32nd to 39th Streets, Lancaster Avenue to Spring Garden Street in West Philadelphia
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places May 9, 1985
The Powelton community that exists in the late twentieth century is the result of three stages of building decisions: one in the early nineteenth century when great estates were built there; another in the middle of the century when street and rail lines made it a successful upper-class suburb; followed at the end of the century by a phase of dense urban building. With the south edge defined by the presence of Drexel on the southeast, commercial and institutional buildings extending along Lancaster Avenue, the rail yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad of the east, and the red brick rows of Mantua above Spring Garden Street on the north, Powelton remains visually identifiable, an oasis of tree-lined streets, porch-fronted suburban houses interspersed with a few mansions and their commercial support buildings dating from the second half of the nineteenth century. Despite the growth of Drexel University and the changing lifestyles in the region, Powelton remains a worthy bearer of the name of one of Philadelphia’s first families. Of the approximately 900 buildings in the district, 25 are significant, 809 contribute to the district, and 34 are listed as intrusions demonstrating the high integrity of the community.
Powelton has a number of significant streets that represent its various connections to the remainder of the City: Lancaster Avenue, which remained essentially institutional and commercial; Spring Garden Street, formerly called Bridge Street because it provided access to the suspension bridge across the Schuylkill; and Powelton Avenue, which was the focus of development as the region matured in the decade after the Centennial. The initial impetus for the development of Powelton came with the 1840s construction of Charles Ellet’s pioneering suspension bridge across the narrowing of the Schuylkill River bluffs below the waterworks wind dam. It is because of that access along the Race and Vine Street Passenger Railway that Baring, Hamilton and Spring Garden Streets were first developed, leaving few empty lots by the time of the Centennial, while Powelton Avenue was relatively empty. A few of the early houses still exist on Spring Garden, including a handsome Greek Revival townhouse at the corner of 36th Street and a wood-sided Italianate house at 3502 that predates the 1854 incorporation of the region into the city of Philadelphia, and thus circumvented the building code requirement of fireproof construction. In addition, a considerable number of houses from the second era still remain, including the stately Italianate mansion of developer Joseph Brunner on the 3500 block of Spring Garden (now Saint Agatha’s School), and the large stucco doubles on 32nd and 33rd Streets. Though no architects have been linked firmly to any houses, the recessed panel design of many suggests the work of carpenter-builder John Riddell, whose published schemes show similar styling. Others are similar to various projects of Samuel Sloan, but may have been derived from his books on villas and country homes.
The 1870s saw a considerable group of stone-fronted mansarded houses erected along Hamilton and Baring Streets, and the first large houses identified with specific architects. Of these, the most notable are a group erected by various members of the Wilson Brothers, including the notable Japoniste house at 205 North 36th Street, Frederick Thorne’s house at 36th and Baring, and another by the same designer on 33rd Street (now demolished). Addison Hutton’s George Fletcher House (216 North 34th) shows hints of the fashionable “Olde English” styling.
That same decade saw the construction of numerous institutions that still survive, including Northminster Presbyterian Church at 35th and Baring, erected in 1875 from plans by Thomas Richards, architect of the new campus of the University of Pennsylvania. It is an imposing English Gothic church derived from Pugin rather than the polychromed English Victorian Gothic. At the opposite end of the district is an imposing Lutheran church at 38th and Baring Streets which shows the coloristic variety of brownstone framing stucco panels that suggest a link to pre-war design. An early pre-Civil War Presbyterian church (1846) at 36th and Spring Garden was refaced in 1911 as a Lutheran church (now Baptist) with a more up-to-date English Gothic front. The Episcopal congregation produced a series of buildings that culminated in a brownstone group at 36th and Baring by the Wilson Brothers. That congregation began in 1819 at 36th and Sycamore (now Fairmount Avenue) as St. Mark’s, and when it moved it changed its name to St. Andrew’s. Its original building was sold to St. Agatha’s Roman Catholic congregation. They later moved into an impressive brownstone building with a central tower that recalls German medieval styling by E. F. Durang, 1888. With its adjacent parish house by P. A. Welsh (1891) and the School (1917) also by Durang, the adaptive reuse of the Joseph P. Brunner House as St, Agatha’s School Of the Deaf, and the Bishop Ryan Institute, they give that parish an impressive presence in the community, and one that remains to the present.
In the last generation of the nineteenth century, the holes in the community were infilled, making the community almost urban in its density. That began with E. Spencer Miller’s purchase of Powelton and subdivision of it into two groups of buildings: a row of elaborate Queen Anne houses by G. W. and W. D. Hewitt for Henry Gibson (1882); and to the rear, small suburban doubles, probably by the same architects that Gibson had used. At 33rd, brewer Frederick Poth built a German beer baron Gothic house (1887) with corner tower and elaborate Queen Anne detail by A. W. Wilks, formerly of Chandler’s office, while his brewery architect, Otto Wolf, built a row of “German Gothic” doubles across the street. At 34th Street, T. P. Chandler built the handsome stone Romanesque house for George Burnham of the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Further west on the same block is an altered but still impressive house by Bruce Price for Jessie Sabin (c. 1885), in high Queen Anne style. Next door is a Pompeiian brick modern Georgian house for Charles Febiger by Horace Wells Sellers and Chester Kirk. The modern Italian house for Henry Cochran by Wilson Eyre (1891) at 36th and Baring culminates this group and indicates the varied nature of this community. The range is evident in the church denominations and also in the range of architectural patronage, which includes both elite architects such as T. P. Chandler, Wilson Eyre, Jr., and Horace Wells Sellers, and nouveau riche and industrial designers such as Otto Wolf, T. P. Lonsdale and Willis G. Hale.
The twentieth century has altered Powelton in directions common to many other late nineteenth century suburbs. An institutional neighbor, Drexel Institute of Technology, now Drexel University, has expanded north from Chestnut Street. Many of the major houses have been converted into fraternities and others have been altered into student apartments. Drexel commissioned a handsome setback skyscraper in Art Deco classical style from Simon and Simon for use as a dormitory for a site on Powelton Avenue. Other buildings have not been as sympathetic or sophisticated, but the university’s presence is now a significant fact of life in the region. The changing nature of the community in the twentieth century is also evident in the construction of a significant group of apartment houses (The Powelton Apartments) that began with the conversion of a row of immense doubles erected on the 3500 block of Powelton Avenue from designs by WiIlis G. Hale.Their size–four stories–and detail were not in keeping with the aspirations of the Quaker City oligarchy, and the buildings were left empty after their completion. Frederick Poth acquired the buildings in 1908 and followed the pattern of his earlier development on Parkside Avenue by hiring architects Milligan and Webber to join the buildings into a four-story flat house. Later apartment houses were erected at 35th and Powelton (demolished) and at 36th and Powelton in a Neo-Regency style (J. Clark, 1925); and at 36th and Spring Garden (J. Fieldstein, 1920). They all mark the changing patterns of residence of the modern city.
The southern edge of the district remained commercial following the initial patterns of the region. The commercial district that began along Lancaster Avenue had broadened in its function by the end of the century but it remained focussed on serving the needs of the Powelton district. In the 1890s an elegant apothecary shop with terra cotta panels was built at the intersection of 36th, Lancaster, and Race, while rows of yellow brick apartments with shopfronts in the 3600 block provided groceries, clothing and other services. At the end of the century, one of the Lancaster Avenue lumberyards and planing mills that had supplied materials for the building boom was replaced by an extraordinary high-style commercial block at 39th Street. The curving almost “Art Nouveau” row of period yellow brick storefront buildings accented by decorative terra cotta panels were given individual interest by tall wall gables that create a medievalizinq air along the roof line. It recalls the scale and detail of the rowhouses built on Spring Garden, making it clear that the commercial zone was conceived by the architects who designed the domestic rows. In the early twentieth century, automobile services were added along Lancaster Avenue in a group of garages that show segmental decorative brick paneled pediments above the garage door in the period style.
At the end of the nineteenth century, severa1 important institutional buildings were built on Lancaster Avenue as well, reflecting the residential character of the neighborhood that attracted other important institutions, including the Presbyterian Hospital, the Blind Women’s Home (both by the Wilson Brothers) and the Old Men’s Home. An academic building for the Quaker meeting in the Georgian Revival style by Bunting and Shrigley (1901) stood next to the nineteenth-century Hicksite Meeting House; on the same block was a “Mission House,” reusing a mid-century Italianate mansion. They were joined in 1890 by the monumental building group for the Industrial Home for the Working Blind, which was located at 36th and Lancaster in close proximity to the Blind Women’s Home and public transit. That building was designed by the architect who completed City Hall, John Ord. Here he used red brick with overscaled brownstone trim, and a handsome corner tower capped by a dome to create a memorable architectural accent at the 36th Street intersection.
As the above description suggests, the community survives with a high degree of integrity. From Spring Garden to Race Street there are a few vacant lots and with the exception of the Powel School, and more recent buildings for Drexel University, few contemporary buildings. Most of the intrusions and vacancies occur on the east edge of the community, where light industry, located near the rail yards on the bridge, has gradually altered the scale and the perception of the region. Spring Garden Street has the difficulty of being perceived as the edge of the ghetto, and thus has been subjected to lower valuations and less sensitive rehabilitation.
Statement of Significance
When Lippincott’s published the 1887 edition of Philadelphia and Its Environs, the Powelton neighborhood was described favorably as containing “a multitude of pretty residences of moderate cost [and] some of the handsomest and most expensive mansions in the city.” Indeed, at the turn of the century after 50 years of development the Powelton neighborhood was one of the most impressive in the city, both for its architecture and its economic and social diversity. Where Rittenhouse and North Philadelphia mark the social extremes of the Quaker City, old money elites versus nouveau riche, Powelton, because of its proximity to the Pennsylvania railyards and offices and the Baldwin locomotive works, was the home of the industrial meritocracy. Their social variety was reflected in the wide range of institutions, juxtaposing a Catholic complex with an Episcopal church, a Baptist church with Hicksite and Orthodox Quaker meetings. The suburban flavor of the community provided the setting for a variety of institutions that contemporary wisdom assumed would prosper in a more sylvan location, including a Quaker Mission and the sheltered Working Home for the Blind, as well as churches, schools and hospitals and now Drexel University. Moreover, with the pre-Civil War streetcar suburban homes, the institutional and commercial strip along Lancaster Avenue, and the core of Victorian mansions on Powelton Avenue, the district describes with clarity and vigor the values and lifestyles of many of the city’s most prominent industrialists. Fortunately, their taste is recorded by the survival of vast numbers of buildings by the principal architects Addison Hutton, T. P. Chandler, Wilson Brothers, Willis Hale and others of post-Civil War Philadelphia. Those buildings form streetscapes that retain a high degree of completeness.
The community developed in three phases, the first because of the construction in the 1840s of Charles Ellet’s pioneering suspension bridge across the Schuylkill at Spring Garden and the simultaneous publications by A. J. Downing, Samuel Sloan and John Riddell extolling the merits of suburban life. A second phase began with the development of horsecar lines in the 1850s, making Powelton accessible to the new managerial and upper income industrialists who gave the community its principal landmarks. Finally, at the end of the century the middle classes arrived in smaller subdivision houses on the site of the initial mansions.
Though none of the buildings of the initial phase survive, it was that period before 1850 which established the real estate subdivision, located the major bridges across the Schuylkill River and created the focus that brought suburban development to the region. The second phase, from the 1860s and 1870s, is extensively represented by Downingesque cottages and suburban villas, churches and institutions. Those buildings are concentrated between 32nd and 39th Streets, above Lancaster Avenue and below Spring Garden Street. Built simultaneously with the suburban homes was a commercial/institutional boundary along Lancaster Avenue, one of the principal trolley routes into the community. Not coincidentally, significant institutions, businesses and transportation buildings existed there from the 1860s, and it became increasingly concentrated by the end of the nineteenth century. Finally, in the decade after the Centennial celebration, the remaining large estates were demolished including the great Powel house, “Powelton,” that gave the region its name. In their place came three-story row blocks at the east end of the community, more commercial development along Lancaster, and some additional suburban homes. It is those houses, with the mid-century villas, that give the region its character.
It is as the architectural setting of the meritocracy that Powelton is now of greatest interest, with each block containing architecturally significant buildings for important industrialists. Though the pre-Civil War architects are difficult to determine because of insufficient documentation, it seems likely that John Riddell, Samuel Sloan and Edwin Rafsnyder, among others, were designing the early suburban homes. With the Centennial era and better documentation, attributions are more secure. Quaker architect Addison Hutton designed George Fletcher’s imposing Queen Anne house on 34th Street below Powelton Avenue in 1882, and worked on the houses of Henry Mitchell, E. P. Alexander and Edward Lewis (demolished). The Wilson Brothers, architects for the Pennsylvania Railroad, designed houses in Powelton, including John Wilson’s own house at 302 North 35th Street (demolished for the Powel School); Fred Thorne’s house at 36th and Baring, with its prominent castled turret; Robert Gibson’s house (208 North 34th); the Thomas Sparks house (213 North 33rd, (demolished); two houses for William H. Wilson, as well as St. Andrew’s Church at 36th and Baring Streets, all between 1875 and 1883.
Together they form the setting for the gems of Powelton, the great houses along the Avenue between 33rd and 35th Streets, including the house for George Burnham by T. P. Chandler (1886) at 34th Street, the house for brewer Frederick Poth by A. W. Dilks (1887) at 33rd, the house for Max Riebenack, passenger agent for the Pennsylvania Railroad at 34th and Powelton by Thomas Lonsdale (1890), and the Jesse Sabin House of the Sellers Machine Works at 3407 by New Yorker Bruce Price (c. 1890). Each is profoundly different in style: Chandler’s Burnham house shows the influence of the Richardsonian Romanesque in its vigorously massed stone facade. The Riebenack House remains indebted to the English monochromatic Victorian Gothic in Lonsdale’s conservative style. Dilks combined Queen Anne motifs with the bombastic rhetoric of the German Revival architects in Poth’s house while Bruce Price’s Jesse Sabin House was, with a Germantown house by Cope and Stewardson, the best Queen Anne, hung-shingle house in Philadelphia. The range between Shavian shingle style in Price’s work, Richardsonian Romanesque in Chandler’s design and the more middle class houses by Dilks and Lonsdale accurately describes Powelton’s social variety. With peripheral houses such as Eyre’s cubic modern Italian, Pompeiian brick house for Henry Cochran, the region is a center of domestic building of considerable architectural merit.
The churches are similarly notable, with four important examples of post-Civil War taste joined by other lesser but representative buildings. The Emmanuel Lutheran Church (1873, architect unknown) is a handsome brownstone and stucco Romanesque design that marks the transition toward the polychromed styles of the Centennial era. That was followed in 1875 by the Northminster Presbyterian Church by Thomas Richards, founder of the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Its board included several noteworthy community members, among them developer John Shedwick and leather goods manufacturer Edward P. Alexander. This church was a highly styled, originally green serpentine building similar to Richards’ University buildings. Presumably the deterioration of the stone caused its replacement in the early twentieth century by the continuation of the Wilson Brothers who were joined by a member of Richards’ family in the firms of Wilson, Harris, and Richards. With its landmark tower capped by four spires and its traditional rose window, it is among the more visible landmarks of the region. St. Andrew’s Protestant Episcopal Church marks the affiliation of the Wilson Brothers, the principal architecture/engineering firm in the city and probably in the country at the time with that socially elite denomination. A church had existed in the community since 1819, but was arsoned. The present congregation began in 1851, and in 1865 purchased the 36th and Baring Streets site. An initial building was erected at that time, and was enlarged in 1884 by the Wilson Brothers, who designed the present handsome brownstone Gothic building. The most flamboyant of the church buildings is the splendid St. Agatha’s Roman Catholic Church, erected around 1898 from plans by E. F. Durang, the principal architect of the Catholic Church of the era. Its sandstone is richly carved with decorated Gothic detail which forms a contrast with the jamb colonnettes of deep red granite. The plain style Hicksite Meeting on Lancaster Avenue formed quite a contrast to its Gothic peers.
Another important group of buildings contains the large institutional facilities that are scattered throughout the region. Some are relatively unpretentious like the small Colonial Revival American Oncologic Hospital by Walter H. Thomas (1913) which was enlarged by Quaker architects Bunting and Shrigley. Others, like the Working Blind Home, are monumental, occupying nearly a quarter of a block and bringing the scale of industrial architecture to the region. Its four stories, articulated by bays at regular intervals, show John Ord’s ability at handling large masses of masonry in a quasi-suburban setting. The tall Drexel University dormitory named for the Van Rensselaer side of the Drexel family marks the architectural continuity into 1920s Art Deco in the region. That building was designed by Simon and Simon, who were also the architects of the extension to the Drexel auditorium complex, but who are best remembered for such commercial landmarks as the Strawbridge and Clothier store and the University Club at 16th and Locust Streets. Together with the Mission House, the Quaker school and other Drexel buildings in the area, they form a significant group that describes the range of Philadelphia charities.
One last building in the region remains to be noted, the three-story factory at the northeast corner of 32nd and Spring Garden Streets, which was erected in 1886 from plans by Kister and Oren for community resident H. D. Justi (3401 Baring Street) as a manufactory for dental materials. Though most of its workers came from north of Spring Garden Street, its prominent location at the approach to the Spring Garden Street Bridge and the importance of Justi as an early developer of the region links it to the Powelton community. The 1876 Atlas shows his home as one of the largest of the community and numerous other plots of land in his possession. His manufactory process for porcelain teeth was successful enough to warrant a Chicago outlet. Finally, though Powelton is primarily residential with a sprinkling of institutions, it was made to be self-contained by its own neighborhood commercial strip along Lancaster Avenue. These are already in evidence in the 1875 Atlas of West Philadelphia, which showed most of the avenue devoted to commercial use, presumably because of the proximity to the streetcar lines. The first businesses provided the necessities of suburban life. Ebersole’s Grocery provided food, while the nearby Union Transfer Company delivered groceries to the individual houses. Initially, Lancaster Avenue was also the site of two important lumberyards, owned by the McIlvain family who were involved in the construction of many of the houses of the community, and resided in the neighborhood as well, at 315 North 33rd Street and at 3505 Baring Street. Their location, at 32nd Street, and at 39th Street placed them at strategic points for delivery of materials to the building sites of the growing community; when the region was essentially developed, they were replaced by housing on the east end of the avenue, and by the splendid “Hamilton Hall” commercial row at 39th Street. With its curving facade, its elaborate terra cotta ornament, and medievalizing gables, it formed a fitting conclusion to the development of the commercial zone, though as late as 1910, a reduced lumberyard remained in the back yard.
In the intervening third of a century between 1875 and 1910, Lancaster Avenue’s development paralleled the growth of the community. Laundries, storage buildings and additional shops were erected, primarily between 36th and 38th Streets. Among the most noteworthy of these is the handsome Pompeiian brick apothecary at 36th and Race, with its art nouveau terra cotta ornamental cornices and leaded glass windows. Across the street, a handsome row of storefronts on the south side of Lancaster continues the theme of commerce at the turn of the century. With these commercial buildings, the district was more or less self-contained, providing all of the retail essentials for the residents — but unlike a true village, without work to provide a complete closed-living system. Work, of course, was provided via the trolleys and trains that gave the neighborhood its connections to the industry and commerce of the city, continuing Powelton’s nature as a true suburb. Fortunately, that complex suburban form of housing, shopping street and institutional buildings remains largely intact, describing the origins and the first fruition of the suburban movement which has so changed the nature of urbanism in the United States in the past century.
As a memorial to individuals who shaped the city economy, as a concentration of architectural landmarks by the taste makers of the city, as the residential campus of Drexel University, that still preserves the scale and form of the community, the Powelton Historic District warrants being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Powelton Historic District nomination was researched and written by George E. Thomas and Carol Benenson.