Walnut-Chancellor Historic District

Philadelphia City, Philadelphia County, PA

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National Register Historic District [1]


The Walnut-Chancellor Historic District comprises three residential/commercial blocks and a portion of a fourth in the Rittenhouse area of Philadelphia. It is important as a surviving document of 19th century social and architectural history because it conveys both by its individual buildings and their relationship to each other a sense of the process by which Rittenhouse was developed as well as its social and architectural ambiance, during its Golden Age, 1850-1900.

During the 18th Century the southwest quadrant of William Penn's original city was an area one" traveled through to reach either Gray's Ferry or the ferry at. Market (High) Street. There was no permanent settlement before the Revolution. The first half of the 19th century saw the quadrant dotted with brickyards; several glass and china factories lined the swampy banks of the Schuylkill River with coal docks in between. When Southwest (Rittenhouse) Square was laid out in 1825, several brickyards surrounded it. There were concentrations of working class residents around the Western Methodist Church, called the Bricklayers' Church, on 20th and Rittenhouse (formerly Murray) Street. Few "squares" or blocks west or south of Rittenhouse Square were subdivided in the 1830's or 1840s and residential settlement was haphazard. Rows of modest houses and workers' courts with their wooden barns and outhouses were often found in the center of the squares; narrow alleys and cartways crisscrossed the larger squares.

By the early 1840s, as the business and commercial center of Philadelphia pushed westward, so did an increasingly middle class residential settlement. Block by block, the brickyards, malt houses and textile mills gave way to houses west of Broad Street. By the l850s Rittenhouse Square and its nearby streets provided the most fashionable addresses for the city's leaders in banking, transportation, manufacturing, law and medicine. The 2000 block of Walnut - one block from the Square - was especially attractive following the residential development of the Square throughout the l850s and the building of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in 1859. This western end of Walnut Street was an undeveloped major street where one's home could be built to be seen. The corner lots of the Walnut-Chancellor District were occupied by the mansions of Henry C. Lea, Edward T. Stotesbury and Walter Lippincott (southeast and northeast corner, 20th & Walnut, and northwest corner, 21st & Walnut, respectively).

The buildings and the people who lived and worked in them represent a way of life and an urban social structure which lasted from shortly before the Civil War until the turn of the century. Upper middle class residents occupied imposing houses, some by major architects, on the south side of Walnut Street. Their servants, with their families, occupied the carriage houses on the rear alleyway, Chancellor St. The north side of Walnut Street contained substantial but somewhat narrower houses. Middle class residents lived close by around the corner on 21st Street, one owner occupying the flamboyant Frank Furness-designed detached house known as the Hockley House.

In relation to Walnut Street today, a street which is almost entirely commercial from river to river, the houses of the Walnut-Chancellor District recall a period in our history of tremendous growth and assurance. Confident that they controlled their own destiny, the residents of Rittenhouse in its "Golden Age" were the sort who privately mounted a national Centennial Exhibition in 1876 when Congress did not provide timely funds; initiated a public referendum to relocate City Hall westward near Rittenhouse (perhaps reflecting their new influence) and supported the erection of the largest "public buildings" in the world at that time. The houses of Walnut-Chancellor reflected the aspirations and accomplishments of a manufacturing and mercantile aristocracy that was alert to the inventions and opportunities of the last half of the 19th century while eager to identify with European cultural influences. Many of the owners were quick to use mechanical lifts and electricity and one of them, John Wanamaker, revolutionized mass merchandising by creating in the U.S. what we know as the department store, initiating the practice of fixed prices on goods in his store, the Grand Depot, adjacent to the new City Hall under construction during the same years.

Banker and lawyer Jonathon D. Sergeant, merchant John Wanamaker, Caleb J. Milne and Herman P. Kremer, dry goods manufacturers, Craige Lippincott and James Elverson, publishers, and John Price Wetherill, manufacturer of white lead, were some of the notable Philadelphians who lived in the extant houses on the south side of Walnut St. The owners' carriage houses at the rear, 2006-32 Chancellor, formed a cohesive household-related environment, reflecting the social structure of the era. Gustavus A. Benson, lawyer and banker, District Attorney Peter F. Rothermel, William W. Porter, Judge of the Superior Court, Charles Whelen and Solomon Levy, stockbrokers, surgeon John Chalmers-DaCosta, Justice Cox, Jr., iron and steel merchant, and Jay Cooke, Jr., the financier, all lived in the houses on the north side of the street.2 The five houses on 21st Street, built in the l870s and l880s after the block's character was assured, completed the residential ensemble. The First Presbyterian Church (formerly Second Presbyterian) at the southeast corner of 21st and Walnut Streets forms the physical, architectural and social connection for the Walnut Street mansions, the Chancellor Street carriage houses, the houses on 21st Street and many of the people who lived there.

The District is of great significance for the architectural historian because of the presence of several buildings by three major Philadelphia architects, Theophilus P. Chandler, Henry Sims and Frank Furness, each of whom is represented by one or more important works. T.P.Chandler is the architect of 3 buildings: the Scott-Wanamaker House of 1882, the chapel of the First Presbyterian Church of 1884, and the Sartain House of 1888 (2006). Collectively, these 3 buildings demonstrate the sophisticated design skills of Chandler, ranging from Renaissance Classicism to French and English Gothic styles, perhaps not surprising for the founder of the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Henry Sims is represented by his finest work, the First Presbyterian Church which, with its polychrome Gothic Revival stonework and remarkable wood truss-spanned interior, is a major landmark in the neighborhood. Two works by Frank Furness survive at the western end of the District. They are his tower for the Presbyterian Church of 1900 with its emphatic silhouette of exaggerated crockets, finials, and caricature gargoyles and the powerful polychrome molded and corbelled brick Hockley House of 1875. No other section of Philadelphia contains two such distinctive surviving designs by Furness nearly side by side. (Although a few altered buildings by Chandler and Furness and one church by Sims survive within a six-block radius of the District, they are scattered and cannot be seen in relation to each other.)

Although the number of significant architects and the quality and range of their works as represented in the District would appear to warrant designation on the basis of their importance to architectural historians, the Anglo-Italianate houses on both the north and south sides of Walnut Street provide yet another reason for designation and protection. This type of rowhouse, with its high front steps with service entry below, at, or near street level is extremely rare in Philadelphia. The more common practice was 3 or 4 front steps with a first floor close to the sidewalk level and service access from a mews or alley at the rear. It may be that the use of a full height English basement on this fashionable block reflected both the need for greater separation of the major first floor rooms from increasing traffic on Walnut Street and an awareness that the high front stoop with service entry below was commonly used in New York at the time. The English basement afforded a greater degree of light and dryness to the service floor. Its use required a six foot set-back of the facade to accommodate the high entrance steps, giving the sidewalk the greater width warranted by the unified Italianate Renaissance monumentality of much of these blockfronts. Thus the buildings in the District are significant as a social document, as examples of some of the finest works of major Philadelphia architects, and as survivals of a rare building type in Philadelphia - two facing rows of Anglo-Italianate houses.

Today the District continues to convey a discreet sense of time and place because it is bounded by emphatic physical barriers which consist of either high-rise buildings, i.e., the Embassy Apartments and 2101 Walnut to the west and the Chatham Apartments to the east, or open space, i.e., the parking lot at the southeast corner of 21st and, Walnut (being held for future high-rise development) which is as effective a spatial definition as high-rise buildings. The southern boundary of the District is dominated by the high-rise apartment building, 2031 Locust Street, and the 2000 block of St. James Street, a service alley on which no buildings front. Finally, the northern boundary of the District is the 2000 block of Moravian Street, also a service alley. Deed research indicates that the few structures fronting on this street were erected in the very late 19th century and are not integral to the District. To its north, the 2000 block of Sansom St. forms an almost continuous retail/commercial street of 2 and 3-story structures of minor historical or architectural significance. Thus the District boundaries are formed by abrupt shifts in scale of buildings, period of construction of the high-rises, lots held for future development, or changes in land use.

The internal cohesion of the District is conveyed by: similarities of scale in the nearly uniform height and the remarkably similar cornice line of the Walnut Street blockfronts; the similar uses of sandstone, brownstone and brick (except where certain alterations have occurred); the similar arrangements of dominant window openings at the first floor level with successively smaller openings up to dormer or attic windows; and the similar enframement of door and window openings by sills, pediments, flanking pilasters, etc. All these characteristics contribute to the visual cohesiveness of the District, yet provide a varied and rich streetscape. The Walnut-Chancellor District contains the largest single group of 19th century residential structures to survive on Walnut Street, which was lined until World War I with 19th century houses from Broad Street almost to the Schuylkill River.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
21st Street South • Chancellor Street • Walnut Street

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