The properties overlooking Washington Square in Philadelphia have always been among the more coveted in the city. In the mid-19th century, the sunlit green-space was largely encircled by private homes.  This was the case for the stretch running north between Locust and St. James Streets on the park’s west side.  Hexamer & Locher’s 1858 Philadelphia Atlas shows this strip of houses before it would become the site of the nation’s top advertising agency.

Private homes with a scenic view in 1858

Just a decade later, a young advertising entrepreneur named Francis Wayland Ayer founded the N.W. Ayer & Son company.  According to Office Museum, N.W. Ayer was for a time after its founding, “the nation’s leading advertising agency.”  Office Museum offers a sketch of the agency’s “Counting Room,” probably from the late 1800s.  Here, gentlemen in hats and waistcoats tallied the firm’s earnings.

The Counting Room before the move to Washington Square

By the early 20th century, the Ayer reputation reached far and wide in the print advertising business.  Ayer distinguished itself by becoming the first ad agency not just to sell promotional space but also to design ad campaigns to fit within said space.  According to Megan Corinn Crouse, Ayer “pioneered the use of fine art in advertising and established the industry’s first art department. It was the first agency to use a full-time copywriter and the first to institute a copy department.” This department would produce some of history’s most iconic and well-recognized advertising campaigns.  Perhaps most famous among them is the Morton Salt Girl and her accompanying slogan, “When it Rains, It Pours”.  In a set of images borrowed from the Morton Salt website, The Morton Salt Girl is shown here below in various incarnations from her unveiling as an innocent Shirley Temple look-alike in 1914 to her emergence as an inappropriately dressed teenager in 1968.

The Morton Salt Girl, marking each new decade by showing just a little more leg

The success of this campaign, as well as the 1921 “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” cigarette slogan, allowed the firm to expand into lavish new digs in 1929.  The Art Deco-style building at 210 W. Washington Square is the result.  The sketch below, taken from an Ayer & Son stock certificate, shows the structure as it appeared upon its opening.

N.W. Ayer & Son, built in 1929

Among its most successful campaigns from this location were contracts with DeBeers (“a diamond is forever”), AT&T (“Reach out and touch someone”) and the U.S. Army (“Be all you can be”).  The images here below, taken from the Library of Congress, show the building from the southwest angle and, below that, the extensive detailing over the front entrance.  It would appear that the Library of Congress has better things to do than go around putting actual dates on historical photographs, but based on the automobiles in the foreground of the first image, these are likely to have been taken in the early ‘60s.

N.W. Ayer & Sons overlooking Washington Square, early 60s . . . probably

Ayer Building entrance, reportedly designed by J. Wallace Kelly and Raphael Sabatini, also in 1929

The company’s fortunes declined through the 70s and 80s.  Even with high profile campaigns in print and on television, Ayer ceded considerable market share to smaller and more dynamic agencies before ultimately selling out to a series of different parent companies. In 2002, the building on Washington Square officially ceased its ad operations, reopening in 2005 as a forty-nine unit luxury condo high-rise called the Ayer, developed by the Goldenberg Group and Brown Hill Development.  Trulia lists a 3,623 sqft unit for $2.7 million.  But don’t let the price scare you away.  It comes with a chauffeur-driven Lexus and neighbors like Chase Utley. When you look at it like that, it kind of sounds like a deal.

The Ayer, luxury condos in 2012

Fully restored entrance

–David Tomar