A new owner is going to upgrade the old Philadelphia Bourse, on Fifth Street below Market, with its shops, offices and food court. One local reporter recently recalled, with restrained nostalgia, his first visit there on a sixth-grade class trip some 25 years ago.

I’m up on him there, being old enough to remember the Bourse when it was still the headquarters of the commodities traders of Philadelphia’s investment community, which is what it was built to be in 1895.

As a teenage copy boy at the old Evening Bulletin in the late 1940s, I often ran errands from our offices at Juniper and Filbert streets to our reporter stationed at the Bourse. I wish I could remember his name. (I probably will tomorrow.)

The main floor of the building then was divided by fancy wooden railings into work spaces for the commodities dealers. There were boys posting prices on blackboard charts, phones ringing and men shouting to each other.

The property on Fifth from Market to Chestnut first belonged to Richard Sparks, who in 1716 bequeathed it in his will to the Seventh Day Baptists for a burial ground. In 1810, the volunteer Harmony Fire Company built a firehouse on the unused south part. Stephen Girard bought the whole tract in 1822 and tried to evict the firemen. Girard died the next year, and there was much legal fussing for years between firemen and Baptists. In 1859, the bodies were removed from the few graves and sent to New Jersey.

The Bourse was built by George E. Bartol, a grain exporter, to give his business community a headquarters, which it was for about 65 years. The architects were the Hewitt brothers, who did some major buildings in Chestnut Hill and also the Bellevue-Stratford.

It was one of the first steel-framed buildings, being built at the same time that the then-world’s tallest building, our City Hall, was going up stone by stone. Another high-tech feature was a pneumatic tube system that connected with the main post office at Ninth and Market.

It brought together the stock exchange, cotton exchange, drug exchange, maritime exchange, milk exchange, petroleum exchange and other financial trading.

The business world changed, and the Bourse gradually became just another office building by the 1960s. In 1979, the late developer Ken Kaiserman bought the building and started its modern use.

And gone was the old tradition of hat smashing. A custom somehow began that Sept. 15 was the day men put away their summer straw hats and began wearing felt hats. The Bourse became the local center of the idea that any straw hats still on heads on that date had to be removed and smashed.

This turned into an annual free-for-all at the Bourse, with otherwise staid brokers tackling their straw hatted brethren and destroying their chapeau. The long-time leader of the movement was William P. Brazer, known as Sir Billy, a feed and grain merchant from West Philly.

Sir Billy annually distributed notices about the September deadline, so both avid hat-bashers and defiant hat-wearers were ready for the morning of chasing, wrestling and general mayhem that disrupted the otherwise dignified commodities exchange.

The Philly custom died away because of a gradual change in headwear styles and the bad influence of the New York hat smashers, who developed into roaming gangs attacking straw wearers randomly. There was a huge hat-smashing riot in New York in 1922, and a straw hatter was beaten to death there in 1926.

When Ken Kaiserman remodeled the Bourse in 1979, a workman, who didn’t know about the old cemetery, refused to work in the building after, he claimed, he had been confronted by two men in colonial uniforms who appeared “kind of fuzzy.” Do the new owners’ upgraders know about that?

Visit columnist Jim Smart’s website at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.

comments powered by Disqus