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

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

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

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

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

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

4150 Parkside Ave.
4150 Parkside Ave.

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

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

What can the Preservation Alliance do for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get More Information on Historic Properties

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

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

FABSCRAP: Philly’s Textile Recycling Center

First came Slow Fashion, a global movement championing concern for the environment over cheap, disposable goods made by underpaid foreign workers. But how can we counter the constantly rising tide of textiles from American manufacturers of clothing, drapes, upholstery, and bedding?  The answer is FABSCRAP, a textile recycling center located at the Bok Building, 1901 S 9th St.

Originally launched in 2016 in Brooklyn to meet New York City’s commercial textile recycling needs, FABSCRAP, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit, is celebrating its one-year anniversary at its Philly warehouse this November. 

“The concept was started by FABSCAP founder and CEO, Jessica Schreiber, who was working in New York City’s Municipal Waste Department and noticing that manufacturers wanted to recycle their textile waste,” said Haven DeAngelis, Philly Reuse Coordinator. Materials that traditionally would have gone to the landfill are now being properly recycled and made available for reuse.

Shopping

The variety of fabrics available for sale at FABSCRAP is as diverse as the textiles used by the local brands that recycle. “In NYC, we have 700 brand partners. Here in Philadelphia, we have 27, including Urban Outfitters, QVC, J. Jill, and sustainable local brand Lobo Mau whose design studio is also at the Bok building. 60% is reusable and available for sale in our mini storefront and online. The other 40% is recycled into commercial insulation and carpet padding.” This means you will find a huge assortment of prints and solids, knits, corduroy, mesh, and just about every weight of fabric from tulle to leather. You can make an appointment to come to the warehouse to shop for scraps. Larger pieces are sold online. Smaller ScrapPacks for crafting, quilts, and doll clothes are also available. 

Reams of fabric at the FABSCRAP warehouse

Don’t see what you want online? Virtual shopping via Zoom is available in thirty-minute time slots for $75 minimum orders. Shopping appointments at the FABSCRAP Warehouse are one-hour time slots with a limit of one person per appointment. If you would like to shop with a partner, you will both need to register in advance.

“The service fee covers operational costs and allows us to give away fabric to students, artists, local designers, and crafters for reuse,” said DeAngelis who has her own side business, Stitch and Destroy, which upcycles used textiles into eco-friendly punk rock-inspired clothing.

The impact of FABSCRAP

Volunteer at FABSCRAP

“We offer volunteer sorting sessions and have a good group of repeat volunteers, including school groups and corporations,” said DeAngelis. “This month, Philly FABSCAP celebrates its one-year anniversary with a special volunteer sorting session that will include drinks, giveaways, and a party atmosphere.”

A graphic showing FABSCRAP’s process

Each session is three hours long with morning and afternoon sessions. They include an intro to FABSCRAP, how to sort fabric scraps, how to separate unusable scraps, and the process of removing staples or cardboard from swatches. After the session, you are welcome to 5 pounds of free fabric, plus a 30% volunteer discount on any additional material.

Attend a Workshop

Once a month, FabScrap Philly invites a creative professional to skill share with the community, offering both digital and in-person workshops. Past events include: Mend Your Knits, Intro to Patternmaking, and Mixed Media Embroidery. A donation of $10 is suggested to view recent demos on video. Have a craft skill to share? Fill out their online form to apply.

“I love working here and educating others about why we need to recycle clothing and textiles,” said DeAngelis. “Our goal is to provide these saved-from-landfill materials at an accessible and affordable rate to our community of makers.” 

Solo Real Estate congratulates FABSCRAP Philly on its one-year anniversary and welcomes their efforts to help our City achieve its sustainability goals.

Haunted Histories

Why visit a staged haunted house with ghost actors this Halloween, when you can explore some of Philadelphia’s many historic sites that locals believe to be haunted? You don’t have to be a professional Ghostbuster to enjoy these sites on your own or with a local walking tour company that can share both the site’s history as well as its hidden stories.

Solitude House. Image: Wikipedia
Solitude House at the Philadelphia Zoo. Image: Wikipedia

Philadelphia Zoo – 3400 W. Girard Ave.

The spooky happenings at the Zoo are not inside the animal enclosures. They are in the three houses built before the Zoo existed in West Fairmount Park and are now located inside the Philadelphia Zoo grounds. Solitude House, also known as the John Penn House, a Federal-style mansion built in the mid-1780s, is said to be haunted by the spirit of a woman in a long dress who stands at the top of the staircase. Zoo staff has reported seeing apparitions, the sound of music playing, and a light in the attic that likes to turn itself on. Other supposedly haunted buildings at the Zoo include the Treehouse Building, Pennrose Building, and the Shelly Building. 

American Philosophical Society. Image: Wikipedia.
American Philosophical Society. Image: Wikipedia.

American Philosophical Society – 105 S. 5th St.

The American Philosophical Society was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin with the purpose of “promoting useful knowledge” and continues to support his original mission today.

Not all apparitions are scary. In death, as in life, the vivacious ghost of Benjamin Franklin has supposedly been seen climbing down from his statue above the door at the American Philosophical Society and wandering with an armload of books through the Philosophical Society Library and dancing in the streets. 

Christ Church Burial Grounds. Image: Visit Philly

Christ Church Burial Ground – 340 N. 5th St.

Want to spend more time with Franklin’s ghost? Head over to his grave at Christ Church Cemetery where it is rumored his playful spirit steals pocket change from visitors. Christ Church Burial Ground, established in 1719, contains 1,400 grave markers and is home to the graves of many famous Philadelphians.

Pennsylvania Hospital – 800 Spruce St.

Another ghost that is said to climb down from his statue is William Penn. He reportedly comes down from his pedestal and visits the garden of Pennsylvania Hospital, founded by Ben Franklin in 1751. Can’t blame him. This is one of the loveliest walled gardens in Center City.

Laurel Hill Cemetery – 3822 Ridge Ave. 

One of the oldest cemeteries in the nation, Laurel Hill Cemetery contains the graves of many of Philadelphia’s most notable citizens and according to some their ghosts too. Situated overlooking the Schuylkill River in Fairmount Park, the Cemetery offers a variety of tours in which you will learn about its infamous inhabitants and unusual monuments reported by visitors which include angels prying open caskets and lifting the deceased toward heaven.

Mutter Museum – 19 S. 22nd St.

Located inside the College of Physicians, the Mutter Museum is not for the faint of heart. Its exhibits contain an array of death masks and abnormal anatomical formations preserved in jars of formaldehyde, as well as 17th-century medical instruments. These specimens were collected by American surgeon Thomas Dent Mütter, MD, and were first exhibited in 1863. While the museum itself may not be haunted, it definitely fits the bill as a historic site with a scary past, and some suspect that several artifacts on display might indeed be haunted.

Baleroy Mansion. Image: Guide to Philly

Baleroy Mansion – 111 W. Mermaid Lane

Built in 1911, this 32-room estate in Chestnut Hill once earned the title “Most Haunted Home in America” due to many reports of paranormal activity.  Supposedly three people who sat in the same chair in the Blue Room died within two weeks. It is now believed that anyone who sits on a chair will die shortly after. The ghost of Thomas Jefferson is among the several ghosts believed to haunt this home. 

Eastern State Penitentiary at night. Image: Sean Kelly, courtesy of Eastern State Penitentary.

Eastern State Penitentiary – 2027 Fairmount Ave.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the famous Eastern State Penitentiary. Opened in 1829 as a “model” prison, Eastern Pennsylvania State Penitentiary was the first to enforce solitary confinement, putting prisoners in cells by themselves, under the mistaken belief that this would lead to rehabilitation. Tours of these bleak cells, which housed famous American mobsters such as Al Capone, are available throughout the year. However, in October and early November, the prison presents Halloween Nights, an immersive experience with five haunted houses, live music, and themed bars.

Whether you believe in ghosts or merely are a fan of Philadelphia history, we invite you to take one of the many self-guided or small group ghost tours of our City with Nightly Philly Ghost Tours, Ghost Tour, or Grim Philly Tours this October. You can also check out our “Secret Life of Buildings” series to learn about the history of Philadelphia’s charming alleys and historic sites like Boathouse Row, among others.

Family-Friendly Fall Activities in Philadelphia

The air is crisp, the sun is shining, and the leaves are just starting to turn — what a perfect time to take advantage of Philly’s many family-friendly activities! In this post, we’ll go over just a few ideas for fall events and activities in Philadelphia that are great options for families with kids.

Mural Arts Month

Common Ground / Espacio Compartido © 2022 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Calo Rosa, Eakins Oval. Image by Steve Weinik.

October is Mural Arts Month in Philadelphia with family-friendly events all over the city, including mural painting for kids at the Please Touch Museum, Mural Arts Fest in Love Park, Self-Guided Mural Tours, and Trolley Tours. Come celebrate the over 2,000 murals that make Philly the “Painted City.”

Treetop Quest Philly

Pack a picnic lunch and take the kids, age 4 and up, to Treetop Quest, 51 Chamounix Drive in Fairmount Park, Philly’s first “aerial adventure park” with zip lines and obstacle courses that run through the trees. Once you’re equipped, they’ll teach you how to safely swing through each course as many times as you want for two and a half hours. While many of the activities are geared toward teens and adults, there’s plenty of fun for younger children. 

Philadelphia Zoo

Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Zoo is America’s first zoo and is renowned for innovation in animal care and commitment to wildlife. It also features Zoo360, a first-in-the-world aerial animal travel system, where tigers and orangutans saunter overhead in see-thru bridges overhead. Exhibits include Big Cat Falls, the McNeil Avian Center, the PECO Primate Reserve, and KidZooU, an interactive wildlife academy of dynamic displays, rare breeds, and indoor-outdoor learning. The zoo is also hosting its annual Boo at the Zoo event this month which features costumes and fall treats for kids of all ages.

Please Touch Museum 

As the name implied, this is a museum where kids are free to explore and touch everything! Housed in Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall, this kid’s attraction includes two full floors of interactive exhibit zones plus a fully restored century-old carousel. Kids can play and pretend amid Alice’s Wonderland, River Adventures, and other hands-on fun. 

Franklin Institute

The region’s most popular science museum has a full city block of kid-friendly exhibitions, such as the iconic walk-through Giant Heart, Space Command, SportsZone, Sir Isaac’s Loft, Amazing Machine, Electricity, Train Factory, and Changing Earth. The museum’s 53,000-square-foot Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion features the 8,500-square-foot exhibit Your Brain, along with rotating special exhibitions. The attraction also houses the Fels Planetarium. 

Franklin Square

Image: R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia

One of William Penn’s five original squares, Franklin Square, 200 N. 6th St, is a modern, fun park, with a Philly-themed miniature golf course, playground, carousel, and restored marble fountain. When hunger sets in, burgers, fries, and shakes are available on-site.

Adventure Aquarium

What’s more fun than viewing 15,000 aquatic animals?  Located just across the river at 1 Riverside Dr. in Camden, Adventure Aquarium has a Shark Bridge to cross, hippos and penguins to meet, and stingrays to touch. Plus a 760,000-gallon tank of sea turtles, stingrays, schooling fish, and sharks, including a seven-foot Great Hammerhead.  

Eastern State Penitentiary

Older kids and spooky-season teens will love the pre-Halloween tours of Philly’s nearly 200-year-old, supposedly haunted, prison at 2027 Fairmount Ave. Eastern State Penitentiary‘s annual fall offering Halloween Nights is an immersive experience featuring five haunted houses, live entertainment, and more. Recommended for kids 12 and older. Children under the age of seven are not permitted during Halloween Nights.

Spruce Street Harbor Park

Image courtesy Delaware River Waterfront Corporation via VisitPhilly

Spruce Street Harbor Park is an outdoor oasis on the Delaware River waterfront at 301 S. Columbus Blvd. Provides a waterfront view with tree-slung hammocks, cargo container arcades and food trucks from the City’s most popular restaurants is a delightful getaway for parents and children of all ages.

Woodmere’s Straw Maze

Located at 9201 Germantown Ave. in the Chestnut Hill section of the City, Woodmere Art Museum’s spectacular straw maze has returned to delight kids. After the kids explore their way through the straw tunnels and zigzag spaces, head inside the museum for an exciting children’s exhibition, Inspired by Nature since tickets to the maze include admission to Woodmere.  And for all your Thomas the Train fans, nearby, at Morris Arboretum,100 E. Northwestern Ave., the popular Garden Railway display is ready to roll. 

Philadelphia has so much to offer! We encourage you to use this guide to visit parts of our city that are new to you and your children. If you’re looking for more parks and outdoor destinations, read our story on Philly’s Best Parks, Arboretums & Gardens or explore the gardens from our Five Historic Philadelphia Gardens To Visit.

Renting Guide: How to Find The Perfect Rental in Philadelphia

Renting is a great way to get to know a new city and familiarize yourself with a neighborhood. It’s especially suited for people who prefer the convenience of city living and don’t want to deal with the maintenance of owning a home. In Philadelphia, renting has become increasingly popular, especially with higher mortgage rates and an uptick in home prices. However, like home buying, finding a rental has gotten very competitive in recent years. How do you navigate the increasingly complicated rental market? Here is a rental guide with some tips to make it easier.

Create a budget and stick to it

Looking for a rental is like looking for love. Sure, sparkling hardwood floors and new appliances may make your heart race, but it won’t last if monthly payments gobble up your savings. For most renters, spending 30% of their monthly income on a rental is the sweet spot. But if you have student loans, are saving to buy a home, expecting a baby, or paying down debt, consider looking for an apartment that only takes 20% of your income. Make sure to include one month’s rent for a security deposit, another $200 to cover utilities, and then throw in additional expenses such as pet fees, parking, and laundry. Not sure? Use an online rent calculator like this one.

Do your research

Come prepared with a list of must-haves. Know how many bedrooms and bathrooms you require as well as the amenities. For some, that will mean off-street parking, a roof deck, and an on-site fitness center. Are energy-efficient appliances a must? How flexible is your budget? The clearer you are about what
you need, the better able your rental agent will be able to help you find your dream apartment. Don’t forget your ID and checkbook. You’ll need to act quickly to avoid losing the chance at the ideal rental.

Come with a checklist

  • Look for signs of roaches or mice in the kitchen and bathroom.
  • Check for smoke detectors.
  • Are the hallways and stairs clean and well-lit?
  • Is the front door secure or can anyone enter?
  • Is there a fire escape or fire safety plan in place?
  • Will noise from the street or adjoining apartments be an issue?
hands holding a map with some of the  best neighborhoods for rentals

The Best Philadelphia Neighborhoods for Renters

At one time, having a quick commute to work or easy access to public transportation was a priority. Now, with many people working from home, rental options have expanded, as well as the allure of many former “bedroom neighborhoods” that are now teaming with popular restaurants, nightlife, and shops. Here is a primer on a few of the most popular neighborhoods for renters.

Rittenhouse Square

Rittenhouse is considered one of the most desirable parts of the City due to its historic park, elegant architecture, restaurants, shops, theaters, and concert halls with easy access to the airport and trains. Rentals are available in a range of older and new hi-rises, townhouses, and, on smaller streets, in rowhouses and trinities.

Fitler Square

Fitler Square is a quieter neighborhood situated near the Schuylkill River with charming small streets and its own lovely park. This area attracts professionals, families, and graduate students who frequent the neighborhood’s many restaurants. You can read more about the history of Fitler Square in our recent “neighborhood histories” post.

Graduate Hospital

Located east of Fitler Square, between Bainbridge Street and Washington Avenue, and between the Schuylkill River and Broad Street, this neighborhood offers a choice of apartments in new and older buildings as well as on smaller streets, within walking distance from Center City.

Point Breeze

South of Washington Avenue, west of Broad Street, this is a former working-class neighborhood experiencing a lot of growth. While there are some hi-rise luxury apartment buildings, most apartments are located in former row houses. The axis of Broad & Washington is a focal point of new buildings and shopping.

Old City

Bordered by Vine Street to the north, Walnut Street to the south, 7th Street to the west, and the Delaware River to the east, Old City is a former industrial/factory area that has been renovated into residential dwellings. Filled with cafes, bars, restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques, it is a popular hangout for the under-thirty set and contains the first factory conversions in the City.

East Passyunk

South of Washington Avenue, on the east side of Broad Street, East Passyunk is the “Hippest street in town.” Once a solid Italian neighborhood of Mom & Pop eateries and shops, it now boasts some of the most popular restaurants and bars in the City with Passyunk Square as its focal point.

Northern Liberties

Located between Callowhill Street and Girard Avenue, and between 6th Street and the Delaware River, this was one of the first areas of the City to experience rapid development. Filled with bars, restaurants, cafes, and parks like Liberty Lands, it is popular with young professionals and families wanting an urban feel with quick access to Center City’s attractions.

Fishtown

Just north of Northern Liberties is a former working-class neighborhood that has shifted into high gear, attracting young professionals and families, to its burgeoning array of restaurants, boutiques, and beer gardens. This area offers a mix of renovated row homes, as well as new construction homes and condos in a lively neighborhood.

East Kensington

Located north of Fishtown, East Kensington is the home of Philadelphia Brewing Company, a brewery, and community gathering space now located in the former Weisbrod and Hess brewery, a restored 19th-century brewery complex. Another former working-class neighborhood, East Kensington has become a popular area for artists, families, and young professionals. Nestled around rowhomes and converted factory buildings, restaurants, tattoo shops, cafes and community gardens abound. This neighborhood also boasts its very own cooperatively-owned grocery store, the Kensington Community Food Coop (KCFC.)

These are just some of the many neighborhoods we serve. Other popular neighborhoods for rentals include Washington Square, Society Hill, Bella Vista, Queen Village, Art Museum, Brewerytown, and Pennsport.

If you’re looking to make Philadelphia your home and are looking for a great rental, visit our rent page to view our current listings. Solo Real Estate manages 450+ units across the city and we are committed to finding the right tenants to settle in and become active members of their community. For property management inquiries, please reach out.

The Secret Life of Buildings: Beaux-Arts Architecture

Philadelphians often refer to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as being our very own “Champs-Elysees.” They are not mistaken. The Beaux-Arts style of this grand boulevard was borrowed directly from Baron Haussmann’s 19th-century urban renewal of Paris.  We invite you to go back in time, to understand how the Beaux-Arts movement came to become part of Philadelphia’s architectural heritage. 

History

Beaux-Arts architecture gets its name from Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the premier French school of architecture that flourished from 1885 to 1930. When American architects traveled to Europe, they were astounded by how Paris had changed from a dark warren of narrow streets to grand boulevards filled with gleaming monuments, museums, and libraries in the Greek and Roman decorative style. If the French can do it, they thought, why can’t we?

The Beaux-Arts style combines grand and imposing size with Italian Renaissance and classical Greek and Roman decorative elements like columns, pediments, and balustrades. Exterior decorative details may include arched windows, balconies, and terraces, as well as ornamental windows and grand entrances. 

One of the most distinctive features borrowed from ancient Rome was coffered ceilings, consisting of a series of rectangular, square, or octagon grids in three-dimension sunken or recessed panels. 

Philadelphia’s Beaux-Arts Buildings

Take a walk back in time by visiting the City’s Beaux-Arts treasures, starting with two buildings created in 1871 as part of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. They include Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum), originally built as the City’s art gallery in Fairmont Park prior to the creation of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) at Broad and Cherry streets, designed by Philadelphia’s renowned architect Frank Furness.

Below we’ll go over a few more examples of buildings with Beaux-Arts architectural details in our vibrant city.

The Bourse

The Philadelphia Bourse, designed by GW & WD Hewitt in the Beaux-Arts style, modeled after the Bourse in Hamburg, Germany, was built from 1893 to 1895.  Originally designed as a commodities exchange, it is now a food court across from Independence Hall Park.

The Philadelphia Bourse building

The Union League

The Union League was originally built in 1865 in what’s called Second Empire-style and didn’t have any Beaux-Arts elements until it was renovated in 1910. The building’s Beaux-Arts style additions, which face 15th Street, were designed by Horace Trumbauerer

The Curtis Building

The Curtis Building (now the Curtis Center), on the northwest corner of 6th & Walnut is a must-see, inside and out. Designed by architect Edgar V. Seeler in 1911, the building’s lobby contains The Dream Garden, a breathtaking mosaic mural by Louis C. Tiffany based on an original painting by Maxfield Parrish.  If you go, make sure to visit the Curtis Center’s historic atrium, a vast, marbled-floored hall topped with a steel and glass roof, now used for weddings and special events.

SONY DSC

Free Library of Philadelphia, Parkway Central

The Free Library of Philadelphia Parkway Central Branch was designed by Julian Francis Abele, the first black architect to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture. He worked with Horace Trumbauer on the Union League and Philadelphia Museum of Art. The construction which started in 1917 was held up for ten years do the start of the First World War.

Next to the Free Library is another Beaux-Arts gem, the Family Court Building built between 1938 and 1941. Designed by famed architect John T. Windrim and his colleague William Richard Morton Keast, the building tips its hat to Paris with its resemblance to the Hôtel de Crillon and the French Naval Ministry on Paris’ Place de la Concorde. This allows architecturally astute Philadelphians strolling in Paris to exclaim,” This looks just like Philly!”

Beaux-Arts in Residential Homes

While the Beaux-Arts style was predominantly used in public buildings due to the high cost, affluent Americans were still eager to erect impressive mansions to showcase wealth. In Rittenhouse Square, you can find three local examples of private mansions built in the Beaux-Arts style. 

The first is the Alexander Van Rensselaer residence (now an Anthropologie) on the northwest corner of 18th and Walnut by Rittenhouse Square Park. Step inside the store to check out the opulent interior details of the former mansion which later served as Penn Athletic Club’s clubhouse. Inside a sweeping spiral staircase leads shoppers through four floors of merchandise and displays. When you visit, be sure to look up! The most notable original detail of the interior is an impressive stained glass dome with painted portraits of Italian princes.

Just one block away is the former Drexel Residence (now the Curtis Institute) on the southeast corner of 18th and Locust, and the Samuel P. Wetherill Mansion (now the Uarts/Art Alliance) at 251 S. 18th St. Both are stunning examples of Beaux-Arts classicism and elegance.

You can visit and appreciate many of these buildings by taking an afternoon stroll and walking through Center City. If you’d like a guided architectural walking tour, consider contacting the Preservation Alliance.

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

Ray’s Reusables Brings Sustainable Shopping to Northern Liberties

In March, Ray Daly opened her first brick and mortar store, Ray’s Reusables, at 935 N. 2nd St in Northern Liberties after running her business on the road as Philadelphia’s first mobile refill shop.

“In 2020, I turned a cargo van into a traveling eco-store, bringing reusable, low-waste products to farmers’ markets in East Falls and Fairmount,” said Daly. In her white van, decorated with Ginko leaves, Ray’s Reusables was well received.

“With the flexibility and mobility of the van, I was able to go into different neighborhoods around the city, making sustainable shopping easier for eco-conscious Philadelphians,” she said. 

“But there were neighborhoods I could not reach due to many farmers’ markets limiting vendors to producers and also the narrowness of streets in certain sections of the City,” she said. Meanwhile, residents of Northern Liberties and Fishtown sought her out via Instagram. 

Refill station at Ray’s Reusables in Northern Liberties

“As soon as I opened the shop in Northern Liberties, they came,” said Daly. “Among the most popular products are UNpaper towels made out of cotton flannel in fun patterns,” she said. “The other products that are in demand are refills: organic hand soap, dish soap, laundry detergent, and body wash.” Other products include a cast iron conditioner, beeswax wrap, rosewater face cream, bamboo cutlery and brushes, natural toothpaste, and an all-purpose cleaner.

Why sustainability?

“Plastic production has increased dramatically since it first came on the scene. Between 1950 and 2019, approximately, 8.3 billion pounds of plastic were created. Only 9% of that total has been recycled. 79% is in landfills and, worse yet, in our oceans and other ecosystems,” said Daly. “I believe that as consumers we have the power to effect change. By investing in quality reusable and refillable solutions we also invest in the health of the environment.”

How it all started

A self-described “Air Force brat” who grew up in Maryland, Daly has traveled all over the world but, before moving to Philly in 2018, she had never lived in a large American city. 

“I came here with my husband whose family lives across the bridge in Jersey,” she said. “I had been teaching high school English in Maryland and working at Whole Foods when I decided to go in another direction.“

“I started by turning the pockets from my old jeans into something useful and beautiful – cutlery holders! But as I watched the pandemic unfold and saw the waste that was being created as a result, I realized I wanted to do even more to support the sustainable community. That’s why I decided to open up Philadelphia’s first mobile refill shop.”

Daly seized the moment, realizing that during the pandemic people preferred to shop outdoors rather than entering a shop. Farmers’ markets created the perfect opportunity. “My mission was to make plastic-free options accessible and affordable to people regardless of where they live in the City.”

“Now that I have a storefront, it gives me a lot more flexibility in what I can carry. I just expanded to face care refills and curly hair gel,” said Daly. Besides basing her business in Northern Liberties, Daly is looking forward to becoming a neighborhood resident in the near future.

The new brick-and-mortar location shop allows Ray to stock a wider array of products, and reach a new audience but on Saturdays and First Fridays, Daly will continue to take the shop on the road. Her goal? To make sustainable options more accessible for all.

Stop by 935 N. 2nd St to support this sustainable small business during their store hours Mon, Wed, Fri: 11am – 7pm; Saturday: 3pm – 6pm; and Sunday: 10am – 4 pm, or check out their calendar to see where the van will pop up next.

Tiny Gardens

Spring is the ideal time to dive into gardening but if you rent an apartment or live in a small rowhome, you may not have a lot of room to work with. No front or back yard? No problem. Whether you have a small side alley or enough room for a tiny garden on your windowsill or kitchen counter, there are lots of creative ways you can get growing. Here are some ideas to inspire you to create your own small green spaces at home that can thrive in any dwelling no matter how small.

Terrariums

Consider adding some green to your living space with a small, low-maintenance terrarium. They make beautiful accent pieces that add greenery and beauty to any room in your home. Start with a visit to Pretty Green Terrariums at 1116 South Street and at 907 Market Street which offers terrarium workshops on and off-site by appointment. 

Image: Pretty Green Terrariums

To build your own terrarium you’ll need:

  • Glass Containers: A terrarium can be created in any size or shape clear glass bowl, jar, or container, including a large mason jar. You’ll find a large selection at Urban Jungle 1526 Passyunk and ILL Exotics, 1704-6 Passyunk. Used glass bottles and condiment jars also make great containers. For a more eco-friendly option, we encourage you to reuse what you already have on hand!
  • Plants: Mini succulents and small tropical house plants are well suited to terrariums and come in many colors and shapes. They are available at most area plant shops.
  • Materials: You will need more than potting soil. Terrariums require sand and rocks in addition to succulents. City Planter in Northern Liberties sells a DIY Terrarium Kit.
Image: Urban Jungle

Start by rinsing and drying the glass container to make sure it is clean of dust or contaminants. Place small rocks or pebbles on the bottom, then add a few inches of soil. Add your plants, packing a layer of topsoil to secure them in place. Finish with a layer of sand and any decorations you would like to add such as seashells, moss, or decorative items. Lightly water the terrarium and place it by a bright window.

No time to make your own terrarium? Buy one ready-made at Philadelphia Flower Market, 1500 JFK Blvd. They also make a thoughtful, living get-well or hostess gift as opposed to flowers that droop within a few days.

Bonsai

The tradition of creating miniature bonsai trees is so popular there are national and regional organizations for its adherents, including the Pennsylvania Bonsai Society, founded in 1963.  Originating in China in the 3rd Century, bonsai was later adopted by the Japanese and, today is considered an art form representing spiritual harmony.

Caring for a bonsai requires continual pruning and re-potting to maintain its unique grace and size. As in any art form, there is a learning curve as well as special tools. The Philadelphia Flower Show, June 11-19, 2022 is a great opportunity to learn about bonsai and speak with its aficionados. Or chat with bonsai experts at City Planter.

Edible Container Gardens

Anyone can grow geraniums, pansies, or begonias in a window box or balcony planter. But how about growing a fresh local salad?  The roots of lettuce plants are relatively shallow, making them an excellent choice for tiny gardens. Choose from looseleaf, butterhead, romaine, iceberg, arugula, chives, cherry tomatoes, and spinach. Remember, a plant’s nutritional value is only as good as what you put in the soil; leafy greens require high amounts of nitrogen throughout the growing cycle. Rather than using seeds, you may want to buy small plugs of edible plants at area nurseries.

Talk to your local gardening center before embarking on this project and make sure your container or window box is appropriate for your purpose. You can also sign up for PHS’ workshop on growing microgreens to learn how to grow your own microgreen garden from seed to salad.

Many Philly plant shops have nurseries where you can learn more about growing edible plants and buy the tools needed to grow them. Visit Urban Jungle’s new Pennsport Plant Nursery, 1721 S. Walter Street, or Greensgrow educational urban farm, 2501 E. Cumberland St in Kensington.  

Image: Greensgrow Farms

Herb Garden

If you love to cook, reaching for fresh herbs is much more satisfying than reaching for a jar of dried parsley, and it provides a better taste to cooked meals. If you’re a first-timer, buy a small plant from a garden center and plant it on your kitchen windowsill.

Some herbs, like rosemary, lavender, and thyme, thrive in drier soil, whereas others, like mint, chives, and basil, prefer generous waterings. A common mistake with new herb growers is that they will try to grow plants with different watering needs in the same box, resulting in inconsistent growth. Ask your local plant expert for watering instructions. The easiest way to go?  Buy separate containers. 

Plant Giveaways and Swaps at The PHS Pop Up Garden South St.

Looking to pick up a free new plant or speak with master gardeners to get more tiny garden tips and ideas? Join us for a plant swap or bulb giveaway at the PHS Pop Up Garden on South Street! Solo is proud to be sponsoring the garden and the work that PHS does in our community for the fifth consecutive year. We will be sponsoring PHS’ monthly Plant Swaps with giveaways of horticultural favorites like summer gladiolus bulbs, flowering annuals, houseplants, succulents, tulip, daffodil bulbs, and more. Solo Real Estate will also be providing complimentary zinnia seed packs and new recycling containers throughout the season. 

Families, friends, and pets are welcome to experience the beautiful outdoor garden, featuring plant and garden installations, alongside a full food and beverage menu, with ample seating, entertainment, and space options to suit every party size.   

For more small-space gardening tips, read our article on container gardening 101. If you’re already an avid home gardener and need more space, consider volunteering or joining a local community garden to learn more about urban gardening in Philadelphia.

Women’s History Month

As the end of Women’s History Month approaches we’d like to take a moment to salute women who have taken leadership roles in shaping Philadelphia’s social, cultural, and economic development. Join us in celebrating the contributions of women — past and present — by learning about their legacy and attending some special events this month.

Looking back

Betsy Ross has her own Museum, but here are three other Philadelphia women of courage you should know.

Lucretia Mott - Image: Library of Congress
Lucretia Mott – Image: Library of Congress

Lucretia Mott (1793-18880) was a Quaker preacher and a cousin of Benjamin Franklin. She was a staunch abolitionist, feminist, and women’s rights advocate. When the nation abolished slavery, she advocated giving former slaves, both male and female, the right to vote.

Painting of Rebecca Gratz by Thomas Sully – Image: The Rosenbach

Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) was an educator and social reformer. She founded the first orphanage in Philadelphia, the first charitable organization to benefit impoverished women and children, and the first Hebrew Sunday School in America.

Marian Anderson in 1940, by Carl Van Vechten. Image: Library of Congress

Marian Anderson (1897- 1993) overcame the oppressive Jim Crow racism of her day to become the first internationally acclaimed Black opera singer. Turned down by vocal academies in Philadelphia, she studied abroad and returned to win a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. Anderson become the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Women’s History Month Events

She Rocked It!  In celebration of Women’s History Month, the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District and She RockedIt! present a panel discussion with women business owners from East Passyunk Avenue about their experiences, challenges, and successes. Monday, March 28th, 6-9 pm, Society Hill Dance Academy, 1919 Passyunk Avenue. The event is free but space is limited. RSVP required.

Take a Badass History Tour of Philadelphia focusing on trailblazing women who shaped Philly history with Beyond the Bell Tours, a Philly women-owned trolley tour company.

Visit Harriet Tubman – The Journey to Freedom. The nine-foot sculpture of famed abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor is now on display in the north apron of City Hall through the end of this month in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Tubman’s birth.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) is showcasing Women in Motion, 80 works of art by more than 50 American women artists with work spanning from PAFA’s founding in 1805 through the end of World War II. 

The National Constitution Center marks Women’s History Month with a slate of educational programs as part of its exhibit The 19th Amendment: How Women Won the Vote. Admission is free on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

The 19th Amendment: How Women Won the Vote Exhibit

The Sisterly Love Collective, a nonprofit celebrating Philadelphia’s women chefs and women-owned restauranteurs, hosts a Women’s History Month workshop and celebration for emerging and established female entrepreneurs, March 28th, 12:30 pm-8:30 pm at the Fitler Club, 24 S. 24th Street.

Monica Glass of Sisterly Love Philly

The Museum of the American Revolution presents the little-known story of the time period between 1776 and 1807 when women (and free people of color) could legally vote in New Jersey, and what led to that right ultimately being lost, in an online exhibit called When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story.

The Philadelphia Ballet hosts Dance Theater of Harlem stars who danced their way into the spotlight during the 1970s. In this talk, Black women share their stories of being a dancer in the world of ballet and issues of race in dance. Mandell Theater, Drexel University, 3220 Chestnut St. Monday, March 28th at 1pm.

To commemorate Women’s History Month and the contributions of countless women throughout history, make a point of supporting one of Philly’s many women-owned businesses!