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Form prepared by Carl E. Doebley and Mark Lloyd
Clio Group for City of Philadelphia
3961 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia, PA
December 10, 1982
Item number 7. Description of the present and original (if known) physical appearance:
"The Germantown Historic district extends for twenty-one blocks along Germantown Avenue in the northwestern quadrant of Philadelphia. It encompasses nearly five hundred small-scaled commercial and residential buildings. Almost half date from the late nineteenth century; with over seventy percent designed after the Civil War. Of the earlier construction, slightly over ten percent of the district pre-dates the 1800s; approximately fifteen percent of the buildings were erected between 1800 and 1865. While largely consistent in scale and material, the stylistic range of the district fully parallels the changing fashions of American Architecture from the Colonial through the modern period.
"Most well known among the district's buildings are the rich and varied collection of Colonial and Federal houses. Within the district boundaries there are over fifty important early American sites, which document a full range of the social, political and architectural history of early Germantown. Most impressive are the palatial and largely restored mansions such as Cliveden (Photo 114), Loudon (Photo 5), Vernon (Photo 65), Wyck (Photo 80), and Upsala (Photo 111). They reflect the most advanced architectural design of the period, and offer contrast to the setting, scale and lack of embellishment of the modest tenant houses of the era, such as Wistar's Tenant House (Photo 40) near Bringhurst Street or the John Rittenhouse houses (Photo 73) at Rittenhouse Street. The middle ground is occupied by a group of houses that approach their larger counterparts in design and decoration, but which are tied to the Avenue in setting and scale. Included are the Ottinger and Mehl houses (Photo 19), the Baynton, Conyngham-Hacker, Howell, Theobald-Endt and Bechtal houses (Photos 33, 34, 35), and the Bellmeyer house (Photo 118) to list a few. All of the houses of the era share in the master builder tradition of early America. They are constructed almost exclusively of Wissahickon schist rubblework, sometimes stuccoed, with hand-molded woodwork. They rise to a height of two and one- half stories with a gable roof, punctuated by dormers.
"Of the surviving buildings in the district, few date from the period between 1800 and 1850. Those that exist follow the architectural traditions of the eighteenth century. The first radical break with that tradition did not occur until the 1850s, with the adaptation of romantic revival styles to local construction technique. Two institutional projects highlight the transformation. At the lower reaches of Germantown Avenue, the Hood Cemetery Gate, designed in 1849, by architect William Johnston announced the new age with the rich, plastic forms of the Baroque Revival. While to the north, on the 5300 block, builder-designers Jacob and George Binder adjusted the tenets of Federal church design to conform with those of the emerging Italianate style. Residential architecture changed even more dramatically in the district. Georgian styling was replaced by the Gothic Cottage, so successfully championed by the pattern book writers and professional architects of the period. At both 6381 Germantown Avenue (Photo 108) and 6464 Germantown Avenue (Photo 113) the metamorphosis is obvious. The gable has been compounded, the modillions replaced by scrollwork brackets and the flat arch window heads have given way to the pointed arch.
"Still, it was not until after the Civil War that Germantown Avenue underwent its most dramatic change. Nearly half of the surviving buildings date between 1864 and 1900, and by the turn of the century Victorian styling dominated the street. Most common were the builder styles, thinned versions of high style design, that were used throughout Philadelphia in the period. Among the most popular was the Italianate. Typical houses or shops were two or three stories with flat roofs, bracketed cornices, and simply finished lintels. (See photos 9 and 43.) Vying with the Italianate, from the 1860s to the 1880s, was the Second Empire style, although it usually was little more than an Italianate building with a mansard roof (Photos 6 and 25). The two dominated until the 1880s, when a shift in architectural fashion found them supplanted with the Colonial Revival. Often only vaguely related to their stylistic namesake, Colonial Revival buildings of the period usually were adorned with heavily molded cornices, flat arches with keystones, paneled window bays and either a 'Colonial' storefront or a classically detailed (Federal) porch. (See photos 16, 104, and 106.) Stylistic subthemes at this time in the district include High Victorian Gothic and the Queen Anne Revival.
"Aside from the builder rows, the period also saw the construction of several Victorian buildings of note. Almost exclusively, they were designed for commercial or institutional clients. At the C.W. Schaeffer Public School of 1876 (Photos 13 and 14), the Italianate received a more three-dimensional treatment than was usual in the area. The rubblework and deep window jambs added a massive quality, while the use of iron lintels allowed added window openings for a relatively light and airy interior. At the Masonic Temple (Photo 53) on the east side of the 5400 block, a full blown Gothic Revival building was erected, with an appropriate gabled frontispiece and a generous number of pointed arch openings. J.C. Sidney's design for the National Bank of Germantown (Photo 55) with its numerous additions presented successive interpretations of the Renaissance by several architects. While on Market Square, the T. Roney Williamson-attributed Presbyterian Church, executed in a strong Richardson Romanesque, elbowed its way onto its small-scaled block.
"Increasingly over the 19th century, Germantown Avenue developed as a commercial center for the Germantown-Mt. Airy neighborhood. In the twentieth century, that development crystalized in a four block area centered on the intersection with Chelten Avenue where older buildings were either demolished or largely renovated to make way for the new retail tenants. H. Holmes' design of 1926 for S.S. Kresge (Photo 59) in the 5300 block is typical of the latest version of Georgian Revival to appear in the district. Regency-like in its lightness, the design recalls its 18th century antecedents in a symbolic rather than a literal manner. The alternative to Georgian was Moderne, and the Gothic- influenced Art Deco style of Woolworth's (Photo 62) marks the extreme of the style in the district. A somewhat later and more reserved version can be seen in Thalheimer and Weitz's slick design for Triplex Shoes (Photo 56) near Armat Street.
"Two civic deigns near the Chelten Avenue intersection are of sufficient quality to warrant particular attention. For a Germantown Branch of the Free Library to be erected across form Vernon in Vernon Park, Frank Miles Day and Brother designed a low, long Georgian building that graciously deferred to the Federal style mansion. John P.B. Sinkler in his design of the Germantown Town Hall also paid tribute to early Philadelphia buildings with an ambitious design for the hall based on William Strickland's Philadelphia (Merchant's) Exchange at Third and Walnut Streets.
"The final burst of construction in the district occurred after World War II. Using traditional American design, less apt to offend patrons than the austere modernism of Europe, Herbert Beidler executed a Georgian Revival facade for the C. A. Rowell Department Store (Photo 63), on the site of the old Germantown Trust Company. A keystone in the 1950s development of the area, Beidler's design reflected continued interest along the Avenue in the early years of American Architectural design."
Item number 8. Significance:
"The original National Register nomination form for the Colonial Germantown Historic District, prepared in 1972, argued solely for the significance of the Colonial and Federal buildings along the avenue. This addendum, while acknowledging the richness of the early American building, argues that the collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings in the district also are significant. Many are architecturally important, and all are integral elements in Philadelphia's largest and once most successful commercial district outside the center of the city. Stretching over two miles in length, the district is an amalgam of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century buildings that represents the development of commerce in Germantown from its founding days, through its incorporation into the City of Philadelphia in 1854, to World War II.
"The 18th Century:
"Germantown was founded in 1683, the first German settlement in the New World. Its first residents were linen weavers and merchants. The German settlers who followed through most of the 18th century brought skills in many craft industries. Germantown developed into a sophisticated 'urban village' which boasted weaving, tanning, shoemaking, coopering, wagonmaking, and even specialized trades such as papermaking and printing. The residents conducted their manufacturing and marketing in the traditional 'cottage industry' method and their houses and shops stretched out for nearly two miles along Germantown Avenue.
"Germantown's population grew steadily during the 18th century, but did not exceed 2,500 until the final decade. The great majority of the land remained undeveloped; commerce, industry and residence alike were carried out in building directly upon Germantown Avenue. The intersection of the few 'cross streets' with Germantown Avenue seemed to attract some build-up, but nothing remotely approaching the concentration of later periods. Three examples of this tendency may be documented at the following locations in 1767: at Germantown Avenue and Wister Street were gathered two tanneries, a stock weaving shop, a harness making shop, a skinning ship, a butcher's shop, a blacksmith shop and an inn; at Germantown Avenue and Queen Lane were gathered a printing press, a carriage making factory, a saddler's shop, a powder making shop, a weaving shop, a general store, and an inn; at Germantown Avenue and Washington Lane were gathered a tannery, a cabinetmakers shop, several shoemaking shops, a cooper, and two inns.
"Germantown in the 18th century was well summarized by a Swedish traveler and diarist, Peter Kalm, in 1748:
|'...this town has only one street, but is nearly two English miles long. It is for the greatest part inhabited by Germans, who from time to time come from their country to North America and settle here, because they enjoy such privileges as they are not possessed of anywhere else. Most of the inhabitants are tradesmen and make almost everything in such quantity and perfection that in a short time this province will want very little from England, its mother country.'|
"The railroad also made it convenient for businessmen to work in Philadelphia and live in Germantown. New streets, running perpendicular to Germantown Avenue, were opened to accommodate the new residents -- both mill workers and upper middle class businessmen. The new streets connected rail stations on the east side of Germantown with the Avenue itself and served to funnel residents from the trains and factories to Germantown Avenue and to their homes. Germantown Avenue, then became the focus of the shops and stores which supplied the goods and services demanded by the new population. Germantown simultaneously a textile manufacturing center. The changes in Germantown were well summarized by the Philadelphia diarist Sydney George Fisher on 7 August 1857:
|'Was much impressed in my drive today with the beauty of the country, the universal aspect of wealth and comfort and the difference that a few years have made in the neighborhood of Germantown, always a respectable, substantial village, but now adorned with elegance and supplied with all the conveniences of a city -- shops, gas, waterworks, with none of the annoyances of town, but quiet, country scenery, gardens, and trees everywhere. The railroad and the taste for villa life have done it all, and so manifold are its advantages that the wonder to me is how any can bear to stay in town.'|
"By the 1850s Germantown Avenue had entered into the transformation which would take nearly eighty years to complete. The important commercial investment in new buildings clustered on Germantown Avenue between Rittenhouse Street and School House Lane. The Germantown 'Main Street" itself lost its residential attractiveness and the old residences and the buildings used for the crafts and trades of 'cottage industry' were re-used or replaced with specialized commercial and business structures. Prominent examples of these buildings include the 'Parker's Hall and Combinations Stores' at 5801 Germantown Avenue (demolished), built c. 1851; the 'Langstroth Building' at 5603/5 Germantown Avenue (Photo 62), c. 1854; the 'Germantown Mutual Fire Insurance Company Building' at 5601 Germantown Avenue (demolished), c. 1853; and the 'Bull's Head Market House' at 5344/8 Germantown Avenue (Photo 45), c. 1859/60. Each of these buildings represented new commerce and business in Germantown; each brought a building form, an architecture, and a specialization of use not previously seen.
"In 1859 a horse-car line was laid on Germantown Avenue from Philadelphia to a terminus just above Phil-Ellena Street. In tandem with the railroad, this form of transportation supplied a fresh surge of population growth in Germantown in the post-bellum period. It also made the entire length of Germantown Avenue accessible to the public at large and more, made the Avenue the most desirable location for all commerce and business. Commercial land use spread along the entire distance of the horse-car line and it intensified and diversified. Large scale investment continued to cluster between Rittenhouse Street and School House Lane. The local banks led the way in building substantial business 'houses' along the Avenue. The National Bank of Germantown moved from its quarters in a converted colonial-era mansion to a new bank building in 1868 at 5500 Germantown Avenue (Photo 55); the Savings Fund Society of Germantown moved to a new bank building at 5708 Germantown Avenue in 1870 (Photo 64). 'Stokes Block': a row of commercial buildings, erected on the site of the Stoke's family Greek Revival mansion at 5600/2/4/6 Germantown (Photo 60), c. 1875, further focused the large-scale investment in this area.
"High density and mixed use buildings also began to appear: thirteen commercial/residential row buildings built at 4932 - 4956 Germantown Avenue (Photo 23), c. 1870; the three commercial/residential row buildings at 5100/2/4 Germantown Avenue (Photo 31), c. 1875; the five commercial/residential buildings at 5310/2/4/6/8 Germantown Avenue (Photo 43), c. 1877; the six commercial/residential buildings at 6100/2/4/6/8/10 (Photo 83), c. 1870. Storefront shops proliferated along Germantown Avenue and less affluent Germantowners lived in the apartments above the stores.
"The Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries
"In 1887 came the first notice that the commercial district was about to form a hub at the intersection of Germantown and Chelten Avenues. In that year an observant local reporter wrote a front page story entitled 'Chelten Avenue as a Business Street.' He saw stores and offices spreading away from the Germantown 'Main Street,' along a formerly residential street. He saw the commercial district beginning to focus specifically on the crossroad of Germantown and Chelten Avenues. He was not alone in his vision.
"In each of the three decades between 1880 and 1910 still another new transportation system was introduced in Germantown. The three taken together -- a new railroad line, several new electrified trolley lines and the automobile -- produced by 1930 a 'city' within a city, the largest commercial district in the metropolitan area outside downtown Philadelphia.
"In 1884 the Pennsylvania Railroad opened a railroad through the west side of Germantown from Philadelphia to a terminus at Germantown Avenue and Bethlehem Pike in Chestnut Hill. Like its predecessor on Germantown's east side, the railroad created a surge of new housing and sustained the town's rapid growth of population. In 1892 a horse-car line was opened on Chelten Avenue from Pulaski Avenue to Chew Street. By 1906 this trunk line had been electrified and trolleys had branched into East Falls and the Falls of the Schuylkill neighborhoods on the west and Logan, West Oak Lane, and suburban Glenside on the east and north. Residents from all over Philadelphia's northwest section were funneled into the heart of Germantown's commercial district by the confluence of trolley lines at Germantown and Chelten. Then in 1904 the first local automobile club was formed and by 1920 there were 'No Left Turn' signs at the intersection of Germantown and Chelten. The automobile expanded the market area of the Germantown commercial district into even more distant communities such as Jenkintown and Whitemarsh. The Germantown commercial district exploded with growth between 1890 and 1915 and by the latter date had become a major, urban center.
"By 1930 commercial buildings dominated every block of Germantown Avenue from Wayne Junction to Johnson Street, but as in earlier periods the focus of investment was to be found at or near the intersection of Germantown and Chelten. A new banking institution, the Germantown Trust company, signaled the upward spiral in 1889 by purchasing the southeast corner of Germantown and Chelten and constructing a major bank building which, over the next forty years, was several times expanded, culminating in the eight story tower built at the rear of its property in 1929/30. In the first years of the 20th century the local newspapers often ran stories detailing the dramatic rise of real estate values along the entire length of Germantown Avenue from Haines Street to Coulter Street and declaring the blocks of the Avenue nearest Chelten to be the most desirable and most expensive. An old family firm (established c. 1810), 'Robert Cherry's Sons,' built a three-story addition in 1904 and expanded into three unified storefronts in 1911 at 5541/3/5/7 Germantown Avenue (Photo 59). F.W. Woolworth's located its 185th 5 and 10 cent store at 5611/13 Germantown Avenue in 1907 and by 1930 had expanded into the present 5609/11/13 Germantown Avenue (Photo 62). S.S. Kresge and Company established a major store at 5549/51/53 Germantown Avenue (Photo 59) in 1926 and in the same year the Langstroth Building at 5700/2/4/6 Germantown Avenue (Photo 64) was completely rebuilt and re-opened as 'Vernon Hall' in fine Art Deco style. Several other major buildings -- the Germantown Theatre (3,000 seats), c. 1913, at 5530 Germantown Avenue; the United Gas Improvement Company Building, c. 1911, at the southwest corner of Germantown Avenue and Maplewood Avenue; the Chelten Trust Company bank building, c. 1907, at 5614 Germantown Avenue -- have since been demolished. The first two blocks of West Chelten Avenue -- technically outside the bounds of the historic commercial district -- were the site of still other major buildings -- the Orpheum Theatre (2,000) seats), c. 1917, at 26/8/30/2/4 West Chelten; the Philadelphia Electric Company Building, c. 1925, at 41 West Chelten; the Allen's Department Store, c. 1927, at 100 West Chelten and the skyscraping Bankers' Trust (Barker) Building, c. 1929/30, at 14/6/8/20 West Chelten. Germantown's commercial district was so large and so complete that for more than fifty years it was called a 'city' within a city, losing ground beginning only in the 1960s with the advent of the contemporary suburban shopping malls."