Five Generations of Builders
by Carl G. Karsch
On a cold February morning in 1846, a sailing ship docked in Philadelphia from Glasgow, Scotland, and disgorged its cargo of new arrivals at the immigration station at the foot of Washington Avenue. Among the newcomers was Mrs. Steele, a widow, and her six children, four boys and two girls. One son died during the rough crossing and was buried at sea. The family settled in Kensington, a neighborhood of workingmen — and women — employed nearby in what would become the city's industrial heartland.
Two years after the Steeles landed, gold was discovered in California, setting the stage for unprecedented growth that would last, with few interruptions, into the 20th century. Politicians enthusiastically declared this ocean-to-ocean expansion the nation's "manifest destiny." It was an era of new ideas, inventions, innovations — an era perfectly suited to the enterprising Steeles. From the closing decade of the 19th century till the Great Depression of the 1930's, William Steele together with his sons and grandsons created Philadelphia's most prominent company of designers and builders. And they accomplished it by employing the same imagination and inventiveness shaping a new world power, the United States.
William Steele began humbly enough, as a house carpenter in his own neighborhood. He married in 1864; his first son, Joseph Middleton Steele, was born a year later, the year the Civil War ended. By 1886, four brothers and one sister — Esther, who kept the company books — were partners in "William Steele and Son, Carpenters and Builders." No longer house builders, they quickly moved into large scale construction. Joseph became the driving force, introducing new ideas and construction techniques.
The First Skyscraper. Using I-beams perfected by Andrew Carnegie, the Steeles erected Philadelphia's first skyscraper, the Witherspoon Building two blocks south of City Hall. Alexander Milne Calder designed ornate sculpture for both buildings, including the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.
"The Steele Idea." With their reputation established, the Steeles raised the design-build concept to a new level. Often they purchased the site, designed and erected the structure, bought and installed the equipment for what they advertised as a "Steele Design-Centralized Responsibility Building." The fee: 10% of cost. Their headquarters building at 16th and Arch Sts. housed eleven departments. Although the company's long suit was industrial buildings by the score, designs for hospitals, theatres and office buildings also poured from their drawing boards. William F. Lotz headed the architectural department before forming his own company. Two sons and a grandson, all members of the Carpenters' Company, joined the family business.
Better Than Concrete. Guided by an engineer brought from Sweden, the company experimented with reinforcing bars and rods — finally perfecting the ideal material for large structures, reinforced concrete. It was cheaper, faster to use, fireproof and nearly indestructible. Maintaining quality was a problem in concrete batch-mixed at the site. The solution: central mixed concrete delivered by trucks. But another problem arose. During delivery, gravel tended to settle and water rose to the top. Simple, Build a truck with a revolving barrel lined with blades. Transit mix concrete was born. This innovation earned a company related to the Steeles the concrete contract for the Broad Street subway.
The Largest Ballpark. Ironically the project for which the Steeles became famous — Shibe Park, later called Connie Mack Stadium — is gone. In its stead, at 21st and Lehigh Ave., is a church and shopping center. Only superlatives suited the new ballpark. It was the nation's largest, most luxurious and at more than $500,000 the most costly. It was also the first erected with steel and reinforced concrete. Unfortunately, the company's founder, William Steele, died in 1908, the year before "play ball" was first heard. Popular with fans for a half-century, Shibe Park fell victim to the automobile. The lack of parking brought its demise in 1970, when homeplate was airlifted by helicopter to the new Veterans Stadium, also now gone.
Largest Commercial Building. The Reading Railroad wanted a million square feet of floor space, a freight station and truck concourse with loading docks — all in one building. No problem. The Steeles erected the largest commercial building of its time — 401 North Broad Street — over the railroad tracks. It was the city's second structure to use "air rights." The first was across the street. "The Philadelphia Inquirer" unloaded boxcars of newsprint directly into the pressroom.
End of an Era. Construction collapsed in the 1930's, as did many businesses. The Steeles closed their books in 1935. Their headquarters was demolished for the Insurance Company of North America tower, now converted to residences. But the tradition of the Steeles continues in two descendants. Leon Clemmer and his son, both architects, are also members of the Company.