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The Secret Life of Buildings: Residential Courts

In our last Secret Life of Buildings post we tackled trinity homes. What we didn’t get around to mentioning are the residential courts that many houses of this style are nestled into. Residential courts are the smallest of the small streets, cartways, and alleyways that were carved out of William Penn’s Greene Country Towne in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are so small, in fact, that these dead end nooks are pedestrian only, often with an communal courtyard space.

 

Often gated and consisting of anywhere from three to twelve homes on average and typically (though not always) bandbox style, these petite residential courts are yet another distinctive feature of Philadelphia’s urban design and built environment.

 

Lewis Court in Fishtown dates back to 1797.

 

Unfortunately, fewer of these residential court have survived into the 20th century than the trinity homes of our earlier exploration. The small scale, dense houses were historically built for craftsmen and factory workers, and as these industries faded in the 20th century, so did much of the housing.

 

As a city that cherishes history, however, Philadelphia held on to a handful of these residential courts. Some might sit right in your neighborhood without you ever having noticed since they’re such hidden secrets of the city. A few of the most architecturally or historically pertinent courts have even made their way onto the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Among those are Loxley and Bladen’s Courts in Old City and Drinker’s and Bell’s Courts in Society Hill.

 

Bell’s Court in Society Hill (above) was not always closed off to traffic (see below).

 

The common form that the residential court takes is with one or two larger houses fronting a main street with an attached row of trinities behind accessed by an alleyway between the two or beside the one street fronting properties.

 

Here is a residential courtyard tucked away on the petite Waverly Street in Washington Square West.

 

While some of the most iconic Philadelphia residential courts still standing today are in Old City, Society Hill, Queen Village, and Rittenhouse, this housing type was at one time even more common in neighborhoods like Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Kensington. The reason for this was mainly that the courts were built to house factory workers efficiently and close by to the workplace which were frequently located in these River Wards neighborhoods.

 

Earl Court in Fishtown is an example of a residential court in the Riverwards that still remains today.

 

Many of the residential courts in these neighborhoods just northeast of Center City vanished after the industrial age and in the wake of the construction of I-95 between 1959-1979. While these homes were not necessarily notable for their architectural style since they were of a straightforward and unadorned construction, they are significant for their representation of a local housing type and as a distinct iteration of 19th century urban design in Philadelphia. We’ve touched on a few residential courts in prior blog posts, like our Blocks We Love on 700 Miller Street and 700 North Bodine Street.

 

Not only are these homes desirable for their historic connection, original features, and quiet, private space that is separated from the main street, they also are uniquely Philadelphia. Many of the courts are so obscured within the city’s blocks many people don’t even realize they exist. As a hidden secret of Philadelphia, the residential courts tell a story about the city’s early development, industrial roots, and distinction as a city of streets of rowhomes within streets of rowhomes within streets of rowhomes.

 

Neighborhood Histories: Fishtown

The intersection of Girard & Frankford Aves is the busiest nexus of the neighborhood. Here you can see some neighborhood staples – Johnny Brenda’s and Joe’s Steaks.

 

Fishtown is a neighborhood that escapes definition in all ways. Its boundaries are disputed, its origins unclear, and its population in flux. Fishtown, a small neighborhood along the Delaware River northeast of Center City, can be difficult to define because it was originally merely a subset of the larger Kensington neighborhood. Today, however, Fishtown is a neighborhood in its own right.

 

A snapshot of the Google Map definitely of Fishtown. Depending on who you talk to, the boundaries of the neighborhood could include much more or less than this version.

 

Whether you believe that Charles Dickens christened the Fishtown name or the more accepted version that the name comes from the shad fishing industry that was centered on the neighborhood’s banks, today’s residents take pride in the moniker. Fish-shaped or decorated house number signs hang from at least half of the neighborhood’s homes and murals dot the landscape boasting the name.

 

 

The shad fishing industry along the Fishtown section of the Delaware River was huge in the 19th and 20th centuries. The operation was run by a handful of prominent local families who are consequently credited with the early development of the neighborhood’s housing, churches, and local institutions.

 

Historical residents of the enclave can be traced as follows: originally home to the Lenni Lenape Native Americans, then a small crew of Swedish farmers, later replaced with British gentry, shipbuilders, and German fisherman, and followed in the latter part of the 19th century by a large influx of Polish and Irish Catholic immigrants. The changing populations, which came with various religious affiliations, are evidenced by the many churches in Fishtown. Some, but not nearly all, of these churches include St. Laurentius, Holy Name of Jesus, Immaculate Conception, Kensington Methodist Church, and First Presbyterian Church.

 

The St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church represents some of the struggle between old and new when it comes to historic preservation in Philadelphia. The church holds significance for Polish cultural history in the area, but developers have been eyeing the property for years.

 

Today the Irish and Polish roots of the neighborhood are still evident not only through the churches which remain standing today, but also in the Irish themed bars that still populate some street corners and the multi-generational families, dating back to the original settlers, who still reside here and decorate extravagantly for St. Patrick’s Day every year. These older residents intermingle with a newer influx of college students, young professionals, and retirees flocking back to the city.

 

Murph’s Bar stands as representation of a transitioning neighborhood. While not a historic institution, it is an homage to the Irish bar. Meanwhile, the kitchen churns out some of the best Italian food in the city (a well kept secret of the neighborhood).

 

Some believe Fishtown falls just inside the triangle formed by Girard Avenue, Frankford Avenue, and York Street. Others extend that boundary up to Lehigh Avenue. Some incorporate the entire 19125 zip code into their geography, thus including the smaller enclaves of Olde Richmond, East Kensington, and West Kensington. Regardless of your definition, the Fishtown area is a great neighborhood with so much to offer.

 

 

Fishtown is attractive for its residential scale, small streets populated with well preserved two- and three-story rowhomes, and abundance of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. With many old industrial buildings converted to apartments and eateries, intact examples of early Philadelphia worker housing, and historic green spaces such as Penn Treaty Park and Palmer Cemetery, Fishtown has no lack of Philadelphia heritage despite the changes it has undergone in the past decade.

 

The IceHouse is a thoughtful project that sits on the corner of Columbia Ave & Thompson St. The development blends new construction with renovation of a pre-existing factory building. The structure melds with the neighboring rowhomes.
Hetzell Field is just one of many full-block green spaces in the neighborhood. Here many of the neighborhood youth baseball and soccer teams practice and play games.
This stretch on the 1100 block of East Berks Street holds many intact examples of early worker housing in Fishtown and date to the 1830s.
The origins of Penn Treaty Park date back to 1683 when William Penn entered into a peace agreement with the Lenape. The park was officially dedicated in 1893 and is maintained today by Friends of Penn Treaty.
1003 Frankford Ave is the oldest standing residence and dates to 1785.
Along Frankford Ave are many remnants of late-19th century industrial buildings. 1105-1109 Frankford Ave was originally home to Morse Elevator Works and opened in 1890.
Philadelphia born coffee company La Colombe found its headquarters in a similar former industrial building along Frankford Ave in Fishtown. This shop opened in 2014.
Palmer Cemetery was originally called Kensington Burial Grounds. It was founded by Captain Anthony Palmer, who founded the neighborhood of Kensington, in 1765, and was created to be a free burial ground for residents of the neighborhood. The grounds hold the gravesites of many original families of the neighborhood and veterans dating back to the Revolutionary War.
The fish motif pops up in all sorts of unexpected places around the neighborhood.

 

Holiday decorations are an integral part of life in Fishtown and you’ll see houses decked out for just about every holiday.

Blocks We Love: 1500 Block of East Montgomery Avenue

The stretch of Montgomery Avenue right off of Fishtown’s main drag holds all of the charm and historicism that one comes to expect from a Philadelphia street. Not only does this block provide a solid sampling of grand, three-story row houses with well-preserved architectural detail and ample trees lining the sidewalks, it also has, not one, but two notable churches in its ranks.

When you first turn onto this street from Frankford Avenue, you are confronted with the block’s cornerstone: a striking rowhome with a two story square bay window and turret along the side, both clad in a blue-green matching that of the cornice. This house sets the tone for the rest of the row, all sporting simply decorated, well maintained cornices of varying colors and classic brownstone lintels.

Across the street stands the East Montgomery Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, originally built in 1875 and converted into apartments in the early 2000s. The sandstone church is of a relatively modest design, but the red doors and window trim, both of which are in a pointed formation, recall a gothic style distinct to church design in the late 19th century.

The conversion of the inactive church into lofts was markedly ahead of its time. Many regard this transformation as a forebear to the current trend of preserving defunct churches by converting them to apartments, single-family residences, or workplaces. This early innovation was a large part of what saved Methodist Episcopal from demolition this past spring when a developer planned to build new construction on the lot. Immense pushback from the community and preservationists quashed those plans. The building, a vital piece of the neighborhood’s history and the character of the block, still stands today.

A few doors down is another church, a simple stone construction, that is still active. Opened in 1894, the East Montgomery Atonement Lutheran Church remains a staple of community organizing and outreach, and provides numerous other resources in the neighborhood today.

East Montgomery Avenue jumps out among an abundance of historically relevant enclaves in Philadelphia. The street stands as a pillar of preservation in Fishtown, notable for its architectural style and grasp of the neighborhood’s roots and sense of community.

Philadelphia Phases In The New With These Big Developments

Taking a step away from some of the major new developments gathering buzz around Center City – the monumental new skyscraper for the Comcast Tower and the contested Toll Brother’s plans for Jewelers’ Row are a few that come to mind – we decided to take a look at some other notable projects shaping our neighborhoods.

 

Rendering for the new Yards Brewery at 5th & Spring Garden. Courtesy of Digsau.

 

  • Yards Brewery

Taking up a new home in the former Destination Maternity building at 5th & Spring Garden, Yards Brewing Company has a whole lot of space to fill in the whopping 70,000 square foot structure. Luckily the team behind Yards and collaborators at Digsau, a Philadelphia based urban design and architecture firm, are up to the talk. A $19 million dollar affair, this inspiring project includes a beer garden, large scale brewing facility, a tasting room sporting a full food menu as well, and potential space for other businesses. According to recent announcements there are plans for a Target to open in this space as well. With so many big box buildings with little commercial activity, this Yards facility could be just what is needed to attract more pedestrian activity along this stretch of Spring Garden Street.

 

 

 

The lot at the NW corner of Broad & Washington that Lincoln square will fill. 

 

  • Lincoln Square

Brought to the city by MIS Capital LLC and Alterra Property Group, this 3.4 acre, full city block development at Washington Ave & Broad Street is focused on mixed-use. Plans for the project include 322 apartment units, 100,000 square feet of retail space, including a grocery store, and 400 parking spaces. Visually, the building will have an 8-story apartment tower with two stories of retail below. Construction is scheduled to start this year, with completion set for late 2018. One notable feature of the project is the 1876 train depot included on the site which the developers plan to restore and most likely use for retail.

 

  • 1220 Frankford Ave Hotel

Brought to Fishtown by Roland Kassis’ Domani Developers Inc, of Frankford Hall, La Colombe, and, most recently, City Fitness fame this project might be the developer’s most ambitious undertaking yet. Kassis is working with architect Morris Adjmi to create a 114 room hotel, something previously unheard of in the neighborhood. Plans for this six-story hotel include a rooftop pool, skyline views, room prices ranging from $80-200 a night, a handful of restaurants, and office space. While WM Mulherin’s Sons at Front & Master Streets claimed the prize for the first hotel in Fishtown, 1220 Frankford Ave will achieve something of an even larger scale.

 

 

  • Fishtown Village, Suite Row, and Avenue 30

A number of plans for big housing developments in the Fishtown and Kensington neighborhoods are popping up boasting their status at gated communities. Marlborough Development LLC brings Fishtown Village at Marlborough & Wildey Streets, while further north in East Kensington a collaboration between United Makers and Philly Home Girls, Suite Row, is underway at Cumberland & Jasper Streets. Lastly, Riverwards Group & KJO Architects have recently broken ground on their own large gated townhouse community on the 2600 blocks of both Amber and Collins Streets. Starting prices for these homes range from $339-700,000.

 

Two renderings for the Reading Viaduct Rail Park: The access staircase at 13th & Noble (top) and one example of the seating and design (bottom). Courtesy of Studio Bryan Hanes.

 

 

  • Reading Viaduct Rail Park

Demolition is underway, with 80% completed, and on track for development at the highly anticipated Reading Viaduct Rail Park. Taking inspiration, and lessons, from New York City’s Highline project, this reuse and remodeling of a formerly abandoned viaduct rail will present a boon to the surrounding community. So far workers on the project have mostly been dealing with remediating soil, making sure the site is clean and safe for planting, and restoring stone walls in collaboration with Studio Bryan Hanes. The next stage will focus on building foundations for the access stairway that will be at 13th & Noble Street, repairing any damage to bridges and doing important waterproofing, installing metal railings along the edges for safety, and doing the first phase of planting and painting.

 

Construction is well under way at East Market.

 

  • The Gallery & East Market

In addition the much discussed total renovation at the Gallery on East Market Street, just down the street is another large scale development. While this is still part of Center City, the promise this project holds for this specific enclave of downtown is significant. East Market is springing up on the entire block between Market, Chestnut, 11th, and 12th Streets. The project consists of three buildings – two residential towers with retail on the ground level and office space at Family Court Building which is also being renovated. One residential tower, the Ludlow, designed by BLT Architects is geared more towards millennials with a younger vibe and smaller units, while the other, a collaboration between Morris Adjmi and BLT Architects will target more established professionals and families. One special feature here is the pedestrian-only street that will cut through the middle of the block, connecting Market & Chestnut. This project checks off most of the design and planning boxes with its focus on mixed-use development, pedestrian accessibility, and underground parking.

 

Check back in the upcoming weeks for more information about how Solo Realty is getting involved in Philadelphia’s new construction boom with our own project – Kensington Yards. We are really excited about this development and look forward to giving some updates about its progress and more features on our various collaborators.

 

Featured image via Map data ©2017 Google.

Blocks We Love: 700 Block of Miller Street

One of Philadelphia’s few remaining “residential courts” can be found tucked away in the heart of Fishtown. Historically known as Miller Court, the 700 block of Miller Street makes for a vibrant and picturesque little block.

Residential courts were once a mainstay of Philadelphia’s historic architecture and urban design.

A handful of these residential courts are still scattered throughout the City, largely unnoticed by most passersby. Fishtown is home to eight of them.

Miller Court consists of five houses, each one painted a different bright, bold color. Several sport a small, picket-fenced front yard.

While the court may get passed over by those walking down the larger thoroughfares that flank this petite block, those that take notice are in for a treat; stumbling upon this charming row of homes is like being transported into a storybook.

The contemporary, candy-colored facades of the 700 block of Miller Street
The contemporary, candy-colored facades of the 700 block of Miller Street

Today Miller Court sports a single row of five homes, but up through the 1960s there was a row of five homes mirroring those still standing. The schoolyard of the Holy Name of Jesus Parish at 701 Gaul Street now occupies the space where those rowhomes once stood.

The Holy Name schoolyard now occupies the southeastern side of the block where five additional rowhomes once stood
The Holy Name schoolyard now occupies the southeastern side of the block where five additional rowhomes once stood

According to historical maps of the area, this little block actually predates the larger, more complete 600 block of Miller Street, which supports two full rows of houses, vehicle access, sidewalks, and parking.

The pedestrian-only hideaway of 700 Miller Street first appeared in the 1875 Philadelphia Atlas as Ridley Ave. At this time the 600 block was still fully occupied by a large Malt House & Factory, the Gaul Estate, and a German Burial Ground.

1875 map of the block (Ridley Avenue at the time), which predated the 600 block, pictured here occupied by a factory, cemetery, and estate
1875 map of the block (Ridley Avenue at the time), which predated the 600 block, pictured here occupied by a factory, cemetery, and estate

By 1895, Miller Street (still Ridley Avenue at the time) was extended into the 600 block, and rowhomes were built on the site of the factory, cemetery, and estate. By 1910 the Philadelphia Atlas showed the street with its present day moniker, Miller Street.

This 1910 map shows Ridley Avenue renamed as Miller Street and its extension into the 600 block, running between East Montgomery and Berks Streets
This 1910 map shows Ridley Avenue renamed as Miller Street and its extension into the 600 block, running between East Montgomery and Berks Streets

Today, the five houses stand out as unique among the traditional Fishtown style of brick two-story rowhomes and present a series of cheery façades in a secret alcove of the neighborhood.

In the Internet era, we can even get a peak at their contemporary interiors! Recent listings show exposed brick, skylights, random-width pine flooring, sunny kitchens, and cozy bedrooms.

 

Historic maps courtesy of the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. Green and red facade photos courtesy of Trend MLS

Blocks We Love: 1400 Block of East Montgomery Avenue

Living across a historic cemetery can be an asset year-round, not just around Halloween! Though the 1400 Block of East Montgomery Avenue is nestled in the heart of Fishtown, it is not your quintessential Fishtown block.

 

Typically, a Fishtown block consists of neatly packed two-story brick townhomes, a decent showing of small trees and (hopefully) a parking spot or two amidst the car-lined street.

 

Instead, on the 1400 Block of East Montgomery Avenue, stately three-story brick-and-brownstone townhomes comprise one side of the street, opposite the lush and deeply historic Palmer Cemetery, which supplies some extra parking to boot.

 

Studded with brownstone lintels and a colorful array of cornices, the classically detailed townhomes are highlighted by the abundant natural light that facing the cemetery affords.

 

The colorful cornices (left) of 1400 East Montgomery Avenue, and its shaded yet sunny stoops (right)

 

To state that Palmer Cemetery is a piece of living history is not an oxymoron, but an understatement. The cemetery is as old as Fishtown itself, and much older than the Fishtown neighborhood name.

 

Anthony Palmer founded the neighborhood in 1729 when he purchased 191.5 acres to create the town of Kensington. Within Kensington, Palmer envisioned a burial ground with free plots for all its residents, a vision that was carried out by his daughter in 1749.

 

Several centuries later, Fishtown residents can still be buried there upon meeting the same condition that Palmer prescribed: residing or owning property in the neighborhood.

 

Palmer Cemetery provides much more than a place for eternal Fishtown residency; it is a beloved destination for a weekend stroll or for shade provided by the biggest trees you’ll find in Fishtown.

 

Cared for by a dedicated group of volunteers, the well-tended cemetery is surely appreciated by the residents of 1400 Block of East Montgomery Street, who can soak up its greenery and history from their front steps.

 

For more information about Palmer Cemetery, including information on volunteering, click here.

Does Philadelphia Have a Williamsburg?

Gawker, a popular New York-based blog, recently stirred up controversy in Philly by declaring which neighborhoods in our city are equivalent to the NYC hipster havens Williamsburg and Bushwick. But does an exercise like this do more harm than good?

 

Let’s start by saying that placing one neighborhood into the context of another is a natural way to build a frame of reference in an unfamiliar place. We should also note that Gawker did not make these selections on their own, rather doing so by polling their readers and making similar comparisons between other U.S. cities and the Big Apple.

 

But given Philadelphia and New York’s close, complex and sometimes fraught relationship, making public comparisons like this has far more implications than Gawker might have thought.

 

Yes, some communities in our cities feel very similar: Rittenhouse Square’s brownstones are almost identical to those in Brooklyn Heights or the West Village. Other areas though, like Society Hill, have no equivalent as Philadelphia has preserved its colonial architecture in a way that New York has not.

 

The Gawker readers then who selected Northern Liberties to represent gentrified Williamsburg and Kensington to represent grittier, post-industrial Bushwick weren’t incorrect, but they were playing into an unproductive game of NYC navel-gazing.

 

For one thing, although New York City certainly plays an incredibly important role in urbanism, its neighborhoods are not the end-all-be-all of American cities: Northern Liberties and Kensington have their own stories to tell too.

 

Indeed, life in a city is so much richer than living in a cookie-cutter suburb precisely because each neighborhood has its own unique structure and culture. Thus, we do a disservice to all cities (even the Big Apple) when we try to force non-New York communities to ignore what makes them special and define themselves in New York terms.

 

Of course, this diversity is especially important when it comes to the relationship between Philadelphia and New York. As New Yorkers come to Philadelphia for our top-tier universities and low cost of living, so too do Philadelphians go to New York to shop and do business. That give and take, separated by a mere 90 miles, positively impacts both cities in too many ways to count. In the end then, we are likely better off focusing on the benefits of our differences rather than trying to make Philly and New York the same.

Local Roots Anchor New Restaurant

Calling herself the “child of true Kenzos”, Cedar Point owner and executive chef Shannon Dougherty has roots that run deep in Kensington/Fishtown. She and partner Liz Petersen recently made the move up to this rapidly developing community to open a new restaurant offering locally-minded cuisine.

 

Shannon believes that in the restaurant business location is key. “We were working for many years in Northern Liberties” she notes, saying that while they loved the neighborhood, rapid development in the area had them feeling “boxed in.” With many of their regular customers moving north to the affordable homes and bigger spaces of the Kensington and Fishtown neighborhoods, Shannon and Liz felt it was time to try something new in a community Shannon has known since childhood.

 

Working with Solo Real Estate, the partners found a space located on a rare six-point intersection at the corner of East Norris and Cedar Streets. “I feel like every street in the neighborhood leads right here,” Shannon says, adding that the large crossroads brings light and energy into the restaurant.

 

Shannon made the conscious decision to have Cedar Point’s cuisine reflect the tastes of this evolving neighborhood. Serving classic southern comfort food with an updated twist, the menu, full of vegetarian and vegan-friendly options, is simultaneously focused and eclectic. Shannon laughs saying “We love everybody and wanted to serve food to both older local residents and hipsters alike.”

 

Even the food itself has local roots, as Cedar Point has teamed up with Teens 4 Good, a youth-led entrepreneurial project that works with at-risk young people on urban farming projects, to serve locally grown produce at the restaurant.

 

So how does a business conceived to reflect a specific neighborhood deal with area’s changing character? “I think this community has such a great spirit,” Liz asserts, arguing that the strong bonds of the Kensington/Fishtown community will likely make its gentrification process different and perhaps less polarizing than the development of other Philadelphia neighborhoods.

 

Indeed, Cedar Point seems to be just that kind of establishment, created with a conscious belief in the importance preserving the best of a community while still striving to positively effect its development and growth.

 

To learn more about Cedar Point, click here.