Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Harry Kyriakodis

Broad Street

“No other street in America quite compares with Broad Street,” wrote E. Digby Baltzell, author of Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, of the varied architecture north and south of City Hall. Philadelphia's Broad Street goes past stores, churches, synagogues, museums, funeral parlors, fast food places, gas stations, apartment houses, and rows and rows of row houses. After driving the entire length of the street, Washington-based poet Stanley Plumly once said, “What I love is the immediate juxtaposition of neighborhoods. I don't think there's a street that represents America more totally in the full spectrum and range of humanity than Broad Street in Philadelphia.”

[caption id="attachment_7216" align="alignright" width="300"]An aerial photo of North Broad Street, seen from atop City Hall in 1959. North Broad Street, seen from atop City Hall in 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Broad Street is, as its name implies, the city's broadest north-south street. At one hundred feet in width, the north-south arterial is indeed wide, but its length is more remarkable. From the extreme limits of South Philadelphia, it shoots north into Center City and beyond to North Philadelphia, right to the edge of Montgomery County. It is the longest straight urban boulevard in the United States and the longest straight street in Philadelphia (although traffic must circle City Hall in the middle). An old Philly aphorism is: “They say Broad Street is the straightest street, but when you get to City Hall, it gets real crooked.” Also, an old local joke is to send someone to Fourteenth Street. There is no Fourteenth Street, as Broad Street is where that street would be.

Broad Street is the north-south counterpart to Market (formerly High) Street. When surveyor Thomas Holme (1624-95) prepared the first plan of the city of Philadelphia for William Penn (1644-1718), only Broad and High Streets were named. Twelfth Street was designated as Broad Street, and this rough road bisected the town almost exactly at its middle in what was then wilderness. The plan also designated a public square in the vicinity of this intersection, supposedly the center of the city, because Holme believed it to be the watershed dividing the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. The plot was therefore called Center Square. Penn intended that the Public Buildings (City Hall) of Philadelphia would one day go there.

Broad Street was moved to Fourteenth Street by the 1730s, as that was closer to the actual midpoint between the two rivers. Surveyors also corrected Holme's error regarding Center Square and placed the commons where it is today—the location of City Hall. Troops drilled in and around Center Square during the War of Independence, and the French army under Rochambeau camped there on the way to Yorktown. Later, Center Square became the site for Philadelphia's first waterworks.

Broad Grows North and South

After the Revolution, Broad Street grew, first to the north: The road was extended from Vine Street to Ridge Road (Avenue) in 1811. It continued north through the nineteenth century, and its northernmost extensions were created between 1903 and 1923. The street was also lengthened to the south:  In 1819, the road reached from South (formerly Cedar) Street to Dickinson Street. With the city-county consolidation of 1854, a rudimentary version of Broad Street extended as far south as the later site of the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Broad Street began to fill in by the first third of the nineteenth century. As the city’s population grew westward from its original concentration near the Delaware River, South Broad Street became distinguished by elite residences, hotels, and cultural institutions. Wealthy Philadelphians who wished to escape the crowded conditions of old Philadelphia built fine mansions along South Broad. Several expensive hotels also opened on South Broad by the 1850s, including the LaPierre House at Broad and Sansom, which was touted as the most luxurious hotel in America. These hotels also housed clubrooms and rathskellars for the many social organizations based along both South and North Broad well into the twentieth century.

[caption id="attachment_7220" align="alignright" width="300"]Drawing of the Colosseum and the Offenbach Gardens auditorium. Broad Street landmarks at the time of the 1876 Centennial included the Colosseum (left) at Broad and Locust Streets and the Offenbach auditorium at Broad and Cherry. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Closest to Center Square, Broad Street also became home to cultural institutions. On South Broad, the Academy of Music opened at Broad and Locust Streets in 1857, and it was joined by the Union League eight years later. To the north, during the second half of the nineteenth century Broad Street from City Hall to Race Street became lined with businesses and institutions including the Masonic Temple, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Offenbach’s Garden (replaced in 1892 by an Odd Fellows Temple), and the Adelphi Theater (demolished in 1881). Farther north, the street had an industrial character, created by Matthias Baldwin (1795-1866), who founded his great locomotive factory in the 1830s at the corner of Broad and Spring Garden (outside the city limits at that time). This industrial site grew to encompass several blocks between Callowhill and Spring Garden Streets as other manufactures joined the Baldwin Works in this gritty manufacturing area along North Broad Street.  

After the Civil War, North Broad Street became one of Philadelphia's leading elite addresses. Many mansions were built in the Gothic and Victorian styles, mostly to house the families of wealthy industrialists and middle managers, such as those who owned and worked at Baldwin Locomotive Works and associated factories. Other fabulous homes were erected for the owners and operators of traction companies who laid down trolley tracks in most of the streets of Philadelphia (and other cities too). These men—William L. Elkins (1832-1903) and Peter A. Widener (1834-1915)—and their enormous Victorian homes represented the peak of North Broad's development.

Sidewalks Grow, Too

Reflecting the evolution of the street, Broad Street’s sidewalks were broadened and large granite blocks were used to pave the roadway in the 1870s. In 1894, Broad was the first street in Philadelphia surfaced with asphalt—the latest in paving technology at the time—for primitive automobiles. This work, instigated by Mayor Edwin S. Stuart (1853–1937), cost the city half a million dollars. The blocks of stone (Belgian blocks) that had previously lined Broad Street were used to replace the cobbles in nearby small streets. And, like Market Street, Broad Street subsequently became the route of a subway line, initially opened in 1928 with additions made in 1936, 1956, and 1970.

By far the biggest change for Broad Street occurred in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when City Hall was constructed on Center Square, encompassing the entire block and interrupting travel on both Broad and Market Streets. The completion of the "Public Buildings" encouraged the development of office and financial headquarters along the thoroughfare close to the new seat of government, and under the watchful eye of the statue of William Penn high atop the building's tower. Philadelphia's City Hall was designed to be huge in every way so as to make a statement about the city's wealth and industrial might.

With the relocation of city government to Broad and Market, residential and office skyscrapers replaced many of the mansions and hotels along South Broad (although several fine hotels, such as the Bellevue Stratford, remained). The Pennsylvania Railroad's Broad Street Station, opened in 1881 directly across from City Hall, added to the mix and helped transform Broad Street from a quiet institutional and residential roadway into a bustling commercial thoroughfare.

[caption id="attachment_7219" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of a mummer band dressed in full costume The annual Mummers Parade draws in residents and tourists alike for a loud and exciting beginning to the New Year. The Mummers have been celebrating in Philadelphia since the late seventeenth century.(Photo by R. Kennedy, Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Broad Street also experienced a major building boom farther south in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Much of this was due to the Vare Brothers—William Scott (1867-1934), George (1859-1908) and Edwin (1862-1922). They were construction contractors and politicians who ran a corrupt South Philadelphia political machine and reaped most of their construction and waste-handling business through municipal contracts. Besides building projects throughout South Philadelphia, the Vare brothers were responsible for the modern grading of Broad Street south of Oregon Avenue.

Cultural Magnet

North and south, Broad Street remained a cultural magnet into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Philadelphia's famous New Year’s Day Mummer's Parade has strutted and strummed along two miles of South Broad for over a hundred years. In the late 1990s, the crux of theaters, galleries, and performance spaces on Broad Street between City Hall and Washington Avenue was designated the "Avenue of the Arts." Similar plans have been envisioned for North Broad Street as well.

In addition to such longstanding musical landmarks as the Academy of Music, Broad Street around the area of South Street became known in the early twentieth century as a center for jazz and gospel music. These developments were an outgrowth of the Great Migration, the northward movement of African Americans that occurred during and after the First World War. When labor demand created by World War II precipitated another African American migration to Philadelphia, North Broad Street also became an important cultural center for black Philadelphians with such venues as the Uptown Theater, which opened in the 1920s as a movie theater but became a destination for soul and rhythm and blues performers from the 1950s to the 1970s.

North Broad Street played a role in the nation's transportation history as a link in the Lincoln Highway, and it became Philadelphia's Automobile Row with showrooms for the latest models. However, by the mid-twentieth century, North Broad experienced a severe decline. The well-heeled property owners of North Broad Street moved to suburban estates north and west of Philadelphia by the 1940s. Many of their mansions were subdivided into apartment buildings, while others were demolished and replaced by retail establishments, automobile dealerships, and gas stations.

Redevelopment initiatives included those of civil rights leader Leon Sullivan (1922-2001). A Baptist minister, he moved to Philadelphia in 1950 and became the pastor of Zion Baptist Church, 3600 N. Broad Street. In 1964, Sullivan formed the Opportunities Industrialization Center along North Broad to provide job training for African Americans. He also established the Zion Investment Association, which invested in new businesses in Philadelphia. As a result, the first black-owned and developed shopping center in the world, Progress Plaza, was built in 1968 on North Broad. Other grassroots organizations, such as North Philadelphia Block Development Corporation (founded in 1976), lobbied for increased community development funding for the downtrodden neighborhoods flanking North Broad Street.

Broad Street grew from a rural lane in the countryside into a dense urban boulevard, as well as perhaps the most important street in Philadelphia. The central axis of nineteenth century industrial tycoons became a main artery for Philadelphians of all backgrounds, extending from Center City north and south through the entire city and its diverse neighborhoods.

Harry Kyriakodis is the author of Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront (The History Press, 2011) and Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (The History Press, 2012). He is a founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides.

Delaware Avenue (Columbus Boulevard)

Delaware Avenue, the north-south thoroughfare closest to the Delaware River in Philadelphia, owes its existence to the richest man in America, who wanted a grand avenue along the central waterfront. The street, including a portion renamed Columbus Boulevard in the 1990s, played a significant role in the development of Philadelphia's maritime activity, particularly food distribution for the city.

[caption id="attachment_6113" align="alignright" width="300"]Congestion of Delaware Avenue, even after it was widened in 1898-99, is apparent in this 1905 view looking south from Chestnut Street. Congestion of Delaware Avenue, even after it was widened in 1898-99, is apparent in this 1905 view looking south from Chestnut Street. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Delaware Avenue originated in the late eighteenth century as an irregular footpath built atop filled-up docks and wharves that had outlived their usefulness. It became a more formal thoroughfare as a result of $500,000 left to the city of Philadelphia by wealthy merchant Stephen Girard (1750-1831). Much of the Port of Philadelphia’s rise to importance is traceable to this bequest.

Girard lived very close to Philadelphia’s busy waterfront, at his mansion and counting house on Water Street near Market Street. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sailing ships and then steamships bound for England, the West Indies, China, India, and other remote destinations routinely left from the city’s waterfront. Ferries and other boats on the Delaware River also linked Philadelphia to Camden and communities on the river and along the East Coast.

Bequest Funds the Avenue

Girard was familiar and unhappy with the congested state of Philadelphia’s waterside pathway as it had developed by the early nineteenth century. He knew that trade had suffered without a capable waterfront roadway. In his will, he specified that a wide boulevard should be constructed beside the river and specified that this street be named “Delaware Avenue.” His bequest allowed for extending the street eastward into the Delaware River, incorporating existing docks, and using landfill to create the roadbed.

Taking place between 1834 and 1845, the construction of Delaware Avenue produced a proper street twenty-five feet wide, paved with Belgian blocks, between Vine and South Streets. Girard’s money also initiated the construction of bulkheads and the first lighting by the river—first with gas lamps, later with arc lamps. The City of Philadelphia expended $249,696 of Girard’s legacy.

Commerce increased rapidly, as Girard had envisioned. But Delaware Avenue became a victim of its own success, as traffic tie-ups and other problems grew each year. In response, between 1857 and 1867 the city widened the avenue to fifty feet, and expended $313,726 from the Delaware Avenue Fund. The thoroughfare also was extended north of Vine Street and south of South Street in the 1870s and farther thereafter. Between 1897 and 1900, the avenue was broadened again, to 150 feet. This work was the most expensive civic improvement project in Philadelphia up to that time.

As it developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Delaware Avenue became the main transportation corridor for the shipping and handling of food and general cargo for all of Philadelphia. Early photographs show hordes of horse-drawn wagons jamming the street, most loaded with perishable goods. Dock Street near Delaware Avenue was the city's primary food distribution center for more than a century.

[caption id="attachment_6115" align="alignright" width="300"]This 1918 picture shows the Delaware Avenue Elevated as it makes its hairpin turn over Arch Street onto and over Delaware Avenue. Also known as the Ferry Branch, this El structure was built in 1908 and was dismantled in 1939. (PhillyHistory.org) This 1918 picture shows the Delaware Avenue Elevated (Or the "Ferry Branch") as it makes its hairpin turn over Arch Street onto and over Delaware Avenue. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Belt Line Railroad

Beginning in the 1890s two sets of railroad tracks also ran on Delaware Avenue to meet the freight hauling needs of docks and industries alongside the river. Known as the Philadelphia Belt Line Railroad, these tracks extended about eighteen miles from Port Richmond to South Philadelphia. Also, the Delaware Avenue Elevated operated atop the southbound lanes of the avenue from Arch Street (where it connected with the Market Street Subway at Front Street) to South Street, where it stub-ended. Also known as the “Ferry Branch” or “Ferry Line,” its stations served the many ferries to New Jersey. The transit line lost passengers as ferry traffic diminished after the Delaware River (Benjamin Franklin) Bridge opened in 1926. Most ferries ceased operating by 1938, and the Ferry Branch stopped running the following year. The elevated structure was then dismantled; not a trace remains.

The Belt Line Railroad’s tracks and Delaware Avenue's crumbling Belgian-block surface made automobile travel on the street perilous for decades. The bumpy street was joked about as a road that could induce a pregnant woman into labor. In 1990, a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial declared: “The roadway is so damn ugly, decrepit and dangerous, no one would want to be anywhere near it.”

Two years later, the Italian community of South Philadelphia persuaded City Council to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus sailing to America by renaming Delaware Avenue after the explorer. Citizens in the northern precincts of the city, aided by members of the local Lenni-Lenape tribe, fought the name change. Although a compromise was reached in which the avenue was renamed only south of Spring Garden Street, street signs reading “C Columbus Blvd” were defaced for years after.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania paved and landscaped Delaware Avenue in the 1990s. Instead of a rough stone roadway filled with ruts and railroad tracks, the street is now smooth and ornamented with greenery. Columbus Boulevard is, indeed, a fulfillment of Stephen Girard’s desire for a wide, tree-lined thoroughfare along the Delaware.

Harry Kyriakodis is the author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (The History Press, 2011) and Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (The History Press, 2012). He is a founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides and has lived at Pier 3 Condominium since 1997, when and where his fascination with Philadelphia’s waterfront district began. (Information current at date of publication.)

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