Philly’s brewing scene: On the rise again

With a group of popular mainstays celebrating two decades in business and a host of creative newcomers now fermenting in both the city and suburbs, it’s a bright time for the Philadelphia brewing community.

Philadelphia’s beermaking tradition is a long and rich. Many of the Founding Fathers were homebrewers, and brewpubs abounded in the city in which they navigated the tricky waters of crafting the nation — in 1793, Philly was said to be producing more beer than any other seaport in the New World. The first American lager is thought to have been brewed in a basement in the Northern Liberties section of the city in the 1840s, after Bavarian immigrant John Wagner successfully transported the cold-loving yeast across the Atlantic.

By the 1870s, there were upwards of 65 commercial brewhouses in the city — many of them in the neighborhood now known as Brewerytown — and the surrounding counties were home to hundreds more. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Philadelphia was essentially the brewing capital of the United States — but then came the temperance movement. In the leadup to Prohibition, the city’s robust brewing industry was decimated. After Repeal, it was not among the first to bounce back.

Fast-forward to the late 1980s. In California and Colorado, the independent brewing movement was gathering steam, starting to reverse decades of industry consolidation and decline. Not so in Philly. In fact, when Schmidt’s Brewery shut down in 1987, there wasn’t a single professional beer-making operation inside the city limits. Continue reading Philly’s brewing scene: On the rise again

Double Eagles – from the Mint and Back

Note: This was originally written as a submission for Longshot Magazine, Issue 2: DEBT. Thanks are due to Andrew Nusca for editing.

In 1792, recognizing that a national currency would help establish the identity of a nascent country, four men — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and David Rittenhouse — partnered to establish the First Mint of the United States. To build its coffers, the Mint solicited merchants’ private stocks of gold and silver and returned the metal to them as coin. This was accomplished with a very modest operation, comprising three small structures.

Striking coins at the First Mint of the United States was a laborious process (image from Daniel Diderot's Pictorial Encylopedia of Trades & Industry)

The first was a smelting furnace, to melt down raw bullion. The lumps of molten metal were then transferred to the second facility, where a rolling mill powered by a pair of yoked horses in the cellar made numerous passes to flatten the material into a sheet of appropriate thickness. It took three men to complete the last step in the process, which involved the operation of the hand-cranked machine that took circular planchets cut from the sheet and struck them, turning them into coins. Standard denominations were established, including dimes, quarters and half-dollars, all the way up to the gold eagle, a single piece worth $10.

In 1933, a series of $20 “double eagle” coins were struck, but never released to the public. The following year, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Gold Reserve Act, which outlawed possession of gold by the general population. Only two examples of 1933 double eagle series were allowed to remain, for posterity, with the rest destroyed. Or so the government thought.

Years later, several of the illicit coins turned up in the collections of well-off numismatics. Seven of them were recovered quickly, but others proved harder to get. In the 1950s, King Farouk of Egypt — a collector of Faberge Eggs and other small valuables — managed to obtain one of the last remaining double eagles not recovered by officials. His reign ended soon thereafter, and for a half-century, the coin floated around the numismatic black market. In a 2001 sting operation, the U.S. Treasury recovered the piece, and subsequently sold it at a Sotheby’s auction for $7.5 million.

But “last” is an elusive qualifier, and in 2004, Joan Switt Langboard discovered an additional 10 double eagle coins in a lock box that had been owned by her father, Philadelphia jeweler Israel Switt. In July 2011, after a seven-day examination of events from almost 70 years prior, a jury determined that the illicit gold coins had been stolen from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.

Federal prosecutors argued that Switt, most likely with the help of a corrupt Mint official, had illegally transferred them to his possession and subsequently made them available to collectors around the world, including King Farouk. “Israel Switt and some of his friends stole 1933 double eagles from the Philadelphia Mint,” assistant U.S. attorney Jacqueline Romero said in closing arguments.

The ruling allows the federal government to repossess the double eagles, clearing the way for the Treasury to sell the coins — all of which, of course, were originally destined for the smelting furnace. Now worth far more than the material they’re made of, the rare pieces will likely fetch a huge sum. A private merchant is again the enabler.

Sittin’ on the Dock

Municipal Pier 11 – 1932 (via

With the opening of the new Race Street Pier last month, Philadelphia took an essential step forward in riverfront revitalization.

Jutting into the Delaware River just below the towering Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the former Municipal Pier 11 was built in 1896. From late 20th Century on, it sat empty and unused, another segment on a strip populated by big box chain stores and the occasional hotel, segregated from the street grid by Interstate 95.

Several visions were put forth in recent decades for an overhaul of Philadelphia’s waterfront , but none ever seemed to bear fruit (thanks to a combination of bureaucracy, grandiosity and a suffering economy). Then, in 2009 – at the urging of Mayor Michael Nutter – the newly formed Delaware River Waterfront Corporation began to implement the Action Plan for the Central Delaware, developed by UPenn think-tank Penn Praxis.

Looking northeast from the start of the Race Street Pier

Instead of expensive, overarching renovation, the new agenda called for small, incremental steps, with goals of reconnecting the street grid to the water, adding green space and making it easier for people to experience the riverside on foot and via bicycle.

It looks like the piecemeal strategy is working. For example, a paved bike trail now meanders along the southern banks of the river, starting at a small rain garden, which blossoms with greenery behind the Walmart at the intersection of Washington and Columbus Blvd.

A diagonal path connects the upper and lower levels of the Pier

Funding for the pier redevelopment was secured from the William Penn Foundation and others, and New York-based Field Operations won the bid to create a public park atop the 500-foot metal wharf. Led by Philadelphian James Corner, Field Operations is the firm behind the transformation of an old elevated rail line into NYC’s immensely successful High Line Park. Their track record remains stellar with this Philadelphia endeavor, where they’ve created a winning public space.

A place to find tranquility in the city

The bi-level jetty features several dozen white oak trees and a myriad of grasses and flowers along its length, culminating in a tiered seating area at the eastern tip, which doubles as stairs connecting the split upper and lower walkways. At high tide, the water is just 4½ feet below the pier’s edge, providing a feeling of being out in the river achievable nowhere else in Philly.

An uncommon view of the majestic Ben Franklin Bridge impresses, both during the day and at night, when it’s complemented by an array of 200 LED solar light blocks embedded into the paving.

The pier is understated but attractive, welcoming and accessible, clean and friendly, with unique views and perspectives. Here’s hoping what happened on Race can be repeated throughout the riverfront.

Official summer hours are 7 AM–11 PM (and it’s the perfect spot to catch tonight’s Independence Day fireworks).


Talk about an upgrade.

This November, the National Museum of American Jewish History will open their brand new building on the Independence Mall in historic Philadelphia.

Since breaking ground in 2007, the impressive, 100,000-square-foot structure has been steadily rising, on time and under budget, just across from the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center.

The new location is a stone’s throw from the museum’s former home in a building shared with congregation Mikveh Israel. The old facility offered less than 2,500 sq ft of exhibit space.

Almost complete, the five-story outer facade glints in the afternoon sun, awaiting installation of an 8-foot LED light sculpture that embodies the qualities of a flame.

James S. Polsheck, founder of Polshek Partnerships (now Ennead Architects), whose past works include the Rose Center for Earth & Space in New York City, designed the outer glass structure to symbolize the translucency afforded Jews who have found sanctuary in America, and the fragility of this freedom.

Each floor of the museum opens onto a terrace encased in this artfully glazed glass, offering fantastic views and a space to clear your mind as you traverse the capacious exhibits.

Inside the glass, a terra cotta cube defines the inner volume. This hearty structure represents the solidity of the liberties that protect all Americans.

Warm anigre wood and cool glass create an exciting interior, focused around an 85-foot high atrium lit from above by skylight.

The top floor is event space, and already has several weddings, bar mitzvahs and other gatherings on the books.

Throughout the rest of the $150 million building, the extensive collection of Jewish Americana (the largest in the world, with over 25,000 artifacts) will be supplemented by a series of truly innovative displays. Continue reading Rekindled

Arts and Punishment

Smooth slabs of flecked marble. Slate gray walls. Arched ceilings. Ax murderers?

The recently opened Dostoevsky Station in the Moscow subway has all of that, and more.

One of a series of metro stations named after Russian literary heroes, Dostoevskaya features murals that depict scenes from his famous novels such as Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot and Crime and Punishment, as well as a stern portrait of Fyodor himself.

The wall art is austere, featuring black and white silhouettes of the books’ characters in action: a man is raising a gun to his head. Another holds an ax above his, waiting to bring it down on a women nearby. Continue reading Arts and Punishment


LED Pocketwatch
If only technological advances always meshed this well with honored traditions.

Paul Pounds took his grandfather’s 1925 Elgin pocketwatch and converted it into a fully functional digital timepiece.

The time is not displayed as cyphers, however.

The face is a beautifully designed set of LEDs that mimic analog clock hands with concentric circles of light.

Gorgeous not only in looks, but also in user interface, the watch boasts an audible “tick” for each second, easy time-setting via the stem, and a custom alarm.

After 15 seconds, the watch goes into standby mode to save batteries.

When you open the face, it lights up again.

At each minute interval, it sets off a swirl of LED color!

Some additional deets: Paul wrote the program in C (and fit it in a 2KB code-size limit), used 133 surface mount LEDs, and engraved a tiger eye under the micro-chip.


[h/t @bre]

20/20 Hindsight

How many silly inventions does it take to come up with a winner?

The 20th century in the US saw a burgeoning industrial design atmosphere. From automated dishwashers and automobiles to rockets and computers, our society was fundamentally changed by these lasting engineering designs.

But quite a few others were suggested that didn’t make the cut. Looking back now, they seem silly, even absurd. But they were much more in keeping with their time.

What will our future counterparts laugh at? Segways? “Smokeless” cigarettes? Swiffers? Will they seem as foolish as some of these?

Some of my favorites from the Life Magazine piece follow. Continue reading 20/20 Hindsight

Key Stone

Rosetta Disk Top FaceThe Rosetta Project and the Long Now Foundation are building an archive of all documented human languages.

Founded in 2000 — or 02000, as they like to write, the project published their first edition Rosetta Disk in 2008.

The disk holds 1500 languages from around the world.

Made of double-sided micro-etched nickel, the disk is a visual archive, not a digital one. Not format-dependent; all one needs to read the disk is magnification. Like microfiche, but with much more density.

One side of the disk is a guide to the main archive on the reverse. It is etched with a central image of the earth and a message written in 8 major languages:

Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.

The message is printed in concentric spirals, both maximizing the number of people who will be able to read something immediately upon picking up the disk, as well as implying how to use it – magnify to see more.

Continue reading Key Stone

The Origin of the Origin of the Species

Ben Fry is a master of computational information design — of visualizing data.

Humans are very visually oriented.

Organizing information into a well-designed schematic allows us to digest huge amounts of information, and can reveal otherwise unseen connections or structures.

This is a relatively new but exploding field. The New York Times has a great team who regularly create fantastic visualizations to accompany and elucidate articles, and even has a visualization lab, where users can access ready-made data sets and design and submit their own.


Here, Fry has created an interactive visualization of the changes between Charles Darwin’s six editions of On the Origin of the Species, his famous manifesto on the theory of evolution.

Starting from the first edition, changes are animated into existence, differentiated by color. By the end of the final edition, the resulting image looks almost like abstract art, in the vein of Mondrian.

But this is information design, and rolling over any part of the illegible multi-colored columns will highlight and enlarge the text, allowing the user to read through it, and view the actual changes.

The data is sourced from the Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, an impressive body of his publications, all digitized by Dr. John van Wyhe & team.

It’s an exciting time in data modeling, and in thought design.

[h/t @mkgold @clioweb @jcmeloni]

Drawing on the Refrigerator

Kudos to Marjorie Amrom!drawing on the fridge

Last December the Philadelphia Streets Dept. ripped up the sidewalk corners in much of the Wash West/Society Hill area, one block at a time.

New signal boxes were erected and cast into the concrete, in anticipation of an (ongoing?) $12 million project to deploy digitized traffic signals throughout the city.

Because of a Federal DHS mandate to include future surveillance equipment along with the lighting equipment, the new signal boxes are huge, probably 3-4 times the size of the previous, pole-mounted ones.

As the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron points out with her usual acumen, these empty boxes look like huge brown refrigerators, and are an urban design nightmare in our neighborhoods of rowhouses.

On her blog she highlighted a few of the more egregiously placed metal monoliths, and noted that the flat sides were an empty slate almost begging for graffiti.

A prime example was this one, smack up against the historic house owned by Marjorie Amrom.

It appears that Amrom’s gone and had an artist paint a very attractive and colorful trompe l’oeil, or mini mural, all over the offending box.

Can we get the Mural Arts Program to commission a project to paint the rest?

UPDATE: Inga Saffron wrote another follow-up post, highlighting this box. She mentions that it might be “going a little too far” to paint all of the signal boxes like this. And a commenter points out that getting neighborhoods to agree on a design might “take as long as fixing the city budget.”

I still think it’s worth a try.