When does a name go from outrageous to edgy?
Conditions at the 13th-century English insane asylum Bedlam were so horrific that the name became a household pejorative. Fast-forward 900 years and, sure enough, there's a Bedlam Bar in London, Bedlam Theatre in Minneapolis, and Bedlam Bar-B-Q in Oklahoma City.
On the other hand, the notorious Philadelphia State Hospital for the Insane at Byberry left a considerable stench in its wake when the last patient escaped its clutches barely 20 years ago. But the institution lives on through ghastly images on the Internet.
The difference between 900 years and 20 years is more than a matter of time.
"All bad stuff creates around it a certain sacred space," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "Many factors figure into when that power is diluted, such as the nature of what happened, the level of horror, and our response to it."
Now comes Ned Taddei, lately of Hoboken, N.J., but Philadelphia born and bred, poised to open a pub-grub-music venue with an adjoining gourmet eatery at 38th and Ludlow Streets.
He's named it the Blockley.
That may seem an inconsequential moniker to most. But to historians, the name Blockley is an eerie reminder of an odious past.
Throughout much of the 1800s, the Blockley Almshouse, in what is now University City, was a charity hospital that did little more than conceal the city's outcasts - destitute women, orphaned children, drunkards, maniacs, and lunatics.
A fire in the institution's insane ward in 1885 killed nearly two dozen so-called inmates, prompting a decision to close Blockley and build a new institution where mental patients would be treated with dignity.
They named the new place Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry and . . . you know the rest. Soon, Byberry became as much a bedlam as Blockley had ever been.
So, can any name with an abhorrent association be redeemed and repurposed?
That depends, says Thompson. Pearl Harbor is one thing, Sept. 11 is another. The difference?
"After Pearl Harbor, we retaliated and we won."
'Here is madness'
Taddei, whose brother Jerry and friend Patrick Hughes are partners in the new business, wanted a historic name - something that would have meaning in this area.
Their search took the trio through ragged city street maps and records. When Taddei learned about Blockley, he was sold.
"Here is drunkenness. Here is pauperism. Here is illegitimacy. Here is madness," wrote Blockley physician J. Chalmers DaCosta.
Those words convinced Taddei, who also owns a blues bar in Hoboken called Scotland Yard and is into irony.
"When I learned Blockley was known as the poorhouse, I knew the poorhouse/pour house connection was just right."
"I couldn't believe nobody had used the name," Taddei said. A photo of the old Blockley is the backdrop for the stage at his new pour house. Taddei's Blockley will offer 24 brews of beer and 21st-century bar food (i.e., clam rolls and lobster pierogies).
The adjoining restaurant, which he christened Mary Oaks because what is now 38th Street was Mary Street in early Philadelphia, and Ludlow was then named Oaks, will continue the affordability/accessibility theme with the addition of communal tables.
Chef Ross Essner (Rx, Savona, Bleu, Django) plans small plates: orchiette and chorizo bolognese, roasted marrow and parsley salad, wild mushroom risotto.
In designing the place, Taddei says, he recalled the words of local historian Leon S. Rosenthal: "To be sent to Blockley was to be condemned to horror and exile." And added his own: "If life feels like an asylum at times, at least we're all in it together."
If Blockley was a horror, conditions would be no better at its replacement, Byberry.
The first patients arrived at Byberry in 1910, and by 1938 state officials admitted the place was "a medieval pest house."
A 1946 Life magazine report revealed that patients at Byberry were starving, living in filth, wandering in medication-induced trances, or confined with restraints.
Even after that national exposure, reports of patient abuse and neglect at Byberry continued to surface. The order to close the institution did not come until 1987.
By that time, the name Byberry had all but eclipsed that of Blockley. But how long does it take for the ick factor to fade?
Taddei risks no reproach in calling his new place Blockley, says Thompson, because the name doesn't ring a bell with most Philadelphians anymore. Time and circumstance have swept it from the city's collective consciousness.
That's how it is in a culture fascinated with the macabre. Gruesome names are almost de rigueur for bands, from the Grateful Dead to Death Cab for Cutie. Insane commonly describes deals offered by used-car sales people and mattress retailers.
Thompson observes: "The whole idea of a lunatic asylum is now used in a lighthearted sense. There is no collective memory anymore of what horrible places these were."
For Taddei, and for Trevor Leonard of the band Triangle Shirt Factory, a name that invokes history also raises public awareness.
"It calls on us to be knowledgeable about the past and aware of tragedies occurring now, right in our midst," says Leonard, who grew up in Newtown, Bucks County.
He ponders how easily the 1911 Triangle fire that killed 146 immigrant seamstresses could have been avoided.
"Today, we still have issues we wait too long to deal with," Leonard says. "And they come to a head and explode on us."
"The great thing about Triangle Shirt Factory is how much conversation the name sparks," Leonard says. "Some people have no idea and they ask, 'What's a triangle shirt?' "
For all but the most appalling tragedies, Thompson says, a negative association does have an expiration date.
So when the new Blockley opens later this month, Taddei knows whom he wants to entertain the patrons. The headliner will be Peter MacLeod's band, Byberry State.