Soon after moving to West Philadelphia in 1995, Douglas Witmer joked with his brother-in-law Dan Thut that one day they would open up a coffee shop in the Spruce Hill section of West Philadelphia.
Neither had business experience. Douglas studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His wife’s brother Dan had a background in history and had run a language school in Guatemala. After graduating from PAFA, Douglas realized that real estate was a great way to supplement his income as an artist and curator. In the late 1990s, he and his wife purchased a multi-unit building at 44th and Osage. Prices were low, and there was a healthy demand for student housing.
Witmer and his family loved Spruce Hill neighborhood. Its Victorian architecture, academic flavor, and socio-economic diversity appealed to his creative sensibilities. “There’s no other place in America like this neighborhood,” Doug maintains. ”Take any spectrum you want – income, race, you name it – it’s really heterogeneous. It’s a walkable community, and it’s also a very green neighborhood. All these elements that make it unique.”
The longer they stayed in Spruce Hill, Douglas said, “the joke about starting a coffee shop became serious.”
Despite the bustling student scene, there was no coffee neighborhood in Spruce Hill, no where art could be displayed, residents mingle, and people could study, read, or just converse.
“We did it out of wanting to create something in the neighborhood that we wanted for ourselves,” he recalled.
In 2001, a three story brick building came up for sale at the corner of 43rd and Baltimore, on the northeast corner of Clark Park. A florist shop occupied the ground floor, and apartments on the upper two stories. Built around 1900 when Spruce Hill was a prosperous, upper-middle class neighborhood, it was originally a pharmacy, with the owners living above the store.
The structure was quite run down when Witmer and Thut purchased it from a large local property owner. An underground creek running under 43rd Street had weakened its foundations, as well as those of several of the other houses in the area. A dropped ceiling, boarded -up clerestory windows, and other alterations had compromised the original interiors. Yet what really captivated Witmer and Thut was the bow-front window that commanded a view of Clark Park, visually connecting the future coffee shop to the bustling street and urban green space.
It was right across the street from a Green Line trolley stop. A century ago, It was the streetcar that made West Philadelphia a desirable commuter suburb. So Witmer and Thut named their new coffee shop “The Green Line Cafe.”
The gun-renovation of 4239 Baltimore Avenue took about a year to complete. Douglas and Dan let their creative sensibilities make this space one-of-a-kind. “We don’t come from business backgrounds,” Douglas said. ”We were thinking more in terms of a space for the neighborhood to come together.” The contractor removed the rotted floor and replaced it with salvaged, honey-hued pine boards, and sheathed the coffee bar with antique pressed tin. Light from stained-glass windows streamed into the brightly-lit room. A large mirror, topped by an egg-and-dart cornice, was the only surviving piece from the early 1900s.
The Green Line Cafe opened its doors in 2003. It quickly became a home for neighborhood art shows and concerts, as well as a haven for families, writers, and cramming graduate students. When the Clark Park Farmer’s Market set up shop on Saturdays, scores of people flooded into the cafe every hour, including many of the Amish farmers.
The coffee shop became financially successful enough for Witmer and Tuth to open up two more branches: one at 45th and Locust and another in Powelton Village. Penn’s massive redevelopment of the area, most notably the construction of the nearby Penn Alexander School at 42nd and Locust, gave a massive boost to adjacent property values. Soon, local real estate agents were using “Close to the Green Line Cafe” as a selling point in their apartment listings.
Witmer feels very lucky that a running joke with his brother-in-law turned into a successful business proposition. The Green Line has provided an indoor “public” space complementing Clark Park, a gathering place for the diverse residents of Spruce Hill. He just hopes that his coffee shop does not become a victim of its own success: “After 2005, we had five other businesses competing with us. It’s a challenge from being the first and only to being one of many.”