Washington Avenue Factory District

by Eugene Desyatnik, for the BVNA Historic Preservation Committee

Many neighbors may not realize that just at the Southern edge of Bella Vista and Hawthorne — from 10th Street on to Broad, along Washington Ave, and overlapping what is now a vibrant Vietnamese American enclave of residents, storefronts, and commercial strip malls — lies a national historic district, known as the Washington Avenue Factory District. In 1984 — when it was nominated and added to the National Register — it comprised the remaining four blocks of one of the last industrial neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

During the 19th century, one can imagine Washington Avenue, originally known as Prime Street, serving as a major industrial thoroughfare — complete with the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore (PW&B) line of the Junction Railroad running through Southwark along what is now the median. This was, in fact, its original historic use — certain nostalgia for median parking traditions notwithstanding.. Freight train service was able to interconnect the factories, as well as link the area as a whole to Lamokin, Wilmington, Baltimore and intervening stations. The freight line was eventually shut down in 1985 under the control of Conrail.

It is here, that seven large factories — some stretching the entire length of their block — lined the north side of Washington Ave. While the manufactured products were diverse — from textile, garments, to pharmaceuticals — their layout and interdependence created an ecosystem. These buildings were here, in part due to their proximity to these tracks, which connected them to commercial routes. At Curtis Publishing, the train cars would pull directly into the building! Coal and lumber yards, meanwhile, were the major trade on the south side of Washington Ave.

Some notable contributing buildings that are still standing today, are the present-day U Haul Storage facilities of 1135 Washington (the American Cigar Company, Nimmons and Fellow, 1906) and 1201 Washington (John Wyeth Chemical Works, Werner Trumbower, architect, 1909), and the 2004-converted “Lofts at Bella Vista” (originally the Curtis Publishing Co. Former printing company, Edgar Seeler, architect, 1909) at 1101 Washington. Additional contributing buildings included 1301 Washington Ave (National Licorice Company, Steele & Sons, 1927), the former Wanamaker Clothing Factory 1101 S Broad, as well as 1200 Carpenter (John Williams & Co) and 1217–37 Carpenter (Main Belting Company).

Many of these names need no introduction — John Wanamaker, cloth manufacturer Caleb Milne, chemist John Wyeth, and publisher Cyrus Curtis were all titans of their time, and some are associated with other historic landmarks, such as the John Wanamaker department store, or the Curtis Center, both in center city. In the case of Wyeth, the company had actually continued to exist in various forms until present day, with most of its pharmaceutical assets being acquired by another familiar name, Pfizer, in 2009.

The buildings themselves were the work of several of the city’s most prominent industrial architects — Hales and Ballinger, William Steele and Sons, Seeler and Roberts, and Joseph Huston. These remaining buildings recall the importance of manufacturing in Philadelphia at the time.

The manufacturing corridor along Washington Avenue remained active through the middle of the 20th Century. One by one, these former industrial buildings have been replaced or adaptively reused into residential or mixed use projects with ground-floor commercial use. (It is worth noting that the National Register does provides some tax incentives for restoration work. However, it does not place the property under the purview of the Historical Commission to review potential demolition or alternations).

As of this writing, two of the remaining buildings serve U-Haul customers accessing their storage units or renting vans and trucks. Meanwhile, further down by 11th Street, the tenants of the Lofts at Bella Vista enjoy the original 18-foot ceilings, massive windows, exposed brick, and original architectural elements, such as the partially ironclad concrete pillars. The pillars support the original concrete flooring, which has now been polished and adds to the industrial feel of each unit.

Some other buildings have not fared so well. The 5-story Caleb Milne factory (1896) spanned the entire length of Washington Ave from 10th to 11th. and housed spinning, weaving, and finishing operations. While J. Milne & Sons continued to occupy the top floor, the first was rented to the US Army as a quartermaster depot, while the rest were rented out as a cigar factory. Finally, after decades of being vacant, some neighbors recall a Bella Vista zoning meeting that hosted a proposal for an adaptive reuse calling for ground floor commercial with 300 apartments above. Another owner in 1990 planned retail with parking above. Neither plan came to fruition, and in the summer of 1993, the building caught fire and burned down. A strip mall anchored by a CVS now occupies this location.

Further west, the A.B Kirschbaum’s clothing factory, was demolished in 1996 — though the site will soon be redeveloped by Bart Blatstein, after successfully working with the local civic to secure its zoning this year for 1,111 apartments with a grocery store below.

In other recent developments, the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability (oTIS) is about to undertake a major repaving and restriping project along the length of Washington Avenue to better serve the area’s current and future needs. It will improve safety for all road users, including pedestrians and bicycles, increase curbside parking turnover and availability, and connect school catchment communities and the S. 9th St Market.

While time continues to march forward on Washington Ave — the next time you bike along the S 11th St lane, walk to the other end of the S 9th St Market, or drive along Washington Ave itself — we can take a moment to reflect and take note of the former and current structures, imagine the railroad, and perhaps feel a newfound appreciation for its storied industrial past that helped Philadelphia earn the reputation of proudly being the “Workshop of the World”.

References:

1) National Register of Historic Places Nomination, 1984

2) https://archive.org/details/philadelphiawilm00dare/page/n3/mode/2up

3) https://www.globest.com/sites/globest/2004/09/17/construction-begins-on-lofts-at-bella-vista/?slreturn=20210225232947

4) https://www.nytimes.com/1861/11/01/archives/great-fire-at-philadelphia-loss-8100000-two-hundred-operatives.html

https://librarycompany.org/2012/10/03/portrait-of-once-thriving-south-philadelphia-factory-building/

5) John Mayer, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

6) Philadelphia Stories, by Bob McNulty (2018)

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