Avenue three : Fire Insurance Records

While the first avenue of approach looked at geographic location and groupings of row houses on maps and the second avenue of approach looked at the individuals who designed and built the row houses, this approach follows row house development chronologically using fire insurance surveys.

One of the greatest tools for architectural historians working Philadelphia are the records of two local fire insurance companies that are held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These preserved records give detailed building descriptions and often plans for all houses insured with either the Franklin Fire Insurance Company or the Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company. For the purposes of this research, the fire insurance surveys give four important pieces of information: the date of erection (assuming the date of insurance is close to the date of completion), the builder or first owner of the row house, the frontage width and its address or location within the city.

I looked through a sprinkling of Franklin Fire Insurance policy books and loose records spanning decades in the 19th century from 1839 to 1895 looking for groups of row houses that were insured in sequent policies or within the same policy. By chronilogically assimilating the row house developments perhaps trends in frontage width will pop out.

2501-2505 Ellsworth Street, 5/4/1916. From the Philadelphia Photo Archive: Historic Photos. Public Works ID:12023-12023.  

 

1839. In policy books 5-7 of the Franklin Fire Insurance Co. the following surveys were some of the few row house developments recorded in 1839. Notice the frontage widths included at the end of each entry:

Survey made 4/6/1839 for Charles Williams (ground landlord). P.n. 2566. Four three story brick dwelling houses, standing about 50 feet back from the north side of Pine street, about 150 feet west of Sch. 6 th Street. 12' front.

Survey made 6/22/1839 for Levi Dickson. P.n. 2666. Six three story brink dwelling houses and piazzas situate on the north side of Gaskill Street, numbers 47, 49, 51, 53, 55 and 57 between Third and Fourth Streets. 13.6' front.

Survey made 8/19/1839 for Robert J. & William Clarke. Six three story brick dwelling houses and piazzas situate on the north side of Washington Street commencing at the west corner of Third Street and extending westwardly 15' 3 fronts.

Survey made 8/21/1839 for Alexander Reid. Eight two and a half story brick dwelling houses situate on both sides of a court fronting on the west side of Flower Street about 114 feet south of Fitzwater Street. 13' fronts.


1852. In just one policy book of the Franklin Fire Insurance Co., number 134, there were significantly more row house developments in 1852. The following surveys are just a sampling from this book. Again, notice continuities in the frontage widths:

Survey made 11/6/1852 for Allen Server. P.n. 16907-12. Four three story brick dwelling houses situate on the south side of Master Street, west of Lewis Street and two three story brick dwelling houses situate on the west side of Lewis Street, south of Master Street. Five with 14' fronts and one with a 15' front.

Survey made 11/9/1852 for John Bateson. P.n. 16923-29. Seven three story brick dwellings situate on the west side of Evans Street between Thirteenth and Broad Street . Two with 14' fronts, one a 16' front and three with 15' fronts.

Survey made 11/11/52 for Charles H. Masson. P.n. 16930. Five two story brick dwelling houses situate on the easterly side of Hanner St beginning at the south east corner of Jackson St . The corner house has a 17' front and the interior four houses have 16' fronts.

Survey made 11/11/1852 for Sela A. Pearson. P.n. 16939-16945. O.N. 1301-1313 Delaware Seventh Street . 15' 8 fronts.

Survey made 11/11/1852 for Joseph Denegre. Pn. 16961-63. Three three story brick dwelling houses situate on the south side of Tower Street (between Mulberry and Cherry Streets) west of S. Second St . 15' fronts.

Survey made 11/19/1852 for Hunter Steadman. P.n. 17004-11. Eight three story brick dwelling houses and piazzas situate on the south side of Pine Street east of Willow Street 16' fronts.

Survey made 11/19/1852 for Thomas Singerly. P.n. 17034-39. Six three story brick dwelling houses situate on the west side of Coral Street north of Reading Avenue. 16' fronts.


1860s-1890s. Here are a sampling of records from the later decades of the 19th century. The row house developments are even more common in these decades than they were in 1852 reflecting city growth and expansion. Frontage widths remain consistent by decade:

Survey made 12/2/1865 for William Cowell. P.n. 49108. Three 3 story brick dwelling houses situate numbers 1020, 1022 and 1024 South 12 th Street . 16' front.

Survey made 12/3/1874 for Thomas Smith. P.n. 49464-75. Thirteen two story stone and brick dwelling houses situate on the north side of Catherine St. numbers 2327-2349. 16' front.

Survey made 5/1/1883 for James E. Dingle. P.n. 61520-61532. Thirteen three story brick dwelling houses situate on the south side of Nicholas Street beginning no. 2432, west of Twenty Fourth Street . 14' 3 front.

Survey made ?/?/1883 for John Grinnan. P.n. 61666-76. Ten two story brick dwelling houses situate on the west side of Caernasem St. (between 19 th and 20 th St ) south from Dickinson St . 14' front.

Survey made 9/24/1883 for Patrick Flemming. P.n. 61781-96. Sixteen two story brick dwelling houses situate on the west side of south 19 th St. numbers 1302-1310. 14' 9 fronts.

Survey made 10/18/1883 for James E. Dingle. P.n. 61658-59. Two two story brick buildings situate on the south sides o Nicholas St. numbers 2424-2426. 14' 3 fronts.

Survey made 12/3/1895 for George M. Peppelman. P.n. 72847-62. Sixteen two story brick dwelling houses situate on the west side of Farrell St.south of Wolf St. 14' fronts.

 

Fire insurance survey of five two story brick dwelling houses situate on the easterly side of Hanner St beginning at the south east corner of Jackson St, for Charles H. Masson, 11 Novemeber 1852. Franklin Fire Insurance Co. Records (policy 134:16930), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


This approach is tedious. It requires manually flipping through the policy books page by page searching for row house series (with many of the records there is not even a policy book, but individual pamphlets for each policy number or row house series). But this avenue is also rewarding. In just a small sampling of records from 1839, 1852, 1865, 1874, 1883 and 1895 we can already see trends that suggests that certain frontage values were more prevelent in certain decades. From this data we see that in 1839 the row houses had smaller frontages around 12' or 13'. Toward the middle of the century row house frontage was larger, averaging 15' and 16'. But in the later decades, specifically the 1880s and 1890s the frontage values dropped back down to 14'. It's also clear that the addresses get progressively farther from center city.

 

  2523-2527 Manton Street, 5/8/1916. From the Philadelphia Photo Archive: Historic Photos. Public Works ID: 12074-12074 . This is not a photograph of any of the row houses described in the above surveys, but it would be similar to those described as two story with frontages of approximately 14.'

After exploring all three of these avenues and gathering various types of information, the more difficult task of speculating what it means begins. What do the chronilogical trends of avenue three suggest? What does it mean that architects like Robert Mills designed row houses of similar frontages in two different cities, yet developers like Joseph Montgomery built row house series of differeing frontages in two sections of the same city? How can block averages of frontage widths be applied to larger economic and social trends in their urban context? These are questions in the next stage answering the frontage question. This website has explored three routes of research, yet anyone of these avenues could be developed further to produce new and enlightening data about a relatively unknown element of our urban vernacular.


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