Philly Flashbacks

The odd, the interesting and the downright ridiculous.

Futuro Philadelphia

Media Futuro

MattiA photo, above, posted on Facebook of a miserably derelict flying saucer-like house abandoned in Media made me curious. A little research told me that the “Futuro” house, as it was called, was designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronem, right, in 1968, as a kind of prefabricated, portable ski chalet. At 9,000 pounds, with a width of 26 feet, the “portable” part was debatable.

Fewer than 100 of them were made and it’s estimated that about 60 of them still exist, scattered around the world. A few of them have been preserved and are on display, some have been repurposed, many of them are abandoned and are disintegrating.

According to the “Map of the Last Remaining Flying Saucer Homes”, there are five of them nearby in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The Willingboro, New Jersey one, below, while retaining its four metal legs, has been bizarrely hacked with a new entrance.

NJ Futuro

As it happened, the molded fiberglass houses, although designed in Finland, were manufactured by the Futuro Corporation of Philadelphia, a short-lived division of the Fruchter construction company that was based at 1900 Rittenhouse Square.

108931H. Leonard Fruchter, who had a keen interest in architecture, got permission from the city to display a Futuro House to the public in Logan Square over the fall and winter of 1969-1970. The Fairmount Park Commission charged a 50 cents entry fee to raise money for a project called “Better Break––’69” that supported summer programs for children from low income families. Fruchter said “It makes Philadelphia look like a modern place. . . Don’t you think it makes the city look exciting? Like, avant garde. Like, already part of the 21st Century.” You can judge for yourself by the picture, below, that appeared in the Inquirer in March of 1970, after the Futuro was closed up and had become more of an eyesore than a novelty in Logan Square:

1969-70 Futuro Logan

Futuro of Philadelphia ceased production about 1978, but the Fruchter Company still retains sole rights for their production.

Below are some exciting full color photos from the original Futuro brochure.

The future is now.

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2. Futuro House

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Joseph Faber’s Incredible 19th Century Talking Machine


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The Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/20/1845

Faber_portraitGerman born inventor Joseph Faber moved to Vienna at an early age. In the 1820s, he read a copy of Wolfgang von Kempeler’s “On the Mechanism of Human Speech,” which gave him the idea of building a talking machine.

He began demonstrating versions of his early talking devices in Vienna about 1840. When they didn’t seem to generate much interest, he decided to bring them to America. He first displayed his invention in New York in 1844, then brought it to Philadelphia in 1845. Robert Patterson, director of the U.S. Mint, examined it and encouraged Faber to speak about it at the American Philosophical Society. Although Faber failed to find financial backing, Patterson encouraged him to continue his work.

Musical Fund HallIn December of 1845, Faber demonstrated his invention, which he called the “Euphonia,” at Musical Fund Hall on Locust Street. He used a bellows, 16 keys attached to strings, and a recreated tongue and glottis, all covered with an eerie false head of a woman. The keys represented the sounds A, O, U, I, E, L, R, W, F, S, Sh, B and G. The speech was somewhat slow, and one listener said the keyboard “produced words which, slowly and deliberately in a hoarse sepulchral voice came from the mouth of the figure, as if from the depths of a tomb.”


Faber’s Euphonia never became more than a sideshow attraction. Despondent after failing to promote his invention around Europe and the U.S., Faber committed suicide in 1850. Showman P.T. Barnum continued to display a version of the Euphonia as late as 1874.



Lost Philadelphia “1700”

Phila 1700 sign


Philadelphia has a special connection to the 18th century, and with good reason. After all, during the 1700s Philadelphia was home to Franklin, Jefferson, Washington and Adams, it was the birthplace of America, and it served as the federal  capital.  Since that golden century, Philadelphia has repeatedly taken its important role in American history and mythologized, commercialized and repackaged  it. In 1965, while Ed Bacon was busy refashioning Society Hill, that urge to capitalize on the city’s past took the form of a complex called “Philadelphia 1700,see the two views below, built off Delaware Avenue, one block north of Spring Garden Street, on Pier 37 and owned by Alfred M. Johnson.

Phila 1700 PC Fr

Philadelphia 1700 Photo

Philadelphia 1700’s advertising ran like this:

Visit this delightful re-creation of Philadelphia’s colonial seaport.  Dine and shop amid the surroundings of an earlier day. Seafood and steaks served in a true maritime surrounding.

The “true maritime surrounding,” below, included bright red tablecloths, wall to wall carpeting, spindle backed captains chairs and a buffet served from a lifeboat.

Phila 1700 restaurant

The rest of the complex was made up of various “shoppes” and businesses, including a blacksmith, a candle-maker a baker and a small tobacco shop. In 1965, that particular shop gained notoriety when the owner, Stephen Weinstein, was involved in the gristly murder of a male customer who inflamed him to an “irresistible sexual impulse,” by wearing tight fitting Levi’s.

The sonja

To complete the old timey atmosphere, a four-masted early 20th century Swedish schooner, “The Sonja,” above, was docked on the north side of the pier. The Sonja served as a floating cocktail lounge. It sat in the dock for a few years after the 1700 complex closed, forlorn and abandoned. In 1975 it was damaged by fire and later that year was struck by a freighter and heavily damaged to the point where it could no longer be restored.

The Philadelphia “1700” complex lasted about 6 years, closing down some time in 1971.



me0N7xb1AHnpHPJ9jRfTr-gIn 1972, the pier became home to the 520 seat Riverfront Restaurant & Dinner Theatre, left, and The Admiral’s Club, a private dining facility. Both were owned and operated by the Tabas family, who had a dominant interest in Royal Bank and ran the Downingtown Inn and Twelve Caesars on City Line Avenue. There’s a great web page about a production of Guys and Dolls presented there in 1978-9: The last curtain rang down at the Riverfront Restaurant in 1993, after a dinner show production of the musical revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” For the next 10 years, the site remained largely unused.



In 2004, work was begun at Piers 36-39 on what is now Waterfront Square, above, a five tower gated condominium community covering  9.6 acres.  The buildings range from 22 to 35 stories comprising 780 condominium units. With amenities like valet parking, a fitness facility, spa, pool and private clubhouse within the complex, residences are marketed “to people who want to live in the city but feel as though they are living or on a vacation at a private resort.”

Except for a few postcard images, all traces of Philadelphia “1700” are gone.

Please do let me know if you’ve been to Philadelphia “1700” complex, or if you know anything more about it.

Many thanks to reader Eric Staudt, who very kindly shared this picture, below, of himself standing on the stocks at Philadelphia “1700” in 1966.



The last word in ugliness. Really.

ca 1910 Independence Square

In the photo, above, taken in the early 1920s, you can see the dark ghost of the footprint of a demolished building, just to the south of Congress Hall and just across from the new Public Ledger Building. (Click on this, or any photo, to see a larger image.) Today, there’s no trace of it at all, but, for about 40 years, the city’s much maligned “New Courthouse” stood on that spot.

In December, 1865, after lengthy debate, the Philadelphia City Councils approved an ordinance which provided $35,000 for the erection of “a building on on Sixth Street, below Chestnut, to be used as the Court House for the Quarter Sessions.” Only ten weeks later, ground was broken for what was to be called the “New Courthouse;” the old one was Congress Hall, then being used by the county. See the 1895 map, below.

1895 I Square Court House

Only a few days after the groundbreaking, John McArthur Jr., who would later design Philadelphia’s new City Hall, presented an objection. He argued that any construction would be in direct violation of an 1816 law, which had granted the use of the land as perpetual open ground, and stipulated that no building be erected there, but that it “Shall be enclosed and remain Public Green and Walk for ever.” Oddly enough, this is the same John McArthur Jr. who, in 1870, came up with the design, below, for a new City Hall on Independence Square that would have filled the entire block, swallowing everything except for the State House.



As the building neared completion in 1867, the Inquirer’s assessment of the New Courthouse was mixed:

The new Court House, although not presenting a very imposing appearance so far as the exterior is concerned, will nevertheless give us a court room as complete as any in the State. The first floor is devoted to the Grand Jury and the Clerk of Court. On the south side are two offices for the District Attorney, a male and female witness room, and one large room for the Grand Jury. On the north side is a private office for the Clerk of Quarter Sessions.

1898 New CourthouseThe “New Courthouse” in 1895, looking north east.
The rear of Congress Hall is visible to the left. *

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the New Courthouse served not only as home to the Court of Quarter Sessions, but as the meeting place for the Public Buildings Commission, formed to oversee the construction of the new City Hall in Penn Square. Thirty-three years after completion, the building was used as the headquarters for the sergeant-at-arms of the Republican National Convention. In 1921, while restoration work was being done on Old City Hall, a tunnel was discovered that ran from the prisoner holding cells there all the way across the square to the New Courthouse.

1900 New CourthouseThe New Courthouse in 1900, to the right, behind Congress Hall *

By the late 1890s, most city court functions had moved to the new Public Buildings at Penn Square. In its final role, the Old Courthouse served as the home of the 12,000 volume Library of the Law Department of the University of Pennsylvania, below. The library was moved to West Philadelphia when the new Law Department Building (Silverman Hall) was completed in 1900.  The barn-like old court house was demolished soon after.

1897 Dept of Law

Many plans for Independence Square called for demolishing everything but Independence Hall. Luckily, preservationists were beginning to realize the historical significance of all the structures on the square. The building on the upper right, in the 1897 map above, is no longer called “The County Courthouse,” but is labelled as the “First Senate and First House of Representatives of the U.S.” The demolition began and ended with the 19th century offices that had been added to either side of Independence Hall and the much maligned and now unnecessary “New Courthouse.” If reaction to the building’s design had been lukewarm before, judgment became even harsher after its destruction. In 1909, the Inquirer wrote:

The Civil War stands as a great dividing line between the aesthetic in architecture and the grossly material. A fine example of the progressive decay used to be afforded by a comparison between the State House with its many fine characteristics and the “New Court House” on Sixth Street, which was the last word in ugliness.

A year later, the paper recalled it “was constructed on the principles of a rural barn.”

* * *

*I first noticed the New Courthouse on the 1895 map on the wonderful Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network website. Photos or illustrations of the building were very difficult to find. Many thanks to Andrea Ashby, the Library Technician at the Library and Archives at Independence National Historical Park, for the two rare photos, above.

Show Me the Benjamins: Franklin on Stage, Screen & in Print



Who’s Philadelphia’s most iconic homeboy? Without a doubt, it’s longtime favorite Ben Franklin. We have a bridge, a parkway, a science museum, a city square and an ice cream fountain named after him. Honest Quaker William Penn may look down benevolently from City Hall over the city he founded, but it’s Ben that tourists line up to learn about at the new underground museum at Franklin Court. Even in his own lifetime, Franklin was arguably the most well known American citizen, beloved by his countrymen and by French ladies alike. If anything set some people against him, it might have been that he enjoyed all that wealth and fame a bit too much.


Franklin was a shrewd statesman, always keenly aware of the image he projected. He’d no doubt be pleased to see himself represented so often on movie and television screens in the twentieth century. In 1911, Franklin appeared as a character in a silent film called “Hands Across the Sea,” which featured several tableaux from the American Revolution. The director staged Franklin in a re-creation of the widely distributed 19th century lithograph of his reception at the court of France in 1778, receiving the “Laurel Wreath of Enlightenment” before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette:

1911 Hands Across the Sea in '76

Dorothy Gibson played Diane de Polignac, holding the wreath, above.  Just a year after filming this scene, Gibson would earn  national fame for surviving the sinking of the Titanic. She and her friends who had been playing bridge in the salon escaped in lifeboat #7, the first one launched.


Walter Walker, who made a career of playing old-timers usually called “Pop,” had a one scene walk-on role as Dr. Franklin in the 1938 Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power extravaganza “Marie Antoinette”:

Franklin 1938

BEN AND ME, 1953

In 1953’s “Ben and Me,” Franklin became an animated cartoon character, voiced over by Charles Ruggles and accompanied by a mouse named Amos, played by the gravelly voiced Sterling Holloway. The movie was based on Robert Lawson’s 1939 children’s book of the same name:


In this star studded Franch production, it was the illustrious, but glum looking Orson Welles who made an appearance as Benjamin Franklin:

1954 Orson Welles - Royal Affairs in Versailles


Robert Stack played John Paul Jones in this technicolor epic biography, with a cameo by Bette Davis as Catherine the Great. Character actor Charles Coburn played a Cowardly Lion look-alike Franklin, who urged  Jones to invade Britain:

1959 Charles Coburn J P Jones

Jones, a great admirer of Franklin, would rename his warship the “Bonhomme Richard” to honor the Richard Saunders character of Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”


Orson Welles, speaking very badly accented French, played Franklin one more time in this Franco-Italian biography of the Marquis de Lafayette:

1961 Orson Welles -  Lafayette


Ben makes a surprising appearance on TV’s “I Dream of Jeannie,” when Jeannie (Barbara Eden) conjured up Cleopatra, Henry VII and Franklin, played by Bart Green, for a birthday celebration:

1966 I Dream of Jeannie

The ageless Ms. Eden, is, in fact,  a direct descendent of the real Benjamin Franklin.


Franklin, this time played by Fredd Wayne, maked a TV appearance again only a few weeks later, when the perpetually befuddled Aunt Clara conjured him up for an entire episode of “Bewitched:”

1776, 1972

As the Bicentennial approached, Ben made his most well known appearance in the musical “1776.” Howard da Silva survived Hollywood blacklisting in the 1950s to play Franklin in both the stage and film versions:

1972 1776 Howard da Silva

I’m fairly certain the scene above was filmed in front of the copy of Independence Hall at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. (Scroll down to the “Sincerest Form of Flattery” blog post to learn more about the many ersatz Independence Halls.)


A different actor played Franklin in each of the four episodes of of this TV series about his life: Willie Ames (from “Charles in Charge”), Eddie Albert (of “Green Acres fame),  TV and film actor Richard Widmark, and Melvyn Douglas as the elder Franklin, “The Statesman”:

1975 Melvyn Douglas - The Statesman TV


This reverent TV docu-drama featured an array of well known stars as narrators: Charlton Heston, Rita Moreno, Gene Autry, Jane Russell, Peter Graves and Mickey Rooney, with Rutherford Cravens doing a turn as Ben Franklin:

1995 Call to Greatness Rutherford_Cravens


Ben, played by comedian Andrew Daly, shows up in lieu of a male stripper at a bachelorette party for Phyllis:

a daly


In the most recent screen incarnation of Franklin, Tom Wilkinson won a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal in the HBO TV series John Adams, based on David McCullough’s book:

2008 tom wilkinson benjamin franklin John Adams


You can’t swing a kite in Philadelphia without hitting a Franklin re-enactor.  Ralph Archbold has portrayed Dr. Franklin for the past 35 years at countless events in Philadelphia, as well as in many TV spots and documentaries:

Ralph Archbold

In 2007, Archbold  played host for the Subaru of America, Inc. dealer meeting in Philadelphia. “People really seem to get a kick out of seeing me get in my Subaru,” Archbold said. “the All-Wheel Drive is a blessing.”


● An 1870 Japanese woodcut entitled “Furankurin to kaminari no zu” (Franklin and the thunderbolt):

1870 ca Furankurin to kaminari no zu

According to the Library of Congress description: “Print shows a man (Benjamin Franklin) and a woman sitting at a table in a house during a thunderstorm as lightning strikes a length of chain extending from a tub of water on the ground to a rod attached to the peak of a cupola.”

● A panel from a 1984 Kool Aid Man comic book:

1984 Kool Aid Man Benjamin Franklin

You’ll see nothing about Ben’s encounter with ye olde Kool Aid Man at the new Underground Museum at Franklin Court. There is possibly some obscure Illuminati conspiratorial symbolism here.

● The Classics Illustrated “Benjamin Franklin,” first published in 1949:

Classic & Greek Franklin

Used copies sell for $3.00 on Amazon; the Greek edition for $9.95. The mission of Jack Lake Productions, which is now reprinting Classics Illustrated comics, is “to publish and distribute wholesome, nurturing literature to young readers from the ages of 4 to 94 years of age.”

● The Special Edition cover of Time magazine in 2003, from a painting by Michael J. Deas, who also did the Marilyn Monroe postage stamp:


● A truly bizarre child’s Halloween costume, celebrating the elderly, balding statesman in every American child:


Back to the Future

In 1987

In September, 1887, the Philadelphia Inquirer used the centennial anniversary of the adoption of the Federal Constitution to look back on what Philadelphia had been in 1787, to analyze and criticize the state of the city in 1887, and to project what it might be like a hundred years in the future. The article was part editorial sermonizing and part wishful thinking. Optimistically foreseeing the end of municipal corruption and the advancement of science, the paper was spot-in in some instances and entirely missed the mark in others. “In 1987,” the Inquirer trumpeted,”once again, Philadelphia is the leading city on the American continent just as it was 200 years ago in 1787.” 

Below is a summation of the two page article, with its original paragraph headings and the charming lithographs representing the Jules Verne-esque Philadelphia of 1987 that the Inquirer artists conceptualized.

Phila 1987 subway

Exit Steam.

Throughout the article, the virtues of the latest technological wonder–electricity– were extolled. Dirty, noisy steam driven trains and steet cars would be replaced by efficient, silent, electrically driven, lightweight aluminum transport fitted with rubber wheels. No more smoke belching from coal and wood fires, no clattering of horse hooves on stone streets, no clanging of trolley bells.  All this was made possible, the Inquirer said, by electricity, and by the cutting edge Keely motor.

keelyJohn Ernst Worrell Keely, left, was a Philadelphia inventor who claimed to have constructed an “etheric generator” that ran only on water which the apparatus would “disintegrate” to produce a mysterious vapor or “ether” that could run powerful machinery. Hopeful investors poured nearly a million dollars into his research. Keely predicted that his new “vacuo-engine” would make all other sources of energy obsolete. Facing legal problems and accused of fraud, Keely died of pneumonia in 1898, having produced nothing. When asked by a friend what epitaph he’d like, John Keely replied, “Keely, the greatest humbug of the 19th century.” There is a model of the Keely engine at the Franklin Institute.

keely stock

A Ship Canal Across Jersey.

In the twentieth century, the Inquirer went on, a wide canal would be cut across southern New Jersey, from Camden to Barnegat Township, and Smith and Windmill Islands in the Delaware River would be dredged away. The resulting increase in maritime traffic would boost Philadelphia to its rightful pre-eminence in America, once eclipsing its rival New York. No canal was ever built, but in 1898 Smith and Windmill Islands, which stood east of Walnut Street, below, were, in fact, removed.


Palatial Tunnels. Bridge to Camden.

In addition to the trans-New Jersey canal, two tunnels would be dug to Camden, from Moore Street in South Philadelphia and from Lehigh Avenue to the north. A bridge would also finally be constructed, since objections to its impeding ship traffic on the Delaware were dropped when the Keely motor (!) made tall masted sailing ships obsolete.

Phila 1887-1987

Disturbed by the number of tall buildings sprouting up in Philadelphia, the Inquirer also predicted that in 1961 a law would be passed limiting all buildings to 150 feet. These contiguous buildings would surround each block with a continuous roofline and encircle a garden or recreational space in the block’s center. Because of new elevator technology, kitchens could now be installed on the top floor, instead of the basement, alleviating smoke and cooking odors throughout the house. Electric heat meant an end to dirty flues, vents and furnace fumes.

Visitors who arrived in Philadelphia via balloon would be treated to an expanse of marvellous rooftop gardens and restaurants, all equipped with balloon tethering posts, see illustration above.

William Peter Elkiner’s Experiment.

Peter A B WidenerIn this section, the Inquirer addressed the problem of Philadelphia’s city government, one that in the late 19th century was notorious for corruption. The name “William Peter Elkiner” was a conflation of Peter Widener, left, and William Elkiner, below, right, actual Philadelphia business partners, who were two of the wealthiest men in the United States. Widener had served as City Treasurer and used his political influence to gain control of the city’s streetcar system, with his partner, Elkins. He then used his incredible wealth to buy large blocks of stock in the United States Steel Corporation, Standard Oil and the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1887, as this article was being written,  he was completing the construction of a large mansion at North Broad Street and Girard Avenue. It still stands today.

William Lukens ElkinsThe Inquirer took the fictitious “William Peter Elkiner” to task for seeing himself as being above the law, for attempted bribery and for failing to fulfill contracted public duties. However, in the Philadelphia of 1987, said the Inquirer, the mythical Elkiner’s plans to stall the passage of the bill limiting the height of city buildings would be thwarted by city councils and courts that were now staffed by “intelligent and upright citizens.” Not only would Elkiner’s attempts be futile, but the very fact of his opposing the bill would help it to pass more quickly. “The case is dismissed. And that was the end of that.” In 1987, intelligence and morality would replace complacent corruption. If only.

Electric Travel

The Saloon Subsides.

Siding with the Temperance movement, the Inquirer also predicted a national prohibition on liquor in 1904. This prediction wasn’t far off the mark; the Eighteenth Amendment took effect on January 17, 1920. It also predicted a surge in the economy due to the saving of money formerly spent on alcohol and a lessening of crime and therefore of the prison population. Here the paper’s optimism was misplaced. In fact, National Prohibition created a lawless atmosphere and vastly increased criminal activity. Called “the noble experiment,” it was repealed in 1932.

Who Shall Vote.

Constitutional amendments would extend the right to vote to men and women alike,  “but limited it , by well-known restrictions, to those only, of either sex, who were likely to vote intelligently and honestly.” The Inquirer didn’t elaborate on what these “well-known restrictions” were, or how it would be determined who would be likely to vote intelligently and honestly.

1987 Phila

Actual Philadelphia in 1987. The newly completed Liberty Place dominates the skyline.

Philadelphia in 1987.

In general, the article was hopeful in foreseeing that the next 100 years would bring a clean, quiet, comfortable city, a far cry from the noisy, dirty, urban landscape of the late 19th century. The Inquirer wrote:

Machinery does so much that men formerly had to do by their own powers, and does it so much more quickly, that everybody has time for relaxation and mental improvement. A sound mind in a sound body and healthful employment for both will make the possessor happy…amid the comfort and luxuries of the Philadelphia of 1987.

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