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.
Garden Court
Bounded by South 46th Street on the east, Pine Street to the north, South 49th Street on the west, and Larchwood Avenue to the south. (The Garden Court Community Association boundaries are somewhat larger, but this article deals with the 1920s development at the core of this area.
Prior to 1920
The areas to the north, south, east, and west of the tract that would become Garden Court were rapidly developed after 1890 as electrified streetcars spurred a residential building boom. Large Victorian twins offered prosperous families with more space than the tightly packed rowhouse neighborhoods of the older parts of the city, while electric streetcars provided rapid access to Center City employment, entertainment, and shopping.

However, the land that would eventually contain Garden Court remained stubbornly undeveloped during the West Philadelphia housing boom. It was controlled by the estates of Eli Kirk Price (a prominent nineteenth century politician and civic activist) and Anthony Drexel (the successful nineteenth century financier and founder of the university that bears his name). But the area eluded development until an established if unremarkable West Philadelphia residential developer acquired the tract beginning in 1919.
1920 – 1950
By the 1920s, private automobile ownership was taking off. Aspiring home buyers began to seek housing that would provide easy access and storage for their shiny new Fords, Oldsmobiles and Studebakers. Developer Clarence Siegel recognized the trend. Siegel was an established West Philadelphia residential developer, having built a cluster of large 3-story twins along Cobbs Creek Parkway between 1908 and 1913, and rows of twins north of Baltimore Avenue west of 46th Street a few years later.

Sensing that families with their own cars represented a new opportunity, Siegel set out to design his new Garden Court project with the automobile in mind. He also sought to attract a wide range of income groups by offering a variety of housing types and styles, all designed by architects who would give the project a sense of style and sophistication which would lure residents to the new community.
On the 4600 block of Pine Street, Siegel built the neighborhood’s namesake: Garden Court Apartments, a six-story, block-long complex of variously sized units ranging from studios to sprawling 3-bedroom flats. Across the street, he built a row of detached homes, beckoning to prestigious families of means. In each, he included attached garages accessed from behind by a common driveway that spans the block from 46th to 47th Streets. Moving south, the neighborhood transitions from large single homes to more modest yet picturesque rows of twin homes on Osage and Larchwood Avenues, each fronted by a glass enclosed sunporch. Here too, each home is equipped with an attached garage with rear alley access. A mix of singles and twins also line 46th and 47th Streets within the development area.
The rear alleys not only provided access to the garages, but also allowed garbage collection and other services to be relocated from the street to the back, allowing the street fronts to be given over to landscaped gardens and shade trees.

As built, the houses were markedly distinct from their Victorian predecessors, with more windows, lower ceilings and greater light and air. The development is unified by a charming palette of materials including red and sand-colored brick, stucco, half-timbering, decorative tiles, and Spanish tiled roofs. Newspaper ads of the day heralded the houses as “Siegel’s Artistic Homes,” letting buyers customize interior details such as built-in shelving and decorative paneling.
The final block to be developed would be bounded by Pine, 47th, Spruce and 48th Streets. Here, Siegel planned his piece-de-resistance: a dense development of four 13-story high rises, each anchoring its own corner of the block. All would be served by a central parking structure topped with a landscaped roof garden. Alas, only one of these towers, the Art Deco-styled Garden Court Plaza, ended up being built, along with the parking garage and roof garden. The onset of the Great Depression scuttled the rest of Siegel’s ambitions for the block. But the one high rise he completed, together with the attached garage and roof garden, represent a remarkable early effort to sensitively accommodate automobile ownership.

Other developers filled in neighboring blocks stretching west to 49th Street with a combination of architect-designed apartment buildings, most with front gardens, along with rowhouse blocks, with each home again equipped with attached garages and rear alleys. Thus, the Siegel pattern of development was perpetuated as the rest of the area filled in. Siegel’s innovative model consisting of rowhouse blocks with rear alleys and attached garages would be widely copied in residential projects in later decades throughout Northeast Philadelphia and other parts of the city.

1950 – 2000
Philadelphia’s long decline in jobs, prosperity, and population in the second half of the 20th century hit West Philadelphia hard. Many of the large Victorian homes built prior to Garden Court were carved into rental apartments, often occupied by students at the nearby universities. In addition, as was happening elsewhere in the city, demographics were evolving as well, transitioning from largely white to a more heterogeneous mix of residents including a growing number of African American families.

Garden Court, perhaps because of its newer houses more attuned to modern living, remained remarkably stable throughout. Most homes stayed in single family ownership. Black and brown families moved into the neighborhood harmoniously, without the tension or blockbusting tactics that roiled other neighborhoods. Garden Court Community Association was formed in the late 1950s in part to guard against conversion of houses into multi-unit apartments, and also to form an organized community response to neighborhood integration that actively worked for the peaceful accommodation of the area’s growing racial diversity.

Garden Court Apartments was converted to condominium ownership in the 1980s in a tax credit rehabilitation project. In 1984, Garden Court attained listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
2000 – Today
In the early 2000s, Garden Court and surrounding communities benefited from the interventions of the University of Pennsylvania’s West Philadelphia Initiative, established to combat symptoms of urban decline that seemed rampant during the 1990s. The program’s initiatives included regular cleaning and safety patrols, targeted investments in vacant and/or decaying houses and multi-unit buildings, and home improvement loans to incentivize faculty and staff to move into the neighborhood. The opening of the nearby Penn Alexander School in 2002 at 42nd and Spruce proved to be a powerful magnet to the neighborhood for families with young children. Despite these mostly positive trends, some have criticized these investments as “Penntrification” and lamented the subsequent rise in property values.
 
As Garden Court approaches its centennial, it retains many of the features that made it distinctive when new. Many residents have connections with the nearby universities and medical centers, while others commute to jobs in Center City. Garden Court Plaza recently underwent a major overhaul by Post Brothers, highlighting its Art Deco architecture while upgrading tenant amenities. 

Buoyed by nearby employment centers, average incomes in Garden Court are higher than the average for West Philadelphia. To this day, the neighborhood retains considerable diversity to go along with its architectural beauty and the forward-thinking urban design of its founder, Clarence Siegel.

Additional resources on the Garden Court 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.

Garden Court history and photos by Paul Steinke, Executive Director of the Preservation Alliance.
NEW VIRTUAL LECTURES
Watch from the safety and
comfort of your own home! 
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.  
Tuesday, July 7th, 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM
What Just Happened? Twenty Years of Transformation in Philadelphia
Presented by Inga Saffron, Architecture Critic, Philadelphia Inquirer and author of  Becoming Philadelphia: How an Old American City Made Itself New Again . Rutgers University Press, 2020. 

Inga will discuss the policies and physical changes that have shaped Philadelphia over the past two decades.
Inga's lecture is included in the Building Philadelphia full speaker series pass. Email jrobinson@preservationalliance.com if you aren't sure if you need to purchase a ticket for this or not.