University City Historical Society

Parkside Historic District

Bounded by Penn-Central Railroad Tracks, 38th Street, Girard, Parkside, and Belmont Avenues

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places November 17, 1983

The Parkside district is a complex creation that resulted from three historical forces: the temporary nature of the Centennial Exposition and its attendant hotels; the redevelopment of the privately developed Centennial sites across the street from Fairmount Park after the extension of suburban transit in the 1890s, and the growing wealth and aspirations of the mercantile middle classes at the end of the 19th century. These events are in evidence in the property and the building histories of the region, with the oldest buildings in the mansarded Centennial styles on Girard Avenue, and later housing and apartments on the sites of Centennial hotels within the next generation.

Because the region was developed by a limited group of builders for their social circle, there is a general architectural unity of expression of upwardly mobile social values that transcends the shifts in architectural taste from red brick, mid-Victorian to tan brick, turn-of-the-century eclectic fashion with its references to Flemish urban historicizing revivals. Though the styles change to reflect contemporary taste, the preference for strong ornamentation, concentrated on the street front, for porch fronts to emphasize the suburban quality, and for styles derived from florid Dutch and German rather than Ruskinian English sources contrasts with Rittenhouse, West Philadelphia, Germantown and Oak Lane, and suggests a specific social subgroup. As will be apparent, such is indeed the case, for the district was largely developed by the German community originally centered around 4th and Brown, who had then moved westward across the city first to 16th and Jefferson, and ultimately to 40th and Girard by the end of the century. It was their denser urban tradition, contrasting with that of the English, that permitted the building of the immense apartment buildings along Parkside, creating in Philadelphia an urban counterpart to the "Cliffdwellers" of Chicago, recounted by Henry Blake Fuller in his novel of rootless modern life.

In form, the Parkside district responded to the geographically distinct nature of its site. Along the north edge, from 38th to Belmont Avenue, is Fairmount Park, with Memorial Hall and until the 1950s, Horticultural Hall recalling the Centennial, while maintaining cultural roles as the Art Museum (until 1926) and garden center (until 1952) respectively. Larger houses and apartment buildings, notably the Brentwood, the Lansdowne, and the Parkside, mark the social importance of the Park edge, and like Rittenhouse, Logan Square and similar park sites, became a center of more intensive development. The west Belmont Avenue boundary was less prestigious despite the avenue's importance as an access to the Park. Across the street were the railyards of the Pennsylvania Railroad, making the zone quasi-industrial — a use which still persists. The Philadelphia Traction Company's car barn in the wedge of space between Thompson, Leidy and Belmont reflects the nature of its site; it has since been replaced by a modern school, while small houses and a gas station line the remaining west edge of the district. The south boundary is also cut off by railyards, with bridges crossing the tracks only at 41st and 40th Streets and no further access to the south until 34th Street, beyond the zoo. Small houses back up on the tracks, indicating its less attractive qualities as well. Finally, the east edge has been bordered by the Zoological Gardens since the Centennial, completing the isolation of this zone. One further aspect of this site deserves attention — Girard Avenue, which passes through from east to west, connected to the east by the Girard Avenue bridge over the Schuylkill, and to the west to the Lancaster Pike at 48th Street. Because of the prominence of Girard Avenue, that street forms a center of expensive houses, businesses and institutions, becoming the "Main Street" of the Parkside district.

In general, the development patterns that occurred could be graphically described as a series of peaks and valleys that link physical size and prestige, with the tallest buildings at Parkside and Girard across from the park, progressively smaller buildings south toward Girard; taller buildings at Girard and then a falling off towards the southern tracks. Similarly, the greatest concentration of important buildings rise toward the center, west of 42st Street, and then fall off, from 43rd to Belmont, indicating the organizing role of the buildings on the 4100 and 4200 blocks of Parkside and Girard Avenues.

In the perverse economies of 20th century urbanism, it has been the largest and most architecturally interesting buildings that have suffered most radically as residential tastes have changed. This is primarily because the ability to pay for the privilege of aesthetic tastes is linked to an awareness of fashion, creating the situation where the wealthy who patronized the great apartments soon left for more fashionable locations, leaving the buildings to less well-paying tenants, and ultimately to abandonment. Conversely, the small scale houses beyond the great mansions and apartment houses have continued to approximate local housing customs, and have thus far been maintained and cared for. Only the changed economies of the Tax Act of 1981, and Federal subsidies have again made the large apartment buildings of economic value.

On the other hand, as already noted, their architectural interest is enormous, owing to the architectural exuberance of the designers and developers. These include many of the designers of North Broad Street, including the Widener's Willis Hale, Angus Wade, Frederick Poth's H.E. Flower, and Frederick Newman, as well as J.C. Worthington. It was Worthington who designed the four-story limestone "Lansdowne" at 41st and Parkside, in a minaretted and bayed grandly eclectic style that was paralleled by the exuberant architecture of Atlantic City's Boardwalk. Pressed tin cornices and bays, traceried windows, and a variety of textures recalled the picturesque Queen Anne.

Down the block at the corner is the first of a group of immense, gable-fronted double houses and rows, from Marlton to Memorial Streets and from Parkside to Viola, spanning 665 feet on Parkside. There, the principal development group, "The Blockwood Improvement Company," using Frederick Newman, designed fourteen four-story copper and terra cotta trimmed pompeiian brick double buildings that look like mansions but were instead apartments. Elaborately molded terra cotta porch fronts effectively unify the entire block. In between, in the fashion of North Broad Street, the secondary streets show similarly elaborate but smaller houses that continue the palette of materials the gabled and porch fronted forms, but in the scale of private residences of the regions. Beyond 42nd Street, another row of 3-2-story porch fronted doubles stretch west, from the designs of H.E. Flower, a Powelton architect who had fully absorbed the copper trimmed, pompeiian Flemish style. These are generally in excellent condition, with wainscoted and tiled entrances, and elaborate built-in furniture and ornamental screens. Despite the deterioration of some of the largest buildings, the Parkside front remains essentially intact.

By contrast, the intervening blocks along Viola are less grand, but share the same detail with the Parkside houses designed by H.E. Flower. Less involved houses were built on Leidy and Thompson and Stiles streets, though they too are typically porch fronted in the fashion of the front blocks, but with turned wood rather than cast iron or terra cotta columns, and without the elaborate terra cotta ornament.

Girard Avenue shows a far greater range of building types and sizes, with larger rows and doubles extending west from 38th Street. The 3800 block was erected in 1904, after being assembled by Frederick Poth, the principal developer of the Parkside group. These show the shift towards the blockier, Renaissance forms of the turn of the century, but with the porch fronts, tile roofs and the elaborate pressed metal bays that link these to the earlier development To the west, from 39th, are an imposing group of mid-Victorian doubles with generous porches, deep front bays, strong cornices, and segmental headed dormers in a concave mansard, which are the earliest of the major developers houses, erected by Edward Collins in 1877 or 1878, after the Centennial Exhibition closed.

At 40th, Girard changed character toward smaller, mansarded rows, indicating the greater importance of the 34th Street end, and the access to center city. That changed by the 1890s, which placed greater importance on the west end. Connections across the railroad tracks in the 1890s made 40th a principal north-south street. Its greater frequency of use caused 40th Street to become mixed use commercial, and that use continued around onto Girard at the beginning of this century, leaving the characteristic appearance of mansard rows, with first floor shops.

West on Girard, larger double houses and more elaborate, three-story rows give evidence of the prosperity of the area. On the north side at the angled intersection of Leidig was the Grace Episcopal Church (demolished), whose architect, Edgar B. Seeler, marks one of the many connections of this group to German society. Next, are eight immense doubles, whose scale and richness of detail recall Parkside Avenue. These are followed by a row of porch fronted, three-story, pompeiian brick rows that are essentially identical to the row on Girard beyond 42nd, owned and designed by Angus Wade, another of the prominent nouveau riche architects. Interrupting those rows is the handsome, English perpendicular Gothic Presbyterian Church, by Charles Bolton, whose towered, grey stone facade punctuates the residential scale. Other houses, including those between 41st and Leidig, while of the same scale, shows the towered bays and tiled roofs and dormers of North Broad Street. Documents indicate that they were the work of the Widener family architect, Willis G. Hale, in 1891.

Just as the size and elaboration of houses diminished below Parkside, so too the houses on Cambridge and Poplar are smaller than those on Girard. Nonetheless, they express the common aspirations of the middle classes toward more suburban, successful lifestyles. Porch fronts, pressed metal bays, small pediments and corbelled pilasters between units emphasize the individual row, and thus point to a sense of the pride of ownership quite as compelling on the 3800 block of Poplar or the parallel block of Wyalusing as on the 4200 block of Parkside.

In the first quarter of this century, the German heritage of the neighborhood made it a likely candidate for residence of successful second generation East European immigrants. A synagogue was built on the 3900 block of Girard, and businesses such as the Gold Medal Bakery arrived on 40th Street. In the past 30 years, the neighborhood has shifted toward middle class black residents who have preserved and maintained the two- and three-story rows. At the same time, the older institutions have been replaced to serve the new community, as, for example, the 173-year-old First African Presbyterian Church replaced the Emmanuel congregation, founded in 1893 as the "Elm Avenue Mission."

Despite changing residents, the geographic and architectural unity of the Parkside district survives, and with it a strong sense of community. For a generation its churches and social groups have sought to redevelop their community from within, with some measure of success evident in new church buildings and renovated apartment houses, such as the Lansdowne.

Statement of Significance

The Parkside district is a uniquely isolated community, framed by the Centennial and the end of the century in time, and by the railyards and the Park in space, whose German ethnic developers expressed their aesthetic tastes and urban values in a group of elaborately decorated row blocks, and handsome apartment houses. Those buildings were designed for the German mercantile and brewing meritocracy, by architects who had already found favor with the German community in North Philadelphia, including Willis G. Hale, (active 1870–1907), Frederick Newman (active 1880–1910), Angus Wade (active 1875–1910) and H.E. Flower (active 1890–1902). These men established the taste of nouveau riche Philadelphia in the generation before Horace Trumbauer, creating an architectural style which looked to the continent rather than to the English Ruskinian architecture which attracted the old line English stock in Philadelphia. Thus, their architecture established Philadelphia as a pluralist society, mirroring the real changes occurring in population at the end of the century. Moreover, the Parkside neighborhood presents in its diversity of scale, but unified style, the range of 19th-century social groupings and aspirations which are made concrete in the span from the houses of Leidy to the houses of Parkside. What is remarkable now, is the state of survival of that late 19th-century neighborhood, for despite changes in residents and economic standing, the streetscapes are essentially intact, and the essential unity of the region is readily perceived.

The unity of the Parkside region is not restricted to place and time, but also to agent and response. Unlike most sections of the city which are the creation of a multiplicity of private acts by a broad variety of actors, the limited range in Parkside is unique. Beginning with the acquisition of land by John Baltz for a brewery at 38th and Girard, almost the entire region was acquired by German brewers and their associates, including Joseph Schmidt and Frederick Poth. Moreover, many of their cohorts in a variety of development organizations, including the Blockwood Improvement Company, the Algonquin Improvement Company, and later the Clay Improvement Company, were connected to the old German neighborhood near 4th and Brown either through residence or business. Moreover, listings in the Blue Book make it clear that most of those who were residents in the various apartments and mansions along Parkside and Girard were of German background: William Trautwine, Gustav Brisler, Philip Steinmetz, John Pullinger, S.S. Wengell, Frederick Potb, W.S. Albrecht, A.W. Fleischer, I. Guggenheimer and many others make the point evident. It is presumably that common ethnic background that found its appropriate architectural expression in buildings by architects with similar background, who explored the more florid architectural styles from the Continent.

The Germanic architectural styling of the buildings on the major streets departed from the "high style" English taste generally taught in architectural histories, but it was indeed a national middle-class architectural style much in evidence at the end of the century. It is thus of considerable interest, particularly in a city with an historically important German community. In the Quaker City, the florid styling is of special note for its contrast with the plain, red brick buildings of Rittenhouse, and more than rivals the spectacular building of Philadelphia's North Broad Street.

Moreover, because of the hierarchical nature of its development, Parkside still displays the full range of its residential options, from the 2-story rows to the immense apartment houses that characterized its age. And, Parkside provides a clear description of the transformation of its community from nouveau riche Germans to middle class East European, and now to middle class black. The resulting overlay of population groups on the hierarchical array of buildings was common enough in every American city, as well as in other areas of Philadelphia: North Broad Street, 16th and Jefferson, and along the east edge of the Park, above Girard Avenue. Unlike those areas, however, which have been devastated by urban renewal and absentee landlords, this district survives so completely that every streetscape can be understood. Moreover, with the Lansdowne, the Marlton, the Brentwood and the other apartments, the richest array of nouveau riche opulent design in Philadelphia remains to describe the total range of turn-of-the-century housing.

Finally, the Parkside district has immense importance because of the social values and intentions of its residents. Led by their church and community leaders, they have created mechanisms for the renovation and restoration of the buildings of their neighborhood. In doing so they have forged a unique alliance between business, commerce, social institutions and the community that augers well for the future of Parkside, even as it preserves its major architectural landmarks.

This National Register Nomination was prepared by George E. Thomas, Ph.D.


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