Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Difficult Year for Museums

The Wall Street Journal took a moment to look back at how the economic downturn affected the museum world during 2009.

Needless to say, it wasn't pretty.

The article focuses on art museums, but the staff layoffs, canceled programs and limited hours of the past year certainly devastated history museums and historic sites as well. Government agencies focused on history and museums suffered too. The city of Philadelphia threatened to close the Philadelphia Historical Commission, among other agencies, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission laid off 85 staff.

Here's to hoping that 2010 brings better financial news for our historical and cultural institutions.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Power of Presidential Names

I came across a fun exploration of memory and commemoration today on the New York Times' Lens Blog. The blog is presenting a series of portraits of people living in the New York area who share presidential names.

The portraits are truly beautiful photographs, but equally interesting to me is the brief written commentary about what it was like to share a president's name, and in some cases, audio snippets of the person portrayed.

Today's feature: Abraham Lincoln, born in Ghana and now a DJ in the Bronx.

So far, the series has also profiled a George Washington (prisoner), Thomas Jefferson (formerly homeless vet), John Quincy Adams (preacher), Ulysses Grant (retired postal worker), Calvin Coolidge (alpaca farmer), Herbert Hoover (artist), John F. Kennedy (accountant), Richard Nixon (retired firefighter) and Ronald Reagan (retired auto worker).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Update: Hearing on Ethnic Parades Canceled

In the wake of last week's meeting / shouting match between city officials and Mummers Parade representatives, City Council has canceled its planned Tuesday hearing on "the challenges faced by the City's ethnic and cultural parades, and what measures the City can take to ensure that these important traditions are preserved."

Perhaps the Nutter administration is about to re-subsidize city costs for the parades?

Click here for the Inquirer's latest report on the issue, and here for my first post about the hearing.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

New Web Resource About African American Historic Sites in Philly

My summer project is now live at

Working as a graduate intern at the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, I updated and expanded the Alliance's inventory of African American historic sites in the city.

We then turned that inventory into a searchable Web resource, and I wrote a (very) brief historic context statement for the sites. You can read more about the project in my earlier posts here and here. also published a story about the project earlier this week.

The inventory currently includes 440 sites, including churches, schools, businesses, private homes, and more. You can search by neighborhood, zip code, type of historic resource, or site name. You can also browse the inventory by name or by neighborhood.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Everyone Loves a Parade

With only a month left til the Mummers Parade, City Council is showing its support for the city's "ethnic and cultural parades" . . . by, um, holding a public hearing.

The Council Committee on Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs plans to hold a public hearing next week on "the challenges faced by the City's ethnic and cultural parades, and what measures the City can take to ensure that these important traditions are preserved."

(In case you'd like to attend, the hearing is scheduled for Tuesday Dec. 8 at 10 am in Room 400 of City Hall.)

Why do parades need a show of support? It's all about money, of course.

In recent years, the city spent about $3 million annually to cover costs for parades' police overtime and post-parade cleanup. But Mayor Michael Nutter pulled the plug on that when the economy tanked.

Parade organizers are scrambling to replace the city's subsidy. Earlier this fall, the organizers of the Columbus Day Festival canceled their parade because they couldn't cover the new city costs.

The Inquirer editorialized then in support of the city's position: "Welcome to the new economic reality. For those who enjoy the parade revelry, this is a good time to show your loyalty and support."

Hear, hear. The city barely made it out of the last budget crisis. It can't subsidize large events without attention to costs. And if that means a smaller Mummers Parade, so be it.

UPDATE: City officials and Mummers representatives met on Friday Dec. 4 to hash out the parade's costs from the city. According to the Inquirer, there was a lot of shouting.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Philly Archaeology

I stumbled across a new tool for researching Philadelphia's history: the Philadelphia Archaeology Forum (PAF) and its stash of archaeological surveys and reports.

PAF is dedicated to protecting and preserving archaeological resources in the Philly region, and is committed to making archaeological reports accessible to the public.

Of course, PAF also warns readers that "site reports, including those written about the most extraordinary projects, can be very often painfully dull, even to other archaeologists."

Good point. I studied archaeology as an undergrad at UMass-Amherst, so I'm all too familiar with the technical hum-drum of some of these reports.

Nevertheless, I'm enjoying poking through the resources posted on the site, and have added PAF to the list of Philly History Tools in Assembling History's site navigation on the right.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pa. To Lay Off 85 Public History Workers

As if the bad economy wasn't tough enough, there's more bad news for public historians in Pennsylvania.

The Rendell administration announced that, among other budget cuts, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) will lay off 85 employees, more than 25 percent of its staff.

PHMC's web site says to check back on Friday November 20 for "important information on field site operations." That doesn't sound good.

According to the Inquirer, PHMC's layoffs will affect Brandywine Battlefield State Park in Chadds Ford, Graeme Park Historic Site in Horsham, Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County, and Hope Lodge in Fort Washington. UPDATE: The Delaware County Daily Times reports that the layoffs will not, in fact, affect Brandywine Battlefield State Park.

The State Museum and State Archives in Harrisburg will also close on Tuesdays as of December 1. (They are already closed on Mondays, and the archives are also closed on Sundays.)

These cuts are disheartening for many reasons, but as someone who's in the job market myself, I especially hate to hear that public history positions are being eliminated.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Frank Lloyd Wright in the Philly Region

Frank Lloyd Wright's best known Pennsylvania design is on the other side of the state, but one of his local designs is getting some new, much-deserved, attention.

Well after his prairie style period, Wright designed a glass pyramid-like synagogue for a congregation in Elkins Park, just north of Philadelphia.

Beth Sholom Synagogue celebrated the building's 50th anniversary this year by opening a new visitor center to help make the building more accessible to the public. Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote about Sunday's opening reception here. If you can't wait to get to the visitor center, click here for a photo gallery of the synagogue.

With one quick Google search, I learned that Wright also designed a structure in Ardmore, a suburb west of Philadelphia. The Suntop Homes are a four-unit structure, built in 1939 as a prototype for affordable cluster housing. According to the Lower Merion Historical Society, the plan to build more units was interrupted by World War II.

The Suntop Homes are not open to the public, to the best of my knowledge, but Flickr user lavardera has posted some amazing interior photos. You'll see some obvious design similarities to Fallingwater, which was designed three years earlier.

Coincidentally, I recently read a novel called Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, about Wright's client-turned-mistress Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Though fictional, the book is based on historical research and is quite the page-turner. If you know nothing about Wright's personal life, I recommend it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Cultured" Praise

Some of Philly's rare books collections got a shout-out in The New York Times' latest in its "Cultured Traveler" series.

The Nov. 1 article spotlights the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Rosenbach Museum among its five examples of rare books libraries worth visiting, touting the institutions' accessibility not just for scholars but for ordinary visitors, too.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Saving the "Moon Tree"

Staff from the Independence National Historical Park are worried that the "Bicentennial moon tree," planted in Washington Square from seeds carried to the moon, may not last through the winter.

I've always been intrigued by this tree (and monument), a remnant of the Bicentennial celebrations of 1975-76.

Apparently, Philly was just one of many recipients of a moon tree, all planted from a single batch of 400 seeds that accompanied NASA astronaut Stuart Roosa on a mission in 1971. NASA does not have an official list of all the moon trees, but you can find a running list here. NASA also has a page about our Washington Square moon tree, including a flyer, newspaper clipping, and photos from the 1975 dedication.

But as the Daily News reported yesterday, Philly's tree is in rough shape.

The National Park Service is hoping to save at least a part of the tree, by taking about 20 cuttings from the tree for cloning.

So is a cloned moon tree as authentic as the original, or is it a replica of an original? How do you draw the line between original artifacts and copies when dealing with living organisms?

According to this Cornell site for kids (about my level of biology expertise), trees can be cloned either by grafting a cutting from the parent tree onto another tree's rootstock, or by encouraging the cutting to grow its own roots. That sounds like the cloned tree would be an authentic stand-in for the original, rather than a replica. The cutting from the original tree simply continues to grow until it becomes tree-sized.

If only non-living objects or the built environment could regenerate themselves if they became harmed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Neighborhood Transformation

Can reclaiming history help rejuvenate a neighborhood?

The Inquirer wrote a rather glowing article earlier this week about how some dedicated Quakers reclaimed and rejuvenated the historic Fair Hill Burial Ground near N. 9th Street and W. Indiana Avenue over the last 16 years, and how neighbors have helped transform the surrounding blocks right alongside it.

The Inquirer reports, the "'badlands' aren't so bad anymore."

Even the blog Uwishunu, run by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, highlighted the site's fall cleanup event planned for Saturday, and linked to a Flickr set of bucolic photos of the burial ground it posted last year.

Really? The official tourism folks are recommending that people visit North Philly? What a refreshing change.

In the 1980s and 90s, the area around the burial ground was a notorious drug market in Philadelphia.

Most of the (white) Quakers had moved away by the 1960s, and by 1980, even the burial ground had fallen out of use. The Quakers sold their 1883 meetinghouse and burial ground to a Baptist church in 1985.

The 4.5-acre burial ground was essentially abandoned, except by the drug dealers. Some neighbors apparently thought the site, with its low grave markers and looping paths, was a pet cemetery.

However, underneath the overgrown weeds rested prominent 19th century abolitionists like Robert Purvis (1810-1898), a wealthy African American known as the "president of the Underground Railroad." Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), known for her antislavery and women's rights activism, is also buried at Fair Hill.

A biographer of Mott's, Margaret Hope Bacon, "rediscovered" the burial ground in the 1980s, and rallied fellow Quakers to buy back the burial ground in 1993. Meanwhile, resident Peaches Ramos rallied neighbors to reclaim the streets.

After $1 million of investment and years of volunteer efforts, Fair Hill Burial Ground is cleaner, safer, and host to gardening and educational programs. The neighborhood is safer too.

Is it a coincidence that the neighborhood's and the burial ground's fates appear intertwined? Put another way: would neighbors have rallied in the same way for a restored pet cemetery?

I doubt it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Community History

Penn staff and students have launched an impressive new(ish) resource called the West Philadelphia Community History Center.

I attended a lecture a couple weeks ago to hear more about the site from co-creators Walter Licht, a history professor, and Mark Lloyd, director of the University Archives. They hope the site will be especially useful to Penn students and K-12 students and teachers, but I can see plenty of community uses as well.

Licht knew first-hand that his Penn students perpetually knew little about their new neighborhood. Inspired by the extensive collection of West Philly ephemera donated to the University Archives by the family of Ruth Branning Molloy (Licht's friend and neighbor), Licht and Lloyd decided to create an online clearinghouse for West Philly history.

The site launched earlier this year with much help and effort from other University Archives staff and students from a class last spring.

So far, they've written a history of West Philly from pre-history through 1907, and individual neighborhood histories for eight smaller neighborhoods within West Philly. They've also linked to more than a dozen historical maps and posted census statistics, a detailed bibliography, and West-Philly-centric curriculum guides for K-12 teachers.

I'll be interested to see their next steps on this site. Only time will tell how / whether this site will connect with other online Philly history sites that are popping up, like, the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network, or the PhilaPlace site that the Historical Society of Pennsylvania plans to launch this fall.

UPDATE: This post corrects the provenance of the Ruth Branning Malloy collection.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Everyone's a Curator

Apparently, curators are not just in museums these days.

The New York Times reports that all kinds of creative types have embraced the word "curate" to describe their selective editing activities. From swap-meets to nightclubs to stores, curators are now in charge.

The linguists say "it's an innocent form of self-inflation," but people using the term say that it "precisely describes" their work. The one museum curator quoted in the story says she doesn't mind the title creep.

I don't really mind it either. But the article is a good reminder: if everyone's a curator nowadays, we need to remember to explain the worth of having professional curators around.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Re-enacting Revolutionary Germantown

Here are some pictures from yesterday's 12 noon battle re-enactment at the Revolutionary Germantown festival. When I got there, the re-enactors were battling it out on Germantown Avenue, in front of Cliveden.

You can't quite tell from this shot, but two women soldiers (the only women re-enactors I noticed) were among those operating the cannon.

A bystander near me told us onlookers that these are Hessian soldiers.

Someone left his or her bicycle and helmet in a very inconvenient battle location. Meanwhile, just outside the photo (and battle), a neighbor was getting a new refrigerator delivered in the midst of musket- and cannon-fire.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Civil War Museum Staying in Philly

After a rough few months for the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, the museum has announced that it is still working to stay in Philadelphia.

Established in 1888, the museum shut down in 2008 in preparation for moving from its long-time home at 1805 Pine Street to the former First Bank of the United States building at 3rd and Chestnut Streets.

But then the economy tanked.

The state withdrew its $10 million pledge to support the move, leaving the museum without sufficient funding to keep its new lease with the National Park Service, which owns the First Bank building.

The Civil War Museum then warned in late July that it had only weeks to find an alternate location before it would start looking outside the city. Of course, the museum had tried to leave the city before (in 2001), and public outcry changed its plans.

Now, the museum has announced that it has a bit more time for the search because it is temporarily splitting up its 3,000-item collection at the Gettysburg National Park Visitors Center, the National Constitution Center, and the African American Museum of Philadelphia. The Civil War Museum hopes to open in a new Philadelphia location by 2014 at the latest.

Meanwhile, 3rd and Chestnut will still be getting a new museum -- right across the street from the First Bank building.

Also in July, the Park Service announced a land-swap deal that will put the private American Revolution Center (ARC) and its planned Revolutionary War museum in the former visitor center at Independence National Historical Park.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who wondered at the oddly perfect timing of this war museum switcheroo, but thankfully, it didn't sink the Civil War Museum.

The former NPS visitor center (left) and the First Bank building (right). Photo: Google Maps.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Philadelphia History on the Web

I'm nearing the finish line on my project with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which means I'm tying up a lot of loose ends.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been updating and expanding the Alliance's inventory of African American historic sites in the city. And with an October 1 deadline looming, I can't put off the toughest decisions about what to do with conflicting or absent information. Do I ignore it, try to context it, or fix it?

Like all public historians, I have limited time and resources to solve these thorny issues. So I make decisions on a case by case basis, and try to use the most efficient sources at my fingertips. For this project, that often means using the Web.

Here are a few of my favorite online sources for information about Philadelphia buildings:

* Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network -- The Interactive Map Viewer is fun to play with even if you're not researching city properties. For my project, the 1875, 1895, 1910 and 1942 layers helped me solve more than a few property mysteries.

* Philadelphia Architects and Buildings -- This database incorporates a wealth of information about individual buildings, including links to other resources like HABS files in the Library of Congress. You can also read up on individual architects. You might have to look up a property several different ways to find what you're looking for. You can search by street name, by specific location, or by building info, among others, but I've found some properties only by searching all three ways.

* -- The City Archives has been getting accolades for years now for its database of historic photos. You can search by address or intersection, by keyword, and more. Sometimes you end up with a photo of a sewer grate, but this site is a treasure trove of easily accessible information.

*'s Historic Street Name Index -- The City Archives also hosts this neat little tool to look up old street names in the city.

* Pennsylvania's Historic Architecture & Archaeology (ARCH) -- Although a little out of date now (it was last updated in March 2007), the state has a searchable database of National Register and National Historic Landmark properties. Even better, you can view many of the original scanned applications.

* Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program -- The state also has a searchable database of its historical markers.

For leads on other resources about Philadelphia, check out these subject guides:
* Bryn Mawr's Places In Time: Historical Documentation of Place in Greater Philadelphia;
* Penn's Philadelphia History Research Guide; and
* Temple University's Philadelphia Guide.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Historical Commission (and More) To Be Shuttered Oct. 2

Only three days left until the city of Philadelphia sends out layoff notices to some 3,000 workers in preparation for its October 2 "doomsday" budget deadline.

Of special interest for public historians: the Philadelphia Historical Commission and all Free Library of Philadelphia branches will cease operations under the current proposed plan.

That is, unless the state Legislature approves the tax and pension changes Mayor Michael Nutter has requested.

If you're new to this alarming and disheartening subject, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a brief round-up over the weekend to catch you up on all the relevant issues. You can also read Mayor Nutter's most recent letter to the Legislature here. The situation is looking grim.

Now, if all the libraries close, I think we're all clear on the impacts. All the libraries will be closed.

But what, exactly, will this doomsday plan mean for historic properties in the city?

KYW Newsradio quotes Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission, as saying that historic properties "would be at risk" if the commission ceases operations on October 2. But the same story indicates that projects needing the commission's approval "would be delayed."

Does that mean everything needing Historical Commission review would be on hold until the staff is re-hired, at some point weeks or months in the future? Or will it be open-season on tearing down or altering properties in the city?

I hope we won't need to find out, but time is running out.

If you haven't already contacted your state legislators, please click here to do so. (This link takes you to the Free Library's advocacy page, where you can find your elected officials and a suggested letter urging them to act.)

UPDATE: Crisis averted, at least for now. On Sept. 17, the Legislature approved the tax and pension changes Mayor Michael Nutter requested. Nutter's "doomsday" budget is off the table. Read Nutter's letter to his staff here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Jewish Archives Moving North to Temple

Big news in the local archives scene: the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center is now part of Temple University's Urban Archives. You can read the official announcement here.

I'm guessing this may not attract much media attention, but I for one am dying to know more details:

How will the collections and finding aids be integrated? Is this a merger, a strategic alliance, or something else? Is there a PJAC endowment that will help cover the cost of preserving and providing access to all these materials at Temple?

Yes, these are geeky archivist questions. But I also wrote my Masters thesis about PJAC's landlord for 20 years: the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, which itself merged into the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) in 2002. (I'll write a longer post about the Balch and my thesis soon.)

According to PJAC's web site, the archive was founded in 1972 as a project of Federation of Jewish Agencies and the Philly chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

As early as 1979, PJAC board and staff were discussing whether to become affiliated with another institution. Everyone agreed that it would be best to affiliate with a Jewish educational institution, and staff reached out to Gratz College.

However, by 1981, PJAC was still independent. The board concluded that they would need to entice institutions with an endowment to cover the archive's operational costs.

The next official mention of merger was in 2000, when PJAC apparently reached out to the National Museum of American Jewish History. That institution declined.

Meanwhile, in 1985, PJAC moved into space at the Balch Institute, on 7th Street just below Market Street. After the Balch-HSP merger, HSP sold the former Balch building, and PJAC moved to new quarters at 125 N. 8th Street. However, rent for the new space was three times higher than at the awkward Balch building.

Four years later, PJAC moved again, this time to Temple's Urban Archives.

So just when did PJAC's board and staff start talking to Temple University about coming to campus? And did anyone seriously discuss having PJAC follow the Balch collections to HSP?

Regardless, I'm glad to hear that PJAC has found a home at Temple. Perhaps this influx of additional archival materials will prompt the university to give the very-deserving Urban Archives more financial resources, too.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Preserving Old Buildings

I've had a crash course in historic preservation this summer, so I was intrigued by this discussion posted on H-Public late last week about the standards used to decide if a property warrants a local historic designation.

Public historian Alex Bethke vents his frustrations with the San Diego Historic Preservation Commission, of which he is a member, and its interpretation of what qualifies as architecturally significant.

Bethke worries that the commission is too lax in its approval of properties, leading to lost property tax income for the city and "public misperception of historic preservation and inability to understand historical resource significance."

But Cathy Stanton responds by asking whether "the loose application of 'significance' is really such a bad thing"?

I'm with Stanton on this one.

While Bethke's San Diego situation may indeed be an extreme, I think that a broad interpretation of what qualifies as "significant" helps, rather than harms, preservation efforts.

Sure, not every building can be as historically significant as Independence Hall, or as architecturally significant as Fallingwater. But many "lesser" properties nevertheless contribute to a neighborhood's character and history. Plus, we already have such limited tools for preserving old buildings that I hesitate to take any out of the toolbox.

At least here in Philadelphia, local designation on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places helps encourage developers and homeowners to keep old buildings standing.

The Philadelphia Register does little if anything to educate the public about history, or architecture, or residential or industrial patterns within the city. But it was not meant to. Heck, sometimes the Philadelphia Register doesn't even prevent a building from being demolished. (Check out the recent flurry of activity to save the Hillman Medical Center on Chestnut Street).

I think we need to add more enticements for preserving old buildings, not set stricter requirements for what is "worth" saving.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

City Smells

Artist Jason Logan created an unusual walking tour for the New York Times this week, tracing smells in Manhattan. You can explore his interactive map here.

Logan points out that city smells are particularly strong in the summer, and he faithfully lists the bad with the good as he navigates the city.

At Stop 3, he smells fermentation, apples and fear. At Stop 17, he notes enigmatically, "No scent."

Logan's piece is about the present, not the past, but his map reminds me of the work of historian Mark Smith, who has written extensively about sensory history. (For a good overview of Smith's thinking, check out this 2007 essay.)

Smith argues that we should include all of our senses in examining and understanding history. He encourages historians not only to "see" the past, but also to consider smell, taste, sound and touch.

So I wonder: What would appear on a walking tour of scents in Philadelphia in 1890 as compared to 1960? What common denominator smells would connect 17th century Philadelphians to their modern equivalents? Intriguing questions.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sailing Into History

South Philadelphia's favorite (and only) rusting ocean liner made the news again this week.

The S.S. United States Conservancy, the group working to save the ship from the scrapyard, hosted a screening of a documentary about the ship's history at the Independence Seaport Museum. You can watch a trailer for the film, "S.S. United States: Lady in Waiting," here.

The conservancy hopes to turn the ship into a floating museum like Battleship New Jersey or the U.S.S. Olympia, or find another use for it, as was done with the tall ship (and now restaurant) Moshulu.

They face an uphill battle.

I'll admit that I love catching a glimpse of the S.S. United States, hulking unexpectedly across from the Ikea on Columbus Boulevard.

But I'm not convinced that this massive ship -- with its gutted interior -- is worth preserving. Sure, I'd be thrilled if someone found a use for it. But do we need to preserve the physical ship to remember its speed records, or the fact that it carried a young Bill Clinton to his Rhodes Scholarship in England? I shudder to imagine the price-tag for recreating its former interior.

Inquirer reporter Inga Saffron agrees with me; she calls the conservancy group "a boatload of romantics."

(Another group, the S.S. United States Foundation, is also trying to save the ship. You can watch a trailer for a different documentary about the ship and its maker here.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inventory of Historic Sites

This summer, I've been working with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia on a project to update and expand its inventory of African American historic sites in the city.

Starting from a list created about 10 years ago, I've expanded the Alliance's inventory to include nearly 500 sites around Philadelphia that have connections to the city's rich African American heritage. I have a few more steps to complete, and then the inventory will be ready to post on the Alliance's web site as a searchable database.

Of course, some of what I did this summer was simply to organize the information into a easy-to-use format. The original list included some 350 historic sites, and I incorporated the research done by historian Emily Cooperman for the Alliance about historic African American churches.

I then tracked down details for all the sites on building dates and architects, historic designations, and historic markers. I'll save a future post for a re-cap of some of my most-used digital resources for tracking down information about Philadelphia properties.

These days, I've been wandering the city with a camera in my bag, taking photos of inventory sites for our planned web site. Here are a couple of my recent images, both related to the historic Shiloh Baptist congregation.

The top image is Shiloh Baptist's first home at 609 S. Clifton Street, near 10th and South Streets. Now home to the Waters Memorial AME Church, the building dates to about 1840 and is a rare surviving example of a church built for an African American congregation during this period. The building is now listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Shiloh Baptist remained at this location until about 1890, when it moved a few blocks west to a bigger building at 1112-1120 Lombard Street (bottom image). According to Cooperman, the congregation's second building is similar in age to its first home, and had previously been home to an Episcopal congregation, the Church of the Ascension.

In 1945, the Shiloh Baptist congregation moved west again, purchasing the stunning church property at 2040 Christian Street. (Shiloh's former home on Lombard Street has since been altered for secular use, as you can see in the photo.)

Shiloh Baptist's current home (sorry, no photo yet) was built for the Church of the Holy Apostles congregation in 1868-1870 by the architectural firm of Fraser, Furness and Hewitt. The church is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and included in the Census of Stained Glass Windows in America. The Sunday School building is considered one of the finest examples of its kind in the U.S. If you missed the Hidden City event at Shiloh earlier this summer, check out this series of photos from the interior.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Stephen Girard: Still Making Waves

The gossip site Philebrity took a moment recently to weigh the legacy of Stephen Girard (1750-1831), a wealthy banker who among other things founded Girard College.

Philebrity's conclusion: "Over 150 Years Later, Still Kind of a Dick."

Why would a gossip site care about a long-dead Philadelphia banker? Apparently, the statue of Girard that stands behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art was recently defaced with a passionate (if misspelled) "doucbag" across the base of the statue.

This photo shows the statue in 1912, when it stood outside City Hall; you can see a photo of the graffiti here.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Forgotten History

National Geographic Traveler's Intelligent Travel blog has been running an intriguing new history-related blog series.

Andrew Carroll is visiting obscure historic sites in all 50 states, and then writing about his travels. Carroll is also tweeting about the project, all the while promoting an upcoming book on this same topic, Here is Where: In Search of America's Great Forgotten History. (Carroll previously founded the Legacy Project, and has published several books on war correspondence.)

Alas, Philadelphia will not get a mention in Carroll's new effort. He already visited Pennsylvania, choosing Pittsburgh's launching site of Lewis and Clark for this state's contribution. Other posts to date describe the memento-laden wall of Chicago's Tribune Tower, Charles Lindbergh's Maui grave, and the site of the Gunnison Masacre in Nevada.

I love Carroll's idea, but I do have one quibble: should a site count as "forgotten" if an individual or a group has gone to the trouble of erecting a marker?

Carroll has apparently decided that "little known" is a fine stand-in for "forgotten" when it comes to historic sites. All of the locations he has highlighted so far have text markers either large or small explaining their significance. I hope he'll get around to some posts about unmarked significant sites. And yes, I know that's a lot harder.

The importance of place is not new in public history. For obvious reasons, the field of historic preservation is especially focused on the value of place (for example, see the National Trust for Historic Preservation's This Place Matters project).

But back to Carroll's project: I wonder what he might have visited in Philly?

I have Napoleon on the brain at the moment (I just visited the Napoleon exhibit at the National Constitution Center), so I was happy to hear that Philadelphia has its own Bonaparte connection.

Napoleon's older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, lived at 260 S. 9th Street in 1815-1816. The house still stands (see photo above), but most passers-by probably ignore the state historic marker that stands out front. The building was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1961.

Like Carroll's sites, not quite forgotten, but certainly obscure.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Marking the Past

For a project I've been working on, I've been reading and thinking about state historic markers around the city. You've no doubt seen these big blue signs, telling you why a particular spot is deemed noteworthy in the state's history.

But I'm equally interested in the story behind the markers. Who proposes them? Why do applicants want a particular site noticed? And how does the act of officially marking one history overshadow other histories for the same site?

Earlier this summer, the Inquirer explained the basics of how these state historic markers come about. The story mentions one marker in the Italian Market that was pulled down immediately after being erected in 2007, ostensibly because the marker used the historic name, "9th Street" market, instead of the more recent moniker, "Italian Market."

Ignoring the disagreement over the market's name for a moment, and the reasons why someone might be so offended by this historic accuracy that he or she would pull down the sign, I'm more curious about the less violent response that has emerged less than a block away.

Visitors to the 9th Street / Italian Market can now view two markers: one erected by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and one erected by private citizens.

The private marker appeared about one year after the state marker's unveiling, defacement and replacement, and was erected less than a block away at the corner of 9th and Montrose.

In the privately funded version of the past, the market's Italian heritage is emphasized, and "honored founding families" are celebrated by name. Frank Rizzo watches over the marker, from a market mural.

Do visitors notice the difference between the two signs? Or even notice that two signs describe the same history?

Alas, I'm betting the private marker gets more attention, since it is located almost a block into the market itself, whereas the state marker is located at the northern edge of the market, at 9th and Christian (photo at top).

The private marker also may seem more "legitimate," since it reinforces current business and tourist marketing. Visitors no doubt see the private marker and assume that it will tell them all they need to know about the history of the "Italian Market."

Too bad. In the process of celebrating one group's heritage, the private marker steamrolls over some of the richness and diversity of the actual market.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Construction of History

Most of the time, we forget that history is contested ground. We know that monuments like Independence Hall or Edgar Allen Poe's house are important relics of the past, but we rarely get to see how how they became designated as such.

Who decides that a building, or an artifact, or a memory is so important that it should be preserved? How do we decide what's not worth remembering, and who gets to shape the stories of "the past" that we tell? How do those debates play out in real time, when the "history" being written is recent enough to be remembered?

As a public historian, I'm interested in the messy business of how history is shaped and influenced in the real world. What happens to the stories of the past that we historians tell the public? And how do public preconceptions (and misconceptions) color people's understanding of the stories that we tell?

I hope to use this blog to explore how history is assembled, one story at a time, in the public's consciousness and memory.