The Powelton

Powelton Apartments

3500–3520 Powelton Ave., 214–218 35th St., and 215–221 36th St.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places December 13, 1978

The Powelton is situated on the major portion of a city block bordered by Powelton Avenue, 36th Street, Lancaster Avenue and 35th Street. Though the apartment complex appears to be the result of a single project, it was constructed in two phases over an eight-year period. The first phase began in 1902 then Frederick A. Poth purchased the lot from streetcar manufacturer George Martin Brill. Poth initially intended to build a nine story apartment, but the plans later were altered and seventeen single-family dwellings were constructed—four fronting on 36th Street, ten on Powelton Avenue and three on 35th Street. Together, they formed a common rear court.

Powelton Apartments in 1978
Powelton Apartments in 1998

The ten houses on Powelton were originally massed as six units. At each end of the block was a double-width house with a center hall plan. The facades were graced with three story bays that were terminated with bowed dormers. Moving toward the center, paired single-width houses with side hall plans were placed next to the end houses. Their facades had a one-story bay on the second floor, a tripartite window arrangement on the third floor and a Palladian window on the fourth floor that was capped with a gable. In the center were two, paired houses, also with side hall plans, those facades had a second story bay, a double window on the third floor, a tripartite window arrangement on the fourth floor and a simple hipp ed roof. All ten probably were connected by bathrooms on the second, third and fourth floors that arched over an entrance to the rear court, and were unified further by the use of common materials (Pompeiian brick with wood and granite trim) and similar porch details. On 35th and 36th Streets, a double-width house abutted the end house with an adjoining paired, single-width house. An additional single-width house was built on 36th Street.

The dwellings almost certainly were designed by Philadelphia architect Willis G. Hale. The complex and elaborately composed arrangement of the houses is typical of his work, as is the generally rich detailing. The Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide (PRER&BG) announced that Hale was responsible for the design of a number of houses being built at the same time for Poth in Parkside, an adjacent neighborhood.

Hale’s project was never completed. In 1908, the PRER&BG reported that Solomon Greenburg had procured the seventeen unfinished houses. A few months later, it was noted that the Philadelphia firm of Milligan and Webber had finished plans for the conversion of the dwellings into housekeeping flats. The alteration was accomplished, ingeniously, by erecting fire stair towers between the double-width units on Powelton Avenue and one each on the side streets. Their facades were related to Hale’s design through the use of Palladian windows, yet differentiated by three story, arched windows that gave a clear view of the stairwells from the street. Most of the individual entrances were also eliminated and gables were stretched between the separate porches. The result was an even more complicated though still unified composition.

The significance of The Powelton lies in at least three areas, architecturally, the complex is important as an example of the style of two eminent Philadelphia firms: Willis G. Hale and Milligan and Webber. For Hale, it is a later work, done after three decades of practice in Philadelphia—after designing buildings of recognized importance such as the Quaker City National Bank, The Record Building and the P. A. B. Widener House. In The Powelton, as in his earlier projects, there is both an exuberance of style and a close attention to detail that marks Hale as one of the most interesting of the post-Civil War architects of the city.

It was the former quality, no doubt, that earned for him the distinction of three citations in “Architectural Aberrations,” a column written by the more staid architectural critic, Montgomery Schuyler. For Milligan and Webber, a firm of the next generation, The Powelton was executed near the beginning of a very successful career as architects of apartments and hotels. Their clever handling of a potentially troublesome alteration is typical of an attentive and respectful style that led to a large number of prestigious commissions in Philadelphia, including The Peale House, two apartments on Rittenhouse Square and many apartments throughout West Philadelphia, during its peak period of expansion.

The Powelton is also significant as a vestige of Frederick A. Poth, a German immigrant who developed one of the larger breweries in the United States in the late nineteenth century. Through this, business and his real estate developing, he became a m ajor architectural patron in Philadelphia.

Finally, The Powelton is the keystone of Powelton Village, after the Civil War, this neighborhood began to develop as a suburban alternative to city living. By the end of the century, the city had expanded and swallowed it, as the area became urbanized, it began to assume a distinctive personality as the home of what might be termed the “meritocracy”—a social group who worked hard at their vocations, were highly successful, yet shunned the more honorific addresses in North Philadelphia or the western suburbs. Within a few blocks of The Powelton was the grand but unpretentious house of George Burnham, designed by T. P. Chandler, the Ferbiger House, designed by Horace Sellers, the enclave of the Wilson Family, designed by the Wilson Brothers and Poth’s own house, designed by A. W. Dilks. The Powelton serves both as a focus for this community and as a reminder of its most glorious days. Its preservation and, hopefully, its restoration would do much to encourage a neighborhood that is once again on the rise.

The Powelton Apartments National Register Nomination was researched and prepared by Carl E. Doebley and George E. Thomas.

%d bloggers like this: