Tucked away on a small street in Center City, a small portion of 1850s Philadelphia survives, reminding us of the forgotten era of a city before cars. This little building on the 1400 block of Manning has been forgotten by pretty much everyone, except us!
John Ellis was an immigrant who came to Philadelphia on June 17th, 1833 from his birthplace of Donemana in County Tyrone, Ireland. He began a livery stable business in 1839 and grew to have several locations around town. In 1851, he set about building the largest livery stable in town on a small street called Westmoreland between Broad and 15th Street in a then-undeveloped section of Center City. This new stable would have 2 stories, with stables on the first floor and a large space for riding on the second.
In addition to being a livery stable, this location was also a riding school where Ellis himself served as an instructor. One 1853 write-up about the Ellis Riding School lauded “Mr. Ellis himself is one of the most graceful horsemen in the city and as a teacher he is unrivaled. His horses have all been selected with a view to safety and one is sure dropping in at any time to meet with agreeable company. Mr. Ellis’s references are of the first character.”
In addition to being a riding school, it was the drilling location for the still-extant First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. It later became the same for the Washington Grays and D Company First Infantry of the United States Marine Corps Reserve. In 1859, John Ellis aimed to expand the building and purchased a 17’ x 75’ lot that was adjacent to the riding academy at what was by this point called 1423 Lardner Street. It was here he built a small annex– this is the portion that still stands today.
After Ellis died, the old riding academy building was passed through two more generations of Ellis’s and continued use as a livery stable. In 1921, Lee D.C. Ellis sold the old family stable to a group of investors: William H. Godfrey, Karl J. Birnbauer, and Samuel Whitaker. The trio recognized that the old stable and its annex were two different properties. They sold the annex portion, now called 1423 Manning St., in 1922 to Lee and Jacob J. Shubert, who then incorporated it into the Shubert Building/Theatre they had built 6 years earlier, using it for dressing rooms behind the stage of the theatre. Its address then became 250 South Broad Street Parcel B. The rest of the stable was demolished and replaced with a 6-story parking garage, which they flipped to a parking operator in 1924, who in turn flipped it to another parking operator in 1931.
The history of the small annex of the stable went completely forgotten until 1976, when the new owners of the Shubert Theatre disputed the lot lines of the then-under construction Academy House condominium, built in place of the aforementioned parking garage. They contended that a 10-foot-wide easement between the old stable annex and the original stable property had been created in 1850 and was never struck, even though Ellis built right over it. The easement was acquired by the builders of the 6-story parking garage, who re-exposed it until a parking operator-owner covered it with a ramp that connected it to a surface parking lot facing Locust Street, some time in the mid 20th century.
The owners of the Shubert Theatre, Philadelphia Musical Academy, and the Pennsylvania Higher Educational Facilities Authority collectively sued Academy House Inc for $5M, plus damages and fees. The owners claimed that they and the previous owner had warned the developers of Academy House about the easement multiple times before the property was even purchased, only to be ignored. Academy House Inc claimed that the Shubert Theater had not used the easement in several decades and that a door that faced the easement had been sealed up as far back as the 1940s.
The court case had a long build-up and didn’t get argued in front of the Pennsylvania Superior Court until May of 1985. The court sided with Academy House Inc, citing that the Shubert Theater had sealed its access to the easement several decades earlier, effectively abandoning it based on legal precedent.
Today, if one looks closely, they can see the outlines of the old brick facade of Ellis’ Riding School. Still in use as dressing rooms for what is now called the Merriam Theater, it was recently purchased as part of the sale of the theater building to the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts for $10.64 Million. Plans call for the demolition of the heavily-altered Shubert building above the theater and the construction of a 30+ story building in front of it, as seen in the image below.
Those plans, assuming they eventually move forward, will keep the Ellis’ Riding School annex intact, maintaining an unexpected connection on this block to the middle of the 19th century.
— Dennis Carlisle