In 1887, the brewer Frederick A. Poth purchased a large corner lot at N.33rd and Powelton Avenue from Quaker industrialist John Sellers Jr. Sellers was one of Philadelphia’s richest men, a manufacturer of machinery and investor in West Philadelphia real estate. Along with the lumber merchant John McIlvain, Sellers was also a stalwart of West Philadelphia’s Quaker community. The Powelton Quakers tended to be a reserved, insular, and tech-savvy group. They were also usually shrewd business people, and often vocally anti-slavery. True to his faith’s “plainness” doctrine, Sellers lived in a boxy Italianate house at 3300 Arch Street. His cousin and mechanical polymath Coleman Sellers II — hydroelectric engineer for Niagra Falls and arguably the inventor of the first moving picture camera (the kinematoscope) — lived a few blocks to the north on Baring Street.
As they grew in wealth and prominence during the Industrial Revolution, Philadelphia Quakers struggled to balance their financial success with the trappings of weath. The older generation before the Civil War continued to wear gray and black broadcloth, address people in the non-hierarchal “thee” and “thou,” and avoid intoxicating beverages. The “frivolous” material temptations of the Gilded Age, however, proved too great for many members of the Society of Friends after the Civil War.
Few Philadelphian tycoons could be more quintessentially Gilded Age than the portly brewer Frederick A. Poth. When he bought the corner lot from Sellers in 1887, the self-made German immigrant was one of the city’s biggest brewers, owner of F.A. Poth & Sons at 31st and Jefferson Street, located in the section of North Philadelphia still known as Brewerytown. Poth — who still spoke in the gutteral accent of the “old country” — was many things: a tough businessman, an amateur singer in German musical societies, gentleman farmer (at his country property in Norristown), dedicated Mason, bon vivant clubman, and sharp real estate investor. Soon after purchasing the Sellers lot, he immediately commissioned the relatively obscure architect Alfred W. Dilks Jr. to build a new family home.
Why Poth selected Dilks is a bit of a mystery, especially when he could have chosen the likes of the colorful Frank Furness (then hard at work on the University of Pennsylvania’s new library) or the buttoned-up Theophilus Parsons Chandler Jr. (a distinguished professor at the University and also Dilks’ mentor). Just before he started drafting designs for the Poth mansion, Dilks finished a speculative rowhouse development for Poth and his fellow brewer Edward Schmidt on the 3300 block of Arch Street. The new houses were cheek-by-jowl with the sober John Sellers mansion. The 1985 National Register nomination of the Poth-Schmidt rowhouses sums up Dilks’s design approach: “As a consequence of Dilks’ training, and his understanding of contemporary taste, the buildings that he designed for Arch Street are among Philadelphia’s most important examples of the Queen Anne style, showing all of its essential features. Those include the Japanese influenced porch details, which alternate with the Mediaevalizing knee braces of other porch details; the empathetic use of brick detail to describe architectural weight; and the multiple textures from painted wood to smooth brick, to shadow catching hung tile. The buildings were further enlivened by formal variation within the group that adds to the richness of the ensemble. There are few equals to the Dilks achievement in the generally plain Quaker City.”
Definitely not plain, and very un-Quaker, indeed. And a strange choice of architect for a man a later biographer would eulogize as being “a man of simple tastes.” Yet it was also industrial mechanization that had made the increasingly use of ornament not only possible, but affordable. Although Dilks specialized in the so-called Queen Anne style, the house he designed for the Poth family at 216 N. 33rd Street can best be described as German “Beer Baron” baroque, a Rhineland castle transported to the banks of the Schuylkill River. Compared to the flat surfaces of the surrounding Italianate houses, Poth’s brick mansion is ornate and exuberant. To trolley riders and pedestrians, its jagged roofline, protruding turrets, and fiery terra cotta details must have screamed for attention. The irony was that all of this historicist ornament in brick, wood, and metal was made possible — and economically feasible — by the mass-production celebrated at the city’s 1876 Centennial Exposition. Mechanical jigsaws, for example, could churn out intricate gingerbread wood trim in minutes. Mechanized presses could transform tin sheets into cornices and bay windows just as quickly.
To complete his urban ensemble, Poth commissioned fellow German-native Otto Wolf (the same architect who designed his brewery) to build another set of speculative rowhouses directly across the street from 216 N.33rd Street. He then turned his sights north and west to the old Centennial district of Parkside. Here, he commissioned Willis Hale and other young architects to built a series of enormous, three-story Flemish revival twin homes fronting the old fairgrounds.
By 1900, the Victorian streetcar suburb of West Philadelphia had reached its stylistic and economic peak. The houses had evolved from simple suburban Italianate villas into full blown semi-urban mansions. The man who had dreamed up the 19th century suburban ideal, the landscape architect Alexander Jackson Downing (1815-1852), had warned in his book The Architecture of Country Houses against castle architecture: “There is something wonderfully captivating in the idea of a battlemented castle, even to the apparently modest man, who thus shows to the world his unsuspected vein of personal ambition, by trying to make a castle of his country house. But, unless there is something of the castle in the man, it is very likely, if it be like a real castle to dwarf him to the stature of a mouse.”
The italics are Downing’s own.
Maybe Poth and his wife Helena did feel like a family of “Mäuse” in their Powelton “schloss,” for they did not live for long at 216 N. 33rd Street. About only about ten years, they gave their house to their daughter Mathilde and son-in-law George Roesch (a beef wholesaler), and moved to a new city residence in the middle of their Parkside Avenue development, which they called “Brantwood.” Here, Frederick Poth died on January 21, 1905. His sons inherited F.A. Poth & Sons, which like most of Philadelphia’s beer empires fell victim to the Prohibition in the 1920s.
Although no longer conducted on the same scale as a century ago, the ancient art of making beer (ale as well as lager) is undergoing a renaissance in Philadelphia. Although the Poth brewery has vanished, most of his residential buildings in Powelton and Parkside have survived, the legacy of a German immigrant who wanted to bring a bit of his native Rhine Valley to his adopted home.
- Andrew Jackson Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969), p.261-262.
- “3318 Arch Street, A History of the Building.” http://poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/files/3318arch.htm
- “Dilks, Albert W. (fl. 1880-1917), Biography from American Architects and Buildings Database.” http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/22630
- “Frederick August Poth,” Philadelphia: Pictorial and Biographical. (Philadelphia, PA: S.J. Clarke and Company), 1911. http://poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/Biographies/Poth%20Family%20Bio.pdf”
- Carl Doebly, “Frederick A. Poth Houses, 3301-11, 3115 Powelton Avenue,” Placed on the National Register of Historic Places, April 19, 1979. http://uchs.net/HistoricDistricts/fapoth.html
- 3301 Baring Street: A History of the Building.” http://poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/files/3301baring.htm