University City Historical Society

Drexel Development Historic District

Bounded by 3900 block of Pine Street, both sides; 3900 block of Baltimore Avenue, north side; 300 and 400 block S. 40th Street, east side; 3900 block Delancy Street, south side.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places November 14, 1982


The Drexel Development Historic District was designed to establish an exemplar of the speculative row house in West Philadelphia. The homes and related, small-scale commercial structures are architecturally significant as high-caliber exa mples of the ubiquitous Philadelphia row and are among the finest of the type in the city, a reflection of their noted architects, Samuel Sloan and G. W. and W. D. Hewitt. The district also serves to document and preserve an outstanding example of mid-to- late nineteenth century community development in Philadelphia and the role played by speculative developers in the community formation process.

By the 1870s, the population of Philadelphia had greatly expanded. Natural growth coupled with immigration (by 1860 there already were over four million foreign-born in the United States, mostly centered in the large eastern cities) had begun to extend the urban development well beyond the old city limits of Vine to South, river to river. This trend was apparen t even before the Civil War, when through the Act of Consolidation of 1854, the city of Philadelphia assumed the boundaries of the county of Philadelphia. After the War, rows of new housing seemed to rise overnight to the north, northeast, south and west of Center City.

The process of urban expansion, though codified through governmental legislation such as the Act of Consolidation, in actuality was in the hands of the private sector. Most new housing was built on speculation, often with a developer, architect and builder pooling capital and investing sweat equity. The result was small projects ranging from just a few townhouses to perhaps two or three blocks of rows at best.

The Drexel Development Historic District is largely composed of two such small-scale developments. In 1872, the major West Philadelphia real estate broker, Annesly R. Govett, pulled together eighteen lots on the north side of the 3900 block of Pine, and twenty lots on the south side of Delancey. The Pine Street deed records in dicate a series of transactions between builders and investors that documents an interesting turn of events. In 1872, Govett transferred title for the eighteen lots to builder John G. Williams, who transferred title to Charles E. Hires, druggist and found er of Hires Root Beer, and Bayard Butler, a businessman. The last two clearly were investing capital while Williams was the prime contractor on the job. The project apparently fell through, due no doubt to the Jay Cooke-inspired panic of 1873, for in 1875 Govett again received title to the land, still without houses, and began a series of transfers to a new builder, Jacob Wireman, and to investors William Lanning and Charles E. Henry. A similar set of transactions appear for the Delancey houses. The records indicate that they were completed by 1876. And, while Govett was assembling the land on the north side of Pine, Anthony J. Drexel, founder and head of Drexel and Company, assumed, from disparate sources, title for almost the entire block now bounded by Pine, new 39th, Baltimore Avenue and 40th Streets, excluding those properties, discussed above, that were already developed. Having acquired virtually all of the land required for his development in 1877, he delayed construction of the four groups of houses on Pine, Baltimore Avenue and 40th Street until about 1883. The District, then, resulted from the great urban expansion of the 19th century and the speculative building process that fulfilled the needs of that expansion.

But while the fabric of the proposed district is part of the massive, city-wide building campaign, architecturally the houses and small shops in the district stand a cut above the norm. The South 40th Street Italianate buildings both were modish, well-constructed designs that, in their formal arrangement, sought to create internal cohesion as well as to project monumentality. The Govett houses on Pine are equally impressive, their relatively rich ornamentation distinguishing them from the more usual, modestly adorned Italianate rows across the city. While the Drexel rows show an added effort in their sophisticated cornice designs and the terra cotta and molded brick banding that alleviated the potential starkness of the brick facades.

The reason for the fairly high caliber design in these ubiquitous Philadelphia rows, no doubt, reflects the probable involvement of Samuel Sloan and the Hewitt Brothers. The importance of both architectural firms as imaginative, successful designers of the second half of the 19th century is now general ly recognized. Hewitt having been involved in the design of landmark buildings such as the Academy of Fine Arts and the Bellevue Stratford Hotel and Sloan, the Woodland and Hamilton Terraces and the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, to mention just a few of their important commissions.

The quality also reflects the developers involved both who worked extensively in West Philadelphia, where they also both lived. Govett was a neighborhood real estate developer highly involved in the development of West Philadelphia, his largest proj ect probably being the now demolished court houses located at 36th and Sansom Streets. Drexel was in a class of his own. Making a fortune in both banking and speculative developing, Drexel became one of West Philadelphia's leading residents and benefactors. His family compound still stands in the center of Pennsylvania's campus, a fine collection of houses designed by the Wilson Brothers and T. R. Williamson. He also to a large degree was responsible for the building of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Holy Saviour at 38th and Ludlow Streets as well as Drexel University just a few blocks east of his church. Both developers were community men with a strong interest in the neighborhood, and this is reflected in their projects.

The formation of the Drexel Development Historic District, as an exemplar of the speculative row in West Philadelphia, has been endorsed by the staff of the Philadelphia Historical Commission as part of a program to provide National Register protection for a range of typical period buildings across the city. The creation of the historic district has also been endorsed by the Pine Street Residents Association, the Delancey Street Residents Association and its Baltimore Avenue neighbors as part of a larger effort to restore their facades, where they have been altered, and their neighborhood. Preliminary negotiations have begun with the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation to establish, with substantial funds from the treasury of the Pine Street Residents Association, a low-interest revolving fund for facade restoration and maintenance on Pine. National Register status would further aid the effort by providing some protection from University expansion, tax benefits for the rehabilitati on of the commercial properties in the proposed district, and the potential for a facade easement program. The quality of the housing, combined with an active community organization with preservation goals in mind, creates an ideal place to establish an exemplar of late 19th-century speculative development in West Philadelphia.

This National Register Nomination was researched and prepared by Carl E. Doebley.

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