The Space

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 8, 2006

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Gail Leslie
Occupation: Director of facilities for the New Freedom Theatre.
Neighborhood: North Philadelphia.
Style: 15,000-square-foot Italianate brownstone.

Mayor Street recently proclaimed March 9 Edwin Forrest Day in Philadelphia. Many consider Forrest the greatest American actor of his time, and the celebration of what would be his 200th birthday gave us the occasion to visit the actor's old house on North Broad Street, which now, appropriately enough, is home to the city's largest and oldest African-American theater company, New Freedom Theatre. The theater's Gail Leslie took us on a tour of the local landmark, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


What's the building's history?
"It was built in 1852 as a townhouse. The story goes that Edwin Forrest was walking along Broad Street one day, saw the house being built, fell in love with it, and bought it for $100,000."

I knew he was the highest paid actor of the 1800s, but even so, that was a lot of money back then.
"This area along Broad Street at the time was referred to as Diamond Row, but a more apt description would've been Nouveau Riche Row. The Main Line had already been well-established, and it was hoped that this area would be a second Main Line."

I've also heard this building referred to as the Gaul House.
"William Gaul was a brewer, and he initially had the home constructed. Forrest bought it from him."

I know a lot has been added to the original structure. How much of Forrest's actual home remains?
"Forrest's original home goes back to the archway, which you see just down the hall from the box office. Everything beyond that was added. The Philadelphia School of Design, which later became Moore College of Art, previously had the building, and they were responsible for most of the expansion. One part of Forrest's home that remains is the original parlor, which is now the lobby of the theater. Forrest added this on as the home was being built. The plaster work you see in here is all original."

It's lovely.
"Each one of the elements was made in a beeswax mold and then put up individually, which is something they just don't do anymore."

Were the bedrooms on the second floor?
"My impression from the layout is that the ground floor and the second floor were mostly public rooms, and the bedrooms were on the third floor, which was typical of that time. Upstairs you'll also see three of the home's original fireplaces."

The large floor-to-ceiling windows are beautiful.
"The actual windows themselves we replaced with thermal windows. The ceilings are 16 feet high, and it's very expensive to heat and cool the place. The thermal windows help, but as you can imagine, the cost of the upkeep on an old building like this is considerable."

I've always been impressed by the building's stone
exterior.

"Actually only the front of the building is stone. The cornice and the trim on the side of the building facing Master Street, which I think is the prettiest side, are actually all tin."

Do you think Edwin Forrest would be pleased his home is now used for theater?
"I suppose so. We're certainly pleased to call it our home."

More images from the Space can be found below.

Got a great space? Email J. Cooper Robb (jrobb@philadelphiaweekly.com) with your name, neighborhood and contact info.


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