Twenty Years that Changed Philly

With so much historic architecture in NW Philly, it’s easy to take our scenery for granted. Joseph Minardi explains how our city grew into such distinct neighborhoods so worthy of preservation today. 

From the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Philadelphia has been around for over three centuries, but there was a two-decade period that transformed the city into an industrial powerhouse and spurred a huge growth spurt in the city’s population. To meet the residential demand, a number of builders were up to the task in building thousands of houses, many of them the typical Philadelphia row house. Seemingly overnight the city’s fields and farms were transformed into densely populated row house neighborhoods.

Prior to the Consolidation Act of 1854, Philadelphia County consisted of nine districts, six boroughs, and thirteen townships. The central part of the city was the built-up urban core, centered around the original boundaries of Philadelphia, which was basically from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill and from Vine Street to South Street, and the districts of Northern Liberties and Southwark.

On the city’s extremities were small self-contained villages and towns. Many of these villages of old have faded into history, forgotten by modern citizens. Names like Branchtown, Pittville, or Milestown are virtually unheard of today. Other town names such as Olney, Kensington, Germantown, and Bustleton have survived to this day as neighborhoods within the city of Philadelphia.

These place names have specific connotations, tied directly to their own unique histories or industries, with their own way of life and architecture. As Philadelphia’s population grew rapidly, the city’s grid pattern of streets expanded accordingly, eventually overrunning many of the old districts.

West side of Second Street north of McKean Street, 1907. The row houses in the photo were built in 1890 and apparently were able to support large families. Joseph Minardi photo collection.

Growth and Development

Around 1890, Philadelphia was in the middle of a home construction boom, with the single-family house being the dominant type. The style of house came to typify most of the city’s residential development during this boom period, which were two or three-story brick homes built in monotonous rows. Some of the nicer dwellings had amenities like a front porch, bay windows, and maybe even a small front lawn. By the early part of the 1890s, Philadelphia boasted around 200,000 row homes in the rapidly expanding city. Semi-detached houses, called twins in Philadelphia, started to appear in some of the more prosperous new suburbs like those in West Philadelphia.

The city’s explosion in population during the period from roughly 1890 to 1920 is mainly tied to Philadelphia’s reputation as being the “Workshop of the World.” Philadelphia factories produced virtually everything under the sun; from locomotives, steel ships, and streetcars to hats, sugar, and cigars. Of the 264 manufactured items listed by the US Manufacturing Survey of 1910, Philadelphia produced 211 of them. The vast majority of these jobs required little to no formal education. They were often dirty and dangerous tasks with long hours and low wages. In order to get to and from their jobs, most of the workers sought simple homes nearby their place of work.

As mentioned above, the architecture of these houses were in repetitive rows with little or no open space or parks. This situation was still a great deal better for the average Philadelphian than their New York counterparts, who had to endure the tortures of living in cramped, dark, and stifling tenements. Luckily for Philadelphia, the city’s infrastructure and well-established grid pattern of streets greatly aided in the construction of block after block of row houses. Horse-drawn streetcars, later replaced by electrified streetcars, and an extensive passenger railroad system allowed for workers to live further out into the city’s rural fringes.

In 1890 the city had approximately 800 farms comprising of some 33,000 acres. By 1920 the number of farms within the city limits of Philadelphia had dropped to roughly 400. Former farmers had become wealthy real estate developers overnight. Philadelphia’s voracious appetite for land was insatiable during this period of rapid development. Home building actually outpaced the city’s population growth.

Rosehill Street, north from Cambria Street, 1911. The houses in this photo were typical of working-class Kensington. The Carruth Endurance Mills, located at Rosehill and Indiana, is in the distance.

Between 1890 and 1915 nearly 8,000 homes were being built. Most of the homes had relative luxury features of the day; indoor plumbing, gas and electrical fixtures, and small front and/or back yards. The lowest skilled workers were unable to afford to live in such luxurious digs. The average annual salary of manual laborer in the early twentieth century was between $500 and $1,000, while the cost of most new homes averaged around $2,000. The practice of red lining made sure that those of certain undesirable ethnicities were completely shut out. However, there were enough members of the rising white-collar class and skilled laborers to keep the boom rolling along.

Greater improvements in the city’s mass transit systems meant a greater expansion of suburban living. Electrified trolley lines totaled over 400 miles of track by 1897 and 600 miles by 1915 with 86 routes. The Market Street Elevation line, officially open for business of March 4, 1907, did wonders for population growth in West Philadelphia. The quaint “Streetcar Suburb” of Victorian twin homes quickly turned into a booming bedroom community. Starting at 15th Street, the Market Street “El” was built all the way to Bridge Street in the Frankford section of Northeast Philly.

Philadelphia row homes are typically built of brick but are sometimes constructed of fieldstone, locally known as Wissahickon schist, primarily in the northwest section of the city. Within each type there can be a wide array of styles and enhancements that architects and builders added to houses for variation. Additions included gables, finials, parapets, and terra-cotta reliefs. Even the plainest row house can be made more special with an elaborate cornice or Roman bricks.

Row homes built in Philadelphia during the boom period are most easily divided by number of stories, that being two-stories, two-and-one-half stories, and three-stories. Developers would give certain homes nice little “extras” like bay windows and front porches, both of which served as cooling agents before air conditioning. Typically these little amenities went to buyers who were slightly more affluent than the average factory toiler. Still, Philadelphia offered a nice assortment of houses to folks of all income levels, a rarity for its time.

The most common of these types is the two-story row home. Filling a need for the city’s ever expanding working-class population, this type of row house was efficient and affordable. They are found in all sections of Philadelphia.

West side of 60th Street south of Catherine. Brand new row homes built by John L. Fry in August of 1910. Joseph Minardi photo collection

The Men Who Built Philadelphia

Although certain architects are fondly remembered for their artistry and craft, the builders who employed them are virtually unknown today.

In the 19th century, the line between builder and architect was often blurred. In many instances a builder could be the architect, and/or the contractor. Often times, architects, looking to cash in on Philadelphia’s building boom, took on the mantle of a builder. But it was the job of the builder to do the heavy lifting of creating whole neighborhoods in the blink of an eye. Procuring the required permits, contractor, architect (if necessary), and financing all fell on the shoulders of the builder.

During the boom years there were certain builders who figured prominently in creating city blocks. Their names are mostly forgotten now, but without them, the city would be very different today. Diverse groups of men such as Solomon Greenberg, Otto Guenthoer, Ludwig Lambrecht, the O’Brien Brothers, and Antonio Donato all played a role in the building of the city’s residential sections. Prominent builders like George Young, Richard Vancleave, John Stafford, and Charles Prettyman built thousands of homes during the turn of the twentieth century. The houses they built weren’t great architecture, but were well made and a solid value for hard working Philadelphian looking to purchase or rent a home of their own.

In their original state, a good number of these row houses were actually quite attractive. Over the years many were neglected, abused, or altered beyond recognition, while others, in a well-meaning but failed act of preservation, were covered in aluminum siding. Certain architectural details, added solely for aesthetic appeal, were removed due to the prohibitive cost of repair.

Thankfully there is a vast resource of photographs taken when the homes were newly built that provide us with a visual record of their appearance as intended by the builder/architect team. Many of these photographs were commissioned by builders to be used as advertising. The availability of cheaper and better photography lead to the creation of “real photo postcards,” which were used by builders and real estate agents alike.

Which brings us to the great collection that will be partially featured at the Falls of the Schuylkill Library this February 28th. My presentation, titled “City of Neighborhoods: Philadelphia 1890-1910,” will feature photos of Philadelphia during the boom years of development when the houses were still in mint condition. Going neighborhood-by-neighborhood, selected images will give you a glimpse of Philly from the olden days when streetcars, factories, and church spires dominated the city landscape. As part of the evening’s agenda, preservation issues in East Falls will be discussed.

I, and the fine folks at East Fall Local, hope to see you at the Falls Library on February 28th starting at 6:30 for an entertaining evening with some light refreshments.

One Comment

  • Loring F Hill

    I just got the bill from the Philadelphia Contributionship for my homeowner’s insurance. I never saw the bill before because it was paid by the mortgage holder. They dated my house as 1918. not the usual 1925 that the city dated everything. If so, I wanted to put up a banner celebrating the 100th anniversary of my house at 511 East Gorgas Lane. I would like to cite the builder and confirm the date it was built. I would like to describe the house correctly. It is a Dutch {sideways} Center hall Colonial Revival I think. I need help Sorry I missed your lecture. I’ll be at the next one .

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