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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!

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: Philadelphia Alleys

Philadelphia’s alleys have a rich history that contributes to the charm of Philadelphia with their cobblestone, tree-lined streets, and architecture. From tiny streets allowing passage between houses to service roads and residential courts tucked away between larger streets, Philadelphia’s alleys are part of the fabric of the city and hidden gems worth exploring. 

Origins of Alleys

The original function of these tiny streets was to hide the less attractive functions of urban life, including service and servant entrances, horse stables, carriage houses, and trash disposal. This hints at why “backdoor” alleys were synonymous with brothels in the mid-19th century.

An 1849 pamphlet, “Guide to Ladies of Pleasure in the City of Brotherly Love,” lists an abundance of brothels located in alleys, including seven on what is now Darien Street, an alley between 8th and 9th Street. Their proximity to the Walnut Theater was intentional. At the time, the theaters permitted “ladies of the night” to display their wares on the balcony.

Beautiful Alleys

Take a leisurely walk through Center City, and you’ll likely stumble across one of the city’s many alleys. Philly’s abundance of lovely residential alleys is overwhelming: Panama, Iseminger, Latimer, Addison, Van Pelt, etc. We have selected just a few “must-see” alleys to introduce you to their historic relevance and beauty. 

Photo: Elfreth’s Alley

Elfreth’s Alley

The nation’s oldest continually inhabited street, Elfreth’s Alley in Old City was created in 1702 as a cart-lane, to move goods from the Delaware River docks to Second Street. The Georgian and Federal-style houses on this National Historic Landmark were built between 1703 and 1836.  They are a rare surviving example of 18th century working-class housing.

By the early 20th century, Elfreth’s Alley was deteriorating. The founding of the Elfreth’s Alley Association(EAA) in 1934 saved the street from demolition. As a result of their efforts in the 1960s, brightly colored shutters, freshly painted houses, flowering window boxes and flags recast the Elfreth’s Alley in a brighter light. Now in its 300th year, the Alley features a museum dedicated to its history. 

Camac Street

This 300 South block of Camac Street, now protected by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, did not always have a genteel reputation. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the block was home to brothels and taverns. In preparation for the Sesquicentennial, it was given a makeover, adding Colonial-era lampposts and hitching posts, improving sidewalks and painting houses. 

By 1915, the houses of debauchery were replaced by discrete ladies and gentlemen’s clubs, including the Plastic Club, Poor Richard Club, the Sketch Club and the Franklin Inn Club. It now also is the home of Tavern on Camac, a popular gay piano bar and restaurant.

Photo: The Franklin Inn Club

The Venture Inn, at 255 S. Camac, which closed in 2016, was originally a stable built in the 1830s and served as a station on the Underground Railroad. In 1919, the former stable became a tea room and, in 1931, it turned into a restaurant. During Prohibition, the Inn served as a speakeasy as did a restaurant at 243 S. Camac named Maxine’s.  In the 1970s, both Maxine’s and the Inn became gay bars making the 300 South block of Camac the hub of the Gayborhood.

Quince Street

Running between Spruce and Pine, and between 11th & 12th,  the 300 South block of Quince Street is a tiny alley of historic homes and tall trees, creating an escape from the bustle of Center City traffic.

It is the home of the Mask and Wig Club, the oldest all-male collegiate musical-comedy troupe in the United States founded in 1889. This University of Pennsylvania eating and drinking clubhouse traces its history back to the early 1800s, during which time it served as a church, a stable and carriage house, and – drum roll please – the dissecting rooms for the nearby Jefferson Medical College.

The Clubhouse is home to a collection of early Maxfield Parrish artwork and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If you smell an enticing aroma on Quince Street, follow your nose to Effie’s Restaurant, a Greek taverna with garden dining, located on the corner of Quince and Pine.

Smedley Street

If you have ever walked along the 300 S. Block of Smedley Street, between Spruce and Pine, and 15thand 16th, you may have walked past history without knowing it. The beautiful Georgian-style, red brick house at 333 S. Smedley was not always a private residence.  

Built in 1800, for over fifty years, from the 1940s to the mid-1990s, it was known as the Three Threes, an elegant northern Italian restaurant popular with theater and concertgoers. During Prohibition, it was a speakeasy that made gin in a claw-footed Victorian bathtub. After the restaurant closed in 1994, the property was fully restored as a private residence and featured on a 2017 episode of the HBO series “If These Walls Could Talk.”

Photo: Cory J Popp

Walking Tours

Interested in an architectural perspective of Philly’s alleys?  The Preservation Alliance offers walking tours of The Littlest Streets East of Broad and The Littlest Streets of Fitler Square.

We invite you to discover the big allure of our City’s smallest streets! If you’re interested in buying a historic home nestled in one of the city’s beautiful tree-lined residential alleys or just want to share your favorite alley with us, drop us a line at info@solorealty.com

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, star bolts, and residential courts, among other topics. 


The Secret Life of Buildings: Bay Windows

There is something irresistible about a bay window. Whether it’s the abundant light it brings into the home or the constantly changing views it affords from inside. As part of our “The Secret Life of Buildings” series, we’ve decided to explore the history of this unique architectural feature that adds value to buildings throughout the City, whether they were built two hundred years ago or yesterday.

Origins

The popularity of bay windows in Philadelphia can be traced back to England. Way back! Starting in the 5th century. During the Gothic period, 12th to 16th century, bay windows were known as “oriel” windows. 

An ornamental addition to the building, bay windows were added to cathedrals across Europe. A famous example is St. Sebaldus Church in Nuremberg built in 1361.  In private homes, the area inside the bay window alcove was often used as a house chapel. Meanwhile, in Islamic architecture, bay or oriel windows were used throughout the Arab world as a mashrabiva, a balcony from which women could view public life from behind a screen. 

St. Sebaldus Church

During the English Renaissance, 15th – 17th century, many of the grand houses of the Baroque period featured bay windows that illuminated the ornate detailing of the time. A variation of the bay window is the curved bow or circle bay window. These first appeared in 16th century England and migrated to the United States during the Federal period. 

One of the most exciting and innovative uses of bay windows was Oriel Chambers, built in Liverpool in 1864. It was the world’s first building featuring a metal-framed glass curtain wall, considered to be one of the most influential buildings of its age.

Oriel Chambers, built in Liverpool in 1864.

The Philadelphia Story

Although bay windows made their way across the Atlantic Ocean as early as the Federal Period, it was during the Victorian and Edwardian eras that they really exploded. An example is the bay window at 1219 Spruce, a Romanesque Revival townhouse designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Miles Day in the 1890s. The front of the house features a large bay window capped with a copper cornice with a corbelled design and two small shields. There is another bay window on the Camac Street side of the house. Day also used bay windows to bring light into Houston Hall when he designed it in 1896.

1219 Spruce Street – a Romanesque Revival townhouse designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Miles Day in the 1890s. Photo courtesy of Howard Silverman.

Around the same time, bay windows were making their debut on townhouses ringing Rittenhouse Square. From inside their grand mansions, the City’s elite, including Philadelphia Railroad president Alexander Cassatt and department store founder John Wanamaker, could gaze down upon the lively Square. 

Several opulent mansions with bay windows still exist on the Square, including 1912 Rittenhouse Street and 1923 Walnut. Bay windows are also a prominent feature of 1830 Rittenhouse Square, the first high-rise residential building on the Square, designed in 1913 in the Baroque style by Frederick Webber. 

When affluent people moved from Center City to North Philadelphia in the early 20th century, they were attracted to Gothic and Victorian mansions along North Broad Street and in Strawberry Mansion which featured not only bay windows, but circular windows built into turrets. 

A home in West Philadelphia with circular windows built into turrets

Architectural movements, such as Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, came and went, but the bay window remained a Philly staple. And not just for the affluent. They were used by builders of middle and working-class row homes in every section of the City throughout the 20th century. By adding three large windows angled out beyond the exterior wall, formerly dark, stuffy homes were filled with light and air.  

Various styles of bay windows in West Philadelphia
Various styles of bay windows

Contemporary Bay Windows

In the 21st century, bay windows have seen a resurgence. Their classic design is popular with homeowners seeking to maximize the natural light and optimize the space in their home while increasing its value.

Modern bay windows are either polygonal or square. The box bay window, which is shaped like a rectangular or square box, is still popular throughout Europe. Today, the term bay window is used to describe any window construction that extends from a building’s exterior wall. Interestingly, the box bay window is the hallmark of new apartment house construction in Philadelphia. 

Modern Bay Windows

When modern versions started appearing in Point Breeze, some older residents were so concerned by this sign of gentrification that they worked with a City Councilman to propose a ban on bay windows in their neighborhood.  However, Philadelphia Preservation Alliance cited bay windows as a defining characteristic of row homes in the Point Breeze section in the late 19th century, early 20th century two-story, single-family row homes. As a result, the ban wasn’t enacted.

Other examples of box bay windows can be seen in a four-story apartment complex on Front Street between Sansom and Walnut, affording breathtaking waterfront views.

Modern Box Bay Windows on Front St.

Bottom line? Bay windows add beauty and value to homes. They improve curb appeal, add natural light, and maximize available space. 

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

Agent Stories: Exploring Philly Arts Spaces With Niki Cousineau

Niki Cousineau approaches real estate the same way she approaches her practice as a dancer and choreographer – it’s all about space. Niki, a new agent with Solo, appreciates space in all of its forms. She brings this appreciation to her work as a realtor. Who better to help you find your next home than someone who sees the beauty in a whole range of unique spaces?

 

While the connection between dance and real estate might not be readily apparent, a deep emphasis on the spaces we inhabit is something shared by both. Recently Niki took us on a tour of some remarkable arts and performance spaces that most Philadelphians might not have access to normally. Take a look at our insider’s peek at Philly’s cool performance, arts, and practice spaces!

 

The Glass Factory

 

The first place Niki showed us is tucked away on a quiet side street in Brewerytown. From the outside you would never guess the amazing, cavernous space that lies within. Niki first discovered this space with the company she co-directs, Subcircle. Subcircle came to the Glass Factory with their show Hold Still while I figure this out in June 2016. That piece was more recently performed at FringeArts this past fall.

 

One thing that really stands out in the Glass Factory are the raw materials. While the space is simple, the signs of it’s past life as an auto shop give off a raw, edgy vibe. The exposed brick with phrases such as “Cars Washed” and “Brakes” painted on and the iron beams fit in with today’s popular post-industrial vibe. Meanwhile, the spacious stage and skylights add lightness and grace to the room.

While Niki discovered the Glass Factory through her dance and choreography work, the space hosts a wide array of events including music performances, martial arts classes, and art installations.

Subcircle performing at the Glass Factory

 

MAAS Building

 

The second location that Niki gave us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of was the MAAS Building. This brewery turned trolley repair shop in Olde Kensington is, coincidentally, just two doors down from our project Kensington Yards. Now the building is home to two offices on the ground floor, an events and practice space, a recording studio, a large garden courtyard behind the main building, and a private residence.

When owners Ben and Catherine first acquired the MAAS, it hadn’t been used since its days as a trolley shop. It’s because of this that so much of the original industrial workshop character is preserved. A floor was built to divide the building into two stories, and this diverse practice, performance, work, and home space was born.

 

While one of the most common uses of the upstairs space is actually weddings, Niki and her company Subcircle host their works in progress series and rehearse there. Other local groups that take advantage of this gorgeous, open space are Almanac Dance Circus Theatre and New Paradise Laboratories.

Subcircle in the second floor of the MAAS Building

 

Crane Arts

 

The last space Niki showed us was Crane Arts. Crane Arts is a well established place for artists’ studios and rental space in Olde Kensington. In more recent years they transitioned their Icebox Project Space to having a more structured public presence as well. The Icebox already existed as rental space in the Crane Arts building, in fact, Subcircle did their piece Still Unknown there in 2006. Now they host more regular performances, installations, and shows. With this expanded programming, Crane Arts moves beyond its role as a rental space. The directors are interested in expanding their scope and joining the conversation in Philly’s art community. 

 

Believe it or not, the Crane Arts building used to be a plumbing warehouse. After that a seafood packaging plant called the enormous building home. Between the shuttering of that business and its 2004 purchase, the building remained vacant. The Icebox, which we spent most of our visit in, was actually a giant walk-in freezer back in the days of the packaging plant, hence its name. Some of that original character is still noticeable in the large, blank space suitable for all sorts of performances and installations.

 

An edited photo from a Subcircle performance in the Icebox

How Kevin Bacon’s Dad Changed Your Life

You might not think about Kevin Bacon very often, but if you live in Philadelphia, his dad likely influences your life nearly everyday. Edmund Bacon and his wife, Ruth Hilda Holmes, raised six children, including Kevin Bacon, in the city of brotherly love. Besides his role as a father to the future star, Edmund Bacon, architect, educator, urban planner and author, served as the Executive Director of the City Planning Commission from 1949-1970. During this tenure, he oversaw numerous large- and small-scale design ideas that shaped today’s Philadelphia.

 

Bacon, born to a quaker family in West Philadelphia in 1910, trained as an architect at Cornell and later at Cranbrook Academy. While at Cranbrook, he studied under renowned Finnish architect/planner Eliel Saarinen. Saarinen worked extensively on major planning projects in nearby Flint, Michigan, and enlisted the young Edmund Bacon to assist. Bacon quickly grew into the role and in the late 1930s served as Flint’s planning commissioner.

 

These early experiences in Flint as well as international travels greatly influenced Bacon’s approach to urban planning. In the late 1940s, he became the City Planning Commissioner of Philadelphia, bringing both vision and practical experience to the job. Because of his design background, Bacon not only served as an administrator, but also conceived physical concepts.

 

The following projects are some of those most closely associated with Bacon.

 

Society Hill

In the 1950s, Society Hill was a fairly rundown, dodgy neighborhood. Bacon, seeking to preserve the historical, colonial quality of the area, worked with the Redevelopment Authority, to invest brick sidewalks, period lighting and streetscaping. This included a network of walkways called the Greenway System to tie the neighborhood together. While most of the 18th and early 19th century houses were restored, late 19th century houses were demolished to create high-density housing. The resulting Society Hill towers designed by I.M. Pei are now symbolic of the neighborhood.

Society Hill Towers designed by I.M. Pei

The Far Northeast

In the early 1950s, the far Northeast section of Philadelphia (north of Pennypack Creek), was largely undeveloped farmland. With growing pressure to create more affordable housing, Bacon conceived of a concept for a new type of urban neighborhood that used dense rowhouse blocks, but sited them along a curved street network, based around retail and recreation hubs, connected with bus lines. The intent was to maintain the existing streams and open space. While the resulting neighborhood did not match Bacon’s initial vision, the streams and parkspace remain remarkably intact.

Pennypack Park

Penn Center

In the early 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad committed to demolish a long-defunct section viaduct which cut through Center City and redevelop the land. Bacon worked with architects and planners to conceive of a new use for this central urban space as a transit connected office and retail environment. Again, the resulting development differed dramatically from Bacon’s original proposal, but Penn Center remains a transit and office hub, and has become the core of Center City’s business district.

Earle Barber (left) of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, Edmund Bacon (center) of the City Planning Commission, and architect Vincent Kling consider 1950s projects to follow the removal of the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

In addition to this notable work as City Planning Commissioner,  Edmund Bacon also served as a professor of urban design at the University of Pennsylvania during the 1970s and 1980s. Owner Deborah Solo studied under him while pursuing her Masters in Architecture. Here at Solo, we’re just two degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon!

 

References:

https://planningpa.org/in-memoriam/in-memoriam-of-edmund-bacon/

https://www.philadelphiacfa.org/programs-and-exhibitions/edmund-n-bacon-prize-lecture/about-edmund-n-bacon

The Secret Life of Buildings: Common Philadelphia Brick Styles

Philadelphia is a city rich with architectural history, with many private residences dating back to the colonial era. And while homes have changed significantly since the city’s founding in 1662 (we’re particularly fond of indoor plumbing and electric wiring), one element of Philadelphia rowhomes remains little changed in over three hundred years: brick.

 

It’s no coincidence that homes throughout the city, from stately properties in Old City to more humble rowhomes in Kensington are clad with the same material. Due to a stroke of geographical good fortune, the city rested atop a bed of high-quality brick clay just below the surface. This resource was so extensive that even after two centuries,  it still provided enough clay to produce more than 200 million bricks a year by the end of the nineteenth century.

 

However, brickmaking declined in the 20th century, due to both automation of the manufacturing process  and diminishing clay resources. Concurrently, concrete blocks were developed. Less expensive to manufacture and construct, concrete blocks quickly began to displace bricks in foundation walls and as backup for wall facings.

 

Yet despite the loss of brick manufacturing, brick remains an emblematic element of Philadelphia architecture.

 

The following brick bonds are representative of the common styles seen in Philadelphia’s historic neighborhoods.

 

ENGLISH BOND

Generally regarded as the oldest of brick laying styles, the English bond is characterized by alternating courses (each horizontal row of bricks is a course) of stretchers (the long side of the brick) and headers (the narrow side).

FLEMISH BOND

This style became popular in the 17th Century and can be seen frequently throughout Philadelphia’s older neighborhoods. In a Flemish bond, headers and stretchers alternate continually within each course. Often, bricklayers used burnt headers, creating a visually engaging facade with a mix of red and black.

 

RUNNING BOND

Frequently used for veneer, running bond uses only stretchers. It’s counterpart, the Common Bond (sometimes referred to as the American Bond) uses 5, 6, or 7 courses of stretchers, interspersed with a row of headers. These headers tie the wall to the backing masonry material.  As it’s name implies, Common bond is commonly used, especially in historic Philadelphia rowhomes.