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FROM TIME TO TIME, people ask me where to invest in Philadelphia real estate. (Sometimes they ask me where to invest in Brooklyn, and I say: “Philadelphia!”)
But within Philly, I say Kensington, particularly the southern section sometimes known as South Kensington, Old Kensington, or even Olde Kensington, a neighborhood just above played-out Northern Liberties (that was the place to invest 10 years ago) and west of hipper-than-ever Fishtown, recent darling of New York Times reporters. I own a two-unit building in South Kensington — two back-to-back trinity houses, left, built in the 1840s as housing for workers in the area’s massive carpet and textile mills. (My house is the one on the right in the photo, with the peeling cornice; there’s a three-story unit in front and another in the rear, reachable via the alley between my building and the one next door.)
Many of the weavers and textile workers immigrated from England in the mid-19th century, when the area was known as “Little England.” When I bought the house in 2007 for $137,000, the surrounding blocks were really dilapidated — some of the houses, like the ones in the group below, were literally sagging. They’ve since been renovated, and their rooflines are more or less parallel to the horizon.
There were — and still are — vacant lots and hulking mill buildings all over the nabe, like the two below, both within a block of my building. It all looked ripe for adaptive reuse, especially large-scale residential conversion, but not much was happening.
The building above, on 2nd Street and Cecil B. Moore, still looks undeveloped.
At Palethorp and Cecil B. Moore, above, this old industrial building appears inhabited.
That was only six years ago, and now it’s happening in a big, big way. Around the corner from my building, Oxford Mills, below, is well on its way to becoming 141 rental lofts, with an innovative program of reduced rents for public-school teachers, and amenities such as gym, lounge, etc.; and a mixed-use mega-development called Soko Lofts is on its way. There are many other projects of the same ilk: you can find posts about some of the activity here on Curbed Philly.
Across the street from my little building, where once was a vacant lot, a new residential building, below, is going up. It’s of a type often seen in Philadelphia but never in New York. It’s too low-density, I suppose — only four stories high, with box windows and terraces and modernistic use of color. I don’t love the look — these buildings seem insubstantial to me, used to brick and brownstone as I am — but I do find it exciting that the neighborhood is roaring with development.
That’s the 1840s St. Michael’s church in the background, above, the view of which, along with some sunlight, we are sadly about to lose.
The building above, on Second Street, is typical of new Philly architectural design.
South Kensington’s main artery is Frankford Avenue, shared with Fishtown and quickly becoming lined with bars and restaurants, including a couple of high-profile ones owned by celebrity restauranteur Steve Starr (Fette Sau, an upscale BBQ place, and Frankford Hall, a beer garden) and the new Philadelphia-based La Colombe coffee roasting complex, distillery and cafe. Each time I visit, there’s more.
It’s spreading, it’s growing, it’s crazy affordable compared to New York City. And it’s a short bike ride to Center City, whose skyline is visible from most parts of the neighborhood.
Priced out of Bushwick, Brooklynites? Think Kensington.
AS READERS OF THIS BLOG KNOW, I have a great fondness for diminutive antique row houses, whether part of a mews (a row of converted stables or carriage houses) or just working- class homes along a narrow alley. They’re often coveted for their cuteness, and there’s none cuter than Elfreth’s Alley in Old City, Philadelphia, an intact, double-sided row of two dozen 18th century brick houses with multi-paned windows, dormers, wood shutters, and other Colonial details, including a few still-extant mirrors attached to the shutters on the upper floor, projecting a few inches over the street.
Elfreth’s Alley is a National Historic Landmark and the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the United States, as you will hear many a group-herding tour guide say. There’s a museum in two adjoining houses – the only two open to the public – where for a $5 donation you can poke into several evocative rooms and hear stories of how families with seven or eight children managed to live in such tight quarters and maybe run a dressmaking business out of the front room besides.
One of the most frequently asked questions on Elfreth’s Alley is “Do people really live here?” Yes, they do. Right now, #130, top, is on the market for 450K, and has been for a few months. The whole well-documented story of the 7-room, 1,196-square-foot house, built in the 1740s, and its inhabitants, is here. The listing agent is Edward Gay, (215) 563-6724.
A similar house two doors down at #134 sold just last month for 420K. Check this link for its sales price history. For a little house of the 18th century, it hasn’t done badly for itself in the 21st.
YOU’VE HEARD OF THE TINY HOUSE MOVEMENT? They invented that in Philadelphia a couple of centuries ago. The compact ‘trinity houses’ of the late 18th and 19th centuries are now much-coveted for their coziness, charm, and economy. And a dollhouse can be quite livable for 1 or 2, once you get used to the stairs.
This c.1830 trinity, set off the street behind a larger row house, is new to market and very well-priced. It’s in Queen Village, one of the city’s quietest and most attractive neighborhoods. I happen to own a building just around the corner from this one, so I know the area well.
There are actually four floors of usable space: kitchen/dining on the basement level; a living room with fireplace on the ground level; a hall, ‘dressing room,’ and full bath (with fireplace!) on the 2nd floor; and a large open bedroom with a sloping ceiling at the top of the house, for a grand total of about 600 square feet.
I DIDN’T GO TO PHILADELPHIA last week just to walk its cobbled alleys and take pictures of cute houses. I went to see my son and his girlfriend in Fishtown, and to catch the van Gogh exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, above, before it closes May 6. Full of rarely-seen paintings from his last four fevered years, gathered from around the world, the van Gogh (despite the terribly long line to get in, even with timed tickets) did not disappoint.
Nor did the city itself. I was with my indefatigable sister; together we covered half a dozen neighborhoods, including Old City, Society Hill, Rittenhouse Square, and Italian Market, in the space of two days. There seems no end of interesting buildings in Philadelphia, or of the fascinating things you can glimpse through iron gates and discover inside building lobbies.
Paid my first visit to the recently opened Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum, above, a decorative arts annex with several galleries carved into its remodeled interior. Detail, below, of its impressive Art Deco doors.
’Great Coats,’ above, is one of several fun shows ongoing in the Perelman Building, along with 20th century photography and furniture, and fiber arts inspired by the botanical world.
The view from our 7th floor room at the Alexander Inn, above.
Behind an 18th century house museum (all of three rooms) on Elfreth’s Alley in Old City, the oldest continuously inhabited street in the U.S.
Above, Franklin Fountain, an old apothecary shop turned ice cream parlor in Old City, trying to make scaffolding a festive feature.
Mysterious building, above, in Old City, presently vacant but… what potential!
Self-portrait with iPhone at Anthropologie’s flagship store, in an over-the-top mansion on Rittenhouse Square.
The horse’s head on a brick building off Rittenhouse Square probably signifies its earlier use as a stable.
Tony townhouse near elegant Rittenhouse Square.
On Day 2, we had brunch at Sabrina’s in the Italian Market district, where produce and other food stalls are arrayed on the sidewalk underneath corrugated awnings. Italian Market signage, above and below.
Later, we strolled through Society Hill, below, admiring brickwork, shutters, and window boxes and peeking through gates at gardens filled with tidy boxwoods (that’s the garden of the late 18th century Powell House, below). Society Hill was where, in the 1950s, the preservation movement took hold and the revival of Philadelphia’s derelict vintage housing stock began.
Below, Philadelphia’s most extraordinary hidden treasure: an early 20th c. wall mural rendered in colored glass by L.C. Tiffany Studios, after a painting by Maxfield Parrish. It’s in the lobby of the Curtis Publishing Building on Washington Square, open to all.