From the Introduction to Robert Morris Skaler’s Philadelphia’s Broad Street North and South. The SBSNA would like to thank the author and Arcadia Publishing for their kind consent to reprint this section of their interesting book.
Philadelphia’s Broad Street is the longest straight city street in the world, reaching from the navy yard on the south to the city limits on the north, a distance of over 12 miles, with a width of 113 feet for the entire length. It was one of Philadelphia’s premier streets from 1876 to 1915 and is still one of the city’s major thoroughfares. Broad Street was laid out by William Penn’s surveyor, Thomas Holme, who made the first map of Philadelphia showing Broad Street as the major north-south street, intersecting with High (Market) Street at Centre Square in the heart of the city. Broad Street addresses are numbered either south or north of Market Street. As you travel south on Broad Street, starting at 1900 south, the cross streets are named in honor of successive governors of Pennsylvania until you reach Pattison Avenue. North Broad’s cross streets are named for Pennsylvania counties, starting at Berks Street, 1900 north, and ending at Lycoming Street, 4100 north.
South Broad Street began to develop as a cultural street with the building of the ornate Academy of Music in 1857. After the Civil War the trend continued with the construction of the Ridgeway Library, the Union League, Horticulture Hall, and the Broad Street Schubert Theater.
By 1910 South Broad Street had become known as “Hotel Row,” with five prominent hotels within a few blocks of one another. South of Hotel Row was “Millionaires’ Row,” which consisted of several blocks of huge lavish brownstone houses. Broad Street was also known as the favorite street for parades and celebrations, notably the annual New Year’s Day Mummers’ Parade.
Where Broad and Market Streets cross at Centre Square – the largest of the original five open squares in the city – construction began in 1871 on the largest municipal building in the country: the Second Empire-style Philadelphia City Hall. It was later flanked by the Pennsylvania Railroad’s massive Broad Street Station. The opening of the Broad Street Station and the new city hall shifted the center of the commercial city from colonial Society Hill to Broad Street. The street became the site for the Land Title Building in 1897, Philadelphia’s first modern skyscraper; the luxurious Bellevue Stratford Hotel in 1902; and John Wanamaker’s huge flagship store in 1911.
After the railroad tracks were removed from Broad Street in the 1860’s, development began on North Broad Street with the construction of the Masonic Temple, and later, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1876. Numerous churches, synagogues, hotels, schools and private clubs were built, making it a major promenade in the 19th century. By 1876, the city’s development expanded northward with the horsecar trolley lines, and North Broad Street became lined with elegant brownstone mansions of Philadelphia’s industrialists and businessmen. Among the homes were those of Edwin Forest, America’s first professional actor and father of modern theater in Philadelphia; Michael Bouvier, cabinetmaker and ancestor of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy; department-store owner Ellis Gimbel; industrialist Henry Disston; and traction magnates and philanthropists P.A.B. Widener and William Elkins. North Broad Street also became the center of social life for upper-middle class German Jews, who built four major synagogues on North Broad Street and the impressive Mercantile Club.
While prosperous, North Broad Street was never really fashionable. It did not have the cachet of the areas south of Market Street, which was home to Philadelphia’s traditional elite class ensconced around Rittenhouse Square. Perhaps to compensate for this lack of social standing, residents of North Broad Street built their houses grander than any in Center City, preferring the clean uptown air to that of the old Quaker City, with its cramped space and hurly-burly.
By 1908 North Broad Street had reached its summit with the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House. There were also places of learning like the Wagner Free Institute, the new Central High School, the Girl’s Normal School, Roman Catholic High School, LaSalle College, the Spring Garden Institute, and Temple University. Farther north, Broad Street was still undeveloped and held room for two baseball parks – Shibe Park, home of Connie Mack’s Athletics, and the Baker Bowl, home to the National League. At its extreme northern end was the new Widener School for Crippled Children and the Jewish Hospital.
Ironically, the building of the Broad Street Subway in 1924, which greatly enhanced the development of South Broad Street as a major commercial street, dealt a deadly blow to North Broad Street – especially south of Lehigh Avenue – as a premier residential neighborhood. The dust and noise of the work crews sent wealthy matrons fleeing to the suburbs, and their homes were recycled into office, catering establishments, and funeral parlors. Only a few remnants of North Broad Street’s gilded age are standing today. Fortunately, this lost period in the street’s development has been documented in vintage postcards and photographs, many of which appear in this book for future generations to explore.
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