Throughout June, we will be highlighting neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia, the people and places that make our city unique and strong. By the close of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia was recognized as both the "Workshop of the World" and a "City of Neighborhoods." Since that time, waves of economic and social change have continually re-shaped the city into the metropolis we know today. We look forward to sharing the backstory of several of our city's neighborhoods in the weeks ahead.
East Oak Lane
Bounded on the north side by Cheltenham Avenue/Montgomery County, on the west by North Broad Street and Old York Road, on the east by North 5th Street, and on the south by Godfrey Avenue.
The area was first settled by Welsh Quaker families in the late 17th century. Griffith Miles purchased 250 acres here in 1695 and the settlement which grew on his land was first called Milestown. In 1710 locals petitioned the colonial Governor of Pennsylvania for improvements to local roads and in the following years the York Road (now Old York Road) was constructed, creating a land route from Philadelphia north to New York. This road served area farmers bringing products to market in Philadelphia, and roadside taverns in East Oak Lane served drovers and travelers. 

By 1761 the community had grown to the point where a school was needed. Joseph Armitage donated land for a one-room stone schoolhouse to be built on the site of the current Ellwood School. This site is believed to be the oldest continuously active public educational site in Philadelphia. The community continued to grow, and in 1817 a new school was built—octagonal in shape, with two stories, with church services on the second floor. This was finally replaced in 1875, when the stone Victorian Ellwood Elementary building was erected, and the trustees of the school transferred the property to the Philadelphia Board of Education.
By the 1850’s the railroad reached East Oak Lane. In the 1870’s the Northern Pennsylvania Railroad Company (later the Reading Company) was operating regular passenger service with stops at Fern Rock, Oak Lane, and Lawnton stations. This rail connection to the city would drive the next decade’s development of the area. Large country estates such as the Lawnton Mansion were converted to hotels and Kenilworth Inn was built to allow city folk to escape to and enjoy the area’s green fields and verdant open spaces. Thomas Henry Asbury, an industrialist, was the first large scale developer of permanent homes in the area, building large Victorian homes for himself and his family in the 1880s and 1890s. Streets were laid out and lots subdivided, and the area grew into a residential community for well-to-do families seeking the quiet and green spaces that the city did not offer.

As the neighborhood grew to be a desirable residential community, churches and civic institutions were established to support it. In 1887 the Melrose Athletic Club was founded by T. Henry Asbury and in 1888 Melrose Hall was built to support the club, hosting dances, dinners, lectures, and theater performances. Mary E. Stewart founded the Review Club of Oak Lane in 1895 to offer intellectual pursuits. The ladies of the Review Club helped raise funds for the construction of the Oak Lane Library in 1910 which was also supported by the Andrew Carnegie Fund. This building remains part of the Free Library of Philadelphia branch system and is one of the handful of Carnegie-funded libraries listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

By 1910 residential construction increased with the establishment of the Oak Lane Building Company, which developed Oak Lane Park in the South East side of the neighborhood.
1950 to Present:
The postwar years saw the final stages of development in the neighborhood, with modern ranch homes filling the few remaining available lots. The modern Ellwood Elementary School building replaced the Victorian schoolhouse in 1957. Unfortunately many historic homes were demolished to make way for new modern structures built in the post-war years. 
Increased automobile use resulted in the demise of streetcar service on Old York Road, signaling a decline of neighborhood storefront businesses as residents drove further distances to reach regional shopping complexes. 
Neighborhood demographics have evolved through the decades, resulting in the rich diversity of residents that now call East Oak Lane home. The post-war years saw an influx of Jewish and Ukrainian residents, followed by an influx of middle-class African American families in more recent decades. Since the 1970’s the neighborhood has emerged as one of the city’s most stable middle-class locales with a racially and ethnically diverse population. Churches and synagogues, modern and historic, as well as small businesses and restaurants today proudly serve the diverse residents of the area.

Unique and intact as a neighborhood, East Oak Lane is well positioned for the future, with new residents discovering and investing in historic homes found throughout this leafy, appealing pocket of Philadelphia. But the neighborhood faces undeniable challenges, with the high cost of maintaining large older homes being a trial for some. And threats of unwelcome and misplaced commercial and high-density development loom over today’s East Oak Lane, an otherwise verdant, tranquil and beautiful Philadelphia neighborhood.
These neighborhood descriptions are not meant to represent the comprehensive story of these neighborhoods and places. They are more so vignettes, intended to highlight and recognize the varied places across Philadelphia that contribute to our shared built environment. The places which have been intentionally or unintentionally preserved in the past and which deserve further preservation today.

East Oak Lane history and photos by David Anker, a member of the Oak Lane Community Action Association and the Oak Lane Tree Tenders.
Watch from the safety and
comfort of your own home! 
Tuesday, June 23, 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM
The part and the whole: Wilson Eyre and a quiet architectural revolution in 1880s Philadelphia
Presented by Jeffrey Cohen, Professor of the History of Architecture and the Urban Form in the Growth & Structure of Cities at Bryn Mawr College.

The heroically inventive work of the 1870s, led in Philadelphia by Frank Furness and George Hewitt, Henry Sims, and Willis Hale, ran headlong into a different regime of design values toward that decade’s close. Virtues suddenly became vices, and the expressed material and spatial truths of the part yielded to a stronger emphasis on visual harmony in the whole. This was especially evident in buildings by a younger generation of architects working in what was nominally a wide array of styles. Notable among this group were Wilson Eyre, Frank Miles Day, the firm of Cope & Stewardson, and others who followed their lead into the mid-1890s. Join us for an exploration of their work.
Tuesday, June 30, 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM
Eastern State Penitentiary - Behind Walls!
Presented by Sally Elk, President and CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary.

Have you been to Eastern State Penitentiary since 2014? Sally Elk will take you there via her illustrated talk about her tenure as President and CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary. After 20 years of abandonment, Eastern State reopened for tours in 1994. Sally's challenge has been the stewardship of this National Historic Landmark and ensuring its future. Hear about contemporary programming and why people pay money to be scared in the dark. You won't want to miss a virtual tour of this amazing site, learn about its amazing success, and hear how it is poised for the future.  

Inga Saffron discusses her new book
"Becoming Philadelphia"
Tuesday, July 7, 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM