Philadelphia may have started out as an English colony, but by the early 19th century, it was the Germans who dominated. Along with an appreciation for hops, which helped turn beer-making into a major industry here (and which may explain why we have so many beer gardens today), Germans also brought a passion for music, something the city’s Quaker founders disdained. Nearly every German neighborhood had its own singing society, and its members built elaborate social halls to stage choral performances and competitions.
One of the most impressive survivors is in the Norris Square section of Kensington, along a stretch now dotted with Latino churches and auto body shops. The Columbia Singing Society, at 2007 N. Second St., is a rich layer cake of golden sandstone, marble, and brick, decorated with tiers of arched windows and topped with a dollop of sculpted tin.
Though Germans were scattered all over Philadelphia, they were concentrated in the neighborhoods between Northern Liberties and Kensington, and, not surprising, Germantown. The Columbia Singing Society was founded in 1865 as a choral society — Gesangverein in German — and quickly gained members, becoming one of the city’s top groups. In 1889, Columbia hired architects P. Eberhard Schaefer and Frederick Ausfeld, both recent arrivals from Europe, to design a neighborhood concert hall, according to the successful nomination prepared by the Historical Commission last year.
The building, which also boasted banquet facilities and a bowling alley, reflects the German taste for stout, textured facades, similar to many redbrick German breweries seen around Philadelphia. But unlike those more industrial structures, the concert hall is grounded on a heavy sandstone base, with a rusticated treatment that resembles thick logs. Columbia must have been a wealthy group, because the elevated first floor was built with marble blocks.
You enter by ascending a steep stairway through a narrow, arched portal. The architects seem to have thrown a little bit of everything into the facade: pairs of narrow arched windows, porthole windows, wider arched windows. The top is crowned with a Second Empire-style mansard roof that adds an extra note of pomp. In 1893, Columbia disrupted the building’s symmetry by attaching a rowhouse-size addition on the north side.
Merely by size alone, the Columbia Singing Society building was an impressive undertaking. Although the Academy of Music had been operating since 1857, the Philadelphia Orchestra wasn’t founded until 1900. Other neighborhoods, like Roxborough, also built significant, if smaller, singing halls. In the early 20th century, when German singing societies were at their peak, there were 40 clubs around the city.
As the Kensington neighborhood lost its German population, the Columbia Singing Society became less active. The club closed in 1962, and the building was sold to private owners. It now appears to be vacant, but the Columbia Singing Society remains in excellent condition.