WTF Is That?! 1625 North Howard Street
Welcome to a new column in The Spirit, “WTF Is That!?”
This space will explore the origins of some of the Riverwards’ oldest buildings at a time when many face re-purposing. We’ll tell the stories of structures you walk by everyday and constantly find yourself wondering, “what is this place,” or “what did this place used to be?”
For the first installment, I explored the history of an odd old building I pass daily on my morning commute: 1625 North Howard Street.
Visible from Front Street or the Market Frankford Line looking west on Cecil B. Moore, 1625 is a triangular building of old brick with a large smokestack on its roof.
The structure was first built or used by the General Taylor Steam Forcing Hose Company, according to records at the city archives. This organization, one of many volunteer fire companies that predated the Philadelphia Fire Department, was founded 1864. They bought the North Howard Street property that same year.
General Taylor was formed after the heyday of Philadelphia’s notorious volunteer fire companies, but its demise was due to the same forces.
In “Philadelphia: A 300 Year History,” historian Elizabeth Geffen writes,
[V]olunteer firemen were an unfailing source of excitement… The whole volunteer system had for some time been identified… with violent street fighting, but in the 1840s this general lawlessness exploded more frequently, and began to include arson, shooting and murder… Many fires were openly attributed to the fire companies, who thus provided their own opportunities for the exercise of their professional talents.
These volunteer groups held as many political affiliations as criminal ones. Geffen at length discusses the exploits of one such gang, “The Killers.” The Killers purportedly, “took over the Moyamensing Hose Company under the leadership of William McMullin, who headed both organizations. The political ramifications [of the fire companies] are exemplified in the career of McMullin, who became a lieutenant of the marshal’s police in 1852 and ultimately the Democratic boss of the Fourth Ward.”
City government in 1870 created a professional municipal fire department after years of unsuccessful attempts to curb these volunteer firefighting cartels.
Ten years after Taylor came into existence, they sold the land and building at 1625 North Howard St. to the new Philadelphia Fire Department. The city operated a fire station there until 1964, and a private owner acquired it in twenty years later. 1625 has since changed hands and is currently zoned for commercial and residential use.
Are there any buildings in the neighborhood that leave you wondering “WTF is that?” If so, send the address to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do the research for you.