For almost three hundred years, the eastern edge of the Southwark District in Philadelphia was a nexus of commerce and domesticity. Direct access to the river offered trades such as merchants, ship captains, joiners, and sail makers ample employment opportunities. Other residents supported the economy by working in myriad occupations such as tailors, tavern keepers, blacksmiths, and coopers.
Only a few remnants remain from this bustling time in this neighborhood’s history. In the 1960s, preparation for the construction of I-95 began with the demolition of hundreds of buildings along the Front Street corridor in Southwark. Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church, founded by some of the area’s earliest settlers, was fortunately spared the wrecking ball. Other significant structures such as Stephen Decatur’s residence and the Mason-Dixon survey site are acknowledged today by historical markers.
While the following buildings are no longer standing, the stories behind the structures offer insight into this lost history.
John Hart’s Auction House
Built in 1768, the brick house on the southeast corner of Front and South was a popular destination for new and second-hand merchandise. John Hart and his son Seamus operated a weekly vendue on the premises where furniture, spirits, linens, household items, and other dry goods were auctioned off to the highest bidders. In 1779, Hart relocated his storefront to Pine and Penn Streets where he sold similar wares on a commission basis. Nine years later, he rebranded as Hart and Co. adding real estate to his portfolio.
Residence of Captain John Kitts
John Kitts, a sailing master for the Willing, Morris and Stanwick Company, was one of many professional seamen who resided on Front Street. The death of a passenger on his brig Eagle made local news in 1785 as the crew reported ghostly sightings of the deceased uttering accusations of murder. Kitts’ subsequent journeys on the Brigantine, the Mercury, and the Molly appear to have been free of spirits. Later in life, Kitts became a sailing master for the United States Navy and served in the War of 1812.
The Franklin Sugar Refinery
Built in 1866 by Harrison, Havemeyer and Company, the Franklin Sugar Refinery was one of the largest in the world, controlling 90 percent of America’s sugar. Located on Front Street between Bainbridge and Kenilworth, this facility was actually one of fifteen sugar refineries operating in Philadelphia during the 1870s. Sugar production continued at this location until 1925 when the property was purchased by the Merchants Warehouse Company.