Though the Philadelphia Inquirer is not in fact the oldest newspaper in the United States – a claim they made based on an historian tracing their provenance through older newspapers back to 1771, which they later retracted – it is the third oldest surviving newspaper in the country. Founded as the Pennsylvania Inquirer by editor John Norvell and printer John Walker, the paper promised support for “home industries, American manufacturies, and internal improvements that so materially contribute to the agricultural, commercial and national prosperity.”
Norvell and Walker were unsuccessful in finding an audience, and sold their publication 5 months later to Jesper Harding, one of the nation’s leading publishers of Bibles. Harding later passed the paper to his son William, who changed the name to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Part of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s rise to prominence can be attributed to its coverage of the Civil War, in which it supported the Union but was so fair and accurate in its coverage that both sides used it to keep on top of events.
The Philadelphia Inquirer was purchased by James Elverson in 1889. Elverson, who had worked as a telegraph operator during the Civil War, had the political contacts and knew the reporters to make the newspaper successful again. When James Elverson passed away in 1911, the newspaper was passed on to his son, Colonel James Elverson. As a tribute to his late father, Col. Elverson ordered the creation of the 18-story, Beaux Arts building at 400 N. Broad Street and named it the Elverson Building. The Elverson Building was the tallest building north of City Hall and said to be the most modern printing facility in the world – soaring above the skyline at 340 feet tall, it had its own auditorium, assembly hall, and water filtration plant, in addition to living quarters for Col. Elverson on the 12th and 13thfloors. The first paper was published there on July 12, 1925, and the Elverson building earned the nickname “The Tower of Truth”. Col. Elverson did not get to enjoy the building long: he died of a heart attack in his apartment there in 1929, and ownership of the newspaper passed to his sister, Eleanor Elverson Patenotre. Eleanor was not interested in managing the newspaper, and put up 49% of the stock up for sale to the employees and sold the majority to Curtis-Martin Newspapers for $11 million.
Cyrus Curtis, the head of Curtis-Martin, was also publisher of New York Evening Post and several other papers. Curtis’ newspaper empire was hit hard by the Depression, and he defaulted on his payments and ownership reverted to the Elverson family once again. In 1936 the Inquirer was again sold to Moses Annenberg, who had started his career working for William Randolph Hurst. Four years later Moses was convicted of tax evasion and his son, Walter Annenberg, took control of the newspaper.
Walter Annenberg ran the Philadelphia Inquirer with moderate success through 1969, when the Inquirer was sold to Knight Newspapers Inc. for $55 million. The 1980s were another peak period for the newspaper; in 1982 Advertising Age proclaimed that the Inquirer “lay legitimate claim to being the country’s best city newspaper” and Time trumpeted in 1984 that the Inquirer had seen “one of the most remarkable turnarounds, in quality and profitability, in the history of American journalism”. Between 1975-1990 the paper won 18 Pulitzer Prizes. However, in the 1990s print operations were moved to the suburbs, readership dropped, and cuts and corporate interference led to many reporters leaving.
The rising battle with online newspapers took a toll in the following years. In 2012 the Elverson building was sold, and the newspaper went from 525,000 square feet of office space to 125,000 in the former Strawbridge & Clothier building’s ladies’ garments section. Since then ownership has changed several times; the current owner is the non-profit The Philadelphia Foundation, who plans to downgrade further in 2023 by moving to 34,000 square feet of office space at 100 Independence Mall. Since Covid, many workers are not expected to come in to the offices and can work from home.
The original plans for the Elverson building were to turn it into a 125-room boutique hotel with an attached casino. Licensing fell through for the casino and plans were scrapped. The city of Philadelphia had planned to move their police headquarters to the former Provident Mutual Life Insurance building, and went so far as borrowing $52 million to renovate it and completing work on the exterior before deciding to use the Elverson building instead. In 2018 work began gutting the interior, and as of July 2022 the work has costed $280 million and the move is not complete.
I was fortunate enough to gain access to the building during construction. Much of the interior had been stripped already and multi-story chasms yawned between the floors. We rode a shaky construction elevator attached to the outside of the building to the base of the clock tower, marveling at the view of Center City and the ornamentation on the terra-cotta façade. The trip was invigorating and unnerving in equal measure. Ascending the dimly-lit clocktower, it was reassuring to see the room full of cogs and gears that turned the dial, and the decades of dust on the light fixtures. Even though it wasn’t much, at least some interior part of the building was still as it had been.
Matthew Christopher PA Philadelphia Jul 29, 2022 Architecture History