Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

#ThisPlaceMatters: Legendary Blue Horizon

After the Civil War, North Broad Street became one of Philadelphia’s leading addresses. North Broad was attractive to wealthy industrialists for two reasons. First, many of their factories and mills were located in nearby industrial areas. Second, the old money crowd in Rittenhouse Square snubbed their noses at the nouveau riche businessmen.

The brownstone mansions that lined North Broad were built to house the families of the industrialists. Between May 1912 and June 1913, the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge 54 acquired three brownstones to establish a new clubhouse. The buildings were renovated with the addition of an auditorium and ballroom.

blue horizon - vintage

In 1961, Jimmy Toppi Sr. purchased the property. Toppi renamed the buildings after “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” a song from the 1930 film Monte Carlo. The Blue Horizon hosted international, regional and state title fights. It was voted the #1 boxing venue in the world by The Ring magazine; Sports Illustrated called it “the last great boxing venue in the country.” The Legendary Blue Horizon closed in June 2010.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission added the Legendary Blue Horizon to the local register of historic landmarks in 2015. However, only the Broad Street façades were protected. Four years later, Orens Bros. is back before the PHC Architecture Committee to seek final approval of its design of the front façades. The developer plans to demolish the brownstones and construct a hotel.

blue horizon - front facade rendering

PHC staff recommended the Committee deny final approval of the design. And indeed it did. The Architecture Committee voted to send the developer back to the drawing board.

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson provided public comment in support of the Commission staff’s recommendation:

The Legendary Blue Horizon is one of the few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. Before it was a beloved boxing venue, it was an entertainment destination. Duke Ellington performed in the ballroom that was added on by Philadelphia Lodge No. 54, Loyal Order of Moose. The members-only bar later became a nightspot open to the public. The Camero Room played host to jazz legends-in-the-making like trumpeters Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro.

The Legendary Blue Horizon holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Philadelphians as evidenced by its depiction on the Philadelphia Courthouse Mural commissioned under the Percent for Art Program. As you can see, the iconic stairs figure prominently in Philadelphians’ memories.

blue horizon - philadelphia courthouse mural

I posted the recent Philadelphia Inquirer report about the Orens Bros. proposal to All That Philly Jazz’s Facebook page. The post has gone viral. Why? This place matters.

The proposed hotel is appropriately named since it takes a lot of moxy to seek approval to cheapen a beloved historic landmark with modern add-ons, materials and signage. The proposed design erases the historic character of the front façades.

I agree with the Commission staff that the applicant’s design does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. It would make a mockery of historic designation if the Committee voted to ignore the standards.

I recognize that financing of the project is outside the purview of this Committee. That said, it is important to note that in an earlier iteration of the project, Orens Bros. received $7 million in grants under Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) for what was then an $18 million project.

Of the $7 million in state grants, Orens Bros. drew down $748,578; the balance of the grants expired. The applicant spent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in taxpayers’ money and walked away without sealing the buildings. The historic landmark is now exposed to the elements.

The first round of RACP funding applications closes on January 31. I fully expect Orens Bros. will again rattle the cup for a public subsidy for its now $22 million project. If the proposed design is approved, Philadelphians and other taxpayers would effectively pay for the demolition and defacement of a beloved historic landmark.

Orens Bros. Real Estate does not care about the Legendary Blue Horizon, but this Committee can make them care. The application should be denied on the grounds the proposed design does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, specifically Standards 2, 9 and 10.

The applicant should go back to the drawing board and develop a design that does, in fact, preserve the front façades and respect their historic character.

Orens Bros. can appeal the Architecture Committee’s decision to the full Philadelphia Historical Commission. Or they can accept the “denial with hope” decision. Stay tuned.

Jazz at Fay’s Theatre

Opened on August 31, 1914 as the Knickerbocker Theatre, the 2,500-seat venue was renamed Fay’s Theatre in 1918.

From West Philadelphia Collaborative History:

In its jazz heyday, Fay’s served as a symbolic place for local African Americans, if not a literal one. Fay’s booked performers like Duke Ellington—popular and highly visible members of the larger African American community—who were part of an emerging Black identity evolving in the African American press. Part of the emerging identity was a deep concern with issues of developing critical citizenship, fighting oppression, and gaining civil rights. Fay’s Theatre embodied this, having been dedicated to Florence Mills, who was remembered by the Philadelphia Tribune as a Black singer whose success in the mainstream allowed other Black musicians to succeed.

Fay’s also maintained a friendly and equitable relationship with local Black musicians. Fay’s often included performances by the Local 274, members of an African American musicians union, created to protect its members from the unethical and racist behaviors of many theater owners across the city. They performed there frequently. Famously, during a musicians’ strike in 1935 when most of the musical venues in the city went dark, shows at Fay’s kept going, thanks in part to their willingness to raise worker wages in accord with the requests of the Local 274.

Read More

The Jazz Ambassadors

“The Jazz Ambassadors” tells the story of when the U.S. State Department asked jazz icons to travel the world as cultural ambassadors during the Cold War. Their mission was at the intersection of race, civil rights and public diplomacy.

The film premieres on May 4, 2018 on PBS. Check your local listings.

Club Harlem

Under the proprietorship of Stan Cooper, this West Philly jazz spot was hot in the 1950s. It played host to jazz and blues greats such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton, Johnny Hodges, Ella Fitzgerald, Lucky Millender, John Coltrane, Dinah Washington, Bull Moose Jackson and Erskine Hawkins. Nat King Cole played several gigs here in 1951.

Club Harlem folded in 1952 following a dispute with Union Local 274, the black musicians union.

Club Harlem - Union Local 274 - Collage

Philadelphia Pyramid Club

Founded in 1937 and formally opened three years later, the Philadelphia Pyramid Club was a small, exclusive club for black professionals. Its mission was to foster the “cultural, civic, and social advancement of Negroes in Philadelphia.” The membership fee was $120, and monthly dues were $2.40.

pyramid-club

The club hosted a wide range of social and cultural activities, including performances by Marian Anderson and Duke Ellington and, after 1941, annual art exhibitions for African American artists. It also hosted events with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. During the Pyramid Club’s heyday, its membership rolls were a Who’s Who of black Philadelphia.

The club was dissolved in 1963.

Pyramid Club Historical Marker

Broadwood Hotel

Elks Lodge BPOE No. 2 later became the Broadwood Hotel.

Broadwood Hotel

Duke Ellington performed here on Nov. 16, 1948 in the Crystal Ballroom. A notice in Billboard read:

This marks the first time in three years for a name band dance promotion in the hotel’s large ballroom and the first time for a Negro band to play the ballroom on a one-night promotion.

The Crystal Ballroom was used as a recording studio by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony and a basketball court. The historical marker out front notes the home games of the SPHAs basketball team (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), a predecessor of the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, were played at the former Broadwood Hotel.

Broadwood Hotel - Historical Marker

The hotel was replaced by a parking lot in 1994.