More Neighborhood Stories from Walking Philadelphia

Our new guide to urban hikes in the City of Brotherly Love, Walking Philadelphia, is full of stories about the history of the neighborhoods you stroll through. And since author Natalie Pompilio had more captivating detailed information than can ever fit between the pages of a book, we’re sharing more of the stories here.


Because of space constraints, some fabulous back stories had to be cut from the finished book. Here are some examples of items that need more explanation from “Market Street East: The Gayborhood and Reading Terminal” tour.

Here’s what we published: “The Charlotte Cushman Club, founded in 1907 to provide safe and reasonably priced accommodations for visiting actresses. A local theater patron thought to create such a club after overhearing two young actresses talking about the unwanted male attention they got in city hotels.”

Here’s what we couldn’t fit: Soon after theater patron Lydia Elliott Morris, a local theater patron, overheard the two actresses talking, a local newspaper ran a story headlined, “Chorus Girls Establish Communist Boarding House in the City, Where they Live in Royal Style” further pressed the need. It detailed how women performers were sharing a home on Spring Garden Street to stay safe.  (The article was later found to be false, planted by a theater agent seeking attention.) During its heyday, Helen Mencken and Helen Hayes stayed in Cushman lodging.

The club is named for Cushman, a well-known actress who was able to play male and female roles. In 1846, for example, she played “Romeo” to her sister’s Susan’s “Juliet.”

The club disbanded in 1999, selling the building and its collections, which included a piano donated by Fanny Brice and a crown worn by Sarah Bernhardt in “Medea.” The non-profit Charlotte Cushman Foundation is still active, annually granting money to local theater groups.

Here’s what we published: “The building at 1125 Walnut St. was an Episcopal Church built in the 1890s that in the 1970s became Philadelphia’s version of New York’s Studio 54. The disco-loving tenants were evicted in 1986, when the property was sold to a group of personal injury lawyers. Temple University Law School is named for the firm’s founding partner, Jim Beasley, whose autobiography is “Courtroom Cowboy.”

Here’s what we couldn’t fit: With a nod to the free-spirited 1970s, the Beasley Firm’s website notes that “many who visit our offices still have fond, if somewhat fuzzy, memories of earlier times in our building.” Jim Beasley is believed to have won more million dollar jury verdicts than any other trial lawyer in the U.S. A former Philadelphia District Attorney called him “Philadelphia’s version of the king of torts.” Beasley holds the record for highest jury settlement in Philadelphia history: in 1999, he successfully argued on behalf to the family of murder victim Holly Maddux, with the jury leveling a $907 million against her killer, Ira Einhorn. Beasley died in 2004 at age 78.

Here’s what we published: A blue historical marker in front of the hotel notes this was the site of the America’s first circus, Ricketts Circus. In 1793, John Bill Ricketts, an equestrian showman, built a horse ring inside a building here. He performed riding tricks for paying customers.

Here’s what we couldn’t fit: As his show’s popularity grew, Ricketts added other performers, including tightrope walkers, jugglers, and clowns. President George Washington was a big fan, allowing Ricketts to display his own white steed, Jack, in the building.

Ricketts marked Washington’s 1797 retirement with a farewell show and then months later welcomed President John Adams with another show. In 1799, a fire destroyed the theater. A brokenhearted Ricketts left town, and his ultimate fate is unknown.
Here’s what we couldn’t fit: The word “circus” comes from the Latin word for “ring,” Ricketts “was a magician on horseback. He could hang from a stirrup, vault from the saddle to the ground and back to the saddle at full gallop, ride two horses— standing — simultaneously, and juggle oranges astride his mount while circling the ring backwards,” according to explorepahistory.com.  The circus became so popular, according to explorepahistory.com, that “Masters dispatched servants to hold coveted boxes, and it was not uncommon for those without tickets to bore holes in the amphitheater’s walls and roof to sneak a peek.”

What makes Ricketts post-circus life a mystery? Most sources say British-born Ricketts went down with a Europe-bound ship that took him to a watery grave. (explorepahistory.com offers that theory.) But a few circus historian websites, like www.circusesandsideshows.com, think differently: “Most accounts state that Ricketts sailed for England along with many of his performers and horses. The ship along with Ricketts and his entourage were lost at sea. However the writings of Durang and official documents differ.

An official account of the voyage stated that Ricketts departed Philadelphia May 1, 1800 aboard the schooner Sally, bound for Barbados. The ship’s captain was Jesse Smith and the cargo consisted of “10 horses, 2 carriages, provisions, lumber, dresses, scenery, and apparatus for an amphitheater (circus), and was the property of John Bill Rickets”.

On June 3, 1800 the ship was seized by the French pirate Capt. Rufa “Brilliante”. A deal was made with the pirates by a West Indies businessman, permitting Ricketts along with his performers and equipment be put ashore on the island of Guadeloupe, where the troupe re-grouped and continued to perform.”

Could Ricketts have stayed in Guadeloupe, performing riding tricks until his natural death? We’ll never know.
Go here for more details.

Here’s what we published: “The Plastic Club was an art club for female artists founded in 1897 by a group of women who challenged the idea that only men could be professional artists. Men were welcomed in the 1990s and today make up about half the membership. The club continues to advance the visual arts, offering exhibitions and lectures.”

Here’s what we couldn’t fit: The three female founders of the club were known as the “Red Rose Girls.” All were students of illustrator Howard Pyle, who also believed that women artists were equal to male artists. The women were so nicknamed because they lived in the Red Rose Inn in the suburbs. The trio —Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley–lived unconventional lives marked by a remarkable degree of collaboration,” as Publisher’s Weekly noted in its synopsis of the non-fiction book “The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love.” Smith’s idyllic representations of children in her Child’s Garden of Verses remain well known. Green’s art-nouveau paintings graced the covers of most of the popular magazines of her day, including Collier’s and Harper’s. Oakley, the youngest of the group, was the first American woman granted serious commissions, including a series of murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in 1911. For 17 years, the three committed themselves to each other as “sympathetic companions” and artistic collaborators, sharing a studio in Philadelphia and then an estate, the Red Rose Inn, in Villanova, Pa.”

The “plastic” in the club’s name refers to any unfinished work of art. The club motto is “All passes; art alone enduring stays to us: the bust outlasts the throne, the coin, Tiberius.”

Tanya Twerdowsky
tanya@adventurewithkeen.com

I am a Jersey girl living in Alabama who loves to run far and eat lots.

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