January 12, 2018

Kensington's iconic milk bottle is now a historical landmark

Development Historical Buildings
Harbison's milk bottle tower Google Maps/Street View

An old Harbison's Dairy warehouse, shown with the iconic, 100-year-old milk bottle-shaped water tower perched on top of it, has been added to Philadelphia's historic register, protecting the water tower and the building from being significantly altered or removed without the city's permission.

An abandoned, rusted milk bottle-shaped water tower is all that remains of a dairy empire that was once an industrial giant in Philadelphia.

But the 120-year-old tower, perched on top of the old Harbison's Dairies factory in East Kensington, is still a prominent fixture in the area, visible to commuters on I-95 and the Market-Frankford line.

On Friday, the Philadelphia Historical Commission added it to the local historic register, protecting it from significant changes or removal without the commission's permission.

The designation includes the tower and four buildings along 2041-55 Coral St. which were all part of the factory.

Longtime owners Robert and Thomas Bartley Harbison were "significant Philadelphians, owing not only to their role in establishing and growing the prominent dairy business, but also for their involvement in educating and promoting the safe storage and transport of milk products," according to minutes from a meeting of the historical commission's Committee on Historic Designation last month.

PlanPhilly reported that an attorney for the owner of the Coral Street structure, William Martin, pushed back against the decision.

"The nomination further contends that the milk bottle water tower is significant for its innovative use as an advertisement and as a familiar visual feature of the neighborhood," the committee added.

Martin reportedly said the tower was worthy of being preserved, but that the building's owner, Fozen Ehmedi, opposed the inclusion of the old industrial warehouse beneath the tower in the nomination.


“The familiar icon is the water tower," Martin said in the report. "Not the rest, which is just a workaday industrial building.”

The Historical Commission reportedly voted to protect both the milk bottle and the industrial building, which preservationists argued could be converted into apartments.

Harbison's opened in 1865. Producing dairy for years before refrigerators became a common household item in the 1920s and '30s, the company transported its dairy by train from farms to the city and then delivered it with horse-drawn milk wagons.

The water tower, which was painted white and included the company's "H" logo, was erected in 1914.

The company began closing down and selling off its infrastructure in the 1960s, and the tower and the warehouse underneath eventually fell into disrepair.

Another part of the large factory – 2042-46 Amber St. – is now a 13-unit condominium.

The black-and-white image above is courtesy of the Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center (found here on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram).