Willis Hale and the Proposed Chester-Regent Historic District

Twin houses on the 4500 block of Chester Avenue, May 25, 1951.

Restraint is not a word associated with the Philadelphia architect Willis Gaylord Hale (1848-1907).  His most famous Philadelphia commission, the recently-rehabbed Divine Lorraine Hotel of 1894, is a yellow-brick wedding cake skyscraper. His other residential and commercial structures that have survived the wrecking ball, such as the Union Trust in Center City, are fanciful and exuberant, but hardly graceful.

Willis Hale achieved his (brief) professional success through a combination of hard work and strategic associations. A transplant from Seneca Falls, New York, he studied in the architectural offices of Samuel Sloan (designer of Woodland Terrace) and John McArthur (designer of City Hall) before opening his own firm. He had also married a niece of the chemical magnate William Weightman, one of the richest men in Philadelphia.  Very much like his contemporary Peter Widener (whose North Broad Street mansion Hale designed), Weightman was also deeply involved in land speculation in North and West Philadelphia. Of course, Hale was Weightman’s architect of choice for several ornate developments pitched to upper-middle class buyers.  Prosperous lawyers and physicians loved Hale’s homes, but the architectural establishment thought otherwise. “The building shall lack unity, shall lack harmony, shall lack repose and shall be a restless jumble,” sneered The Architectural Record in 1893. His commercial buildings on Chestnut Street were “monstrosities.”

Yet the 41 homes Willis Hale designed just off Clark Park, on Chester Avenue and Regent Street, are so uncharacteristic of his gaudy oeuvre. Devoid of almost all ornamentation, they are massive, brooding, fortress-like structures with thick walls and small windows.  Their only touches of whimsy are their elaborately-carved wooden porches, Tudor half-timbered gables, and finial-topped roofs.  The semi-circular turrets are Hale’s nod to the Boston architect H.H. Richardson’s Romanesque Revival style, which was popular in the New England, but rarely seen in the Philadelphia area.

The real showstopper in Hale’s development is the 10,000 square foot freestanding mansion at 46th and Chester.  Completed in 1889, its first occupant was the wealthy physician Dr. Daniel Egan, whose family owned it until the 1930s, by which time the neighborhood had fallen out of fashion due to the ravages of the Great Depression.  Dr. Egan’s widow donated the house to the Roman Catholic church, who converted it into a home for the elderly.  Now restored to much of its former grandeur, the former Egan mansion is now the Gables Bed & Breakfast.

An announcement for a performance at the Utopian Club, a musical society of which Willis Hale, an amateur singer, was a member. The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 1883.

Like Frank Furness, Hale’s florid high Victorian style was out-of-fashion by the early twentieth century. Clients wanted the clean lines and cool French classicism of Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele.  Once one of the city’s most prosperous architects, Willis Hale ended his days in straightened circumstances, surviving mostly on the largesse of his very wealthy uncle in-law.

Today, the University City Historic District has proposed that the 41 Willis Hale houses be designated as the Chester-Regent Historic District.  If the Historic Commission approves the proposed district on April 17, it will be another step toward actively preserving more of West Philadelphia’s Victorian housing stock, which has come under increasing pressure from development and demolition in recent years.

Sources: 

Sandra Tatman, “Hale, Willis Gaylord (1848-1907),” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2019.  https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/24990

Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930s. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2011.

“Historical Commission to consider preservation designation for 41 homes near Clark Park,” West Philly Local, March 4, 2019.

Historical Commission to consider preservation designation for 41 homes near Clark Park

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