By the 1920s, almost all of the open space in West Philadelphia was gone. The demand for new buildings had been so great that in some instances old buildings had been demolished to make way new ones. Throughout the city, societies had sprung up championing the retention of open spaces, the creation of city parks, and livable planning. These ideals were a part of the City Beautiful movement. In Philadelphia, its most celebrated manifestation was the creation of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This new diagonal connected City Hall to the new museum of art at Fairmount Park in the form of a wide tree lined boulevard. This movement also seems to have influenced the development of Garden Court.
The Garden Court neighborhood is largely the creation of Clarence Siegel. His involvement and leadership in the planning demonstrates extraordinary vision and ability. As a result, the area has remained unified and attractive in the decades that have followed. Architectural historian George Thomas has found that Siegel was responsible for insisting on thorough analysis and integration of design with all needs. The impact of his work extended even to adjacent properties. This probably because there were only a few other builders in the area, and they used the same architects.
After World War I, Siegel began acquiring properties in an undeveloped enclave west of 45th Street and north of Larchwood Avenue. It has been postulated that this land may have remained unbuilt in part because it had been less convenient to the rapid transit lines. In any event, Siegel clearly recognized the need to accommodate the automobile. Nearly every building in the neighborhood, whether built by Seigel or others, had a garage. This included the apartment complex from which the neighborhood takes its name. By catering to automobile owners, a slightly more exclusive neighborhood was created. For by the 1920s even many blue collar workers could and did commute by mass transit. The automobile remained a luxury for most, even though Henry Ford's Model T had helped drive down the price.
In other respects, Garden Court was designed to a relatively broad spectrum of residents. For within the Garden Court neighborhood, an interesting hierarchy of housing types was created. Houses were built that could accommodate small to large, entry level to the well established. Within the apartment complexes, there was a range from single bedroom flats, to large multiroom apartments. The placement of these buildings was not haphazard. Across from the apartments were mostly large single family houses, and then working toward the periphery were generally medium and smaller houses. Like in the older developments, these smaller houses are in the form of twins and rows.
Unlike the previous developments, Siegel seems to have planned more than for a block at a time. This is suggested by the hierarchy mentioned above, and in the unity brought to the streetscapes by use of similar building materials and forms. In addition, many of the blocks, like the apartments, had a spectrum of offerings. George Thomas credits John Coneys as the architect whose design work brought together the variety of forms and materials that help create visual unity for this neighborhood. Most of the exteriors are generally lighter colors of brick, stucco, and stone with a smattering of half timbering. At the same time, the buildings show many influences of the arts and crafts movement in form, layout and design.
George Thomas has identified a number of contemporary descriptions that demonstrate how dedicated Siegel was both to the artistic design of the houses, and to plan space use to effectively bring in light and air. To quote from the National Register Nomination "Siegel was so involved with the values and appearance of the community that the houses came to be called 'Siegel's Artistic homes,' a name well-known in Philadelphia Real Estate pages." Contemporary "newspaper accounts" also indicate "the years of study in order that the utmost by way of light, air, exposure, recreational space, storage of automobiles, and dining facilities might be obtained." This latter quote specifically refers to The Garden Court Plaza, the apartment complex that capped Siegel's work, but suggests the methodology he applied from the beginning.
The stock market crash in 1929 ended the final articulation of the Garden Court Plaza. However, the success of both the apartments and the surrounding neighborhood in the subsequent years has been a testament to their design. Nearest the University of Pennsylvania, some of the earliest suburban blocks fell victim with their later neighbors to urban renewal in the 1950s. Philadelphia's population began to decline with the move to the suburbs and shrinking industrial markets. Much of West Philadelphia witnessed block busting and white flight. Shrinking family sizes and poorer families made the bigger houses undesirable except as apartments. Victorian was considered not only old, but ugly; grotesque, sublime, and gothic were pretty much out of fashion.
In addition to the Garden Court development, there were other building campaigns that had direct bearing on West Philadelphia between the world wars. Amongst those are development of city parks, changing commercial uses around 30th and Market Streets, and the arrival of new institutions. A number of these were designed in the spirit of the City Beautiful movement, creating or maintaining elegant public and semi-public spaces. These provided an injection that helped boost suburban appeal of what was otherwise becoming a rather urban environment.
The idea of public parks was not new, it was the placement of them in the city grid that was. Fairmount Park had been started in the mid 1800s to protect the city's water supply and provide a place for recreation. In 1894, Clarence Clark donated a plot of land between 43rd and 45th streets to be used a city park. Clark was at the forefront of the city park movement in Philadelphia, and it was said that his own grounds were open to the public. By 1900 two more plots of land had been added and the section north of Chester Avenue had paths and trees. A few years later, the City Parks Association, an advocacy group, reported on a plan decided upon by Chief Pierie, Bureau of City Properties. The plans were in keeping with those of the reformers. Allays of uniform plantings of trees would form a canopy over the paths and adjoining streets. Residents would be able to stroll the paths, and there would be a playground. Further to the west, a wooded area was saved and became Black Oak Park (now Malcolm X Park).
Although Clarence Clark had provided land for a park and for a library, his own personal estate, Chestnutwold, remained in private hands after his death. It was purchased by the Episcopal Church which built a divinity school on the property. They were not the only institution to move into the area during this era. Adjacent to Clark Park, The Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, built a new school in 1927.
Between the World Wars, the area around Market and 30th Streets underwent a number of major changes that effected the whole area. At the turn of the century the main Pennsylvania Railroad station had become the Broad Street Terminal. However, that was reversed with the building of the present 30th Street Station and destruction of the one at Broad Street. On the south side of Market Street, a new post office was built replacing the 'New Market' building from the 1890s. This was a logical step at a time when railway express cars attached to passenger trains carried the inter-city mail.
While many things have changed since the 1920s and 30s, the imprint of the transportation network, the institutions, and the suburban developments have endured. It is a landscape of rails and roads, trees and buildings, bounded by water and connected to the rest of the city by bridges. Amongst this landscape is a rich heritage of suburban ideals, and development schemes that reworked the land. A land which had seemed so remote from the city even in the early 1800s.
Exhibit by Matthew Grubel, 2008