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I’M MORE BULLISH THAN EVER on Kensington, the Philadelphia neighborhood north of Center City where I bought a small row house for investment in 2007. Eight years ago, the area was full of crumbling, sagging buildings. Now it’s being spiffed up and built up everywhere, with new low-rise residential construction in formerly vacant lots, and the conversion of the area’s many disused textile mills and factories into rentals and condos.
In Philly this week, I wanted to see the area around Norris Square, above, a leafy park I remembered as sketchy several years ago, when small row houses near the park were going for well under 100K. They’re a bit more now (though still under 150K), but the area felt cleaned up and more friendly on a walking tour of the neighborhood with my son Max and his dog Roma.
We ambled up Hancock Street and down Front, under the elevated train, where industrial buildings are being renovated left and right for commercial and residential use. Here, in approximately this order, is what we saw.
The carriage houses that carry tourists around Center City are stabled on Hancock. In the background, one of the many brick factory buildings that have been converted for residential use.
This former feather company building is being developed after a community battle to save it from demolition.
Admiring the newly painted signage on a Hancock Street building, we were invited in for a look. Federal Distilling is a vodka distillery, soon to open with a bar selling house-made products.
The area’s row-house architecture is very similar to that of nearby Fishtown.
Right around Norris Square, the houses are larger and more detailed. Must have been elegant in their day.
Something afoot here on Front in what looks like an old bank building.
Oxford Mills is a mammoth rental building completed a couple of years ago in the shell of a former textile family. Public school teachers get a break on rent.
On this block of Jefferson Street, a typical mix: some old row houses, a couple of modern interventions, and a former casket factory developed as apartments.
The side of my property is visible, covered with ivy, in the photo above. The new construction across the street was a vacant lot two years ago. The grassy field has been sold to developers and will become 17 new townhouses. The brick building behind mine is one of the neighborhood’s earliest loft conversions.
Lunch was here, in the shadow of the El, at the Good Spoon Soupery (they have salads and sandwiches, too) on the corner of Front and Master — a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
IT BEGAN when my daughter moved into a Prospect Heights brownstone with a struggling pine tree in a barrel out front. Each time I visited, I eyed the dead branches, wishing I could take a pruner to the thing and tidy it up. One day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told her, “I’m going to prune that pine. If your landlord says anything, tell him your mother is an itinerant urban gardener who goes around pruning people’s shrubs unbidden.”
While my East Hampton house is rented out, I’ve been getting my gardening jollies catching up on maintenance in the yards of my buildings in Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill. I ride around with a wooden box of garden tools in the back of my car — a hand rake, lopper, pruner, shovel, gloves, trash bags. When the urge to garden strikes, I’m ready. But I can see how this could get out of hand. Last week, I was walking along a Park Slope sidewalk and saw a lovely Japanese maple in a cobalt pot in someone’s front yard. It was full of weeds. My fingers itched to reach over the iron fence and pull them out, but I restrained myself. One recent morning, in Philadelphia to visit my son, I went out in my pajamas at 7AM and pulled 2-foot-tall weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk in front of his building … and the building next door.
Soon, I’ll have my half-acre to play with. In the meantime, I stealth-garden on other people’s property and enjoy what they’re doing with their window boxes, tree pits and containers. They’re doing a lot; it’s an encouraging sign of the times.
Below: March of the pots, a trend I’ve spotted this year for the first time. This is good news. In decades past, they might well have been stolen.
Above: Window box explosion in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood. Below: Ivy and seasonal containers decorate a carriage house in Old Kensington.
Below: Orange cosmos and white gaura have burst through the iron fence around this apartment building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, seeding themselves in cracks in the sidewalk.
Below: A proudly tended Brooklyn tree pit with petunias and variegated hosta.
LAST WEEK, I FINALLY ACHIEVED ENTRY into a pair of restored 18th century houses in Philadelphia that had eluded me for years. The modest 1776 Todd house, above on left, and the elegant 1786 home of Bishop William White are on the same block in Center City, Walnut Street between 3rd and 4th. They’ve always been closed when I’ve tried to visit in the past. They’re only open in the summer months; sometimes they’re understaffed; they only allow 10 at a time inside; you call for information and can’t get through — so a certain mystique had built up for me around these sites. Then there’s the ticketing rigamarole: you have to first pick up a (free) ticket at the Visitor Center at Independence National Historical Park, a few blocks away at Market and 6th, and sign up for a scheduled half-hour tour, which happen once or twice a day.
On Friday morning, however, I did it. Five showed up for the tour, including people from Missouri and Washington State. First we visited the middle class house where John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, his wife Dolley Payne Todd, and their two children lived (with just a single servant). It’s very much a Philadelphia row house of the late 18th century, with narrow twisting wooden stairs, a tiny kitchen, a dining room and parlor, small bedrooms, and an office in a prime corner where Todd practiced law. He died here in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, as did 4,000 other Philadelphians , including one of their young sons. Dolley went on to meet another young lawyer, James Madison, in that very house two months later, and eventually became the 4th First Lady of the U.S. The house is furnished with period pieces, though they’re not original to the house — and well done as the restoration is, it is just a warm-up for the Federal-style Bishop White house a few doors down.
Above: The side of the Todd house is more impressive than the front, which is only two windows wide. We entered through a door behind the picket fence.
From top: kitchen, dining, study in Todd house.
The 4-inch-wide door to the left of the stairs is a candle closet(!)
Above: Fire buckets hang from the ceiling in the Todd house.
When Kevin O’Neill, the National Park Service ranger who led the tour, opened the fanlight door to the Bishop White House, left, we all gasped. It is grand, especially by comparison to the Todd house: the plaster archway in the front hall, the diamond-patterned floor cloth, the wide stair landings and turned balusters, the painstakingly reproduced Scalamandre (or did he say Schumacher?) wallpapers in every room. This house is filled almost exclusively with furnishings that belonged to the original homeowner, a bishop in the Protestant Episcopal Church just around the corner. The artifacts were rounded up in the late 1940s and ’50s from as far away as Texas and South Africa; they’d been sold off after the Bishop’s death in 1836, but their provenance was apparently traceable down to the silver and china. The Bishop had 11 children and quite a few servants; Washington, Jefferson and Franklin were among the elite guests. He seems to have been an admirable guy — an abolitionist, of an ecumenical bent (rabbis dined here as well), a charitable fellow who never turned a beggar away empty-handed from his door, the story goes.
Above: The very wallpaper patterns in place in the late 18th/early 19th centuries.
The painting propped on a stand, above, commissioned by one of the Bishop’s children shortly after his death, is of this second-floor study. It greatly enabled an accurate re-creation of the room, even after the house had been occupied by an insurance company for decades (happily, they did no damage to the house’s architectural integrity).
Above: The Park Ranger peering down the hall to where I was lagging behind to take a picture. He’s hoping I’m not some kind of stealth graffiti artist, or perhaps just anxious to keep to his schedule.
Above: All the mod cons in a room at the back of the hall — from here straight into an alley that ran behind the house.
Above: A kitchen much larger than those in other houses of this period. Below: The Bishop’s mosquito-netted bed.
Some of the Ranger’s statements were questionable, such as that Philly went into decline after the 1790s (when the nation’s capital was moved to D.C. and the founders, who had gathered there as a central point while the Constitution was being written and the nation formed, repaired back to their Virginia plantations and homes elsewhere), and that the city’s reputation and vitality didn’t return until the Bicentennial of 1976. Huh? What about the Industrial Revolution? The 1876 Exposition? American Bandstand?
But it may be true that nothing that came later — not even the current real estate boom, which makes Brooklyn’s look sleepy — ever quite recaptured the glory and opportunity of those post-Revolutionary years, preserved for our consumption in a pair of brick row houses.
Above: On the same Center City block as the Todd and Bishop White houses, a park in the style of the late 18th century, always worth a look.
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.