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Inga Saffron
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Making a garment factory safe and stylish

A Venetian-style tower masks an innovative fire-safety system.

The former Snellenberg’s clothing factory on North Broad Street features Venetian style details.
The former Snellenberg’s clothing factory on North Broad Street features Venetian style details.Read moreDavid Swanson

With its Renaissance-style windows and two-tone, brick-and-limestone arches, the tower on top of Snellenburg's former clothing factory brings a little bit of Venice to North Broad Street. The tower once served as a stylish come-on for the once-popular Center City department store. But its elaborate decoration also masked a more functional role: lifesaver.

Snellenburg's built the massive factory, which occupies a full block between Wallace and North Street, in 1903 to supply clothing to its Market Street emporium. Like most big Philadelphia department stores, Snellenburg's designed and manufactured its own signature clothing line. Most of it initially was assembled in homes and small sweatshops on a piecework basis.

That system began to change in the late 19th century, as industrialization and urbanization increased the demand for ready-made clothing. In 1888, the store's founder, Nathan Snellenburg, moved his business from a small shop at Third and South to an immense, palazzo-style building at 11th and Market. To produce the volume of clothing  the store needed, Snellenburg decided to set up his own manufacturing facility on what was then the edge of Center City.

At the time, garment factories were notorious for being unhealthy firetraps. Ventilation and lighting were poor, and amenities such as restrooms were frequently nonexistent. Women, who made up the majority of the stitching brigades, were reluctant to work in such places. To attract workers, Snellenburg asked his architects, William Steele & Sons, to incorporate the latest safety features into the Broad Street factory.

Steele & Sons responded by making the building's firefighting system the physical and symbolic centerpiece of the design. The tower housed a massive water tank, equipped with hoses that could be quickly deployed if the piles of fabric caught fire.

In an acknowledgment of the tower's importance, the architects heavily decorated the structure with elaborate Venetian trim. The midpoint is marked by a graceful window composition that includes two-tone arches and beautifully proportioned windows over a Juliet-style stone balcony. The crown, which once included a clock, riffs on the arrangement with a trio of arched windows.

The firefighting features were not limited to the tower. Fireproof stairwells, now standard in multistory buildings, were installed at each corner of the seven-story building. The elevators were all equipped with extinguishers. One of the biggest innovations had nothing to do with safety: Snellenburg's factory included a women's restroom on every floor. Large windows brought in plenty of light and air.

Apart from the Broad Street facade, the other sides of the building feature simple brick walls. Yet Snellenburg's was so proud of its safety features that it boasted of the healthy conditions in its newspaper ads. At its height, the store employed 2,000 workers.

Despite its early success, Snellenburg's was the first of the great Market Street department stores to close. Sold in the 1950s, its six-story palazzo was cut down to a two-story office building. The remains were demolished in 2015 to make way for the massive East Market development. The factory is now an office building. But thanks to Snellenburg's commitment to safety, that building should remain standing for many years.