Profiles on some of the more compelling players in the ongoing battle to keep history alive on the Main Line.
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Collector Gus Spector’s vintage postcards preserve place in time.
Years ago, when a group of community-minded types restored the band shell in the center of Phoenixville’s Reeves Park, they didn’t know what its original colors were. Luckily, one of Gus Spector’s postcards solved that dilemma. Other cards in his collection touched off a mystery, showing a statue of a young boy beneath the band shell’s center stage. To this day, no one knows what became of it.
A 66-year-old Phoenixville urologist, Spector is also an expert on the region’s historic interiors and exteriors, as documented in his extensive collection of vintage postcards. Architecture is his guiding theme, and Philadelphia and Phoenixville are his primary settings. He claims to have 95 percent of all the Phoenixville cards ever issued, though they make up only 5 percent of the 5,000 historic postcards in his collection.
Spector grew up in South Philadelphia, attending city universities and medical schools, and doing his residency at city hospitals. An uncle owned a jewelry store on Bridge Street when Phoenixville was in its 1950s heyday. “When we first came out here, we thought it was the end of the world,” he says. “That was before the Schuylkill Expressway.”
Originating as a casual hobby, Spector’s collecting progressed as he began to appreciate “the old Philadelphia, before the glass ivory towers were erected.” At home in his “Philadelphia Room,” most of the cards are from the first quarter of the 20th century, and include buildings, hotels and street scenes. “This became my way of preserving the past,” he says.
Portions of his Philly collection can be seen in the four books he’s written. His favorite, Philadelphia Neighborhoods, focuses on the city’s different sections. It relies on so-called “real photo” postcards taken by itinerant photographers who sold the cards to the locals. Spector is also in discussions with Bryn Mawr’s George S. MacManus Company to privately publish a book on Philadelphia’s historic architecture.
Locally, Spector’s postcards were used in 2007’s grand opening brochure for the Schuylkill River Heritage Center at Phoenixville. He’s also made donations to the center, including an 1876 issue of Scientific American, in which Gustave Eiffel claims to have visited the Phoenix Iron Works for ideas prior to building the Eiffel Tower.
“These are cameos of the way things were,” says Spector of his collection. “Some are the only remaining relics of what a given place looked like.”