PHILO HALL, seat of culture and refinement, home of many "literary institutes," Pittsburgh's postoffice for a decade, later a sink of vice and iniquity went the way of the world in September, 1877. Its passing was the cause of quite a few newspaper tears. More than one "old inhabitant" rose up and contributed his piece of reminiscence and as usual there was conflicting testimony.
In these modern days when Pittsburgh is proud of its Carnegie Museum and libraries, its university, its Tech school, the Historical Society, the observatory, a look backwards brings to mind the fact that Pittsburgh early in its existence had literary pretensions, and even a hall built exclusively for the purposes of a literary society and at one time eleven literary institutes flourished that afforded instruction, pleasure and amusement to our aspiring citizens of those years.
Philo Hall was mighty in its day, but as not unusual, the mighty fell. To the younger generation who knew the hall's evil reputation, there were no regrets. The elders sighed for with its demolition passed away a landmark replete with joyous memories. Third street since 1868 known as Third avenue, was once the Broadway of Pittsburgh. The "great" shopping district was close by. Market street was the main business street in the '40s and Third and Market the center of the trade of those days. There were no street cars, no railroads, no telegraph lines or phones but the steamboat and canals flourished, and there were also the literary institutes and life then was not the barren gloom we moderns may wrongly think. With the crude educational facilities of the years the opportunity to obtain knowledge by contact with persons of bright minds seems naturally to have been taken to advantage.
The literary institutes, so called, afforded this means, and they became popular and prosperous. Now such institues [sic] are better known as lyceums, but their necessity is not so apparent. But they are not to be lightly esteemed. In most communities the lessons of the lyceum are taught in the curricula of schools.
One of the earliest of the literary institutes in Pittsburgh was the Tilghman Society, which met in the university building at Third and Cherry alley. This institute was founded in 1822 and named for William Tilghman, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. This society was the most aspiring of the many. Isaac Craig bears testimony that in 1839 it had 30 regular members and more than 200 honorary members. The vice president served also as treasurer and there was a librarian and censor. All officers were elected monthly.
Fine Old Society.
The institute "convened" every Friday evening. The meeting room was in the southeast corner of the third story of the University Building. All the university buildings were burned in the fire of April 10, 1845.
The Tilghman Socity [sic] followed their apposite motto, we are told by Isaac Harris, the directory man of Pittsburgh. The motto was, "Omnia Explorate, Optima Tenete," which may be broadly translated "Get a look into all things, hang on to the best." Harris tells us the members followed the spirit of their motto by securing the best and most authoritative works on history, which with the copies of English classics constitues [sic] their collection, in all about 500 volumes considered a great library then with books scarce and expensive.
The "Hall" we are told was very neatly furnished. A very faithful portrait of the learned and venerable prevost [sic] of the university the Rev. Dr. Robert Bruce, hung on the wall. At the time Dr. Bruce was professor of natural and moral philosophy and mathematics. Robert Grierson was professor of ancient languages and William Moore tutor, but the university had also an English department with M. F. Eaton, principal, L. H. Eaton, later a well-known ward principal, assistant teacher, and A. J. Gramsdorf, teacher of French, German and drawing.
There were three terms of 15 weeks each, at $12 per term. In the main the students kept up the Tilghman Society
The honorary members consisted chiefly of those who had been ordinary members. Many of these obtained front rank in professional pursuits, in the pulpit and the bar and some who shone in the Halls of Congress. This was indeed fame in those days.
To promote the growth of the society, a constitutional provision was made that any who had been at some period students at the university could become a member. This conservative provision was suggested by the fate of a rival society. Though practically a college library society, the Tilghman was a strong rival for the philological institute.
This latter society was organized December 7, 1827. Mr. Craig states its organizers were 12 or 15 young men—principally clerks with a few students from the university. Its first president was James Junius Marks, in later years a noted Presbyterian divine, president of Marion College, Missouri, and in the Civil War chaplain of Gen. Alexander Hays' Sixty-third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers. Dr. Marks lived to be 90. He died in California in 1899. He was the father of "Jimmie" Marks, a former well known newspaper man of Pittsburgh.
In the four score and 10 years of the nineteenth century that Dr. Marks lived, he saw more than one era in education and the institute days vanish ere old age came to him. He was contemporaneous with some of the world's greatest history.
Up to 1840 the Philological Instittue [sic] had enrolled 94 members. Showing diversity of occupation these were enumerated as 30 merchants, 25 lawyers, 14 editors, 12 manufacturers, and six physicians; 10 had died and 29 removed.
Two Philo Halls.
The Philological Institute "instituted" two Philo halls. The first was on Fourth between Wood and Market streets; the second on Third near Market as noted above.
The Philological Institute was an aristocratic organization. Its founders were mere youths, ranging from 17 to 19, principal among them being William M. Shinn, William Little, William Riddle, Robert M. Riddle and Thomas M. Howe. Two of these ambitious and enterprising youths became mayors of Pittsburgh, William Little in 1839 and Robert M. Riddle in 1853.
Mr. Riddle served previously as postmaster of Pittsburgh. Mr. Shinn was prominent in the wholesale drug trade in after years and Thomas M. Howe had his name perpetuated in Howe street and the celebratedt [sic] Howe spring in Fifth avenue opposite South Highland. For a lifetime, it can be justly said that Mr. Howe was one of our foremost citizens. For his services and rank during the Civil War on Gov. Curtin's staff he has been most usually referred to as Gen. Howe.
No data as to William Riddle has come down to us. Robert M. Riddle was well known as one of Pittsburgh's ablest editors, publishing in partnership with Jane Gray Swisshelm the Saturday Visitor, and later the Commercial Journal, merged into The Gazette just prior to the war of 1861. Joseph A. Wills and Robert Robb, later an attorney, were prominent among the Philo's early members.
The society first met in the brick academy building of the university at Third and Cherry alley, as, long, we are told, as it could secure the use of the little room set apart by Dr. Bruce for its meetings. For some reasons, having been ousted from this meeting place, the Philological Institute, we are informed, "was driven from place to place, meeting in schoolrooms as occasion afforded, and sometimes in taverns until finally in 1839 it obtained the fine hall in Fourth street" (now avenue).
This building, known as the first Philo Hall, stood three doors below the Bank of Pittsburgh on the same side. It was owned by William W. Irwin, an attorney, later a member of Congress and United States minister to Denmark. This hall went to ruin in the fire of 1845. Almost in the rear of the first hall were the holdings of Dr. E. D. Gazzam, who was a member of the society. When he rebuilt on his property he erected the second and best-known Philo Hall, especially for the uses of the society. This one stood until 1877.
The Fourth avenue building had also a history but we are proudly told the uses to which this building were applied, unlike its Third avenue successor, were no dishonor to either the glorious dead or the little band of admiring brethren who in 1877 had grown old and were on their way to join the aforesaid glorious dead.
Grown Strong in Years.
The society met in the second story in distinguished quarters, as "distinguished" by the historian from the heretofore undistinguished quarters; little rooms, school rooms, taverns, etc. When it took these Fourth avenue quarters, we are gravely assured, it had reached a "credible manhood," having done so in five years. Its commodious second-story hall was furnished with carpets, chairs and desks (here's real luxury—especially when a parenthesis says "rep style"). There was "even" a library of standard works covering history, political economy, and general literature and the library "was placed in the alcoves."
Downstairs was the banking house of Cook & Cassatt and the mayor's office. The captain of the watch, we are also told, "presided over the well-finished, deep basement for several years." Surely the lot of the Philogical [sic] Institute had fallen in pleasant places. What could be lacking to cause the Pierian spring to flow tranquilly and contentedly so well housed and conditioned?
No wonder, when the subsequent hall on Third avenue went down in disgrace, the old-time member surviving the wrecks of years should rise up and wipe away a few "briny tears" and say "a landmark has gone. Thoughts come to the surface and awaken memories of 40 years ago yielding a rich harvest of philosophy and a brilliant picture of the literary roster of old 'Philo.'"
The survivors of 1877 were proud of the original hall. It was without sin, but the notoriety that attended the second hall, altogether evil was always a cause of chagrin and a sorrow. For this plague spot once was pure. And it had been a place of uplift and a joy. In razing it was taken down gradually.
The decline of Third avenue as a business thoroughfare dates from the removal of the postoffice from Philo Hall, rented quarters, to the stone buildings owned and erected by the government at Fifth and Smithfield streets, in 1853. This is now the site of the Park Building. There was an exodus of merchants from the downtown streets, and they passed into a warehouse and manufacturing district. The fire of 1845 helped, for many went uptown for newer and better quarters. It was a case of a new building in either event.
With their new and equally commodious quarters the Philogical [sic] Institute continued to flourish. It occupied the Third avenue hall some time in 1846. It also continued to "graduate all the great men Pittsburgh produced from its origin to its demise." This is a modest claim, it will be noticed, and refers to the society and not to Pittsburgh. When this assertion was made Pittsburgh was still going on with a recent dirge in its character given by the riots of that year (1877).
Gradually Fades Away.
But the Philological Institute as an institute was then dead—the chronicler of its rise, greatness and decline telling us that:
"At present the society is numbered among the things having gradually faded away until a few years since it finally dissolved. Not more than a baker's dozen of members being then alive."
A rather nice way in stating the dear old institute had gone up the spout. It is clear, too, that a baker's dozen is an unlucky number.
However, to go back to its pristine glory. The Third avenue building took the name of the institute, the name Philo above the door. The hall was at that time (1846) the finest in the city and remained so until Wilkins Hall arose. This, too, was in Fourth street, opposite the present Dollar Savings Bank Building. Neither of them would hold the overflow from a ward meeting in a recent mayoralty campaign.
In Philo Hall the Pittsburgh public attended lectures and concerts; recherche hops, commonly called balls, took place there also and there was more than one glorious time. With the importance of Third street gone in a business sense, Philo Hall lost its prestige, and the society began to decline. Gradually the building went out of repair.
There is also a nice figure of speech. More truth fully, though less eloquently, it went "on the bum" and never came back. Going out of repair the hall went out of repute also. In its later years only one thing occupied it that bore the stamp of decency, and that was a society of German Turners, but their stay was short. Low variety shows were given in the rooms where once the elite of Pittsburgh adorned the lyceum and our great lawyers, doctors, and clergymen engaged in debate on the great questions of the day, read essays, "said speeches," and "orated." About 1875 there came a specialty in wickedness in Pittsburgh proclaimed far and wide as our own specialty, the lady waiter abomination, and Philo Hall saloons blossomed into a new fame. Degraded females and their parasites, thieves and cut-throats rendezvoused there and were accomplices in crime of various characters. The poor dupe who entered any of the passages of which the old hall had been bisected, did so at the peril of his life.
One atrocious murder was committed there. An old man named Adam Dorn, commonly known as "United States Baker," was killed by Fred Myers a saloon keeper, who ran the old man through with a red hot poker. Myers was sent to the penitentiary and served a short term.
The old hall had a police record only eclipsed in later years by "Yellow Row" in Pipetown, on Second avenue, beyond the railroad crossing at Try street.
But the Gazzam estate was not at fault for the changed conditions of Old Philo Hall. The property had passed out of the estate's hands, finally to be purchased by the Dollar Savings Bank, which ordered the demolition of the building and erected the building that stands on the site today.
"They are the monuments of the great and good" said one writer of hallowed days, "whose literary tastes were fed in old Philo Hall, and equally of those who died amid scenes of degradation and debauchery in the famous old building."
Many Famous Names.
Of a certainty writing of old landmarks contemporaries should be consulted. When one such saw the imposing list of the Philological Institute's members as enumerated above he exclaimed:
"Why, many, you haven't started to tell of them. There was Judge Wilson McCandless, in his young days one of Philo's shining lights, and how he did shine! He was a law student when he joined, and John Harper, cashier and later president of the Bank of Pittsburgh, was another; also Judge William B. McClure of our Court of Common Pleas; Jonas R. McClintock, mayor of Pittsburgh in 1837; Thomas J. Bigham of Mt. Washington, state senator; George Darsie, also a state senator; Thomas williams, member of Congress from the North Side district in Civil War days; Josiah King, manufacturer, and one of the proprietors, in the '60s of The Pittsburgh Gazette; John B. Guthrie, mayor in 1852, father of ex-Mayor George W. Guthrie, now United States minister to Japan; Col. Samuel M. Wickersham, Zantziger McDonald, a noted editor; Henry Clay Moorhead, brother of James K. Moorhead, our war-time congressman; John Bigler, who became an argonaut in 1849, and governor of California; Henry W. Williams, judge of our District Court of Allegheny, and later of the Supreme Court of the state; Caleb Lee, a merchant tailor; J. R. Miltenberger and many others of Pittsburgh's representative citizens.
"While the Philological Institute had a number of rivals," continued the old-timer, "none of them ever became so pretentious or popular. The Tilghman Society of the Western University of Pennsylvania came the nearest in popular favor.
"Great meetings were held in old Philo Hall. Sometimes the discussions lasted for weeks. The meetings were largely attended by both men and women. The rules of the United States Senate governed the society. The young members who grew up with the society were faithful to it and most of them remained members until death."
"But you have said nothing about the 10 or more like societies of those days There were the Wirst Institute that also met in Philo Hall, the Marshall Literary Institute, the⸺"
"Hold on, dear man; that's another story. That's several stories."