Drawings for Wendell & Smith Homes

Today, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia retains 21 of the architect William Price's drawings for homes in Overbrook Farms. This page explains the methodology used for matching these drawings with the Overbrook homes as built, and what was learned about the drawings.

Above is an example of the plan numbers inscribed on the 1916 Wendell & Smith map.
Map courtesy of the Radnor Historical Society Architectural Drawing Collection on loan
to the Athenaeum of Philadelphia with the support of the Pew Charitable Trust through
its Museum Loan Program.

The starting point of this project was a collection of documents at the Philadelphia Athenaeum. We were chiefly concerned with a map of Overbrook Farms created by Wendell and Smith and a set of drawings of houses.  The drawings referred to the houses by number, and the map showed a number superimposed over most, but not all, houses.

We assumed that the numbers on the map would correspond to the drawings.  Since numbers on the map were frequently duplicated, we assumed that the numbered drawings represented a “stock” house design which a prospective owner could have built. 

The first step in the investigation was to photograph all of the houses.  We stored the photos in a database along with the number which appeared on the map for each house.  We first compared houses with the same map number.  This comparison supported the idea that the map number referred to a house type; houses with the same number on the map appear to have been identical as built. 

Next we compared the houses to the drawings with the corresponding number.  This did not show what we had hoped.  With only a couple of exceptions (such as house Nos 90 and 92 seen below), the drawings did not look like the houses whose map numbers matched   It is certainly possible to match the houses visually with the drawings, but it leaves the numbers as much of a mystery as ever.

On the left, Drawing No. 90, Courtesy of the William Price Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
On the right, 6335 Sherwood Avenue in 2005, which appears to match plans for House No. 90.


On the left, drawing No. 92, Courtesy of the William Price Collection, Atehaneum of Philadelphia.
On the right, 6371 Overbrook Avenue in 2005, which appears to match the plans for House No. 92.

The numbers on the map clearly seem to refer to a house type.  Presumably there was once a catalog of houses from which to choose.  We have no evidence of this, however.  Houses as found today can still be largely categorized by these numbers, but there are some difficulties.  Modifications over the life of the house make identification harder, and certainly there were modifications requested in the construction by the original buyer.  Some house types are clearly derivative of other types.  One popular type is not represented in the collection of drawings except by penciled changes to a drawing of the house type that must have been its antecedent.  Sometimes different numbers refer to houses with rather subtle differences, and this can make identification difficult.

It is very helpful to be able to categorize houses in this manner.  It may provide evidence of how Wendell and Smith catered to customers of differing means and it can help clarify the original form of a house that has undergone renovation over its lifetime.

What remains a mystery is the numbers which appear on the drawings.  It is still not known whether these correspond to any system.  It is possible that they are simply individual sets of drawings numbered chronologically.  It is possible that they refer to a system that we simply have no other evidence of. 

At left, the inscription on one of the Price drawings. Drawings provided
to the Athenaeum of Philadelphia with the support of the Pew Charitable
Trust through its Museum Loan Program

The most compelling mystery remains the question of what the process was for a potential buyer.  How did one choose a home design?  Clearly, there was an option of a custom-designed home or a choice of an existing design.  How were the existing designs presented to buyers?  Despite having some of Wendell and Smith’s literature for potential buyers, we do not know.