Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park

A successful city is comprised of cultural institutions, events, restaurants, history, and livable spaces. Most importantly, it's made up of people; people who take pride in the city and work to maintain a small corner of that city. Many individual people preserving the beauty of small corners make a unified grand city. This article is about the history of that group that protects and enhances our neighborhood outdoor living room, Matthias Baldwin Park.

We have an early article on the website about the history of the Park (here). There is also an overview of the Park's genesis as part of the Franklin Town Development Project here and here. This article gives the history of the Friends group itself.

The photos below show the Park in 1991. We had a Park then, but there was no Friends group because there were so few committed people surrounding the Park. In general, with notable exceptions, neighborhood investment of time, money, and labor is greater by homeowners. The Hamilton Townhomes were built in 1976 through 1978 and were mostly owner-occupied. The high-rises including Buttonwood Square (now City View and condos), Spring Garden Towers, Museum Tower (now NxNW), the Fountains at Logan Square East (now the Watermark), and One Franklin Town were rental apartments built from 1975 through 1987.

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Two photos from 1991 of what was then Franklin Town Park.
The top photo is from the southeast and the bottom from the northeast.

In June of 1991, after the Park was finished but before the official dedication, an event planner and public relations person who lived in Museum Towers was hired to have a coming-out party for the Park. A fundraiser event with local restaurants selling their wares was to have 25% of proceeds donated to "The Friends of Franklin Town Park," although that event is the last that anyone ever heard of that particular Friends group.

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Invitation for the food festival in June of 1991.
In the lower right is a mention of the Friends of Franklin Town Park, but this was an event organized by a professional event planner rather than part of a grass roots Friends group. Reportedly 2,000 people attended the event and $1500 was raised.
The Franklin Town Park was formally dedicated June, 1992.

Without sustained commitment by the neighbors, the Park fell into decline. By 2007, lights were broken. The retaining walls and park benches were falling apart. Some called it "needle park." Many trees and plants had died. "What do you think of that public park on 19th Street?  Do you want to join other concerned people next week to discuss what we can do? " That is how the Friends began, with Mel Seligsohn buttonholing people who walked by his condo on Hamilton Street. It was as simple as that. On a cold November evening in 2007, neighbors of the Park got together to resurrect a working Friends of Franklin Town Park, a group to work with Parks and Recreation to salvage the run-down Park.

 

Committees were appointed. The Planning Committee (Sandy, Mel) was to investigate obtaining an historical marker for the Baldwin Locomotive Works, explore options for the barren strip of land behind the fence on the south side of the Park, and also work to obtain better lighting in the Park. A Community Committee was to make plans for integrating the anticipated residential growth around the Park and work with the City to solve the homeless situation. A Clean-up Committee (Frank, Mary, Mel, and Seamus) was formed to organize volunteer litter pick-up events.

Sandy obtained an Employer Identification Number (EIN) and Paul did the paperwork necessary for the Friends to get non-profit status in 2012. Plans were drawn up to increase membership.

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The Friends first president, Seamus Kearney, supervises a clean-up and replanting effort in 2008.
That year saw a significant repair and replanting of the Park.

One of the early successes for the group was in securing the State historical marker that is now in the northwest corner of the Park on 19th Street. Sandy Owens did the research and paperwork to get the authorization for the marker. At that time the Friends of the Park had copious enthusiasm but little money. The Logan Square Neighborhood Association, and its then vice-president and Park neighbor Dennis Boylan, came through with the money to purchase the marker.

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Invitation for the State  historical marker dedication in 2009.
The text on the marker is the bottom paragraph.

The early Friends also tried to get the community more involved with the Park. Yearly picnics were held every year from 2008 to the present, the last few in conjunction with Parks on Tap.

The Friends of Franklin Town Park also worked to get the name of the Park changed. The major impetus was to acknowledge the industry that really defined this neighborhood's post-Bush Hill years. Another major reason: 40 years on, a resentment still simmered against the Franklin Town Development, which leveled the area and then put construction on hold. The "city-within-a-city" announced in 1971, to be completed in ten years, had stalled after the demolitions, leaving plenty of surface parking available.

 

The Friends were successful in this renaming effort, and in January 2011 the name of the Park was officially changed to Matthias Baldwin Park (or for those of us on a last-name basis, just Baldwin Park).

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Notice the name change at the top of this flyer. 2012 would be the second year for the picnic under the new name.
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Left: Sandy standing next to the State of Pennsylvania Historical Marker for the Baldwin Locomotive Works.
Right: program for the dedication ceremony, with the welcome and introduction by Sandy, the one who got the ball rolling for the marker.
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Original member Paul Shay in front of the Shawmont Rail Station in Roxborough, a Philadelphia neighborhood along the Schuylkill River. Paul did the legal filings to get the Friends group our 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Shawmont Station is the oldest existing passenger rail station in the country. It was built in 1834 by the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad (the same railroad for which Baldwin built his first locomotive, Old Ironsides). It was later used by the Reading Railroad; then by SEPTA until 1996. It is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and is pending a renovation.
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Original member Frank Feingold poses mid-bike ride in front of the State historical marker at the top of the old Belmont inclined plane railroad, of which there is evidence on the ground next to Frank. The inclined plane, sketched on the right, was built in 1832 on the west side of the Columbia Bridge, also built that year. The incline was bypassed in 1850.
The Simpson House retirement center is in the background.
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Current Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park President Jim Fennell, posing in his condo from which he takes those great photos of the Park. The one on the right was used in artist Athena Tacha's book of her work.
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Friends at a cleanup in 2015.
From left to right: founding members Jim Ruddick, Stan Ordo, Grace Hanrahan, Seamus Kearney,
and Rick Schnitzler; and later member Bob Angevine.
In the background the townhomes and garage at NxNW are under construction.
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Founding member Stan Ordo puts up the first tree identification tag in 2021. This was his project from the very beginning of the Friends group.
This photo will also document our year of Covid for future generations.
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Jan Roberts on the left and founding member Grace Hanrahan on the right at the 2019 Howl-o-ween costumed dog parade, our most popular Park event, which they organize. Grace is also our current Secretary.
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Three Joans at the Matthias Baldwin birthday party in December 2018.
From left to right: founding member Joan Applegate; Joan Kearney, wife of our first President (first First Lady?); and current Treasurer of the Friends Joan Markoe. In 2009 there were nine paid household memberships and our year-end cash balance was $557. In 2020 we finished the year with 124 household memberships and our expenses for the year (plantings, irrigation system, repairs, park events) were ten times that 2009 cash balance. The post of Treasurer has become a very busy job!
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Founding member Lou Fererro holds two of the wood blocks that had been used to pave the 1800 block of Wood Street between Hallahan High School and the former Family Court building. The wood blocks were torn up in the 1980's, and that block is now asphalt.
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Founding member Beth Shay stands in front of the redbud tree that was planted in 2008.
City life is hard on trees. Just since 2008. when there was a major replanting, 14 of the 48 trees have died. Some don't need to be replanted as the other trees fill in the spaces, but the Friends plant new trees as necessary.
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Later but dedicated member Jan Roberts on the left and founding member Sandy Farrell on the right in 2018.
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Founding member Mary Feingold stands atop the 20th Street bridge over the Callowhill Cut.
The history of this submerged rail line dates back to Robert Morris and the early days of our country, as discussed in our article here.
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Founding member Mel Seligsohn stands in front of the Mural Arts mural at 417 North 20th Street that was created in 2020. Mel worked to have the planned mural for this site commemorate the industrial heritage of the neighborhood, and artist Philip Adams came through with a beautiful three-story creation. See one interpretation of the mural here.
Mel also initiated the petition to City Council to get the name of Franklin Town Park changed to Matthias Baldwin Park, which Council did in 2011.

These founding members saw Baldwin Park ark as the center of a community, a community that deserved a first-rate park. Then, they made it happen. Baldwin Park is now an oasis of order and beauty in a world that can sometimes seem otherwise. The future of the Park is in the hands of the community, with more members, and especially working members, strengthening those metaphorical hands. Hit the join button to protect the future of Baldwin park!

authored by Sandra Owens and Joe Walsh

Draft article: unfinished