Delorean Time Machine: Headhouse Square

To those who might question the value or effectiveness of urban renewal projects, we say, behold Headhouse Square.  At one time, a bustling anchor of immigrant activity, the two block stretch of 2nd Street between South and Pine provides ample evidence of its past while obscuring much of the squalor and disrepair that once enveloped the area.  Today a picturesque integration of Philly’s colonial history and its urban modernity, the Library Company of Philadelphia tells that the area once known as the New Market was established in 1745.   The image here below, taken from Charles Ellet, Jr.’s 1843 Philadelphia County map, shows two vertical shaded rectangles where the market stood.

The New Market, already nearly a century old in 1843

The two rectangular islands were surrounded by cobblestone and bisected by Lombard Street.  At the north end of the market, facing out toward Pine Street was the market’s most distinguishing feature.  The ‘Headhouse’ as it is known today, was constructed as a firehouse in 1804.  According to Wikipedia, this makes it the oldest firehouse in the United States.  It is shown here below in a Library Company of Philadelphia photo from 1866, where evidence suggests that its firefighting days were already behind it.

Former firehouse flanked by produce stands, 1866

The photo above shows a thriving marketplace.  Indeed, throughout the 18th century, the marketplace—by then more commonly referred to as the 2nd Street Market on account of its not being particularly new anymore—was a bustling outlet for food stuffs, crafts and other local goods.  The photo here below, also taken from the Free Library of Philadelphia, shows the market in 1889.

The 2nd Street Market, 1889

By the early 20th century, the marketplace had fallen into disrepair.  Though it continued to serve as a site for local merchants and shoppers, the Shambles, as the market thoroughfare was called, had increasingly come to show its age. Here below, in a 1916 photo from the Department of Records, the market is shown looking a little rough around the edges.

The Market in 1916, large group of people not smiling for the camera

The market and surrounding area continued in their decline through the coming decades.  The photo here below, taken from Philadelphia Speaks, probably from the late teens or 20s, shows a stretch of buildings adjacent to the market on 2nd Street between Pine and Lombard.

Old man pushing cart, probably the 1920s

By 1950, the decaying market was mostly demolished, with revitalization projects serving the area over the next decade plus.  The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and experienced restoration once again in 1994.  Here below, we see the adjacent stretch of S. 2nd Street as it appears today.

Vacant buildings converted to restaurants, old man with cart converted to fire hydrant

As for the market itself, the south island now serves as metered parking while the north island hosts a weekly farmer’s market featuring local farmers and food purveyors.

Parking meters on 2nd between South and Lombard, 2012
Headhouse in 2012

–David Tomar

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