Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Curtis Building, 1911
601 Walnut Street, Philadelphia PA 19106
(block bounded by Walnut, Sansom, 6th and 7th Streets)

Helene Schenck & Michael Parrington, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis chose to come to Philadelphia at the end of the 19th century because "he liked it better than New York, because he admired Childs so much 1 and because printing costs were so much cheaper". 2 Curtis started the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1883, and under editor Edward Bok it became "probably the most continuously successful woman's magazine the world has ever known". 3 Curtis bought the Saturday Evening Post in 1897 for a thousand dollars and eventually installed George Horace Lorimer as editor. By 1908, each magazine had achieved a million subscribers, an unheard of circulation at the time.
 
To house these two highly successful periodicals, the Curtis Building rose on the west side of Independence Square, overshadowing Independence Hall, but echoing it in the choice of materials: red brick and white marble. Edgar V. Seeler was the architect, Frank C. Robert & Co. the engineers. The cornerstone was laid in 1911.
 
The building occupies the entire city block between 6th and 7th and Walnut and Sansom Streets, and was built in successive stages between 1911 and 1921. It is divided into four distinct structures: the publication building, facing 6th Street; behind it what was called the convenience belt; then the manufacturing building in two sections facing on both Walnut and Sansom Streets; and the power building facing on Sansom Street. The interior of the block is reserved for an center court to provide light and air.  All parts of the building except the power house and convenience belt (which had an extra story) rises ten stories.
 
The publication building is entered through bronze gates set back behind fourteen monolithic columns of Vermont marble. It housed the bookkeeping, circulation, administrative, and advertising departments, with the editorial offices of the Journal and the Post on the sixth and seventh floors. The upper floors were taken up with the women's lunchroom, library, hospital, and so on.
 
The convenience belt was located so as to prevent the noise of the manufacturing building from being communicated to the publication building; it also provided a continuous firewall between them. It contained the elevators, toiletrooms, stairways, shafts for steam pipes, water pipes, and electric wires, heating and ventilating ducts.
 
In the manufacturing building, the basement was used for paper storage, the first floor for the mailing division, the upper floors by the binderies, pressrooms, melting and castingroom, engraving department, and the like.

1  George W. Childs was Philadelphia's greatest newspaper publisher; he brought the Public Ledger (which he purchased in 1864) to its preeminent position as the Philadelphia paper.
2  Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians, (Boston, 1963), p. 419.
3  Burt, p. 420.

Update May 2007 (by Harry Kyriakodis):
Still standing. The one million square-foot building was the nation's largest historically certified office building renovation when it was refurbished in 1986. Now known as the Curtis Center, its six-story atrium contains faux Egyptian palms and one of the finest fountain-waterfalls in the city. Furthermore, the building's lobby contains The Dream Garden, a sparklingly conceived mosaic installed around 1916. It was made by Louis C. Tiffany, and Tiffany Studios and is based on an original painting by Maxfield Parrish. In 1998, The Dream Garden was sold to someone who planned to move it to Las Vegas. After Philadelphia historians and artists fiercely protested the proposed move, the Pew Charitable Trusts agreed to provide $3.5 million to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to purchase the work and maintain it on site. The mural and the Curtis Center lobby were featured in an important scene in the popular film The Sixth Sense (1999).