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Powelton Village


Powelton Village was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Text, below, was adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

"The Powelton" (3500-3520 Powelton Ave. 214-8 35th & 215-21 36th Sts) is listed separately on the National Register.

Powelton Village was one of Philadelphia's first Streetcar Suburbs. It has served as the home to important social and educational institutions for over one hundred years.

When Lippincott's published the 1887 edition of Philadelphia and Its Environs, the Powelton neighborhood was described favorably as containing "a multitude of pretty residences of moderate cost [and] some of the handsomest and most expensive mansions in the city." Indeed, at the turn of the century after 50 years of development the Powelton neighborhood was one of the most impressive in the city, both for its architecture and its economic and social diversity. Where Rittenhouse and North Philadelphia mark the social extremes of the Quaker City, old money elites versus nouveau riche, Powelton, because of its proximity to the Pennsylvania rail yards and offices and the Baldwin locomotive works, was the home of the industrial meritocracy. Their social variety was reflected in the wide range of institutions, juxtaposing a Catholic complex with an Episcopal church, a Baptist church with Hicksite and Orthodox Quaker meetings. The suburban flavor of the community provided the setting for a variety of institutions that contemporary wisdom assumed would prosper in a more sylvan location, including a Quaker Mission and the sheltered Working Home for the Blind, as well as churches, schools and hospitals and now Drexel University. Moreover, with the pre-Civil War streetcar suburban homes, the institutional and commercial strip along Lancaster Avenue, and the core of Victorian mansions on Powelton Avenue, the district describes with clarity and vigor the values and lifestyles of many of the city's most prominent industrialists. Fortunately, their taste is recorded by the survival of vast numbers of buildings by the principal architects Addison Hutton, T. P. Chandler, Wilson Brothers, Willis Hale and others of post-Civil War Philadelphia. Those buildings form streetscapes that retain a high degree of completeness.

It is as the architectural setting of the meritocracy that Powelton is now of greatest interest, with each block containing architecturally significant buildings for important industrialists. Though the pre-Civil War architects are difficult to determine because of insufficient documentation, it seems likely that John Riddell, Samuel Sloan and Edwin Rafsnyder, among others, were designing the early suburban homes. With the Centennial era and better documentation, attributions are more secure. Quaker architect Addison Hutton designed George Fletcher's imposing Queen Anne house on 34th Street below Powelton Avenue in 1882, and worked on the houses of Henry Mitchell, E. P. Alexander and Edward Lewis (demolished). The Wilson Brothers, architects for the Pennsylvania Railroad, designed houses in Powelton, including John Wilson's own house at 302 North 35th Street (demolished for the Powel School); Fred Thorne's house at 36th and Baring, with its prominent castled turret; Robert Gibson's house (208 North 34th); the Thomas Sparks house (213 North 33rd demolished); two houses for William H. Wilson, as well as St. Andrew's Church at 36th and Baring Streets, all between 1875 and 1883.

Together they form the setting for the gems of Powelton, the great houses along the Avenue between 33rd and 35th Streets, including the house for George Burnham by T. P. Chandler (1886) at 34th Street, the house for brewer Frederick Poth by A. W. Dilks (1887) at 33rd, the house for Max Riebenack, passenger agent for the Pennsylvania Railroad at 34th and Powelton by Thomas Lonsdale (1890), and the Jesse Sabin House of the Sellers Machine Works at 3407 by New Yorker Bruce Price (c. 1890). Each is profoundly different in style: Chandler's Burnham house shows the influence of the Richardsonian Romanesque in its vigorously massed stone facade. The Riebenack House remains indebted to the English monochromatic Victorian Gothic in Lonsdale's conservative style. Dilks combined Queen Anne motifs with the bombastic rhetoric of the German Revival architects in Poth's house while Bruce Price's Jesse Sabin House was, with a Germantown house by Cope and Stewardson, the best Queen Anne, hung-shingle house in Philadelphia. The range between Shavian shingle style in Price's work, Richardsonian Romanesque in Chandler's design and the more middle class houses by Dilks and Lonsdale accurately describes Powelton's social variety. With peripheral houses such as Eyre's cubic modern Italian, Pompeiian brick house for Henry Cochran, the region is a center of domestic building of considerable architectural merit.

The churches are similarly notable, with four important examples of post-Civil War taste joined by other lesser but representative buildings. The Emmanuel Lutheran Church (1873, architect unknown) is a handsome brownstone and stucco Romanesque design that marks the transition toward the polychromed styles of the Centennial era. That was followed in 1875 by the Northminster Presbyterian Church by Thomas Richards, founder of the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Its board included several noteworthy community members, among them developer John Shedwick and leather goods manufacturer Edward P. Alexander. This church was a highly styled, originally green serpentine building similar to Richards' University buildings. Presumably the deterioration of the stone caused its replacement in the early twentieth century by the continuation of the Wilson Brothers who were joined by a member of Richards' family in the firms of Wilson, Harris, and Richards. With its landmark tower capped by four spires and its traditional rose window, it is among the more visible landmarks of the region. St. Andrew's Protestant Episcopal Church marks the affiliation of the Wilson Brothers, the principal architecture/engineering firm in the city and probably in the country at the time with that socially elite denomination. A church had existed in the community since 1819, but was destroyed by an arson. The present congregation began in 1851, and in 1865 purchased the 36th and Baring Streets site. An initial building was erected at that time, and was enlarged in 1884 by the Wilson Brothers, who designed the present handsome brownstone Gothic building. The most flamboyant of the church buildings is the splendid St. Agatha's Roman Catholic Church, erected around 1898 from plans by E. F. Durang, the principal architect of the Catholic Church of the era. Its sandstone is richly carved with decorated Gothic detail which forms a contrast with the jamb colonnettes of deep red granite. The plain style Hicksite Meeting on Lancaster Avenue formed quite a contrast to its Gothic peers.

Another important group of buildings contains the large institutional facilities that are scattered throughout the region. Some are relatively unpretentious like the small Colonial Revival American Oncologic Hospital by Walter H. Thomas (1913) which was enlarged by Quaker architects Bunting and Shrigley. Others, like the Working Blind Home, are monumental, occupying nearly a quarter of a block and bringing the scale of industrial architecture to the region. Its four stories, articulated by bays at regular intervals, show John Ord's ability at handling large masses of masonry in a quasi-suburban setting. The tall Drexel University dormitory named for the Van Rensselaer side of the Drexel family marks the architectural continuity into 1920s Art Deco in the region. That building was designed by Simon and Simon, who were also the architects of the extension to the Drexel auditorium complex, but who are best remembered for such commercial landmarks as the Strawbridge and Clothier store and the University Club at 16th and Locust Streets. Together with the Mission House, the Quaker school and other Drexel buildings in the area, they form a significant group that describes the range of Philadelphia charities.

One last building in the region remains to be noted, the three-story factory at the northeast corner of 32nd and Spring Garden Streets, which was erected in 1886 from plans by Kister and Oren for community resident H. D. Justi (3401 Baring Street) as a manufactory for dental materials. Though most of its workers came from north of Spring Garden Street, its prominent location at the approach to the Spring Garden Street Bridge and the importance of Justi as an early developer of the region links it to the Powelton community. The 1876 Atlas shows his home as one of the largest of the community and numerous other plots of land in his possession. His manufactory process for porcelain teeth was successful enough to warrant a Chicago outlet. Finally, though Powelton is primarily residential with a sprinkling of institutions, it was made to be self-contained by its own neighborhood commercial strip along Lancaster Avenue. These are already in evidence in the 1875 Atlas of West Philadelphia, which showed most of the avenue devoted to commercial use, presumably because of the proximity to the streetcar lines. The first businesses provided the necessities of suburban life. Ebersole's Grocery provided food, while the nearby Union Transfer Company delivered groceries to the individual houses. Initially, Lancaster Avenue was also the site of two important lumberyards, owned by the McIlvain family who were involved in the construction of many of the houses of the community, and resided in the neighborhood as well, at 315 North 33rd Street and at 3505 Baring Street. Their location, at 32nd Street, and at 39th Street placed them at strategic points for delivery of materials to the building sites of the growing community; when the region was essentially developed, they were replaced by housing on the east end of the avenue, and by the splendid "Hamilton Hall" commercial row at 39th Street. With its curving facade, its elaborate terra cotta ornament, and medievalizing gables, it formed a fitting conclusion to the development of the commercial zone, though as late as 1910, a reduced lumberyard remained in the back yard.

In the intervening third of a century between 1875 and 1910, Lancaster Avenue's development paralleled the growth of the community. Laundries, storage buildings and additional shops were erected, primarily between 36th and 38th Streets. Among the most noteworthy of these is the handsome Pompeiian brick apothecary at 36th and Race, with its art nouveau terra cotta ornamental cornices and leaded glass windows. Across the street, a handsome row of storefronts on the south side of Lancaster continues the theme of commerce at the turn of the century. With these commercial buildings, the district was more or less self-contained, providing all of the retail essentials for the residents -- but unlike a true village, without work to provide a complete closed-living system. Work, of course, was provided via the trolleys and trains that gave the neighborhood its connections to the industry and commerce of the city, continuing Powelton's nature as a true suburb. Fortunately, that complex suburban form of housing, shopping street and institutional buildings remains largely intact, describing the origins and the first fruition of the suburban movement which has so changed the nature of urbanism in the United States in the past century.

As a memorial to individuals who shaped the city economy, as a concentration of architectural landmarks by the taste makers of the city, as the residential campus of Drexel University, that still preserves the scale and form of the community, the Powelton Historic District warrants being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

School District: Philadelphia

Powelton Village Map

Street Names
31st Street North • 32nd Street North • 32nd thru 39th St North • 33rd Street North • 34th Street North • 35th Street North • 36th Street North • 37th Street North • 38th Street North • Arch Street • Baring Street • Cherry Street • Hamilton Street • Lancaster Avenue • Pearl Street • Powelton Avenue • Race Street • Route 13 • Spring Garden Street • Summer Street • Winter Street

**Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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