The Secret Life of Buildings: Gilded Era Landmarks in Philadelphia

From the 1870s to 1910, Philadelphia flexed its industrial muscles, generating a new class of elites: Robber Barons, railroad and steel magnets, real estate developers, and business tycoons. Eager to display their wealth, they engaged the leading architects of their day to design lavish estates and palaces of culture to rival those of Europe. Come with us on a tour of Gilded Age landmarks that remain beautifully preserved in Center City and the surrounding suburbs.

City Hall, Broad & Market 

City Hall, the intricate and iconic building that turns driving into a white knuckle competition is a prime example of Gilded Age architecture. William Penn planned it in the 17th century, but it took 200 years to happen and another 30 years to be completed. Designed by John McArthur in Second Empire style in 1871, all of City Hall’s 250 sculptures were designed by Alexander Milne Calder, including the 27-ton statue of William Penn atop the tower. (Yes, Calder is the grandfather of contemporary sculptor Alexander Calder.)

At 548 feet high, City Hall was the tallest structure in the world until 1908 and remained the tallest building in Philly until 1986. However, it is still the largest municipal building in the United States. Regardless of how you feel about its exterior design, the inside of City Hall is worth seeing for its Gilded Era grandeur. For guided tours, including City Hall Tower, visit the Philly Visitor Center. You can also read more about City Hall and its history in our feature here.

Union League, 104 S. Broad St.

The curving double stairs at the entrance to the Union League announce an era where form no longer followed function but instead announced opulence. Originally designed by John Fraser in Second Empire style in May 1865, additions in the Beaux-Arts style were made in 1905 by Horace Trumbauer, expanding it to a full city block. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the Union League is one of the few existing buildings that reflects the architectural elegance of Broad Street during the Gilded Age. Its exterior and interior grandeur were meant to showcase the power and wealth of the City’s industry scions. It closely resembles the same style of architecture used in Paris at that time. 

PAFA, 1900s. Image: Old Images of Philadelphia

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), 118 N. Broad

The oldest art academy and museum in the nation, PAFA was designed by Frank Furness and George Hewitt in the Gothic Revival style in 1871-1876. Here, is an opportunity to literally step inside the elegance of the Gilded Age and marvel at the beauty of the Museum’s second floor with its gilded walls, stained glass windows, cathedral arches, vintage light fixtures, and marble floors. Plus, it showcases American Art. It’s no surprise that PAFA is one of the City’s most popular wedding and event venues. 

Lippincott Mansion Interior.

Lippincott Mansion, 507 S. Broad

Built in 1886 and designed by architect George Pearson, this magnificent mansion was originally the home of James Dundas Lippincott and his wife Alice. It is one of the last remaining mansions of South Broad Street’s “Millionaires Row.” The grand home was once owned by religious leader Father Divine. Since 2008, it has been the showroom and workshop of Frederick Oster’s Vintage Instruments. (This is where the Rolling Stones come to check out a new guitar.) Amazingly, all of the original architectural grandeur is intact. The interior woodwork was milled and carved from oak, chestnut, and mahogany. The stunner? A 10 x 20-foot stained glass skylight can be seen from every floor due to the mansion’s atrium design. 

Charles Ellis Mansion. Image: The RowHouse City

Ellis Mansion, 1439 N. Broad

If you wanted to own a Gilded Age property you had your chance this past May when the mansion, originally owned by streetcar magnate Charles T. Ellis was sold at auction. It was designed by William Drecker in a mix of Romanesque, Gothic, and Classical elements and constructed in 1890 when North Broad Street was a prestigious address. In 1952, it became another home of Father Divine who invested heavily in real estate and whose organization retained ownership until the recent auction.

Lynnewood Hall, 920 Spring Ave, Elkins Park

With 110 rooms, this is the largest surviving Gilded Age mansion in the Philadelphia area. Designed by Horace Trumbaurer in the Neo-Classical Revival style when he was only 29 for Peter Widener, founder of the City’s trolley lines and one of the 40 richest men in America of his time. Built-in 1897-1900 in limestone, the gigantic mansion was dubbed “the last of the American Versailles.” Note: Some of the furniture at Lynnewood Hall actually came from the Palace of Versailles!

Supposedly, Widener instructed Trumbaurer to create a home where his children would be “comfortable.” Somehow, that resulted in 55 bedrooms, an immense art gallery, a ballroom large enough for 1,000 guests, a swimming pool, wine cellars, a farm, carpentry and upholstery studios, and an electrical power plant. This required a house staff of 60, plus another 60 full-time gardeners. 

All of this opulence foreshadowed a great tragedy when, in 1912, Widener’s son and grandson were among the passengers who died on the Titanic. Three years later Weidener died and his invaluable art collection was gifted to the National Gallery. The estate’s 480 acres were whittled down to 33, making way for the development of Lynnewood Gardens Apartments as well as a separate development of single homes.

Shrouded in grief, the Widener family moved out in the 1940s and the estate changed hands several times and became vacant and overgrown until the Lynnewood Hall Preservation Foundation was established in 2022 with the goal of restoring it to its former breathtaking glory. In June 2023, the house’s sale was completed, and ownership passed to the nonprofit Lynnewood Hall Preservation Foundation. Their plan calls for restoration of the estate’s formal gardens which are to be open to the public as well as historic restoration of Lynnewood Hall for educational purposes.

These are just a sampling of Philadelphia’s Gilded Age architectural treasures. For information about walking tours, contact The Preservation Alliance, Virtuoso, or try a Self-Guided Walking Tour.

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!

Architectural Luminaries of Philadelphia

When it comes to world-class architects and architectural styles, Philly has a rich history. From 19th Century Colonial design through 20th Century modernism, our City is a showcase of outstanding architectural luminaries. While this list isn’t exhaustive, we encourage you to use this guide to acquaint yourself with some of the great architects who have shaped our beloved city of Philadelphia and beyond.


Benjamin Latrobe – Known as the “Father of American Architecture, Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) was born in England and came here in 1796. He was a NeoClassical architect, known for designing the Bank of Pennsylvania, America’s first Greek Revival building, which was destroyed 60 years later. He also designed the South Wing of the U.S. Capitol and the Old Baltimore Cathedral (aka Baltimore Basilica) the first cathedral in the nation.

Benjamin Latrobe’s Bank of Pennsylvania, from the 4th edition of William Birch’s Views of Philadelphia, 1827–8.

William Strickland – A student of Latrobe, William Strickland (November 1788 – April 6, 1854), was a proponent of the Greek Revival style. He designed the Second Bank of the United States, 420 Chestnut St.; the Merchants Exchange, 143 S. Third St.; Independence Hall, 520 Chestnut St.; Old City Hall, 5th & Chestnut; St. Peter’s Church 3rd & Pine St.; and Walnut Street Theater, 9th & Walnut.  

William Strickland’s work: Philadelphia Merchant’s Exchange. Image: Bruce Andersen, Encyclopedia Britannica.


Frank Furness – A master of Victorian architecture, Frank Furness (1839-1912), designed over 600 buildings, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad & Cherry St.; Fisher Fine Arts Library, 220 S. 34th St.; Ritz Carlton Hotel, Broad and Chestnut; Centennial National Bank, 32nd and Market (now the Paul Peck Center of Drexel University); the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, 2125 Chestnut St; and the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, originally designed as a resort hotel in 1890. These are just a sampling of Furness buildings, homes and interiors to be found throughout Greater Philadelphia 

Gilded Age

Horace Trumbauer – A native Philadelphian, Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938) is most well-known for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  However, he also designed palatial estates for the wealthy robber barons of his day, such as the Georgian-style 110-room Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park and Grey Towers Castle in Glenside now the campus of Arcadia University. He also worked with developers to design homes for many middle-class planned communities, including the Overbrook Farms.

Lynnewood Hall. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Lynnewood Hall. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Julian Abele Julian Abele (1881-1950) was the first African American to graduate from Penn’s School of Architecture in 1898. He apprenticed Trumbauer and worked with him on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, then went on to design the Central Free Library, Penn’s President’s House, Harvard’s Library, and many buildings at Duke University.

Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele perusing an architecture book in the mid 1930's. Image: Free Library.
Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele perusing an architecture book in the mid 1930s. Image: Free Library.


George HoweGeorge Howe (1886-1995) introduced the International style to Philadelphia in his 1932 design of the PSFS building, 12th & Market, now a Lowes Hotel. It was considered to be the first truly modern building, not just in our City, but in the nation. He later collaborated with Louis Kahn and Oskar Stonorov.

Louis KahnLouis Kahn (1901-1974) is best known in Philadelphia for his creation of the Richards Medical Research Laboratories, 3700 Hamilton Walk on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, and Esherick House, 204 Sunrise Lane in Chestnut Hill. He is internationally revered for the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA, and his 1982 floating National Assembly Building in Bangladesh.

Margaret Esherick House
Margaret Esherick House. Image: Jeffrey Totaro via Docomomo.

Edmund Bacon – Known as the “Father of Modern Philadelphia,” as well as the actual father of actor Kevin Bacon, Edmund Bacon (1910-2005), served as Executive Director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission. He was the driving force behind the creation of Penn Center, Market East, Penn’s Landing, Society Hill, Independence Mall, and the Far Northeast – all of which removed large segments of the City in order to bring it into modernity.

Photo of Bacon with a model of Society Hill Towers (about 1960). Edmund N. Bacon Collection.
Photo of Bacon with a model of Society Hill Towers (about 1960). Edmund N. Bacon Collection.

Oskar Stonorov – Oskar Stonorov was a German Jewish immigrant who managed to flee Germany in 1929, just before the rise of Hitler. He worked with Philadelphia architects Louis Khan, George Howe, and Robert Venturi on many projects. In 1954, Stonorov was chosen by the Quakers as “the most socially minded architect in Philadelphia” for his redevelopment of Fairmount Avenue. His mid-century modern apartment buildings include Hopkinson House, 607 S. Washington Square; Casa Fernase, 13th & Lombard; and Cherokee Apts, McCallum St & Wolcott Drive in Chestnut Hill.

Post Modern

Robert Venturi – Robert Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown are among the major architectural figures of the 20th Century. Venturi served as Louis Kahn’s teaching assistant at the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture and went on to teach at Yale and Harvard. He is best known for the post-modern Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, built for his mother in the early 1960s, and Guild House, 711 Spring Garden St.

The Guild House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, designed by Robert Venturi, on Spring Garden Street and 7th. Image: Smallbones, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Guild House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, designed by Robert Venturi, on Spring Garden Street and 7th. Image: Smallbones, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Romaldo GiurgolaRomaldo Giurgola (1920-2016) was an Italian architect who taught architecture at Penn before becoming chair of the Columbia Architecture Department in 1966. Along with Khan, Venturi, and other contemporary architects, Giurgola was considered part of the Philadelphia School of architecture. His buildings in Philadelphia include the Penn Mutual Tower, INA Tower, and United Fund Headquarters. 

Romaldo Giurgola. Image: Arquitectura Viva


Eugene Kohn – Contemporary architecture is a combination of many styles, including high-tech, deconstructivism, neoclassicism, and sculptural. The term high tech may be applied to buildings designed by architect Eugene Kohn, a native Philadelphian whose internationally acclaimed firm, KPF,  is based in New York City. Kohn’s local work includes Arthaus, the 47-story glass tower, 301 S. Broad St.; the 60-floor Four Seasons, 1 N. 19th St.; Children’s Hospital; and a new terminal at the Philadelphia Airport.

ArtHaus Condominiums. Image: Arthouse phila.
Eugene Kohn’s ArtHaus Condominiums. Image: Arthouse Phila.

Looking Ahead

A city with Philadelphia’s rich architectural history needs to focus on the balance between preservation, sustainability, and the long-term health impact of the built environment. If the recent expansion of the Schuylkill River Trail and green spaces along the Delaware River is any indication, we are hopefully headed in the right direction.

Want to learn more about Philadelphia’s architecture? Check out our articles on Beaux Arts architecture, the reuse of historic bank buildings, or find out about 5 Philly architectural details hiding in plain sight.

The Secret Life of Buildings: Philadelphia’s Iconic City Hall

Philadelphia’s City Hall commands attention. Placed at the crossroads of Broad and Market Streets, it serves as an architectural compass, dividing the City into north, south, east, and west. Walking through its monumental archways inspires awe. Driving around it requires Indie 500 skills. No other American city has such a colossal building that, literally, stops traffic. How did it come to be? Read on to find out!

City Hall History

Philly’s first City Hall was built during the time of William Penn and was located on 2nd Street. Its ground floor served as a jail. In 1791, the second City Hall, now known as Old City Hall,  opened in a Federal-style red brick building which still stands today adjacent to Independence Hall. During the 1790s, it served as the US. Supreme Court and is open to the public today.

Old City Hall, Philadelphia’s first City Hall is adjacent to Independence Hall. Image: Antoine Taveneaux via Wikimedia Commons.

As the City grew, so did its ambition.  In 1870, voters selected City Hall’s current site at what is now Dilworth Plaza (formerly Penn Square) for what would be the largest City Hall in the nation. Designed in the Second-Empire Mode of French Renaissance Revival architectural style by architect John McArthur, Jr., construction began in 1872.

City Hall plaque. Image: Asce.org

Completed in 1901, Philadelphia’s current City Hall is an iconic building but it was also an engineering feat. A 2006 brass plaque at its base from the American Society of Civil Engineers states, “The building is still the world’s tallest masonry load-bearing structure made of 88 million bricks and thousands of tons of stone…it is the nation’s most elaborate seat of municipal government.” 

Philadelphia City Hall, 1910. Photo: Phillyhistory.org

City Hall Architecture and Sculptures

The walls are brick, faced with white marble, and the seven-story building measures 486 feet by 470 feet. The Tacony Iron and Metal Company hired civil engineer C.R. Grimm to design the upper wrought-iron frame, metal-clad portion of the tower, which surmounted the masonry tower and supported the 37-foot-tall, 27-ton bronze statue of William Penn. Sculptor Alexander Milne Calder designed the 37-foot high, 27-ton bronze statue, cast in fourteen sections at Tacony Iron and Metal Company.  It took two years to complete and was installed in 1894. 

City Hall’s Observation Deck is currently closed. Photo: M. Edlow for Independence Visitor Center.

At one time, every eighth grader in the City was taken to the top of William Penn’s hat for a spectacular view of the City.  The creation of an observation deck below Penn’s feet brought the view down to 548 feet, but it is currently closed due to the pandemic but tours of City Hall are still available at the Love Park Visitor Center kiosk.

The William Penn statue. Photo by M.Edlow for Visit Philadelphia.

Did you know William Penn is not alone up there? Take a close look and you’ll find 250 sculptures of nature, artists, educators, and engineers who embodied American ideals, including several sculptures of the building’s designer McArthur and two Native Americans. BillyPenn.com has a guide to all 250 sculptures, including bison and cats.

Preservation & Restoration

Did you know our iconic City Hall building was almost demolished? In the mid-1950s, the city considered demolishing the building and erecting a new one elsewhere. According to an article in the New York Times, “calls for the demolition of City Hall began when it was less than 20 years old and persisted for decades.”

At the time, Edmund Bacon was the Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, and renowned architect Louis I. Kahn was the master planning consultant. Both advocated for demolishing the building due to the building’s disruption of traffic as well as its Second Empire architectural style, which had already fallen out of fashion by the time it was built. Louis I. Kahn called it “the most disreputable and disrespected building in Philadelphia.”

In a victory for historic preservation, the building was saved and remains today, not because of public outcry but because cost estimates to demolish it came in equal to the cost of construction. The high cost of removing it and objections from members of the American Institute of Architects caused the city to acquiesce.

As early as 1910, City Hall Tower was covered in a layer of black soot, due to coal being the primary source of power in the city. The soot was not removed until the 1960s and again in the 1980s during a restoration project that lasted more than 5 years. Yimby provides is a closer look at the restoration that took place in the 1980s.

Dilworth Park: The Heart Of The City

Surrounding City Hall is Dilworth Park. In 2014, Dilworth Plaza, named for Mayor Richardson Dilworth (1956-1962), originally designed in 1972,  was totally redesigned and renamed Dilworth Park. This transformation turned an under-utilized and unsafe area into a brightly lit recreational center currently featuring the Rothman Orthopedics Ice Rink, the Deck the Hall Light Show and it recently hosted the Made in Philadelphia Holiday Market.

In the spring, Dilworth Park hosts fitness classes, roller skating specials, and performances from some of Philadelphia’s many arts and cultural organizations. A beautifully appointed park with an interactive fountain, lawn, and tree grove seating areas, it features a café. Festivals live musical performances, outdoor movie screenings, and happy hour specials bring an audience to the park at all hours of the day and night. All of this takes place above a major transit hub and under the watchful eyes of our City’s founder, William Penn.

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!

Why You Should Renovate and Restore: A Case For Historic Preservation

Many Philadelphia homes and neighborhoods have been designated for historic preservation. What does that mean for homeowners? If you have an older home that has not yet received a historic designation, what are your obligations? We spoke with experts in Philadelphia to get their perspectives on the topic of historic preservation in our city.

“Historic preservation is about stewardship and pride,” said Robert P. Thomas, founding partner of Campbell Thomas & Co., an award-winning firm of architects and planners dedicated to sustainability, community, and preservation. “Buildings are part of a community and it’s the key to the success of a block. The goal is to integrate modern needs with a historic property.”

Thomas recalls renovating his Powelton Village home with his wife in 1978. “We got a tremendous amount of space with fireplaces, mantels, and moldings in what had previously been a building containing three slum apartments.” The result was an affordable property accessible to the City in what is now a historically designated neighborhood. “Since the 1980s, Powelton has been nationally registered. Now, we are in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. That protects homes from demolition and offers tax credits on rehabbing rental properties,” he said. 

Thomas and his partner James Campbell took the same approach to their office at 1504 South Street which had been just a shell when they bought it. “It had previously been The Postcard Club, a black jazz club in the 1940s. I always advise people there’s an edge in real estate. Go two blocks beyond the edge to find the best values,” said Thomas. 

To better understand the benefits of historic preservation, consider some of the many projects Thomas led. He restored the 95-year-old, five-story mansion at 4150 Parkside Avenue in West Philly which had suffered a partial collapse, turning it into 18 modern, affordable apartments with stunning architectural detail. Thomas applied the same restoration and preservation techniques to The Brentwood Apartments, a German Baroque building at 4120 Parkside Avenue which the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission termed one of the most ambitious rehabilitation it has ever overseen. It is now used for senior housing.

4150 Parkside Ave.
4150 Parkside Ave.

However, it was Thomas’ plan to build an entire block of solar homes for National Temple Community Development Corporation on the 1500 block of Thompson Street that caused the Redevelopment Authority to question his logic. “They couldn’t imagine it would work but it did,” he said. Those first-time homebuyers never received bills from PECO because all their homes faced south and lined up with the solar grid.

Thomas credits Philadelphia Mayor Kenny with creating a task force on historic preservation. “There are tremendous resources for homeowners, including the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia which offers seminars and classes. University City Historic Society also has programs and many area contractors have programs open to the public. 

What can the Preservation Alliance do for you?

The Preservation Alliance’s Neighborhood Preservation Program has been helping Philadelphia residents discover their neighborhood history by identifying landmarks and architectural characteristics that give their neighborhood its own unique sense of place. 

The Drake Tower. Image: John W. Cahill
The Drake Tower. Image: John W. Cahill

The Alliance’s easement program preserves historically certified properties and residences, such as the Drake Tower in Center City, the Alden Park Apartments in Germantown, and more than 240 other historic properties. Current and all future owners of a property protected by an Alliance preservation easement promise not to demolish or inappropriately alter, and to maintain the historic character of the property. In 2011, the Alliance published How to Look at Your Neighborhood: A Guide for Community Organizations

Alden Park. Image: Graboeyes.com
Alden Park Apartments. Image: Graboyes.com

What does it mean if your home is registered as historic?

Listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places protects a building from adverse alteration and unnecessary demolition. Listing on the National Register of Historic Places can provide financial incentives for rehabilitation. 

About those financial incentives – the Pennsylvania legislature recently passed the Whole-Home Repairs Act, a new program designed to assist residents and landlords to preserve older homes while creating jobs. The Whole-Home Repairs Program was introduced by Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval and passed into law in July 2022 with an unprecedented $ 125 million appropriation in the 2022–2023 state budget.  This program is the first of its kind in the nation. Applications for the Whole-Home Repairs Program are coming in Spring/Summer 2023.

Historic Victorian in Spruce Hill designed in 1886 by architects George Watson Hewitt and William Dempster Hewitt.
Historic Victorian in Spruce Hill designed in 1886 by architects George Watson Hewitt and William Dempster Hewitt

Get More Information on Historic Properties

You can learn how to research properties on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. You can also contact the commission at (215) 686-7660 or preservation@phila.gov. It’s important to note that the local register is different from the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The NRHP is a nationwide list maintained by the National Park Service. However, your property could be listed on both registers. For a guide on how to research your Philadelphia home’s history read our article.

To learn more about the impact of historic preservation in Philadelphia, the Preservation Alliance offers private, group, and self-guided walking tours in many historic areas of the City. Saturdays & Sundays, May-Oct.

Historic preservation is of particular interest to Solo Real Estate’s broker and owner Deborah Solo, who studied architecture. Deborah took several classes with John Milner who also does historic preservation projects and taught at the University of Pennsylvania while she was getting her master’s in architecture. Interested in investing in a historic property or want to talk about architecture and historic preservation with Deborah? Drop us a note!

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. 


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.

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 the 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.


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!