University City Historical Society

Poth and Schmidt Development Houses

3306–3316 Arch Street

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places April 21, 1983


The Poth–Schmidt development houses are an important group of large double houses by A.W. Dilks, that describe the lifestyle, and the architectural possibilities of post-Centennial Philadelphia. These are of added interest because the financiers were developers of much of Powelton, as well as important Philadelphia industrialists. They brought the new, flamboyant taste of the nouveau riche to their speculative venture, and found in Dilks the appropriate architect for highly styled buildings that stand out in the Quaker City.

Poth and Schmidt Development Houses in 1983
Poth and Schmidt Development Houses in 1983
Poth and Schmidt Development Houses in 1998
Poth and Schmidt Development Houses in 1998

The breaking up of the great Powel family estate, Powelton, in the 1880s, resulted in a sudden efflorescence of building activity, that culminated with the development of the region east of 34th Street, below Powelton Avenue. Three distinct development types appeared: prosperous and large three and four story brick rows, along Powelton Avenue, neat doubles just to the south, while the largest single and double houses were built along Arch Street and north along 32nd Street. It was these large houses that formed the places of residence of the industrial, railroad and energy elite of the city, appropriately near the railyard that formed the basis of this economic power.

Poth and Schmidt Development Houses in 1983
Poth and Schmidt Development Houses in 1983
Poth and Schmidt Development Houses in 1998

The architect for these houses was A.W. Dilks (active 1887–1917). He was a veteran of the office of Theophilus Parsons Chandler, where he served as chief draftsman for many of the residential projects, probably including the home of the railroad engine manufacturer George Burnham, at 34th and Powelton of 1886, which served to introduce Dilks to the region. In the next generation, Dilks would do another dozen projects in the neighborhood, ranging from additions and alterations to new houses. Dilks' work tended towards an elaborate, multi-textured, and spatially expressive Victorian, loosely based on the English Queen Anne, but mixed with a personal potpourri of American bracketed detail. In this particular group, that style is fully developed, and creates a notable street front of great richness, that recalls the lifestyle of Powelton as a fashionable neighborhood.

The houses have additional architectural interest, both as representatives of contemporary architecture theory, and also as examples of the work of an important regional designer, for two of the principal developers, Frederick Poth and Edward Schmidt (of Schmidt's brewery). Poth himself was an American Horatio Alger, a German immigrant, whose brewery, near his first home in the German section of Philadelphia, became the source of his fortune. Income from the brewery was used for real estate development, most notably in the Powelton neighborhood. In 1887, he hired A.W. Dilks to design his own house, a project that established Dilks in the neighborhood. There, in honor of Poth's German origins, Dilks built a house in the manner of the late German Gothic, as revived in the 19th century. Poth was the developer for the houses on the 3300 block of Powelton (on the National Register) and it was Poth who rescued the failed Willis Hale project at 35th and Powelton (also on the Register) and turned it into successful apartments. Schmidt, Poth's son-in-law, was another brewmaster whose brewery, Christian Schmidt and Sons, ultimately absorbed the Poth brewery.

The Dilks career is straightforward, and marks the transition from high Victorian individualism, through Queen Anne, toward the eclectic revivals of the end of the century. As with so many of his contemporaries, the anglicizing Queen Anne provides the vehicle for that transition, by providing the avenue, early on, for expressions of personality, while later offering the historical sources in English half-timbered gothic, for an accurate historicizing design. The style further offered the opportunity to utilize Ruskinian theory as developed in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which called for the logical expression of the materials used, as well as expressions of function. Those val ues are then transformed by Dilks into an important American commercial value system, by loading most detail on the front facades and entrances to make the buildings a readily saleable commodity.

As a consequence of Dilks' training, and his understandi ng of contemporary taste, the buildings that he designed for Arch Street are among Philadelphia's most important examples of the Queen Anne style, showing all of its essential features. Those include the Japanese influenced porch details, which alternate with the Mediaevalizing knee braces of other porch details; the empathetic use of brick detail to describe architectural weight; and the multiple textures from painted wood to smooth brick, to shadow catching hung tile. The buildings were further enlivene d by formal variation within the group that adds to the richness of the ensemble. There are few equals to the Dilks achievement in the generally plain Quaker City. The exterior richness continued in the interior finishes, with most of the detail confined to the public rooms of the front. Noteworthy too are the large window groups that light the interiors, and mark the transition toward the modern house.

Within Dilks' career, these are first-rate examples of his early work, which culminates in his Powelton Village projects. Dilks' work after leaving Chandler's employ was of considerable interest for it showed a Victorian designer who made the transition from the freely interpreted Victorian gothic, toward the more historically accurate revivals common at the end of the century. His most notable early house (1887) for brewer Frederick Poth, at 33rd and Powelton, shows an awareness of contemporary German Victorian design in its massive corner tower, and brownstone detailed brick walls. By 1893, his office building at 1031–33 Chestnut Street showed deep Chicago brackets, supporting the second floor bay, and suggesting an awareness of Sullivan's work which he probably saw from a visit to the Chicago Fair. By 1900, his Provident Bank on State Street in Media was an elegant variation on a French Mediaeval castle, with round towers breaking through a hipped roofline. In those same years, the Dilks' residential design changed toward the greystone, country gothic that would typify the Philadelphia suburban mansion at the end of the century. Like most Victorian designers who made the transition, these early houses clearly were of greater interest than the later works.

One final note about the condition of the houses is in order. Through quirks of chance, the houses have been acquired by owners interested in historic preservation, and significant features have been carefully restored. Indeed, in the instance of 3312, new handmade terra cotta hanging tiles were made to duplicate the damaged originals. In most instances, historic paint colors (an olive with black trim) have been found and matched, creating a handsome Victorian streetscape.

The Poth and Schmidt Development Houses National Register nomination was reseached and prepared by George E. Thomas.

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