The Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia is historic in two senses. First, it is historic in the more usual sense because it has existed for well over 300 years and is part of the setting in which the great founding events of the United States took place. Second, after a period of long decline it was revived in the second half of the 20 th century by a series of brilliant governmental and private initiatives which received acclaim from city planners, historic preservationists and political commentators from around the world, and which inspired similar efforts in other cities.
Philadelphia dates its birth to 1682, when its founder, William Penn, first landed on the site of his new city . He engaged the surveyor Thomas Holme to prepare a grid plan for the city, stretching from the Delaware River west to the Schuylkill River . On the east-west axis it was centered on Market Street , then called High Street, which still runs straight west from the Delaware River . The city spread to the north and south along the riverfront, and then slowly westward. As the area around High Street became increasingly commercial, in the mid-18 th century some of the wealthier families began to build their houses to the south, across Dock Creek from the main part of the city.
In 1683 Penn had granted this southern area to the Free Society of Traders, a London development company. The company flew its flag on the ground high above Dock Creek, and thus the surrounding area became known as "the Society's Hill." When the area was redeveloped in the 20 th century, the name was revived and modified to become simply "Society Hill." This name seems to imply that Society Hill has always been the exclusive preserve of the "upper sort," to use 18 th -century words denoting a higher social class. In fact it has almost always contained a mixture of classes. The "social" implication is based on a misconception. The word "society" in the London company's name meant nothing more than it does in, for example, the name of the one-time bank called the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society. The London company could just as well have called itself the Free Corporation of Traders.
Society Hill was mostly developed by the time of the American Revolution. Philadelphia as a whole had by then become second only to London as the largest English-speaking city in the world. It was the capital of the Province (later Commonwealth) of Pennsylvania and, for the last decade of the 18 th century, the capital of the country. In the early part of the 19 th century the city declined somewhat. The state capital moved to Harrisburg and the national capital moved to Washington . The completion of the Erie Canal and Andrew Jackson's veto of the renewal of the charter of the Philadelphia-based Second Bank of the United States helped make New York the country's new commercial and financial center.
Philadelphia as a whole was not doomed to obscurity, however. The Industrial Revolution brought great prosperity to the city, especially after the Civil War. However, that wealth was not spent in the city's historic area and certainly not in Society Hill. By the end of the 19 th century Philadelphia 's commercial district had expanded to the west, and was centered on the axis of Market and Broad Streets, where surveyor Holme's Center Square became the site of a new City Hall. The "upper sort" also moved west, to the area around Rittenhouse Square and eventually to Chestnut Hill, the suburbs of the Main Line and beyond. From the mid-19 th century to the mid-20 th century Society Hill went through a slow decline. Fortunately, however, most of its inventory of 18 th and early 19 th century houses remained, even as other cities were tearing down their architectural patrimony. Now these houses were occupied as the dwelling and eating places of successive waves of immigrants and of stevedores and others who served the expanding port. Some old buildings were used as part of the Dock Street wholesale food market. Brick warehouses were built along the river, only to become outmoded and to deteriorate. Older piers, not suited to receiving larger modern vessels, went out of use and rotted. Small factories were built.
Society Hill did not become totally derelict. It was not a slum. Some important institutions remained. Several historic churches and synagogues were still active in their historic buildings, albeit with diminished congregations. The country's first fire insurance company, The Philadelphia Contributionship (founded by Benjamin Franklin and a few of his friends) remained in place on Fourth Street , where it still sits today. The Powel House, the imposing residence of the city's mayor both before and after the Revolutionary War, had become a house museum. Several important publishing houses ringed Washington Square . However, those which were still there in 1950 are now all gone. Their architecturally significant buildings remain, now adapted to new uses, one an art gallery and the rest residential. The Athenaeum, a private library founded in 1814, does remain on the square. Some areas became derelict, especially after the wholesale food market left, but there was always a continuous residential population - some in boarding houses, but some in well-maintained single-family houses. The population by the mid-20 th century contained a rich mixture of ethnic groups. Over 600 buildings originally built as residences during the 18 th and early 19 th centuries were still standing in various states of repair - more than in any other American city.
Important things began to happen in Philadelphia after the deprivations of the Great Depression and World War II. Some of the most noteworthy changes took place in the historic area, including Society Hill. There changes were caused by the happy confluence of four important forces, three national and one local: (i) the city planning movement, (ii) the historic preservation movement, (iii) the federal government's urban renewal and related programs and (iv) what has been called Philadelphia's "political renaissance," which replaced the corrupt political machine which had ruled the city for many years with a reform administration determined to do the right thing.
Edmund Bacon is generally credited with the idea of restoring Society Hill. In his official position as Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, he undertook in the early 1950s the preparation of a master physical plan for the area. The task was not easy. Redevelopment, the general rubric under which these urban renewal projects were to be implemented, had never dealt with a historic area on the scale of Society Hill. The pattern in other cities had been to raze large areas completely, even entire neighborhoods, and then rebuild them from scratch, using one or a few professional developers. It was called "slum clearance." A new approach was needed for Society Hill, one that would preserve as many of the existing historic structures as possible. By moving the antiquated Dock Street wholesale food market to a new facility in South Philadelphia , the area could be entirely freed from inappropriate commercial uses and restored to its original residential use with only such commercial uses as would serve the residential community. Such a project would bring residents back into the city, preserve the historic fabric and increase the city's tax base.
A team of City Planning Commission staff, Redevelopment Authority staff and private architecture firms surveyed every structure in the area, determining which structures were to be restored and which, for one or more reasons, would be torn down. They then made some key decisions: (i) the standards for the restoration of historic buildings, (ii) the design rules for new structures and (iii) the decision to allow high-rise apartment buildings to be built on the periphery of Society Hill. This last decision was the most controversial. The reasoning was that if, in the early 1960s, the only options for those wanting to live in Society Hill were to restore an old house or build a new one, only those both brave and well-financed would sign up, and the revival would never develop the momentum it needed to succeed. With rental apartments, people could move to the area with short-term commitments. It worked; people began to come in increasing numbers, and success was assured. One reason was the concern for good design that permeated the process, especially with the project known as Society Hill Towers , designed by noted architect I. M. Pei and opened in 1964.
Bacon added a delightful new element to the Society Hill master plan -- landscaped mid-block pedestrian walkways linking various historic sites. He named these "greenways." The downside, however, was that some historic structures suitable for restoration had to be torn down to complete this greenway system.
As the plan became publicly known, a strong force arose in opposition to many of its demolition decisions. It was the eloquent voice of Charles Peterson, a distinguished historical architect who played a central role in the creation of Independence National Historical Park and who early on restored a house in Society Hill. Peterson was overwhelmingly committed to the cause of historic preservation. His efforts as a private citizen with a nationwide reputation as a preservationist did finally influence some of the decisions in Society Hill, and saved several important buildings from demolition. He also served as an eager resource of valuable advice to other residents restoring old houses.
With the physical master plan nearing completion in the late 1950s, attention turned to a marketing plan. Philadelphia was blessed with having a good Redevelopment Authority, put in place by the reform government. It was quite capable of dealing with several major new projects in Society Hill (such as the new apartment houses) and with the professional developers who would build them. However, the Authority was not prepared to deal with a variety of individuals, some sophisticated and some not, who wanted to restore single houses in Society Hill. A new marketing mechanism was needed. The answer came from the new reform political leadership (especially the new mayor, Richardson Dilworth), from the people the reformers brought into government and from the private sector leaders who had been inspired by the political renaissance. One of those private leaders, Albert Greenfield, pushed hard on Philadelphia 's civic leadership to establish a new organization. The Greater Philadelphia Movement, the principal then-existing organization of business leaders, endorsed the idea and took the lead with Greenfield in its creation, with strong backing from Mayor Dilworth. Incorporated in 1956, the new organization was named the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation and was usually referred to as "OPDC" (now Central Philadelphia Development Corporation). Its stated purpose was to "aid and assist in the redevelopment, renewal, replanning and general improvement of the declining core of the historic city." Its structure envisioned a public-private partnership. The public was represented by certain city officials serving on its board ex officio - the Mayor, the President of City Council and a few other officials. The majority of board members came from the private sector, and were business and professional leaders from Philadelphia 's power elite.
OPDC went to work. It created a marketing program which in the end proved to be very successful. By the time of the 1976 Bicentennial of American independence, the revival of Society Hill was essentially complete.
For more information on OPDC's role in the redevelopment of Society Hill, click here.
Copyright © 2007 Stanhope S. Browne. All rights reserved.