Library Parking Lot
1900 Callowhill Street Eastern Half
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 eastern half of this lot in this article, focusing on the crucible works and fire station. For the western half, see our article here.
Photo of the 175-car parking lot behind the Free Library in 2020, looking west from atop the Watermark.
Portion of 1901 map. Callowhill Street is at the top and 19th on the right. The block between Uber, 19th, Wood, and Carlton was entirely residential. In the upper right block there was a large crucible works and a fire station. Most of the discussion will focus on the upper right quadrant.
A black lead crucible factory doesn't seem to have the healthiest or most environmentally friendly vibe. Black lead, however, is not lead; it is graphite. Graphite was confused with lead ores due to the color, and the archaic name plumbago for graphite harkens back to this confusion (incidentally, the flowering plant plumbago, which we have in Baldwin Park, is also called leadwort). Graphite is a pure form of carbon, as is a diamond, but each has its own crystal structure. Graphite is your pencil "lead," it is in the brake linings of heavy vehicles, and in gram amounts in your cell phone battery. A Tesla electric car has about 150 pounds of graphite in its battery.
Graphite in pure form is made up of sheets of hexagonal rings of carbon, each carbon bonded to three other carbons, leaving one electron per carbon loosely bound. These loose electrons are what allows graphite to be a good conductor of heat and electricity. The sheets can slide atop one another, which is what happens when you slide your pencil along the paper; a thick layer of graphite slides off. The hexagonal structure itself is resistant to heat, melting at a temperature of 6,602 degrees Fahrenheit (3,650 degrees centigrade for you scientist wanna-be's and 6,875 K for you true scientists). This heat resistance makes it perfect for making crucibles, vessels in which metals are melted. In the crucible works, graphite, clay, and sand are combined and shaped into vase-like containers, dried, and then heated to very high temperatures.
As an aside, white lead is a complex salt of the element lead. It was used in paint to provide the white color and satin finish, and is now banned.
Model of graphite. Each sphere represents a carbon atom. The black lines are strong bonds in the plane of the hexagonal rings. The teal bonds are very loose attractions between the different planes.
Robert J. Taylor (1834-1903) moved his crucible works from the 1300 block of Callowhill Street to the southwest corner of 19th and Callowhill Street by 1873. He turned out 6,000 crucibles per week of various sizes. Steel crucibles in a #60 size, for example, could hold up to 105 pounds of melted steel. Brass crucibles were used to melt all other metals and were sized for a few ounces for jewelry work, up to those that could hold 2,000 pounds. The black lead was imported from Ceylon, while the clay was imported from Germany. The company also made retorts (for distilling or separating metals in the liquid state), dipping cups (for removing small samples of molten metals), and stirrers.
Taylor did well, supplying national as well as international needs, and supplying the Philadelphia Mint. When Taylor died in 1903, he left an estate of $285,000, of which $280,000 was his company's stock (worth about $8 million today).
Sanborn insurance maps from 1917 (volume 4 plate 306, key here).
The crucible works was a set of one-, two-, and three-story buildings (large numbers denote number of stories. Pink denotes brick; yellow denotes wood. The one-story wood attachments to the rear of buildings were probably outhouses).
The fire station at 1920 Callowhill Street has stables facing Uber Street, and would be the last fire station in Philadelphia to convert from horses to motorized vehicles, in 1924.
Ad from a trade journal in 1908. The crucibles come in one basic shape but in various sizes.
Text side of a trade card from the late 1800s describing the products.
Photo credit Free Library of Philadelphia.
Crucibles played a huge role in our neighborhood in the late 19th century and are used today. This photo is of steel production at Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1939, showing
molten steel being poured from a large crucible. Iron melts at a centigrade temperature around 1500 degrees. To see a smaller scale process using a graphite-clay crucible watch a 5-minute video here.
Looking west over the Catholic Girls High School (now Hallahan) under construction in 1911.
Directly across 19th Street from the construction are the row homes on 19th Street; beyond those can be seen the top of the former Eavenson Soap factory which in 1910 was turned over to McCambridge Plumbing Fixtures. To the right of the row homes is the crucible works with its smokestacks rising from the kilns within. The wooden granary is in the upper right. All the row homes along Wood Street on the left side are gone, today replaced by the Municipal Court building and the Free Library. The row homes along the 1800 block of Carlton Street on the right still survive.
If you enlarge the photo and look just right of center you will see a sign for a bakery at 321 North 19th Street (the northeast corner of 19th and Carlton Streets); awnings; and street trees. We could use more bakeries, awnings, and street trees in the neighborhood today!
End of the line for the crucible works with this ad in the February 22, 1925 edition of the Inquirer. The building was demolished around 1940 and replaced with a service station.
1955 photo of the service station at the southwest corner of 19th and Callowhill Street.
The gas station lot, encompassing Callowhill to Carlton and 19th to Uber Streets, was purchased in 1955 by I-T-E Circuit Breakers. This was one of the five members of the Franklin Town Development Corporation, although this property was not included within the borders of the proposed Franklin Town. The City would acquire the property and convert it into a municipal parking lot with attendant's booth in 1965. The buildings from 1900-1930 Callowhill, 1917-1931 Carlton, 1909-1915 Wood, and 318 North 19th Street were razed.
The Spring Garden Fire Engine Company No. 41 was established at 1903 Callowhill Street in 1851. At that time Callowhill Street, being north of Vine Street, was not part of the City of Philadelphia, but within the south edge of the Spring Garden District. In 1871 the building and equipment was acquired by the City and named Fire Engine Company No. 18. In 1900 the fire company moved into a new building across the street at 1920 Callowhill Street. It was disbanded in 1937, one year after the demolition of most of the buildings that had made up the Baldwin Locomotive Works in our neighborhood. The 1903 Callowhill building retained its municipal use as the service garage for police vehicles.