A final farewell, but the Tower's stories live on

The Tower. The Inquirer's first issue produced there appeared July 13, 1925. This month, the paper moves to Market Street.
The Tower. The Inquirer's first issue produced there appeared July 13, 1925. This month, the paper moves to Market Street. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: July 02, 2012

When radio was new and TV not yet a flicker, all the news that mattered came from the Tower.

The first issue of The Inquirer that was written, edited, and printed in its 340-foot-tall beaux arts building at Broad and Callowhill Streets appeared July 13, 1925.

In that issue, an overwrought poet dubbed the place "Queen of the Press": "So lovely in your morning gown/a soft white robe beneath a golden crown," this last bit referencing $2,500 worth of gold leaf embedded in terra cotta on the ivory building's eye-catching dome.

Decades before www.dot.anything, The Inquirer provided the city with a constant source of instant information: the time. It was accessed simply by looking up at the four faces of the giant Seth Thomas clock, lighted at night by 800 bulbs.

The clock has rung its Westminster chimes in 15-minute intervals (save for the hours between midnight and 7 a.m.) since 1925.

And, as the clock has marked the time for generations of Philadelphians, The Inquirer has endeavored to explain that time.

Time is the basic unit of journalism. Every 24 hours for the last 87 years, the paper that's housed in what is lovingly or ironically called the Tower of Truth has described what people have done with the minutes of their lives: from the Scopes "monkey" trial about evolution, featured on Page One of that July 13 paper, through the Great Depression, Hitler, the baby boom, civil rights, Vietnam, Rizzo, Legionnaires' disease, Three Mile Island, Dr. J, MOVE - all the way to Obama, Romney, and the strange year Cliff Lee is having.

And now it's all changing.

While the clock will continue to run, the staffs of The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News are ending their time on Broad Street beneath the timekeeper's 500-pound pendulum. Employees are moving to smaller quarters at the former Strawbridge & Clothier store at 801 Market St. Previous owners sold the place to developer Bart Blatstein, who plans to convert the Tower into a hotel and perhaps create a casino behind the building.

Not without opinions, journalists who have worked in the building will tell you they're dismayed to hear that tourists from Nebraska will be tipping bellhops where writers used to clamor and strut.

"I never thought this would ever happen - that The Inquirer would not be in that building," said associate editor emeritus Acel Moore, one of the first African American reporters at The Inquirer and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

"I'm saddened," said former Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth, himself a Pulitzer winner. Referencing colleagues who voluntarily departed or were laid off because of budget cuts hastened by the diminishing newspaper industry, Auth added: "It was a great building until it started emptying of people. But that's not the building's fault."

During these final days before the move, workers have been cutting apart cubicles in the Inquirer and Daily News newsrooms, scattering the grumpy ghosts of newspeople past.

Staffers have been emptying their desks and file cabinets only to unearth stacks of old papers, piled like strata of rock, each level of which speaks of a deep and buried history.

Some of it is mundane, and some of it is magnificent. But every story was produced in a building that has housed a corps of messy, clever rascals, scolds, and raconteurs, brimming with both slobbering idealism and stone-hard cynicism - people who've seen themselves as the thin, ragged line between the scoundrels and the rest of you; who've seen themselves, deservedly or not, as stewards of Jeffersonian democracy, along with your right to hear the latest on Lindsay Lohan, that poor, misguided soul.

"The building," said Zack Stalberg, editor of the Daily News from 1984 to 2005, "is a great shrine to the way newspapers, and this world, used to be. And I was happy to be a piece of it."

Col. James Elverson

That the papers are moving is nothing new.

The Inquirer had seven homes before 400 N. Broad St., including its first at 5 Bank Alley (now Moravian Street) in 1829.

When the current building was constructed, it was first known as the Elverson Building, named by Col. James Elverson, owner of The Inquirer in the 1920s, for his father.

Elverson, a yachtsman involved in Republican politics, demanded of architects Rankin, Kellogg & Crane a jazzy edifice worthy of his attention-grabbing newspaper.

The 21-story building (some count it as only 20) was created with an all-steel, 8,000-ton skeleton - unusual for the time - on stilts with heavy concrete caissons extending down to solid rock as much as 50 feet below the existing Reading Co. tracks.

The structure, which included the Tower and a more prosaic factorylike section where the presses sat, straddled the rail yard while being strong enough to support heavy machinery - not to mention all those egos.

The frame was enclosed in granite and limestone with white-glazed terra cotta. No wood was used.

Not shy about fulsome crowing, Inquirer writers boasted about the building's "extraordinary" number of phones (325!), as well as the coolness of its drinking-fountain water.

Unimpressed with the building's pilasters and urns, however, Inquirer architecture critic Thomas Hine wrote in 1980 that the building was nothing more than a flapper wearing a toga.

Despite Hine's carping, the building was named in 1996 to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Annenbergs

Elverson died of a heart attack in 1929 in the fabulously appointed living quarters he'd created on the building's 12th and 13th floors.

Not long after Elverson came Moses L. Annenberg, who bought the paper for $15 million in 1936. He made his money supplying bookies with racing information and was often linked to racketeers in Chicago - including Al Capone - according to former Philadelphia magazine writer Gaeton Fonzi's book Annenberg: A Biography of Power.

Known as a man's man, Annenberg kept a mistress in a nearby hotel and ate lunch in The Inquirer cafeteria with inky pressmen, whose clothes stained the chairs.

In 1940, Annenberg pleaded guilty to tax evasion and was sentenced to three years in Lewisburg federal prison. By paying a then-unheard-of $9.5 million settlement to the government, he was able to prevent his son, Walter H., from being indicted for similar crimes.

Walter Annenberg took over The Inquirer, bringing in the Daily News in 1957. He kept both papers until President Richard M. Nixon appointed him ambassador to England, and Annenberg sold the businesses in 1969 to the Knight Newspapers Inc. chain.

In addition to the papers, Annenberg also owned TV and radio stations and founded TV Guide and Seventeen magazines, making himself a communications giant.

Fonzi accused Annenberg of using "the power of the press as a personal weapon to crack anyone who rubs him the wrong way."

Among newspaper employees, Annenberg was famous for "The List," the names of people he didn't want to appear in The Inquirer, such as entertainer Zsa Zsa Gabor and crusader Ralph Nader. The reasons were known only to Annenberg.

Feuding with the people who ran the Philadelphia Warriors basketball team, Annenberg ordered that only the scores, and not full stories, could be published about the team's games, according to Robert J. "Bo" Terry, a former Inquirer police reporter who started as a copyboy in 1955.

Terry remembered: "You knew there was a job being done on somebody when Annenberg would appear in the newsroom." Milton Shapp, who ran for Pennsylvania governor, drew the publisher's ire in 1966, and Inquirer reporter Joseph H. Miller was dispatched to ask him whether he'd ever been in a mental institution. Shapp said no, and an Inquirer headline famously read, "Shapp Denies Mental Institution Stay."

H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, philanthropist and co-owner of the company that now runs The Inquirer, disagrees with criticisms of Annenberg. "Some of the articles about him are totally unfair," said Lenfest, an attorney for Annenberg's communications company in 1965, who briefly ran Seventeen. "He was very kind to me." Lenfest said Annenberg launched him in the cable-TV business.

Annenberg was also given to unpublicized charitable acts, such as paying the mortgages of police officers killed in the line of duty.

And Annenberg, who experienced bias as a Jewish publisher, made a point of hiring African Americans, including a black circulation manager, unheard of in those days, according to Moore.

Not everyone in the shop was as enlightened. In 1962, Moore once had to chastise an Inquirer editor who, when summoning copyboys, called out "copy" to white workers, but "boy" to black ones.

Along with racism, the newsroom was rife with misogyny, heavy smoking, and epic drinking, reflective of its Mad Men age.

"Some men, after putting out each edition at night, would have a shot," Moore remembered. "And we put out six editions."

The Annenberg years were a rough-and-tumble time.

An Inquirer truck driver named Henry Turner was found slain in a company parking lot in 1956, his killing never solved.

Not long after, a sports editor and some copyboys were arrested for phoning horse-racing results to bookies, who would then accept bets on races whose winners were already known.

The building wasn't a friendly place for women. Female employees walking down a long corridor to the lunchroom were harassed on a daily basis by men in the composing room.

Arlene Notoro Morgan, the first woman in the newsroom to work as a section editor, running the New Jersey desk, joined The Inquirer in 1969 at the end of the Annenberg era. Even then, Morgan said, "there were times I'd hear these grizzly guys saying, 'I'm not going to work for that bitch.' "

So much dubious activity went on during the Annenberg years, Terry said, that "if the four walls of The Inquirer could talk, everybody would've gotten indicted sooner or later."

Someone who did get indicted was Harry J. Karafin, an investigative reporter who would unearth incriminating material about people, then shake them down for money.

After extorting $60,000 from First Pennsylvania Banking & Trust Co., Karafin was convicted of blackmail in 1968, then sent to prison, where he soon died.

The nadir of modern Philadelphia journalism, the Karafin episode sealed The Inquirer's reputation by the early 1970s as a floundering mediocrity.

"It was a truly disreputable paper," remembered John Carroll, a former metropolitan editor who would become editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Salvation came in the form of Gene Roberts - or as some people tended to call him, God. And the place was never the same.

Knight-Ridder

Things had already started to change under Knight ownership. Young, college-educated writers were being brought in, said William K. Marimow, current Inquirer editor and a former investigative reporter with two Pulitzers.

The newsroom experienced "a real clash of generations," Marimow said. The new people brought "an infusion of energy, youth, and skepticism."

Then, in October 1972, a rumpled Southerner arrived who talked slowly but thought bigger and faster than anyone else in the room.

At 40, Eugene L. Roberts Jr. was a former New York Times war correspondent who took over as editor with a simple, yet novel, thought. "The trick was to make it possible for reporters and editors to do their best work," Roberts, now 80 and living in North Carolina, said in a recent interview. "In order to do that, you have to be a blocking back to keep corporate and bureaucratic ideas from getting in the way of good journalism."

Knight became Knight-Ridder in 1974, and a corps of Roberts-inspired reporters began to distinguish themselves with change-making stories. Roberts himself cited a few:

How the IRS went after low- and middle-income earners while failing to collect billions of dollars from fat cats.

How doctors worked to separate conjoined twins.

How a small group of police dogs was attacking innocent people, either on officers' orders or because their handlers had lost control.

During the Roberts years, the paper won 17 of its 19 Pulitzers. Three came in 1987 alone.

The paper expanded to bureaus around the world, including New Delhi, Jerusalem, and Beijing.

In 1984, Time lauded Roberts' fixes at the paper, saying they constituted "one of the most remarkable turnarounds, in quality and profitability, in the history of American journalism."

It took a lot of reporters to get the work done, and Roberts "manipulated the powers at Knight-Ridder so we had a lot of money to spend," said Doug Robinson, hired as city editor in 1978.

P. Anthony Ridder, who in the 1980s came to run Knight-Ridder and was the chief person Roberts set out to block, remembered that Roberts fought hard "but civilly" to keep money for his newsroom. "I don't fault him for that," Ridder said.

Cramped into the grungy old fifth-floor newsroom "like roaches in a milk carton," Robinson remembered, the growing staff (eventually nearly three times the current size) did exemplary work, despite being quartered in a building seemingly too fancy for tough reportage.

"It was astonishing to believe that fine journalism could be done in a building made of marzipan," Robinson deadpanned.

Sit on a bar stool next to a veteran of the paper's so-called golden years, and you will hear an unending tale of journo-bliss:

"It was a big engine of doing," raved Richard Ben Cramer. "It was a magical age," declared Art Carey. "It was a creative and nurturing time," recalled Mary Walton.

"All those young reporters, experimenting on stories together, not jaundiced - I discovered very quickly most of them were sleeping together," Robinson said. "All those juices flowing."

Roberts, affectionately nicknamed "Frog" because some believed he looked like one, would sometimes play poker on Saturday nights in the newsroom. He encouraged executive editor James M. Naughton to keep things loose with practical jokes, while managing editor Gene Foreman made sure the operation hummed.

The Inquirer endured some bumps, including strikes and lawsuits. The paper was embarrassed in the mid-1970s when political reporter Laura Foreman, no relation to Gene Foreman, was discovered to be in a relationship with a figure she was writing about, Henry "Buddy" Cianfrani, a powerful state senator later convicted on federal racketeering charges. The two eventually married.

Roberts asked Pulitzer-winning investigative reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele to write about the situation in 1977, after it became clear that editors had been aware of the affair, but had failed to resolve the conflict of interest. "It was incumbent on The Inquirer to take a deep look at its own operations," Steele remembered. "We had complete freedom to write it."

Blockade

While the Laura Foreman business was percolating, The Inquirer, the Daily News, and their building experienced what may have been their strangest day together.

On March 19, 1976, when former Police Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo was mayor, about 200 members of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council blockaded the building, preventing staffers and news trucks from going in or out. Two editions of The Inquirer could not be published, as the police stood idly by.

"It is 8 p.m. Friday in a city owned and operated by Frank Rizzo ... and this building is under siege," wrote Daily News editor F. Gilman Spencer.

After 11 hours, a federal district judge issued an injunction that ended the blockade.

The episode may have been triggered by a satirical piece about Rizzo that had appeared in the Sunday magazine the week before, which prompted the mayor to sue the paper for $6 million.

Whether Rizzo ordered the blockade was never proved, and he eventually dropped his suit. But the story had a bizarre postscript.

The August 1976 issue of Hustler, owned by Larry Flynt, contained a story condemning Rizzo's "violations of the First Amendment." But in Philadelphia - and only Philadelphia - the page on which the story was written had been torn out of every copy of the magazine.

"It turns out that Hustler, like most magazines in Philadelphia, before it hit the newsstands came through the warehouse of a distributor who happened to be a friend of the mayor's," former Daily News editor Stalberg said. "That's how the pages disappeared."

So incensed was Flynt that he took out a full-page ad in The Inquirer attacking Rizzo, quoting Jefferson on censorship, and inviting readers to write for a reprint.

"Those of us at the Daily News weren't excited," Stalberg joked. "As long as we could get the rest of Hustler."

That ribald brashness has long been a staple of the Daily News, sharing the Tower for 55 years with its more-buttoned-down counterpart, like misfit siblings in a bunk bed.

"There was a chilliness in the elevators when people of each paper got on," Stalberg said. "We really competed, and we [Daily News staffers] felt we were closer to the ground and represented the real Philadelphia better."

Change at the top

Roberts resigned in 1990 and was succeeded in turn by Maxwell E.P. King, Robert J. Rosenthal, and Walker Lundy. In 1997, reporters from both papers moved out of the Tower section into large newsrooms created where the presses and mailroom equipment once were.

From June 2003 to November 2006, The Inquirer had its only female editor, Amanda Bennett, herself a Pulitzer winner.

The building, massive and iconic, "looked like the movie set of a newsroom," Bennett said. In fact, portions of two movies were filmed there: Sniper, with a focus on the Tower, and Marley and Me, based on a book by former Inquirer columnist John Grogan.

Anne Gordon, managing editor under Lundy, Bennett, and, for a time, Marimow, said that, because the paper had never had women before in the large glass offices reserved for top editors, she and Bennett needed to requisition so-called vanity panels for the lower portions of their desks. Men in pants never had such worries.

Bennett has vivid memories of the day in 2006 when two dozen Muslims gathered outside the building to protest The Inquirer's publishing of a caricature of Muhammad that originally ran in a Danish newspaper.

"The street was filled with people outside this big, white building," Bennett recalled. She and then-publisher Joe Natoli met with protesters, many of whom wound up giving her Qurans.

"We invited people in and had lunch." Reasoning together, she said, showed what a newspaper could do in its community.

With many employees still yearning for earlier days, Bennett said, "there was a romanticization and a strong desire to make it 1987 again. The past weighed heavily on the staff."

Since the 1990s, the Internet and changes in newspaper-reading habits have taken their toll, stealing away readers and advertising revenue.

Resultant staff reductions have been a sad but not-uncommon occurrence, each occasion of layoffs or departures marked by endless square feet of sheet cakes presented in bittersweet ceremonies. Through the years, the slices have gotten bigger, with fewer remaining staff to eat them.

When advertising executive Brian P. Tierney and local associates bought the papers in 2006, he tried to use the building itself as a way to attract attention to the business. He'd invite the CEOs of Urban Outfitters and US Airways to "see the great views," he said, "and give us a chance to talk about the papers and their role."

In 2008, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, running for president, walked through the newsroom and suggested updating the computers.

Once, Tierney invited U2's lead singer, Bono, to the building, and in a gracious impromptu moment, Bono broke into an aria from La Traviata, standing beneath the blue glass globe hanging from the Tower's lobby ceiling, as employees applauded.

After Tierney, a group of hedge funds bought the papers, only to give way to the current group of local owners, Interstate General Media.

"You all need a scorecard" to keep track of the different sets of owners, Roberts said. "Our old lady has been passed around," lamented retired sports columnist Bill Lyon.

Proud note

From the dilapidated 18th floor of the Tower, there are unobstructed sight lines of South Jersey, North Philadelphia, and Center City.

Even with a million-dollar view, the place doesn't look as if you'd get $20 for the interior.

"There's a ton of stuff wrong with this building," said Chris White, the plant manager. "It needs pointing and painting, and it effervesces," meaning rainwater seeps through the stone.

The notion is not lost on White that during the final days of being a newspaper building, the Tower is weeping.

"This building has a soul you can't scrub off of it, that you can't just re-create or conjure," said business writer Maria Panaritis. "This building is full of Philadelphia soul, dirty and majestic."

But, said Blatstein, the Tower's new owner, the building is also "tired." And, he said, "it hasn't exactly been kept up. But it's a meaningful building, and we intend to restore it to its former glory."

How that happens without rumbling presses and prickly writers is not yet known. Once, reporters in the Tower could actually feel the presses shake the building, feel the words that they wrote being given physical form in a manufactured product they could hold.

Publisher Robert J. Hall said he would miss the building, but "not its inefficiencies." He added, "We are filling just one-quarter the space, and that's a lot of waste."

That's the reality, and this is a reality business, noted Inquirer columnist Daniel Rubin. He added: "I fell in love with this place, the most romantic, comic-book newspaper building. But we can't afford it anymore."

For executive editor Stan Wischnowski, Inquirer people "walk away with great pride," having won in their final year in the building a public-service Pulitzer for an investigation of school violence.

Daily News people leave with a similar sense of accomplishment, after two of their own won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2010.

In recent years, despite fewer resources, The Inquirer has pushed to fulfill its mission, with stories about New Jersey's takeover of Camden, the ill-fated racehorse Barbaro, the Phillies' World Series year, the need for court reform, priests charged with child abuse, the controversy surrounding the Marcellus Shale, and the move of the Barnes Foundation.

Stepping away from the "Queen of the Press," The Inquirer will reconstitute in its ninth location.

That's not a terrible thing, said Roberts. "The physical newsroom is not important. The quality of journalism is.

"Good journalism," he said, "can be done in a tenement."


See a video about

the Inquirer building and its clock tower

at www.philly.com/clocktower


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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