The following is excerpted from “This Used to be Philadelphia” (Reedy Press, 2021), written by Inquirer contributor Natalie Pompilio and photographed by her sister, Tricia Pompilio. Its essays and images introduce readers to the rich history behind more than 80 of the city’s most iconic buildings and sites.
No other American city is as perfect for a “This Used to Be” book than Philadelphia. It’s an old city by U.S. standards, home to Native Americans for thousands of years before European settlers arrived in the 1600s. It’s the birthplace of the nation, where the documents that govern us today were crafted and where the first president lived and worked. And it has played a critical role in the country’s economic growth, once serving as its busiest port and later earning the nickname the Workshop of the World, thanks to the factories that produced everything from locomotives to linens.
Today, of course, the modern city is a hive of medical and pharmaceutical research, a growing force in the world of technology, and a center for arts and entertainment.
Most of the places and spaces featured in this book are in the Greater Center City area. I chose them because the area is easily walkable and is where out-of-towners are most likely to visit.
Because this book was written during the COVID-19 pandemic, when visits to libraries and museums were forbidden, I relied heavily on internet-based research, which I thought would be a problem. But the increasing digitalization of history made the research easier than I’d imagined, and I soon lost myself in the city’s stories during 2020′s locked-down months of spring, summer, and fall.
It was a thrill to imagine W.E.B. Du Bois living and working only blocks from my South Philly home, to discover that a prison that had housed Al Capone once stood where I now buy groceries, and to learn that the shot tower across from my sister’s house on Carpenter St. churned out ammunition during the Civil War.
And I tried to picture the non-English-speaking Italian men arriving at the Washington Avenue Immigration Station in the late 1880s holding slips of paper reading “Palumbo’s, 8th and Catharine.” That note told authorities to point the newcomers toward the South 7th Street boardinghouse that would welcome them. During that mile-long walk, the men passed near my house.
I now stroll the same streets, follow the same unseen paths. All of those who came before me had some impact on the city that exists today. Learning about them makes me wonder what my own impact will be — years from now — on the city that I love and call home.
Moyamensing Prison, now the site of an ACME supermarket, 1400 E. Passyunk Ave.
Take away the bustling ACME market that now sits here and imagine a castle-like structure surrounded by 40-foot-tall stone walls. For more than 125 years, this corner housed Moyamensing Prison, a three-building complex where Edgar Allan Poe slept off an alcoholic bender, Al Capone stopped in, and America’s first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes, was hanged in 1986.
The prison — alternately known as the 11th Street Dock, the Jug, and the County Hotel — was designed by Thomas Walter, who also designed the U.S. Capitol dome. It opened in 1835; one observer wrote that it looked like it had been built “for the ages.”
A 1959 Philadelphia Inquirer article tallied 15 escapes in 25 years. That same year, three inmates busted a hole in their cell’s ceiling then used a bedsheet rope to rappel the prison’s wall. The men left a message on the wall: “The food isn’t fit for pigs. Also, inmates are locked in their dungeons for 21 hrs. a day. We all hope you tear this joint down tomorrow. Then MAYBE we’ll come back.”
All were recaptured. The prison was closed in 1963 and torn down in 1967. Acme moved in a decade later.
Satterlee Union Army Hospital, now Clark Park, 4300 Baltimore Ave.
A large boulder from the Gettysburg battlefield is one of the only reminders that on a West Philadelphia’s Clark Park park once sat Satterlee Hospital, the Union Army’s largest hospital during the Civil War.
The institution, in operation between 1862 and 1865, was built in a rural area on the edge of the city, sprawling over 12 acres. It had more than 30 wards and beds for 4,500 patients, either in its main building or in one of the hundreds of tents that surrounded it. Witnesses described it as a city unto itself, complete with a weekly newsletter, barbershop, library, and post office.
The hospital’s patient population rose by the hundreds after the second battle of Bull Run and by the thousands after the battle of Gettysburg. The injured — both Confederate and Union soldiers — arrived by steamboat or train and were taken to Satterlee via creek raft, horse-drawn carriage, or cart.
Satterlee provided high-quality care; of the 20,000 soldiers treated there, fewer than 300 died from their battle wounds. Credit for that goes not only to its physicians but also to the more than 100 Sisters of Charity who provided nursing care.
One patient later wrote that the sisters “are different from anyone else, or from other people, for they never get sick and they do for us what no other person would do. They are not afraid of the fever, small pox [sic], or anything else.”
Cyrus Bustill’s bakery, now Grossman Furniture warehouse, 210 Arch St.
Yes, Cyrus Bustill was a baker and a historic marker at 210 Arch Street acknowledges the bakery he and his family opened here in the late 1780s.
But Bustill was much more than that. He cofounded the Free African Society, was an active member of the Underground Railroad, opened a school for Black children, and served as a church and civic leader whose descendants followed his lead in fighting for positive change.
Bustill was born enslaved in New Jersey in 1723; his father was the owner of the land where his mother was forced to live and work. He apprenticed with a New Jersey baker who taught Bustill the trade and allowed him to purchase his freedom. (One descendant later wrote that Bustill did not want “to perpetuate a race of slaves.”)
Bustill was one of 5,000 freed African-descended people who joined Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army, serving behind the lines. He provided bread to the future first president and his soldiers when they camped in Valley Forge.
A practicing Quaker, Bustill moved to Philadelphia after the war and quickly became a leader in the African American community. In 1787, with racial tensions in the city rising, Bustill addressed a large group of African Americans, telling them that nonviolent protest and presenting oneself as an equal was the best way to achieve emancipation, saying:
“You being in bondage in particular, I would that ye take heed that afend [offend)] not with your tongue, be ye wise as Serpents and harmless as Doves, that he may take with you, when you are wrong’d.”
Bustill and his wife, Elizabeth, ran the bakery with the help of their eight children. After retiring in 1797, he opened a school for African American children denied an education elsewhere. One of his daughters was the primary teacher.
The Bustills were one of the first prominent African American families in the United States and remain so today. They were the great-great-grandparents of Civil Right Activist Paul Robeson.