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Philadelphia County

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William Penn's City

After receiving the grant of lands fronting the Delaware River in 1681, William Penn immediately set about planning a city that would be the economic center of his holdings. He first imagined a row of great houses along the Delaware River, with his own in the center, facing a single large pier that he would own, affording him nearly total control of the economy. Several constraints interfered with his plan and ultimately determined Philadelphia's position on the Delaware River. The Delaware was navigable by large ships to the present location of the city, and by smaller vessels beyond as far as the falls just below what is now Trenton, New Jersey. A site below the falls where ships would not have to be off-loaded to lighters was preferable for ease of communication and trade. Because other settlers, notably Swedes, had already established communities along the river where Penn had intended to build his own city, the final location was moved north to avoid conflict with their preexisting village. And, because the peninsula on which Philadelphia would be located was narrowest above the Swedish settlement, Penn decided to lay out the new city on a one-mile tract just to the north of the Swedish community. Finally, recognizing the need for more waterfront land, he acquired the land along the Schuylkill and laid out the city from river to river, at right angles to his original scheme.

His surveyor Thomas Holme laid out the new city as a simple grid of eight streets running east–west between the Schuylkill and the Delaware rivers, intersected by perpendicular north–south lanes. The grid was cut into four sections by doubling the width of the central streets of each direction (High, now Market Street, and Broad Street). These avenues were to provide sites for public structures. Most farsighted was Holme's provision of public squares, one in each quadrangle of the city, and one at the intersection of the two main streets. Prosaically named North-East, South-East, North-West, South-West, and Centre squares (now Franklin, Washington, Logan, Rittenhouse, and Penn squares, respectively), these were intended to remedy the widely perceived lack of open spaces of London; similar squares had been proposed for London in the wake of the great fire of 1666 but were abandoned in the actual rebuilding. Holme's plan was published in England and was used for the marketing of Penn's “Greene Countrie towne”; it has since become the city's most recognizable and iconic image.

Penn's open and egalitarian grid, unconstrained by massive fortifications, was the physical expression of his belief in tolerance and equality. His charter framed the idea that anyone could live in Philadelphia so long as they believed in a God and agreed to the laws of the society. Penn's policy of religious tolerance resulted in the variety of churches, meetinghouses, synagogues, and other places of worship that gave Philadelphia its special flavor. His tolerance also came to shape the new city's neighborhood structure. A large free black community grew up along Lombard and South streets, Germans and Low Countries residents settled to the north around Cherry and Vine streets, while English Quakers and Episcopalians and Scots Presbyterians and their institutions, typically represented by churches, were found near the center, with French Huguenots, Irish and German Catholics, and Spanish Jews scattered hither and yon. Except perhaps for Amsterdam, where Penn and his fellow Quakers initially escaped persecution, no other community of the late seventeenth century was so open or tolerant. These powerful ideas were later incorporated into the Declaration of Independence—first in the sovereign idea that all men are created equal, and later in the Constitution's provision that prohibited state support of religion.

Philadelphia was largely built on the clays and sands that, when formed and burned into brick, gave it its distinctive visual character. Streams, the largest of which was Dock Creek, flowed through the upper plain, emptying into the river and affording access by boat into the center of the village. In the eighteenth century, a bridge across Dock Creek limited moderate-sized vessels to the lower reaches of the creek while small boats could navigate as far as 2nd Street. By the 1760s, Dock Creek had become little more than an open sewer and was culverted over, although its meandering course can be traced in the diagonal path of Dock Street, which the Merchants’ Exchange (PH12.12) happily exploits. Other streams that crossed the northern and western suburbs were similarly treated; valleys have been smoothed; the Schuylkill riverbanks have been extended into the channel, deepening the river for barge traffic; in short, the natural setting has been subordinated to the efficiencies of the developer's grid.

Despite Penn's goal of a “Greene Countrie towne,” few large freestanding houses were ever built, the best known being the Carpenter mansion (c. 1687; 1867 demolished; 2nd Street below Chestnut Street), called the “Slate Roof House” because of its contrast with the less substantial wood-shingled roofs of most city houses. Economics and efficiency soon led to the building of narrow and deep town houses, following medieval precedent. Dense rows of houses remain the norm today, giving Philadelphia its sprawling, low form and identity. Thus Penn's hope for houses surrounded by open space did not become reality, and his utopia soon came to resemble the older cities of Britain.

Penn presumed that the land near the rivers would be more valuable and that development would progress from the riverfronts toward Centre Square, where he placed his meetinghouse and courthouse. But between his imagined city and its reality was a vast gulf. The Delaware River was easily navigable while the Schuylkill was not, making the Delaware frontage far more valuable than that of the Schuylkill. He cleverly awarded Delaware riverfront land to those who actually moved to Pennsylvania, while those who purchased for speculation received the less immediately valuable lots on the Schuylkill side. In consequence, the initial burst of growth occurred along the Delaware River and within a generation citizens were petitioning for permission to move the public buildings to a more convenient location at 2nd and High (now Market) streets.

Over the next two centuries, Philadelphia grew until Penn's grid encompassed almost the entire county he originally laid out, but his generous open squares were unfortunately not repeated. In the era of the automobile, streets that were wide for the seventeenth century have become choked by traffic. At the same time, Philadelphia is often described as being the most European of American cities because its intimate pedestrian scale makes it a splendid walking city.

Patterns of Urban Growth

Philadelphia's original pattern of development can still be grasped in some areas. In form, the old city was and is low, buildings rarely exceed four stories in height. It was also dense, with small courts of houses opening off alleys that filled each city square. Houses often served as workplaces, and work intruded into nearly every block, though with clear regional subdivisions by type. The front room of a house usually was a place of trade, while attic rooms could be rented to transients, seafarers, and others who contributed to the mixed economy of the city.

Typically, the largest houses were constructed on the east–west streets rather than the smaller north–south streets; tiny houses were shoehorned into the interior courts and alleys behind them. Many of these alley houses were demolished in the early twentieth century once the link between disease and environment was understood, but examples can be seen in the neighborhood south of Pine Street and west of S. 9th Street, and again in the area around S. 24th and Naudain streets. This created a social structure that by census tract records appeared to mix the gentry with the poor but in fact separated their lives according to whether one lived on one of the front streets or in a rear alley. The city took this form because work was concentrated near the rivers: in the ports, warehouses, counting houses, and markets along High Street. Its scale represented the relative economic unity of the city; the range between great wealth and great poverty was far smaller than the present city, while the backgrounds of the citizens reflected greater similarity than differences.

In the pedestrian city of Benjamin Franklin's era, economy of time led to concentration of work and residence around the central institutions of the town. The constraints of distance to the markets from residences, which in turn needed to be near work, caused the city to grow by replication of the central urban unit, rather than the simple extension of the city around the center. Thus it grew, as had London, with new markets and institutions serving new neighborhoods. This pattern of growth gives Philadelphia its sense of place of small neighborhoods, each with its separate identity. The interweaving of work and residence was severed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when cheaper forms of transportation—first the horsecar, later the trolley, railroad, subway-elevated lines, and presently the automobile—permitted the separation of work and residence of the modern auto-urban world.

Just before the Civil War, the old city had become a battleground as new financial businesses vied with government for space and overwhelmed the old landmarks that had survived from the founding years. The application of steam power to mills and transportation opened the entire city to industrial development, making the routes of the railroads the principal channel of industrial activity. As new neighborhoods developed near workplaces, the city exploded from its dense eighteenth-century core along the Delaware River into a vastly larger city in area and population, with new industrial neighborhoods scattered throughout the county but tied to the city center for governance and for its central shopping district. The simultaneous development of horsecar lines ended the monopoly of the old city for reasonable residential proximity to the commercial and industrial center of the city. By 1854 these changes led to the merging of Philadelphia County into the city, making their borders co-terminus; clearly, annexation is not a new phenomenon. Elite housing spread across Broad Street toward Rittenhouse Square and new suburban neighborhoods developed in West Philadelphia, Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and other locations accessible by horsecar or railroad.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, elite Philadelphia had begun to split along the fault lines of the future, some looking forward, others looking to the past. As early as the 1820s, Philadelphians began to venerate the buildings associated with the Revolution as relics of a glorious and vanished past (Independence Hall; PH12.2). Philadelphia elites often emphasized their connection to this past by maintaining their rural estates, which accounts for the remarkable numbers that survive to the present. For example, by 1824, Reuben Haines had retreated to his Germantown house, “Wyck” (PH160), commissioning William Strickland to adapt two eighteenth-century houses into a single comfortable home removed from the city where he could develop cattle based on European breeds. When industrialist Josiah White came to Haines for support in a project that would benefit the city, he complained in his Josiah White's History, Given By Himself (c. 1909) that Haines valued in his cattle “appearance & that they came from Abroad” over American qualities. White concluded with his questioning assessment of Haines: “the Mind of a Man or a Boy.” Other Philadelphians refused to live in the past. New technocrats such as engineer William Sellers lived near to their places of work, following the old mill owner pattern, so that they could be available in times of crisis or innovation. Merchants such as John Wanamaker moved to the suburbs, separating their lives from their work by a considerable commute.

The Industrial City Triumphant

In the years before the celebration of the 1876 centennial, the old city neighborhoods of the Revolutionary years were being demolished and, given the right combination of circumstances, might have disappeared altogether. The ancient districts of Penn's and Franklin's city were saved by the most unlikely of forces. In 1860, a competition for a new city hall to be placed on Centre Square failed, in large part because of opposition from the old financial elite who owned property near the existing financial and government center near Independence Hall. Keeping the same location would minimize disruption to the existing commercial district of the city. Boston's nineteenth-century city hall and its twentieth-century city hall were erected in close proximity to the old hall—a pattern that New York City also followed when its twentieth-century Municipal Building by McKim, Mead and White was constructed across the street from its historic city hall. When new business districts were built in close proximity to the new city halls, the remnants of the old cities gave way before the combined forces of commerce and finance.

It took a second competition in 1868 and a public referendum in 1870 before the Centre Square site was definitively chosen for the new city hall (PH49). Commercial development followed, if somewhat warily, and by the 1890s most new commercial construction took place along Broad Street. This had dire consequences for the old city as investment declined and buildings deteriorated; by the end of the century, the old city rivaled any of the nation's slums for density, disease, and degradation. But many of the oldest buildings survived and were restored in the twentieth century. The ancestor worship that had begun with the first restoration of Independence Hall (PH12.2) in 1831 now seized the Philadelphia imagination, as evidenced by the popular historical novels of S. Weir Mitchell, Hugh Wynne (1904) and The Red City (1907).

For the wealthy, nineteenth-century industry and the attendant railroads made it possible to escape the industrial settings that they had created. Railroad suburbs developed in Germantown (PH162) and Chestnut Hill (PH170) and at the end of the century in Mount Airy (PH165) and Overbrook. Trophy houses spread across the inner agricultural belt within the city, anticipating the sprawling regional city of the present.

The twin revolutions of industrial standardization and scientific management raised workers’ salaries to the point that most could afford their own homes. This was evidenced in the two-story workers’ row houses that spread to every corner of the city. With pressed-metal cornices, mass-produced bricks for their walls, brownstone bases, window lintels cut in steam-powered stoneyards, and doors and windows manufactured in sash mills, these houses could be afforded by nearly every worker. Recently they have come to be identified with anonymous workers. They have lost their charm but as a humane solution to the problem of affordable workers’ housing, they are difficult to improve upon; their presence is everywhere.

Twentieth-Century Urban Design

Despite its tradition of progressive architecture, Philadelphia's downtown showed relatively little effects of the metropolitan phase that infused American cities with urban vigor in the early twentieth century. Its most urban zone along Broad Street south of City Hall remained relatively low and classically massed, reflecting the values of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago (for example, see PH48, PH53). To be sure, the downtown expanded but it was modest given the area and population of the city, which trailed only New York City and Chicago in population. This small center and its lack of growth in the 1920s when other cities were exploding did not auger well for the future. Nor, if it was to continue to be a center of innovation, was its ever more conservative approach to design. The example of Howe and Lescaze's landmark modern skyscraper for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (1930; PH46) was not followed locally, and most of the city's skyscrapers between 1920 and 1940 were modest in size and derivative in detail.

The counterpart to the small center was the vast expanse of housing that spread in all directions, peaking in the 1950s with the development of a new variation on the row house that was more suited to automobile neighborhoods and was known as the “airlite.” These were typically constructed in two cells, one across the front containing the living room and vestibule and one across the rear for the dining room and kitchen; the second story contained three bedrooms and a bathroom. As the name indicates, the plan provided more air and light, as well as a garage under the house, approached from a rear alley. For all their seemingly unheroic ubiquity, there is heroism in the numbers that make them the most important building type of the region.

At the same time, perhaps because of the city's industrial culture, its citizens were swift to embrace the automobile. By the 1920s, the city's transit ridership was already declining even though the city's population would not reach its peak of 2.25 million until the 1950s. The freedom of the automobile enabled the city to expand to fill nearly every corner of its 120 square miles, making Philadelphia an early and positive example of urban sprawl. The American dream, the idea of the single-family home, enlarged by the freedom of the car, marked an extraordinary democratization of the regional landscape that resulted in the endless expanse of houses that made Philadelphia the beginning of the modern American dream. Levittown in Bucks County marks the continuation of this pattern (for example, see BU4, BU5, BU6, BU7).

From the late 1950s, as nineteenth-century industries failed to adapt to post–World War II circumstances and the job base began its precipitous decline, Philadelphia's population began to collapse, falling to 1.5 million by the end of the millennium. In an effort to counteract these forces, the older portions of the city were drastically deconstructed and reconstructed, using the forces of modern city planning, federally sponsored urban renewal, and the return of a new generation of urban pioneers. Here too pioneering insights were displayed. When city planner Edmund Bacon realized that federal urban renewal policies would mean the demolition of the core of the ancient city, he persuaded Carl Feiss, then managing the federal slum clearance and urban redevelopment program, to revise the laws to permit preservation. The resulting Society Hill neighborhood is the largest preserved collection of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century buildings in the nation, far exceeding the few original structures of Williamsburg or Charleston's well-known historical district.

Other portions of the city did not fare as well. The industrial neighborhoods of north and south Philadelphia were devastated first by deindustrialization and more recently by drugs and a host of other problems that became synonymous with the urban crises of the 1970s and 1980s. Some problems were self-inflicted. In the early twentieth century, the city saved money on its schools, with significant consequences as the industrial age shifted to knowledge-based industries. Despite their love affair with the automobile, Philadelphians, perhaps because they were trying to protect the Pennsylvania Railroad's transportation empire, were slow to admit expressways and highways into the city. During the Bacon years, in the 1950s, the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) was grudgingly cut along the west bank of the Schuylkill River; in the 1970s, I-95's route along the Delaware riverfront met with similar resistance, resulting in few entrances to the city fabric. While cross-town links followed in the 1980s, the city failed to exploit their potential. These roads redefined the downtown and cut it off from the potentially attractive feature of the rivers, resulting in multiple decade-long projects such as Penn's Landing (see PH1) on the west bank of the Delaware River and the riverwalk along the east bank of the Schuylkill that have done little to accommodate the public. Even now, for travelers driving north on I-95 from Washington to New York City, there are few signs to Philadelphia and the state's turnpike bypasses the city. In the nineteenth century, the great railroad systems had all been aimed at Philadelphia's center. In the twenty-first century, Philadelphia is the hole in a donut of roads.

In the new century, Philadelphia has not kept up with the movements and forces of other successful cities. The aestheticized lifestyles that make up New York City's SoHo and that have spread across the nation in districts such as Denver's LoDo and Portland's Pearl District have been slow to develop in Philadelphia. The new architecture of the 1990s, manifested in transparent overlays of glass and burnished steel and galvanized iron and retro-chic adoption of 1950s futurism as hip and cool, has found few takers—the University of Pennsylvania's newest parking garage and food store at S. 40th and Walnut streets (2000–2002, Carlos Zapata of Wood and Zapata), the shiny metal oval skin of Penn's new chiller plant (2000, Leers Weinzapfel Associates) near the Schuylkill expressway at University Avenue, and, most recently, Cesar Pelli and Associates’ prismatic Cira Centre (PH144) are rare examples of buildings that will be clearly seen as dating from the beginning of the new century. Few vital urban centers have such an overwhelming stock of treasures that they can afford to reject the present and the future in favor of a faded past, and Philadelphia will not be the exception that proves the rule.

Navigating the City

Primarily a walking city, eighteenth-century Philadelphia is best explored on foot. This encourages spur-of-the-moment ventures into the numerous small museums, shops, tea houses, and restaurants that dot the area. So, park the car (largest lots, under Independence Mall, access from N. 5th and N. 6th streets, or the garage at S. 2nd below Walnut Street) or arrive by subway at 2nd and Market streets, where the ancient town center was located, or at 5th and Market to begin near Independence National Historical Park.

Philadelphia is easy to navigate because of the grid of the streets and the logic of the street numbering system. North–south streets are numbered beginning at the Delaware River with Front Street followed by 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc., with higher numbers to the west. In the central portion of the city, most of the east–west streets are named for trees, although some of the street names have been changed. Arch, originally Mulberry Street, was renamed for the ceremonial arch that marked the Marquis de Lafayette's triumphant return to the city in 1826; Sassafras became Race Street, which hosted horse races (anticipating teenagers with souped-up cars along Delaware Avenue in the next century), while Cedar was redubbed South Street in recognition of its position at the southern limit of the old city. The only major east–west street not named for a tree was High Street, renamed Market Street after the city markets that ran down its middle. The sequence of streets to either side of Market gave rise to the children's rhyme “Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce, and Pine; Mulberry, Cherry, Sassafras, and Vine.” Farther north, the east–west streets are named for Pennsylvania counties while to the south many are named for Pennsylvania governors. With the spires of historic churches on the east and skyscrapers and City Hall on the west, it is easy to find one's way—meeting Penn's original goal of a truly welcoming city. Ease of navigation should not conceal the dangers of the modern city. If it looks unsafe it probably is, so use good judgment.

Fortunately, Philadelphia has an effective rail network so that it is possible to explore outlying districts by foot using rail transit. One particularly effective loop takes the Chestnut Hill East line from 30th Street Station (PH143) across the city where it comes out of the ground at N. 9th Street. The line continues north through the devastated deindustrialized zones of north Philadelphia and the redeveloped district around Temple University's campus before heading northwest through the edge of the suburb of Mount Airy, passing Frank Furness's Mt. Airy station at Gowen Avenue. Disembark at Gravers Lane, in Chestnut Hill, to see an even more astonishing Furness station of 1881 (PH170); a left turn on Gravers Lane connects to Germantown Avenue, the historic old main street of the region. To the right a couple of blocks is the Chestnut Hill West terminal from which a ride can be obtained back to 30th Street, passing through the large estates of Chestnut Hill, the late Victorian suburb of Mount Airy, the economic decline of Germantown and North Philadelphia, and, finally, through Fairmount Park. The entire loop can be accomplished in less than two hours and provides a view of a vast area of the city.

One final comment: though Philadelphia has many places of public accommodation and is delighted with its fame, it is home to many who do not view themselves as part of a living history center—so respect their rights. Even so, as one who has spent many an evening strolling through the old streets of Society Hill, Rittenhouse, and Chestnut Hill, it is worth noting that as daylight fades, the interior plaster ornament of entrance halls and parlors comes into view and it is as if you are in the house itself. With numerous house museums, no one should feel deprived of the opportunity to stand within historic walls.

Writing Credits

George E. Thomas

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