Society Hill

Philadelphia City, Philadelphia County, PA

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Society Hill Historic District [†] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

The original National Register of Historic Places nomination for Society Hill focused its description on seventeen "major buildings and important areas," primarily late eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings. Only one building listed in that nomination, Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, was built after 1844. The purpose of this added information is to describe and identify the architectural and" commercial significance of buildings erected in the district between 1830 and 1937. Although the original nomination form alludes to the district's importance as a major middle twentieth century urban renewal and preservation project, the present added information does not address potential significance beyond the fifty year cut off date, and therefore buildings that are less than fifty years old are classified as non-contributing, even though they are often of architectural interest and are often of similar scale and material. Until such time as the potential significance of the district subsequent to 1937 may be examined, the present added information intends to define the district's period of significance as ending in 1937. No change in the boundaries of the district are intended although the accompanying historic district map and boundary description should serve to clarify those boundaries. The historic district map differentiates between the 607 contributing buildings and the 485 non-contributing buildings within the historic district. It should be noted that the relatively high proportion of non-contributing buildings is a consequence of the infill construction of the last two generations, that is sympathetic in material and scale to the original buildings.

The entire district lies within the boundaries of William Penn's 1682 plan for the city, and includes the southeastern of Penn's five squares, now known as Washington Square. Much of the eighteenth century urban form of the early city continued as an organizing force in the district until well into the twentieth century, including the locations of various building types, as well as such obvious factors as street size and position. The port with its warehouses and commercial establishments remained along the river. Second street was the major north-south thoroughfare, with markets at each end of the built up region of the eighteenth century city, while most of the major churches were on or within a block of that street. The government and its attendant financial district developed to the west near Fifth, Chestnut and Walnut streets and important commercial buildings still remained in that vicinity. Housing, which often included first floor offices and businesses, filled the remaining area to the south making this a conventional eighteenth century community in which work and residence were in close proximity. From the surviving buildings and .the available documents it is clear that most of the district was. developed during the eighteenth century with the erection of Greek Revival townhouses along the western edge in the early nineteenth century completing its original development. Most of the architecturally important buildings date from the nineteenth and early twentieth century and are in the old financial and governmental zone, pointing to the continuing development of the district.

The eastern edge of the district was dominated by the port well into this century resulting in great piers (now cut out of the district by 1-95) and the neighboring warehouses which served the port. It has been the site of the most extensive urban renewal, and is now dominated by I.M. Pelts Society Hill Tower, a small shopping complex, and modern version of row houses, with the Society Hill Hotel at Second and Walnut streets the newest addition to the district.

The location at Fifth and Walnut streets of-state government until 1800 and city government until the 1880s resulted in the gradual conversion of Walnut Street from a residential thoroughfare with mercantile offices on many first floors to a financial center based on banking and insurance. After the turn of/ the century, the allied businesses of publishing and advertising were located in the immediate vicinity as well. These buildings, which by 1930 had erased almost all traces of Walnut Street's original character and had spread over into Washington Square, represent a wide variety of architectural styles and building materials and are typically on a greater scale than the original residential development. They are also often of architectural significance and by important designers. An early example of the new financial district buildings that maintained the residential scale but denoted the new use by style and material is the two-story marble Greek Revival Ionic treasury built by Thomas U. Walter in 1832 at 306 Walnut for PSFS. Also of white marble is John Haviland's Egyptian Revival facade at 510 Walnut for the Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company which was doubled in 1901 by T.P. Chandler. Now embedded in Mitchell/Giurgola's Penn Mutual Tower of 1973-74, this composition is capped with a cavetto cornice featuring a vulture and sun disk symbol. [Fig. 61 (It is listed as an intrusion because of the loss of integrity of the building, but its facade survives as a screen in front of the modern building.)

Although many commercial buildings were demolished by the National Park Service for Independence National Park, excel lent examples survive along the length of Walnut Street. Together they span from 1830 until the early 1930s, describing the range of styles and the relatively low scale that made Philadelphia architecture so distinctive. These include Charles Barton Keen's Colonial Revival, brick and limestone trimmed Mather and Company of 1911 and 1917 (226 Walnut) and Frank Watson's 1923 design for the six-story limestone and tan brick classical offices of the General Accident Insurance Company at Fourth and Walnut. The PSFS banking offices at 700 Walnut Street, designed by Sloan and Button in 1868, are Italianate in style but of more durable granite. In 1897 the size of this building was doubled by Furness, Evans and Co. who had designed a dozen major commercial buildings within three blocks of Independence Hall in the post-Civil War years. Most have been demolished, but their conversion in 1886 of a townhouse into offices for the American Fire Insurance Company survives at 308-10 Walnut Street. Here they added a third story accented with terra cotta panels and a handsome and exuberant skyline of copper dormers, the central one of which is still ornamented with a terra cotta phoenix, the emblem of the company. In 1912 the same architects also built a five-story Federal Revival office building nearby at 700 Locust Street for the American Gas Company.

The twentieth century brought sedate classical design on a much greater scale to both Walnut Street and the adjacent Washington Square. Built of limestone or brick with limestone trim for the insurance, publishing, and advertising industries, these structures represent American architecture's turn of the century return to ordered classicism. The Penn-Mutual Life Insurance Company offices were designed by Edgar Seeler in 1912. It was extended in 1929 by Seeler's successor firm, that of Ernest Mathewson, in the same limestone classicism but nearly twice the height of the original building. W.B. Pritchettts Georgian Revival J.B. Lippincottts Press building of 1900 and John T. Windrim's 1911 W.B. Saunders Medical Publishers are two handsome examples of this trend. Ralph B. Bencker's 1929 limestone-sheathed skyscraper on Washington Square is in the later, but still classically-inspired, Art Deco style. [Fig 121 Housing N.W. Ayer,the city's largest advertising firm, it is crowned with figures sculpted by Raphael Sabatini representing "truth in advertising".

The important John Notman renaissance palazzo design of 1846 for the Athenaeum of Philadelphia marks the earlier role of the square as an adjunct to the old downtown near Independence Hall, but also was also intended to serve the nearby up-scale residential neighborhood to the south and west. Together with the federal townhouses diagonally across the square it recalls the proximity of private architecture to the old downtown, and emphasizes the compactness of the old city before horse cars and trains enlarged its scale in the 1850s.

Between Spruce and Lombard streets and from Head House Square at Second Street to Eighth Street on the west the district retains its original physical character, with churches and other institutions interspersed between the houses. The same developmental pattern extended north to Locust Street as late as the early twentieth century, but it has become increasingly commercial with low scale offices such as the circa 1930 red brick colonial revival law offices at Eighth and Locust streets. In keeping with the original pattern of development, larger and more important residences are found on the primary east-west streets, while smaller houses are located on rear alleys and courts. Most of the housing dates from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is still largely unified by material --red brick; scale -three or four stories; and form --gable roofed row and town houses. During the second half of the nineteenth century this residential portion of the district evolved from a mercantile residential neighborhood to a dense urban ghetto inhabited mainly by free blacks and immigrant Jews. The major early institutions, such as the Episcopal Church of St. Peters, remained. Several were updated in keeping with contemporary style such as the John Fraser Roman classical facade of the 1850s overlaid on Robert Smith's Old Pine Presbyterian Church at Fifth and Pine streets. Other institutional buildings changed ownership and served the incoming black and Jewish residents. For example, T.U. Walter's Italianate structure at 418 Spruce Street, built in 1852 to house the Spruce Street Baptist Church became the Society Hill Synagogue.

The new immigrants were reflected in the building stock during the years covered by this addendum. Three types of building activity went on in this portion of the district. First, a handful of industrial buildings were constructed several blocks inland from the waterfront replacing middle and upper class residents who moved north and west out of the district and marking the shift of the area into a working class neighborhood. Most of these factories have been demolished, and their locations are now marked with rows of post 1965 infill housing, but their presence stimulated the construction of the two other types of buildings --houses and new community institutions --both of which have usually survived. The first of these, the numerous residential rehabilitations and alterations which continued unabated into the 19203, are identifiable by Queen Anne or Colonial Revival styling, with facades built of yellow or deep red sand-moulded brick. Accounting for as many as fifteen to twenty percent of the houses of the district, these are mostly concentrated along the south and east sides of the district and enliven its texture without altering the scale of the district's original fabric.

The new synagogues for the Jewish community and churches for the black ghetto and the Eastern Orthodox immigrants cluster along the district's southern edge, and are distinguished by early twentieth century yellow brick, and often Byzantine styling with parapets and plaques bearing Hebrew inscriptions, including B'nai Abraham on the 500 block of Pine Street. The most monumental religious structure built in the district during these years is Hazelhurst and Huckells Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church of 1889. Faced in limestone, it has an imposing Richardsonian Romanesque facade on Sixth Street at Pine. Another important building for the Jewish community was the Rebecca Gratz Club, which in 1928 erected a clubhouse by Silverman and Levy at 524 Spruce Street. Its style was derived from the Federal architecture of the neighborhood, but its palette of materials – limestone and stucco – are 1920s.

Almost all of the buildings constructed between 1830 and 1937 contribute to the significance of the district. Unfortunately, much that was here a generation ago was demolished for the creation of Independence National Park, including Furness's Reliance Insurance Company and Edgar Seeler's Irvin Building, on the north side of the 400 block of Walnut, and the sculptural and powerful Pioneer Life Insurance Company by T.P. Lonsdale on the south side. These were significant losses, but enough of the commercial buildings survive along Walnut Street to represent the original character of the street.

With the significant exception of their lack of appreciation for Victorian architecture, the district's postwar planners and architects have made important contributions to the restoration of the district. Most importantly, they argued for the preservation of the early buildings and developed planning and restoration guidelines that kept the original low scale largely intact. This they countered with a spine of tall buildings as contrast. These include I.M. Pei's Society Hill Towers, which they played off against low townhouses by the same architect, in the vicinity of Second and Locust streets; Oscar Stonorov's Hopkinson House on Washington Square is an imposing apartment slab. Mitchell/Giurgola's Penn-Mutual Life Insurance tower at 510 Walnut will undoubtedly be considered of importance as well. The infill row houses that are more common on the eastern half of the district continue the palette of materials and scale of the old city. More recent large buildings such as the Independence Place apartments on the east side of Washington Square and the Society Hill Hotel at Second and Walnut streets have been less distinguished but mark the continuing success of the restored neighborhood. Although these post-war.buildings do not now contribute to the architectural or historical significance of the historic district due to age, many of these buildings may very well contribute after they become at least fifty years old.

Throughout Philadelphia's history, the Society Hill Historic District has been of regional and national importance as a governmental, financial and publishing center. There, in close proximity to the Bank of the United States, and Independence Hall developed a commercial district that was a significant center of the financial and insurance industries of the nation. In later years when the business district moved west following City Hall to Broad Street the region continued to support a major publishing industry with nationally known medical, scientific and trade publications based on Washington Square. These businesses are housed in buildings designed by important local architects who shaped the Philadelphia regional architectural school, including T.U. Walter, Frank Furness, T.P. Chandler and Ralph Bencker.[1] The southern half of the district contains numerous houses and institutions erected in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as the city's principal early residential district. Many of these were adapted to serve the immigrant population that arrived at the end of the nineteenth century and extended Philadelphia's black ghetto which had centered around Sixth and Pine streets in the vicinity of Mother Bethel AME Church.

Originally developed as a unified mercantile neighborhood where families often lived above their businesses, the history of the district during the years 1830-1937 was largely that of the ever greater social, and architectural separation between professional workplaces along Walnut Street and low skilled work along the river front. These changes were paralleled by the separation of residence and workplace for the elite who in the era before the horsecar and other forms of transportation had lived near the commercial district. Their move out of the district after the Civil War coincided with the transformation of much of the residential portion of the district into a congested nix of work and residence for the poor.[2]

In the nineteenth century, Philadelphia lost its position as the nation's largest city but it remained one of its principal centers of finance during the years covered by this nomination even after its stranglehold on the nation's finance was ended by Andrew Jackson's opposition- to the Bank of the United States in the 1830s. Walnut Street remains a major center of the Insurance industry to the present day with important buildings dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continuing to serve that industry.[3] It was in Philadelphia that Benjamin Franklin had founded the nation's first insurance company, the Philadelphia Contributorship, in 1754, which is still located in the district at 212 South Fourth Street in a handsome Greek Revival office designed by T.U. Walter in 1835. Because those businesses remained concentrated here, Walnut Street retains the staid appearance that came to characterize the insurance industry as it sought to portray itself as a stable financial asset. This was in marked contrast to the more eye-catching offices and banks of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The range of commercial buildings that survive in the-Society Hill Historic District describes the evolution of commercial design over a longer period of time than any other portion of the city.

Interspersed with the insurance offices are early twentieth century buildings for the publishing and advertising trades which remained in the old downtown when the banking and commercial businesses moved west. They cross the border of the district into the East Center City Historic District, forming a continuous skein of brick and limestone colonial revival buildings which represented the city of Independence to the rest of the nation. Designed by such prominent local architects as John T. Windrim, Ralph Bencker and Edgar Seeler, these later publishing buildings together with twentieth century insurance company offices make a clear statement about the local intention of establishing a regional style utilizing the red brick and light stone trim of the eighteenth century. In this, it contrasts with the buildings of the new center city at Broad and Market streets, which are typically of marble and limestone, more in accord with the national stylistic trends.[5]

The businesses established in the district have significance too. For example, the idea of the insurance company was formulated with the Philadelphia Contributorship while later companies such as Penn Mutual are among the giants of the industry. Other related industries -printing and advertising were centered in the district as well. The city's premier advertising agency, N.W. Ayer and Co. erected a richly styled and sculpted art deco skyscraper from the designs of Ralph Bencker. Though Ayer left for New York in the 1970s, its building is a major landmark, with its three-story high figures of "Truth in Advertising" at the top commanding attention. Other businesses of note include the J.B. Lippincott Press, and scientific and medical publishers, Lea and Febiger (at the south east corner of Washington Square), and W.B. Saunders on the west side of the Square.

Because the southern portion of Society Hill continued as a fashionable place of residence until after the Civil War, significant buildings were constructed there as well. The handsome brownstone row for Michael Bouvier on the 200 block of south Fourth Street are among the few houses in the district to take into account modern Italianate styling. Interspersed with the mansions of old Philadelphia were new churches, institutions and schools which were erected to serve the growing residential population. John Notman's 1846 Athenaeum building on Washington Square, was built to serve local businessmen as well as nearby residents. It is an important early Italianate structure, already individually listed as a National Landmark, and introduced the style of Charles Barry's London club buildings to an American audience. But it is not the only building to show the effects of the popularization of classical styles. One of the most notable was John Eraser's 1858 renovation of Robert Smith's Old Pine Presbyterian Church at 412 Pine. It was stuccoed and given a modern Roman Corinthian portico, while Thomas U. Walter's Spruce Street Baptist Church (Fig. 6, erected 1852, now the Society Hill Synagogue) is a good example of the modern renaissance style. These used the new, more ornate Italianate and Roman Revival styles which are now rare in Philadelphia because most were erected before the Civil War along Broad Street and have been demolished to make sites for new office towers.[6]

After the Civil War, the population density of the district increased as its more prosperous residents moved westward and out of the district. The black community which had settled on the outskirts of the old city stayed in the vicinity of Sixth Street. At the end of the century eastern European Jews and other immigrants crowded in, attracted by economical housing on back alleys and the proximity to the work in the warehouses of the eastern end of the district and the industrial lofts which were scattered throughout the area --often in the larger house~.~This recreated the old mixed work-residence community of the eighteenth century, but now as a single class community, rather than the heterogeneous mix of old. Because economic pressure on the district was relieved by the new downtown, this declining social standing preserved the existing building stock as small businesses, warehouses, and sweat shops* The consequence was the subsequent opportunity of the twentieth century to restore the surviving buildings.[8]

The new arrivals also left their mark on Society Hill in modernized houses that reflected the changing taste of the late nineteenth century, and new apartment houses that brought modern urban scale to the colonial village. In addition, both the black and Jewish communities built their own religious structures which survive as reminders of the district's ethnic diversity and contribute to its architectural diversity. Most important of these is the 1889 Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church [Fig. 301. Built on the site of the 1818 founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church whose first bishop Richard Allen was rector here, this plot of land has been continually owned by blacks longer than any other in the country. The substantial stone facade of the 1889 building at once testifies to its congregation's pride in the church's history and perhaps to its economic prosperity.

There is no one Jewish synagogue that symbolizes the aspirations and history of the entire community as Mother Bethel does for the district's black residents. Instead the synagogues, each smaller than the last, describe the fragmentation of the Jewish community following the diaspora at the end of the nineteenth century.[9] Usually built of brick, these synagogues are designed mostly in the Byzantine styles with which Jewish congregations distinguished themselves from their Christian counterparts. Others, such as the Kesher Israel congregation at 412 Lombard converted the existing eighteenth century Universalist Unitarian Church which is of importance in its own right as the church where Joseph Priestly preached when he arrived in the United States.

The new arrivals were supported by institutions which represented the concerns of early twentieth century urban reformers. Though less well known than Jane Adams' Hull House in Chicago, numerous settlement houses and other organizations were formed to ameliorate the perils of the district. Of particular note were the reformist organization of the Octavia Hill Association, a controlled-rent, non-speculative housing association modeled on London housing, that acquired buildings on the 600 and 700 blocks of Pine and Lombard Streets.[Fig. 311 Silverman and Levy's four story limestone and stucco Federal Revival Rebecca Gratz Club was erected at 524 Spruce street [10] to provide education and training for Jewish families, as a part of the socialization process. The choice of the name Rebecca Gratz, is of interest for she served as the model for Walter Scott's Rebecca in Ivanhoe and she presumably was selected as an appropriate role model for assimilating immigrants.

The Society Hill Historic District recorded in the original National Register Nomination of a generation ago celebrated only the first half of the district's history. Given the subsequent new construction and rehabilitation of the area since its nomination, much of the original integrity of the eighteenth century village has been lost. But the Society Hill district continued as a center of finance and architectural patronage and as the locus of major architectural commissions that did so much to establish the Philadelphia style. In addition, its subsequent history as the city's first black and later Jewish ghetto recorded in its buildings the profound social and cultural forces of immigrations from without and within that have shaped modern American cities. As such, Society Hill throughout its historic period describes the evolution of Philadelphia from mercantile village to industrial city to modern service based metropolis.


  1. Biographies of these and other architects mentioned can be found in Jeffrey A. Cohen, George E. Thomas, G. Holmes Perkins, James F. O'Gorman, Drawing Towards Building, Philadelphia Architectural Graphics 1732 -1986, Philadelphia, 1986, and Sandra Tatman, and Roger Moss, Biographical Dictionary of Philadelphia Architects Philadelphia, 1985.
  2. George E. Thomas, "Architectural Patronage and Social Stratification in Philadelphia Between 1840 and 1920" in William W. Cutler I11 and Howard Gillette, Jr., editors, The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia. 1800-1975 (Westport, CT, 1980), p. 86, and Stephanie W. Greenberg, "The Relationship Between Work and Residence in an Industrializing City: Philadelphia, 1880,n. Also in Cutler and_.Gillette, pp. 145, 148. See also G.M. Hopkins City Atlas of Philadelphia by Wards, Vol. 6 (Philadelphia, 1875), p1. 18-19, and 24-25; and George W. and Walter S. Bromley, Atlas of the City of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1910), Plate 1. Deborah C. Andrews, "Bank Buildings in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia," in Cutler and Gillette, p. 60 and 63.
  3. Andrews, pp. 58-60, p. 65-67; Edward Teitelman and Richard W. Longstreth, "Architecture in Philadelphia: A Guide", (Cambridge, MA 1974), pp. 36, 61; and Moses King, Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians (New York, 1902), pp. 8B, 10 and 11.
  4. Center city for example principally constitutes a development from the 1850s to the present; Germantown's development largely ended in the early twentieth century.
  5. Broad Street for example contains no red brick tall office buildings, and the Provident Bank by Rankin and Kellogg at Seventeenth and Chestnut streets is the principal example of a color scheme that was common near Independence Hall. For example, the Curtis Publishing, and the Public Ledger on the west side of Independence Square, the Saunders Publishing House, Farm Journal, and J. B. Lippincott's offices and the American Gas Company, all on Washington Square, and the Independence Insurance Company by Bitter and Shay (1923) share the colonial palette of materials.
  6. Some of the lost buildings of Broad Street are illustrated in Robert F. Looney, Old Philadelphia in Early Photoura~hs. 1839 -1914. Philadelphia, 1976.
  7. The black experience is discussed in Theodore Hershberg, "Free Blacks in Antebellum Philadelphia," in Hershberg, ed. Philadelphia, Work. Space, Family and Group Experience in the 19th Century, New York, 1981, pp. 369 -391. The Jewish experience is summarized in Caroline Golab, "The immigrant and the City" and Maxwell Whiteman, Philadelphia's Jewish Neighborhoods", in Allen Davis and Mark Haller, ed. The Peoples of Philadelphia. A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life, 1790 -1940, Philadelphia, 1973.
  8. The history of one such mansion converted to various lesser uses is the story of Mayor Powelts house recounted by George BÃ Tatum, Philadelphia Georgian, Middletown, Conn, 1976.
  9. George E. Thomas, "Sephardic and Ashkenazic Architecture in the Quaker City, 1820 -1920,w International Survey of Jewish Monuments, College Art Association Lecture, 19 February 1983, Philadelphia, and Maxwe Whiteman, "Philadelphia's Jewish Neighborhoods," in Alan F. Davis and Mark H. Haller, Editors, The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life. 1890-1940 (Philadelphia, 19731, pp. 237-46.
  10. Whiteman, p. 244-6

Adapted from: Society Hill Historic District, nomination document that was submitted to the National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places; prepared by George E. Thomas, PhD.

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2nd Street South • 3rd Street South • 4th Street South • 5th Street South • 6th Street South • 7th Street South • 8th Street South • Cypress Street • Delancey Street • Dock Street • Front Street South • Locust Street • Lombard Street • Pine Street • Spruce Street • Stamper Street • Walnut Street

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