Footage of the last steam trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1954.
For those who regularly ride the Main Line trains: have you ever wondered why there are no stops between 30th Street Station and Overbrook? After Overbrook, however, the train stops nearly every two minutes. There’s an old – and very politically incorrect — mnemonic device for memorizing the towns on the Main Line: “Old Maids Never Wed and Have Babies. Period.” Overbrook, Merion, Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr. Paoli.
Thankfully, this phrase has fallen out of popular use. As the Philadelphia Inquirer quipped in a 1988 article that quoted it: “But let’s not forget what the Main Line, at the bottom line, really is. The term is so ingrained in our local patois that we tend to detach it from the real meaning. The Main Line is – well, the main line. Tracks and sidings. Signals and stations. Switches, whistles.”
The Pennsylvania Railroad’s development of its right-of-way was a shrewd real estate deal. Rather than haggle with Philadelphia city government and acquire parcels piecemeal, they could buy up huge swaths of farmland outside of the city limits and develop it as they saw fit. Until the turn of the twentieth century, there were two other stops before the Main Line trains chugged from 30th Street, through West Philadelphia, and across City Avenue: Powelton Village and Parkside. According to architectural historian Robert Morris Skaler, Powelton became a popular residence for executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad and Baldwin Locomotive Works, and “even had a special railroad stop at Powelton Avenue for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s executives to travel by train to their offices.” The Pennsylvania Railroad also had a stop at 52nd Street and Lancaster Avenue, labeled as the Hestonville Depot in an 1872 map. This stop later grew into a sprawling rail yard that cast a sooty, noisy pall over much of the adjacent Parkside neighborhood. Nearby was the 44th and Parkside ballpark, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad YMCA in 1903 and home of the African-American league Philadelphia Stars.
Therefore, it could be argued in fact that Powelton Village was the first stop on the Main Line, the stretch of track connecting Philadelphia with Pittsburgh.
Much of the grand residential architecture that survives in Powelton today is a harbinger of the grand suburban development that grew up around the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line tracks in the 1890s and early 1900s. Powelton is a hybrid of streetcar and railroad suburban development: for the second half of the nineteenth century, it was serviced by both horse drawn (later electric) streetcars and by Main Line trains. The surviving freestanding mansions on Powelton Avenue, Baring Street, and Hamilton Street are large and ornate, yet they are set within walking distance of each other rather than being secluded on larger lots as they were on the Main Line. They are also located within a few minutes walk of the former Powelton Avenue stop. Unlike the Main Line developments, there are also a significant number of twin houses and row house blocks intermingled with the free-standing houses.
Several well-known Philadelphia architects got in on the act of building up Powelton. Wilson Eyre Jr., designer of many large houses in Rittenhouse Square and the Philadelphia suburbs, also worked on at least two houses in Powelton Village. One was a substantial freestanding mansion for wine merchant Henry Cochran, located on the corner of 36th and Baring Streets. Another was a renovation of a narrow twin house on the 3500 block of Hamilton Street. In both of these projects, Eyre displayed his characteristic sense of whimsy and invention, much of it medieval in inspiration. He also avoided the gaudy grandeur that characterized so much late Victorian architecture. Among other commissions, Eyre was responsible for the University Museum, the Mask & Wig clubhouse, and suburban estates such as Horatio Gates Lloyd’s “Allgates” mansion in Haverford. In the words of the Historic Commission’s Diana Marcelo: “Eyre detested an overload of ornamentation. He had a feeling of proportion, and a tendency toward extended horizontal planes. His buildings had crisp lines and much expression, achieved by a careful blend of varying materials.” The Cochran house bears more than a passing resemblance to the early residential work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In many ways, Eyre’s Powelton and Wright’s Oak Park were similar suburban communities.
The neighborhood prospered for a few decades thanks to the station stop and the infusion of railroad money. From the 1870s until the early 1900s, because of its proximity to the old 30th Street depot, Powelton Village was a neighborhood of choice for Pennsylvania Railroad executives. Max Riebenack was perhaps the most prominent of the PRR executives who lived in West Philadelphia. Riebenack was an American success story: a German immigrant whose parents brought him to America as a six year old boy in 1850. By 1895, he had risen to the position of comptroller of the Pennsylvania Railroad, working alongside executives like Alexander Cassatt, mastermind of New York’s Pennsylvania Station and its tunnels. Yet rather than move to Rittenhouse Square or the Main Line, Riebenack preferred to live “North of Market” in West Philadelphia, close to fellow German immigrants such as brewer Frederick Augustus Poth. With his newfound wealth, Riebenack purchased a plot of land for $14,000 (the equivalent of about $300,000 today) at the corner of 34th and Powelton Avenue. He then commissioned architect Thomas Preston Lonsdale to build a spiky roofed Queen Anne style mansion that rose high above the street.
As a high-ranking executive of one of the largest corporations in the world, Max clearly liked living large, joining many clubs during his time on North 34th Street, both in town (the Union League) and in the suburbs (the Merion Cricket Club). The house, now Drexel University’s Ross Commons, was built for grand entertaining. The Philadelphia Inquirer breathlessly described the Riebenack’s silver wedding anniversary as follows:
“A largely attended reception was given last night at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Max Riebenack, at Thirty-fourth and Powelton avenue, on the occasion of the silver anniversary of their wedding. The house was handsomely decorated and an orchestra furnished music in the spacious hallway from behind a fern-covered nook. The house was lighted up throughout with electric lights and crowded with guests. Mr. and Mrs. Riebenack were assisted in receiving their guests by Mrs. Conrad T. Clothier. Many of the presents were handsome and valuable.”
Unfortunately, Max and Eleanor Riebenack suffered two terrible personal tragedies. In 1903, their thirty year old son Max Jr. died of typhoid fever in the family home on Powelton Avenue. Five years later, another son, Henry - an inventor and former track star at the University of Pennsylvania — also died of disease, this time at the family’s beach house in Atlantic City, New Jersey. By the time Max Riebenack himself died in 1910, the neighborhood’s most fashionable days had past. When the Powelton Avenue stop closed, the neighborhood became much less accessible to Center City and the PRR’s offices at Broad Street Station. Many of those with money moved to the Main Line towns past City Avenue, and the large mansions they left behind were converted into boarding houses.
So ended Powelton’s short reign as the “first stop” on the Main Line.
Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.77.
“West Philadelphia: The Basic History, Chapter 2: A Streetcar Suburb in the City: West Philadelphia, 1854-1907,” West Philadelphia Community History Center. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/wphila/history/history2.html
“227. N. 34th Street, Philadelphia,” http://poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/files/227n34th.htm
Sally Downey, “Tracking the Main Line from Overbrook to Paoli: The World from the 17 Stops of the R5 Local,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 5, 1988. http://articles.philly.com/1988-02-05/entertainment/26241651_1_train-station-signals-and-stations-bottom-line
Diana Marcelo, “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Wilson Eyre Home” (Philadelphia, PA: The Philadelphia Historical Commission, April 1976.) https://www.dot7.state.pa.us/ce_imagery/phmc_scans/H001363_01H.pdf