300 Arch St. Pathetic!
Ok, so Old City has a whole shitload of surface parking lots and even a few completely unused slumlord-owed patches of vacant land. Nonetheless, I'm pretty sure that this little lot irks me the most. That's right. This corner of landscaping at the southwest corner of 3rd and Arch with that ugly green metal box on it is indeed an empty lot and has been such for 50 goddamn years.
This part of the city has been developed for so long that there was probably some kind of development here going all the way back to the days of William Penn. Records don't really talk much about this spot until 1856, when a dilapidated four-story factory/warehouse building on this location was purchased by jeweler George Gordon. In its place, he built a beautiful factory store with a cast iron facade.
Doesn't look like enough room for a five story building? Well, it was pretty fucking thin. Its footprint was only 15'9" x 37'7", less than the amount of property taken by most rowhouses, even in that time period.
This drawing from 1963 shows how thin this place really was. Image from the Historic American Buildings Survey (public domain).
George Gordon's jewelry business ran out of this building for nearly 70 years, finally being sold to a new owner in 1922. This is where things get weird. SOMETHING must have been a little wrong with this place evidenced by the fact that the building kept getting sold and resold over and over again. It was sold three times in 1922, once in 1923, again in 1925, and AGAIN in 1931. What the fuck was going on? Was it haunted? Was Gordon George's ghost pooping ectoplasm all over the building or something? This thing must have been Philly's own Amityville Horror house!
The Hirsch Family, who purchased the building in 1944, altered the corner storefront into a luncheonette that marketed itself to the truckers who served the nearby Wholesale Goods District. Other than that, the rest of the building remained essentially unchanged from its 1856/57 configuration aside from its front-wise fire escape. The Religious Society of Friends, whose Arch Street Meeting House is nearby, took ownership of the building in 1962 and didn't know what the hell to do with it. By that point this thing was so outdated that is still had a dirt floor in the basement. The cast iron facade was basically falling off and the upper floors hadn't been used for decades. They put the cool-ass old building out of its misery in February 1963.
The building in 1959, 103 years old and almost completely original. Image from HABS (public domain).
50 years later, there still ain't shit in its place (except dog shit). A widened sidewalk and a little bit of landscaping has completely obscured the fact that this is an empty lot. Directly behind it is another vacant lot behind a gate that once held a building that was demolished in the 1950s. You can see the first floor facade of that lost building in the picture above. More tourists see this empty lot than residents, due to the fact that the so-called Betsy Ross House is around the corner and one of the city's Segway tours uses this lot as its starting point (which I highly recommend by the way).
Part of the problem with Old City is that the same dirtbag slumlords that bought up blighted properties and sat on them back when the George Gordon Building still existed are still alive today, causing a lack of development in this area. On top of that, the original pioneers that helped revive the neighborhood decades ago are now a bunch of old NIMBYs that are dead set against any possible new development. Until all the vacant lots and blighted buildings in Old City get fixed up and developed, this tiny empty lot is going to stay exactly the way it is. Get used to it.
As seen from in front of the Real World house.
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