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Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb Historic District

Philadelphia City, Philadelphia County, PA

The Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb Historic District [†] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

See also: Early Automobile Suburbs, 1908 to 1945.


The Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb Historic District is centered along Philadelphia's Cobbs Creek Parkway roughly stretching between Catharine Street and the Pennsylvania Railroad along the western boundary of the city, and includes the adjacent park and stream that form the boundary between Philadelphia and Delaware Counties. The creek originally served as the site of water powered mills while to the south were steam powered mills. A few of the brick workers houses of that earlier era survive along the north side of the district. The vast majority of buildings, including the park, the automobile highway, the principal church, library, shops, garages and houses date from the early twentieth century. The park along the stream gave the name to the adjacent automobile highway that shaped the character of the district. Across from the park are early examples of special types of twin and row houses that are distinguished by having rear accommodations for automobiles and were built in response to the construction of the parkway. These new types of houses with rear alleys and rear basement garages, a few apartment houses with adjacent garages for parking, and an early surviving service station line the adjacent streets that intersect Cobbs Creek Parkway. The district is unified by the incorporation of the automobile and the characteristic early twentieth century building design of two and three story porch front row houses enlivened with pressed metal detail, most of which are built of the tan and yellow bricks that differentiated new construction from Victorian red brick. These houses are typically overlaid with historical detail that includes the half timbered Gothic, Spanish, and Colonial Revival. Surviving with a high degree of integrity, the district consists of more than 1000 contributing buildings with fewer than three dozen non-contributing structures.

Though much of the length of 63rd Street from Haverford Avenue above Market Street to Elmwood Avenue on the south is called Cobbs Creek Parkway, the true beginning of the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb Historic District starts around the intersection of Cobbs Creek Parkway and Cedar Street. To the north are the standard row houses that were built to capitalize on the construction of the new Market Street Subway Elevated high speed line to center city. Below Cedar Street the housing types represent a new idea for linking residents to the city by using the then new automobile. This neighborhood was adjacent to the newly created automobile parkway that was laid out to border Cobbs Creek and to Baltimore Avenue which was designated as an automobile route into the city. The curving road and widened park of the Cobbs Creek Parkway continues to the south where it is interrupted by the railroad tracks of the Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington Railroad, later a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and now a part of Conrail. Because the houses to the south of the railroad tracks are Victorian in their use of red brick and in design character, and lack the distinguishing feature of the automobile accommodation, the district ends at the railroad tracks.

The west border of the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb Historic District is bordered by Cobbs Creek Park which forms the western boundary of the city. Wide sidewalks, and a broad swath of grass form a transition to a heavily wooded border to the creek that forms one of the principal surviving natural waterways of the city. Two centuries earlier, this area was one of the birthplaces of Pennsylvania's industrial revolution and it presumably still contains the archaeological remains of the Sellers' Burnside Mills that stood between Cedar and Catharine Streets. The creek bed still shows evidence of the millponds and mills which adapted the Creek to serve as a power source for early mills. It was the mill that first attracted residents to the area, and in turn other millers including the Calaghan wood mills which were built south of Baltimore Avenue between the railroad line and the creek. The long-time home of the Sellers family stood at 61st and Federal Street (now Cobbs Creek Parkway) until it was demolished in 1960 for the public school that stands on the site. Another remnant of the industrial era are the small row and twin houses erected for their millworkers are still to be found in the vicinity of the 6200 block of Catharine Street. These houses date from the last period of expansion of the mill in the 1880s, and represent typical Philadelphia mill housing of the period with porch fronts and tiny front lawns. In the twentieth century, many of these were adapted to the automobile by the construction of courts of tiny garages accessed from the alleys that subdivided the blocks.

In the early twentieth century, with the development of new sources of power, the creek was transformed by the demolition of the Sellers's mills into a verdant greenway of trees and park that formed a new city park. The row houses on the mill property on the west side of Cobbs Creek Parkway were demolished at the same time. At this time Lombardy poplars were planted along the Creek as a part of the conversion of the site from its earlier use as a water-powered mill district; they had attained some size by 1937.[a] Now nearly a century old, the treed valley forms an identifiable western edge to the city. Nestled into the park is a handsome colonial revival frame and stone golf caddy house designed by Walter Smedley in 1921 and enlarged in 1926.

The east edge of the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District is formed by a distinctive group of two and three-story suburban houses that are principally unified by their construction in the first quarter of the twentieth century, by their small suburban front lawns and by accommodating the automobile in their planning. Together they represent the principal early strategies for incorporating the car into urban residential properties. Because the car was frail and open like the wagons from which they descended, they required garages for storing when it was not in use. The earliest approach in the neighborhood to storing the automobile was the construction of a court of ten garages for the owners of ten houses built on the on the 6200 block of Catharine Street. With street parking now the norm, these garages have been replaced by a commercial building.

Several other strategies for housing cars were also tried in the area. On the north side of the 6200 block of Christian Street, one developer tried building pairs of tiny garages at the rear of the property, on the line between twin houses. These were reached by tiny driveways shared by both houses. This solution required more space than was customary between pairs of houses, resulting in driveways that appear to be dangerously tight even for early automobiles and was not repeated because it would have required the loss of street frontage to be effective. Another scheme tried in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood was the construction of a shared rear drive along the back property lines. This was first tried for the development of twin houses on the 6000 blocks of Ellsworth Street and Washington Avenue. However, where there were pre-existing row houses in the block, as was the case on Ellsworth west of 60th Street, this required two-way traffic on the rear alley, creating a traffic bottleneck.

The final scheme, that became typical in many of Philadelphia's neighborhoods, provided for a continuous drive from one numbered street to another with access to garages incorporated in the rear basements of each houses. This scheme is apparent on the 6200 blocks of all of the streets between Christian Street and the curve of the Cobb's Creek Parkway as well as on the 6100 blocks of Washington, Ellsworth and Cobbs Creek Avenue. After World War I, the same scheme was adapted to row houses, being used on Cedarhurst Street and Angora Terrace, the rowhouse blocks on the site of the demolished Calaghan wool mills between Baltimore Avenue and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks.

Because most of the above-described houses were constructed in the early twentieth century, many of these blocks show stylistic characteristics that could be called "arts and crafts," displaying both the half-timber of English medieval architecture and the simpler finishes advocated by Gustav Stickley's Craftsman movement. These same blocks show characteristic details of tan, sand-textured brick walls with tile ornament below red and green tile roofs that reflect the regional impact of Price and McLanahan's recent landmark Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City (1914) on early twentieth century design in Philadelphia. Many of these houses were designed by architect E. A. Wilson, who had learned his trade designing row houses in West Philadelphia.

Wilson and several of his contemporaries, notably developer Clarence Siegel, developed features on these houses that would appear a decade later in the West Philadelphia automobile suburb of Garden Court. In addition to the rear garages, those features include the projecting sun-porches set in small green, raised lawns. Roofs of many of the houses are of brightly colored Spanish tile in alternating reds and greens, adding a note of individuality to the houses. The rear basement garages anticipated the future "Air-lite" houses of the automobile suburbs of post-World War II northeast Philadelphia, while indicating that fewer families relied on backyards for vegetable gardens.[b] Examples of these houses are to be found on each of the 6200 blocks between Cedar and the bend of Cobbs Creek Parkway, then continue east along the south side of Washington Avenue to 60th Street, and then continue along the 5800 block of Baltimore Avenue at the bend of the Parkway before ending with the rear garage rows on Cedarhurst and Angora Streets.

In addition to the numerous twin and row houses of the residential community, the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb Historic District includes several distinguished works of architectural note. At the north end of the district, occupying the entire 6200 block of Cedar Street is the parish complex of St. Carthage Roman Catholic Church. It includes an immense church, school, and parish residences. The original plan for the complex was developed in 1915, when the first of the new suburban houses were being constructed. Designed by the firm of Henon and Boyle (Paul J. Henon and Rowland Boyle), who designed the parish school, rectory and convent buildings, the parish buildings were constructed in the grey granite and limestone trim of much of the Philadelphia archdiocese, and recall the Victorian roots of Boyle's training in the 1880s. With the rapid growth of the parish, the church was built eight years later. By that time Paul Henon had joined with William Hoffman to form the firm of Hoffman-Henon architects which is now remembered for 1920s movie theater designs. Like the earlier buildings, St. Carthage is of grey granite with limestone trim. It is made memorable by a splendid Romanesque spire that is crowned by a small tile-capped dome. This spire is the principal landmark of the region and can be seen for a considerable distance along 63rd Street. Later buildings on the same property include a rectory that fronts on 63rd street, and a residence for the sisters who teach at the school. While some of these are post World War II, they share the same architectural aesthetic and are very much a part of the character of the group.

The most notable building at the south end of the district is the Cobbs Creek Branch of the Philadelphia Public Library. It stands on the narrow triangle of land formed by the intersection of Cobbs Creek Parkway and Baltimore Avenue and faces east, toward the city. Designed by Wilson Eyre protege, Edmund B. Gilchrist, in 1924, the building is an unusual combination of the conventional limestone classicism of public architecture, reduced and simplified in detail to the point that it is recalls the regency style of early nineteenth century Britain. Unlike the more flamboyant libraries of the Carnegie commissions, this is a remarkably restrained with simple door surrounds and cornice to indicate the architectural style, but with large windows above bookcase height assuring natural illumination on the interior. Though it has been painted to cover various generations of graffiti and insensitive grills have been added to protect the windows, the original character of the building survives.

Below Ellsworth Street, Cobbs Creek Parkway turns away from the creek and park, running east-west to a point where it intersects with Baltimore Pike where it turns south along the line of 58th Street and crosses the railroad tracks on an elevated bridge. Here the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District includes a portion of Baltimore Avenue which was designated as an automobile radial route in the early twentieth century plan of the city of Philadelphia. The triangle of properties between the eastward turn of Cobbs Creek Parkway and Baltimore Avenue include fewer houses that incorporate garages for the automobile in their design. However, their date of construction in the early twentieth century, their design in the new tan and yellow bricks that differentiate new housing from the Victorian architecture of the nineteenth century, and the use of the same architects including E.A. Wilson suggests that they are part of the same patterns of development. Moreover, the 1927 atlas shows that large garages were built in the area that presumably served these houses, thereby linking them to the larger theme of the working-class automobile suburb.

The greater traffic along Baltimore Avenue has made it the site for more urban buildings including the handsome grey stone and limestone trim colonial revival Cobbs Creek National Bank at the corner of 58th Street by Nathan Hulme (1921). This is also the site of a handsome brick and limestone trimmed colonial revival walk-up apartment house, the Baltimore Court at 6000 Baltimore Avenue which was designed by J. Ethan Fieldstein in 1928. Across 60th street is a modern school building (c. 1970) that occupies a site that once contained 33 private automobile garages which served the residents of Baltimore Court and adjacent houses that were not built to accommodate the automobile. Further to the west at 61st and Baltimore avenue is an early gas station with projecting canopy that is ornamented with tile decoration on the order of some of the nearby twin houses, linking it to the early design strategy of fitting in with the surrounding neighborhood.

The Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District retains a remarkable degree of integrity that attests to the stability of the community and the success of its design. More than 1000 buildings, the vast majority of its buildings, are part of the early 20th century development while less than a dozen were built since of the period of significance. Nearly half of its buildings made an accommodation to the automobile, while many others were adapted to the car with the construction of off-site garages, attesting to the importance of this new means of transportation. Some houses have received metal siding on bays and cornices, but the architectural character is immediately apparent. Of significant buildings in the district evident in the 1927 Bromley Atlas of West Philadelphia, only the early nineteenth century Hoffman/Sellers house has been demolished. It has been replaced with a modern public school. The other noticeable loss is the replacement of the courts of private garages that served the Baltimore Court Apartments and nearby housing by another public school building. In addition, one small row of post-World War II row houses has been added to the community on the 6000 block of Baltimore Avenue. Because they are of a different historical era, they are excluded from the district. With these few changes, the district remains as it was constructed before the Depression and the relationship between the automobile suburb and the Parkway remains clear.


The opportunity to create this early automobile-centered community occurred because of the spatial isolation of the real estate south of Catharine Street, west of 60th Street and north of Baltimore Avenue. According to the 1910 Bromley Atlas of Philadelphia, the entire area had remained vacant with the exception of a few millworkers' houses for the Sellers mill on Cobbs Creek in the vicinity of 63rd and Catharine Streets and another cluster below Baltimore Avenue near the MacMakin mill. This area had not shared in the rapid growth along the route of the Subway Elevated lines because its Market Street location was more than the four to six blocks that commuters would readily walk and much of the property in this area was owned by two large mill operators, John Sellers who ran the Angora Mills along Cobbs Creek and Bernard MacMakin whose plant was south of Baltimore Avenue on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Each owned additional lands that could provide for expansion of their mills and housing for workers. However, by the turn of the century, the water-powered mills that had once provided employment in the neighborhood and for which a separate mill community had been created were losing out to newer and more efficient forms of industry.[1] The closing of the mills in the first years of the new century opened this area to real estate development.

The forces which shaped the direction of the present Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District began in the early twentieth century as the city expanded, filling in the remaining open sites that were near to the downtown and to work. At the end of the nineteenth century, the extension and electrification of trolley routes further opened territories for development in the southwest parts of Philadelphia.[2] Surface trolley routes extended westward to the city limits along Baltimore, Woodland and Springfield Avenues so that by 1895, the areas to the south of Baltimore Avenue were solidly developed. In the early twentieth century, new transportation initiatives including the Market Street Subway Elevated line opened up large portions of West Philadelphia that were beyond the limits of reasonable trolley service. However, the large zone from the city's western boundary to 52nd Street was served only by a single north-south trolley line along 60th Street that connected to the Baltimore Avenue line into the city on the south or to the Subway Elevated line at Market Street on the north. The 60th Street line spurred development of two story working class houses on either side of 60th Street that were typical of development patterns to the east in the vicinity of 52nd Street. However, as Hershberg, et al demonstrate in "The Journey to Work," workers were not prone to walk more than a few blocks to work and, by extension to transit, so that many portions of the city remained inaccessible and thus were undeveloped. With Philadelphia's population growing rapidly, other means were necessary to make sites on the periphery of the city accessible.

At the end of the nineteenth century, when the trolley routes were being electrified, additional street rail lines might have been the answer. But in the twentieth century, trolleys were found to conflict with increasing street traffic, making their extension less likely. The ongoing furor over city corruption further affected transit when in 1905, all subway contracts were cancelled as a part of a reform effort.[3] In 1906, the city stopped issuing permits to extend trolley lines when it found that the operators of the PRT (Philadelphia Rapid Transit) were acquiring lines without intending to use them, merely to get the city to provide sewers and street paving that served their separate development plans. Street railroads also interfered with other forms of surface transit. Initially the conflict of motor vehicles with trolleys on steel tracks led to the simultaneous transformation of street-building technology. The city magazine Philadelphia (vol. I # 2, August 1909), reported that the previous twenty years of street-building had seen an increase in asphalt paving from 6.6 miles to 431 miles of road, while cobble and rubble pavements had decreased from 480 miles to 34 miles, a decrease of 93%. These new systems were employed first on the automobile routes, differentiating them from the old Belgian block that had become the norm along trolley routes.

Because of the rising conflict between surface transit and automobiles in the first years of the twentieth century, Mayor John E. Reyburn called for a centralized planning office that would produce a plan that would coordinate the future growth of the city. He asserted that, "Where transportation is direct and unhampered, business moves smoothly and rapidly. Where transportation is cheap, quick and at frequent intervals, the daily workman can live in healthful surroundings at considerable distances from work." According to the mayor, an appropriate system of transportation would preserve Philadelphia's system of two story row-houses, maintain their healthfulness, and keep the city competitive with other cities."[4] The following year, the mayor's speech was quoted in the non-profit and quasi-public City Parks Association's Annual Report for 1909 that also called for a "Comprehensive City Plan" that would address issues of transportation, housing, health and competition.[5]

Because of the open-space focus of the City Parks Association, its members sought to incorporate open space planning into other public amenities. In 1908, the City Parks Association had suggested that new roads be constructed along the creek and river valleys of the city — especially along the Schuylkill River, as well as along the Wissahickon, Tacony, Pennypack and Cobbs Creeks.[6] Parkways along these routes would help insure that all Philadelphians would live within a few miles of parks — which it was noted increased the value of real estate and therefore of the tax base of the city. Such park-based planning originated in this country in the writings and practice of Frederick Law Olmsted, who championed urban parks as outlets for the poor and recreation for the wealthy.[7] Indeed, Olmsted had displayed the plans for the city of Buffalo at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, stimulating interest in Philadelphia in the value of parks that in turn led to such organizations as the City Parks Association.[8] During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Olmsted had designed comprehensive plans that linked parks and roadways in Boston's Back Bay Fens, for the cities of Rochester, NY and Louisville, KY, as well as the splendid necklace of lakes and drives that reclaimed what is now an important suburb of Minneapolis, MN. With these as examples, Philadelphians began to see the potential for their city to be more than just a giant industrial beehive of worker's houses near mills.

There were other factors affecting the form of the growth of the city, not the least of which was a rapidly expanding professional class who sought living accommodations in healthful outlying districts. Philadelphia was a center of railroading, heavy manufacturing, and it was in Philadelphia industry that Frederick Winslow Taylor pioneered the new middle management.[9] This produced a large population group who could afford more expensive transportation to homes in suburban settings. But it also produced a middle class that was comfortable using machinery as a part of their daily activities. This in turn stimulated the astonishing popularity of the automobile in Philadelphia. By 1916, Henry Ford's Model T had dropped in price to less than $400.00 and 200,000 motor vehicles were produced in the entire nation in the previous year alone by American manufacturers, bringing the total number of automobiles produced since the beginning of the century to 1,700,000.[10] By the end of World War I, more and more of the city workers could afford a private automobile.[11] In the first decade of the century, automobile ownership in Philadelphia rose from the status of a curiosity to a valid form of transportation with more than 50,000 vehicles in the city by 1910. A generation later it had become a "middle-class necessity," with more than 300,000 automobiles and trucks on the city streets by 1930.[12] This would have another consequence for by 1927, two years before the Depression, while the city population continued to rise until the 1950s, ridership on public transit began to diminish.[13] Henceforth, the automobile would continue to eat into the ridership of mass transportation, differentiating Philadelphia before World War II from other cities such as New York which remained dependent on mass transit.

The rising use of the automobile in the decade and a half before the Depression, quickly forced the city to develop a transportation policy. Mayor Reyburn's 1907 "Comprehensive Plan for Future City Improvements" caused the City Engineer George Webster to establish as a goal the "extension of the Park and Parkway system and the establishment of such a system of streets in undeveloped sections as will adequately provide for a more efficient and attractive development of the City ... "[14] Webster, suggested "a system of wider main streets" that would resolve the difficulties created by" ... the disconnected street patterns of the projects of most operative builders which resulted in undersized and often disconnected streets." Using the model of Paris, Webster called for placing new streets on the city plan and gradually opening them as funds and needs permitted. He concluded stating, "I beg to recommend that the Bureau of Surveys be authorized and directed to follow the general plan ... and I further recommend that parkways be placed upon the City plan and opened as the means of the City allow."[15]

Working from the examples of Olmsted's practice, Webster allied parks with transportation, a concept that was first sketched out in the city sponsored Comprehensive City Plan of 1911.[16] Like the earlier city Parks Association plan, the 1911 plan called for a number of automobile parkways that would be built in open space along the rivers and creeks in the city which would do double duty as the site for parks. These uses were viewed as complementary for automobile drives were viewed as having recreational value as well as meeting the transportation needs of the city. To meet the future demands for growth, the planners proposed a system of paving the old diagonal streets such as Baltimore and Woodland Avenues in the southwest, Lancaster Avenue in the west, and Germantown Avenue and Ridge Pike in the northwest. These would lead to and from the city center, creating a system of radiating highways that would be augmented by newly created radial avenues such as Henry Avenue in northwest Philadelphia and Roosevelt Boulevard in the northeast that were to be opened in undeveloped areas of the city.[17] These would in turn be linked to circumferential parkways that would run along streams and creeks.[18]

From the first, the Cobbs Creek Parkway was to be one of the circumferential parkways of the plan, linking Market Street with Baltimore Avenue, and later with Lancaster Avenue and City Line Avenue on the north, and Woodland Avenue on the south. Given the impetus of park-building and road building, the progress of Cobbs Creek Parkway was rapid. By 1907, the central portion of Cobbs Creek Park between Baltimore Avenue and Market Street had already been listed on city plans and within four years, the major tracts required for the Parkway and park had been acquired by the city.[19] It appears essentially complete in the 1910 Bromley Atlas of the City of Philadelphia.

The Parkway bordered the holdings of the Sellers - Hoffman Estate in which stood the large estate house, originally built for Gavin Hamilton, c. 1800, at the corner of 61st and the Parkway. (The Sellers house was demolished in 1960 for a public schoo1.[20]). Linked to the city only by Angora Station on the Pennsylvania Railroad subsidiary which took its name from the Sellers family's Angora Mills, the region had been poorly served by transportation to the center of the city checking its development. The announcements that the city would acquire the Sellers mill to create the proposed park and parkway resulted in a frantic pace of land acquisition along the Parkway route. This quickly led to the residential developments described below that filled in the remainder of the area along the western edge of the city. Because of the modest houses that had already been built to the north and south, it was apparent that this area would develop along similar lines to produce conventional twin and row houses. However, instead of focussing on the distant but rapid Elevated line on Market Street or the nearer but slow trolley lines to the south, developers took a new direction by incorporating the automobile into the plan of the community. Thus the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb district became one of the first, if not the first middle-class communities of the city whose connection to the region was via the car. With the success of the new suburban housing, the MacMakin mill buildings were also demolished in the 1920s providing additional housing sites that were filled in between. After World War II, the last remaining undeveloped property would be filled with a similar automobile-centered row on the 6300 block of Baltimore Avenue that is excluded from the district only because of its more recent construction.

To accommodate the automobile, private developers created several new variations on the familiar twin and row house developments. One of these developers, Clarence Siegel was later involved in the development of another automobile suburb at Garden Court, which is now a National Register District. Beginning in 1913 and continuing to 1915, he acquired several blocks in the immediate vicinity of the Parkway and began the construction of the earliest of the automobile suburb houses of the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District. His first group of automobile twins were built in 1913 on the 6000 block of Washington Avenue. There he provided a rear alley with a single access from 61st Street, a solution which he tried because the east end of the block was already built up with smaller twins.[21] Perhaps there were difficulties with access to the garages because his next scheme of 1915 on the 6200 block of Catharine Street provided individual garages for the houses at the ends of the block, and a court of separate garage buildings at the west end of Catharine Street to serve other residents.[22] Later developers would return to the rear alley solution permitting the garage to be a part of the house, but with the refinement that no houses would be built at the ends of the blocks so that there was access from both directions -- or perhaps a single direction flow.[23] This would become the standard form that was later adapted by Siegel at Garden Court.

Over the next few years, other developers refined the design, providing access to the rear alley at both ends of the block to provide for easier access. Important examples of the evolving house type were built on the 6200 blocks of Walton, Christian, Carpenter, and Ellsworth Streets and in the rear of those houses facing the Cobbs Creek Parkway. After World War I, with the continuing success of the community, a more economical rowhouse scheme was developed below Baltimore Avenue on the 6000 blocks of Cedarhurst and Angora streets. There E. A. Wilson managed to get the parking garages in the rear of a typical dense row.[24] This anticipated the development of the so-called "air-lite" houses of the 1950s in the Northeast part of Philadelphia which also included a garage under the rear of the house accessed from a rear driveway.

Unlike the Cobbs Creek Parkway, most of the new highways were planned to serve elite and upper middle class communities such as the Wissahickon Drive, Lincoln Drive connection to Chestnut Hill, or were planned for largely undeveloped land in the northeast portion of the city particularly in the area served by the Roosevelt Boulevard. In the case of the Boulevard, it was intended to connect from Broad Street across to northeast Philadelphia, crossing Tacony Creek and ending in the vicinity of Pennypack Creek.[25] Like the Cobbs Creek Parkway, these creek valleys also became parks, incorporating greenbelts into the city and leading to the future development of these regions. And like Cobbs Creek, these areas also incorporate the automobile, but their later construction and more expanded suburban character differentiates these areas from the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District.

The idea of the middle class twin and row houses with rear garage became an important though little studied house type that continued to be built in middle-class neighborhoods across the city. Some of the same developers were involved in this including Clarence Siegel, who beginning in 1919 began to infill another leftover piece of property between trolley lines at 46th above Hazel Street. That area became the so-called Garden Court suburb that is the subject of an earlier nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. There Siegel followed the conventions that had been developed in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood with garages under the rear of the house approached off a rear alley. Similar houses can be seen in every corner of the early twentieth century city from the houses in the vicinity of the Sesquicentennial grounds in South Philadelphia below Pattison Avenue to the brick rows with rear garages in the Cedarbrook neighborhood along Cheltenham Avenue below Mount Airy Street. Because the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District was developed to serve a middle class clientele, it tells an important part of the story of the continuing consequences of city's peculiar form of the industrial revolution.

The Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District offers other insights about the developing industrial city of the early twentieth century. Work had been the focus of the nineteenth century city, determining the large residential neighborhoods that were largely heterogeneous as was evident in the mix of churches that represented different national groups.[26] Though immigrant cultures found the early twentieth century to be more segregated than the mid-nineteenth century, the range of developers in the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District indicates that for those groups who had made the step to the upwardly mobile social strata, the city was as open as ever. This is evident in the immediate vicinity where a variety of houses of worship serve the community including Presbyterian, Catholic, Christian Science and other religious groups. And the range of names of the developers and their architects was as heterogeneous: Clarence Siegel hired Watson and Huckel as the architects for 6200 Catharine Street and 6000 Washington Ave.; Thomas Slattery was the developer of a block of 50 garages at 59th and Baltimore designed by Emile Perrot (1921); E. A Wilson designed the 120 houses of the 6000 blocks of Cedarhurst and Angora streets for F.C. Scheid while J. Ethan Fieldstein designed the Baltimore Court at 6000 Baltimore Avenue for developers Edelstein and Bernstein. With Irish, German, and Jewish developers, hiring English, French, and Jewish architects, it was evident that the mix of the industrial city remained vital.

Of special significance for understanding the developing consumer culture was the evolution of the middle-class neighborhood that provided for the automobile before World War I, and which had been largely filled in before the Depression. This, as we now know, corresponded to the height of Philadelphia's industrial boom. The Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District signaled that the Philadelphia worker had achieved the American Dream of home and automobile ownership two full generations before the rest of the American public, and the automobile had shaped its first middle class community before World War I. The Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb District warrants being placed on the National Register of Historic Places for exemplifying Criterion A, in representing new patterns of community development that developed to take advantage of the opportunities created by the automobile, and for Criterion C, in that the district is the center of new building types that incorporated the automobile which characterized residential development in Philadelphia until World War II.

Notes - Description

  1. For an historic description of the creek see "By Placid Cobbs Creek," Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace, Philadelphia, 1937, p. 625.
  2. These houses are covered in a Pennsylvania Historic Resources Survey for 6100 Cobbs Creek Parkway.

Notes - Significance

  1. For a discussion of the relationship between residence and work in the nineteenth century city see Theodore Hershberg, Harold E. Cox, Dale Light Jr. and Richard Greenfield, "The Journey-to-Work: An Empirical Investigation of Work, Residence and Transportation, Philadelphia 1850-1880," in Hershberg, et al, Philadelphia: Work, Space, Family and Group Experience in the nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp 128-173. This suggests that in general the spatial orbit between work and residence was less than a mile until mass transit made it possible to extend beyond that distance. However, the development patterns of the twentieth century city suggest that until the automobile, the distance from residence to transit mirrored the old walk to work. With the rise of cheap transit, residence paralleled the subway/elevated line.
  2. The impact of trolley routes on residence is discussed in Theodore Hershberg, et al. "The Journey to Work," Theodore Hershberg, ed. Philadelphia: Work, Space, Family and Group Experience in the 19th Century, New York, Oxford University Press, 1981, pp. 128 ff.
  3. History for Reader Reference, vol. VII, "1901 - 1910, (New York, 1910), pp. 437 ff. Quotes "A Temporary House Cleaning," American Review of Reviews, July 1905.
  4. City Parks Association, "21st Annual Report: The Chief Problem: a Comprehensive City Plan," 1909, p. 8.
  5. City Parks Association Report. Listing "Transportation, Housing, Health and Competition" as the key issues facing the city, the Annual Report quoted from the mayor's annual message and called for an appropriation of $50,000 to hire Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, and local architects Horace Trumbauer, C. Clark Zantzinger, and Paul P. Cret as the executive committee to produce such a plan. The architects would later work together as the designers of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and its terminating monument, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Collectively they represented, respectively, new money, old money, and academia. Olmsted had developed many of the forms and the terminology of parks beginning in the 1860s coining of "parkway" for a drive in Brooklyn, New York. Charles Beveridge and Paul Rocheleay, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape. (New York: Rizzoli, 1995) p. 8.
  6. City Parks Association, "20th Annual Report," 1908, related the mayor's support for preservation of the valleys of the Pennypack, Tacony and Cobb's Creek. p. 22. This they supported as part of an " ... overall system to bring parks within a reasonable distance of all of our citizens for many years to come ... , " p. 24.
  7. Beveridge, pp. 4-49.
  8. Beveridge, p. 96.
  9. This is summarized with no particular attention to the Philadelphia achievement in Thomas Schlereth, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, New York, Harper Perennial, 1991. See especially p. 29 which uses Census data to document the rise in the professional service occupations from 750,000 in 1860 to 202M in 1890 and 4.4M in 1910. Because of its role as the locus of giant corporations, it seems likely that Philadelphia would have a correspondingly higher rate of increase than the national rate.
  10. Schlereth, op cit. p. 25.
  11. For a discussion of salaries and work in Philadelphia, see Robert Kanigel, The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency (New York: Viking, 1997). This suggests that the solution to the production bottlenecks that seemed to be limits of industrial growth as stated in Hershberg, et al was resolved by the management revolution of the late nineteenth century initiated in Philadelphia. It produced wages of 30% to 100% higher than the national norm, and made Philadelphia wage earners able to participate in the consumer revolution.
  12. Frederic M. Miller, Morris J. Vogel, Allen F. Davis, Still Philadelphia: A Photographic History, 1890-1940 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), pp. 174-6. Later photographs in the book show the new type of houses with rear basement garages to accommodate automobile ownership. See pp. 233, 234. With 300,000 automobiles in the city by the late 1920s, and with the assumption that typical drivers were neither children nor women (who accounted for two/thirds of the city's 1.5 million population), this would suggest that more than half of Philadelphia families owned automobiles.
  13. "Men and Things: Twenty-fifth Anniversary of First Work on Market Street Elevated" Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 5 April 1928 (Temple University Urban Archives files).
  14. Webster is quoted in "Extract from the Mayor's Second Annual Message," Philadelphia, vol. 1, #2 (August 1909), p. 7.
  15. op. cit. p. 8
  16. The city plan was undertaken by members of the city's Department of Public Works under the direction of engineer, George Webster, in 1911 and published in "The 22nd Annual Report of the Department of Public Works," (Philadelphia, 1912). Though intended as a draft, it laid out a network of roads, parks and parkways that would provide diagonal routes through the city. In an effort to gain public support, highways were linked to issues of public health and welfare, by providing for sewer systems, and by acquiring parklands that could be incorporated into parkways.
  17. The radial roads are listed and mapped in Philadelphia, the magazine of city government (vol. III, no. 5, November 1910).
  18. See Philadelphia, vol. 1, no. I (July 1909). That issue published the Bullitt Bill, the document that established self-rule for the city. It summarized the amendments from its original date of passage on 1 June 1885. Public Works was treated in Article IV. The Department of Public Works was responsible for "all matters and things in any way relating to or affecting the highways, footways, wharves and docks of the city ... ," p. 5. A Bureau of Surveys made plans for various survey districts. The wharves and docks were removed to a separate bureau in 1907, but the intensely politicized Public Works Department remained the planning agency of the city until the 1920s.
  19. Department of Public Works, "The 22nd Annual Report of the Department of Public Works" (Philadelphia, 1912), listed the phases of acquisition of the land beginning 4 May 1911, for the Market Street to Cedar Street portion, then the portion to the south on 18 July 1911, and finally the authorization to open the Cobbs Creek Parkway from 58th Street to the north-south line of the parkway. This resulted in the Market Street to Baltimore Avenue portion being acquired and dedicated by July 1911.
  20. The house is described in Richard Webster, Philadelphia Preserved, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1976, pp. 210 - 211.
  21. Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide, vol 28:25 (18 June 1913).
  22. Builders' Guide, vol. 30:26 (30 June 1915); these can be seen in plate 28, George and Walter Bromley, Atlas of West Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1927).
  23. By 1920, Clarence Siegel was hard at work developing another automobile community of Garden Court on another piece of land that also was isolated from transit in the vicinity of 48th and Pine Streets. There he followed the solution of rear-alley access that had been developed in the Cobb's Creek Automobile Suburb District. This would become the city norm over the next half century.
  24. Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide vol. 40: 1 (7 January 1925).
  25. Bromley, Atlas of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1910), pp. 39,41,47,50.
  26. On the way that churches represent ethnicity and class see George E. Thomas, "Architectural Patronage and Social Stratification in Philadelphia," in Cutler and Gillette, eds., The Divided Metropolis (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980). On the relationship between work and residence, see Theodore Hershberg, ed., Philadelphia: Work, Space, Family, and Group Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).


Adapted From: George E. Thomas, Ph.D., Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb Historic District, nomination document, 1998, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
52nd Street South • 53rd Street South • 54th Street South • 55th Street South • 56th Street South • 57th Street South • 58th Street South • 59th Street South • 60th Street South • 61st Street South • 62nd Street South • 63rd Street South • Alden Street South • Allison Street South • Alter Street • Angora Terrace • Baltimore Avenue • Baltimore Avenue • Carpenter Street • Catherine Street • Cecil Street South • Cedarhurst Street • Christian Street • Cobbs Creek Parkway • Ellsworth Street • Frazier Street South • Ithan Street South • Latona Street • Montrose Street • Norfolk Street • Vogdes Street South • Washington Avenue • Webster Street • Wharton Street