Sunday, December 11, 2011

Block in Time - 700 block of South 19th Street

In the last week of March of 1954, a Department of Public Works photographer named Charles Bender was sent out on an assignment to photograph sidewalk and street repairs to the block of 19th Street between Fitzwater and Bainbridge. Today, 57 years later, the photos he took that week now reside in the Philadelphia Department of Records, and I reside on that block of 19th Street.

The Department of Records now has, a great, geo-tagged online home for its collection of historic photos of Philadelphia, and it was while browsing around that site that I found the pictures that Charles Bender took in 1954. Needless to say, there have been some big changes to the block in the intervening years. I thought that I'd step outside and see if I could re-create some of the pictures to look at these changes side-by-side. Here's what I saw...

Starting on the southwest corner of Bainbridge & 19th, this place exemplifies one of the most pervasive changes: the loss of retail. In 1956 there were a number of shops and office on the block, today there are none. This place has lost its storefront and neighbors to the south.

On the southeast corner, commercial space remains (the only one on the block), though I have no idea what goes on at this little office. While there have been some changes to the commercial space (smaller windows, accessible ramp, new awning) the upper floors are pretty original.

There were no trees on the northern half of the block in 1954, and only a couple today. Even those couple of trees make a big difference. The other big change is the surface of the street. Gone are the cobbled trolley tracks. Really, the tracks probably are not gone - like many things on the block, they've simply been covered over. The cracking on today's asphalt surface is a pretty good indication of where the tracks still lay buried. In 1956, 19th street was part of Philadelphia's remarkable trolley system. Take a look below at the 1954 map of the system near it's apex, when nearly every north/south street in Center City carried a line. The 1954 photo shows tracks that were not long for this world. By 1957, National City Lines had appeared in Philadelphia, and the 19th & 20th Street tracks had been abandoned, and the #17 trolley line was replaced by the #17 bus line, which still runs the same route as its predecessor, from a turnaround at 20th and Oregon, to one at 2nd and Market.
A 1954 trolley map of Center City Philadelphia. (via Philly Trolley Tracks)
This building, 703 South 19th Street, seems to have been subsumed into the adjacent commercial space, and got a new facade in the process.

Here's another less than thoughtful facade replacement on the west side of the block. At least the cornices were retained, though it is quite odd to see those finely-detailed cornices above the flat, poorly proportioned facade that's been added. 

Yet another unfortunate facade treatment, with the South Philly bad-renovation standards of vinyl siding over the original brick and cornice, fenced-in stoop, and the classic green awning. The rough treatment this place received is heightened by the better condition of its adjacent twin, though the evolution of satellite television isn't helping that one.
On the west side of the street, the addition of trees screens more facade replacements on 708, 710, and 712. Those buildings have lost their commercial spaces and gained additional apartments. A number of buildings farther north have been demolished and replaced with a community garden.

The northwest corner of 19th and Pemberton has lost its delicatessen, with its many signs and big shop windows. It's really surprising just how much small retail the area was able to support in the 1950's.

The southwest corner of 19th & Pemerton presented the most surprising change. In 1954, that corner site was home to a six-story building, and a good-looking one at that. I haven't been able to figure out what was in this building at the time, though the big windows seem to indicate a commercial use. I know that it wasn't there in 1910, when the site was home to two setback houses similar to the ones to the south. It appears on a 1962 map, and the houses there now were built in 2006. When it went up and when it came down remain a mystery, but I'd have to assume that it was demolished prior to the rejuvenation of this neighborhood in the early 1990's - it would be too valuable as a residential renovation one of the few tall buildings in the neighborhood. Pemberton seems an odd spot for a midrise, though CHOP was a block away at the time it was built. Need to do some more research on this one...

Across 19th Street on the southeast corner of 19th & Pemberton, a funeral home used to occupy the ground floor. The scoring on the stucco is gone, and the windows have been shrunk and blocked in when the space was converted to a residence. Thankfully, the upper floors and cornice remain in fine shape.

The three little setback houses all made it from 1954 to today. They all seem to have gone through some cosmetic changes; I assume that porches and fences have a lifespan that's less than 55 years. Two have gotten parking spots in the front yard. One other item from 1954 that didn't make it is the pole at the far left, which was a support for the overhead wires of the trolley system.

Down at the northwest corner of 19th and Catharine, another commercial space has become a covered-over first floor apartment. This building also lost a nice projecting bay and what looks like a great tree. The second house in has been demolished and replaced in the interim.

Here's another classic South Philly facade improvement - cast concrete 'stone' veneer. The loss of the cornice on that place is also keenly felt. The house on the right, has stayed pretty true, retaining its integral brick cornice, but gaining an unfortunate new door and coat of paint.

Looking up 19th Street to the north from Fitzwater, the church has stayed pretty much the same from this vantage. The trees screen some of the modern view of Center City, though the glass-gabled Fred G. DiBona building makes an appearance on the skyline. Interesting to see that the intersection of 19th & Fitzwater had traffic lights back then. These days the light has been replaced with a four-way stop.

This was another big surprise. The ratty church on the northeast corner of Fitwater and 19th used to be really gorgeous. What is today a flat roofline was once crusted with pinnicales, stained glass, and details. The rather insensitive renovation remover the pitched roof, and added the tan stucco band visible at the top of facade in order to allow for a flat roof. I can only wonder why this decision was made, though I wonder if the goal was to create two usable floors in the building. The original stained glass is also gone now, replaced by more stucco infill and cheap windows. The really unfortunate fact is that this past renovation has likely sealed the fate of this church, which will probably see the wrecking ball in the next few years, as have many of the other churches in the neighborhood. Given that this one has been so badly compromised already, it's unlikely that many will come to its defense. 

The likely demolition of the church will continue the process that seems to have occurred on the block in the 55 years since the first pictures were taken. Due to cultural and economic changes in the city, the mixture of shops, homes, and churches is becoming a homogeneous residential neighborhood. There's very little small retail in the interior of the neighborhood these days, and neighbors seem set against it more and more (see the Bedford Cafe saga). A lot of the visual and architectural diversity is sapped from the neighborhood when it is wall to wall three-story rowhouses, but the process does eliminate some of the use conflicts that can make city living difficult. Still, these juxtapositions are also what make the place hum. I hope that the coming fifty years bring more positive change to the block.

*All historic photos from the Charles J. Bender, City of Philadelphia Department of Records

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Living a few blocks away from this block I'm also struck at how much small retail/commercial has been lost. Half the reason for living here is to be within walking distance of decent shopping. If more retail is zoned out then it basically becomes a bedroom community of CC.