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?
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.
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
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.”
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.”
[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.