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The Family Court Building
1801 Vine Street

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The Family Court building at 1801 Vine Street in Philadelphia

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Signage at the main entrance on Vine Street. 

The massive building at 1801 Vine Street housed the operations of the Family Division of the Court of Common Pleas of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania until 2014. The 247,196 square foot building was designed by Philadelphia architect John Torrey Windrim (based on Horace Trumbauer’s library building next door) and constructed in 1941 with funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This building, and The Free Library of Philadelphia across 19th Street, are a set modeled after the buildings at the terminus of the Champs-Elysee in Paris on La Place de la Concorde. The Family Court building’s exterior and a portion of its interior, including 37 WPA murals, are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. For the 71-page National Register application see here.

 

The current site of the Family Court building is at the very southwest corner of what used to be the Bush Hill estate, which was owned first by William Penn, then Andrew Hamilton and descendants, then subdivided. Prior to Penn’s ownership it was Lenapehoking, or the land of the Lenni-Lenape people. See the article on the Community College of Philadelphia for further discussion of the 17th through 19th century Bush Hill estate.

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Portion of large format map of the subdivided Bush Hill estate from 1827. Schuylkill Fourth is 19th Street today. This map from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania shows the very southwest corner of the former Bush Hill estate.

At upper right is seen the lot destined to become the St. Vincent’s Home for young orphans with the name of the purchaser, the future saint John Neumann. The official transfer deed of 1854 can be found in our article about Hallahan High School here.

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This is a lithograph from 1847 showing residences on the future Family Court site on the north side of Logan Square. Architect William Johnston had envisioned elegant townhouses distributed along a block-long building. Elegant townhouses were eventually built, similar to this design but with more individualized homes.

In January of 1920 Mayor Smith signed the ordinance condemning all the houses between Vine and Wood Streets and between 18th and 19th Streets. The houses on Vine Street were valued at $40,000 to $60,000 apiece, and the total cost to the city was estimated at $750,000 ($11.5 million in today’s dollars). The plan was for the Fairmount Park Commission to take possession of the properties and rent them out until money became available for construction of a Temple of Justice to house Philadelphia Courts and rooms for the Supreme and Superior Courts of the State. The Philadelphia Municipal Court was to be on the western edge of Logan Square on 20th Street, the location of the Franklin Institute today. The Vine Street timing was a bit off, as the houses were demolished in 1922, yet no building was begun there until 1939.

 

Some of the notables occupying the condemned houses included:

 

  • Amelia Sellers, the widow of William Sellers, who had a machine shop behind the third United States Mint. His long-time home was at 1819 Vine Street;

 

  • The house at 300 North 18th Street had been the home of George Meade during the Civil War. In 1863 the Confederates in their northernmost incursion met the Union Army under General Meade at Gettysburg. Philadelphia citizens were sweating. After three days of intense fighting at Gettysburg, however, the Confederates fled south. Philadelphia was spared. The citizens of Philadelphia honored hometown-hero Meade by collecting money to build a more elaborate home for him and his family at 19th and Delancey Streets. When a delegation from Philadelphia visited him in Virginia with their gift, Meade declined, saying that he was only doing his soldierly duty. The delegation returned to Philadelphia and offered the gift to Mrs. Meade. She had no qualms about soldierly duty and gladly accepted the new 6,000 square-foot home. The house at 300 North 18th stayed in the family until it was demolished, being owned by Hannah Meade in 1920;

 

  • “Doctor” Thomas Eldredge ran a sanitarium at 1811 Vine Street. He had no medical degree but advertised himself as a doctor specializing in electrotherapy of nervous disorders. His adventures and misadventures generated a lot of newspaper coverage in the first three decades of the 20th century (see our article here).

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Portion of a 1929 Sanborn map update.

North is to the top and 19th Street runs vertically on the left. Pink represents masonry or brick. Yellow represents wood framed structures, like the privies in back of many houses. An “X” represents a stable. The houses on Vine Street, facing Logan Square, were substantial houses with personal stables across Pearl Street. William Sellers, at 1819 Vine Street, had stables that were as large as two of the houses on Wood Street.

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One of the many houses cleared by 1922 included this mansion at 1819 Vine Street owned by the widow of machinist William Sellers. Most of the stately three or four-story houses on this block each had 38 feet of street frontage.

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Portion of a map from 1922 showing the temporary quarters of the court functions on the future Franklin Institute site. North is at the top. Some of the buildings seen on the map are the remnants of the Magdalen Society on 21st Street (labeled “Municipal Court”) and the Blind Asylum on 20th Street (labeled “Probation Department”), as discussed in our article about Wills Eye Hospital (seen in this image in the lower right).

Vine Street is at the top. The site at 1801 Vine Street would be cleared of houses by 1922.

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This proposal was for a municipal court complex on the site of what is now the Franklin Institute. This was to be separate from the court building on the 1800 block of Vine Street.

The sketch is from an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer from September 26, 1920. What’s not to like? Symmetry, columns, a stone inscription, an arch, a pediment, and a dome. Someone went through their architecture tool kit!

This building was to cost $5 million and was designed by John Windrim. It never happened.

The block was cleared of all buildings by 1922, in order to build the second of the planned twin buildings that included the Parkway Central Library. The actual construction after the clearing, however, wouldn’t take place for two decades due to the economic depression.

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Once the court lot was cleared, Hallahan High School had a practice field to its south for two decades. In this 1935 photo from here 

the new 50-piece marching band drills on the future Family Court site.

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During the delay in construction of the Family Court building, juvenile cases were heard across Logan Square at the first Wills Eye Hospital building, which was vacated in 1933, when the second hospital was built at 1601 Spring Garden Street.

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1959 photo of the statue of Judge Charles Brown (1864-1947). Brown had presided over the Municipal Court since 1913 when it was created.

Brown was the President Judge, Juvenile Division, Municipal Court of Philadelphia, from 1929-1947. The statue faces Logan Square, and more distantly Rittenhouse Square, appropriate since Brown was a direct descendant of James Logan via his father and a collateral descendant of David Rittenhouse via his mother.

Brown lived at 2434 Poplar Street most of his life.

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1959 photo of one of the 37 WPA murals in today’s Family Court Building. The murals are still there. For more interior photos, see outside link here.

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Image from the 2011 nomination form proposing the addition of the interior murals to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The nomination of the 37 WPA murals was successful. At the time of the nomination there were only three other historic register interiors in Philadelphia: City Council Chambers, the Wanamaker Grand Court, and the main waiting room at the 30th Street train station.

As discussed in our article about the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, Vine Street was widened in the early 1950s and then set below grade in the late 1950s. By 1960, the Vine Street Expressway was completed from the Schuylkill Expressway to 18th Street, running at grade level from 18th Street to the east until it was completed in 1991.

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Before the placement of Vine Street below grade, the Pennypacker memorial was on Vine Street close to the court building. This memorial, and the Shakespeare memorial in front of the Parkway Central Library, were relocated about 100 meters south for the cut-and-cover construction of the Vine Street Expressway.

The statue honors Galusha Pennypacker (1841-1916), a Valley Forge native who was elevated at age 20 to the rank of brigadier general in 1865. He was wounded 8 times and was a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The monument on the Ben Franklin Parkway was dedicated in 1936 at the location in this photo.

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One of the thousands of tombstones lined up “row on row” in Philadelphia National Cemetery in West Oak Lane belongs to Pennypacker.

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Photo from The Philadelphia Inquirer on 9/16/1991 in an article about the homeless living in the court portico. The court building acquired the street name “The Rock” as an unofficial homeless gathering spot. Up to 100 homeless persons would congregate each night until the iron gates were placed in 1995.

You may have heard the old Family Court building referred to as the Municipal Court. Here’s a brief outline to show why this is incorrect. The First Judicial District of Pennsylvania is composed of two courts which make up the Philadelphia County Court System: the Court of Common Pleas, and Municipal Court. The Court of Common Pleas is a general trial jurisdiction court and is organized into three divisions based on case types. The Trial Division is responsible for most felony criminal and major civil cases where the contested amount exceeds $12,000; the Family Division is responsible for Domestic Relations Branch matters (divorce, paternity, custody, child support and domestic violence) and Juvenile Branch cases (delinquency, dependency, and adoptions); and the Orphans' Court Division conducts proceedings involving estates, wills and trusts.

The Municipal Court is likewise organized into three divisions: Criminal, Civil, and Traffic. The Criminal Division is responsible for trying adult criminal cases carrying a maximum sentence of incarceration of five (5) years or less. Municipal Court also has initial jurisdiction in processing every criminal arrest in Philadelphia and conducts misdemeanor trials and preliminary hearings for all felony cases. The Civil Division is the jurisdiction for civil cases where the contested amount is $12,000 or less for Small Claims; unlimited dollar amount for Landlord and Tenant Cases and $15,000 in real estate and school tax cases. The Traffic Division handles moving violations. Because defendants do not have the right to a jury trial in Municipal Court, cases may be appealed to the Court of Common Pleas for a trial de novo.

“Family Court,” therefore, is part of the Court of Common Pleas, and not a part of, or synonymous with, Municipal Court. Probably more than you wanted to know on that topic.

The location of the Vine Street Family Court building may have influenced the location of two now-demolished buildings in our neighborhood. The Youth Study Center, built in 1950, was a temporary detention center for delinquent youths. It was replaced by the Barnes Museum in 2012. The Children’s Reception Center was built in 1950 at 1825 Callowhill Street, as a triage center for troubled youth. It was demolished in 2016, and replaced by The Baldwin apartments in 2023.

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The new Family Court at 15th and Arch Streets today....

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...with the correct naming.

In 1971 the Family Court building was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and in 2014 on the National Register of Historic Places. The Family Court functions moved to a new glass high-rise at 1501 Arch Street in 2014. What to do with the empty but historic Family Court building? The blueprint below shows the third floor of the building, which looks like a hotel, and that seemed to be the plan. In 2020 the City of Philadelphia rescinded a 2014 plan proposed by the Peebles Corporation to remodel the building as a luxury hotel. The reason given by the city was the lack of progress in obtaining financing for the project, which costs had ballooned to $105 million dollars by 2020. In August of 2023 an agreement was announced between the City and National Real Estate Development LLC (National Development) and Frontier Development & Hospitality (Frontier) for the redevelopment of two city properties: the old Family Court building at 1801 Vine Street and the development of the surface parking lot at 1901 Wood Street, the latter currently managed by the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The proposals included a 200-room boutique hotel in the Family Court building. In the 88,000 square-foot surface parking lot behind the Central Parkway Library is to be a new building for the relocation of the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) from 701 Arch Street. Also, a 60,000-square-foot building with an auditorium is planned as the Children and Family Center of the Parkway Central Library. In December of 2023 the city approved rezoning to allow a 12-story residential tower along the 1900 block of Callowhill Street and a thin 360-foot-tall apartment tower along 19th Street. These residential towers were deemed necessary by the developers in order to make the entire project financially workable.

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1992 copy of the Family Court third floor blueprints. The second floor is very similar. Looks like a hotel, no?

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The east entrance on Wood Street, showing some signs of neglect in December of 2023. To the left of the door is one of three Fallout Shelter signs in the neighborhood (the west side of the Parkway Central Library and the north side of the formerly City-owned second Wills Eye Hospital, now the Colonnade Condominiums, have the other two). The three inverted yellow triangles on a black background were adopted as the marker for fallout shelters in 1961. This was near the height of the Cold War, one year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Canned goods and water would be stored in the public shelters, but funding stopped in the 1970s. Hopefully, the sign will be preserved as an historical artifact and reminder.

 The proposed main entrance to the hotel will be just west of this door on Wood Street.

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Rendering of an initial proposal for the Family Court/Library Lot complex from August 2023 from here.

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These buildings north of Parkway Central Library will be demolished with the proposed construction. The Mural Arts mural Philadelphia Reads will be gone, leaving only three. Also gone will be one of the few external steel fire escapes in the neighborhood. The former Eavenson Soap Factory, currently the used book store, will also be demolished. The soap factory is the oldest purely commercial building in the neighborhood.

unfinished draft article

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