46th to 50th Streets, Pine Street to Larchwood Avenue in West Philadelphia
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places July 5, 1984
The Garden Court district is a West Philadelphia residential community created in the decade after World War I primarily through the efforts of one man, Clarence Siegel. It was built on land that lay between the rail and trolley lines which had been the principal route of suburban growth after the Civil War. Only with the automobile could the interstices be developed, and then it was only when the car had created its own lifestyle that the region could be marketed effectively. By 1919 Siegel had begun to acquire the holdings of 19th-century real estate operators The Drexel Company and Eli K. Price. His efforts created a neighborhood that is visually and physically distinct. In planning it accommodated the automobile and in style it is Philadelphia’s purest 1920s neighborhood.
It is because of its accommodation to the automobile that the neighborhood is most immediately different, for Garden Court provides a hierarchy of streets and lanes such as those designed for Raymond Unwin for the Garden City plan of Letchworth, England, and adapted by Hegemann and Peets for their 1922 plan of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, which they published in their monumental Civic Art (1922). For Garden Court, buildings were set back from the street, screened by trees, sidewalks, and front lawns; the automobile, it was hoped, would be parked behind the house in a rear garage made accessible from a lane that enters into the core of each block. That lane was to serve not only for automobile storage but also for trash pickup and deliveries. Every block in Garden Court contains either separate garages accessible by the service lane or an internal garage at the rear of each house, anticipating the design of the “air-lite” houses in Northeast Philadelphia of the 1940s.
If the neighborhood is identified by accommodating the automobile, it is also unusually recognizable by its common palette of materials which include both a coarse textured sand colored and a deep red brick, accented by stucco, half-timber, decorative tile and Spanish tiled roofs. Those materials were then molded into a set of architectural features that are consistent throughout the community: with the exception of one block, every house, single or double, has a sun porch; most have a chimney to represent hearth and home. Moreover, few blocks exist without significant variety in form, texture or material, creating an all-over pattern of similar materials from block to block. Those materials were typically used to build houses that recall the taste of the Arts and Crafts movement, but modified by the stylized elegance of the 1920s. The houses tend to look toward the Philadelphia taste of Old English or American Colonial and are strikingly different from the dark brown Pompeinian brick, late Victorian houses that make clear the community boundaries north of Pine, south of Larchwood, east of 46th and west of 5Oth Street.
Though the Garden Court neighborhood is essentially a modern automobile suburb erected in a void in the generally continuous fabric of West Philadelphia turn-of-the-century streetcar suburbs, its is also unique because it suggests a clear and logical set of design principals which give it a strong visual order. That is in large measure the achievement of Clarence Siegel, who owned most of the land between 46th and 49th Streets, Pine to Larchwood, and thus controlled its planning. It was Siegel who commissioned the large apartments on Pine Street which ultimately led to a continuous row of large scale, high density buildings from Pine and 46th to Pine and 5Oth Streets. Against that axis was a secondary group of apartments at the nearly central 48th Street, which creates the most intensive focus of building at 48th and Pine. There Siegel provided for commerce, either in structures built solely for this use, such as the shops and the food store on 48th Street above Pine, or the shops in the base of Garden Court Plaza. Not coincidentally, the two largest apartments, Siegel’s Garden Court, which gave the region its name, and the later Garden Court Plaza, were given a focal position in the community.
The Garden Court Plaza closes the development of the region and will be discussed later, but the Garden Court set the tone for the neighborhood and thus deserves considerable attention. It was designed in 1922 by John J. Coneys and would seem to have been based on such complexes as Germantown’s Alden Park, but in fact that group was begun several years later, making Garden Court one of the first of these elongated multiple wing residences n the city. If its source was not Alden Park, there was the immediate example of Cope and Stewardson’s University of Pennsylvania dormitories only a few blocks to the east. Here the vast bulk of the apartment house had been disguised by the device of breaking each broad surface into separate pavilions and wings framing central gardens, all decorated with anti-monumental late Medieval ornament of Great Britain. That style complemented the simultaneous historicizing “artistic Siegel homes” across the street while also acknowledging the Philadelphia preference for English style and taste. Particularly effective are the lead capped towers that flank the entrances at the end of each Garden Court in the manner of Burghley House, Northants, which is the probable source for the motif. Interiors show the gracious large scale rooms of 1920s apartments, with walls subdivided by raised moldings to give scale to flat wall surfaces.
Apartment houses by other developers responded to Siegel’s a general scheme. Across the street from the Garden Court Plaza is a tan brick Regency Revival four-story apartment house at 4720-40 Pine by E. A. Wilson, one of the principal architects of the surrounding West Philadelphia community. A row of eight brick center hall walk-up flats by Grant Simon occupy the north side of the 4800 block of Pine. Round arched doorways crowned by great urns give Neo Adam, anglicizing air to this handsome group. Across the street at the west end of the 4700 block is another massive medievalizing block by Stetler and Deysher which took its cues from Garden Court. Finally, at the western end, at 49th Street, are a handsome pair of dark red brick, cast stone trimmed Regency Revival apartment houses by Israel Demchick. It should be noted that each of these architects did other buildings in the neighborhood, for a small group of developers who also did more than one project in Garden Court. Thus, Stetler and Deysher also designed the “Larchwood” at 47th and Larchwood in 1922 for Harry Bobb, while E.A. Wilson and Demchick both did rows of houses for their apartment house clients. The result is a strikingly limited group of clients and architects working in the same decade and the same styles as Siegel, and ultimately continuing the visual themes, including the accommodation to the automobile.
To the south of the large apartments are the single, double and rowhouse blocks, which show in their placement the same hierarchical concern of the rest of Siegel’s planning. Directly across the street from the tall apartments are most of the large detached houses, making it clear that apartments and massive residences were to be viewed as having similar social standing. Those houses continue south on 46th to Larchwood and on 47th to Osage, among them several highly original Art Deco versions of English Regency typified by asymmetrical composition of doors, balconies and other trim. Most of the other blocks are given unity by sharing the same architectural forms and style on each side of the street. Thus John Coneys, architect of the Garden Court apartments, used the same red brick and stone trim but with panels of stucco and decorative tile to shape medievalizing chimney-fronted doubles on the 4600 block of Osage. In so doing he fused the palette of materials of the houses and the apartment houses of the 4600 block of Pine Street to unify the region. South 48th and 49th Streets also shared handsome rows of twin houses with slate roofs recalling the historical past, but in the strident color of the 1920s. The south edges from 49th to 47th are “fenced in” by similar tan brick rows that make a smooth transition from their late Victorian surroundings. Thus, houses typically get larger as they proceed north toward the apartments, while sharing materials, color, texture and forms that unite the community. Clearly it was that unity which has given Garden Court its continued sense of identity, and which is reflected in the use of its name for the surrounding region.
The cap to the entire region was of course Siegel’s projected masterpiece, the Garden Court Plaza. In 1926, after seven years of intensive building, he had filled every block but one, the focal block between 47th, 48th, Pine and Spruce Streets. In that year it was announced that Siegel had retained Ralph B. Bencker, formerly of Price and McLanahan, later McLanahan and Bencker, as architect for a new apartment complex that would fill the entire site. Two renderings by Bencker’s office survive to show the entire scheme as it had developed by 1928. They indicate pairs of towers at the corners of the site, joined at elevator cores (similar to Bencker’s design for the Rittenhouse Plaza) surrounding a raised garden plaza on top of an immense parking garage that covered most of the block. Early in 1928 the garage was constructed and in late summer it was announced that the first of the double towers, a 13-story, 120 unit building, was underway. Above first floor shops, restaurants and lobbies rose twelve stories of apartments of extraordinary size and charm. The exterior showed the influence of Bencker s radical reshaping of historicizing styles along directions taken by Price and McLanahan’s office, with the color and texture of historical style (here Regency) dramatically shifted in detail toward what the architect called the “vertical style”. It was this style that Bencker believed constituted the principal American contribution to modern architecture. It should be noted that the towers are similar but not Identical, that the upper levels of each are different, one having a large arched frame at the center, while the other has a series of vertical limestone strips. That suggests that the principal composition would have been completed by a mirror image at 48th Street of the first tower. That was not to be built, for the Depression ended the project in 1930 with only the garage and the first tower completed. No significant later construction would occur in Garden Court, leaving the one monumental tower at the highest point in West Philadelphia and the fringe of trees and shrubs of the roof garden hovering above the sidewalks.
Statement of Significance
In the heyday of the 1920s, the Garden Court District was regarded as “the most exclusive location in West Philadelphia”, providing a rare combination of “modern apartments of magnitude, comfort and luxury, surrounded by beautiful homes” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 October, 1927, p.6W). To modern urban historians, the integration of imposing apartment houses into a hierarchically developed suburban setting makes Garden Court an original contribution to community planning, one that suggests an American awareness of Ebeneezer Howard’s Garden City plan of high density development surrounded by low density development, and perhaps of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City as well. Garden Court’s comprehensive accommodation of the transportation system of this century, the automobile, is also suggestive of an awareness of Garden City theory, with remarkable similarities to Raymond Unwin’s separation of people and vehicle patterns in Letchworth, England. Moreover, it should be noted that the varied architectural scale and economic range of Garden Court, far from being confusing, suggests the quality of the developers’ response to the explosive social changes being unleashed by the automobile and the first world war. Those were resolved by the carefully calculated hierarchical arrangement of building types in the community, and were unified by a common palette of materials, colors and styles that give Garden Court its remarkably clear identity. With architects such as Ralph Bencker, Grant Simon and Stetler and Deysher working in Garden Court, the neighborhood is the most complete expression of domestic architectural tastes of the 1920s in Philadelphia, and embodies the distinctive character of its age just before the Depression.
It is the planning and architectural design of Garden Court that makes it so attractive today. All evidence points to its having been designed primarily by its developer, Clarence Siegel, who began as a run of the mill West Philadelphia builder with projects in the vicinity of 50th and Cedar. Only after World War I, when the large opportunity of the Drexel holdings appeared, did Siegel attempt to work beyond the standard format of rows of single and double houses. How he arrived at his understanding of the hierarchical arrangement of housing and the spatial separation of the automobile remains to be seen, for there is no evidence that he himself was schooled, or that he hired any of the available Philadelphia planners or landscape architects to provide so sophisticated a scheme. Nor is there any evidence that John Coneys did anything more than design houses and the Garden Court Apartments either of which he would have been prepared to handle from his training in the office of Zantsinger, Borie & Medary. On the other hand, it should be remembered that the economically heterogeneous community had been a popular idea in the Philadelphia region for nearly a generation. William Price’s utopian village at Rose Valley had juxtaposed large versus small houses and argued that common interests, not common wealth, should be the determinant of human association. Obviously, Price’s draftsman, Ralph Bencker, would have been aware of those ideas, but he was not hired by Siegel to design Garden Court Plaza until 1926, by which time most of the community had been laid out and constructed. Moreover, it should be noted that Siegel was so involved with the values and appearance of the community that the houses came to be called “Siegel’s Artistic homes,” a name well-known in Philadelphia Real Estate pages. Further confirming that sense of Siegel’s personal involvement are the newspaper accounts of the lengthy investigatory process on the best form and planning for the Garden Court Plaza group. Siegel obviously played a major role in “the years of study in order that the utmost by way of light, air, exposure, recreational space, storage of automobiles, and dining facilities might be obtained.” Few other developers would hold up a project for two years of design, and few would have been able to envision building a garage first, establishing a garden on its roof, and only then beginning the income producing apartment towers. Clearly Siegel was a remarkable figure, though one now largely forgotten by historians of American urban planning.
It was evidently Siegel’s decision as well to provide the accommodation to the automobile, and to separate the service traffic from the main streets via the network of rear lanes. Service lanes such as these had been created in the gilded residential districts of North Philadelphia, where private carriage houses stand on rear alleys, and Siegel had incorporated a garage into the rear of a group of large double houses that he built at 51st Street. But, the totality of the network and the idea of a garage for every residence would not become common until after World War II. Though there is no evidence that Siegel was involved with automobile sales or promotion, Garden Court made the only provision of any urban neighborhood for the car, and so advertised itself in the period newspapers.
Paralleling the importance of the planning for the automobile is the distinctive range and hierarchical arrangement of buildings in the community. Instead of building two or three blocks of identical houses, serving one income end social group, the Siegel plan was more complex, Here, he provided two extended ranges of living units, one in apartment houses, with flats ranging from one to seven rooms, and the other in houses that run from two-story rowhouses to large three-story single family residences. Thus both entry level and wealthy housing were provided, often in the same building or in the same block. Few Philadelphia developers dared to provide such variety, but the net effect seems to have been a major cause of the long-term success of Garden Court. Of note is the social variety, and if last names of the original residents are any evidence, the ethnic variety evident in the community. Further, that variety was carefully arranged so that large houses and the most important apartment houses were placed on the north edge, while smaller houses are found on the south edge of Garden Court. Whether that merely described economic conditions around the perimeter related to Garden City and “Radiant City” planning remains to be discovered.
One additional planning notion remains to be discussed: the planning of Garden Court Plaza and particularly the perimeter siting of its seven intended towers around the 4700 block of Pine Street. That organization is strikingly different from every other high rise apartment complex of the period, all of which tended to occupy nearly 100% of their site and to be designed without consideration of additional construction. Only the contemporary Alden Park (begun in Germantown in 1925) anticipated the idea of a group of towers on a park like campus, and then it was built on a far larger site. Other possible sources would include the visionary “Radiant City” group of towers on an open landscape proposed by Le Corbusier; his notion of ground level for automobiles with plazas and cafes above would certainly seem to have close parallels to the raised garden, terrace and pool above the garage of Garden Court. But the planning of Garden Court began a year before the Etchells translation of Towards a New Architecture was available in the United States. Presumably Garden Court Plaza, like the accommodation of the automobile, were results of a spirit of the times that produced similar developments in radically different places.
The final area of significance of Garden Court is as the most intact 1920s urban development of architectural note within the city of Philadelphia. Unlike the highly styled “Art Deco” of New York, with its streamlined, stylized ornament, Philadelphia designers typically worked in more conservative modes based on English and American Colonial sources that represent the notion of “ethnic continuity”, in Ralph Adams Cram’s phase. Thus the English Regency, Neo Adam, and 17th century medievalizing styles were frequently utilized for modern buildings in Philadelphia, largely as representations of cultural affiliation. Moreover, these styles were much appreciated by the 1920s largely because they represented very much the same aesthetic as the Art Deco — a slimming and abstraction of detail, either Gothic or Georgian. Thus, in Philadelphia, these styles predominate in the 1920s, as is evident in such contemporary buildings as Germantown’s Mayfair and Alden Park apartments and Rittenhouse’s 1900 Rittenhouse Square.
In Garden Court these anglicizing styles are applied to large and small buildings by some of the principal architects of the 1920s. Best known are Grant Simon (the center hall Neo Adam apartments on the north side of the 4800 block of Pine Street) and Ralph B. Bencker (the Garden Court Plaza and its garage), but others had growing reputations in the 1920s, and would probably have made important contributions had not the Depression cut short their careers. Thus, Israel Demchick, who designed the two crisply elegant Regency apartment houses on the 4900 block of Pine and the handsome row block in between, is also known as an important architect of Art Deco movie houses, while Stetler and Deysher, architects of the stylish yellow brick Regency Larchwood apartments at 47th Street were important architects of imposing Jacobean Revival apartment houses in Germantown. Grant Simon and Ralph Bencker, interestingly, both came from the enormously important architectural office of Price and McLanahan, with Simon leaving after two or three years while Bencker eventually became its principal designer when Price died in 1916 and was the sole named partner around 1925.
Simon joined with his brother Edward to design many of Philadelphia’s architecturally imposing buildings of the post World War I years, including the Fidelity Bank, the University Club, and eventually the Strawbridge and Clothier Department Store. While those buildings are frequently classical in inspiration, the detailing tends to suggest Art Deco stylization and their massing tends toward the New York set back shaping. His Regency apartments on Pine Street conform to the brothers’ classical stylistic roots. Bencker’s presence was even more widely felt in the Philadelphia region, for it was he who developed the ubiquitous tan Horn and Hardart automats, as well as several notable high rises, including the Guarantee Trust at 1422 Walnut, the Rittenhouse Plaza and the spectacular N.V. Ayer Building. Moreover, he was honored as the A.I.A. Gold Medal Winner for his firm’s work in 1923. Indeed, those buildings suggest that Bencker had become one of the most important, if not the most important architect of tall buildings in the city. The splendid Garden Court Plaza design further validated that position, and marks Bencker as the principal heir to the tall building designs of Price and McLanahan.
Finally, John Coneys deserves comment, both for his role as the principal designer of Clarence Siegel’s artistic homes and as the architect of the first building to give the neighborhood its identity, the Garden Court apartments. Coneys began in the fashionable office of Zantzinger, Borie and Medary, where he worked until 1913. At that point he moved his office to the Drexel Building; interestingly, in 1918 he moved his residence to 5509 Catherine Street in West Philadelphia, only a few blocks from Garden Court and in the immediate vicinity of other houses that Clarence Siegel had developed. It was Coneys who designed the handsome doubles on the 4600 block of Osage, the large singles on the 4600 block of Pine, and numerous other residences. It was his ability to create a synthesis of materials, forms and styles that gave Garden Court its unity and makes it an important survival describing taste and lifestyle in 1920s Philadelphia.
In 1985, the boundaries of the Garden Court District were expanded to include the following area.
In keeping with the conservative architectural palette and progressive community planning of Garden Court are the “Arvilla” and “Elvista” apartment houses located at 46th Street and Osage Avenue on the east edge of Clarence Siegel’s garden suburb. These two apartment buildings were constructed in the 1920s on the large tracts of undeveloped land in West Philadelphia as were the houses and apartment buildings of Garden Court. Moreover, they display the materials, scale, and style of the nearby midrise apartment buildings such as the concentration of three, four, and five-story apartment houses along Pine Street’s 4700, 4800 and 4900 blocks. The “Arvilla” and the “Elvista,” both three-story limestone-trimmed tan Traymore brick apartment houses, exhibit the Regency Revival style that distinguishes them from the surrounding late-Victorian West Philadelphia neighborhood yet joins them to Garden Court.
The visual compatibility of the “Arvilla” and the “Elvista” with the Garden Court development is not surprising considering the fact that they were designed by men who helped to shape Garden Court. With its name advertised in stone below the entablature of the main entrance, the “Arvilla” marks an early work of Stetler and Deysher in Garden Court. Begun in 1923 for developer B, F. Goldman, the “Arvilla” stands with Stetler and Deysher’s designs for the Regency Larchwood apartments at 47th Street in 1924 and the Medieval Revival apartment house at 4748 Pine Street in 1926. The “Elvista,” too, dates from this vintage period of apartment house construction in West Philadelphia’s Garden Court. E. A. Wilson, well-known for his numerous Philadelphia row house designs, executed the “Elvista” for developer Samuel Cohen in 1922; five years later he designed another tan brick Regency Revival apartment house at 4720-40 Pine Street, across the street from Siegel’s Garden Court Plaza.
Because of the physical and historical continuity of the “Arvilla” and the “Elvista” with Clarence Siegel’s plan for a fashionable garden suburb that accommodated different peoples’ housing needs and the automobile age, these two apartment buildings, which clearly were part of the 1920s development of the neighborhood but were overlooked in the initial National Register nomination Gardan Court Historic District.
The Garden Court Historic District Nomination was researched and written by George E. Thomas.