By 1850, Hamiltonville had become an attractive residential area. To some extent so had Mantua. Albeit one description suggests it had more rural flavor - with wood sidewalks and fencing designed to keep livestock out of the yards. Also by this time omnibus service had extended to the Borough of West Philadelphia from the city proper. Omnibuses were simply carriages with established routes. These provided an alternative to having to hire private carriages or stable horses. Nevertheless, the presence of a few suburban houses and nearby public transit was not sufficient to sell more than a single plot of land now and then. However, these characteristics helped lay the groundwork for a residential real estate market.
Harrison/Browne and the Realization of an Ideal Home
The true emergence of the West Philadelphia suburbs required a comprehensive approach to the development operations. Samuel A. Harrison and Nathaniel B. Browne were two of the earliest and most successful speculators to do that. Previous speculators had typically assembled of large plots of land and then divided them into smaller plots for sale; sometimes with streets already laid out (at least on paper). Harrison and Browne went further. They planned from the beginning to do more than simply sell houses, but to create streetscapes that would capture the suburban ideal of home. To do this they devised means of financing and controlling the development of an entire block. Then they invested in the design and construction of houses on the plots, and then finally sold (sometimes leased) the finished, or nearly finished houses.
By the 1840s, architects, critics and reformers were exploring what the physical manifestations of a good home should be. Industrialization had changed people's relationship to work. For many, home became a refuge from work, and advocates saw home as a source of happiness and goodness. Homes in the country already had already a long history as refuges from summer heat and urban ills. As a result, country houses and villages were drawn on as sources of architectural guidance.
Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the most influential of these critics, wrote that the house should; fit the owner, be convenient (that is, easy to use), and be honest in its use of materials. He criticized houses styled on the Greek Revival which had been so popular. He argued that the Greek temple and its classical basis was impractical (internal layout and use of space), inappropriate for residence, and dishonest (use of other materials to suggest stone). Instead, architects were to draw upon a variety of historical and vernacular sources. They created and cited examples of what they believed were appropriate plans for the intended user and surrounding landscape. Some like Downing, also explored the question of what was the most appropriate for Americans.
At least in West Philadelphia, railroad manufacturer Andrew McCalla Eastwick's new mansion helped set the tone for the suburban houses of the 1850s. It did so in a number of ways. For men with aspirations, Eastwick's mansion may have represented the ultimate model. The house and grounds were intended to reflect Eastwick's recent success and humble origins. The house was extravagant in size and details, but had practical internal plans that met the needs of the occupants. It was located on the famed grounds of the Bartram's who had sold it. However, great thought and respect went into the relationship of the new house and the surrounding landscape. As a result the new house had a commanding view, but John Bartram's old house and gardens were preserved undisturbed. Finally, the master of this design was a bold young carpenter-architect, Samuel Sloan, with more experience in institutions than residences. Eastwick tempered that choice by having Sloan work with the more experienced John Stewart.
Harrison and Brown began what they termed "operations" (development of properties) about 1851. At this time, master builders frequently handled the role of architect, often in a perfunctory way. In contrast, Harrison and Brown specifically hired the architect who had just gained local fame creating Eastwick's ornate mansion, Samuel Sloan. Through this first decade of speculative development for the new suburb, Sloan would prove to be one of its most prolific architects. He would later enjoy a national audience through his popular books and magazine. Sloan apparently grasped what these new developers were looking for just like he had grasped what Eastwick wanted.
The new residences built by these speculators were rather like scaled down estates. They chose locations already established as primarily residential to expand upon, such as western edges of Hamiltonville (around Till, now 40th Street). To have complete control over the landscape they sought to lay out entire blocks at a time. Then to prevent shops and businesses from appearing amongst the new homes, they often restricted uses of the land through covenants and clauses in the deeds.
Finally, the speculators used land transactions to help finance and control the operations from start to finish. This was not an entirely new practice, but certainly a creative expansion of it. Perhaps it is not surprising to find that many of the early speculators, like Brown, were conveyancers, men who specialized in the transfer of property. When possible, they sold houses before they were complete to help finance the project. Sometimes partially complete houses were sold to investors or groups of investors. In a move that appears to have reduced the initial risk and cash required, one or more of the properties seems to have frequently been handed over to the architect or other important provider of services. Additionally, in most cases the carpenter and other tradesmen were given properties temporarily. This may have performed the equivalent of a lien and perhaps a form of payment.
These suburban houses were designed to be fitting homes for the families of professionals, manufacturers, and businessmen. They had all the amenities of a country house; porches, front and back yards; along with the refinement of a town with sidewalks and low fencing. While all of the houses looked like single family “villas” or country mansions, many were actually pairs of attached houses(twins). This was effective because the sides of towers and shadows of the porches concealed the two entrances. In addition, there was of course a unified pattern of color, window placement, and exterior forms. Combining two houses into a single larger structure also allowed the use of detail and ornamentation that would have been out of scale on smaller dwellings. One could argue it was a clever way to conceal the pretentiousness, something the reformers might not have approved of. In any event, it proved to be rewarding practice for the speculators. Further, most of the developers choose to live in their own developments. Perhaps they were following in the footsteps of the earlier generations of landlords. Even if so, it demonstrates of how strongly their creations reflected a vision they believed in.
Services and Improvements
West Philadelphia's political incorporation as a borough in 1844, then later as a district, had led to improvements in street maintenance and services. The consolidation of the City and County of Philadelphia in 1854 brought city services and utilities to provincial areas. Many of these were important to the new suburbanites. Paved streets, and modern conveniences such as running water, gas for lighting, and modern drainage would have otherwise been difficult to provide in the speculative houses. It may have been no co-incidence that Eli K. Price, a founder of the Woodlands Cemetery and a West Philadelphia land holder, was a guiding hand for gaining approval for consolidation.
Public transit made it possible to create residential areas a good distance from work places. Horse drawn omni-buses were less expensive than private carriages, and quicker and cleaner than walking. In 1850 one omni-bus line claimed a 12 minute ride from the Merchants Exchange to Hamilton Village Therefore the continued development of public transit was integral to the continued success of West Philadelphia as a suburb. By the 1860s rapidly expanding street car services were replacing the omnibuses. Riding on rails, street cars had a smoother ride and could seat more while using fewer horses. Tracks crossed into West Philadelphia over the Market Street Bridge; and from the new Chestnut Street Bridge they reached west along Woodland Avenue and Chestnut Streets. In fact, census records for West Philadelphia's new suburban blocks of the 1850s show households headed by merchants, businessmen, or professionals who had offices downtown, and almost certainly commuted daily.
However, only a small percentage of the population could afford to use street cars regularly. The daily commute that was common for a growing number of West Philadelphians, was not a typical practice for most of Philadelphia. Studies of Philadelphia ridership and work patterns indicate that most people continued to live within close walking distance of work. In fact, much of the street car business came from casual use; as a means to go to stores downtown, and most often for pleasure trips into the countryside on weekends and summer evenings. This would remain true until the advent of electrified service in the 1890s.
The 1850s also saw a continuation of West Philadelphia's trade, industrial and rural economies. Like most Americans at that time, they lived where they worked, or very close. Besides the farms, this would either be in the area that had been the Borough, later District, of West Philadelphia, or in the smaller villages and population centers further out.
Exhibit by Matthew Grubel, 2008