top of page

Rodin Museum/ Knickerbocker Ice

In the 18th century, only the wealthy in the city could afford ice. This was usually acquired from local frozen rivers and stored in deep pits throughout the warmer months. Marketers of ice began appearing in the early 19th century, acquiring ice by chopping and sawing from the Schuylkill River above the Fairmount Dam.

The Knickerbocker Ice Company, a branch of the New York firm, was one of many ice harvesters in Philadelphia. It was the second largest ice supplier in the city, second only to Cold Spring Ice and Coal Company, incorporated with Thomas E. Cahill as president in 1854. In the 1860's the City condemned the ice houses along the Schuylkill River upstream of the Water Works, in order to establish Fairmount Park. Cahill led a movement to consolidate all the ice suppliers in the city by incorporating all under the Knickerbocker Ice Company, with himself as president. Ice houses in Maine were purchased by Knickerbocker in the 1880's due to several warm winters in Philadelphia. Cahill died in 1878, and the bulk of his estate provided for the construction in 1890 of Roman Catholic High School at Broad and Vine Streets, the first free Catholic high school in the United States. Knickerbocker Ice Company was absorbed by the American Ice Company of New York in 1897.

The availability of cheap ice made it possible to get fresh fruit and produce over a longer season, and meat processing could move out of the city. Prior to the availability of ice year round, meats would spoil quickly if not consumed, cured, pickled, or salted. Fresh beef required the slaughter of steer nearby, usually done on the banks of the Schuylkill River with disposal of carcasses therein. What goes great with a steak? Lager beer production began in Philadelphia in 1840. Makers of lager beer, which requires cold temperature fermentation and storing, consumed 20 percent of all the ice harvested in Philadelphia. By 1880, 1,278 workers supplied the city with ice, with a per capita consumption of ice in Philadelphia of 1300 pounds per year. 

2100 hamilton morris ice house.jpeg
The Robert Morris ice house, discovered in 2000 during the excavation of the President's house at 6th and Market Streets. 
This stone-lined pit was 13 feet across and 18 feet deep and could store tons of ice, enough to last from one winter to another, as described in this outside article here. It was covered over and now lies under the Liberty Bell Center.
The earliest historical evidence of an ice house in our neighborhood is a receipt for the 1791 purchase of ice by Revolutionary War general Henry Knox from the Bush Hill ice house.
knickerbocker ice on schuylkill.jpg
rodin ice cutter.jpeg
In 1829 the horse drawn ice cutter was invented, dropping the price of ice by 70 percent. Ice harvesting became more industrialized.
A horse would repeatedly pull a frame of steel teeth over the river ice until the grooves were 4 inches deep, and then repeat the process at a 90 degree angle. Uniform large blocks were then separated and stored.
First sketch is from the ten-page outside link here.
knickerbocker 1872 hexamer aerial (1).jp
Hexamer insurance sketch of the Knickerbocker Ice Company plant in 1872, shortly after opening. Hamilton Street at that time crossed over the surface tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue. Shamokin Street is behind the buildings labeled with the number 2, most of which were stables and tool storage. The ice house is the yellow-roofed building at upper left. Physical ice house roofs were painted white or yellow to reflect the sun's warming rays.
knickerbocker 1872 hexamer aerial (2).jp
Another layout of the Hexamer survey from 1872. Ice could be loaded into and loaded out of the ice house directly onto the rail cars on Pennsylvania Avenue. The alleyway at the southern edge is Shamokin Street.
knickerbocker ice.jpg
1890 photo looking southeast at the corner of Hamilton on the left and 22nd Street on the right.
There were several Knickerbocker facilities in Philadelphia.
Photo credit here.

As the city population and wealth grew, the demand for ice was met with machine-made ice. In 1889 there were five artificial ice plants in Pennsylvania, and over two hundred by 1919. Ice as a refrigerant was being replaced first by steam powered industrial manufacture of ice, and later, when electricity became more common, by household appliances called refrigerators (although my grandmother always called the refrigerator the "icebox").

As discussed briefly in the article on neighborhood locomotive pioneers here, Oliver Evans first drew up plans for a vapor-compression refrigerator in 1805. His idea would not become a reality until three decades later. The idea is very simple, based on the thermodynamics of phase changes you learned in high school. Heat will flow spontaneously from an area of high temperature to an area of lower temperature. We can reverse this path by supplying energy to a heat pump. As a liquid turns into a gas (evaporation), heat is absorbed from the surroundings. When a gas changes into a liquid (condensation), heat is released into the surroundings. Outside the refrigerator cold compartment, a compressor does work to convert a gas into a liquid, releasing heat to the environment. This liquid under pressure is passed through a narrow valve into a low pressure coil where it changes into a gas and absorbs heat from inside the refrigerator. The compression and expansion cycles take heat from inside the refrigerator to outside.

This idea not only added a new appliance to kitchens, but the same principle allowed air conditioning and the mass settling of the southwest United States.

refrigerator schematic.jpeg
Compression of a gas to a liquid outside the refrigerator and then expansion of the liquid into a gas inside the refrigerator removes heat from inside and releases it outside. Before electricity became commonplace, steam engines powered the compressors used in industrial ice production.
The idea of city-wide underground piping of liquid ammonia under pressure to individual houses was tried in other cities, but never in Philadelphia, as discussed here.
The Knickerbocker Ice Company is also discussed in this same 1894 history.
Same idea on a larger scale: a bigger compressor powered by steam, and multiple rows of expansion coils. A 300 pound can of water will be placed between each pair of coils, turning the water into ice. See 1891 Popular Mechanics article here.

Knickerbocker Ice occupied most of the irregular block for close to 40 years. The southeast corner of the lot was used by auctioneers F. G. and C. J. Wolbert, then as a coal yard, then as an annex for Caledonia Mills.

Portion of a map from 1875 showing the Knickerbocker lot. The Wolbert brothers auctioneer firm occupies the eastern part of the lot.
View from around 20th Street looking west down the surface tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1895.
2100 1890s cut started.jpeg
Scene from 1897 looking west from the 2100 Hamilton site. The wooden structures along the tracks are hoists with pulleys. A "Knickerbocker Ice" sign can be seen on the left through the smoke.
dalian 1901 map.jpeg
Portion of map from 1901 showing annex of nearby Caledonia Carpet Mills in the southeast corner of the lot.
The parallel ghost lines trace the originally proposed path of the Parkway.

In 1908 the City paid $250,000 for taking Knickerbocker Ice Works for demolition in order to construct the Fairmount Parkway, which underwent a name change in 1937 to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.


Per original proposals for the parkway, on the site of the Knickerbocker Ice Company bordering the parkway between 21st and 22nd Street, was to be a massive Episcopal Cathedral. This cathedral, along with a few other monumental buildings, was never realized.

rodin parkway proposal episcopal.png
Sketch from 1919 booklet here showing the huge dome and bell tower of the proposed Episcopal Cathedral at 21st Street and the Parkway. The proposed Philadelphia Museum of Art is on the left and the Family Court Building is on the right. The building between the art museum and the Episcopal Cathedral was to be an academy of fine arts.
rodin cathedral plan 2 flp (3) cropM.jpg
Another Gréber sketch from the same source as the above sketch.
The mighty dome and bell tower of the proposed Episcopal Cathedral here replace the demure Rodin Museum.

Movie theater magnate Jules Mastbaum, a graduate of our neighborhood's Central Manual Training School, collected Rodin sculptures from 1923 until his death in 1926. His intent was to build a museum for the citizens of Philadelphia. The museum was designed by Paul Cret and Jacque Gréber and completed in 1929. It was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1971. The museum is administered by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and contains one of the largest collections of Rodin's works outside of Paris. Visitors initially entered through the cast doors of The Gates of Hell, but these magnificent panels have since been closed off. In 2012 a three-year, $9 million renovation was completed just in time to welcome the new Barnes Museum next door.

parkway demo 1901.jpeg
In 1907 the start of demolition for the Parkway began with the ceremonial removal of a chimney brick at 422 North 22nd Street, directly across the street from Knickerbocker Ice.
rodin dedication 11.30.1929 flp.jpg
Photo from November 11, 1929 in the Public Ledger with caption:
"Two thousand prominent guests yesterday attended the dedication of the Rodin Museum, on the Parkway at 21st street, housing the late Jules E. Mastbaum's noted collection of Rodiniana. Representatives of the United States and France extolled Mr. Mastbaum for his gift of the museum to the city."
High-resolution image here.

rodin thinker on parkway 1927.png
In 1927 this statue donated by Jules Mastbaum sat on the southwest side of Logan Circle. He is perhaps thinking how exposed he feels.
rodin 4.2020.jpg
April 2020 image of the Rodin Museum.
The Dalian Apartments can be seen on the left and the crane working on the third floor of 2100 Hamilton is above the Rodin.
bottom of page