Riverton Historic District
The Riverton Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
The "new town of Riverton, New Jersey, beautifully situated on the Cinnaminson Shore of the Delaware, eight miles above Philadelphia" was perhaps the very first planned community to emerge from the "Gothic Revivalist" movement; a mid-19th century response to the burgeoning industrialization and urbanization of American society. The town's founders were members of the urban mercantile aristocracy who sought to establish, in a rural setting, a picturesque refuge, removed from the pressures of city life. Based on their concept, Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan developed the town plan and designed Riverton's first buildings. Today, very nearly one hundred and fifty years later, within the Riverton Historic District, the vision of the town founders, the innovative plan created by Sloan, and the standard for architectural quality established at the outset remain clearly evident — rendering it a place of genuine historical and architectural significance.
Throughout its first fifty years, the American nation strove to look like, if not always to act like the society which Thomas Jefferson envisioned it to be. Steeped in classical studies, Jefferson held the Roman Republic as the ideal — largely agrarian and governed wisely by farmer/statesmen. To underscore the link between the two cultures, Jefferson purposefully resurrected Roman architectural forms, suggesting that the monumental buildings of ancient Rome serve as the model for American public architecture and incorporating Roman forms in the buildings he, himself, designed. The shift in the source of this inspiration from Rome to Greece in the 1820's and '30's served to make "Classical Revival" practically an official American architectural expression as the Greek Revival style lent itself successfully, everywhere, to both imposing and modest structures.
By the mid-point of the century's second quarter, however, it was becoming increasingly evident that Jefferson's vision had been seriously flawed. Although vast stretches of the country remained rural, even unexplored, the pulse of the nation was being felt in its cities where industrialization was making America a very different place. Crowded, grimy, and often unfriendly, the metropolis was a new phenomenon which did not fit the mold crafted by Jefferson. Out of the effort to re-imagine an America wherein cities were to play such a commanding role, the "Gothic Revivalist" movement was born. Part of the greater wave of reformers (including Andrew Jackson, Horace Mann, Dorothea Dix and Ralph Waldo Emerson) whose thoughts, words, and actions would change the economic and social environment of the United States, the Gothic Revivalists concerned themselves with the importance of the private dwelling in shaping the character of the nation. In the words of Andrew Jackson Downing, the movement's most prolific spokesperson: "A good house is a powerful means of civilization...when smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country we know that order and culture are established....It is the solitude and freedom of the family home in the country which constantly preserves the purity of the nation and invigorates its intellectual powers."
Such sentiments struck a cord with many Americans, but they resounded most vibrantly within that class which Downing's contemporary, architect Samuel Sloan referred to as the "new men of commerce and industry" whose fortunes were made in the city, but who increasingly longed to escape its day-to-day rigors. Concurrent advances in the means by which people traveled lent real credence to their longings. For the first time, it became possible for men to consider living, at least part of the year in the country, and commuting on an intermittent, if not on a regular basis, to their businesses in town. In some cases this arrangement was achieved through the construction of a traditional country house, set in its own estate, but more frequently, beginning in the 1850's the ideal became the establishment of entirely new communities — groupings of country residences which functioned as a whole to embody the virtues espoused by Downing and the Gothic Revivalists.
The most famous of these was and is Llewellyn Park which was developed in the hills of West Orange, New Jersey between 1853 and 1869 by chemical manufacturer Llewellyn P. Haskell as a community of "country houses for city people." Within an easy rail commute of New York City, Llewellyn Park was everything that Downing had envisioned and more. Dwellings designed in the picturesque Gothic Revival style by Alexander Jackson Davis were set amidst hundreds of pastoral acres; no house was to be built on less than an acre of land, no building was to be used as a shop or factory and no fences were to be allowed. In addition to the private holdings, the Park was graced by a fifty acre public "Ramble" — a stretch of rustic paths and scenic overlooks which invited residents to enjoy their natural surroundings. Llewellyn Park has been called Americas' first "garden suburb;" the primogenitor of countless planned communities to follow.
Pre-dating Llewellyn Park by two years, and obviously nurtured within the same school of thought was Riverton, founded in 1851, in a rural area several miles north of Philadelphia, on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. The community's founders were, almost to a man, men of business in the city, who had ties, familial and/or economic with the farmlands of Burlington County (where Riverton would be located). Their surnames were among the oldest and most respected in the region. Of the ten, all but one were related by blood or marriage and all but one were members of the Society of Friends. In addition to three sets of brothers; Robert and William C. Biddle, Dillwyn and William D. Parrish, and (half brothers) Caleb and James Clothier, the group included Professor Charles D. Cleveland, Chalkley Gillingham, Daniel L. Miller, Jr., and Rodman Wharton.
By the way in which they envisioned and conceived their town, these men proved themselves to be true Gothic Revivalists. The 120 acres of farmland they purchased from fellow Quaker Joseph Lippincott in 1851 were bounded along their southeastern length by the Camden and Amboy Railroad, thus providing them with an efficient link to the city; the source of their wealth. The northwestern length of the purchase fronted on the Delaware River — a second means of reaching Philadelphia, via steamboat, but more importantly, the river would give the town its focus, for it was the intention of the founders that everyone who was to make this place their home, would have unfettered access to the river bank and to the panoramic view its gentle bend discloses. As provided for by the town plan and deed restrictions (as described below) that access is guaranteed to this day — making the town's name, as the founders surely intended, more a description of its reason for being, than a mere reference to its geographical location.
To create the town plan, the founders engaged the services of Samuel Sloan, an architect who had an office in that part of the city wherein their businesses were located and who had risen to sudden prominence through the design of a universally applauded "Norman Villa" called Bartram Hall on the west bank of the Schuylkill River. As evidenced by references in his soon to be issued publication The Model Architect, Sloan viewed the relationship between setting and structure as primary, noting that: "However simple or picturesque, however full of grandeur or quiet repose the landscape, its crowning feature ought ever to be the structure, whether humble or stately, that denotes the habitation of man. Both should be in complete harmony and adaptation; for hillside and plain, grove and riverbank, each and all convey a meaning which can never be disregarded without a sacrifice of architectural taste, of propriety, and generally of comfort."
The founders of Riverton offered Sloan a rare opportunity to apply these principles to the design of an entire community.
The terrain with which Sloan was presented was not nearly as extensive nor as varied as that out of which Alexander Jackson Davis would form Llewellyn Park in West Orange. The 120-acre site measured just short of a half mile at its widest point and the river front was about equal to that in length. Added to those constrictions were the fact that the two principal boundaries, the river bank and the Camden and Amboy tracks were more or less converging straight lines, and the land, until it finally met the river, was quite flat. Despite these limiting factors, Sloan deviated from a traditional city grid by converting the old road from the river to Westfield Friends into the town's principal thoroughfare and by retaining the sharp bend it made 1,600 feet from the river. The streets which Sloan laid out east of Main Street were straight, while those to its west conformed with its bend, allowing for some variation in lot shape. The size of the 105 lots designed by Sloan varied too, with the most generous facing the river, but all were of dimensions ample to allow for Downing's "smiling lawns." Street widths, building lines and fencing restrictions contributed to a sense of openness and freedom of space.
As requested by the town's founders and as designed by Sloan, commercial structures were to be kept to the barest minimum. Because the town could only function as envisioned if transportation needs were met, Sloan's plan included a pier with a "station house" for a steamboat landing and shelter for passengers, and a railroad station to encourage regular train stops. Additionally, Sloan designed a village store, and retained an extant farm house on the river front, which for some time had been used as a boarding house for visitors to the area. No other businesses were expressly anticipated, there was to be no industry, and deed restrictions specifically forbade the manufacture or sale of liquor.
But the most innovative feature of his plan can be found on the river front, where Sloan's design reflected the founder's aspirations precisely. His siting of the street closest to the river, called Bank Avenue, corresponded with that line along the shore from which the final descent to the river began, thereby creating a natural promenade from which the river could be viewed. With no construction permitted (except for the pier with its "station house"), by plan and by deed restriction on the river side of Bank Avenue, an unobstructed view of the river was afforded. The area between the street and the river was laid out in open lawns, planted with trees and shrubs to add interest, and retained by a uniformly designed river wall. Although held privately by the owners of the properties across the street, free access to this stretch of green bank was assured, creating in effect, if not in fact, a public river front park for the people of Riverton.
Although they had envisioned and apparently anticipated a modest extension of their community beyond its original limits, expansion outside of Sloan's plan would not happen during the twenty-year life of the Riverton Improvement Company, the business entity which was formed by the founders in March of 1852 to oversee the development of the town. Nevertheless, when new streets (Lippincott Avenue and Thomas Avenue) were laid out in 1877, they mirrored their predecessors in direction and dimension, and lots and housing stock were reflective of the standards set a generation earlier. Still more significant is the fact that the "park" was extended along the river where it met this new section and the deed restrictions which had secured the open space in conjunction with Sloan's plan were adopted by the owners of the newly developed properties. This tradition would be repeated when the final western expansion was undertaken in 1882 and again when the last of the river front, to the east, was developed just after the turn of the century.
As evidenced by their purchase, individually, of acreage on the other side of the Camden and Amboy line, the founders had expected the town to grow in that direction as well, and when it did, beginning in 1881, the street plan laid out by Sloan, and as expanded to the west, was extended in the new direction, first to 8th Street and ultimately to its current limits. As in the older section, all of the new neighborhoods were residential with the exception of that closest to the intersection of Main and Broad Streets. Like the one immediately across the tracks, this section began to take on a commercial tone as the century approached its close. (That a modest business district emerged in this area is not surprising when it is recalled that the founders had laid its foundations by having their own store built in that vicinity in 1851). Throughout these newer sections, care was taken to lay out streets, and to place buildings in such a way as to continue the pleasing balance between space and structure which Sloan and the founders had established in the original plan. These sections too, would ultimately feature open green areas; the rolling grounds of the Riverton Country Club, founded in 1900, would stretch away from the borough at its southwest border with Cinnaminson Township (abutting the Riverton Historic District), and on the bluff overlooking the Pompeston Creek, to the east (just beyond the historic district), Riverton would create its "Memorial Park;" a 12-acre complex of athletic fields, which was dedicated on July 4, 1931.
In terms, then, of both community planning and development, Riverton clearly occupies a position of significance in the history of the nation. Designed by one of the most influential architects of the day, it would serve as an early model, if not the model for all planned, suburban communities to follow, and in the gradual and deliberate manner in which the town would be developed over ensuing decades, Riverton exhibited a continuing commitment to the ideals which the Sloan plan had embodied.
Turning, finally to the Riverton Historic District's architectural significance, one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in so small an area, a richer variety of mid-to-late 19th century and early 20th century residential styles than can be found within Riverton's three-quarters of a square mile.
The first of these is, naturally, the Gothic Revival style which Samuel Sloan used as his inspiration in the design of the eight founders' "cottages" which were strung along Bank Avenue, facing the river. Each of these was an unpretentious symmetrical two-and-half story frame dwelling with generous fenestration and broad porches. They anticipate the design feeling Sloan would call "A Summer Seat" in his soon to be published tome The Model Architect. Of these eight, six are extant (five in their original locations). Although all have been altered to some degree, they together, along with two adjacent properties (at 100 and 101 Main Street) which are attributed to Sloan, constitute a very important cluster of Sloan's work and represent his design approach at the time he came to national prominence. Gothic Revival influences would recur in Riverton as they did nationally through to the close of the century. Two later river front mansions, both constructed of stone (the 1864 Ezra Lippincott House at 303 Bank Avenue and the 1865 William Thomas House at 109 Bank Avenue) incorporated Gothic lines and motifs, and many of the houses, both large and small, single family or "double cottage" which were built throughout the town during its first fifty years were of Gothic design. Typical of these are the Senat House built at 306 Main Street in the early 1850's, a one-and-a-half story board-and-batten Gothic cottage featuring lancet windows and decorative verge boards, and the unbroken string of late 19th and turn-of-the century Gothic houses on the west side of Main Street's 600 block. So persistent was the style that when the Episcopal Parish of Christ Church sought to replace the Carpenter Gothic building which vestryman and Philadelphia architect John Fraser had designed as their place of worship in 1861, they again turned to Eraser, asking him to create a more imposing structure. This he did, in 1883, designing a grand basilican edifice in a restrained version of "High Victorian Gothic." The church was consecrated in 1884.
Equaling the Gothic Revival in romantic appeal and coming into vogue at the time of Riverton's founding was the Italianate style, which, through its emphasis on verandahs and "floor-to-ceiling" windows was particularly suited to riverside settings. Several early examples of this style can be found in the district, most notably the house at 101 Main Street which was intended for founder James Clothier, but which was built by his brother Caleb in 1853. Although subsequently modified, the house, with its four story entrance tower, round-headed windows, porches and heavy bracketing is clearly akin to the "Italian Villa" which Sloan included as Plates XXI and XXII in The Model Architect. Less expansive but of distinct Italianate flavoring are the houses at 401 and 404 Main Street which closely resemble the "Plain Villa" in Plate XLVIII in the Sloan pattern book.
Between 1865 and 1880, when the Second Empire style became "de riguere" in the United States, Riverton experienced its second growth spurt and, as a result, many of the new houses on the river and along Main Street and Lippincott Avenue incorporated mansard roofs. Three of the four new mansions on the river (Nos. 201, 203, and 205 Bank Avenue) were built of iron stone with straight or bell-curved slate mansard roofs, while the fourth (No. 207 Bank Avenue), was a green (serpentine) stone villa which had a bell-curved mansard over the main house and which (until the roof was destroyed by fire in 1978) had an impressive bow-curved mansard atop its three-story tower. Farther from the river, the Second Empire style proved its adaptability in the construction of houses of varying sizes and materials. Two large residences, one at 212 Lippincott Avenue and another at 308 Main Street feature elegant touches; a pair of two-story bay windows and a porte-cochere on the former, and an oriel window and delicate iron roof cresting on the latter. Typical of middle-class dwellings are the houses at 402 and 513 Main Street; the former is frame with a fine Italianate side porch, while the later is of brick with impressive roof moldings. At 410 and 412 Main Street is a nicely proportioned brick double cottage which was designed with Italianate entrance porches on either side and a matched pair of iron crested bay windows across the shared facade. Some early construction beyond the tracks was also in the Second Empire style. A particularly handsome example is the frame house at 617 Main Street which features round-headed mansard dormers, a side oriel window, and front and side Italianate porches.
Represented among the many styles from which builders and buyers could select during the last quarter of the 19th century is the Stick Style. This was chosen to lend distinction to the 1880 Riverton Yacht Club building, a two-and-a-half story structure which is situated at the end of the town's pier. The external "stick-work" on this structure, as in all Stick style renderings, creates a suggestion of the manner in which the building was constructed; referencing, on the surface, internal structural members which are the source of its strength. In the Yacht Club building, these concealed features are suggested externally on the first floor, through the use of decorative cross-braced panels and surface boards. The second floor is surrounded on all four sides by an open porch which juts out beyond the walls of the-first story and which is supported by prominent bracketing. The building is capped by a hipped roof with a forward jerkin-head gable, a pair of side dormers, and cast iron cresting. Not far away, in the 400 block of Main Street, can be found a pair of residences (nos. 403 and 405 Main Street) which mirror each other's Stick style motifs. Both have steeply pitched roofs with decorative trusses at the apex of their gables, exposed rafters, diagonal braces, and modest vertical and horizontal board-work.
Examples of Queen Anne styling are located throughout the Riverton Historic District, with several uninterrupted rows appearing along Lippincott and Thomas Avenues. 404 Lippincott Avenue, with its first and second floors of clapboard and its third sheathed in fish-scale cedar shingles is representative of many well-preserved versions. The Queen Anne dwellings in the 400 block of Thomas Avenue are less elaborate and while many have been covered in modern siding, original features including asymmetrical plans, varied roof planes, and the retention of porch, window, and entry materials help to maintain the integrity of their styling. Queen Annes can also be found in areas where they are in close proximity to both older and newer structures. The house at 207 Main Street, a grand Queen Anne residence which mixes clapboards and shingles with projecting gables and banks of windows, compliments its older, if less eccentric neighbors, while the turreted house at 506 Fulton Street adds interest with its three-story stained glass staircase window to a scattering of nearby mid-twentieth century buildings.
Turning next to the Shingle style, two properties in the section between the river and the rail line deserve special note. John Eraser's son, Archibald Alexander Fraser designed the Fourth Street Parish House for Christ Episcopal Church, in 1894, successfully combining Shingle (upper stories' sheathing) with Richardsonian Romanesque (rusticated stone first floor/arched lintels) elements, and the Hewitt and Hewitt designed house at 205 Lippincott Avenue also sets shingled gables atop a first floor of stone and embellishes the entire structure with an expansive and inviting porch and an open balcony. Across the tracks, in the area developed concurrently with the Riverton Golf Club, are found a number of Shingle style residences of distinction. The house at 301 Highway Avenue features a classical pediment over its principal entrance, and a flair at the base of its second floor shingle sheathing to distinguish it from that on the first, and 402 Highway Avenue has gracefully sloping shingle roofs which cover shingled gables and open porches alike. In the same neighborhood, at 805 Thomas Avenue (at Highway Avenue) is a 1901 Hewitt and Hewitt designed property which handsomely combines shingles with classical elements. A number of other contemporary properties in that area used the same classical features but, forsaking shingle sheathing, are more appropriately termed "Classical Revival" houses. Two of these, which are almost identical, are at 200 Park Avenue and 400 Highway Avenue, the former of which is yet another Hewitt and Hewitt creation. Both two-and-a-half story residences are capped with hipped roofs, both feature handsome palladian dormer windows, and both have extensive first floor porches, supported by classical columns. Truer to their 18th century antecedents, but of similar vintage are two "Georgian Revival" houses which are located closer to the river. The Arthur Cochran designed house at 101 Lippincott Avenue boasts Gothic-arched dormer window panes, carved panels (swags) between second and first floor windows, and a massive brick chimney, and the brick two-and-a-half story mansion at 605 Bank Avenue, which was designed by Charles Peddle in 1906 is complete with quoins, keystones, a raised belt course, Gothic-arched dormer window panes, and a grand palladian window surmounting the entrance. Also worthy of note is the 1917 Morris and Erskine designed frame house at 307 Eighth Street, a "Middle Colonies"-inspired Georgian with round-headed dormer and end gable windows and a pedimented entrance set in the center of a pent eve.
Any number of early 20th century Dutch Colonials can be found throughout the Riverton Historic District, ranging from the impressive 1910 stuccoed, gambrel-roofed house at 107 Lippincott Avenue which blends pent eves into porch roofs, to the 1907 massive front gambrel-gabled house at 203 Howard Street, to its neighbors at 202 and 204 Howard Street which, in vintage 1920's style, are side-gambrel houses with full-width shed dormers across the front and back.
Popular concurrently with the Colonial Revival was the Tudor Revival style, examples of which are well represented in the Riverton Historic District in a variety of renditions and sizes. The most imposing of these is the house at 206 Lippincott Avenue, a circa 1935 Flemish bond brick "manor house" with a grand slate-covered roof, two steeply pitched front gables and a multi-shaft chimney with terra cotta chimney pots. A smaller brick Tudor Revival stands at 305 Shrewsbury Lane. Built in 1929, this dwelling has a dramatically pitched asymmetrical projecting gable, narrow casement windows, and a massive chimney. An earlier form of the Tudor Revival is represented by the 1901 G.W. Hewitt designed house at 803 Thomas Avenue. It is noteworthy for the half-timbering on its upper floors, and the Tudor arch which frames the entrance of its projecting central bay. In a later (c.1940) "Cotswold Cottage" version, at 426 Thomas Avenue, stucco, brick, and half timbering are combined pleasingly with a round-headed brick-tabbed door surround, casement windows and an impressive gable end chimney.
One example of the Neo-classical style deserves mention. Built in 1908, at 100 Park Avenue (facing the country club greens), the house is two-and-a-half stories high, and seven bays wide, with a pedimented projecting central bay; the pediment featuring a single round window accented by quoins. The mansion's entrance is decorated with six single-story ionic columns, and surmounted by an elliptical fan light. The facade also features bay windows and has a pair of ionic column adorned porches at either end; one open and the other enclosed in glass.
Other turn-of-the-century styles are more abundantly represented. In addition to the small cluster of Italian Renaissance style houses near the intersection of 4th Street and Lippincott Avenue, scattered examples of that style can be found here and there in the Riverton Historic District. The Lippincott Avenue cluster includes the houses at nos. 209, 215, and 401 Lippincott Avenue, all of which date from the second decade of this century, and are stuccoed, with hipped roofs, central dormers and porticoed center entrances. The house at no. 209 Lippincott Avenue features a second floor balcony surmounting its entrance, no. 215 Lippincott Avenue has a joined pair of hipped roofs atop its six-windowed dormer, and no. 401 Lippincott Avenue has a terra cotta tile roof over bracketed cornices, and a series of large round-headed first floor windows. Beyond the railroad tracks, the house at 802 Main Street, which dates from 1908, is a particularly fine example of the style with terra cotta tiles covering the main and dormer roofs, as they do the roof of the classical columned entrance portico, and the house at 708 Thomas Avenue, which was designed by architect Albert F. Schenck in 1915, retains its Italian Renaissance massing under a hipped roof which was almost certainly originally tiled. A roundheaded staircase window and decorative tiles, set in the masonry walls attest to its stylistic influences.
"Prairie" style houses which are represented in abundance in several of the newer neighborhoods of the Riverton Historic District are invariably of the "American Foursquare" subtype. Many of the houses in the 600 block and nearly all of the houses in the 700 block of Thomas Avenue were built between 1900 and 1915 as "American Foursquares." Typical of the frame version, with its clapboard first story and shingled second story is the house at 631 Thomas Avenue, while the house at 700 Thomas Avenue is an example of the type when rendered in rusticated cast stone.
The last historically significant style to be introduced to Riverton was the "Craftsman" style which made its first appearance shortly after the turn of the century and which, because of its adaptability, was embraced by Rivertonians of wide-ranging means. A rather grand example sits on the river at 701 Bank Avenue. It is distinguished by an unusual double-peaked gable at its west end, and a hexagonal bay on the east end. The roof line is also punctuated with a number of shed-roofed dormers, and both the entrance portico and the porte-cochere are supported by massive rounded columns. Within the same neighborhood, the house at 212 Fulton Street exhibits many of the same Craftsman elements; including the heavy rounded columns and the shed dormers, which are equally complementary to this somewhat smaller structure. Another rather distinctive "Arts and Crafts" dwelling stands at 303 Eighth Street. It is the 1919 W. Welsh "bungalow" which incorporates a garage in its raised basement, rows of casement windows around its shingled first floor, and a handsome hipped and dormered roof with a massive central chimney. The house was designed by Philadelphians Morris and Erskine. In the next block of Eighth Street, at nos. 401, 403, and 405 Eighth Street are three houses of similar vintage and Craftsman influence, but of far more modest proportions and most likely of a less impressive pedigree. With roofs which feature balconied dormers, and which reach down to cover open porches, these houses closely resemble models appearing in catalogues distributed contemporaneously by Sears and Roebuck and by the Aladdin Company — two highly popular sources of pre-fabricated buildings at that time. Simpler still, are the houses at nos. 309, 311, and 313 2nd Street and the house at 610 Lippincott Avenue, all of which date from the 1920's and all of which are representative of the "bungalow" in its least embellished form. Each was constructed as a single-storied dwelling with a gabled attic space. The Second Street examples sit on rusticated cast-stone foundations and are end-gable houses with forward projecting porches. No. 311 Second Street still exhibits the slender classical columns upon which its porch gable rests. No. 610 Lippincott Avenue is a front gabled bungalow with a jerkin-head peak above its forward-facing attic window, and a one-story porch across its facade. The porch roof is supported by square wooden columns, set upon rusticated cast-stone bases. As simple as they are, these houses too retain a good measure of their original character and charm and they, along with all of the "contributing" properties in the Riverton Historic District, serve to describe the tastes and building techniques of their times.
In summary, the Riverton Historic District embodies, in the manner in which it was conceived, planned and developed, the very inception of the American suburban community. The coupling of these highly significant factors with the broad spectrum of mid-to-late 19th and early 20th century styles are so well represented here that the Riverton Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
† Daniel Campbell, Keith Betten and Betty B. Hahle, Historic Riverton Nomination Committee, Riverton Historic District, Burlington County, NJ, nomination document, 1998, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.