University City Historical Society

Sansom Row

Bounded by 3400 Block of Sansom Street

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places December 27, 1977

Statement of Significance

Sansom Row is comprised of eighteen houses, sixteen faced with a rough textured brownstone laid as random ashlar, while the westward most buildings project forward to terminate the group and are faced with common Philadelphia brick. As was usually the case, the row was constructed in sets of mirror image pairs sharing the long party wall spine. Paired doorways and continuous bracketed cornices denote the sets and add a larger measured rhythm to the staccato pattern of windows, doorways and dormers. It is worth noting that here as elsewhere in Philadelphia, the problem of three openings on the first floor for door and two windows against two windows on the second and third floors was never resolved in an orderly composition.

Sansom Row in 1977
Sansom Row in 1977
Sansom Row in 1977
Sansom Row in 1977

The detailing of the row reflects the post Civil War date, indicated by deeds and surveys as being between 1869 and 1871. Crisply handled Second Empire motifs, round arched doorways and segmentally arched windows both with projecting keystones, the heavy bracketed cornices, and the story high mansards pierced by round headed dormers are all associated with contemporary building practice and available pattern books. A few of the houses still show traces of wooden porches which were probably added in the 1880's. Their removal would in no way harm the block's appearance.

Most row house interiors were relatively standardized by the 1860's and these were no exception. Here a small vestibule opened into a stair hall which continued past the front parlor to the rear ell of the house which contained the dining room and a kitchen. The front parlor was the principal space of the house and was graced by heavy plaster cornices, and plaster medallion in the ceiling from which hung the lighting fixture, and of course, the usual marbleized slate mantle which was centered on the projecting chimney breast.

Second floors contained an upstairs sitting room lighted by a large projecting bay window, and embellished by another fireplace. In the front was the master bedroom. The third floor, more plainly finished, provided additional sleeping rooms of modest size.

In general the row retains its essential character — as a row. Most of the principal elements have been retained, and the major alterations have taken place in the end buildings which differed from the beginning. Interiors have already been much changed, being converted into apartments and some have already been modernized.

Statement of Significance

The Sansom Row is significant for reasons of history, architecture, the representation of Philadelphia's social structure and as a diversifying element in the University of Pennsylvania campus environment. Historically, after a generation of expansion, by its institutional neighbors this row is among the last survivors in the region of the great post Civil War building boom that nearly doubled the city's housing stock and for the first time promised the American dream of a home for every family. Houses such as these once lined Walnut, Chestnut, Spruce and Locust Streets, creating the quiet residential district which originally helped attract the University of Pennsylvania to the region.

Architecturally the Sansom Row is of considerable interest because of the higher quality of materials, notably the brownstone facades and the imbricated shingles of the mansards which set the row apart from the usual red brick facades of most of the city's rows. Presumably that difference is the result of the already established clientele of the region which already included members of the Drexel, Potts and Lea families and therefore suggested an affinity with the brownstone blocks of the Rittenhouse Square vicinity rather than the speculative rows of north and south Philadelphia.

Because of its proximity to the University of Pennsylvania and its easy access to center city by horsecar and later trolley, the block has been the home of a rich cross section of Philadelphia's population, including in the past century Madame Elena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophists, stone carver and marble yard owner John M. Gessler, and A. Van Roelin, an artisan nationally known for ecclesiastical woodcarving. In recent years its residents and owners have often been associated with the renaissance of the University of Pennsylvania sculptor Robert Engman, architect Romaldo Giurgola, structural engineer Robert LeRicolais, deans of the Graduate School of Fine Arts G. Holmes Perkins and Peter Shepheard.

Finally, Sansom Row has tremendous importance in the University of Pennsylvania campus environment recalling the original scale of the region and countering the institutional anonymity. As such it is a reference point in time and space, one which adds a measure of diversity of form and opportunity to an ever more institutional district. Its survival helps assure that the merits of past will be continuously evident to students and planners alike.

This National Register Nomination was prepared by George E. Thomas.

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