PHILAPHILIA: Empty Lot of the Week — Unwashed Lot of Wash West

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.


A weekly series of foul-mouthed investigations into empty lots, dead-ass proposals and other design phenomena in Philadelphia. Find more stories like this at Philaphilia.blogspot.com.
 

What a sad-looking piece of fuck.

This is one of those empty lots that doesn't seem like that big of a deal: It's small, it's mid-block. Nonetheless, after walking/biking/driving/canoeing past this lot day after day, it grates at your nerves. This is a high-density area — why should there be such a shitty surface parking lot here? Worst yet, why should there be a shitty surface parking lot here for SEVENTY-FOUR YEARS!?!?!

This location started its development life as another kind of empty lot — someone's lawn. A double-wide rowmansion once inhabited the site, along with a surrounding lawn that filled the rest of the property. Though the place went through many owners, its most interesting owner was a fancy gentleman named Samuel B. Thomas, who lived there for its final four decades. Thomas must have been pretty good because he was the Secretary and Treasurer of the West Chester and Philadelphia Railroad Company while at the same time acting as Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Once Thomas died, his house and property went up for sale and was acquired by the African Protestant Episcopal Church, which was looking for its second-ever location. The church was founded by Absalom Jones in 1792 and had its first location, at what is now 5th and Saint James Sts, built by 1794. By 1889, that little church was overcrowded and unable to serve all parishioners. The rector, John Pallam Williams, understood that new house of worship would be needed and knew that this one would have to be special.

Williams organized and fund-raised to get this new church built. The congregation commissioned a plucky young 26-year-old architect, the mysterious T. Frank Miller, to design a new and fancy church that would be the tallest building on the block. The new place would take over a year to build and would bear the same name as the first location: the African Protestant Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. It would be an important place for the African-American community in Philadelphia and the country. Owen Meredith Waller, second rector of the new church, was one of the founding members of the NAACP.

The only picture of the church with any detail is from an old picture of the building next door from 1898. Just the bell tower is visible. Image from the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings Project.

In the following decades, the neighborhood surrounding the church would go through a great amount of change. When the church was built, this area was going through an extremely brief period of greatness. The long-lost Library Row was nearby and Philly's nouveau riche were building their finest homes and social clubs all around it. Then, at the turn of the 20th Century, the neighborhood became semi-industrial, with car, food prep, and other types of factories popping up all around. One of these, the S.S. White Porcelain Tooth Factory (not be confused with the 12th and Chestnut S.S. White Building), set up shop next door to the church and knocked it out of its Tallest on the Block status.

By the 1920s and '30s, the whole area was covered in the soot of nearby factories and it was definitely nowhere anyone wanted to live or worship. The congregation that attended the St. Thomas Church said "fuck this" and, with the encouragement of rector/civil rights activist Robert W. Bagnall, merged with the Church of the Beloved Disciple. They moved the entire operation over to Disciple's 52nd and Parrish location in 1938.

After that, the S.S. White factory next door acquired the site, demolished the fuck out of the church, and gave birth to the crappy patch of asphalt that sits there today. It was used as an extension of the factory's parking lot and had a fancy brick-and-iron gate that covered the lot's entire 12th Street frontage. Part of it still exists at either end today.

There's the lot on the left in 1959. Pic from PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Department of Records.

 

There it is again in 1971. The gate was still complete. Pic from PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Department of Records.

Today, the lot is a broke-ass asphalt-covered pile of ass-shit. Even as surface lots go, it looks like butt. The property exists as part of one massive triple-parcel consisting of the lot, the old S.S. White building, and the Cosmopolitan apartment building just south at the corner of 12th and Locust. Until a few years ago, in front of the southern segment of the old gate, was a broken pile of colored bricks identical to the style of brick used on the apartment building. I wonder what was about?

Gotta love that outdated Google Street View... like looking into the past.

The only hope I can give you about this piece of shit is that the business license of the Five-Star Parking company at that location expires at the end of this year. I don't see any reason why they wouldn't renew it, but it's hope nonetheless. At this point, anything would work better on this space than a shitty 74-year-old parking lot. An addition to the old S.S. White factory, a single-story retail structure, a Museum of Celebrity Ballsack Molds, you name it. Get rid of this lot, you bastards!

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