814 & 816 Locust Street: Contextualizing Historic Images

Construction and Demolition
Contextual information

Southeast Corner of Locust and Acorn Alley, July 1861, by James E. Taylor. Witherthur Library. (Folio 268 in the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera)

814 & 816 Locust St. In this water color by James E. Taylor we see adjacent dwellings, with the right building bordered by an alley. Each is three and a half stories, and by the shop windows and signs, we know that in 1861 each was not only a dwelling but also a place of business. Examination of the painting confirms that 816, the building on the right, is "Petitfour Chareutier de Paris: Meat Market." 814 on the left has a sign reading, "Ice Cream Saloon," suggests that it is both an ice cream shop and bar room. The original painting and the Hexamer & Locher Maps of Philadelphia both confirm the addresses of the buildings. Both houses appear to be well maintained, but not immaculate. All in all, they seem to be typical houses, unremarkable to the casual observer.

But what is the real story of these houses? Who lived in them, what did they do, how did they live? By assailing the myriad resources available for historical research in Philadelphia we can discover much of what makes a building exciting and unique while celebrating the buildings typicality..

Origins and Demolition

When did these buildings first appear? And when did they disappear from the Philadelphia cityscape> First we walk down Locust Street, to see if perhaps they are still there. Walking down the street we clearly see that neither the buildings nor the alley have survived. The entire block between Darien St and 9th St is occupied by one large building, the St George Sr Center for the elderly. This is a postmodern building, designed in the style fashionable in the late eighties. It is brick and steel and does its best to blend with the Philadelphia row house. But, it is enormously off scale.

St George Center Senior Center. Photograph by the author.

In City Hall, at the department of records, one can pull see the microfiches of deeds, and deed transfer sheets dating back until the late nineteenth century. The deeds are filed by plot, not by address, so it is crucial to get the right plot numbers, which can be obtained from the department of maps. The plot we are interested in is number one 196 on map 2 s11, but it is now encompassed by the larger 2 s11 208. According to the deed for the modern address, 850 Locust St, the Redevelopment Corporation of Philadelphia sold the land to the St George Corporation for $52,250 on August 26 1976. Since this is the original conglomeration of the subplots, there are no previous deeds. The films for the subplots 198 and 196 reveal little. All they contain are condemned notices. According to these, from 1964 through 1976 the city acquired all the addresses on and surrounding Acorn Alley and condemned them. This unfortunately created a break in the chain of title. The notices then refer to another plot listing, 2 s11 130, which contains nothing about the sites of interest, but is in fact the deeds for a property around the corner on 9th St. According to the staff at the Records department, when a property is condemned the Redevelopment authority pulls the records on the plot, and reorganizes the information. Unfortunately this disturbs the chain of documents. If the records are misplaced or mislabeled it becomes almost impossible to complete the chain of title. Although we can no trace the building's history no farther, we do have the end date. 814 and 816 locust street were most likely gone by the time of sale or just after. Meaning that by 1977 at the latest both were gone.

However, this still leaves the question of when the houses were actually built. At this point the best place to search for information are the Records of Fire insurance companies. These surveys were often a quite thorough examination of the property, providing details about and often a plan of the property. There is an address searchable database of over twenty thousand of these documents available online. Unfortunately neither 814 nor 816 were in the database. However, there were two entries on the 800 block of Locust St with no address. One for a John Tominey, and the other for a Sherry Dito. The Tominey entry was highly incomplete, with not even a date associated with the policy. The Ditto policy was more informative, having a date a description location. Her property ensured in 1844 is listed as several hundred feet from a Blackberry Lane. Below Acorn Alley there is another alley that exist today, presently called Darien St, but its name changed at least once over its history. It's possible that it was known as Blackberry Lane before the 1850 address and street reorganization.

To confirm the addresses, the names were sought after in The City directories. Basically the precursor to the phone book, City Directories were published by several different companies throughout the 19th century and into the twentieth. They provide the name, occupation and address of almost all residents of the city. However, they are organized alphabetically, making address searches time consuming and almost impossible. The 1795 Directory is the only exception having a section organized by address.

John Tominey fails to appear in of the directories researched. Sherry Dito, however, first appears in 1816 at 152 South 8th St As a grocer. In 1844 She and her Husband Henry have moved to 77 Locust St, but by 1847 they are once again listed on 8th St. This is an address from before the reorganization of 1856, but it serves to prove that the Ditos did not own either 814 nor 816, since odd addresses are for the north side of the street.

A Search of the 1795 Directory also provides almost no information. The directory describes Locust as an "almost continuation of Prune St, running west to the Schuylkill from Potter's Field." No addresses are provided, and in fact there are only six listed residents. Also, none of these persons are listed by 1800. Once again, the investigation has dead-ended. It is hardly likely, though that the buildings pre-date 1795.

We are left with a firm demolition date of 1976, but no construction date. As will be discussed in the next section, we know from fire insurance maps of the city of Philadelphia, that the buildings stood in their depicted form by 1858.

Contextual Information

Having failed to trace the history through a chain of title search we move to other sources to reconstruct the story of the buildings and their surroundings. In 1858 Hexamer and Locher conducted and published a thorough and accurate survey of the City of Philadelphia to be used primarily for fire insurance purposes. From the original Ernest Hexamer and William Locher, Maps of the City of Philadelphia, and the subsequent maps produced by Hexamer through twentieth century we can find a wealth of information. Many of the amps contain details as meticulous as the material used in the shutters of the house. The Free Library has an impressive collection of the maps, all of which are available to the public, and may be photographed. In 1858 both 816 and 814 are described as being three story shingle roof buildings of the fourth class with two story "communicating out buildings" behind the street frontage.

Ernest Hexamer & William Locher Maps of the City of Philadelphia. Volume 3, Wards 7 &8, sheet 34. 1858. Courtesy of the Free Library.
Rectangular marquee denotes 1814 and 1816 Locust. See detail for a better view of the actual properties.

Detail of the above map, Hexamer & Locher, Maps of the City of Philadelphia, 1858.

The circles on the map describe the roofing material of the building and the numbers the number of stories. Although hard to see on the photograph, on the original, the footprints of buildings are shaded a light pink.

By comparing maps from a number of years, we can get a glimpse of not only the composition of the neighborhood, but also of the changes that take place over the years. Maps from 1858, 1872, 1896 and 1916 were used. The 1896 maps indicate that Locust St has had a city water main accessible to fire fighters since 1827. However, the 1916 map shows a six inch, 19psi main dating from 1831. Either way, it is clear that the street had water well before the time period of the Taylor watercolor. In 1872, 814 is a bar and dwelling, while 816 is a store and dwelling. 814 is one of only 8 bars on the single city block from 8th to 9th St. The 1896 map shows only two bars on the block.

There are a number of significant social institutions that are present throughout all four maps. There are two Quaker Meetings and an Episcopal Church within four blocks. One of the only businesses that survives through out the entire 59 year time period is the Chinese laundry across the street at 825 Locust.

In 1896, 816 is still a store and dwelling place, but 814 is only a dwelling. By this time both structures have also been roofed with slate. By 1916 Both the buildings are shops as well as residences. 814 is a second hand bridle shop, while 816 purveys marble statuary, and is listed as especially hazardous. Another point of interest is that 814 is listed on this map as having three and a half stories, not three as denoted in 1858. Whether this meant to denote the attic dormer is not clear, Especially since 816 has the same arrangement. Perhaps this marks floors occupied by living space, and only the attic of 814 was lived in, not the attic 0f 816. No matter what, it seems highly unlikely that the owners would have added vertically to the building. Also, by 1917 Acorn Alley's name has been changed to Schnell St.

View of the 1917 Insurance map. Hexamer and sons, Insurance Maps of the City of Philadelphia Volume III, wards 7 & 8.


Unfortunately some of the most important questions proved un answerable. There is nothing indicating who lived there, and we were unable to find a date of construction. However, the Fire Insurance maps provided a redeeming window into the site. They showed that for much of the buildings' histories, they functioned not only as dwellings, but as shops as well. This indicates that the buildings for much of their existence they were not occupied by an elite or leisure class, but were in fact the residences of a work or tradesman class who needed to maintain a business to survive.


City Directories

1795 Edmund Hogan, The prospect of Philadelphia and Check on the Next Directory. Philadelphia: Francis and Robert Railey, 1795.

1800 Cornelius W. Stafford. Published for William W. Woodward.

1844, 1847, 1850, 1860. McElroy's Directory of the City of Philadelphia. Philadelphia Edward and John Biddle.

1796, 1798, 1809, 1811, Published by James Robinson. Special Collections at Haverford College.

Fire Insurance Maps

1858. Ernest Hexamer and William Locher. Maps of the City of Philadelphia Volume three. Philadelphia: Hexamer, 1858.

1872, 1896, 1917. Ernest Hexamer and Sons. Insurance Maps of the City of Philadelphia. Volume 3. Philadelphia: Hexamer and Sons, 1872, 1896, 1917.