Monday, June 8, 2009

The Tacony Music Hall

The Tacony Music Hall
By Louis M. Iatarola

Our sixth profile of a significant person of place in Tacony's history focuses on the Tacony Music Hall, presently the only property within Tacony which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.* This is the story of a 144-year old building which has undergone several metamorphoses during its actual life -- having been the cultural and social center of a small town to becoming an abandoned storage warehouse to becoming an active mixed-use commercial building restored to its original Victorian grandeur.

This building documents the social history of one of the most unusual Victorian factory neighborhoods, the industrial settlement of Tacony that Henry Disston laid out around his Disston Saw Works. Containing an auditorium and lecture rooms, the building also housed the Disston Library and Free Reading Room. The Music Hall served as the meeting place of the working class community's clubs and lodges, and formed the social and recreational center of Tacony.

The Tacony Music Hall is a three-story brick building on a corner lot situated at the intersection of Longshore Avenue and Edmund Street. The Edmund Street side of the building features four bays, whose first story openings consist of a modern, steel lintel-headed opening at the front, and four windows headed by brick arches. Between these windows, to the rear of the building, is the elaborate entrance to the Music Hall, made up by a pair of brick pilasters carrying a brick and stone entablature. In the upper stories a pair of windows light each bay which are arched at the second story and headed by stone lintels at the third. Along each roof line there is a bold frieze of brick corbels above which are terra cotta rondels. A pressed metal cornice caps the building.

The rear elevation, beyond the original Music Hall stage, is a single first story segmental window and a French door functioning as a window with fixed stained glass panels at the second story. Like the facade, the rear is divided into three bays. There is a single window in the central bay, which was infilled, and two third story windows.

The Longshore Avenue side of the building is separated into three bays, the central one projecting above the roof line to end in an ornate pressed medal pediment. The first story consists of two store fronts which are capped by exposed steel lintels and preserve the raised bases beneath their display windows. The entrances to the right and left are capped by brick arches with stone imposts, and are reached by short flights of stone steps. Each of the second story bays is fronted by a large round arched window with ornamental brick detailing. A panel bearing an inscription caps each of the outer windows. The third story contains windows only in the center bay which is lighted by four lintel-headed windows. The other bays, and the raised parapet at the center, are accentuated bold brick corbels and recessed panels.

The Tacony Music Hall was built in 1885 as a speculative venture by Frank W. Jordan, an entrepreneur and local druggist whose store adjoined the lot. Jordan exploited the site ingeniously, fitting income producing space on all three stories. The first story contained rental shop space, used by such tenants as H. G. Shannon, Watchmaker and Jeweler, while the second story comprised an assembly hall for musical performances, lodge meetings, and lectures. A permanent tenant was also found for the third story: the Keystone Scientific and Literary Association. Founded in 1876 to sponsor public debates and lectures, the Association had maintained a small public library but had "sought larger and more imposing quarters." Although funds were limited, "generous gifts and money from the Messrs. Disston" made it possible to rent and furnish rooms in the Music Hall. In 1885, upon the completion of the building, the Association opened their library with a main reading room and a smaller committee room to the rear under a picturesquely detailed exposed wood roof truss. Acknowledging the financial support of the Disston family, the name of the Association was changed to the Disston Library and Free Reading Room. In 1906, the library moved to even larger quarters at Knorr Street and Torresdale Avenue and again changed its name to the Carnegie Library in honor of its benefactor, Andrew Carnegie. Our modern day Tacony Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia has been recently rehabilitated and is a shining example of Victorian architecture featuring central stained glass skylights.

The Tacony Music Hall and the library that it housed not only benefited from the largesse of the Disstons (particularly Thomas, who was a board member of the Library), but also reinforced their paternalistic social message. Thus P.T. Barnum lectured for the Keystone Association on Temperance and Susan B. Anthony spoke on Woman's Suffrage. It was believed that enlightenment of the work force was an effective means of social control. Disston helped to fund the community churches and workers' housing and, at the same time, exercised considerable social control. Thus none of the land he sold could be used for a "tavern or building for the sale or manufacture of Beer or Liquors of any kind," nor were there to be any "carpenter, blacksmith, currier or machine shop, livery stables" and so forth on the property. These restrictions are still in force today.

With its lecture rooms, entertainment facilities and library, the Tacony Music Hall was the cultural and social center of Tacony. It regularly hosted musical revues and variety shows, often organized by Jordan, acting as his own stage manager, or James J. McGowan -- a talent agent based in nearby Frankford who was himself a regular feature in the Music Hall with his "Irish comicalities." During the theater season there were typically performances on Wednesday and Friday with two on Saturday. Rather than repeating a show, the visiting company would often present four different plays. Besides providing entertainment, the second story hall served virtually everyone of Tacony's clubs and associations who used the Hall for their weekday evening meetings, including the Tacony Division of the Sons of Temperance, the Disston Lodge of the Order of St. George, the Tacony Republican Club, the Ladies Aid Society of the Methodist Church and other local clubs. So important was the building as an image of the community that it graced the masthead of the town newspaper, the Tacony New Era, where it assumed a place of honor with the Mary Disston School, superimposed over an image of the Disston Saw Works. When the Philadelphia antiquarian Samuel Hodgkins wrote Tacony's first history in his 1893 The Bristol Pike, he used a woodcut of the building to represent the town.

The Music Hall remained the center of Tacony's cultural life into the twentieth century. After the Disston Library moved into its own building, the Music Hall entered a protracted period of neglect. The changing character of American leisure, particularly the decline of variety venues and the rise of the cinema, hurt the Music Hall which never became a successful motion picture theater. The building languished under a series of later short-term owners, beginning with the shipping agent and speculator Alonzo Shotwell, who acquired the building in 1888. By World War II the theater was closed and the building converted into a furniture warehouse, which it remained until its purchase and restoration in 1989. Fortunately, the failure of the theater has preserved the building's original character including such features as the metal-ceilinged Music Hall itself and the original library on the third story.

The rehabilitated Tacony Music Hall reflects the mixed use of the building. The first story is principally devoted to the two storefronts that run perpendicular to Longshore Avenue, while the main staircase to the main hall is located to the rear of the Edmund Street elevation. Nearly the entire second story is taken up by the music hall whose trim includes an elaborate pressed-metal ceiling and wooden wainscoting. The northwest corner, now a private office, was formally the hat check and ticket offices. The third story contained three rental rooms where the Keystone Scientific and Literary Association Library was once housed: two meeting rooms running longitudinally at the front of the building and the smaller library room across the rear who exposed roof truss is a prominent Victorian feature.

Since its rehabilitation, the upper two floors of the Tacony Music Hall have housed the real estate appraisal offices of Louis A. Iatarola, current owner of the building, with the fully restored Disston Library and Free Reading Room serving as the office's research library at the northerly end of the third floor. First floor commercial uses in the early to mid-1990's included Cecelia Gift Shop, Rose Petals and Lace Flower Shop, and Northeast Glass Company which, several years ago, sought "larger and more imposing quarters," moving its facility to the southeast corner of Longshore Avenue and Gillespie Street. The first floor occupants presently include Miss Susan's Entertainment and Dance, now entering its fifth season at 4819 Longshore Avenue, offering a variety of dance and pre-dance from children through adults, as well as the combined offices of the Tacony Civic Association and Historical Society of Tacony at the rear off Edmund Street. This joint office, staffed entirely by volunteers, opened in August, 1998, and is open on Friday afternoons as well as by appointment.** By the Summer of 2000 the vacant unit at 4817 Longshore Avenue will be occupied by Little Victorian Village, Inc., a pre-school facility which will begin operation with a summer mini-camp for ages 3 to 5.***

The Tacony Music Hall has caught the eye of at least two directors as this historic building has been featured in a television commercial and an independent feature film. In 1996, Comcast Cablevision filmed a commercial on the first and second floors of the building. Much more attention was given to the filming of "The Big Store," an independent film by Brick House Films and Bob Max Productions, which virtually took over the intersection of Longshore Avenue and Edmund Street on June 18, 1998. The corner space occupied by Miss Susan's was transferred into a 1930's-era storefront as a shoe store, with scenes shot both inside and outside the building well into the evening. Neighbors pulled up lawn chairs and witnessed a professional movie shoot unlike anything Tacony has seen since Pride of the Marines was filmed in part at the old Dodge Steel Foundry at Magee Avenue and State Road. "The Big Store" starring Tony Mastrione from the soap opera "One Life to Live," is rated PG and is scheduled for release in November, 1999.****

The Tacony Music Hall superbly documents the early history of Tacony and extent to which the cultural and recreational life of the community was dominated by a single institution. In many respects, the building has come full circle. The first floor is now institutional in nature, housing the offices of the Tacony Civic Association and Historical Society, and dance school and a pre-school. A new generation of Taconyites has the opportunity to become enlightened and enriched under the arched brick and Victorian metal pediment pointing skyward above the building. In doing so, this generation will hopefully appreciate the significance of this structure and the uniqueness of the community that surrounds it.

* At the time this was written, this was believed to be true. However, it has since been discovered by the Historical Society that Hamilton Disston Elementary School is also listed in the National Registry. This was discovered quite by accident, when the Historical Society was visiting the school to begin last year's Environmental Education Program.

** This has changed in recent years. The current office hours are Monday through Friday 9 am to 1 pm, with additional hours available by appointment.

*** The Little Victorian Village is now open from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm. For more information, call 215-624-8066.

**** To our current knowledge, this film was never released, for reasons we do not know. A search of the Internet Movie Database reveals only a 1941 Groucho Marx film of the same name. If anyone knows anything about the status of the movie, please let us know.

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