Baldwin Park at the Smithsonian

On a trip in 2019 to Washington DC, I visited a few of the Smithsonian museums on the Mall.  In these museums are exhibited national treasures seen by visitors from all over the world. Here are some items I saw there that had connections to our neighborhood.

First stop was the National Museum of American History. The place is huge and densely packed with artifacts and information. You can find many items with references to our neighborhood just in the east wing of the first floor.

From 1991 until 2011 our beloved Park was officially called Franklin Town Park, after the development corporation that planned to build within four years the "city within a city," Franklin Town. The fact that they leveled the neighborhood and then ran out of money for construction did not sit well with many in the neighborhood. In response to petitions, the name of the Park was changed by City Council to Matthias Baldwin Park in 2011. A State of Pennsylvania Historical Marker was placed marking the site of the Baldwin Locomotive Works. It is appropriate to first look at the machine that got Baldwin started in the steam engine business.

This is the actual stationary steam locomotive that former jeweler Matthias Baldwin built in his shop at 14 Minor Street in 1829. It was used at the Baldwin Locomotive Works (BLW) until 1873.
From 1790 to 1880 the United States Patent Office required applicants to submit a scale model of the machine in question. This is the actual model from 1842. 
British locomotives were run on firmer rails with large-radius curves, unlike the tracks available in the United States. Baldwin's flexible beam became the standard on American locomotives.
John Bull in main corridor. This is the actual train from 1831. The guide wheels were the other innovation that enabled smoother riding on American tracks.
When Matthias Baldwin was asked to make his first full-scale locomotive, he and friend Franklin Peale induced a security guard to allow them to see the John Bull after it had been shipped to Bordentown, New Jersey. Baldwin took careful measurements and decided he could build a locomotive, his first being called Old Ironsides. Baldwin had spent a half hour crawling under the boiler of this very train during his surreptitious inspection.

William Sellers had a machine shop between 16th and 17th Streets and Buttonwood Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The Sellers Machine Shop was in our neighborhood from 1848 to 1943, making big machines for big machine makers. 

Model for William Sellers' 1872 patent on an oscillating engine, basically a mechanism to control the valves allowing steam into the cylinders and reversing locomotive direction.

The Central Manual Training School was in our neighborhood at the corner of 17th and Wood Streets from 1885 to 1942, as discussed here. The biggest item on display in the east wing of the first floor of the National Museum of American History is the Corliss engine, made by the Naylor machine shop at Front and Girard Avenue. This giant stationary engine powered the machines in the school and ended up in the Smithsonian.

This large stationary Corliss engine, which had been in the Central Manual Training School.

The Corliss engine improved on prior engines, and the first version, at 40-foot tall, was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park. Engines like this allowed factories to be at a remove from falling water as a source of power. Coal made steam and the steam powered multiple machines via complex linkages made via belts. Later, these engines were used to make electricity which was then transferred to individual motors at each machine.

Also in the east wing is a series of exhibits about transportation in the United States. Baldwin Locomotive Works continued on after the death of Matthias Baldwin in 1866, becoming one of the world's largest locomotive manufacturers. At its peak it was producing six locomotives per day, shipping them throughout the United States and the world.

Two views of the room-size diorama with the full-size locomotive Jupiter, made by the Baldwin Locomotive Works.

In 1905 Augustus Saint Gaudens was contracted by the Philadelphia Mint to design a new $20 gold coin, called the double-eagle because the $10 coin was then called the eagle. Twenty of the high-relief versions were minted in 1907, but the eleven stampings required to make them necessitated modifications to a lower-relief version needing only three stampings. In 1933 almost a half million of these coins were minted here in Philadelphia at the building which is now part of the Community College of Philadelphia campus. Before they were released, President Franklin Roosevelt decided to have all but two coins melted down and converted back to gold bullion. One of these is on display at the Smithsonian. Somehow, other 1933 double-eagle coins went missing, one of which was acquired legally by the King of Egypt. In 1944 Isaac Switt, a jeweler with a shop at 130 South 8th Street near Jewelers' Row in Philadelphia, admitted to selling ten double-eagles starting in 1937. In 2002, after a double-eagle was auctioned off for $7.6 million, his daughter Joan Switt Langbord suddenly found ten double-eagles in a family safe deposit box and brought them to the Mint to verify their authenticity. Langbord, then in her 70's, had worked at her father's jewelry store, and in fact, still runs it. The coins were verified authentic and then kept by the government as contraband stolen from the Mint. Litigation was settled in 2017, when the US Supreme Court declined to take her case. Books have been written about the case, but for a four-page summary see outside link here.

1933 gold double-eagle at the Smithsonian.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens' initials are below the date.
The 1907 high-relief version also on display.
The high relief made them hard to mint and hard to stack evenly.
I. Switt at 130 South 8th Street today.
Joan Switt Langbord tops the names on the door.

Let's begrudgingly leave the National Museum of American History and take a trip to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, just off the Mall near the White House at 1661 Pennsylvania Avenue, and look at the work of another jeweler.

The gates made by Paley as seen prior to 2004 looking southwest.
Before there was a North x Northwest tower and town home complex, there was a surface parking lot on the north side of Baldwin Park. Museum Towers 1 was built in 1987 and this Percent for Art creation, titled Synergy, was installed at the parking lot entrance. It is now at the 450 North 18th Street entrance to the complex. 
This photo is pre-Granary and pre-Tivoli. The houses on the right are the backs of the houses on 20th Street.
You can see eight window grates made by Paley in 1978 at the northwest corner of Lombard and Front Streets. They are stamped with his name and date.
For more Percent for Art pieces in the neighborhood, see here.

Let's go back to the Mall, to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The Lenni Lenape  were the Indians in our neighborhood before the arrival of the Europeans. There are reminders of the Lenape in our neighborhood, as discussed in our website article here.

Large exhibit in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

We often take the familiar for granted. Some of what is on display for international visitors at the Smithsonian had its origins in the Baldwin Park neighborhood. Relish the history that took place here as much as you enjoy the Park.

authored by Joe Walsh, July 2020

Matthias Baldwin Park 

423 N 19th St 

Philadelphia, PA 19130

Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to preserve the Matthias Baldwin Park

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