After the Fair: The Development of Parkside


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After the 1876 Centennial Exposition closed, all but two of the fair’s buildings, as well as the surrounding temporary hotels on Elm Avenue, were torn down. Even the Main Exhibition Building – its 21.5 acres of floor space made it the largest building in the world — wasn’t spared from the wreckers.i Only Memorial Hall, a massive granite edifice capped by a glass-and-cast-iron dome, remained as a visible reminder of the exposition that attracted over 10 million visitors and showcased industrial Philadelphia to the world.


As part of Fairmount Park, the now-cleared fairground was protected in perpetuity as green space. The area around it remained largely undeveloped. Most of West Philadelphia was dotted with forests, shantytowns, farms, and summer villas. One big institution west of the Schuylkill was the University of Pennsylvania, which had pulled up stakes from Center City and moved to its new campus in 1873. The Philadelphia Zoo opened its doors on West Girard Avenue a year later. Would the area around the Centennial fairground return to its previous pastoral state?


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The answer was decidedly no. From 1870 to 1890, the city’s population nearly doubled from 674,000 to just over 1 million. Center City was congested and open space was at a premium. Industry befouled the air with coal smoke and other noxious fumes. For those who could afford it, a new West Philadelphia neighborhood fronting a verdant park – with its tree-shaded promenades and carriage trails — could be an attractive alternative to Rittenhouse Square or Fairmount.

The problem was access. After the demolition of the Centennial depot, the Pennsylvania Railroad did not provide a commuter service to the area as it did to the Main Line and Chestnut Hill. Finally, in 1895, following the growth of Powelton and Mantua to the south, a new trolley line connected the former Centennial fairgrounds with the rest of the city. Around the same time, Memorial Hall became the new home for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, packed with treasures from William Wilstach’s private collection.


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The area now seemed ripe for residential development. Frederick Poth and Joseph Schmidt, two enterprising German-American brewers, envisioned a modern, upper-class district of large houses and spacious apartment buildings.ii With the Zoo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as nearby cultural attractions, perhaps their development could be Philadelphia’s answer to New York’s Upper Fifth Avenue?

The new development would be called Parkside, which also became the new name for Elm Avenue. The exuberance of the Centennial Exposition would be reflected in its residential architecture. The developers commissioned architects such as H.E. Flower, Angus Wade, John C. Worthington, and Willis Hale to design eclectic homes for prosperous professionals and businessmen. Flemish gables, copper bay windows, tiled dormers, and terra-cotta cornices sprouted from houses built of orange Pompeian brick. Spindly, conical towers topped the Queen Anne-style Lansdowne Apartments.iii One critic described Hale and his colleagues as providing a “stylistically pragmatic architecture expressive of a self-confident individualism and optimistic commercial expansion.” Others were not so kind. “Every precaution has been taken, and with success, to insure that the building shall lack unity, shall lack harmony, shall lack repose and shall be a restless jumble,” complained one critic of Hale’s work.iv


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No matter. Parkside’s big, superbly-crafted houses were a hit among newly-affluent Philadelphians, many of German origin. During Parkside’s glory days, weekend coaching enthusiasts flocked to the carriage trails. To the pedestrians, this parade presented a magnificent spectacle of rippling horseflesh, gleaming brass work, parasols and top hats. Parkside gained a place in art history when Eakins set his famous painting “The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand” on Lansdowne Drive, just north of Memorial Hall. One of Eakins’ artistic goals was to accurately depict a horse’s real gait as it had been recently discovered by photographer Eadward Muybridge.v

In 1912, workers completed the Richard Smith Civil War Memorial, a triumphal gateway flanked by two columns and adorned with bronze statues of Generals Meade, McClellan, and Hancock. Sunday strollers discovered that if they sat on benches on one side of the memorial, they could hear conversations from people on the other side. These seats became known as the “Whispering Benches.”


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However, Parkside’s splendor was fleeting. Despite the trolley connection and bridges spanning the Pennsylvania railroad tracks, Parkside still remained relatively isolated from the rest of the city. Commuting to the city’s central business district was still a headache, and many of the original residents moved either to more convenient Philadelphia neighborhoods or to the suburbs. By World War I, the area’s demographics shifted from wealthy German-American to middle-class Eastern European Jewish. For most, it was a big step up from the tiny row houses of South Philadelphia. Parkside’s first synagogue opened on the 3900 block of Girard Avenue in 1907.vi In 1929, the Philadelphia Museum of Art moved into its new home in Fairmount, depriving Parkside of a major cultural attraction. Memorial Hall was converted into a community gymnasium, then a police station. Not surprisingly, the underutilized structure suffered from deferred maintenance. The Great Depression dealt a major blow to the neighborhood, and most the big houses fronting Parkside Avenue were cut up into apartments.


Following World War II, the Great Migration coupled with “white flight” transformed Parkside into a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Landlords found the big houses difficult to maintain as multi-family residences, and either abandoned or neglected them. The old Girard Avenue commercial corridor also suffered from divestment. In recent years, efforts have been made to revitalize Parkside. The neighborhood was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, and community groups have renovated many of the mansions along Parkside Avenue into affordable apartments. Quicker access to the neighborhood from other parts of the city came in 2005 with the restoration of Girard Avenue trolley service. In 2009, the Please Touch Museum moved into a restored Memorial Hall. The neighborhood also boasts the Philadelphia Stars Negro Baseball League baseball diamond and monument. This May, the Philadelphia Historic Commission will designate East Parkside a local historic district, granting its structures stronger protection against demolition and alteration. Today, Parkside can once again proudly boast of being Philadelphia’s “Centennial District.”

References:

[i] Dorothy Gondos Beer, “The Centennial City, 1865-1876,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.462.

[ii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.117.

[iii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.121.

[iv] James Foss and Montgomery Schuyler, as quoted in Willis Hale, Architect: 1848 – 1907, http://www.brynmawr.edu/cities/archx/04-600/wgh/index.html

[v] Gordon Hendricks, “A May Morning in the Park,” The Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, vol.60, no.285 (Spring 1965), p.48.

[vi] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.117.

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