Northern Liberties Historic District
The Northern Liberties Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Text below was selected and adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright; © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Northern Liberties Historic District comprises the core streets of what was a separate township in the nineteenth century. Now surrounded by a large highway on the south and east, and by changed housing patterns on the west and north, the Northern Liberties Historic District retains a strong visual identity as an artisan community, with numerous shopfronted houses standing amidst small factories and churches that span the nineteenth century. The Northern Liberties Historic District is focussed by Fairmount Avenue, which shows the interesting variety of building types from early nineteenth century houses — many converted to shops and workplaces after the Civil War — to small mills such as the hat factory on the 400 block of Fairmount, the Zimmerman meat plant across the street, and the handsome brick rundbogenstil Salem German Reformed Church on the 300 block. With additional mills on the 300 and 400 blocks of Brown, and handsome rows of houses on the 300 block of Green, this region retains the distinctive flavor of small scale communities that makes the Northern Liberties unique.
The Northern Liberties Historic District is both an historic region of Penn's plan of Philadelphia and a present day neighborhood of the modern city. As such, it presents a problem in spatial and chronological definition, that is perhaps best solved by separating it into its various periods and locations. That solution permits the description as "the Northern Liberties" of a larger but essentially unpopulated zone beyond Penn's city, and stretching from the northern limits of the city along Vine Street, to the vicinity of Girard Avenue, and extending from the Delaware River nearly to Broad Street. At the end of the eighteenth century, the region came to be populated with residents engaging in various industries prohibited by code in Philadelphia, and living in the region of Second Street. After gaining permission to build a market on Second Street, the zone from the River to Fourth Street was incorporated as the township of Northern Liberties in 1791. Twelve years later, in 1803, it was enlarged to Sixth Street, and by the 1850s at the point of its incorporation into Philadelphia, the district of Northern Liberties had the second largest population, after Philadelphia, in the state. By 1850, it had built its own water works, (in conjunction with the Spring Garden District) and had its own district hall. And, to add to the confusion, a fragment of the old Northern Liberties still existed beyond Kensington as a separate township.
On the other hand, the question of the region is perhaps better clarified by looking at the nature of the population, and its work. Data from the Philadelphia Social History Project shows a region where nearly three of every five residents worked as artisans rather than professionals, proprietors or laborers, and the only region of the city in the 1860 and 1870 census to be less than half native American. Those criteria suggest a region in which small workplaces and residences were intertwined with the work tending to be highly skilled crafts, which during the nineteenth century, were increasingly concentrated in factories. This nomination proposes to define a separate ethnic-artisan district to the west of the market on Second Street, corresponding more or less to the zone added to the Northern Liberties in 1803, and containing a rich mix of building types and sizes that makes the region one of the most varied in the city.
The boundaries of the Northern Liberties were never hard and fast, but mid-century atlases show a residential zone to the south of Spring Garden Street, focused around Franklin Square, a port facility along the riverfront to the east, with the Second Street market a second focus of activity and work. To the west of Second Street above Spring Garden, was a mixture of houses, work shops, mills, breweries and churches which can be associated with the mid-century largely German ethnic community. Though originally connected by a continuous fabric of buildings to the Second Street market, the Northern Liberties Historic District is now separated by a line of later construction and demolition on the east; by the widened Spring Garden Street on the south; by modern housing on the west beyond Sixth Street and by additional demolition and new construction on the north above Brown Street. But the core of the old community remains, with impressive streetscapes on Fairmount and Brown, as well as on Fourth and Fifth streets.
The most impressive street in the Northern Liberties Historic District is Fairmount, which begins with a rich variety of houses on the 200 block including early Flemish bond late-Federal house (#241, 243) and later Victorian townhouses (#236-42). The 300 block is dominated by the important urban grouping of the Salem German Reformed Church, erected in 1873, which is partially screened by a row of handsome Italianate brick townhouses, which occupy the street front, with the church placed to the rear. The economic logic is indisputable for the four front lots gave the church income, but the urban effect is splendid, creating a forecourt not unlike the medieval enclosures of the German townscapes. The Salem Church is also splendid, a powerful vertical composition of brick dominated by a slender slate covered spire that rises from projecting buttresses out of the gable peak. The facade is framed by brick buttresses, corbel tables, and window surrounds and derived from well-known German medievalizing architecture of the mid-nineteenth century. In a juxtaposition typical of the region, the small alley across the street is framed by a factory on the east and an early-nineteenth century gable roofed house on the left.
As Fairmount Avenue moves away from the market-housing zone on Second Street, industrial buildings become more frequent. In the 1880s, larger factories replaced an earlier row of houses, with a cast iron fronted, gable roofed hat factory that incorporates an 1830s Union Church at its rear toward the west end of the site, and a multi-story brick drug factory at the east end. Across the street and suggesting the type of closed loop of business transactions that such communities so often produced was the Zimmerman meat packing company. That building dates from 1911 with a florid Flemish bond facade, articulated by pilasters capped by immense terra cotta bull heads that specify the purpose of the building with a commercial verve that prefigures the pop artists of the past generation. But, just to the east on the same block is an impressive Flemish bond late-Georgian house with gauged brick jack arches — made Northern Liberties Victorian by the addition of the post-Civil War mansard and shopfront.
The historic buildings of Fairmount Avenue end at Sixth Street with an important, intact Greek Revival row that runs the center length of the 500 block. Like the contemporary Portico Row, this is the result of a single build with the group unified by Flemish bond brickwork, fanlighted, round-headed doors and capped by an austere brick cornice. The Philadelphia motif of a rounded corner appears at the east end. Though metal cornices were added in the 1890s on a couple of the houses, the underlying unity of the block is splendidly preserved.
The north-south streets are similarly diverse. Fifth Street between Green and Brown includes two east European ethnic churches — one an adapted Greek Revival townhouse, and the other a gray stone, onion dome topped building not much wider than a large townhouse. Across the street are two handsome mansarded, Second Empire doubles, with marble bases, door frames and window heads suggesting the growing wealth and economic diversity of the community. At the end of the block is the Bisler Building, a powerfully scaled, box factory articulated by its concrete frame.
Fourth Street at Green shows the character of the earlier development of the district. On the east side stands a row of gable-roofed, Flemish bond houses interspersed with taller shopfront buildings, which share the lot size of the older houses and were presumably altered to gain the extra story above the shop. Similarly scaled buildings are also found on Third Street; off the rear of No. 305 is a small court of houses called Haab Place on old atlases, memorializing the name of the owner of a leather factory on Brown Street.
Other buildings suggest a more complicated history including what is now a four-story, mansarded tavern at Third and Fairmount. Painted tan in the 1890s to suggest Pompeiian brick, and altered with a shopfront base and concave mansard after the Civil War, the building on careful inspection shows Flemish bond masonry with keyed stone jack arches on the order of high style center city buildings circa 1800. Another building across the street shows similar treatment and provides evidence of the ongoing commercial vitality of the region well into the early twentieth century. That persistence characterizes neighborhoods such as the Northern Liberties Historic District that have continued to build houses next to mills and mills next to houses, maintaining its historic character into the end of the twentieth century.
The Northern Liberties Historic Districtt has been a stable work-residence community since its founding, with buildings continuously updated, and reflecting their owner's interest in their buildings. In the past decade perhaps 20 percent have been renovated, and more are underway. Of 230 buildings, some 92 percent are significant (47) or contributing (163) with only 20 (8%) being an intrusion.
The Northern Liberties Artisan District is a complex creation that began as an extension to the market on Second Street, but became a separate ethnic community in its own right as it matured after the middle of the nineteenth century. That community at its height contained the city's greatest concentration of German churches, institutions and clubs interspersed with small highly skilled workshops and a variety of houses that span the nineteenth century. Many of these buildings are of architectural merit, especially the Salem Church and its small court of houses, the Zimmerman meat packing house, and the Integrity Bank (already on the National Register), which show the ongoing influence of German design being imported to this German community. With its churches, workshops and houses, that Northern Liberties community is still eminently visible, and indeed can be said to survive with a higher degree of integrity than the great industrial corridors that are customarily said to characterize nineteenth century Philadelphia. The arrival of east European immigrants at the end of the century replaced many of the earlier residents but they largely reused the existing buildings, perpetuating the form of work, residence and institution that made this more village than city.
Though the origins of the Northern Liberties began with William Penn's scheme to provide additional bonus lands as an inducement for purchase of city property, its first round of growth occurred after the Revolution, when unscrupulous builders developed land set aside as compensation for soldiers. But its era of greatest interest began around 1860 when the region west of Second Street and north of Green Street became a center of German residence, industry and institutions. That concentration reflected two of the principal forces that shaped American society — mid-century immigration that brought some 20,000 Germans to Philadelphia in the 1840s, and industrialization that flourished along the river banks in the vicinity of English, and so-called native white population groups, but which was rejected by artisan-trained Germans. Between 1850 and 1905, the region within two blocks of Fourth and Fairmount became the city's focus of German investment, with German, Methodist and Lutheran churches, the Salem German Reformed Church, two German synagogues, including Mikveh Israel, as well as the Integrity Trust (on the National Register), the Maennerchor Hall, and the German Society headquarters. In those same years, the Northern Liberties also became a center of the German labor movement with the organization of the German Workingman's Union. Scattered within the community were the kinds of workshops associated with German craftsmen, which produced handcrafted products such as shoes and other leather goods, but also piano manufactories, furniture makers — including a coffin factory adjacent to the Salem Reformed Church, a custom carriage factory and of course, bakeries and breweries.
It was those workshops that reflected the character of the Germans, whom Bruce Laurie suggests emigrated from Germany, not for new opportunity, but to preserve the art artisan lifestyle that was being challenged by militarism and industrialization. Their concentration in the Northern Liberties, according to Allen Burstein was not so much a matter of "...ethnicity as much as it was characterized by the [previous] presence of craftsmen and artisans, an occupational group to which the majority of German immigrants belonged." In other words, in the 1840s, the region north of Vine Street and west of Second already contained leather shops, tanneries and breweries — which city regulations had prohibited from the downtown because of odor, noise and other factors, and it was into that region that German artisans, used to working with such materials, naturally settled. The German density north of Vine Street is evident in the charts prepared by the Philadelphia Social History Project, that showed by 1850s 56 percent of the 23,000 Germans in Philadelphia County concentrated in 54 grid squares, 30 of which corresponded to Northern Liberties. Thus, Germans were the largest ethnic group — but not the majority, accounting for Burstein's conclusion that there was "...German concentration in the northeast, not an ethnic ghetto."
By the 1870s and 1880s, city atlases and business publications such as Illustrated Philadelphia, Its Wealth and Industries, confirm the supposition that small, craft business dominated the area. Only three industries had any size at all — the Charles Noble Stove Works on 4th and Brown, the H.K. Wampole drug factory on 4th and Fairmount, and just north of the core district, the Charles Burk Morocco Leather company. Even these relatively larger concerns never approximated the scale of the smallest industries of Lehigh Avenue, near where it crosses American Street. Instead of the massive industrial complexes of the Bromley Carpet Mill on Lehigh, or the North American Lace Company, where large capital outlays for giant weaving machines made heretofore unimagined quantities of woven goods, vastly increasing individual productivity, the Northern Liberties businesses remained labor intensive and oriented toward individual production of finished products. The result is a community that at the outset seems like so many other mixed workplace — residence communities but on closer observation shows a more unified scale in which workplace is related in size to housing and shopfronts on houses are a principal indication of production in the household. And, unlike Manayunk or Lehigh avenues, it does not depend on rail lines and other means of transportation.
If the Northern Liberties Historic District architectural forms are typically of American cities for the period, showing features of Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and late Victorian design, the density of individual commercial enterprise is not typical recalling the eighteenth century artisan city, which this logically continued. On the other hand, many of the buildings of the community are of architectural importance. Third and Fourth streets between Green and Fairmount show handsome Federal, Flemish bond rowhouses which correspond to the period of William Strickland's St. John's P.E. (now Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox) Church of 1815 which abuts the northeast corner of the district at American and Brown streets. At the opposite end of the Northern Liberties Historic District is the splendid Federal row that occupies the entire 500 block of Fairmount Avenue.
Mid-century styles are evident in the Greek Revival doubles on the 700 block of Fifth Street at Fairmount, and the handsome pairs of Second Empire mansarded houses across the street. With the Italianate houses in front of significant wealth created in the Northern Liberties. With the end of the Civil War, architectural styles began to project an awareness of contemporary German practice, suggesting less interest in assimilation than representation of ethnic heritage. This is most apparent in the Salem German Reformed Church which is derived from the North German Hanover Gothic Revival. With the front court of houses, it recreates with great accuracy the urban form of German communities, with the church set in its church yard. Later buildings reflect the growing interest in the South German architecture of Vienna at the turn of the century. This is most evident in the florid terra cotta encrusted design of the Integrity Trust Company and the Zimmerman slaughter house. The result is the first community in Philadelphia to show distinctive German stylistic characteristics which would later move west with the dissemination of the German community out of the Northern Liberties.
As the center of the artisan and craft community of the mid-nineteenth century which contrasts with the more studied but no more successful industrial neighborhoods of Philadelphia such as Lehigh Avenue, Nicetown and Manayunk, the Northern Liberties Artisan District offers insight into the varied goals and lifestyles of Philadelphia at mid-century and deserves to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
City of Philadelphia, Department of Building Permits, Municipal Services Building, Philadelphia, PA.
Clio Index of Philadelphia Buildings. Clio Group, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Cutler and Gillette. The Divided Metropolis. Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Especially Stephanie Greenberg, "The Relationship between Work and Residence in an Industrial City; Philadelphia, 1880" pp.141-168; George E. Thomas, "Architectural and Patronage and Social Stratification in Philadelphia between 1840 and 1920" pp.85-124.
Davis, Allen and Mark Haller, eds. The Peoples of Philadelphia. A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower Class Life, 1790-1940. Phila.: Temple University Press, 1973. Particularly Stuart Blumin, "Residential Mobility within the Nineteenth Century City," pp.37-51; Maxwell Whiteman, "Philadelphia Jewish Neighborhoods,: pp.231-254.
Edmunds, Franklin D. The Public School Buildings of the City of Philadelphia from 1745-1907. Seven volumes. Phila.: 1913-1933.
Guide to Northern Liberties. Phila.: Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, 1982.
Hershberg, Theodore, ed. Philadelphia: Workspace, Family and Group Experience in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press, 1981. Especially Bruce Laurie and Mark Schwartz, "Manufacturing and Productivity," pp.43-92; and Bruce Laurie, Theodore Hershberg, George Alten, "Immigrants and Industry, 1850-1890," pp.93-119; Alan Burstein. "Immigrants and Residential Mobility: The Irish and Germans in Philadelphia, 1850-1880," pp.174-203.
Hopkins, G.M. City Atlas of Philadelphia. 1877, Vol. 6. Plate I.
Illustrated Philadelphia: Its Wealth and Industries. New York: American Publishing Co., 1889.
Laurie, Bruce, Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850. Phila.: Temple University Press. pp.161-187.
Philadelphia and Its Environs. Phila.: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1889.
Scharf, J. Thomas and Thompson Westcott. History of Philadelphia 1609-1884. Phila.: L.H. Everts & Co., 1884. Vol. I., passim.