Streetcar Suburb in the City

Following the Consolidation Act of 1854, West Philadelphia evolved into a desirable, even fashionable, suburb within the city.

The West Philadelphia of the late nineteenth century was a city of neighborhoods done in a suburban style. By the 1860s the land between the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers had been almost entirely filled. West Philadelphia's availability of green, open space seemed like an oasis in what was becoming an industrial gray city. With the introduction of the trolley lines in the 1850s and 60s, reaching it became reliable and affordable for many people. Spurred by this, many real estate developers created new housing throughout the area. The residents that filled it were community-driven, working with their neighbors to form connections and make West Philadelphia even better. And West Philadelphia also became home to many attractions and events that increased the reputation of Philadelphia as a great city. In the freshly designated West Fairmount Park alone there was a zoo, an amusement park, and, in 1876, a huge World's Fair that displayed technological marvels and exhibits of foreign cultures. And, following the move of the Almshouse earlier in the century, West Philadelphia increasingly became a place that hosted institutions that worked towards the public good.

Promising the American Suburban Ideal

West Philadelphia attracted large numbers of new residents due to innovations in rapid transit, secure and rising real estate values, and a strong framework of schools, religious communities, and other local organizations.

Across West Philadelphia, new residents formed and became part of communities that shared a common vision. It was a place where you could be the first generation in your family to own a house, made possible by West Philadelphia's thousands of new homes holding market prices down, a place where Sunday afternoons meant sitting on the front porch, enjoying the sights and sounds of your street and community. Thoughts of the next day's work would be far from your mind as you knew the new trolley lines would get you there and back on time. West Philadelphia was a place where a neighbor from church or a social club might just stop by. A place where there were always new things to discuss, to plan, to look forward to. Things like the local school ward opening a new public school nearby — offering your children the chance for a better education than you could have dreamed of for yourself. Ultimately, West Philadelphia was a place where you could work together with your neighbors for a better life today and a secure and promising future tomorrow.

Trolleys and Commuter Residents

With the introduction of trolleys in the 1850s, traveling to and from West Philadelphia became more affordable and reliable than it had been with omnibuses.

In the 1850s entrepreneurs found ways to make public travel by horse-drawn trolley-cars faster and more inexpensive. Trolleys, or streetcars, were essentially the same horse-drawn omnibus carriage, only adapted to be pulled on steel rails. This system reduced the friction which tired the horses—making the trolleys faster than traditional omnibuses and allowing the horses to carry larger cars for longer lengths of time—allowing streetcar owners to reduce passenger fares. In the 1850s and 1860s passenger railway companies opened lines running east/west, crossing the Schuylkill on bridges at Chestnut, Market, Spring Garden, and Girard. The Girard Avenue line facilitated commuting to the Centennial Exposition of 1876. In 1895, electricity replaced horses as a source of power, and fares were further reduced.

Real Estate Development

In the late nineteenth century, developers and architects, spurred by the trolley car systems' transformation to real estate prices, erected houses in a pleasing mix of architectural styles, giving West Philadelphia the character of the suburban ideal laid out according to the city's extended street grid.

Transportation innovations enabled commuting, but it was real estate developers who provided the actual lures in the second half of the nineteenth century: pleasant, dignified (though not expansively large) homes in suburban environs. In the last half of the nineteenth century, houses of every architectural type sprung up along the new rail lines. West Philadelphia was so large and the opportunity for real estate development so great, that dozens and dozens of entrepreneurs got in on the business. Well-known examples of West Philadelphia developers included Charles Leslie, Annesley Govett, Samuel Harrison, Nathaniel Browne, and Clarence Clark.

Nineteenth Century Social Networks

Community social institutions, integral to the fabric of neighborhood life, went hand-in-hand with real estate development and population growth.

As the West Philadelphia population increased, so did the number of social institutions. These institutions — churches, schools, and clubs — fostered a sense of connection between neighbors. Nineteenth century residents worked together to create an environment of intradependence, working together and relying on each other to create their vision of West Philadelphia. Religious communities were often at the heart of developing neighborhoods. Houses of worship, in particular churches, seemed to be present from the start of each new development. The number of public schools also increased dramatically during this period. Public schools were important for West Philadelphia homeowners as they promised that their children would have more opportunities. Public schools were locally controlled and the increase in new schools showed that communities were willing to work together towards the vision of a better future.

Religious Institutions

Communities of faith, the heart of a thriving neighborhood, appeared near the beginning of every emerging community.

In the mid and late nineteenth century, the development of Protestant and, late in the century, Roman Catholic churches were the ubiquitous neighborhood feature of West Philadelphia. More than 100 churches, built by at least 9 Christian denominations, were spread throughout the nineteenth century in West Philadelphia. For 75 or 80 years, Protestant Christians were far and away the most active. The first instances of some houses of worship for denominations and faiths also appeared in this period, which was the first stage of the population growth that would appear in the twentieth century. At least 2 Protestant congregations were African Methodist Episcopal (AME). Roman Catholics were particularly active in the last 2 decades of the century. And, at the turn of the 20th century, West Philadelphia counted 2 Jewish synagogues.

Public Schools

Public schools, which were controlled for the most part at the local level, were indicators of how nineteenth century West Philadelphia placed an importance on community development and working together to build a better future.

Public schools complemented churches and parochial schools as anchors of residential and community development in the late nineteenth century. Between 1866 and 1897, West Philadelphia opened about 34 public schools, averaging one new school a year. These schools were part of a decentralized system of school governance controlled by city ward leaders, who represented genuine local control of schools. The growth of public schools was not only an indicator of the increased size of West Philadelphia, but also of the priorities of its residents. Compulsory education for children was not made law until the early 1890s. In this light, the amount of students that necessitated these new schools shows education was highly important to West Philadelphians, and they were more than willing to support it with their tax dollars. Finances came from an interested and committed public who believed in the vehicles of public schools as agents for change.

Contributing to the Vision of a Great City

Philadelphia's reputation as a first-class international city was emphasized by two history-making events located in West Fairmount Park.

West Fairmount Park was home to two history-making, Philadelphia-defining projects in the 1870s: The Centennial Exposition of 1876 and the Philadelphia Zoo. The West Philadelphia land acquired for Fairmount Park in 1869 secured the safety and purity of Philadelphia's water supply, added to the amount of undeveloped land dedicated for the benefit of public use, and made land available for new points of culture like the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens. The Philadelphia Zoological Garden — opening around the time when shortening "zoological garden" to "zoo" was still controversial — was America's first zoo. It continues to be a draw for visitors from across the globe. But it was the Centennial, a world exposition, that established Philadelphia as an international force and put it on par with previous city hosts London, Paris, and Vienna. Over the course of six months, almost 10 million visitors were dazzled by collections of art, displays of international culture, and premieres of new inventions like the telephone.

West Fairmount Park

In the late 1860s, Philadelphia created an enormous amount of open space in West Philadelphia by extending Fairmount Park to the western bank of the Schuylkill River.

The area that became West Fairmount Park was notable for the green expanses of its wealthy estates and distinguished mansions that dominated the area's ridge lines. To protect the Schuylkill River from pollution, the city bought up these estates after the Civil War to stave off future industrial development. Part of this new parkland was developed for the Philadelphia Zoological Garden and the Centennial Exposition of 1876.

The Philadelphia Zoo

The Philadelphia Zoological Gardens, America's first zoo, opened in West Philadelphia in 1874.

In 1874 the Philadelphia Zoological Society opened America's first zoo in West Philadelphia's West Fairmount Park. The 33-acre "Philadelphia Zoological Garden"was an immediate hit. It garnered comparisons to renown international zoos — putting Philadelphia on par with established world cities like London. West Philadelphia's reputation benefited by the fact that it now housed a destination devoted to both intellectual study and entertainment which required massive amounts of financing and free, clean space to open.

The Centennial Exposition of 1876

The Centennial Exposition of 1876, a world's fair of epic proportions constructed in West Fairmount Park, attracted almost 10 million visitors in the 6 months of its operation.

In 1876 national and international attention focused on West Philadelphia when West Fairmount Park hosted the Centennial Exposition, also sometimes referred to as the Centennial Exhibition. The Exposition, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, was also the first World's Exposition held in the United States. A throng of 180 thousand people packed the Exposition grounds on opening day, May 10, with President Ulysses Grant presiding at the opening ceremonies.1 By the time the world's fair closed 6 months later, some 10 million people — roughly equivalent to a fifth of the U.S. population at the time2 — had streamed through the extensive fairgrounds, dazzled by displays of scientific and industrial innovation, world cultures, and the myriad buildings and landscaping of the grounds. Among the 200 buildings and displays of 50 nations, some major points of interest were:

  • The 21½-acre Main Hall, the largest building ever constructed at the time, extending one-third of a mile along Elm Avenue
  • The internal railway system, the first ever monorail
  • The enormous Corliss Centennial Engine, a steam engine powering almost all of the buildings and exhibits
  • The first public demonstration of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone
  • The hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty, the first part of the statue on display in the United States3
  • 1. Randall M. Miller and William Pencak, ed., Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth (Penn State University Press, 2002), 222.
  • 2. Jerome Hodos, The 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia: Elite Networks and Political Culture. In Social Capital in the City: Community and Civic Life in Philadelphia, ed. Richardson Dilworth (Temple University Press, 2006), 19.
  • 3. Miller and Pencak, ed., Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth, 222.

Making Space for the Public Good

West Philadelphia became a hot spot for city-wide institutions following the successful migration of two major public institutions — the Blockley Almshouse and the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane — earlier in the century.

Institutions serving the public good sprang up as rapidly as suburban development in the late nineteenth century. Most historically notable was the Satterlee General Hospital, the Union Army's largest hospital facility, but most of the institutions served a city or local audience. The majority were smaller, specialized charitable institutions organized by groups outside of West Philadelphia. Three major hospitals were also built during this period, of which two locally-based. The third was built as part of the University of Pennsylvania’s new campus following their migration to West Philadelphia from Center City. Not long after Penn’s migration, the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, creation of resident Anthony J. Drexel, opened its doors to students.

Charitable Institutions

Dozens of charitable institutions relocated to West Philadelphia in the mid and late nineteenth century, led by the relocation of the Blockley Almshouse and the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane to West Philadelphia earlier in the century.

West Philadelphia offered ample space and privacy for the specialized services of nineteenth century charitable institutions. These institutions were generally private and were controlled by persons outside of the West Philadelphia community. Admission was highly specified by age, gender, race, and medical condition. Originally centered in eastern West Philadelphia, the growth of these spread westward as the century progressed. By 1907 West Philadelphia hosted 17 institutions for the care of children, 15 for the care of adults and children, 5 for the blind and deaf, and 10 hospitals and sanitariums.


In the last third of the nineteenth century medical science advanced until hospitals, which had always been home to the chronically ill, now became vital community institutions.

In the last third of the nineteenth century medical science advanced until hospitals, which had always been home to the chronically ill, now became vital community institutions. People wanted a hospital in their neighborhood now that hospitals were a place where people would go to get better instead of a place where the people went to die or become inmates. The leader in community-oriented hospitals in West Philadelphia was Presbyterian Hospital, a charity hospital that charged no fees to patients. Three blocks away West Philadelphia Hospital for Women opened a practice where women could be treated by female personnel. In 1874, the University of Pennsylvania opened its hospital across Spruce Street from its new campus.

Institutions of Higher Learning

Two higher education institutions, the University of Pennsylvania and the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, rose in eastern West Philadelphia in the late nineteenth century.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, two higher education institutions, the University of Pennsylvania and the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, rose in the eastern section of West Philadelphia. In 1872, the University of Pennsylvania relocated its campus from the central city across the Schuylkill River to College Hall, located on a hill above 34th and Walnut Streets. Over the next decade, Penn expanded with the construction of medical laboratories and a hospital complex. The co-educational Drexel Institute (today's Drexel University, named for its early benefactor, the Philadelphia financier Anthony J. Drexel Sr.) opened its Main Building in 1891, aiming to prepare working-class youth for careers in industry, mechanical arts, library science, and business. Both institutions emerged within the precincts of West Philadelphia’s streetcar suburb, with electric trolleys serving the Drexel Institute on Chestnut Street and the University primarily on Woodland Avenue.

University of Pennsylvania

In 1872 the University of Pennsylvania moved its campus from the central city to West Philadelphia.

The University of Pennsylvania moved its original central-city campus at 9th and Chestnut Streets in 1872, to the freshly built College Hall at 34th and Walnut Streets. The new campus occupied 10 acres of Blockley Almshouse property the trustees had purchased from the city in 1870. Over the next several decades, the University obtained more land from the city and expanded its new campus in the corridors and surrounding blocks of Woodland Avenue, Spruce Street, and 34th Street. By the turn of the 20th century, in addition to assorted academic buildings and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the University's holdings included Franklin Field, the Dormitory Quadrangle, the Henry C. Lea Library, Houston Hall (America's first student union), and the University Museum. 

Satterlee General Hospital

Satterlee General Hospital served as the Union Army's largest hospital facility during the Civil War.

Satterlee General Hospital, the Civil War's largest Union Army hospital, operated from 1861 to 1864 on a 16-acre tract bounded by present-day Baltimore Avenue, Pine, 43rd, and 46th Streets. The facility tended the wounded (Union and Confederate) soldiers of the Battle of Gettysburg, who were transported here in July 1863. By the time the hospital closed in May 1864, its caregivers had treated some 60 thousand soldiers.