WENDELL & SMITH/DEVELOPERS OF OVERBROOK FARMS
A Brief History
Built in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Overbrook Farms in northwestern Philadelphia is one of the city’s earliest examples of a suburban development. While a rail station had been constructed in the Overbrook Farm area in 1840, the development of the area did not occur for nearly fifty more years, when Pennsylvania Railroad companies saw residential development of property along rail lines as an opportunity to create commuter business (Willoughby 5).
In 1880, Drexel & Co (a banking firm with investments in the Pennsylvania railroad) purchased land along the main line, including land that would eventually become the Overbrook Farm Development. Herman Wendell and Walter Bassett Smith, well known developers of higher end housing, were commissioned by Drexel & Co. to develop Overbrook Farms.
Wendell and Smith’s venture with Overbrook Farms built upon the emerging exuberance over a new form of living made possible by the railroad. It was now possible to live outside of cities – perceived to be dirty and unhealthful -- in a park like setting in the suburbs. The advantages of suburban life are explored in an 1899 pamphlet published by Wendell & Smith, entitled “A Little Talk with the Home Seeker.”
The pamphlet begins by acknowledging how traditionally, living outside the city has meant one could enjoy the healthfulness of the country, but be cut off from comforts, services, and the company of refined people found in urban areas. Wendell and Smith explain:
“The country home usually means the absence of almost all of the little refinements and luxuries of city life – the thousand and one comforts that seem so trifling in themselves, and yet that are so hard to do without. It usually means cutting yourself loose from your friends and acquaintances – literally burying yourself and your family alive. Depriving your children of school facilities and your family of quick medical attention – a serious matter to contemplate. Few men have the hardihood to do this.”
“And so you, the home-seeker in the city, think, as you mentally review these advantages and disadvantages, ‘I guess the city will have to be good enough for me,’ and your mind turns naturally to what all city men of families dream of – a place that combines the advantages of both city and country: but it seems ridiculous" (2).
In Overbrook Farms, Wendell and Smith attempted to marry the conveniences and refinement of city life with the advantages of country living. The natural health of the country is augmented by technological advancements in plumbing, heating and electricity. Wendell & Smith note in their pamphlet that such amenities were given no small consideration in Overbrook Farms: “The most approved experience of sanitary experts was called upon by the managers of Overbrook Farms, to prepare a system by which Overbrook Farms should always be as healthy as in the days when it was one of the beautiful grazing farms of our suburban country" (5). The new development also offered an advanced well system for water delivery, as well as steam heating from a centralized steam plant.
Wendell and Smith also touted the high quality of their homes. “The materials from which our houses are built are selected with a view to procuring the very best, irrespective of cost, and yet we have bought them in such large quantities that they cost us far less than an inferior quality would cost a private party. Our customers get the benefit of this. The exterior of the houses we build are in keeping with the interiors – they promise nothing that the interiors do not fulfill.” (10).
The developers employed a number of regionally well known architects, such as Mellor and Meigs, Horace Trumbauer, and William Price. Architectural styles included a number of historic revivals, such as Gothic and Tudor, as well as late Victorian and Arts and Crafts homes.
Consideration was also given to social activities. According to George Magee Jr. in a history of the development titled “Overbrook Farms”, there were a number of tennis courts and a community center located above one of the shop stores.
Wendell and Smith also offered exclusivity in Overbrook Farms. Homes sold for between $7,000 and $18,000 in 1896, or between $155,000 and $400,000 in 2005 dollars (Magee 74), and the developers offered the reassurance that the high quality of the neighborhood would be preserved to the late 19th century home seeker. They explain: “One drawback to the most suburban towns is that there is liable to be a wide diversity in the price of the houses erected – so wide, indeed, that the entire effect of a handsome mansion may be destroyed by a red and yellow structure next door. We have planned to avoid this possibility” (11).
While a number of the homes had been demolished and replaced with apartment buildings as early as 1936,the majority of the original homes remain in place even today (Magee 75). A number of homes were also added in the 1900s after the first wave of development in the late 1890s . While these homes are not as grand as those built earlier on, they retain a look that is consistent with the earlier houses.
Today, Overbrook Farms retains some of the sense of grandeur that was no doubt envisioned by the developers. Interestingly, however, Overbrook Farms seems to have met two slightly different fates. On the west side of the railroad tracks, homes are in better repair, while homes on the east side of the tracks seem to be in decline. This would make for an interesting sociological study at a later time.
Magee, George Jr. Overbrook Farms. Overbrook, PA: The Overbrook Farm Press, 1936.
Wendell, Herman and Walter Smith. "A Little Chat with Home Seekers." Overbrook, PA: 1899. Additional publication information unknown.
Willoughby, Edith L., et. al. "National Register of Historic Resources Nomination Form"