West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places February 5, 1998

Note: In several places in this text, there are references to illustrations that are not available in this version.

The West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District gains its significance in the areas of Architecture and Community Development, and represents the transformation of Philadelphia’s rural farmland into urban residential development, made possible by the streetcar which provided easy access to Center City. From 1850-1930, the period of significance, the area evolved from a fashionable, upper class, country retreat to a middle class streetcar suburb, largely commissioned by speculative developers, designed by some of the city’s most prolific architects, and occupied by a rising class of industrial managers and other professionals. The period of significance marks the decades during which the district took its shape, with the earliest developments beginning in 1850 and the final period of significant construction ending in 1930. The development pattern established in the district closely paralleled transportation developments which enabled the residents to live in the outer reaches of Philadelphia which were made accessible by the horsecar and later streetcar lines. The district also reflects the demand for housing created by several major institutions which located in or near the district. Hence the district is significant under Criterion A for community development. Herein lies one of Philadelphia’s finest collections of mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth century predominantly residential architecture and thus also meets National Register Criterion C.

Summary History of District

William Penn’s plan for the area west of the Schuylkill River left this area as free land, without municipal control, and essentially open to development.(see footnote 1) In consequence, a series of small, independent villages grew in West Philadelphia, which remained essentially isolated from the city center, a result of the physical barrier of the Schuylkill, and the difficulty in crossing the river in the eighteenth century.

The section of West Philadelphia comprising the district was divided at an early date into the townships of Blockley and Kingsessing. Mill Creek served as the boundary line, with Kingsessing on the western bank and Blockley to the east. Mill Creek is a fast flowing waterway that rises in Montgomery County and meanders through West Philadelphia, emptying into the Schuylkill near 43rd Street.

Early industry in West Philadelphia was largely concentrated in two areas outside of the district’s boundaries, the area around present day 30th and Market Streets, and the area to the south in Malinsville.(2) While industry was scarce within the bounds of the district, Mill Creek which wound through the district served the many mills located along its banks in the nearby villages. Mill Creek was dammed at the location of present day Clark Park (4300-4400 Baltimore Avenue) to provide water power for the mills in Malinsville. A large depression in the park marks the location of the former reservoir. When the mills closed in the 1860s, the reservoir became a dump until it was taken over by the City Parks Association in 1900.

While the rolling farmland on the western bank of the Schuylkill River was virtually inaccessible to Philadelphians, aside from the few ferries which were notably infrequent and undependable, the river scenery and the banks of the Schuylkill were long noted for their picturesque beauty and West Philadelphia was recognized for its numerous habitable attributes, namely the wide expanse of farmland, the high ground, and the close proximity to Philadelphia despite the impasse. Thus, in the eighteenth century, wealthy Philadelphians began to build their country estates in the eastern section of the district in an effort to escape the hot, congested, disease ridden city.(3)

The location of present day 30th and Market Streets (northeast of the district boundary) was the site of river crossings from an early date, a consequence of the low, flat land. The erection of the first permanent bridge across the Schuylkill at Market Street in 1805, essentially broke West Philadelphia’s rural isolation and the district was ripe for development.(4)

Improvements in transportation routes coupled with the widely circulated writings of Andrew Jackson Downing and other supporters of the suburban movement, prompted many of Philadelphia’s most notable residents to build suburban villas in the farmland on the western riverbank. Intrinsic to Downing’s philosophies was the importance of landscape design and the picturesque juxtapositioning of the built and natural environments. The district’s earliest houses, the immense brownstone single and double houses, gave the community the suburban charm that had become sought-after by Philadelphians.

Concurrent with the upper middle class movement into these suburban villas, was the settlement of a black community in more modest housing in the district’s northeastern boundary, specifically the area around 41st and Ludlow Streets.

Overlapping the district’s eastern edge, William Hamilton’s c. 1804 “Hamiltonville” was probably the earliest attempt at speculative development in the district. Roughly bounded by 33rd and 41st Streets, Market Street and Woodland Avenue, the earliest buildings of this village have long since disappeared, though the term “Hamiltonville” lingers amongst the district’s residents.

In 1840, the Borough of West Philadelphia was formed, a system which lasted only until 1854 with Philadelphia’s Act of Consolidation, which brought West Philadelphia under city control and transformed the suburb into an urban neighborhood. When the Commissioners issued their “Digest of Ordinances” in 1852, the compiler noted that “Hamiltonville,” was regarded as one of the most pleasant villages in the Philadelphia area:

“Its plan is regular and the streets…are wide…The buildings…generally stand apart from each other, leaving garden spaces between them…[It] is probably the prettiest village in the neighborhood of Philadelphia…As a place of residence, it may safely be said, that no other location in the vicinity offers superior attractions. The ground in general is elevated and remarkably healthy; the streets are wide, and many of them bordered with rows of handsome shade trees; and a large portion of the District has been covered with costly and highly ornamental dwellings. New streets are being opened, graded and paved; footwalks have been laid and gas introduced, and arrangements will soon be made for an ample supply of water. Omnibus lines have been established, which run constantly, day and evening, thus enabling its residents to transact business in the City of Philadelphia and adjoining districts without inconvenience. A number of wealthy and influential citizens now reside in the District, and there is every indication that the tide of population will flow into it with unexampled lapidity. Provision by law has been made for the erection of two additional bridges over the Schuylkill, and these will provide facility and convenience to the great amount of travel and intercommunication which the present avenues are inadequate to accommodate.”(5)

Shortly after the “Digest of Ordinances” was written, the first substantial development in the district, Hamilton Terrace, was erected on the western side of S. 41st Street between Baltimore Avenue and Chester Avenue. Samuel Harrison, a tile manufacturer, and Nathaniel B. Browne, a lawyer, bought a tract of farmland at the western edge of Hamiltonville, and commissioned Samuel Sloan to design a grouping of single and semi-detached houses. Samuel Sloan was trained as a carpenter in nearby Chester County, and it is believed that he came to Philadelphia to work on John Haviland’s Eastern State Penitentiary. Early in his career, Sloan began to publish a series of books that would make him one of the most prolific contributors to the romantic movement of his era. While in a partnership with fellow carpenter John Stewart, Sloan designed numerous Gothic and Italianate villas, a large number of which are located in the district. Sloan sought to evoke the image of the romantic picturesque house in keeping with the ideals espoused by Andrew Jackson Downing in the 1840s.(6) Sloan’s 1856 design for Harrison and Browne, Hamilton Terrace, was an architectural composition of five Gothic Revival and Italianate houses, of which only two twins remain (see photograph 1). Sloan was instrumental in establishing the architectural pattern for the earliest developments in the district and his influence on his contemporaries is evident in the earliest surviving buildings.

Another early development, known as the Hamilton Family Estate (National Register, 1979), is comprised of the houses on the south side of the 4000 block of Pine Street as well as 4039 and 4041 Baltimore Avenue (see photograph 2). Prior to 1851 this property remained in the hands of William Hamilton’s estate. In 1851 the heirs sold the property to Jacob Knorr, a descendant of the builder of Cliveden, home of the Chew family in Germantown.(7) Knorr divided the block into lots and sold the lots in 1852 with the condition that “substantial stone or brick buildings” be erected. The houses in this grouping are primarily three-story Italianate buildings, that together reflect a unified composition that links the houses by material, decorative detail, and form.

With the success of these early developments, real estate agent Charles M.S. Leslie initiated the development of Woodland Terrace (National Register, 1971) which contains large semi-detached dwellings, carefully disguised to appear as single dwellings by the use of a variety of devices including towers, porches and roof pitches (see photograph 3). It is believed that Leslie retained the services of Samuel Sloan for the Woodland Terrace commission, a notion based on the stylistic similarities to the Hamilton Terrace residences, coupled with the fact that Sloan’s office was located several doors from Leslie’s on S. 4th Street.(8) Leslie incorporated a clause into the Woodland Terrace development (which was comprised of three adjacent developments) to protect the residential nature, “that no slaughterhouse, skin dressing house or engine house, blacksmith shop or carpenter shop, glue, soap, candle or starch manufactory or any other offensive occupation be erected.”(9)

Another grouping of houses representative of this early period are the houses located on the east side of the 200 block of S. 42nd Street, between Locust and Spruce Streets, constructed by John D. Jones in c. 1865 (see photograph 4).(10) Jones also favored the Italianate style which epitomized the wealth and sophistication that the buyers wished to emulate. The asymmetrical facade with tall towers and wrap-around porches, successfully disguises the semi-detached house, and gives the illusion of one large villa.

In 1870, Robert Lindsay acquired land along the south side of the 4200 block of Chester Avenue and built sixteen, Italianate, brownstone, semi-detached houses, similar in form to the Woodland Terrace houses, though notably reduced in lot size, and in scale and detail (see photograph 19). The setback of these houses was 25′ which allowed for generous front yards.

Beginning with the Blockley Almshouse which was constructed near the Schuylkill in the 1830-1834, the nineteenth century brought an increasing number of institutions within and adjoining the district which played a significant role in the growth of this largely residential district. The Almshouse was followed in the mid to late nineteenth century by the Pennsylvania Hospital (44th and Market Streets); Home for the Incurables (47th and Woodland); Home for Indigent Widows and Single Women (36th and Chestnut Streets); and the Penn Working Home for the Blind (36th and Lancaster).(11) With the construction of each of these institutions came an increased demand for additional housing for the workers which developed within a short walk of the main horsecar lines. During the Civil War, one of the country’s largest military hospitals, containing 4,500 beds, was constructed on a hill near 44th and Baltimore Avenue, centrally located in the district. Erected in 1863, the immense Satterlee Hospital extended from a point below Baltimore Avenue (in present day Clark Park) in a skewed rectangle, to a point northwest of 45th and Pine (see figure 2). At the foot of 42nd Street there was a steamboat landing where the sick and wounded Civil War soldiers were brought and from there were carried in carts to Satterlee.(12) Housed on its grounds were a massive two-story administration building surrounded by thirty four barrack-style wards which are depicted in a period lithograph.(13) Satterlee Hospital closed in 1865 having cared for over 60,000 soldiers. The immediate neighborhood became known as “Satterlee Heights,” a designation which survived for a number of years. 

During the mid-1870s, West Philadelphia saw continued intensive development with the relocation to West Philadelphia of what was to become the neighborhood’s defining local institution, the University of Pennsylvania. In its early years, the University was a day school, with no provision for students. That policy changed in the 1890s when wealthy alumni were persuaded to donate funds for a dormitory for men, and the students began residing in West Philadelphia. The campus grew incrementally over the next century, from its core at 34th and Walnut Streets, to the present limits of 40th Street, just east of the district’s boundaries.

Several forces were instrumental in shaping the developing community in the 1870s and 1880s. By the mid 1860s, horsecar lines had been established throughout the district which provided accessible transportation across the recently constructed Schuylkill bridges into Center City Philadelphia. Coupled with these transportation improvements was a growing middle class population that desired comfortable, affordable housing with greenspace, a combination that was difficult to achieve in Center City. The location of the institutions within and adjoining the district’s boundaries, provided a place of employment and thus contributed to the migration of Philadelphians from Center City to the outlying urban neighborhood. These forces served as a catalyst for a second wave of development which was focused not on the upper class clientele who sought suburban charm, but on the growing middle class which included a rising class of industrial managers.

With the success of the mid nineteenth century developments located primarily east of 42nd Street, and with the burgeoning need for new housing, developers began purchasing land west of 42nd Street. The developers that followed Harrison and Brown, Jones, and Leslie, had a keener sense of the profit margins possible with speculative development. Hence, by shrinking the lot sizes, and building more compact, less ornate houses, significantly greater earnings could be attained. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw rapid residential growth in response to the mass exodus of the new middle class from the older sections of the city and the success of the speculative developers. It is this second wave of development, after 1870, that forms the bulk of the housing stock in the district.

Speculative development, the purchase of large tracts of land by a single owner for subdivision, development, and sale to individual owners, was responsible for the majority of construction in the district. Temporary title was granted to the contractor to serve as a lien, providing security against default on payment by the developer. Upon completion of construction, the builder would sell the development back to the speculator who would then carry out the sale to individuals.

In 1873, Clarence Clark developed the north side of the 4000 block of Locust Street, deviating from the Italianate style which had characterized the earlier developments in West Philadelphia (see photograph 5). Clark’s Locust Street development is comprised of three-story, two-bay, brick, restrained Queen Anne rowhouses. The streetscape is unified by 20′ front yards, enclosed by decorative iron fences. The success of this development was largely attained by the melding of the suburban principles of front porches and greenspace with the urban rowhouse form, thus achieving profitable, yet desirable, middle class suburban housing. Other similar developments followed which successfully introduced urban density and architectural uniformity, concepts which had been avoided in earlier decades.

As speculative building practices evolved, so did the demographics of the inhabitants who were purchasing the houses. These less elaborate and more compact houses strictly appealed to the middle class. However, despite the mass speculative middle class housing that was being erected, a number of Philadelphia’s families of wealth continued to choose West Philadelphia as the location for their estates. Among those who settled in the district was real estate developer Clarence Clark, whose handsome mansion was surrounded by lavish grounds that extended from 42nd to 43rd, and Locust to Spruce Streets, the site now occupied by the former Divinity School. Charles M. Swain, the son of the founder of the Public Ledger, and a noted newspaper editor, built his estate at the corner of 45th and Spruce Streets in 1875, presently the site of the University City Mews development.(14) The loss of these estates in the early to mid twentieth century further attests to the continued middle class development pressures.

Subsequent architects mastered the use of the Queen Anne style in rowhouse developments that followed Clarks’ Locust Street row. In the early 1880s, noted Philadelphia financier, Anthony J. Drexel, developed several blocks in the vicinity of S. 40th Street and Baltimore Avenue (Drexel Development Historic District, National Register, 1982), including portions of the 3900 blocks of Delancey, Pine and Baltimore, and the east side of S. 40th Street (see photograph 20). These three-story, brick, Italianate, rows have been attributed to the Philadelphia architectural firm of G.W. and W.D. Hewitt.(15)

One of the Hewitt Brother’s most noted examples is the 4206-18 Spruce Street row, designed in the Queen Anne style in 1887-1888 (see photograph 6). These seven, three-story, red brick rowhouses are an exemplary display of the exuberance of the Queen Anne style with their columned porches with decorative spindlework, decorative brickwork and corbelling, steeply pitched gables with fishscale slate shingles, turrets, balconies, and windows with a single pane surrounded by small panes. This exquisite row is the antithesis of the bucolic suburban villas designed by Sloan and his contemporaries two decades earlier. This row stands as one of the Hewitt brother’s finest architectural compositions, a work which would be imitated by aspiring architects in the following decade.

The Hewitt brothers are credited with a number of other developments in the district including 4200-26 Walnut Street, 420-34 S. 42nd Street, and St. Marks Square, the predecessors of the Spruce Street row (see photographs 21, 22, 23).(16) Comparison of these examples attests to the variety of interpretation possible with Queen Anne rowhouse designs.

The 1890s commissions displayed an increased restraint in detail, perhaps in anticipation of the upcoming Colonial Revival period. Daniel Lindsay’s development at 240-260 S. 44th Street (c. 1892), retained many of the characteristics of the earlier developments such as the moulded bricks, corbelled cornice, and stone sills, but at a much more limited execution (see photograph 24). Rather than portraying a single, unified composition, this row displays a rhythmic pattern of similar house designs, which provides some architectural interest in an otherwise unified row.

By the latter half of the 1890s and in the first decade of the twentieth century, the Colonial Revival style gained favor among the area’s residents and the developments from this period reflect this trend. Examples of these later developments include 4404-4410 Pine Street, 218-238 S. 44th Street, 110-124 S. 43rd Street, and 405-427 S. 43rd Street (see photographs 9, 25, 26, 27). Typical Colonial Revival features incorporated into these designs include symmetrical massing, classical columns, pediments, quoining, dentils, and leaded glass windows.

In the 1890s, trolley lines were constructed along Chester and Springfield Avenues, which allowed for the substantial extension of the housing stock toward the south and west. Within a few years, rows of buildings were constructed along Springfield, Chester, and the adjacent cross streets. One such development was the row of three-story Queen Anne/Colonial Revival brick twins built in c. 1892 on the northwest side of the 4700 block of Springfield Avenue (see photograph 28).

Contemporary with the Springfield row, on nearby Farragut Street (1000-1018), stands a row of ten three-story brick Queen Anne residences with full-width, classical columned front porches and modified Queen Anne detailing indicative of the transitional style buildings (see photograph 29).

In the first few years of the twentieth century, William S. Kimball developed a row of semi-detached houses at 4201-4225 Pine Street (see photograph 10). These houses are typical of the early twentieth century developments in the district and are unified by rhythmic patterning of porch and gable features. The second story, projecting, semi-hexagonal bay is incorporated into this design, an element which defines the later rows.

Despite the mass speculative development undertakings during this period, a need persisted for additional middle class housing. In response, several large apartment buildings were constructed throughout the district. The Stonehurst Apartments (419-425 S. 45th Street), was designed by A. Lynn Walker in c. 1900 in the Romanesque Revival style (see photograph 12). Large apartment houses such as the Stonehurst were constructed on nearly every available tract in the district in the following decades.

The development of Philadelphia followed the course of most American cities at the turn of the 20th century. The continued migration out of the center city in the direction established during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was a pattern that had completely reshaped most cities by 1920.(17) This movement was hastened by the industrialization of older parts of the city and the resulting pollution and slums.

With this movement, a need arose in the newly formed neighborhoods, for residential support buildings and institutions. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Henry Dagit’s St. Francis De Sales Roman Catholic Church was constructed at 47th and Springfield Avenue (see photograph 16). Constructed of coursed, rock-faced limestone ashlar with dressed marble and limestone trim, the tiled Byzantine dome with arcaded lantern towers as a beacon over the neighborhood. Furness and Evans’ 1900 Protestant Episcopal Church of the Atonement (St. Peters Church of Christ, 4624 Kingsessing Avenue) and R.G. Kennedy’s 1891 Fourth Presbyterian Church (1201-1209 S. 47th Street) were built to serve those respective denominations (see photograph 30).

With the construction of the Market Street elevated rail line in 1907, an even greater need for middle class housing was evident. A number of four and five story apartment buildings were constructed as a result of the increased demand for high density housing, on what few lots remained undeveloped in the district. Vastly different in character and style from the surrounding rows, the apartment houses essentially maintained the overall scale of the neighborhood due to the lot sizes that had been established in the previous century.

Open space in the district remains limited to two parcels of land, the existence of which can be credited to the foresight of one individual, Clarence H. Clark. Clark’s former estate (S. 42nd between Locust and Spruce Streets), was demolished and the majority of the land remains as open space shared with the former Episcopal Divinity School buildings (see photograph 17). Designed in 1922-1926 by Zantzinger, Borie & Medary, this campus complex of six stone, Gothic Revival buildings, is largely clustered on the eastern third of the block, allowing for a small grove of mature trees and a large lawn to the west. Regarded as one of the most significant college plans during its construction, the campus consists of two residential scale buildings, a library, chapel, a dormitory and classroom building, and a refectory building with additional living quarters. The second, and larger parcel of open space is Clark Park, named for Clarence Clark (see photograph 31). Realizing the density of development and the lack of greenspace, Clark deeded a portion of his property, bordered by Baltimore Avenue and 43rd to 45th Streets, to the city, for use as a park and dedicated to children. Amidst the trees, grass, and meandering paths, the only known life-size statue of Charles Dickens sits, with Little Nell, a character from his novel The Old Curiosity Shop.

On the outskirts of the district, where much of the undeveloped land existed, larger apartment houses that spanned across many lots were possible, yet these buildings were still generally confined to the nineteenth century lot depths. The Netherlands Apartment Building, 4300-4322 Chestnut Street, c. 1910, is a representative example of the early apartment buildings in the district (see photograph 13). Spanning twelve lots, the Netherlands is a four-story, multi-bay brick and stone Colonial Revival apartment building that is distinguished by oval windows, decorative stone trim, and stone water table, belt course and modillioned cornice.

The advent of the automobile and the opening of the “el” in the spring of 1907 ignited another wave of speculative development toward the west extending from the district’s western boundary to the city’s boundary at 63rd Street. Instead of the commodious semi-detached houses and distinctive mansions that defined the old streetcar suburb, the western reaches of West Philadelphia were built of endless rows of two-story dwellings with bay windows above classical columned front porches.

To the northwest of the district is a large area which has been designated as the Garden Court National Register Historic District. Garden Court is largely comprised of two parcels of land which remained in private hands until after World War I. Eli Price and the estate of Anthony J. Drexel eventually sold their land to local developers, most notably Clarence Siegal, and the development rapidly commenced. What resulted was a collection of Colonial Revival houses with Arts and Crafts influences, which reflect the sophisticated tastes of post-war Philadelphians. For the first time in West Philadelphia, garages were incorporated into the housing development.(19) The Tudor and Spanish Revival houses, and the Art Deco influenced apartment houses, were sited on much larger lots, providing the generous greenspace that defines the Garden Court district, and clearly defines the northwest boundary of the streetcar suburb district.

The final significant building period within the district occurred in the 1920s in response to the changing fashions which made the apartment a desirable mode of living. This generation of development typically involved the demolition of late nineteenth century rows for the construction of the larger, four or five story apartment houses, which generally took the form of U-shaped brick blocks with detailing concentrated at the entrance, belt courses, and parapet. Chester Avenue boasts the greatest number of these buildings. Nathan Litman developed the Royal Chester Court (4601-4603 Chester Avenue) in 1927 (see photograph 15). This massive five-story, thirteen-bay, U-shaped yellow brick building contains commercial spaces along the first story. In the same year, further down Chester Avenue, Max Bernhardt designed the Winchester Apartments (4804-4806) for Barnet Rubin (see photograph 14). This four-story, eight-bay brick and half timber Tudor Revival building reflects the propensity for the English-born revivals that characterized developments in the 1920s and 1930s.

The depression and the ensuing war left the streetcar suburb neighborhood devoid of the aristocracy that had established the community and the conversion of their large mansion houses into multiple family dwellings. Few of the 18th century vestiges remained. The nearby Woodlands Mansion (immediately outside the southeastern boundary) had been acquired and incorporated into the Woodland Cemetery, assuring its preservation. The 18th century Twadell Mansion (formerly along Baltimore Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets) and others were demolished in the early part of the twentieth century.

The post World War II years brought significant changes to West Philadelphia, notably around the university, which began to expand under the impetus of Federal aid to higher education. The university initiated a period of land acquisition which essentially stretched the campus limits to 40th Street, thereby razing numerous Hamiltonville vestiges. In turn, businesses sought to secure the properties along the university’s fringe and converted the residences into shops and restaurants which catered to the nearby university population. In many instances, the nineteenth century buildings were demolished in favor of modern commercial architecture. The conversion of 40th Street from a predominantly residential street to a commercial thoroughfare, broke the linkage between the district’s buildings and the architecture to the east which was designed by many of the architects familiar to the district. West Philadelphia continued to fall from favor as a middle class residential community, as the automobile suburbs developed in the far western suburbs.

Evolving Transportation Systems as the Catalyst for Community Development

The development pattern of the district closely parallels the advancements in transportation which made it possible for residents to live in West Philadelphia and work in Center City. In 1850 the Pennsylvania Railroad began operations and acquired land near present day 30th and Market Streets, which remains a principal railroad depot in Philadelphia. The former West Chester branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad forms a section of the district’s southwest boundary, and was the line which carried passengers from 30th and Market through West Philadelphia to West Chester, the county seat of Chester County. The railroad did much to accelerate the growth of the further reaches of West Philadelphia out to Cobbs Creek and also contributed to the growth of the horsecar lines within the district which made local stops allowing the district’s residents accessible transportation to Philadelphia and to the distant suburbs as well.

The residents of Harrison and Brown’s Hamilton Terrace (1856), initially relied on an omnibus line that ran from the foot of Market Street in West Philadelphia across the river. In 1857 the Chestnut Street Bridge was constructed, which may have served as the catalyst for the development of Woodland Terrace (c. 1861), and 225-235 S. 42nd Street (c. 1865). The following year, the first horsecar came from Center City to a depot at 49th Street and Woodland Avenue via the newly opened Chestnut Street bridge and Darby Road (now Woodland Avenue), providing much improved service to the residents of Hamilton Terrace. This marked the beginning of the transformation from upper class country retreat to middle class suburb.

In 1866, a second horsecar depot opened on Chestnut Street between 41st and 42nd Streets.(20) In 1883 this terminal was destroyed by fire, rebuilt, and the second and extant terminal was erected (see photograph 32). From this depot, a route ran along Chestnut Street, through Center City Philadelphia to the Delaware River, and back, providing the impetus for additional development opportunities in West Philadelphia.

In the wake of the transportation improvements, large scale building activity began almost immediately. Semi-detached and rowhouses were promptly constructed with the completion of the new streetcar lines. East-west streets, the closest to the streetcar lines, had the more expensive houses. More modest housing was constructed on the north-south numbered streets.(21)

Bridges were soon erected at Walnut Street, South Street, and Gray’s Ferry Avenue, and the river which had once been regarded as the great impasse to Philadelphians was conquered. Shortly, horsecar lines appeared crossing every bridge, so that a horsecar was within a short walk of every house in the district. All lines operated from either the 41st and Chestnut Street depot, or the depot at 49th Street and Woodland Avenue.(22)

A transportation revolution made its debut in West Philadelphia in 1894 with the introduction of the electric streetcar.(23) The electric streetcar made the commute to Philadelphia significantly shorter than the antiquated horsecars. Developers responded by building vast tracts of housing to meet the growing demand. The routes in West Philadelphia were extended into the far Philadelphia suburbs of Chester and Media.

The electric streetcar was an immense success from its onset and while numerous companies had begun operating lines, the cars often could not meet the demand which resulted in congested streets. The streetcar companies were consolidated in 1902 into the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. One of the Rapid Transit’s first initiatives was the operation of subway service on the Baltimore Avenue route from West Philadelphia to City Hall. By 1906 every other line in West Philadelphia became either “surface” or “subway-surface.”(24) These lines ran along the east-west grid and were supplemented by a series of north-south trolley lines. Thus, transportation was available within a two block walk of every house in the district.

The Rapid Transit’s second major initiative in West Philadelphia was the construction of the subway-elevated (el) railway which led from Center City to the westernmost reaches of West Philadelphia and was the impetus for the large scale development to the west. Developers built scores of rowhouses west of the district in anticipation of the el, coupled with the advent of the automobile, and by 1910 nearly every parcel of available land out to 63rd Street was developed.

Community Development Significance

The district survives as an intact and representative example of a mid to late nineteenth/early twentieth century, upper/middle class neighborhood, which as an entity characterizes the growth and development of the city’s urban neighborhoods. The forces that shaped the development patterns in the district: transportation improvements, the growth of the middle class population and their desire for comfortable housing, and the settlement of important public institutions in the city’s outlying neighborhoods, were the forces that transformed Philadelphia into a commuter city.

The West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District survives as an intact and representative example of a mid to late nineteenth century/early twentieth century, upper/middle class neighborhood which as an entity characterizes the growth and development of Philadelphia and thus meets National Register Criterion A.

Architectural Significance

The district is distinctive in character and coherence, and is distinguished from the adjacent blocks by scale, architectural style, and integrity. The district possesses integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, and association. Virtually all important American architectural styles from 1850 through 1930 are represented in the district. Some styles are represented by a particularly fine individual example, others are represented by a group of properties, that as a whole, exhibit the characteristics of the style. The district contains representative examples of the work of some of the city’s most prolific architects, among whom include, Samuel Sloan, G.W. and W.D. Hewitt, Frank Furness, Willis Hale, Horace Trumbauer, and Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary.

The district is distinctive in character and coherence, distinguishing it from the smaller, more modest houses to the north and west. The district’s buildings embody the distinctive characteristics of several periods of construction and a number of architectural styles, and therefore, also qualifies for the National Register under Criterion C.

In 1832 the city purchased 187 acres of land from the Hamilton heirs on which to locate what became known as the Blockley Almshouse. This land was of little value as it was lowland that sloped to the riverbank and contained numerous waterways and marshes.(25) The facility was built and served as an almshouse, city hospital, orphan asylum, and an insane asylum. This location of the former institution occupies the land along the present day eastern boundary. “Blockley” became a synonym for misery, sordedness and suffering.

These early developments established the hierarchy of development that was to follow in the next half-century, with the most expensive and picturesque houses occupying the best sites on corner lots and major thoroughfares, which were often those with horsecar lines, with the lesser homes filling the side streets and the middle of the blocks.

Most horsecar lines stopped at 43rd Street into the 1860s, and thus, development rarely extended beyond that boundary during the 19th century. Despite the development east of 43rd Street, the streets remained essentially unpaved into the 1850s and 1860s.

The development pattern of the district illustrates the upper middle class desire for residential areas segregated from the diversity of urban life in Center City. Restrictive covenants in the deeds creating the subdivisions banned manufacturing and most commercial uses (aside from Baltimore Avenue) and dictated other design elements such as uniform setbacks. The result is a homogeneous residential neighborhood.

In 1928 the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, which had been established by a group of Quaker pharmacists in 1821, was relocated to its present site at 43rd and Kingsessing, forming the southeastern boundary of the district.

The horsecars likely began operations around 1852, but ran only as far as 41st Street in the first decade of operation.(26) Expansion of these lines seemingly began after the Civil War. By 1872 The Philadelphia City Horse Car Passenger Railway had a line (green car, white lights) that ran from 22nd and Chestnut Streets, across the bridge to 41st and Chestnut Streets where the original terminal stables stood.(27) The Darby Passenger Railway operated the depot that stood at 49th and Woodland Avenue and ran red cars with white lights.

The revival styles reached their full stature in the early twentieth century period, which began with a blending of the Queen Anne with the Colonial Revival, followed by the exploration of more eclectic revivals such as the Romanesque Revival, Richardsonian Romanesque, French Renaissance, Renaissance Revival, and Flemish Revival styles. Characteristic of these later expressions is the use of more unique materials such as Roman or Pompeiian brick, copper, and terra cotta.

A culvert was built over the creek in 1855 and is depicted in a birdseye map of Satterlee Heights dating to c. 1865-1871 which shows the path of the creek (essentially following 43rd Street), and the ponds, as well as the culvert (see figure 2).(28)

One of the earliest maps of West Philadelphia is the Varle map of 1796 which shows three main roads leading west from the ferry at Market Street: the Lancaster Turnpike, the Darby Pike (now Woodland Avenue), and Market Street.(29) In April 1811, the first petitions were presented for the building of a turnpike along Baltimore Road (Avenue), and permission was granted for the Philadelphia, Brandywine, and New London Turnpike Company to lay the route “over the road leading from the Schuylkill to Darby, commonly called the Woodlands Road.” An early turnpike guidebook includes Hamiltonville as one of the first notable points along the new pike.(30)

William Hamilton’s c. 1804 “Hamiltonville” was probably the earliest attempt at speculative development in the district. Roughly bounded by 33rd and 41st Streets, Market Street and Woodland Avenue, the early buildings of this village have long since disappeared.

This report was prepared for the University City Historical Society by Cynthia Rose. Partial funding for the project came from a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commisssion.


  • 1. West Philadelphia was not incorporated into the City of Philadelphia until 1854. “Brief survey of development of West Philadelphia,” Clio Group, Inc. n.d. University City Historical Society files, 1.
  • 2. The mill town of Malinsville was located south of the district in the vicinity of present-day 48th and Woodland Avenue. “Brief survey of development of West Philadelphia,” Clio Group, Inc., 1.
  • 3. “Spruce Hill Historic District,” Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Rebecca Trumbull. Prepared for the Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, December 1987. The Spruce Hill Local Historic District Nomination was prepared in 1987, but had not yet been approved in June 1997. The significance section of the nomination provides an insightful analysis of the development of the area, particularly of the early settlement period.
  • 4. A ferry crossed the Schuylkill at Market Street prior to the construction of the first permanent bridge. The bridge was designed by Timothy Palmer and shortly after the opening of the bridge a roof was added.
  • 5. Joseph Jackson, America’s Most Historic Highway: Market Street, Philadelphia (Philadelphia: John Wanamaker, 1926).
  • 6. “Spruce Hill Historic District,” Rebecca Trumbull. Trumbull’s information on Hamilton Terrace and Woodland Terrace was extracted from Roger Miller and Joseph Siry, “The Emerging Suburb: West Philadelphia, 1850-1880.” Pennsylvania History, Vol. XLVII, No. 2 (April 1980).
  • 7. “Hamilton Family Estate,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form. George E. Thomas, Ph.D., Clio Group, Inc. June 1978.
  • 8. Miller and Siry, 117.
  • 9. As published in Miller and Siry, 117. The aforesaid use restriction was a clause that was not uncommon in nineteenth century Philadelphia deeds.
  • 10. Jones was trained as a carpenter and unlike Sloan, he failed to make the transition to architect. Despite the success of the S. 42nd Street commissions, these were the last of six known commissions. See, Sandra L. Tatman and Roger W. Moss, Biographical Dictionary of Philadelphia Architects: 1700-1930 (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1985).
  • 11. Richard J. Webster, Philadelphia Preserved: Catalog of the Historic American Building Survey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976), 198.
  • 12. M. Laffitte Vieira, West Philadelphia Illustrated: Early History of West Philadelphia and Its Environs; Its People and Its Historical Points (Philadelphia: Avil Printing Co., 1903), 180.
  • 13. Trumbull includes a photocopy of the lithograph in the “Spruce Hill Historic District” which is noted as originated from Frank Taylor, Philadelphia in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Philadelphia, 1913).
  • 14. “Spruce Hill Historic District” Rebecca Trumbull. Trumbull notes that Swain was one of West Philadelphia’s most prominent citizens and headed a number of Philadelphia’s most significant financial institutions.
  • 15. Ibid., 46. See also, “Drexel Development Historic District,” Carl E. Doebley, Clio Group, Inc., National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form, April 1981.
  • 16. The aforesaid commissions were executed within a five year period, very early in the brothers’ partnership. See, Sandra L. Tatman and Roger W. Moss, Biographical Dictionary.
  • 17. Jonathan Barnett, The Elusive City: Five Centuries of Design, Ambition and Miscalculation (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986), 107.
  • 18. “Spruce Hill Historic District,” Rebecca Trumbull.
  • 19. “The Garden Court Zone (GC),” Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Comprehensive Historic Resource Survey – Zone Form. n.d. Clio Group, Inc.
  • 20. “Spruce Hill Historic District,” Rebecca Trumbull. The Spruce Hill district inventory lists the date for the first depot building as c. 1862; the significance section more precisely dates the buildings to 1866.
  • 21. An observation recorded in Trumbull, “Spruce Hill Historic District.”
  • 22. Ibid.
  • 23. Ibid.
  • 24. Trumbull notes that Spruce Street provided surface transit; Baltimore Avenue, subway-surface; Chester Avenue, surface; Woodland Avenue, subway-surface.
  • 25. Leon S. Rosenthal, Esq. notes in A History of Philadelphia’s University City. Philadelphia: Produced by the Printing Office of the University of Pennsylvania for the West Philadelphia Corporation, 1963, 20.
  • 26. Leon S. Rosenthal, Esq., A History of Philadelphia’s University City, 53.
  • 27. Ibid., 55.
  • 28. The culvert has collapsed on numerous occasions, often following heavy rains and has engulfed a handful of buildings. Of note, this map also shows the location of a mill and mill related buildings on the 4300 block of Spruce Street. Development is sporadic on the map, though Jones’ houses on the east side of the 200 block of S. 42nd Street appear. Three large, flat roofed Italianate houses appear on the north side of the 4200 block of Walnut Street, one of which is likely Sloan’s 4207 Walnut. See, “Satterlee Heights; Satterlee Hospital Grounds, 27th Ward, West Philadelphia, c. 1865-1871.” Philadelphia City Archives, Folder #1397, Negative #23345.
  • 29. Leon S. Rosenthal, Esq. notes in A History of Philadelphia’s University City, 13, that Darby Road dates to 1781.
  • 30. John T. Faris, Old Roads Out Of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1917).

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