Note: the author has previously covered Parkside in “After the Fair” and “The Slifkin Family.” A walk-through of the house with the author and University of Pennsylvania lecturer Hanley Bodek will be featured on an upcoming segment of WHYY’s Friday Arts.
On the outside, the houses on the 4200 block of Parkside Avenue are grand indeed, a brick parade that marches proudly along West Fairmount Park. Their roofs are a jumble of scalloped and stepped gables topped by terra cotta urns and copper cornices. Their yellow Roman brick facades boast bow-front windows, latticed dormers, and terra cotta angel faces. Alleyways are secured with high scrolled iron gates, possibly made by the workshop of Samuel Yellin.
Built in the 1880s and 1890s by brewer/developer Frederick August Poth, they were pitched towards Gilded Ages executives and factory managers, as well as prosperous business owners and professionals. Some were probably occupied by the top leadership of F.A. Poth & Sons, who could commute to the brewery by taking the eastbound trolley across the Girard Avenue bridge. These homes were meant to impress and dazzle passers-by on foot, trolley, or coach. Less was not more in those days. And why not? Philadelphia was one of the richest cities in the world in the 1890s, and many of the architectural, mechanical, and decorative features were made right here, in the self-proclaimed workshop of the world. And these homes were located across the street from the site of the 1876 Centennial Expositions, one of the crowning events in Philadelphia’s history.
Poth must have taken a special interest in his Parkside development. He sold his freestanding mansion at 33rd and Powelton to his daughter Mathilde and son-in-law Joseph Roesch, and moved with his wife into a brand-new mansion at 4130-40 Parkside Avenue. He died there in 1905.
During the early 20th century, Parkside changed from an upper-class German-American neighborhood to a middle class Eastern European Jewish one. During the Depression, most of these big twin homes were divided into efficiency apartments and rooming houses, and lost most of their interior fixtures. Yet at least one of these homes survives with its original floor plate and some of its interior detailing intact: 4230 Parkside Avenue, situated directly across from the Centennial Exposition’s Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum).
I recently got a look inside the house, thanks to the current owner. It has been vacant for over a decade. The inside of the house is cavernous and musty, with soaring ten foot ceilings. The walls, once wainscoted with dark stained paneling, are painted white or gray. After passing through the front hallway, I marveled at the massive grand staircase, which rose three stories up through the center of the house. The newel post was probably once topped with a finial, or even a bronze statue light fixture. The dining room, filled with wood scraps and other debris, can easily hold a table set for a dozen. The second floor library, which faces the park, still has its original shelves topped by carved cornices. The bay window once had curved glass panes and sashes, now replaced by standard flat ones. Almost all of the massive wood mantelpieces, save the one in the basement butler’s pantry, had been yanked out years ago, leaving their outlines behind. The brass fireplace grates and polychrome tiles remain, giving a hint of the fine craftsmanship that once graced these Parkside homes. A pencil diagram, probably drawn by the carpenters who built the house 120 years ago, is still extant in the dining room.
The house’s layout is not completely intact. A previous owner had attempted to convert the mansion into a boarding house, adding shoddily-built bathrooms and partitions. A piece of plywood covers over the archway between the foyer and the parlor, which originally was separated by sliding pocket doors. A large, twisted chunk of pressed copper lies in the kitchen. It originally came from the rear window bay, torn off by thieves scavenging the vacant house for scrap metal. Squatters once stored drugs underneath floorboards and behind radiators.
At 5,300 square feet, this was a house built for a very large family. There are six bedrooms, located on the second and third floors. The built-in armoires remain in place, as is some of the decorative plasterwork. The window of the third floor front bedroom perfectly frames the Please Touch Museum. A large cedar closet, located off the master bedroom, could have stored many wool suits with room to spare.
When Frederick Augustus Poth built 4320 Parkside Avenue, it was at the cutting edge of Victorian domestic technology. One expert who has renovated many large homes in Fairmount described the house as equivalent to today’s Toll Brothers mansions, built for an aspirational and demanding clientele. Although equipped with several gas fireplaces, the house was originally heated by steam radiators, powered by a hand-stoked coal boiler in the basement. The house may have originally been piped for gas lighting, as electricity did not become widespread in American homes until the early 1900s. With its flickering pale glow, gas lighting was an improvement over pre-Civil War whale oil candles. But houses such as 4230 Parkside were almost invariably dark and gloomy, with their stained paneling, overstuffed furniture, heavy drapery, and piles of curios and knick-knacks. Dust must have been a problem, especially for anyone with allergies.
In their fleeting glory days, these Parkside Avenue homes were Downton Abbey in miniature. In Victorian Philadelphia, immigrant servant labor, usually Irish, was inexpensive and plentiful. A house like 4230 Parkside would have a staff consisting of a cook, laundress, maid, governess, maybe even a butler. They worked long hours, received only one weekday evening plus every other Sunday off, and received an average salary of $3.50 per week (about $45.00 today), well below the modern minimum wage.* They were quartered downstairs. The butler’s pantry, accessed by a separate back staircase that is now floored over by a later bathroom addition, survives almost intact. The kitchen, located at the rear of the first story, has lost all of its original fixtures except for the china cabinet and the lower half of its wall tiles. The cook toiled over a mammoth coal fired iron range, which lacked the temperature controls we take for granted today. The iceman would make frequent deliveries to restock the icebox.
The future of the house remains in question. Two doors down, however, the owner of a nearly-identical house has recently completed a total restoration. The copper trim has all been renewed, the brick scrubbed, a new balastrade added to the front porch. He has even replaced the curved sashes and panes in the second floor bay windows. The view of the park and the newly-restored Please Touch Museum from the new roofdeck must be spectacular.
Is this a harbinger of things to come?
*Glessner House Museum: http://www.glessnerhouse.org/Servants.htm