Philadelphia is known famously as “a city of neighborhoods.” Originally built with the grid system, the city resembles more of a patchwork quilt, with each neighborhood giving Philadelphia its own distinct identity. As diverse centers full of many different nationalities, cultures, customs, traditions and lore, the historical importance of neighborhoods in Philly cannot be overstated.
The following information gives you just a glimpse into the details of the fabric of the city. We hope it not only opens your eyes and ears to the streets of Philadelphia, but makes you want to get out and explore them, too.
A Walk Through Northern Liberties
In laying out Northern Liberties, William Penn followed the traditional London land policy of setting aside “Liberty Lands” to encourage the settlement of farms and country estates outside the legal limits of his capital city. However, not until the 1780s did an urban development of this area-bounded by the Delaware River on the east, Vine Street on the south, 6th Street on the west, and Girard Avenue of the north-begin to take place. After two decades of initial real estate speculation, numerous rows of the Philadelphia “bandbox” began to appear north of Vine Street. These structures were “generally small, squarish houses, often only two-and-a-half stories high with one room to a floor.” For the most part, they tended to be “crowded onto small side streets or kept out of sight in courts and in those small alleys that cut into the large blocks from through streets.” This pattern of street layout and housing tended to encourage artisans, skilled craftsmen and small shopkeepers to settle in the district. By the mid-19th century, the introduction of water-powered mills and steam-powered railroads had begun to transform the residential settlements along the Delaware River into a corridor of industrial activity. As a result, there developed in Northern Liberties-between 3rd Street and the River-a warehouse district of four-story commercial structures with cast iron storefront facades which “physically and commercially linked” the district to Penn’s original city. (Most of these structures were demolished in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the construction of the I-95 expressway.) By the late-19th century, Northern Liberties had become one of a number of Philadelphia’s working-class neighborhoods, fully integrated into the economic, social, and political life of an industrial metropolis.
Points of interest
- The Doughboy, 2nd and Spring Garden Streets: a memorial to the neighborhood men who lost their lives in World War I, paid for by Northern Liberties residents and dedicated in May 1920.
- Holy Trinity Rumanian Church, 220 Brown Street: built in 1810 and designed by architect William Strickland, the building is considered one of the most important examples of neoclassic architecture in the United States.
- Thomas Mifflin School, 808 N. 3rd Street: a two-story red brick school, built in 1825, and named after Thomas Mifflin who was a member of the Continental Congress and three-term Governor of Pennsylvania. The building was used as a hospital during the cholera epidemic of 1832.
- Ortlieb’s Brewery, 801 N. 3rd Street: Philadelphia was one of the nation’s major centers for brewing. Built in 1870, Ortlieb’s was one of more than sixty breweries located in the city in the mid-19th century. Many of the breweries were located in Northern Liberties.
- Burks Brother Leather Factory, 913-961 N. 3rd Street: built in 1855 with alterations in 1913 by William Steel who designed and build Shibe Park. The building is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Buildings and on the National Register of Historic Places. Burks was the second largest kid factory in the world after Foerderer in Frankford which was the largest.
- Rosary Row, 300 block of Saint John Neumann Way: a small row of houses built ca. 1825 in early-federal style. Referred to as “Rosary Row” because so many boys who lived there became priests.
- Blue Belgium Block, Myrtle Street: when the country of Belgium dismantled their pavilion at the 1876 Centennial Celebration held in Fairmount Park, they gave the City of Philadelphia the blue blocks that made up their courtyard. The City in turn gave the blue blocks to several old neighborhoods.
- Integrity Trust Bank, 542 N. 4th Street: by mid-19th century, 4th and Green was a heavily populated German area. Integrity Bank was one of the wealthiest banks in the city due to the success of the German brewers. This brand was built in 1902 and renovated in the German renaissance style in 1912.
This guide was prepared by Natalie Gurak, a guide for The Foundation for Architecture. Sources for developing this tour included: Guide to Northern Liberties, published by the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association and Richard Webster’s Philadelphia Preserved: Catalog of the Historic American Buildings Survey, published by Temple University Press.
A Walk Through 18th Century Germantown
Germantownhad its beginnings in 1683 when William Penn granted a 5,700 acre tract of land to two groups of prospective settlers. The lower part of the tract, located some five miles northwest of the present Philadelphia City Hall, was called Germantown because of the large number of German-speaking residents during the first decades. Situated along a main road into Philadelphia (now Germantown Avenue), the community became a thriving village where craftsmen, storekeepers, and a variety of mills, powered by local streams, catered to the surrounding population. In 1783 Philadelphia’s deadly Yellow Fever epidemic sent hundreds of people fleeing into Germantown, including President George Washington and his cabinet. Alerted to the fresh country air of Germantown, Philadelphians had already created summer houses there. After the arrival of the first steam railroad in 1832, commuters built romantic villas surrounded by orchards, fields, and woods. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Germantown was Philadelphia’s most fashionable suburb.
- Grumblethorpe, 5267 Germantown Avenue: the house, also known as “Wister’s Big House,” was built in 1744 as a summer residence for Philadelphia merchant John Wister, but soon became the principal residence of Wister and his descendents. It was constructed of stone and timber found on the site. Behoind the house there was a long garden measuring 188 x 450 feet, which featured choice fruit trees, rare shrubs and flowers. Parts of the garden have been restored. These long lots extending back from the main road were typical of Germantown in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, providing residents with land for gardens, fruit trees, and some livestock.
- Deshler-Morris House,5442 Germantown Avenue: the front portion of the house was built in 1772 as a summer place for West Indian merchant, David Deshler. British General William Howe used the house as his headquarters after the Battle of Germantown in October 1777. President George Washington lived here for two weeks in the fall of 1793. Samuel B. Morris purchased the residence in 1834 and it remained in his family until 1948, when his heirs gave it to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
- Fromberger House, 5503-5505 Germantown Avenue: This Federal-style edifice was erected about 1795 for John Fromberger and is said to be the first brick house in Germantown, stone having been the usual building material until this time. The structure later housed several private schools and the Germantown YWCA. In 1946 it was acquired by the Germantown Mutual Life Insurance Company, which occupied it until 1986. Since 1988 it has been the headquarters of the Germantown Historical Society, and contains an excellent collection of local furniture and other artifacts.
- Market Square, Germantown Avenue between Church Lane and School House Lane: Facing the Fromberger House is Germantown’s Market Square. From the early 1740s until about 1850 it contained a market shed. Bordering the northern end of the square is the completely rebuilt Delaplaine House. The original was constructed around 1700 and demolished in the mid-1800s. Its reconstruction in 1959 was part of an ambitious plan, led by the Germantown Historical Society and other local groups, to restore the whole Market Square area as a miniature Williamsburg. The Civil War monument, placed in the middle of the square in 1883 by the Ellis Post of the GAR, proved to be a major obstacle to this restoration when local veterans groups vigorously fought its removal. There appears to be no truth to the persistent local tradition that John D. Rockefeller, Jr. wished at one time to finance the restoration of Germantown’s Market Square.
- Wyck, 6026 Germantown Avenue: Wyck is actually two houses joined together. The western portion, built in 1690 by a Rhineland Quaker named Hans Milan, is the oldest surviving structure in Germantown. The combined houses were remodeled in 1824 according to plans by the famous Philadelphia architect, William Strickland.
- Cliveden, 6401 Germantown Avenue: built in 1763-1764 for Benjamin Chew, who later served as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania. Named for a royal residence in England, it is one of the most spectacular country houses in America. The style is Georgian, but the structure displays certain elements of local origin. The house and property became the focal point of the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777, when the British turned Cliveden into a veritable fortress and forced Washington and his army to retreat. The site remained in the Chew family, except for a brief time in the late-eighteenth century, until descendents gave it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1972.
Visitors may enter most of these properties, except during the winter months, for a modest fee.
This tour was prepared by David R. Contosta, author of six books, including A Philadelphia Family: The Houstons and Woodwards of Chestnut Hill and Suburb in the City: Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia.
A Walk Through Tacony
Henry Disston and Sons Keystone Saw Works moved to Tacony in 1872. By the turn of the century, Disston’s Company was the largest and best-known saw works in the world. Tacony-a paternalistic community based on Disston’s ideas of a good life-grew to a population of 15,000 people by 1900. Henry Disston’s utopian village received praise for its clean air and pure water. From 1900 to 1920, life in Tacony resembled that of a factory town with every available convenience. Houses were built by company workers and sold or rented to them at reasonable prices. Tacony also had its own water supply, opera house, movie house, parks, recreation center, bank, and shopping district. Disston and Sons was the major economic and social institution in the community. It sponsored athletic teams, shows, and beneficial and civic associations.
- Henry Disston and Sons Saw Works, State Road and Longshore St.: the steel mill, built in 1900, is off to the right and the buildings housing the saw-making operation are on the left. Toward the river on the right are the rolling mills. By 1940 Disston and Sons occupied 64 acres and had 67 buildings with 3,000 workers. In 1955 Disston was sold to H.K. Porter of Pittsburgh and twenty years later to Sandvik Corporation of Sweden. In 1984 Robert Fox of Jenkintown purchased what remained of the company. Today there are fewer than 50 workers making specialty circular saws for cutting steel. Note the walls of sandstone at the entrance, a Tacony landmark.
- Tacony Trust Company, Vandike and Longshore Streets: factories needed financial institutions. Early on, the Disston family opened the trust company with son Jacob Disston in charge.
- TaconyMusic Hall,Longshore and Edmond Streets: Henry Disston needed a civilized, ideal industrial community to attract workers from England. This structure could accommodate stores on the main street, a large hall for concerts on the second floor, and meeting rooms and a library for a scientific society on the third floor.
- Tacony Baptist Church, Disston and Hegerman Streets: this church was constructed in 1915. The structure is composed of worn grindstones (used to sharpen saws) given by Disston & Sons. Two grindstones, seen in the sidewalk in front of the church, remind everyone of the company’s contribution to building the church.
- Frank Shuman’s Inventors Compound, Disston and Marsden Streets: Tacony’s Frank Shuman invented shatterproof wire-glass at this site before 1900, and later developed the first sun machine-a low pressure steam engine used to irrigate the Nile Valley in Egypt in 1914.
- Battleship Row, Marsden and Hegerman Streets: this row of homes was built by Henry Disston for the steel laborers who named their street in honor of Marsden. Disston owned and rented over 700 homes to the workers. In 1943 the Disston family sold the last of these homes to the workers.
- Knorr Street Homes, Knorr and Hegerman Streets: Disston built row homes for his skilled workers. This block is an excellent example of “model” homes built in the 1880s to attract industrial workers, particularly steelmakers and sawmakers from Sheffield, England.
A Walk Through Grays Ferry
The neighborhood along the Schuylkill below South Street developed after the Civil War as workers houses, lumberyards, and other light industrial businesses moved to the area. First settled by predominately Irish immigrants, the area still reflects an Irish influence. Later growth brought Southern blacks to live in Grays Ferry, making it one of Philadelphia’s diverse working class neighborhoods.
- 2200 Bainbridge Street: this block of homes was developed in the 1870s, as was most of the surrounding neighborhood, and the original plan included front yards for each homes. The block looks markedly different from other Philadelphia streets lined with rowhomes. The yards were enclosed with ornate iron fences and gates, and much of this original ironwork survives.
- Grays Ferry Avenue: in 1696 a road was commissioned connecting Benjamin Chambers’ Ferry to Cedar Street, the southernmost street in Philadelphia, later named South Street. The connecting road became known as Gray’s Ferry after Mr. George Gray, proprietor of the ferry in 1747. Gray and his descendants ran the ferry until the American Revolution when it was replaced by a floating bridge.
- The Naval Home: in 1826, the Federal government purchased roughly 25 acres of land along the Schulykill at Gray’s Ferry on which to build a hospital and school for seamen. William Strickland designed the Naval Asylum which opened in 1831. Under the command of Commodore James Biddle, the Naval School was founded at Gray’s Ferry between 1838 and 1842. In 1845 the school moved to Annapolis where it later became the Naval Academy.
- St. Albans Place: instead of parked cars and traffic, the rowhomes lining St. Albans look over a garden in the middle of their brick street. Built in the late 1870s, the street was laid out as a garden with granite curbs, three cast iron fountains, and an iron fence. Today, the fountains are planted with flowers, and the garden is maintained by the neighborhood.
- Madison Square: the ivy, rose, and gardenia planted gardens of Madison Square run down Webster Street from 22nd to 24th. Madison, like St. Albans, was built as a garden. One cast iron swan fountain survives from the garden’s original ironwork. The houses overlooking Madison are wider than the traditional Philadelphia row with center doors flanked by windows.
- W.P.S.P.C.A. Horse Watering Station: the fountain at the corner of Grays Ferry and South Street was installed by the Women’s Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Several like it survive in the city where they once refreshed horses pulling carriages, trucks, and cable cars through the streets.
A Walk Through Centre Square
William Penn’s city plan of 1682 designated a square for public use at Broad and Market Streets. Initially, a meetinghouse occupied the spot, but it was too far from the river settlement to be accessible. In the early 18th century, men raced horses down Sassafras (Race) Street and around the Square. Along its southern edge, gallows were regularly erected on an execution ground used until 1790. From 1799 to 1829 the pump house for the City’s first waterworks stood at Centre Square. After its demolition, Broad and Market Streets passed through the Square outlining four plots called Penn Squares. In 1872 work began on City Hall, and with its completion in 1901 Centre Square became the municipal and commercial center of Philadelphia.
- City Hall. Covering five acres at its base and standing 584 feet high, City Hall is one of the world’s largest masonry buildings. Alexander Milne Calder designed the sculptural ornamentation for the façade which was made at the Tacony Iron Works. Calder’s son, Alexander Stirling Calder, created the Swann Memorial Fountain at Logan Circle; and his grandson, Alexander Calder, conceived the mobile which hangs at the Philadelphia Art Museum’s east entrance.
- John Wanamaker (Macy’s Center City), 13th and Market Streets. In 1876 John Wanamaker moved his men’s clothing store from 6th and Market to the old freight station at 13th and opened the world’s first department store. The Grand Depot, as it was called, capitalized on the hub of activity at the new City Hall and became the focal point of the City’s commerce. In 1902 Wanamaker broke ground for the present store, now a Macy’s, on the site of the old depot.
- One East Penn Square. In the 1920s economic prosperity brought skyscrapers to Philadelphia and the skyline pushed upward. The Art Deco design of this building by architects Ritter and Shay represents the 20th century taste for the modern. New businesses favored the skyscraper for its economic efficiency while urban planners and city officials raised concerns about the environment and congestion on the streets.
- MasonicTemple, 1 North Broad Street. The Lodge of Freemasons built the Masonic Temple between 1868 and 1873 with stone cut, squared, and marked according to Masonic tradition. Fifteen years were spent lavishly decorating its halls in historical styles symbolic of the principles of Freemasonry. Free guided tours are offered daily, and the museum and library are open to the public.
- The Clothespin, 15th and Market Streets. Claes Oldenburg’s 45 foot clothespin was installed in Centre Square Plaza on July 1, 1976. Oldenburg got the inspiration for this sculpture while flying over Chicago. He was playing with a clothespin and noticed that from the air the city’s skyscrapers resembled large pins. His steel “skyscraper” weighs ten tons.
A Walk Through Rittenhouse Square
Rittenhouse Squareis one of five plots of land which William Penn designated as public space in his plan of the City. Originally called Southwest Square, it was used as a demo for the street dirt until the early 1800s. In 1835 the plot was renamed Rittenhouse Square after David Rittenhouse, the first American astronomer. Soon after, several City ordinances proposed beautifying the Square. Today, the Rittenhouse Square landscape is maintained by Fairmount Park Commission.
- Church of the Holy Trinity, 200 South 19th Street. John Notman built this Romanesque Revival church in 1859 for the Episcopalian residents of Rittenhouse Square. The church once towered over the Victorial mansions on the Square and is dwarfed today by redevelopment. Church buildings are an indication to historians that an area was once primarily residential, and in 19th century Philadelphia, Episcopalian churches represented the wealthiest congregations.
- The Fell-Van Rensselaer House, 1801 Walnut Street. This mansion exemplifies the character of the neighborhood which encircled Rittenhouse Square in the 19th century. Mrs. Sarah Drexel Fell, widow of a Philadelphia coal magnate, commissioned the Fell-Van Rensselaer House to be built in the Beaux-Arts style of domestic architecture popular in the 1890s. Upon its completion in 1898, she moved in with her new husband, Alexander Van Rensselaer. In this century the house has served as a residence, athletic club, and storefront. The house’s lavish interior was gutted in 1974 and only its façade survives.
- The Mutter Museum of The Philadelphia College of Physicians, 19 South 22nd Street. The Mutter Museum interprets the history of medical arts and exhibits such as antiquated surgical tools, apothecary artifacts, and pathological specimens. The Museum’s specimens are exhibited in the style of the nineteenth century cabinet of curiosities. Be sure to see their medicinal herb garden.
- First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry Armory, 23rd Street above Chestnut. The First Troop was founded on November 17th, 1744 to defend the liberties of the citizenry. It fought in Revolutionary War engagements and often served George Washington as a body guard. The First Troop moved to the armory in 1900 from their home, since 1863, on the west side of 21st Street. The Troop’s membership honors its long-held tradition of parading on Chestnut Street in full regalia on November 17th and Washington’s Birthday each year.
- B&O Station Mural, South side of Chestnut Street near 24th Street. The B&O Station was a stop for passengers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from 1886. Passenger service between New York and Washington ended on May 1, 1958, and the vacated station was demolished in 1963. The Station was designed by Frank Furness, architect of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. This mural, painted by Richard Haas in 1984, is the only remaining sign of the station.
- The Scott-Wanamaker House, 2032 Walnut Street. This Jacobean Revival house was built in 1883 for sugar refiner, James Scott, and purchased by John Wanamaker in 1894. Wanamaker is well-known as a pioneer in department store merchandising, but less known in his tenure as Postmaster General in President Harrison’s cabinet from 1889 to 1893. Wanamaker lived here until his death in 1922.
- Stables, 21st and Chancellor Streets. Dating from 1860, these five stables belonged to Walnut Street’s grandest homes. They are large for urban stables suggesting that a stable boy roomed on the upper level with stores of hay and horse and carriage below. This cobble stone block of Chancellor Street is twice as wide as most side streets, so that carriages could be driven directly inside instead of manually pulled into the street and turned before hitching a horse.
- The Viti House, 2129 Spruce Street. This row house resembled its neighbors until the installation of the tile façade in 1914. The tiles were fired at the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown. The Tile Works was designed, built, and operated by Henry Mercer to preserve the techniques of Pennsylvania German potters. In his letters to Mercer, Mr. Viti says neighbors and passersby laughed at the project but grew to appreciate it in time. Today, the Tile Works is a museum and continues to make Mercer’s tiles.