Riverfront: Along the Waterfront, a New Deal Era Tour Revisited

water street and ben franklin bridge
"There was a time, moreover, when Delaware Avenue did not exist; what is now Water Street [...] actually fronted on the river..." - The WPA Guide to Philadelphia

As part of the stimulus of the New Deal, President Franklin Deleano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed thousands of writers under the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). One of the primary achievements of the FWP was the American Guide Series.

This was a series of books profiling all 48 states of the time, various regions of the country, and major cities. The WPA Guide to Philadelphia was originally published in 1937 as Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace and republished in 1988 under its current title.

The WPA Guide to Philadelphia is a snapshot of the city in the Depression era. The first half of the guide describes Philadelphia’s history, culture, commerce, government, and traditions. The second half consists of tours one can take to experience what makes Philadelphia unique.

City Tour 10, Along the Waterfront, stretches from Fairmount Avenue to South Street, mostly along Delaware Avenue. One can either end the tour at South Street or continue along an alternate route, stopping at four historical locations: The Church of Gloria Dei, Settlement Music School, Graphic Sketch Club, and the Arthur House.

Take the Tour Yourself:

The tour’s entry in the WPA Guide to Philadelphia begins by reflecting on what Philadelphia’s waterfront was like before the 20th century. It conjures images of taverns, breweries, a bustling port with great ships. In the 1930s it was an industrial hub crowded with warehouses, locomotives, and trucks.

Today, a walk along Delaware Avenue has far less hustle and bustle. Few of the warehouses of the industrial era still stand. Much of the train tracks are gone. The Delaware Expressway now runs through many of the sites mentioned in the tour.

Stop One- Church of Gloria Dei
Now: Gloria Dei Old Swedes Episcopal Church
916 S. Swanson St.

Old Swedes’ is a registered national site as the oldest church in Pennsylvania.

One of the oldest churches in America, the Gloria Dei Church was built in 1700. The WPA Guide devotes almost two entire pages to describing the structure in detail.

The church was founded by Swedish settlers who established themselves in the Delaware Valley as early as the mid-1600s.

According to the church’s website, Reverend John Craig Roak, who served the church from 1933-1972, was instrumental in getting the church historically protected as well as fighting the development of I-95.

Stop Two- Settlement Music School
416 Queen St.

Settlement Music School (Courtesy of Settlement Music School)

Settlement Music School was founded in 1908 in Queen Village’s College Settlement, a house for immigrants with the mission of “promotion of music on a community basis,” according to the WPA Guide to Philadelphia. The school aimed to educate Philadelphia’s poor, working class, and immigrant populations in the study of music. 

According to Megan Looby, the director of marketing and public relations for Settlement Music School, that mission is still relevant today.

“That’s the thing that we were founded on in the beginning as a settlement house for many of the immigrants coming into Queen Village,” Looby said. “It’s similar now that we’re serving a pretty heavy immigrant population at many of our branches.”

According to the guide, the school at the time was also a community hub, offering “classes in modeling, sketching, dramatics, dancing, and adult and child psychology; round table discussions; and Italian women’s club; monthly socials for parents and neighbors; personnel service; vocational guidance; and various forms of social recreation.”

Today, many of those services are no longer offered. But the school is still focused on providing affordable musical education, regardless of someone’s financial situation.

“For us, a lot more of them are more focused just on the arts education at our buildings right now,” Looby said. “So we have individual lessons in 26 different instruments, we have classes, we have advanced study programs, we have dance programs. We also have creative arts therapy at all of our branches.”

Stop 3- Graphic Sketch Club
Now: Fleisher Art Memorial
711-719 Catharine St.

(Photo credit: Christopher Malo)

Graphic Sketch Club was founded in 1899 by Samuel S. Fleisher as a place to study and foster appreciation for the fine arts. When the guide book was written, Graphic Sketch Club boasted 2,800 students, had 12 teachers, and offered free classes in drawing, painting, fashion design, and dance.

After Fleisher died in 1944, his organization was renamed the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial.

Like Settlement Music School, many of the fundamental aspects of Fleisher Art Memorial have remained the same over the years, but a few offerings have changed. It no longer gives organ concerts, doesn’t have a large student body, there isn’t a museum, and does not offer classes entirely for free.

According to Dominic Mercier, Fleisher’s communications director, Fleisher left the organization with a substantial amount of money, but it has become necessary to charge for enrollment.

“In this day and age, it only covers so much,” said Mercier. “So we do rely on earned income and the generosity, funders, grants to offer all of our programming for adults and kids and communities.”

Fleisher’s original goal was to provide art classes to the families who worked in his family’s mill, who were largely Irish and Italian immigrants. According to Mercier, Fleisher Art Memorial has continued this mission into the present day as the neighborhood has seen more emigration from southeast Asian and Latino immigrants.

Stop 4- Arthur House
Now: Frank Palumbo Recreation Center
721 S. 10th St.

(Photo credit: Jason McCartney)

The guide’s entry for the Arthur House is the most brief of the stops. Timothy Shay Arthur was an author, active in the mid-1800s, who is best known for his association with the temperance movement. His most famous work, Ten Nights in a Barroom and What I Saw There, was published in 1854.

According to Eric Norton, associate professor in literature and languages at Marymount University, Ten Nights in a Barroom and What I Saw There was one of the most popular books of the 19th century.

“People really loved it because it kind of delivered a moral message of somewhat various sorts,” Norton said. “But then it also delivered on all of this scintillating, titillating details that happened to drunkards.”

Today, the Arthur House is no longer there. In its place is the Frank Palumbo Recreation Center. The rec center was dedicated in 1979, according to Philadelphia Inquirer archives, though the building and park were established before the official naming. 

Today, Arthur is all but forgotten. But the author who died in 1895 was included on a pictorial map published by the Free Library in the 1970s and, after his home was demolished, mentioned in a tour similarly put together by the Inquirer in the 1980s.

Arthur lived in Philadelphia’s Bella Vista neighborhood, and he would have been a witness to an interesting time in the neighborhood’s history. 

In 1871, Octavius Catto was murdered near his home at 814 South St., just four blocks away from Arthur’s house.

Author and activist Francis Ellen Watkins Harper lived just one street over from Arthur, at 1006 Bainbridge St., from 1870 until her death in 1911.

Just north of Palumbo Recreation Center is the Still House at 625 S. Delhi St., a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Church of the Crucifixion at 620 S. 8th St. is also about four blocks away from where the rec center now sits. This church was established in 1847 and was the first black mission of the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, according to the property’s historic designation application.

This same application characterizes Bella Vista in the mid-19th century as “ripe with racial discord, poverty, and violence.”

While Arthur lived in his home, the land around him — which would become Palumbo Recreation Center — would have been Ronaldson’s Cemetery, notable because it was one of the first nonsectarian cemeteries in the nation.

Interestingly, there is a unique connection between Ronaldson’s Cemetery and one of the previous stops on the WPA tour. When the graves at Ronaldson’s were dug up as the land was repurposed, six Revolutionary War heroes were reinterred at Old Swedes Church.

Much like Philadelphia itself, as much has changed along this tour route as has stayed the same in the nearly one hundred years since the New Deal.



Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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