Blocks We Love: 1800 West Girard Ave

Designed by Philadelphia architect Willis G. Hale in 1889, the houses at 1816-1834 West Girard Ave represent an iconic North Philadelphia style in the late 19th Century with ornate detailing, eccentric flair, and intriguing patterns.

The two sets of alternating mirror image pairs.

The houses are designed as sets of mirror image pairs that alternate between two facade variations. Each home shares some of the same qualities – three story construction done in brick with stone and wood trim, a triple pane window on the first floor with matching transoms, and a front door with a stone ogee arch frame and Tudor arched transom.

House numbers 1816-1818, 1824-1826, and 1832-1834 comprise the first form in the pattern with a third floor balcony and accompanying wrought-iron fencing set atop a second story bay window. Above the third floor windows and balcony are four blind Tudor arches.

Facade variation one with matching bay windows, balconies, and a quartet of Tudor style blind arches.

Setting the second variation in the pattern are the houses at 1820-1822 and 1828-1830 West Girard. These are constructed in a flatter format with a two bay facade arrangement on the second and third floors, continued from the first story. Each vertical pair of windows is separated by recessed panels and distinguished by diagonally laid bricks. The stringcourse along the bottom of the second story windows mirrors the continuous cornice line across the entire row. In contrast to the other facades in the series, these homes are topped with three blind ogee arches.

The second facade variation (top and bottom), with recessed panels, diagonally laid bricks, a blind ogee arch trio, and a continuous stone stringcourse along the second story windows.

Willis G. Hale, perhaps most widely known for his design of the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street, was favored by prominent Philadelphia street-car moguls Peter A. B. Widener and William L. Elkins which led to the architect’s choice position among the city’s nouveau riche.

These homes on the 1800 block of West Girard Ave, while notable for their exotic articulation and unique flourish, were likely inhabited by middle-class families, as suggested by their scale, typical of middle-class dwelling construction in the area during the late 19th century.

With the construction of Girard College between 1833-1847 and the prominence of horse car lines, this corridor began its rise as a busy and fashionable thoroughfare as early as the first half of the century. Not only was the juncture of Girard and Ridge Avenues significant commercially, the advent of cable and electric streetcars in the 1880s sealed the fate of Girard as a major transportation thoroughfare by the end of the century.

While much of the industry and commercial activity that dominated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has since departed the area, the five-way intersection is still a busy one today with high traffic Girard & Ridge Avenues and the 15 trolley line.

As construction for all classes also picked up in the 1880s, aided by the new ease of transportation and the presence of both civic institutions and industry jobs, the position of this block of houses at an increasingly busy and commercialized intersection helped maintain a vital commercial-civic-residential mix at this hub of the neighborhood.

A close-up of the unique arch style that adorns these houses.

Since these houses are protected on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places we don’t have to worry about losing their distinctive design, and it will be interesting to see what sort of uses and cosmetic fixes descend upon the series of rowhomes in the upcoming years. Given the changing landscape of the surrounding neighborhoods of Francisville,  Fairmount, and Brewerytown – with new construction, rehabilitation projects, and businesses flocking to the area – it will be exciting to watch how the architecture of Hale’s homes blends in with surrounding developments.

While new construction in the city more often than not reflects a departure from the understated grandeur of these late 19th century homes, perhaps the style and historic significance of the homes will bear influence on the modernizing built environment in this part of Philadelphia.

Sitting at the eastern end of Hale’s stretch of houses, and built just before in 1886, the Northwestern National Bank bank was done in a High Victorian style by Otto C. Wolf. Wolf more widely known for his prolific resume of brewery constructions. The bank was later transformed into the Smith Baptist Chapel and remains open today.

Blocks We Love: 700 Block of Corinthian Avenue

Who thinks living across from a prison is an asset? We do, when that prison is historic Eastern State Penitentiary! Now a historic landmark, museum, and gothic revival wonder, Eastern State makes for a mighty fine neighbor for the 700 block of Corinthian Avenue.


Nestled in the heart of the charming Fairmount neighborhood, Corinthian Avenue is one of four streets that ring the Penitentiary. What sets this street apart from the others on the historic prison’s periphery is the lush Corinthian Gardens that serves as a buffer between the soaring stone wall of Eastern State and the street below.


Corinthian Gardens was established about a year ago through the work of volunteers and funds from the City, Friends of Eastern State, and additional donors. The green space consists of individual community garden plots, grassy swaths of land and picnic benches.


On the eastern side of the 700 block of Corinthian Avenue, mature street trees mirror the billowing greenery of the Gardens. The attractive and sizable three-story townhomes bear a colorful assortment of cornices that playfully contrast with the gray stone wall of the prison.


The colorful cornices of Corinthian Avenue (left), Eastern State Penitentiary wall and Corinthian Gardens (right)


That wall and the prison within predate the residential neighborhood that encircles them. The construction of Eastern State Penitentiary began in 1822 in what was then a suburb of Philadelphia. In the decades that followed the formerly isolated prison became surrounded by a vibrant neighborhood of factories and factory-worker housing.


While the prison closed in 1971 and the factories are long gone, the vibrancy of the neighborhood remains. Eastern State’s expanded museum programming keeps the site contemporary, and includes the recently launched exhibit The Big Graph as well as a tour of the kitchen wing, featuring an old prison menu that is sure to delight foodies and history buffs alike.


The 700 block of Corinthian Avenue appears to have it all: beauty and greenery from Corinthian Gardens, immediate proximity to the shops and restaurants of Fairmount Avenue, the history and splendor of Eastern State, and extra parking too!


For more information about Corinthian Gardens and its volunteer opportunities, click here.

Blocks We Love: 2200-2232 Green Street

Located in the Fairmount neighborhood just blocks from Philadelphia’s collection of world-class museums, the ornate town houses and greenery of the 2200 block of Green Street make this community a work of art unto itself. Indeed, the street is a truly impressive example of the architectural and design legacy of Philadelphia’s industrial-era wealth.


On a block marked by imposingly designed houses, no home is as beautiful or quite frankly as enormous as the Bergdoll-Kemble Mansion (seen in the image on the left). Built in 1882, this 14,000 square foot Italianate mansion was constructed for the Bergdolls, a family of successful brewers. The house was also once home to Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, a notorious early 20th century socialite, playboy and criminal. Most recently, the mansion boasted one of Philadelphia’s highest-ever asking prices before being converted into apartments. Whatever the building’s fate though, the Bergdoll-Kemble Mansion’s size and ornate design will forever make it part of the character of this historic block.


2200 Green Collage
Daffodils poke through the block’s unique front lawns (left) as the buildings’ impressive details (right) draw the eyes as well.


Aside from its grand architecture, one of the most unique aspects of the 2200 block is its collection of front yards. Built on a hill sloping down to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, these homes are set on flat ground away from the street’s incline, and the resulting open space features rich expanses of grass and mature trees. These front gardens are a rare and beautiful quality in the otherwise narrow stone and concrete streetscape of Philadelphia.


In the end, this block typifies what Fairmount residents like best about their neighborhood – it has all the beauty, charm and history of urban life without quite the hustle and bustle of Center City. It’s surely a block not to be missed.