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The Secret Life of Buildings: Beaux-Arts Architecture

Philadelphians often refer to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as being our very own “Champs-Elysees.” They are not mistaken. The Beaux-Arts style of this grand boulevard was borrowed directly from Baron Haussmann’s 19th-century urban renewal of Paris.  We invite you to go back in time, to understand how the Beaux-Arts movement came to become part of Philadelphia’s architectural heritage. 

History

Beaux-Arts architecture gets its name from Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the premier French school of architecture that flourished from 1885 to 1930. When American architects traveled to Europe, they were astounded by how Paris had changed from a dark warren of narrow streets to grand boulevards filled with gleaming monuments, museums, and libraries in the Greek and Roman decorative style. If the French can do it, they thought, why can’t we?

The Beaux-Arts style combines grand and imposing size with Italian Renaissance and classical Greek and Roman decorative elements like columns, pediments, and balustrades. Exterior decorative details may include arched windows, balconies, and terraces, as well as ornamental windows and grand entrances. 

One of the most distinctive features borrowed from ancient Rome was coffered ceilings, consisting of a series of rectangular, square, or octagon grids in three-dimension sunken or recessed panels. 

Philadelphia’s Beaux-Arts Buildings

Take a walk back in time by visiting the City’s Beaux-Arts treasures, starting with two buildings created in 1871 as part of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. They include Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum), originally built as the City’s art gallery in Fairmont Park prior to the creation of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) at Broad and Cherry streets, designed by Philadelphia’s renowned architect Frank Furness.

Below we’ll go over a few more examples of buildings with Beaux-Arts architectural details in our vibrant city.

The Bourse

The Philadelphia Bourse, designed by GW & WD Hewitt in the Beaux-Arts style, modeled after the Bourse in Hamburg, Germany, was built from 1893 to 1895.  Originally designed as a commodities exchange, it is now a food court across from Independence Hall Park.

The Philadelphia Bourse building

The Union League

The Union League was originally built in 1865 in what’s called Second Empire-style and didn’t have any Beaux-Arts elements until it was renovated in 1910. The building’s Beaux-Arts style additions, which face 15th Street, were designed by Horace Trumbauerer

The Curtis Building

The Curtis Building (now the Curtis Center), on the northwest corner of 6th & Walnut is a must-see, inside and out. Designed by architect Edgar V. Seeler in 1911, the building’s lobby contains The Dream Garden, a breathtaking mosaic mural by Louis C. Tiffany based on an original painting by Maxfield Parrish.  If you go, make sure to visit the Curtis Center’s historic atrium, a vast, marbled-floored hall topped with a steel and glass roof, now used for weddings and special events.

SONY DSC

Free Library of Philadelphia, Parkway Central

The Free Library of Philadelphia Parkway Central Branch was designed by Julian Francis Abele, the first black architect to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture. He worked with Horace Trumbauer on the Union League and Philadelphia Museum of Art. The construction which started in 1917 was held up for ten years do the start of the First World War.

Next to the Free Library is another Beaux-Arts gem, the Family Court Building built between 1938 and 1941. Designed by famed architect John T. Windrim and his colleague William Richard Morton Keast, the building tips its hat to Paris with its resemblance to the Hôtel de Crillon and the French Naval Ministry on Paris’ Place de la Concorde. This allows architecturally astute Philadelphians strolling in Paris to exclaim,” This looks just like Philly!”

Beaux-Arts in Residential Homes

While the Beaux-Arts style was predominantly used in public buildings due to the high cost, affluent Americans were still eager to erect impressive mansions to showcase wealth. In Rittenhouse Square, you can find three local examples of private mansions built in the Beaux-Arts style. 

The first is the Alexander Van Rensselaer residence (now an Anthropologie) on the northwest corner of 18th and Walnut by Rittenhouse Square Park. Step inside the store to check out the opulent interior details of the former mansion which later served as Penn Athletic Club’s clubhouse. Inside a sweeping spiral staircase leads shoppers through four floors of merchandise and displays. When you visit, be sure to look up! The most notable original detail of the interior is an impressive stained glass dome with painted portraits of Italian princes.

Just one block away is the former Drexel Residence (now the Curtis Institute) on the southeast corner of 18th and Locust, and the Samuel P. Wetherill Mansion (now the Uarts/Art Alliance) at 251 S. 18th St. Both are stunning examples of Beaux-Arts classicism and elegance.

You can visit and appreciate many of these buildings by taking an afternoon stroll and walking through Center City. If you’d like a guided architectural walking tour, consider contacting the Preservation Alliance.

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we cover the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s storied buildings. We’ve written about row house stylescourtyardsand star bolts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

The Secret Life of Buildings: The Philadelphia Trinity House

One of Philadelphia’s most unique architectural features are its trinity houses located on charming alleys and picturesque side streets. How did they get here? And why are these tiny homes so coveted? We took a deep dive into our City’s history to find out.

Origins

Trinity homes started as affordable housing for the working class in the 1680s. The oldest surviving and most famous trinity houses are on Elfreth’s Alley in Old City, a National Historic Landmark located between North Second St. and North Front St. Built 1703-1836 to house tradesmen and artisans, these small brick structures were built in the Georgian and Federal-style along a cobblestone street. 

The name trinity or “bandbox” refers to the three-story structure which features only one room on each floor, connected by a narrow spiral staircase. They are also called “father-son-holy ghost” houses. They clock in at around 500-1,000 square feet so it wouldn’t be far off to claim that trinity houses were the original tiny house, popping up long before the modern-day movement took hold.

Narrow staircase at the Betsy Ross House

As the City grew during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, trinity houses also sprung up on alleys and side streets to house workers who worked along the main thoroughfares. They were often built on courts behind larger properties or in alleys that divided larger blocks. No larger than sixteen feet on any side, rising two or three stories, the bathrooms were originally built in courtyards behind the homes. Kitchens were usually below street level.

A charming cobblestone street in Philadelphia

In 1893, Philadelphia promoters constructed a trinity house described as a “model Philadelphia house” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, The cost for such a building was approximately $2,500. Today, renovated 18th-century trinities can be priced as high as $750K. 

20th Century

In the early 20th century, the Great Depression hit Philadelphia exceptionally hard. The city had formerly been the financial capital of the country; that all ended, and the banking industry moved to New York.

After World War II, the city began its decades-long decline, losing people to the suburbs and to other cities. Unemployment skyrocketed, and for the first time, the population began to drop. During this time, trinity houses fell into disrepair and these historic little streets fell out of favor.

Trinity Renaissance 

In the late 20th century, Philly experienced an economic boost and one-hundred-year-old trinity homes became “collectible.” With fresh coats of paint on doors and shutters, re-pointed brick, and window boxes blooming with flowers, they were snapped up by young professionals and connoisseurs of history. These new residents were happy to renovate and expand these tiny houses, adding roof decks, hardwood floors, modern bathrooms, and restoring working fireplaces. 

rowhome windows and planter

While the trinity home was originally born out of a necessity for quick, efficient, and affordable housing that builders could squeeze into minuscule streets, countless of these homes remain throughout the city today. Given their relatively small size, the trinity lifestyle is not for everyone, but they have garnered somewhat of a cult following.

Attractive features include the maximization of space with each floor devoted to a single room, the lower cost of the property making the houses low-income friendly, and the connection to a real piece of Philadelphia history. Many trinity houses are still jam-packed with original historic features such as exposed brick, fireplaces, stone or brick floors in the basement, wide plank wood floors, built-in shelves, and exposed beams.

312 kauffman, a traditional trinity home sold by Solo Real Estate
312 Kauffman, a traditional trinity home previously sold by Solo Real Estate

A trinity house can sometimes be spotted from the outside because of its distinct height-to-depth ratio with three stories but no more than a room’s worth deep. These houses are almost always hidden along tiny alleyways between the city’s bigger streets, even smaller alleyways built off of other alley streets, and pedestrian courtyards that are carved out of the center of city blocks. The removal of these clusters from main thoroughfares is another reason the trinity lifestyle is appealing to some, namely those in search of a quieter abode while still sitting close to the action of the city.

Over time, neighborhood associations have banded together to keep these historic, charming streets clean and safe from demolition. Examples of long-standing trinity house courts are the famous Elfreth’s Alley in Old City and Bell’s Court in Society Hill. The appeal of the trinity has survived the test of time and these houses can still be found standing and serving in just about every neighborhood across Philadelphia.

Our Favorite Blocks With Trinity Homes

  • Located near Jefferson Hospital, between Locust and Spruce Streets, Quince Street is a tiny block of historic trinity homes with potted planters, colorful shutters, and tall trees lining the street. 
  • 700 block Bradford Alley is tucked between Lombard and Rodman Streets in Washington Square West. 
  • 2600 block Panama St, just off the Schuylkill River in Fitler Square. While it is beautiful year round, be sure to walk along it in the fall, when the Gingko trees are in peak yellow form. 

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we cover the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s storied buildings. We’ve written about row house stylescourtyardsand star bolts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

The Secret Life of Buildings: Mid Century Modern Philadelphia

The Philadelphia skyline changed dramatically from 1940 to 1970, creating over 400 significant mid century modern buildings. Designed by the great architects of their day, these bold buildings reflected a dynamic change in the way we live. Here is a guide to some of our City’s best surviving examples of mid century modern design.

Woolworth, 1948

Woolworth Building. Image: Free Library Picture Collection
Woolworth Building at 1330 Chesnut Street in 1949.
Image: Free Library Picture Collection

When this store opened at 1330 Chestnut, it was the largest Woolworth’s in the nation and marked a radical change in Philly architecture. Its sleek, modern design contrasted with the rococo architecture on the corner of Chestnut and Sansom, as well as the late 19th century Wanamaker Building across the street. Today, it is the home of West Elm, Lucky Strike Bowling, and Blick’s.

Penn Center, 1953

The centrally located complex of office towers and retail space, between 15th and 19th Streets on Market Street, is credited with bringing Philadelphia into the era of modernity. To create it, a ten-block, red stone wall viaduct known as the “Chinese Wall” had to come down. Ed Bacon, executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, came up with a master plan for the area to be cleared. 

Penn Center. Image: Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

The original plan called for just three hi-rise towers. Now there are eleven. The first to be completed was 3 Penn Center, 1515 Market, designed by Vincent Kling. Five more towers were completed by 1970. Today, the tallest tower is 9 Penn Center with 54 floors, completed in 1990.

Beth Sholom Synagogue, 1959

This Elkins Park synagogue located on Old York Road (Route 611) was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last commissions at the age of 85. It was completed five months after Wright’s death and one month before the dedication of one of his most iconic buildings, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Beth Sholom. Image: Library of Congress
Beth Sholom’s metal roof and sloped glass mid century modern features. Image: Library of Congress

Designed to emulate Mt. Sinai, the building has a steeped, sloped glass and a metal roof which allows light to radiate into the sanctuary. Added to the National Register in 2007, tours are available upon request.

Richard’s Medical Research Labs, 1960

Louis Kahn designed this building at 3700 Hamilton Walk on Penn’s campus when he was a professor in the University’s Architecture School. Now considered a National Historic Landmark, at the time it was completed it was criticized by the scientists who worked there and praised by architects.  

Richard’s Medical Research Labs. Image: UPenn.edu
Richard’s Medical Research Labs. Image: UPenn.edu

In this innovative design, Kahn returned to the formal complications lost in International Modernism, reviving the richness which had been so much a part of the tradition of Philadelphia architecture. This is one of the most important buildings on the Penn campus, by one of the most important architects of the modern era. 

Love Park Welcome Center, 1960

Roy Larson of Harbeson, Hough, Livingston & Larson designed the iconic mid-century “Flintstones” era flying saucer in Love Park as a futuristic celebration of postwar Philadelphia optimism. 

LOVE Park Welcome Center. Image: Fairmount Park Conservancy
LOVE Park Welcome Center is an example of mid century modern architecture in Center City. Image: Fairmount Park Conservancy

When the Visitors’ Center relocated to Independence Mall in 2016, the saucer was saved from demolition. It is scheduled to reopen as a restaurant with 360-degree views. 

Police Administration Building, 1963 

"The Roundhouse". Image: Temple University Library, Special Collections
“The Roundhouse”. Image: Temple University Library, Special Collections

Is it a coincidence that a Brutalist building was created to house Philly’s finest? Known as the Roundhouse, it was designed by Geddes, Brecher, Qualls, and Cunningham and was considered groundbreaking because it was built using an innovative system of pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete. Located at 750 Race Street, the future of the building is unclear as plans to relocate the Police Administration to the former Inquirer Building on N. Broad Street have been delayed.

Society Hill Towers, 1964

When ground was broken for Society Hill Towers at 220 Locust, Philadelphians were puzzled. Who would want to live in what had long been a forsaken area before the advent of Penn’s Landing? The answer was “everyone.”

Society Hill Towers

The three 31-floor residential towers were part of an urban renewal effort by Edmund Bacon who had already launched Penn Center. Designed by I.M. Pei, the towers, with their exposed concrete facade and floor-to-ceiling windows became an instant success and helped turn Society Hill into a dining mecca.

At the base of the towers sits a townhouse development, which was also designed by I.M. Pei. A sharp contrast to the mid century architecture of the towers, the exterior of the Pei-designed modernist townhouses feature Flemish bond brick and arched doors. If you’re interested in learning more about these, there’s a great Curbed article about a beautifully-renovated private residence in one of the townhouses.

Romm & Haas, 1964

Designed by Pietro Belluschi, this nine-story building at 100 S. Independence Mall West marked the start of the renewal of the Independence Hall area. Serving as the headquarters of Rohm and Hass, a chemical engineering company, it was innovative for its use of Plexiglas, corrugated sunscreens, and modern interiors. 

Romm & Haas Corporate Headquarters. Image: Wikipedia.org
Romm & Haas Corporate Headquarters. Image: Wikipedia.org

Today, it is considered one of the best examples of International Style. It contains a landscaped plaza that cuts through the middle of the ground level of the building and opens up to a larger plaza with a fountain and small pool.

Our architectural heritage

Many of the design elements of mid century modern architecture continue to resonate in contemporary commercial and residential properties. Even in Philly’s newest buildings, you will find modernist concepts that were first introduced over 75 years ago. That is the pleasure of living in a city that embraces the past and the future!

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we cover the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s storied buildings. We’ve written about art deco buildings, repurpoused banksrow house stylesand star bolts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

The Secret Life of Buildings: Philadelphia’s Last Surviving Theatres

Theaters are a measure of a City’s vitality. They are also weather vanes of constantly shifting cultural trends. In both regards, Philadelphia theaters have withstood the test of time. Here are a few that are noteworthy for both their architecture and their role in shaping our City’s history.

Walnut Theatre, 1821. Image courtesy of the PA State Archives

Walnut Street Theatre

The oldest theatre in America, Walnut Street Theatre opened in 1809 as a circus with equestrian acts. Just two years later, out go the horses; in come the actors.  Redesigned for theatrical performances by acclaimed architect William Strickland, the theatre featured the top actors of their day. Audience members included President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette. 

Walnut Street Theatre (1938). This image shows the 1920s interior design by architect William Lee. Photograph courtesy of Athenaeum Philadelphia

The biggest change came in the 1940s when the Theatre was purchased by the Shubert Organization. At the time, Philly was a “try-out” town where shows worked out their kinks before opening on Broadway. Other Center City theatres presenting Broadway previews included: the Shubert (now the Merriam); the Erlanger at 21st and Market (demolished in 1978), and the Locust Theatre, 1407 Locust (now Estia restaurant). 

Locust Theatre

As a result, Philly audiences could see the original casts of shows for a fraction of the Broadway price. Pre-theatre restaurants like Lew Tendler’s at Broad and Locust displayed hundreds of autographed photos of famed actors who had dined there. The Walnut Theatre’s stage had featured luminaries of stage and screen, including Lauren Becall, Woody Allen, Audrey Hepburn, Gene Hackman, Henry Fonda, and Sidney Portier. 

Actress Fanny Davenport at the Walnut Theatre, 1884. Image courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia

The Walnut, a National Historic Landmark, became a self-producing, non-profit regional theatre in 1982, founding the Walnut Street Theatre Company. With nearly 50,000 subscribers annually, today the Walnut Street Theatre is the most subscribed theatre company in the world.

Metropolitan Opera House

When it opened in 1908, seating 4,000, the Metropolitan Opera House, 858 N. Broad Street, was the largest theater of its kind in the world. Designed by architect William H. McElfatrick, known as “the father of American theatre architecture,” it was originally called the Philadelphia Opera House and was owned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera which performed there until 1920.

Metropolitan Opera House, Philadelphia – View from the stage (1917). Source: “The Victrola book of the opera : stories of one hundred and twenty operas with seven-hundred illustrations and descriptions of twelve-hundred Victor opera records”

Today, North Broad Street might seem an unlikely location for opera lovers, but at the dawn of the 20th Century, it was an affluent part of the City, lined with the mansions of wealthy industrialists. By the late 20th Century, North Broad Street was in decline and the Metropolitan Opera House became inactive as a music venue. 

In 2018, after a $56 million-dollar restoration, the 113-year-old opera house reopened as the MET Philadelphia, featuring a performance by Bob Dylan to a sold-out audience. The new space has art deco elements and marks the revitalization of North Broad Street. Upcoming performances include Sting, Ringo Starr, and Alicia Keys. 

The MET Philadelphia today. Image: MET Philadelphia

The Tower Theater 

Built in 1927 in Upper Darby, just outside the City limits, the Tower Theater thrived in its early years as a vaudeville venue and movie theater. 

Tower Theatre

By the 1970s, the Tower had fallen on hard times, reflecting changes in the neighborhood. In 1972, the theater was refurbished following a severe fire and converted into a rock concert venue.  

The Tower presented rock legends: David Bowie, Genesis with Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen Lou Reed and Jerry Garcia. In 2018, the Tower Theater was named one of the 10 best live music venues in America by Rolling Stone Magazine. Currently, the Tower Theatre is the site of the Van Gogh Immersive Event through February 2022.

Forrest Theatre

Originally located at Broad and Sansom Street, the Forrest Theatre was built at its current location, 1114 Walnut Street, in 1927. Designed by architect Herbert J. Krapp, the theatre was named after the 19th century Philadelphia actor Edwin Forrest and is one of the architect’s most intricate designs. Owned by the Shubert Organization, the Forrest Theatre offered previews of Broadway plays and musicals from the 1940s through the 1970s.

Forrest Theater Interior. Image: The Shubert Organization

The Grand Foyer was redone in the early 1990s by famous theatrical scenic designer Oliver Smith. In 2017, an extensive redecoration to the Auditorium and Mezzanine Lounge was completed.

Forrest Theater Balcony. Image: The Shubert Organization

Starting in 2007, the Forrest Theatre joined with the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts offering Broadway touring productions. Recently, that included sold-out performances of Hamilton.

Sedgewick Theater

Built in 1928 and designed by architect William Harold Lee, the Sedgewick in Mt. Airy is one of the twenty remaining theaters designed by Lee, including the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown. This Art Deco movie palace was built just as silent films gave way to “talkies” and was in operation until 1966.

Sedgewick Theatre exterior, 1940s.

When it closed, it became a warehouse and significant damage had been done. It became the Sedgewick Cultural Center in 1995. However, by 2006 the overall condition of the theater had not improved. In 2010, the Quintessence Theatre Group rented the Sedgewick for a classical repertory troupe. They have since secured a twenty-year lease on the theatre and they continue to present performances at the site.

The next time you are in one of Philly’s historic theaters, don’t just take in the show. Take in the magnificent architecture and craftsmanship of a bygone era that has thrilled audiences for over a century.

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we cover the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s storied buildings. We’ve written about row house stylesalleys, courtyards, and star bolts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

The Secret Life of Buildings: Jewelers’ Row

The oldest diamond district in America, Philadelphia’s Jewelers’ Row District, located from Market to Walnut and from 7th to 9th Street, is about to change. Amidst properties dating back to 1799, construction crews are making way for a modern glass condominium tower. However, a look back in history reveals that this iconic street has endured major transitions before.

Jewelers’ Row History

Before it became known as Jewelers’ Row, the 700 block of Sansom Street started in 1799 as a housing development known as Carstairs Row. Designed by architect Thomas Carstairs, it introduced the concept of rowhouses in the United States. Developed by William Sansom, for whom the street was named, the project contained 22 Georgian-style rowhouses on the south side of Sansom Street. While many surrounding streets were covered in dirt, Sansom paved the street with red brick which is still visible today. 

Many of the original Carstairs houses no longer exist, however, 700 Sansom Street remains much as it was originally built. It stands as an example of the present coexisting with elements of the City’s past. Ironically, when construction of the glass condo tower resumes, it will share a wall with this historic property.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the 700 block of Sansom Street was the center of the engraving trade, due to its proximity to the City’s thriving printing industry. Edgar Allan Poe’s engraver lived and worked at 732 Sansom.

When Eastern European and Jewish immigrants poured into Philadelphia between the 1880s and early 1900s, they gravitated to Sansom street as watchmakers and jewelers. Before 1908, only five jewelers were on the street; that number exploded to more than two hundred establishments by 1930. Barsky Diamonds at 724 Sansom was part of that history. 

Barsky Diamonds

“We’re a fifth-generation manufacturer of diamonds and fine jewelry,” said owner Jeff Barsky. “My great grandfather came here from Kiev in 1898 and had auction houses on Market Street. Later, my grandparents manufactured leather watchbands and sold them at a booth they rented at 706-708 Sansom. While my grandfather traveled around Pennsylvania selling watchbands, my grandmother expanded the business, buying and selling jewelry. Eventually, she bought the buildings she had been renting.”

In the 1960s, working on Jewelers’ Row was the last thing on young Jeff Barsky’s mind. “At the time, I wanted to do anything but go into the family business. I was an artist and got accepted at PAFA. To pay my tuition, I worked in the store,” he said. Barsky later formed a partnership with his uncle Jay and traveled to New York City to learn how to buy rough diamonds. “I really came to enjoy it,” he said. And, yes, he still paints.

As for current changes on Jewelers’ Row, Barsky is pragmatic. “Manufacturing moved overseas. There are fewer retail stores and more residential properties. The tower that’s under construction will have retail shops on the first floor.  That will be good for business,” he said.

Architectural Styles

The majority of buildings within the Jewelers’ Row District date from 1800 to 1940, ranging in styles from Federal, Italianate, Victorian, Renaissance Revival, Beaux-Arts, 20th Century Commercial, Art Deco, and Mid-Century Modern. The variety of styles reflects the district’s ability to adapt to changing trends over a century. Check out the Jewelry Trades Center designed by Ralph Bencker in 1929 at the southeast corner of Sansom and 8th St. In this building, the average tenant has been in the building for over 20 years, with many over 40 years. It serves as the center for Jewelers’ Row, passing down the art of manufacturing fine jewelry through various generations.

In 2016, real estate company Toll Brothers obtained a permit to construct a twenty-four-story glass condo tower on the 700 block of Sansom Street. Five buildings, from 702 to 710 Sansom were scheduled to be demolished. Although the pandemic paused construction, a large hole in the middle of Sansom Street is a reminder that change is inevitable. 

This is not the first time a famous Philadelphia shopping district has changed its stripes. The former Antique Row on Pine Street, Fabric Row on South 4th Street and Automobile Row on North Broad have all given way to shifts in demographics and economics.

Old photograph of 700 R & W Jewelers on 7th and Sansom Street

All the more reason to visit Jewelers’ Row District now. Explore its shops, chat with its craftsmen, support the businesses in the area by dining in the eclectic eateries there and experience its history. Who knows? You just may get a good deal on a diamond, and a good story to pass on to the next generation. 

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we write about the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s buildings. We’ve covered row house styles, common Philadelphia brick styles, trinity homes,and star bolts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

The Secret Life of Buildings: Boathouse Row

The most iconic view of Philadelphia is not Independence Hall, the “Rocky” steps, or even the skyline — It’s Boathouse Row, the National Historic Landmark of mid-19th century buildings nestled along the banks of the Schuylkill River behind the Art Museum. 

History

Philly has an abundance of firsts. It’s home to the first university, hospital, library, and bank. However, few people are aware that our city is acknowledged as the birthplace of rowing for the nation. The building of the Fairmount Waterworks in 1812 and the Fairmount Dam in 1819 altered the nature of the Schuylkill River from a rushing stream to a relatively calm lake that gave way to more recreational use. By the 1850s, Philadelphia had developed a robust middle class seeking a form of leisure. Their solution? Rowing on the Schuylkill River which, at the time, was used to transport coal from the mountains of Pennsylvania. 

The first of the thirteen rowing clubs currently in existence on boathouse row was Bachelors Barge Club, established in 1853. The Bachelor’s boathouse is the fourth structure in the row and it currently houses the rowing programs for Drexel University and Wharton School of Business Crew.

The next rowing club to form was University Barge Club founded by Penn students in 1854. They are the organizers of the annual Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill Regatta. An acclaimed Philadelphia artist, Eakins painted fourteen sculling scenes, the most famous of which, Max Schmidt in a Single Sculling, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Undine Barge Club opened in 1856. One thing that makes their building, #13 on the row, worthy of a second look is that it was designed by famed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness in 1882. Made of stone and wood, the boathouse’s exterior features a tower referencing the Undine myth and exhibits bold hues of red and green. In Boathouse Row The Book, the author mentions that Furness “loved using reds and greens in his buildings, the “colors of nature,” he called them. “Nature,” he wrote,  “never makes a mistake in taste.”

Boathouse #13, Photo: Undine Barge Club

Boathouse #14 is of particular note, being the oldest surviving structure built on the row after the city condemned the original flimsy wooden boathouses built along the river. The two and a half story boathouse was designed by cartographer and architect James C. Sidney and was originally home to the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society building. The boathouse with its distinctive cupola retains a lot of its original architectural integrity and now houses the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club, the oldest active rowing club for women established in 1938. The Undine Barge Club also rented the structure prior to building their own.

Boathouse #14. Photo: Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club
Stella Sokolowska Peters and Betty McManus Wilkins, 1938. Photo: Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club)

Each club on Boathouse Row is a member of the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia, the oldest amateur athletic governing body in America. As a governing body, the Schuylkill Navy still hosts many races, including bringing the Dad Vail Rowing Regatta, the largest intercollegiate rowing competition in the United States, to Philly.

Olympic Dreams

Vesper Boat Club, founded in 1865, was a club focused on developing champions.  They produced the first Olympic men’s rowing gold medal in 1900, winning gold again in 1904 and 1964, the only club in the U.S. to produce eight Olympic champions.

Renowned Vesper champions include John B. Kelly, Sr. (father of Princess Grace) and later his son, John B. Kelly, Jr.  Kelly, Sr. won the Olympic single scull in 1920 and 1924.  At the time of his death, Kelly, Jr. was the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

In 1970, after a century of accomplishments, Vesper became the first men’s club to organize a women’s team.  Six Vesper women participated in the 1976 Olympics.

Sustainability

Remember when the Schuylkill was dark brown sludge, unsafe for swimming or even boating? Once again, there is a renewed effort to dredge the river. Big Dig Depth Restoration of the Schuylkill is a $4.5 million campaign sponsored by the Schuylkill Navy. 

The objective is to ensure continuing safe access to the river. Silt build-up threatens the ability to launch from rowing club docks along the row and safe conduct by river users. Whether you are a rower, biking enthusiast, or simply enjoy walking along Kelly Drive, the River’s health is crucial to Philadelphia’s environmental goals.

Save the date

This year, the Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill Regatta will be held Oct 30-31st, 8 am-6 pm.  Kelly Drive will be closed so hop on your bike and bring a picnic lunch and blanket to watch from anywhere along either side of the drive. Or bring a sketch pad and discover what inspired painter Thomas Eakins.

Boathouse Rentals

Since boathouses started as social clubs, it’s natural that many of them are available today for private parties, weddings, and business meetings. Several of them have beautifully paneled bars, dining areas, and stunning river views. boathouserow.org has an inquiry form you can use to get in touch about planning an event. 

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we write about the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s buildings. We’ve covered row house stylescommon Philadelphia brick stylestrinity homes,and star bolts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

Philly’s Art Deco Treasures

Originating in France in the 1910s, the Art Deco movement was embraced by Philadelphia architects in the 1930s. It was a breakaway from the Art Nouveau Movement, featuring angular, geometric forms. These Jazz Age buildings combined modern style with decorative themes from Nature, Ancient Egypt, Antiquity, and Native American design. It also included curved exterior walls known as “streamline.” 

While Philadelphia isn’t typically known for its Art Deco architecture, our city houses many fine examples of the style. We encourage you to take a walk through Center City to view some of the grandeur of these buildings firsthand and gain a deeper appreciation of Philly’s architectural heritage.

Beury Building, Broad & Erie

When Architect William H. Lee designed the National Bank of North Philadelphia in 1926, the 14-story limestone, brick, and terra cotta structure was considered a masterpiece of Art Deco design. Renamed the Beury Building, it was topped by a three-story penthouse with a pyramid roof.

In 1985, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Following forty years of abandonment, the property was renovated into a Marriot in 2019. The ground floor continues to display an elegant Art Deco archway with magnificent windows. 

Lee also designed many of Philadelphia’s opulent Art Deco movie palaces. Although most are gone, several remain including the Sedgewick, Anthony Wayne, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, and the Hiway.

PSFS, 12th & Market

In 1932, the first skyscraper in the International Style in the United States, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) was greeted with both praise and criticism. Designed by architects William Lescaze and George Howe, some felt it was too sterile.

The 36-story building was a radical departure from the traditional Greek and Italian-inspired bank architecture. Lescaze and Howe went on to design PSFS branches all over the city, including the Logan Branch, now a Citizen’s Bank, a beautiful example of Art Deco at 5000 N Broad.

PSFS Building exterior. Image: Jack Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress
PSFS Building exterior. Image: Jack Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

In 1969, the PSFS building received the “Building of the Century Award.” But by 1992, the skyscraper was 85% vacant. It was auctioned off and is now a Loews Hotel. The building is still topped by a red neon 27-foot PSFS sign that can be seen for 20 miles.

Interior of the PSFS building, 1932. Image: Hagley Digital Archives.
Interior of the PSFS building, 1932. Image: Hagley Digital Archives.

Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave. 

Designed by Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary in 1927, the Perelman Building is a registered national historic landmark. It features a stunning, three-story, arched cathedral entrance with decorative windows. The exterior décor includes relief sculptures of animals and people, typical of Art Deco design. 

Perelman Building. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Perelman Building. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Originally built as the headquarters for Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company, the building reopened in 2007 as an extension of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The façade renovation received a Grand Jury Award for Exterior Restoration and Adaptive Reuse from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

WCAU Building, 1622 Chestnut 

WCAU building facade. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The WCAU building stands out as one of the most recognizable Art Deco buildings in Philly. Designed by Harry Sternfeld, it was the first building in the nation designed specifically for a radio station. Over the years, it has been a Woolworth’s, the Art Institute of Philadelphia and now it is an Old Navy.

The Ayer, 210 W Washington Sq

Built 1927-29, the Ayer was originally designed by Ralph Bencker as the headquarters for N.W. Ayer, one of the oldest ad agencies in the country. Now a condo, its Art Deco features are still prominently on display both inside and out, including the elaborate bronze front doors, decorative lobby, and the large monumental figures at the top of the building.

Ayer building door details. Image: Newyorkitecture
Ayer building door details. Image: Newyorkitecture

The Drake, 1512 Spruce St

The Drake. Photo: Brookfield Properties
The Drake. Photo: Brookfield Properties

This 33-story masterpiece is one of the landmarks of Philly’s skyline. Originally a hotel, it was designed by the architectural firm Ritter and Shay.  Who hasn’t looked up in wonder at its iconic terra-cotta dome or marveled at its Spanish Baroque interior? Today, it is an apartment building with a penthouse swimming pool.

SEPTA Suburban Station, 1600 John F Kennedy Blvd

Suburban Station’s Art Deco design owes its opulence to a collection of architects, including Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, and Thalheimer & Weitz. The building originally served as a terminal for Pennsylvania Railroad trains. Today, it is an office building and train station, with retail located below. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

30th Street Station, 2955 Market St

30th Street Station Interior. Image: Amtrak
30th Street Station Interior. Image: Amtrak

While the exterior is neoclassical, the interior of 30th Street Station is pure Art Deco designed in 1929-34 by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White. Now considered one of the last remaining grand stations in the country, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

More Art Deco Architecture

Other fine examples of Art Deco architecture in our city include the Market Street National Bank at One East Penn Square and the Automat Building at 818 Chesnut Street where the first Horn & Haddart Automat opened in 1902. Want to see more? The Preservation Alliance offers Art Deco walking tours in Philadelphia and the next one is on Saturday, September 18th. Visit their website for the schedule and to get tickets. 

The Secret Life of Buildings: Philadelphia Courtyards

In a densely populated city like Philadelphia, private courtyards provide a space for gardens, outdoor dining, and socializing with neighbors. Often hidden from the street or gated, they are shared by owners of tiny Trinity houses, stately townhouses, contemporary condos, as well as by residents of apartment buildings. In many cases, they are hiding in plain sight, if you know where to look. 

History

Courtyards date back thousands of years. The earliest known ones are in the Jordan Valley, Mesopotamia, China, and Ancient Rome. They were popular in places with temperate climates like the Middle East and India.

The earliest Philadelphia residential courtyards were constructed in the mid-18th century. In the 1920s and 30s, they experienced a resurgence, appearing in large apartment complexes, office buildings, and colleges. They reappeared in the 1960s and, today, are a highly desirable addition to both large and small townhouse complexes.

In modern architecture, courtyards bring natural light into living spaces. Internal gardens are a common feature in open courtyards—the bright space is a perfect location for sun-loving trees and plants. Open-air spaces allow breezes and airflow to enter the building without the security concerns of open windows or doors.

Being stuck inside for long periods, especially during the pandemic, can be stressful. Courtyards offer a solution by creating a beautiful, private outdoor space that you can use to get some fresh air, talk to a neighbor, or even meditate.

258 S. 16th Street

Walking along 16th Street, you would never know that several of the early 19th century townhouses share a magical courtyard. Trimmed with twinkling lights at night, the unexpected communal space accommodates neighborly cookouts and celebrations throughout the year.

Clymer Court

One of Philly’s “secret gardens” is Clymer Court at 707 S. Front Street in Queen Village. It contains 13 homes, the oldest dating back to 1744. Newer homes were constructed in 1960 and older homes were restored. The historically certified site is a gated community of Colonial-style red brick row homes featuring a landscaped courtyard lined with cobblestones and brick walkways to each house. 

Old English Village

Located just south of 22nd and Walnut is a bit of Old England, straight out of a Miss Marple mystery. Officially known as St James Place and closed off to cars, Anglophiles will find a secluded collection of Tudor-style houses built in the 1920s featuring a stone walkway lined by tall, flowering trees. Peaked roofs and tall chimneys suggest a county village, not a prime slice of real estate walking distance from Rittenhouse Square.

Lantern Square

This one is easy to miss but worth finding. The entrance to tiny Lantern Square is hidden in Panama between Camac and 12th. Reminiscent of Parisian homes built around a shared courtyard, these are late 18th century Trinities that have been converted into apartments. 

Brewerytown Square

Can a suburban garden condo development take root in the City? Brewerytown Square, between 31st and 32nd, and between Master and W. Thompson, is aiming at the city dweller who wants a feeling of spaciousness and security at an affordable price. A gated community of townhouses and apartments, it provides the illusion of suburbia with shared green spaces and shade trees.  

Kensington Yards

Developer Alejandro Franqui of Solo Real Estate, along with the architects at Bright Common, landscape designers at Apiary Studio, and master builders Red Oak, created a complex of 14 light-filled contemporary condos in South Kensington with a shared courtyard. Architect Jeremy Avellino, the founder of Bright Common, who is dedicated to sustainability, used deep energy retrofits to make Kensington Yards a passive energy complex. 

John C. Anderson Apartments

The first LGBTQ-friendly, affordable, senior apartment community in Philadelphia, the John C Anderson Apartments at 251 S 13th St. are built around a large communal courtyard with plantings and trees. This private space, hidden from the street, provides an additional source of light for the apartments and attractive space to relax outdoors and mingle with neighbors.

Sedgewick Gardens

In 1939, Jacob Lindy built Sedgwick Gardens as a luxury apartment community amidst the large stone houses that characterized West Mt. Airy. Located on the corner of McCallum Street and Sedgewick Street, the complex is built around a large, beautifully landscaped courtyard that cannot be seen from the street, providing beauty and serenity for the tenants.

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we write about the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s buildings. We’ve covered row house stylescommon Philadelphia brick stylestrinity homes, star bolts, and residential courts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

Creative Reuse in Philadelphia: Repurposed Buildings

Would you live in a stable, factory, or women’s shelter? Recent trends show that thousands of Philadelphians are eager to call repurposed historic buildings home, making our City a national leader in adaptive reuse. From former factories to carriage houses, and more, Philly’s building conversions are as varied as the original buildings they inhabit. 

Factories

A former hub of manufacturing, Philly’s factories went silent when production moved off-shore, leaving ghostly industrial buildings and unemployment in their wake. Repurposing factories as residential space is reinvigorating neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia.

One of the first repurposed factories was The Chocolate Works at Third and New Streets in Old City.  Formerly home to the world-famous Wilbur Chocolate Company, constructed in 1902, the chocolate business outgrew the facility by 1933, after which the building changed ownership and remained underutilized.

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In 1986, Historic Landmark for Living adapted the factory into one and two-bedroom apartments. Renters were drawn by huge windows, high ceilings, and industrial design, along with a resident library, work station, lounge, and an on-site fitness center and parking. 

Brush Factory Lofts

When Brush Factory Lofts at 12th and Jackson opened in 2019, residents of LoMo (Lower Moyamensing) were thrilled. For decades, the former paintbrush manufacturing facility, built in 1926, had been deteriorating. Located in the heart of East Passyunk, it offered studio, one and two-bedroom apartments with rustic charm, and upscale amenities, including a media room, fitness center, roof deck, a green roof, and parking.

Stables

When horsepower was measured, not by what was under the hood, but by how many pulled your carriage, the largest and most attractive stables were located on small streets surrounding Rittenhouse Square. This is where owners of nearby opulent mansions kept their horses and carriages. In the early 1900s, when horses were replaced by cars, carriage houses morphed into garages.

Today, the former stables of Rittenhouse Square comprise a discrete Millionaires Row. To see the best of them, take a walk along the tree-lined block of 200 South Van Pelt Street, an alley between Spruce and Locust, 21st and 22nd Streets.  

Here, in former carriage houses, you will find the Orpheus Club of Philadelphia, 254 S. Van Pelt, the nations’ oldest male singing society, founded in 1872.  Originally, members were strictly from the Philadelphia aristocracy. Today, its 80 members are a conglomerate of singers drawn from local college glee clubs.

271 S. Van Pelt

Be sure to check out the 5,040 sq ft. converted carriage house at 258 S. Van Pelt, built in 1800. It is available for a cool $4 million. Nearby, at 271 S. Van Pelt, a 2,440 square-foot carriage house is on the market at $1,370,000 featuring four bedrooms, three baths, and a garage.

Also, venture along the 2000 block of Chancellor where multiple carriage houses and stables were converted to the “millionaire row section.” Take note of 2017 Chancellor, another former carriage house that we believe became a four-story factory in the 1930s before being repurposed into our office of Solo Real Estate.  

Rittenhouse is just one of many Philly neighborhoods where carriage houses have been turned into beautiful residences. Solo Real Estate will soon be showing 1912-14 Brandywine in the Fairmount section, one of three double carriage houses on a tree-lined block. This 4,480 square feet, double-wide property features a spacious artist’s studio on the first floor and a loft-style living room with a dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms.  A dramatic circular staircase leads to a roof deck with panoramic views of the city. Once this special property hits the market, it won’t last long!

For an imaginative repurposing of a stable, consider Stable Lofts at 630 N. Broad. This is where horse dealer Edwin Hart built a three-story, Italianate red brick stable in 1866. In the early 1900s, when North Broad Street, from Cherry Street to Lehigh Avenue, became known as Automobile Row, Hart’s stable was transformed into an auto showroom. Later it served as storage and office space for a number of businesses. 

Stable Lofts, built in 1867 as the Edwin Hart Stables.

In 2015, North Broad Living Management converted the former stable into 41 luxury apartments with the addition of a seven-story extension on the back. By then, the 600 block of N. Broad was synonymous with fine dining and music. (Osteria, South Kitchen & Jazz Parlor, and Cicala at the Divine Lorraine.)  

Stable Lofts now houses 41 luxury apartments.

This former stable offers bi-level units and second-floor lofts, hardwood floors, arched industrial windows and private terraces. To attract young professionals, there is a roof deck, Peloton room, and an on-site restaurant. 

Stable Lofts

Give Me Shelter

Originally a shelter for Jewish women in need, unwed mothers, and orphans, the Rebecca Gratz Club at 532-536 Spruce Street was recently converted into The Gratz luxury apartments that reflect the property’s architectural integrity. 

The Gratz

In the 1920s, the Gratz Club served as a residence for single Jewish women going to school or working in the city. By the 1950s, the Rebecca Gratz Club transitioned into a mental health facility, a nonsectarian halfway house for girls and women. Later, it offered residential care for girls who suffered domestic abuse or who came from troubled homes. In 1978, the club returned to its original function as a foster care home for pregnant teenage girls.

Rebecca Gratz Club. Image courtesy of The City of Philadelphia Public Records.

The historic building in the heart of Society Hill was vacant for many years until it was purchased by PMC Property Group, a Philadelphia-based development company that specializes in underutilized and overlooked urban properties along the East Coast. The apartments offer the usual perks: granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, and that most treasured extra parking. They are also pet-friendly. 

If you are interested in any of the repurposed residences mentioned in this post or want to find a unique property to call home, our experienced Solo agents can assist you. Whether you’re looking for a recently renovated space or a hidden gem to convert to your liking, we can guide you through the process every step of the way.