Library Parking Lot
1900 Callowhill Street Western Half
Photo of the parking lot behind the Free Library in 2020, looking west from atop the Watermark. Callowhill Street is on the right and 20th Street runs left to right at the top between the lot and the Barnes Museum. The Parkway branch of the Free Library is on the left with Wood Street separating it from the lot. The building of the former Hallahan High School is on the bottom left.
There is a substantial unbuilt lot in the neighborhood, the municipal parking lot just north of the Free Library. We will look at the history of the western half of this lot in this article. The eastern half, bounded by Callowhill, 19th, Wood, and the former Uber Street, will be discussed next month.
Portion of 1860 map showing the current library parking lot divided into quadrants by Newbold (originally called Middle Alley, then Newbold, then Uber) and Carlton Streets, neither of which exists on that block now. There is a market at the southwest corner of 19th and Callowhill and a soap factory on Carlton Street, but otherwise the blocks are residential or bare.
1934 photo from the northeast
This article will discuss the western two quadrants, from Uber to 20th and from Wood to Callowhill Streets.
The Eavenson building is the five-story building at center top.
Jones Eavenson (1804-1883), with his eldest son Alben, came from Chester, Pennsylvania in 1857 and started a soap manufacturing business in a small building at Melon Street below 11th Street, making 800 pounds of soap per week. He then moved to a rented building at 731 Hubbell Street in Philadelphia (now Mildred Street in the Bella Vista section). In 1866 he purchased a three-story, 45 x 90 foot soap factory on the 1900 block of Carlton Street, and by 1875 he put on a four-story, 45 x 60 foot addition fronting 20th Street. In 1886 he purchased the three dwelling houses fronting Newbold Street east of their building, razed them, tore down the original factory building, and built a new five-story factory, with basement. This factory, at 1920-1930 Carlton Street, was capable of making 25,000 pounds of soap per week. The series of sketches below shows this vertical and horizontal expansion over the years, and the eventual acquisition of the soap factory on the west side of 20th Street as well.
Eavenson commuted from his house at 2004 Mount Vernon Street, until he died there in 1883. His son Alben, who lived at 2013 Vine Street next door to his brother Marvin at 2015 Vine Street, became the senior principal. The Fairmount Parkway construction was to bisect their cross-20th-Street factory complex, and in 1906 the factory moved to Camden, New Jersey. Alban left the soap business and his brother Marvin became president. In 1910 they had turned the five-story building over to a plumbing fixtures firm. For more on the Eavenson business after the move to Camden, see outside link here.
Portion of 1875 map showing the residential buildup and the Robert Taylor and Company Black Lead Crucible Works. This ominous sounding business will be discussed in next month's post.
The following images and text highlight a few business principles prevalent in the 19th century and even today.
competing businesses tend to locate next to each other. Eavenson located his soap factory directly across the street from the William T. Marks Steam Soap Works. This commercial clustering is partly due to advantages of a location in resource and labor access, but it also is an inevitable result of game theory, as discussed in the outside link here;
as our neighborhood increased in density in the mid-19th century, real estate became tight. Factories, like the Baldwin Locomotive Works, added floors to existing factories and tore down older buildings to build mid-rise manufacturing plants;
Eavenson's business was incorporated as the Quaker City Steam Soap and Candle Works. The factory across 20th Street was officially the William T. Marks Steam Soap Works. The word "steam" in your business name, at that time, signified modernity and high-tech.
Portion of Hexamer insurance sketch from 1876 showing the original factory to the right and the new buildings at 313 (built 1870) and 315 (built 1875) North 20th Street.
Portion of Hexamer insurance sketch from 1879 showing another business principle of the era: many row homes had first floor businesses, and in a working class neighborhood, almost every corner had a bar. There is a candy store at 1931 Wood Street and a bar at 1915 and at 1937 Wood Street on the corners.
Inside the factory are six large boiling vats represented by the black circles.
Soap has been made for centuries via a simple process: boil lye (obtained by pouring water through wood ash) together with animal fat, in a process called saponification. You want to get rid of all the fat in the soap so that the soap will not turn rancid during storage, so you add excess lye. You can determine this point by taste: the soap will have a slight bitter taste when the lye is just in excess and all the fat is reacted. This excess lye gave those ruddy cheeks to the newly scrubbed. Other sources of oil, like palm oil, were sometimes used, and perfumes could be added for pricier soaps. Palmolive Soaps, for example, started out in 1898 with a mixture of palm and olive oils.
Why are soaps and candles often made in the same factory? Early candles had the same ingredient as soaps: animal fat or tallow. Candle making was a similar process to soap making, but lye was not added to the heated mix. Spermaceti wax, derived from the head oil of the sperm whale, replaced tallow due to its clean burning and low odor. After the discovery of crude oil in Western Pennsylvania in 1859, oil refining led to the development of paraffin wax, which became the predominant form of everyday candles in the United States. One such early refinery was the Belmont Petroleum Refinery, started in 1865 next to Boelson Cottage on MLK Drive in Fairmount Park.
Triglycerides are animal fats. NaOH is lye from wood ash. The R group represents any of a number of long chains of carbons with attached hydrogens, usually chains of 14-20 carbons. Boiling the fat and lye together separates the fat into glycerol and soap molecules. The positively charged ends of the soap molecules form a spherical membrane around the specks of dirt with the R groups facing inwards: a little bubble of soap around the dirt, which is then washed away.
Ad from the 1875 City Atlas
Red oil may be red palm oil.
Where else can you get a three-pound bar of soap?
The buildings did not reach to Wood Street, as there was a row of houses along Wood Street. Those houses are not shown and would be in the open space in the bottom left. Eavenson took over the soap factory across the street, boosting capacity to 50,000 pounds per day. That's a lot of soap, but the biggest soap maker in the state, the Pennsylvania Soap Works, was at 2554 Callowhill Street just down the road.
Another near-neighborhood soap connection is to the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute, funded and dedicated to the brothers Joseph and Samuel Fels, who had a factory making Fels Naptha Soap in southwest Philadelphia starting in 1895.
Another view from the west.
This is the company letterhead in 1892, with all the sons listed, along with a sketch of that ubiquitous Quaker guy.
Postcard from 1930 showing the Eavenson plant in Camden, in the future location of the baseball field next to the Ben Franklin Bridge.
The "Eavenson Soaps" sign on top faces Philadelphia. The building had been built as a sugar refinery that never got around to refining sugar.
The company went out of business in 1956.
Portion of 1910 map showing plumbing supplies replacing soap. How appropriate!
The McCambridge Company took over the building at 313-315 North 20th in 1910. This firm had been manufacturing plumbing fixtures since 1850, but by 1923 was bankrupt.
In 1937 the Eavenson factory building had its upper stories removed, leaving only the first floor along its whole length. The same was done in the eastern half of this block to the Black Lead Crucible Works, again leaving only the first floor. Like many post-industrial buildings in our neighborhood, the Eavenson building then became a warehouse. Fidelity Storage used the building as a warehouse and garage for its many trucks. In 1938 the two-story building at 311 North 20th Street was being used as an office for servicing small tools. A one-story structure east of and attached to that building was added as a garage, and two years later a 1080-gallon gasoline tank was placed.
1921 photo of McCambridge Company Plumbing looking over the Free Library construction site. The McCambridge street address is 321-345 North 20th Street. There is a row of houses along Wood Street obscuring the complete view of the McCambridge building. High-res photo here.
A look at the McCambridge catalog from 1892, when it was on Cherry Street, will show "retro" fixtures which would be very desirable today.
Harry C. Taylor took over the plumbing supply business but got into his own troubles.
Clipping from the Inquirer of July 4, 1930.
Photo looking to the northwest across the lot to be later occupied by the Family Court, circa 1930.
The five-story Eavenson building was dominant in a neighborhood of two- and three-story rowhomes. In this image 310 and 312 North 19th Street are seen and the east side of the Eavenson building is seen just to the right of the Free Library. The inset photo from 2022 shows they are the only remaining buildings on that block, and only the first floor of the Eavenson building remains. All are annex buildings for the Free Library.
High-resolution 1930 image here.
I will show two more photos from 1929, taken from the roof of the Free Library, this one looking to the northeast. The Eavenson building, in 1929 still bearing the sign for plumbing fixtures, is on the left. Uber Street runs north-south just to its east. Hallahan High School is on the right. Photo credit: Free Library of Philadelphia collection
Same scene from the southeast in 1929.
The rowhomes with white marble steps are seen on the north side of Wood Street on the left. The fire escape is on the east side of the Eavenson building. Photo credit: Free Library of Philadelphia collection
Looking toward the west in 1939.
Many buildings have been removed or lowered. The used bookstore of today has its current configuration in this photo, along with a fresh white paint job. The Family Court Building is under construction in the lower left.
Photo credit and high-resolution here.
Portion of 1942 map showing a warehouse at 1920-1930 Carlton Street.
In the western two quadrants there were only four houses (labeled "D") remaining. The "P.S." represent gasoline service stations with parking.
Portion of a 1950 Sanborn insurance map (vol 4 plate 306) showing the library lot.
In the early 1950's the library will take over the garage and buildings in the lower left quadrant, along with 310 and 312 North 19th Street. City acquisitions will include the whole block by the end of the decade.
In 1955 the Philadelphia Streets Department took a series of photos along the southern side of the 1900 block of Callowhill Street. I will show the photos from Uber Street west to 20th Street.
1924 and 1926 Callowhill, looking much like today's houses with first floor commercial on the 1800 block.
1928 and 1930 Callowhill.
On the right is the D&R Heating and Air Conditioning company.
A rare new building on the block, built around 1952, at the southeast corner of 20th and Callowhill. Callowhill Street was one-way east at this time.
Across the street where the Starbucks is located today was the competing F. A. Mitchell Company Cutting Tools store. There had been a hardware store at the Starbucks site on the northeast corner of 20th and Callowhill Street since at least 1917.
1962 photo of the northeast corner of 20th and Callowhill Streets (Starbucks today). Another example of commercial clustering, with the F. A. Mitchell Company across the street from Black and Decker.
The north side of Callowhill had no gaps; the visible gap halfway down the block is Uber Street, which no longer exists on this block..
View down 20th Street from Callowhill in 1953. Trolley tracks and trolley wires are visible.
View from Uber Street west along the south side of the 1900 block of Callowhill Street. The Youth Study Center, a detention center, is in the distance at the current location of the Barnes Museum.
The City acquired most of the buildings on the parking lot in the 1950's. Most of the buildings on this half of the parking lot were removed between 1965 and 1970. The Black & Decker store on the corner of Callowhill and 20th was removed in 2002. The Book Corner and facilities building behind it, as well as the buildings at 310 and 312 North 19th Street used as a library annex, are still there. Building permits from 1937 onwards are available here. You can access assorted aerial views from the 1920's and 1930's here; aerial views every five years from 1965 to 1995 here; and views roughly every five years thereafter here. Be prepared to lose a few hours!
Photo in 2021 of the diagonal entrance of the Book Corner on the left and the industrial door that connects the first floor of the old Eavenson Building to the newer addition on Wood Street east of the Book Corner. Compare the photo on the left to the lopped off edge of the building in the 1910 map above. The view on the right is from inside what is probably the oldest commercial building in the neighborhood (built in the 1870's).
Grave of Marvin Meeker Eavenson, soap-maker, in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
He served from June 26 to August 4, 1863, in the Pennsylvania Emergency Militia in defense of Philadelphia as the Confederates invaded Pennsylvania at Gettysburg. He never saw combat.
The eastern half of this block is discussed in the article here.
authored by Joe Walsh: July 2022