Talks & Tours
"Tom is one of the most engaging speakers I have ever worked with. His knowledge of his research topics is extensive, and he is able to communicate in a lively and fun way. When I booked him to give a talk to Philadelphia museum and cultural professionals in November 2011, I knew everyone would be in for a treat. He revealed so much about a largely unknown topic, the 1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial - people really enjoyed it. Tom is fantastic, and I look forward to working with him again."
Lauren Zalut, American Swedish Historical Museum
Tom Keels has been informing and entertaining local groups with his illustrated presentations and historic tours for over a decade, speaking on such diverse topics as Philadelphia’s forgotten world's fair, sordid scandals, vanished department stores, lost architecture, cemeteries and burial grounds, and neighborhoods like Rittenhouse Square and Chestnut Hill. Examples of his talks include:
Sesqui! Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World's Fair of 1926
The Sesqui Sinks. The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition of 1926, held in South Philadelphia, was meant to be the greatest world's fair since the 1876 Centennial. Thanks to political corruption, greed, egotism, and the wettest summer on record, it became a crumbling, sodden, bankrupt mess, Philadelphia's "forgotten fair." The Sesqui served as a symbol for the city's monolithic Republican Organization, where one boss (Congressman William S. Vare, the "Duke of South Philadelphia") could kidnap an entire world's fair and transfer it from the newly completed Fairmount Parkway to the swamps of South Philly, his congressional district. This talk also explores how the Sesqui became an unwitting battleground for many of the social struggles convulsing America in the 1920s: racism, anti-Semitism, women's rights, the Ku Klux Klan, eugenics, and Prohibition.
The Ladies of the Street. One of the few bright spots of the Sesqui-Centennial was the High Street of 1776, a recreation of a Federal-era Market Street lined with 22 reconstructions of vanished historic structures, from William Penn's Slate Roof House to the Jefferson Declaration House. Created by the Women's Committee, the Street of 1776 was the Sesqui's most popular single attraction, and one of the few to turn a profit. Other popular attractions created by women included Sulgrave Manor, a replica of the ancestral English home of the Washington family. The Ladies of the Street describes how Philadelphia women defied the corrupt Republican Organization to create some of the fair's most memorable monuments.
The Art of the Sesqui. Despite its shortcomings, the Sesqui offered many Americans their first glimpse of the new movements that had revolutionized European art since 1900, introducing them to artists like Kandinsky, Matisse, and Picasso. The Palace of Fine Arts housed over 10,000 works of art, including an entire gallery devoted to the sculpture of the late Auguste Rodin, collected by Philadelphia theater magnate Jules Mastbaum. After the fair closed, this gallery would serve as the nucleus of the Rodin Museum, now one of the jewels of the Museum Mile on the Ben Franklin Parkway.
Philadelphia's Golden Age of Retail
Tom and his co-author Lawrence M. Arrigale bring Philadelphia's heyday as a mercantile mecca back to life with presentations on the city's dear departed department stores -- Wanamaker's, Strawbridge & Clothier, Gimbels, Lits, and Snellenburg's -- as well as its specialty shops, like the Blum Store, Nan Duskin, Jacob Reed's Sons, J.E. Caldwell's, Bailey Banks & Biddle, and many others. Their presentations illustrate how our city's retailing titans revolutionized American marketing, developed "retailtainment" as a concept a century before it became a buzzword, helped generations of Philadelphians celebrate holidays and other special occasions.
You Are Invited to a Mischianza. A look at the Mischianza of May 1778, when the British Army occupying Philadelphia celebrated the departure of its commanding officer with an orgy of dancing, gambling, dining and drinking that would cost nearly $600,000 today.
The Storey Cotton Con -- Philadelphia’s Ponzi Scheme. In 1900, five con artists created the Storey Cotton Company, a phony commodities trading firm that bilked Americans out of millions of dollars before its inglorious collapse in 1905.
The Sugar Daddy and the Broadway Butterfly. A Jazz Age story of a wealthy Philadelphia blueblood and his chorus girl mistress, and the scandal that erupted when the mistress inconveniently turned up dead in her Manhattan apartment.
Philadelphia’s Devious Dames and Wicked Wenches. Cherchez la femme with a close-up look at some of the female swindlers and sirens who have seduced the Quaker City over the years.
Forgotten Philadelphia: Lost Architecture of the Quaker City
Landmark To Landfill: Four Lost Philadelphia Monuments. An overview of how changes in Philadelphia’s social, economic, and political history have altered its architecture, focusing on the rise and fall of the Slate Roof House, Jayne Building, Broad Street Station, and Liberty Bell Pavilion.
Philadelphia’s Three World’s Fairs: The Good, The Bad, and The Unrealized. A comparison of the glorious 1876 Centennial, the unfortunate 1926 Sesqui-Centennial, and the mostly unrealized 1976 Bicentennial.
Philadelphia’s Edifice Complex. What happens when ego outstrips reason in the Quaker City, from Robert Morris’ unfinished French chateau to recent examples of egregious architecture.
Franklin’s Forgotten Philadelphia. A tour through the vanished city where Benjamin Franklin lived, worked, and helped to create the United States of America.
Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square
Rittenhouse Square: Lifestyles of the Formerly Rich and Famous. Stories of the Square when it housed more millionaires per square foot than any other neighborhood in America.
Modern Medicis: Rittenhouse Square and the Arts. A look at how Joseph Harrison Jr., William and Anna Wilstach, Alexander and Lois Cassatt, Edward and Eva Stotesbury, Edward and Mary Louise Curtis Bok, Henry P. McIlhenny and other Philadelphia philanthropists created and shaped the city’s cultural institutions.
Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries
Philadelphia’s Forgotten Graveyards: Where Are They Now? Burial sites that have vanished over time due to neglect, development, or corruption.
America Lies Here: Colonial and Federal Graveyards of Philadelphia. A tour of our earliest burial grounds, from Gloria Dei, Christ Church, and Mikveh Israel to Richardson’s, the city’s first independent cemetery.
Laurel Hill and the Victorian Way of Death. How Philadelphia’s first rural cemetery, established in 1836, came to embody the Victorian ethos of the “good death.”
Tom is a tour guide at historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, and regularly leads tours there on such topics as “Architects and Architecture at Laurel Hill” and “Sinners, Scandals, & Suicides,” along with general tours. In addition, he has conducted tours of West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Lower Merion and Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia.
Among the organizations Tom has addressed are:
- American Institute of Architects (Philadelphia chapter)
- American Revolution Round Table of Philadelphia (ARRTOP)
- Athenaeum of Philadelphia
- Chestnut Hill Historical Society
- Christ Church Preservation Trust
- Curtis Institute of Music
- Free Library of Philadelphia (central branch authors’ series)
- Friends of Independence National Historical Park
- Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC)
- Harvard Club of Philadelphia
- Museum Council of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley
- Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Region I) Annual Meeting
- Old York Road Historical Society
- Springfield Township Historical Society (Montgomery County)
- Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia
- Union League of Philadelphia
- Victorian Society in America
- Walk Philadelphia Guides
References and fees available upon request.