished to look, for comparison’s sake, at photos from last October, and see how things filled in of their own accord, when I was hardly paying attention.


Two views of same area. Top, a thriving stand of Solomon’s seal in the foreground. Bottom, left to right: mystery shrub purchased from local couple (“like an azalea”); viburnum from last year showing fall color; new hydrangea ‘Ruby Slippers’; $5 white hydrangea from local couple that blooms for months and months


View of same area, above, with fewer and smaller shrubs, about a year ago.


Purple berries on new beautybush (callicarpa ‘Issai’), and a beauty it is.


Beds near deck filled out, especially considering what they looked like a year ago, below


Above, left to right in a corner of the deck: dusty miller that began as annuals bought for containers two years ago but have persisted in the ground and formed a large stand; new agastache ‘Kudos Mandarin,’ love the coral color; Montauk daisies in bloom


Above, how I left things along the front walk. Impressive compared to last fall’s view of the same area from a different angle, below


Two views of my raised beds, below, which are kind of experimental holding pens for things I don’t quite know what to do with. They were butterfly magnets this past summer.

The catmint has gone wild. There’s some purple agastache, two Miss Kim lilacs, a potentilla, a physocarpus, a blueberry plant, and some orange cosmos that self-seeded from last year.


I cleaned up the raised beds about a month ago, cutting back verbena bonariensis  and phlox that had gotten mildewed and out of control, and shearing some other country perennials like obedient plant and coneflower, which I expect to return robustly next summer.

I need to add more soil to these beds. These things are growing in just a few inches, but it’s as rich as it is scanty. I used these beds as my compost bins, dumping all my kitchen scraps in there, for the first couple of years I lived here. I’ve since been adding seaweed from the beach and leaf mold from my own copious piles of leaves…but I really need to lift everything, fill the beds to the top and replant. Next spring for that.

Below, where I savor my garden accomplishments — or rather, nature’s — of an autumn evening.



Schenectady’s Stockade District

img_3881I’VE BEEN TO TROY, N.Y. (and blogged about it here), and to Albany (likewise) and was impressed with both, but never to Schenectady, the third sister city in New York State’s Capital District.

But I’m not averse to covering a place I’ve never visited when photos come my way. These were taken by my wasband, Jeff Greenberg, who was in Schenectady recently for the first time and was wowed by the abundance of historic architecture, like the c. 1760 Dutch Colonial above.


Turns out that Schenectady’s Stockade Historic District is the oldest residential neighborhood in the country, where more than 40 pre-Revolutionary buildings survive, along with many from the 19th century in a wide range of styles.

Settled on the Mohawk River by Dutch fur-traders nearly 400 years ago, the area played an important role in Revolutionary war supply lines and became prosperous in the 1800s when the Erie Canal was built half a mile away.

Read more (much more) about its history on the Stockade Association’s website here, and listen to block-by-block narratives about the city’s historic architecture here.

Meanwhile, have a little taste of what Schenectady has to offer old-house aficionados, below.


Below, a Renaissance Revival style mansion with original woodwork, ironwork and tile intact. A similar house next door, which has been chopped up into 14 apartments, is on the market for $725K. Find the listing here.