The printing giant that ruled Philadelphia before the presses stopped

Erie Avenue's industrial corridor is the last place you'd expect to find an intricate Gothic tower building with an interior slathered in marble. But this building located at 700 E. Erie Ave has it.

Now that we get our information straight from our devices, it’s easy to forget that Philadelphia was once a printer’s town. Beginning with Ben Franklin, who cranked out Poor Richard’s Almanac in Old City, and continuing with the Curtis Publishing Co., which began printing its popular magazines near Washington Square in the mid-1800s, most of the industry was near downtown. But in 1929, a behemoth from Chicago moved in and set up a massive printing operation way up in North Philadelphia.

The company, Cuneo Printing Corp., had just surpassed Curtis as the largest printer in the world when it decided to establish an East Coast presence in Philadelphia. It purchased an enormous tract on the emerging Erie Avenue industrial corridor, between F and G Streets, and hired Robert E. Lamb, an architecture and engineering firm, to design its plant.

Because the large site enabled Cuneo to spread out horizontally, it was perfectly suited for the new, longer, faster presses. While the building, known as Cuneo Eastern Press, was really just a hardworking factory,  Lamb dressed up the facade with handsome Gothic Revival details, giving it the look of a stately college library. Like many Collegiate Gothic structures, its long, low-slung base is punctuated by a dramatic tower adorned with stone carvings. For many older Philadelphians, that particular composition will revive memories of Sears’ mammoth outpost on Roosevelt Boulevard.

Gothic Revival was very popular in the 1920s, but Lamb’s choice of the style seems to be an attempt to link Cuneo to the tradition of the printing trade’s godfather, Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the first movable-type press. The connection is especially pronounced in the use of Gothic tracery around the entrance’s heavy, medieval-style wooden doors. Open the unlocked front door and you’ll find yourself in a marble-clad lobby that leads to a grand stair. That grandeur ends once you turn the corner and enter the vast spaces that housed the presses.

In 1932, Cuneo secured the contract to publish the Hearst company’s magazines, including Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, rivals to Curtis’ Ladies' Home Journal. As the old trolley tracks on Erie Avenue suggest, Cuneo became one of Philadelphia’s biggest employers.

Sadly, it was not to last. With the advent of television in the 1950s, magazine subscriptions plummeted. Like other printers, Cuneo was hit by a series of strikes by workers opposed to the automation of typesetting. A 1959 lawsuit by the Bookbinders and Bindery Women’s Union added to Cuneo’s troubles. But it was a bad time for all Philadelphia industrial giants. During the '70s, the city lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs as companies such as Budd and Philco-Ford succumbed to a changing economy. Cuneo finally shut down in 1974.

The great Gothic building survives, however. Purchased in the early '80s by Daniel J. Lasdon’s real estate company, the tower, which has no usable space above the third floor, is now fitted out with cellphone receivers so we can receive the news on our phones. The lower portion houses small companies that manufacture everything from soap to mattresses. One of the tenants, Menasha Display, even does some printing.

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