* * University City Historical Society News * *
NEW HISTORIC DISTRICT IN UNIVERSITY CITY
"The West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District"
by Tim Wood
Special to the Press/Review
On February 5, 1998, most of the Spruce Hill and Cedar Park neighborhoods were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The new West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District joins other University City locations on the National Register, such as Garden Court, Powelton Village, University of Pennsylvania, as well as many individual sites ranging from The Woodlands to the WFIL-TV Studios where American Bandstand was produced.
The areas of Spruce Hill, Cedar Park, and Squirrel Hill that are included in the new district were considered to be significant by the National Register because of their wealth of architectural styles and because of the neighborhoods' importance in the transformation of residential patterns in Philadelphia. The range of architectural styles represented here is impressive. Architects and builders have worked in the Italianate, Victorian Gothic, Second Empire, Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Classical Revival styles, as well as in many variations and combinations of these styles.
While most of the homes in the area were designed by now-anonymous architects, many notable Philadelphia architects worked in the area as well. Scattered through the neighborhood are buildings designed by Frank Furness, Samuel Sloan, and Horace Trumbauer, among others. The architectural fabric of the district is remarkably intact; it includes over 3600 buildings, yet fewer than 120 of them were not considered to be contributing to the historic character of the neighborhood.
The streetcars that give the new district its name were integral to the transformation of the area west of the Schuylkill River. Before there was easy access to the west side of the river, the area had been a fashionable country retreat for the city's upper classes. The extension of a network of streetcar lines into the area in the late nineteenth century started a period of real estate speculation and rapid building that transformed West Philadelphia into a middle class commuter suburb. By 1906, practically every home in the neighborhood was within a two-block walk of a streetcar line. While most of the streetcar and trolley lines that helped to shape the neighborhood are now gone, their impact on the landscape is still felt. The opening of the Market-Frankford El further opened the area west of the new historic district to development.
The other two largely residential historic districts in University City, Powelton Village and Garden Court, are equally rich in architectural styles and in historic significance. The development of both districts is also tied to real estate speculation and to changes in transportation networks. Powelton Village (a name attached to the area in the 1950s) was placed on the National Register in 1985. Powelton's development as a residential suburb is related to its proximity to the ferry and bridge at Spring Garden, and later, the streetcars that allowed commuters to live on the west side of the Schuylkill River.
Garden Court was listed on the National Register in 1984, and the boundaries expanded in 1986. Developed after World War I, Garden Court's houses and apartment buildings included generous greenspace and incorporated garages to accommodate the automobiles that were to become increasingly common on the American landscape. The designation of the West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District caps a longterm project of the University City Historical Society.
Society members and volunteers spent countless hours surveying and photographing the buildings in the neighborhood, as well as researching the area's history. Historic preservation consultant Cynthia Rose prepared the final report that was submitted to both the Pennsylvania's Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service (the agency that administers the National Register). Funding for this project was provided by the members of UCHS as well as by a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Inclusion on the National Register recognizes the historical, cultural, and architectural significance of the area. The designation does not, however, limit what porperty owners can do to their buildings. For owners of commercial properties, there are tax credits for historically-sensitive renovation projects. The requirements for gaining these credits are available from the National Register's Heritage Preservation Services or by writing or calling Pennsylvania's State Historic Preservation Officer at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission [PO Box 1026, Harrisburg, PA 17108-1026, or (717) 787-2891.]
If you have questions about whether a property you own is included in the West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District, or one of the other National Register Districts in University City, contact University City Historical Society at (215) 387-3019.
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