5100 Block of Regent Street, 1311–1327 S. 52nd Street
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places September 12, 1985
The Regent–Rennoc Court is an imposing group of flat houses developed by a well known local developer, James Conner, and designed by Philadelphia's principal architect of mass produced housing, E. A. Wilson. Wilson designed in excess of 20,000 residential units in the city, principally in row groups of one hundred or more, and was largely responsible for the development of the normative twentieth century housing types of the Quaker City.
This is one of his more innovative experiments, which attempted to provide the amenities of the individual row with the security and larger scale of the apartment. Interestingly, too, the larger scale permitted more light and air around the perimeter of the buildings, and in an age when the importance of ventilation and light was being discovered, made them a modern and healthful residential environment. That same largeness of scale caused Wilson to essay a larger and more exuberant decorative vocabulary that gives these buildings considerable presence in their row house neighborhood. Finally, the buildings have urban significance in marking the impact of the regional streetcar network that caused the infilling of previously inaccessible land and brought the apartment dwelling to the region previously developed for single family houses. For reasons that relate to the scale and difficulties of management of aging apartment buildings, few of these buildings have survived in southwest Philadelphia. The restoration of this block will help preserve what was a significant building type, while also assisting in the stabilization of an early-twentieth century neighborhood.
The principal area of interest is as the design of architect, E. A. Wilson. Wilson first came to prominence in the 1890s as the designer of the "Typical Workingman's House" erected at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, drawings of which survive in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. By 1900, he had cornered the market in speculative housing design, with vast projects in Germantown, North Philadelphia, and especially West Philadelphia, always in close proximity to the streetcars and elevated lines of the city transit system. In each of these rows, Wilson designed a formula house given individuality by the addition of overscaled historical motifs typically from the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. That approach linked his designs to contemporary fashion and served as the basis for his few larger a partment buildings as well.
The Regent–Rennoc group was erected in 1910 with the intention of getting the same square footage and number of units of row development of a typical Philadelphia block—but by enlarging the scale to provide better light and air. The corollary of the increase in size gave Wilson a field for greater decorative embellishment in keeping with the commercial need to establish identity for the group so that they could be readily rented. This he accomplished by the handsome over-scaled facades described in Section 17. Of particular note are the massive multi-level porches that screen the front, the exuberant cast stone and pressed metal detail, and the overscaled, iconic references to the Georgian Revival.
These qualities are different from the norms of high architecture, which stressed real materials, consistency of form, and relationships between the new use and the historical source. Instead, they establish a link back to the less prepossessing "low brow" architecture of such mid-nineteenth century architects as Stephen Button who used ruled stucco to simulate cut stone, at the cast iron facades with their sanded and painted surfaces in the commercial districts. This architecture is at least as vital as the high architecture—but lacks the critical and theoretical support, and thus tends to be diminished, drastically distorting the picture of turn of the century architecture.
Finally, the buildings are of interest in marking the impact of the growing trolley car network, which raised land prices sufficiently to make flat houses a reasonable alternative in the "City of Homes". These are especially handsome in suggesting the monumentality and presence that could be attained and with the adjacent library that terminates the vista of Regent Street gives focus to its neighborhood. As one of the most impressive building groups by an important designer, E. A. Wilson, and a representative of the evolving notion of middle class design that helps clarify the achievement of the early twentieth century, the Regent–Rennoc Court deserves to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This National Register Nomination was researched and prepared by George E. Thomas.