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The Secret Life of Buildings: Boathouse Row

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

History

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

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

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

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

Boathouse #13, Photo: Undine Barge Club

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

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

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

Olympic Dreams

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

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

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

Sustainability

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

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

Save the date

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

Boathouse Rentals

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

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

Creative Reuse in Philadelphia: Repurposed Buildings

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

Factories

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

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

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

Brush Factory Lofts

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

Stables

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

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

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

271 S. Van Pelt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stable Lofts now houses 41 luxury apartments.

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

Stable Lofts

Give Me Shelter

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

The Gratz

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

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

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

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

The Secret Life of Buildings: Rowhouse Cornices

If you have a rowhouse in Philadelphia, you probably have a cornice, a decorative molding that crowns your house, door, or windows. Over time, your cornice may rust or deteriorate. In this article, we’ll cover the history behind the architectural feature known as a cornice, what materials were used throughout the years, and introduce you to conservators who have the knowledge and skills to restore and preserve your decorative cornices.

History

The idea of a cornice has its roots in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. In Classical Greek architecture, the cornice was the top element of the entablature, the horizontal section of a building exterior immediately above a series of columns and below the roof.

Cornices were not merely decorative. They had a basic utilitarian purpose, to direct rainwater away from the sides of a building, but they quickly became a decorative element as well. Greek architecture had three types of cornices: Doric with simple, geometric lines; Ionic with scroll elements; and Corinthian, the most elaborate. 

Cornices were prevalent in Philly rowhouses as far back as Elfreth’s Alley. 19th and 20th Century Philadelphia rowhouses display a wide variety of cornice designs, including bracketed cornices which originally developed during the Italian Renaissance but reemerged during the Victorian period. An example of a bracketed cornice can be found on a rowhouse at 519 Bainbridge Street with a contemporary mosaic façade by Isaiah Zagar

Bracketed cornice

Up until the mid 19th century, cornices were sculpted in wood, stone, or plaster by skilled craftsmen. When the Philadelphia rowhouse boom was at its peak in the early 20th century, old-world techniques were replaced by mass-produced sheet metal cornices that mimicked wood and stone. Made of zinc-coated steel or tin-coated iron (galvanized steel) and, in rare instances copper, these mass-market cornices deteriorated over time. The paint peeled, leaving behind unsightly rust.

Restoration

Because every cornice has its own unique and often intricate design, restoration begins by making a mold of a small section that is still in good repair. If the original cornice was stamped metal, the mold is sent to a metal shop where a life-size reproduction of the entire cornice is stamped out in copper, zinc, steel, or aluminum. The final step is painting the cornice to replicate its original appearance.  If, however, your cornice was originally carved out of wood, the mold will be reproduced in a woodworking shop.

Sheet Metal 

Black Sheep Contracting in Fishtown is a family affair. For four generations, the Brooks family has passed down their craft of restoring roofs and cornices in keeping with historical certification.

“We do historical sheet metal fabrication and installation to match an existing cornice or totally new design, from complex to standard with old-world craftsmanship,” said Black Sheep owner David Brooks. “Cornice design is drawn with dimensions and then transferred to flat sheet stock to be bent and formed. This work is done in the traditional way by hand. Materials are duplicated if existing. If not, it can be formed out of copper, steel, or tin. Painting can be matched if historical or, if not, it would be owner’s choice.”

Image courtesy of Black Sheep Contracting

“Part or ornamental pieces can be duplicated or repaired depending on condition. All cornices and accessories are different and patterns need to be taken on-site to allow for duplication unless we have pattern in our inventory,” said Brooks.

Wood

If your cornice is wood, speak with John P. Hovanec Construction in Pennsburg. But don’t try to Google him. “I am so busy though word-of-mouth, I have not bothered with advertising or websites,” said Hovanec. (At least, he’s got an email address.) For thirty-five years, Hovanec has been a contractor and, for last eleven years, he has specialized in historic restoration. He recently did cornice restoration for one of Solo Realty’s clients.

“The property was built in the late 1800s and the cornice had deteriorated from a roof leak,” said Hovanec. “We took a sample back to our shop and, working in mahogany, we started over from scratch.” Hovanec works in partnership with his sons who launched Old Capital Custom Millwork in Schwenksville.

Stone & Masonry

For forty-five years, Dan Lepore & Sons have provided stone and masonry restoration for Philadelphia row houses. Working with architects, engineers and preservation professionals, they are uniquely skilled in repairing terra cotta and stone cornices. 

“All members of our masonry restoration team are graduates of the RESTORE Training masonry conservation course,” said owner Dan Lepore. And, yes, they do stone carving. Their clients have included the Philadelphia Museum of Art and City Hall –  gargoyles and all. 

Restoring a cornice can be costly but there are some grants available to help homeowners cover the costs. For information on these, contact the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia

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

The Secret Life of Buildings: Row House Styles

Philadelphians love the row house as much as they love their cheesesteaks and water ice.  How did this unique architectural style take root and thrive for over 300 years? We will take a look at the origins and evolution of the row house, from working man’s home to opulent mansion.

While the row house is synonymous with our City, we did not originate the style. We borrowed it from London and Paris where it first appeared in the 16th century. (Next time you are in Paris, check out the swank Place des Voges. It looks like a mansion, but is actually a series of row houses.) In London, row houses were built for both workers and noblemen. Philly took that cue and ran with it.

From humble dwelling to stately splendor

Early row houses, dubbed Bandbox or Trinity, were only 400-600 sq ft.  They had one entry, one room on each floor, a narrow winding staircase, and no running water. Toilets? Outside! They first appeared along narrow alley blocks near the waterfront in the early 18th Century to house dock workers. Trinity houses can be found today in Society Hill, Washington Square West, Queen Village, Old City, and Kensington. Want to learn more about trinity homes? We covered them in another blog post from this series.

Although early row houses were half-timber, mimicking the English style, they soon switched to brick which was a better fire retardant. An abundance of local clay allowed brickmaking to flourish here. By the 18th century, we were America’s preeminent brickmaking city. 

In the 19th Century row houses expanded into the Double Trinity or London House. These spacious 1,000-8,000 sq ft homes had three stories plus a basement, two fireplaces, and a rear yard. Today, these larger row houses ring Washington Square and may be found in several neighborhoods throughout the City.

Georgian Row House: Powell House is located at 244 S. Third Street.
Georgian Row House: Powell House is located at 244 S. Third Street. Image: VisitPhilly.com

The wealthy favored Townhouses, 3,000-7,000 sq ft with three to four stories, grand staircases, and abundant light. These are found in Society Hill and Washington Square West.  A classic example is the Powel House, built in 1765 and located at 244 S. Third Street. It is now a museum and considered to be one of the finest Georgian row houses in the city. 

Row House Architectural Styles

Georgian houses, 1714-1830, featured symmetrical windows, shutters, and columns. Entrances were often embellished with pediments, arches, and columns. Interiors featured high ceilings and crown molding.  

Federal Style: 171 Poplar Street
Federal Style: 171 Poplar Street. Image courtesy of Solo Real Estate.

Federal style, 1780-1820, had many of the same elements but with details that are more delicate, including front door fanlight windows and elaborate porticos and curved arches. A Federal-style home in Northern Liberties is currently available for Sale through Solo Real Estate.

Greek or Classical Revival: Girard Row.
Greek or Classical Revival: Girard Row. Image: WikiMedia

Greek or Classical Revival, started in 1820. The ceilings were taller. Attics were replaced by a full third floor. Examples include Girard Row, a set of five-row houses built in 1831 by banker Stephen Girard, located on the 300 block of Spruce Street. Or consider the elegant Thomas Eakins House, built in 1854, at 1727-29 Mount Vernon Street, now the headquarters of the Mural Arts Program

Greek or Classical Revival: Thomas Earkins House.
Greek or Classical Revival: Thomas Earkins House. Image: Philly Voice

Gothic Revival, 1830-1860, can be recognized by its pointed arches on roofs, windows, or doors. Other characteristic details include steeply pitched roofs and front-facing gables with delicate wooden trim called vergeboards or bargeboards. Examples can be found in West and North Philly. Tip: If it looks like the Adams Family lives there, it’s Gothic!

Renaissance Revival or Neo-Renaissance, 1840-1890, combined elements of Italian, French and Flemish Renaissance architecture. They featured
brownstone or light-colored brick facades and often had decorative
motifs, like wreaths, flower garlands along the cornice and around the
windows.

Victorian style, 1837-1901, which often included Gothic elements, inspired the towering brownstone mansions found in Rittenhouse and Fitler Square. The 4100 block of Parkside Avenue in West Philly, built in 1876 during the Centennial Exhibition, is an excellent example of Gothic-Victorian style and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Row house Styles: Gothic Victorian in Parkside Ave in West Philadelphia.
Row house Styles: Victorian in Parkside Ave in West Philadelphia. Image: Wikipedia.org

Mid to Late 19th Century 

With the advent of the streetcar and increased immigration, developers expanded row house developments creating new neighborhoods close to factories and industry.

Small row houses with indoor plumbing, 1,000-1,600 sq ft, sprang up in Manayunk, as well as North, West, and South Philadelphia. Larger, “Streetcar Town Houses”, 2,200-2,500 sq ft, with front porches, bay windows, and tall ceilings also appeared in these areas. 

For the elite, there were Urban Mansions, 3,00-6,000 sq ft with three to four floors, with two stairs (one for servants), carriage houses, skylights, and ornate fireplaces. In the 1890s, Urban Mansions attracted wealthy Jews to Strawberry Mansion in North Philly, while the City’s elite gravitated to Millionaires Row on South Broad.  A beautiful example is the Lippincott Mansion, 1897, 507 S. Broad which featured a 10×20’ stained-glass skylight. 

Lippincott Mansion, located at 507 S. Broad St.
Urban Mansions: Lippincott Mansion, located at 507 S. Broad St. Image: Vintage-Instruments.com

Our City’s row house styles are each unique in their right and built to last. From Kensington to East Passyunk, from West Philly to Germantown, these homes continue to stand the test of time, evolving and contributing to Philadelphia’s architectural landscape.

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 common Philadelphia brick styles, trinity homes, star bolts, and residential courts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

A Guide to Your Philadelphia Home’s History

Does your home have an intriguing history? Would you like to know who were its first tenants? If so, the City of Philadelphia makes it easy to trace your house’s past via maps and archival documents, including deeds that go back to 1683. Below is a list of local resources you can use to find more information about the history of your home.  

Philadelphia City Archives

If your house was built prior to 1955, start with Philadelphia City Archives at 548 Spring Garden Street. There, archivists will conduct a detailed search for historical materials relating to the address you provide and present you with the appropriate files. You never know what you will find. The records may contain handwritten deeds, transfers of property, or architectural renderings. If you are a fan of Finding Your Roots, the PBS program that delves into genealogy, you will love the City Archives. To schedule a visit, call 215-685-9401.

Besides recording deeds, the City Archives maintains a Photo Archive of two million photographs, dating from the late 1800s, including images of the City’s architecture, industry, and culture. Tap into this fascinating resource to trace the changes in your neighborhood.

Philadelphia Department of Records

If your home was constructed between 1956 and the present, go to City Hall Dept. of Records. Since this office also contains records of births, deaths, and marriages, it may involve a longer wait than the City Archives. However, if you are nimble with technology, you can access digital property deeds online from 1683 through 1974 at the Philadelphia Dept of Records. Be prepared to buy a subscription to conduct a search and wade through a complex system of deed books. 

These deed books provide a wealth of information regarding the ownership and use of real estate in Philadelphia. The standard deed includes information on the date of the transaction, the names, residence, and occupation of the buyer and seller, the sale price, a survey description of the property usually with an indication of whether there is a building on the property, a description, called a recital, of how the seller acquired the property.

Free Library Interactive Digital Mapping Tool

If you want to see how your block or neighborhood has changed over the years, the Free Library offers an interactive digital mapping tool, dating back as far as 1843. These are no ordinary maps! They include 19th-century maps of whiskey warehouses, Fairmount Park, horse car routes, and atlases of the City by wards.

Philadelphia Historic Commission

To find out if your property is registered as historic, to nominate a property or apply for a historic plaque, contact the Philadelphia Historic Commission. Besides designating individual properties, the Commission also lists Historic Districts and offers manuals for homeowners in those neighborhoods. Besides the usual suspects, Philadelphia’s Historic Districts include West Girard Avenue, Diamond Street, Parkside, and many other architecturally significant areas.

Looking for a home with a history? 171 Poplar Street is an 1843 Federal-Style Townhouse in Northern Liberties available for sale through Solo Real Estate.
171 Poplar Street is an 1843 Federal-Style Townhouse in Northern Liberties available for sale through Solo Real Estate.

Philadelphia Architects & Buildings

Philadelphia Architects & Buildings is also a helpful online tool to learn about the architect who designed your home. Hosted by the Atheneum, you simply enter the property’s address or the name of the architect. If there’s a match, you will have access to the architect’s resume, along with the locations of other properties he designed with dates and photos. To gain access without signing up for a subscription, sign in as a guest. 

Whether you have an old home or are looking to purchase a home, researching the property’s history can be an important step in determining its value and preserving its architectural integrity. If you’re looking to purchase a home with a history, Solo has a listing for a Federal-style Townhouse with a deed from 1843