Workshop of the World At War: the USMC Quartermaster Depot

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As “workshop of the world” Philadelphia proved vital during the two industrial world wars of the last century. Positioned in the center of what would be termed the east coast megalopolis, Philadelphia became an entrepot for guns, ammunition, tents, uniforms, mosquito nets, lockers, helmets, knives, ships, and other supplies during both World War I and II. The nation’s war effort profited from Philadelphia’a extensive network of commercial finger piers, shipyards, and the sprawling Philadelphia Naval Yard. One such artifact of Philadelphia’s role as a concentration point for war materiel is the Marine Corps Quartermaster Depot (1904), located at the southwest corner of Broad and Washington Ave.

At this facility the Marine Corps employed civilian workers to fabricate a wide array of goods during both wars. According to Maj. Edwin McClellan, USMC’s The United States Marine Corps in the World War (1920):

“During the period of the war the depot outfitted and equipped 36 expeditionary units for service in France and the West Indies, and over 31,000,000 pounds of various kinds of supplies were shipped on Government bills of lading. The depot departments were so organized that it was only necessary to expand each division of the office forces and increase the number of employees and machines in the manufacturing departments in order to meet the increased demands during the war. The personnel of the depot on June 30, 1919, was as follows: Thirteen commissioned officers, 7 warrant officers, 2 civilians, 102 enlisted men of the regular service, 21 reservists, and 1,095 other employees of all classes, making a total personnel of 1,240.”

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During World War II, stilettos used by the famed Marine Raider units were stored at the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot and distributed to Marines preparing to launch an amphibious attack on Tulagi in 1942. This map from the same year shows the blockwide Quartermaster Depot. Material produced inside the Depot could be sent along the double railroad tracks of wide Washington Ave. or via loading docks. The USMC drew from the city’s deep textile experience, and the Depot produced varied patterns of uniforms: from dress attire to the wear of the WAACS. Philadelphia textile fabricators within the facility were also notorious for their thrift. Former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak tells an anecdotal story in his autobiography, First to Fight, about how during the 1930s Depot personnel chose to make underwear with two buttons instead of two—unlike the Army and Navy versions which sported three buttons—because it was a penny cheaper.

Presumably the facility continued to provide the accoutrements of war during the Korean War and perhaps during Vietnam. A 1962 land use map of Philadelphia shows the addition of government parcels northward across Washington Ave. abutting the former PRR freight facility and just west of 15th Street along Washington. An additional parcel existed between 18th and 19th Sts. along Washington as well. I don’t know when the facility ceased operation but I imagine it was decommissioned in the 1970s-80s.

The Quartermaster Depot is an excellent specimen of early 20th century industrial architecture: its red brick institutional façade signaling to pedestrians on Broad Street the buttoned-up formality befitting a government facility. At the main entrance along Broad, a wrought iron “U.S. Marine Corps,” and an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor motif in the foyer suggest the building’s original role. But behind the brick cladding and beyond public eyes, the building dispenses with costly brick and shows typical government frugality in its reinforced concrete construction. The various portals along Washington Ave. indicate the need to expeditiously move materiel out of the facility and onto railcars, ships, and trucks.

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The USMCQD was protected by a preservation easement pushed through by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and has become a condominium complex, Marine Club. I am unaware of the current occupancy levels of the Marine Club, or if it is enjoyed by its residents but I am generally pleased by the adaptive reuse of an overlooked industrial site of national significance.

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