“Look Up!” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. The photo essays focus on different Philadelphia areas and their distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.
Peering down curiously on tiny Carpenter Street and peeking its head over airborne Interstate 95 is South Philadelphia’s contribution to the military industrial complex. Children now frolic at the foot of the benign brick structure, but it once spat out bullets for America’s homegrown wars.
The Sparks Shot Tower rises on the 100 block of Carpenter, in a neighborhood of 19th century row houses and 20th century in-fill. It was built in 1808 by Thomas Sparks and John Bishop – the first tower erected in the U.S. for the manufacture of gunshot. Molten lead was poured through screens at the top of the 150-foot tower. Holes in the screens determined the caliber. The hot lead then dropped down, cooling and hardening into spherical bullets as they fell, then cooled again in water vats at the base.
The munitions were originally meant for hunters and sportsmen. But when the war with the British began in 1812, the government asked the South Philly partners to supply the troops. Bishop, a Quaker, chose to sell his share of the business to Sparks.
The Sparks family continued to produce bullets through the 19th century, supplying the Union during the Civil War. They sold the business to the United Lead Company in 1904, and the tower continued production until 1913.
The city obtained ownership and transformed the grounds into one of the earliest playgrounds and recreation centers. Sparks’ main building for polishing the shot, storehouses, barrel shop and offices were razed, leaving only the tower. The roof was added in the 20th century, when the tower was shortened to 142 feet. The base is 30 feet in diameter and tapers to 15 feet at the top. The brick design, built to withstand gale force winds, served as a model for early lighthouses in the region.
The tower was endangered when the 1958 plan for I-95 routed the highway through Queen Village. Mayor Richardson Dilworth altered the plan, sparing the Sparks tower and the historic homes around it.
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