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.
Tacony
Bounded on the north side of Robbins Avenue, extending in a northerly direction to the south side of Cottman Avenue and the Delaware River in a westerly direction to the east side of Frankford Avenue
1680-1840
Initial development in Tacony was mostly limited to the area along the Delaware riverfront. Pennsylvania’s first post office was established in Tacony in 1682.

1840 – 1870
The development of the railroads led to Tacony’s first significant population expansion. The line ran to Tacony from New York and shortly after, the Tacony Land Company was established. This was the area’s first land development company which also helped establish a ferry service to Palmyra, New Jersey. Tacony was the terminus of the railroad until the 1870s, resulting in modest development east of the railroad right-of-way. Saint Vincent’s German Catholic Parish established a church and orphanage on the Delaware River and expanded several times, eventually serving the community for over 150 years.
1870 – 1945
The arrival of Henry Disston in 1871 precipitated Tacony’s rise from a sleepy village into an industrial town. Located along the Delaware River at Unruh Avenue, Disston’s factory became the largest manufacturer of saws worldwide and his saws were renowned for their strength and durability. Other manufacturing plants and industrial employers helped to make Tacony symbolic of Philadelphia’s status as the “Workshop of the World.” Henry Disston eventually acquired nearly 400 acres of contiguous land west of the railroad and created a residential area where his workers could buy or rent affordable homes in close proximity to the factory. The Disston Estate, stretching from about Magee Avenue north to about Tyson Avenue on both sides of Torresdale Avenue, was mostly built up by 1900, as were most blocks east of Torresdale Avenue.

Most of the residential community reaped the benefits of Henry Disston’s vision for Tacony into the 1930s. Deed restrictions on the types of businesses allowed to operate and ample parkland gave the community a distinct edge over other urban areas and was viewed as a model neighborhood by various governmental publications. Churches of nearly every denomination had opened both within and outside the Disston Estate by the 1930s.

Tacony was renowned as a center of technological brilliance. Philadelphia City Hall’s mammoth statue of William Penn, still the largest piece of public art to top a building anywhere in the world, was cast at Tacony Iron and Metal Company. The construction of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge in 1929 opened up areas at the south and west ends of the communities for development of row housing.

The will of Mary Disston stated that upon the death of the last named heir, which occurred in 1942, the Disston real estate holdings would be sold, with the tenants given right of first refusal.

The physical character of the neighborhood slowly changed after the Depression, followed by a loss of manufacturing jobs in the mid- to late -20th century. Tacony’s aging housing stock began to exhibit signs of wear while some of its larger grand homes were converted to multi-family use.

Trolley service brought new development to Torresdale Avenue, drawing customers away from Tacony’s original “Main Street” of Longshore Avenue. The conversion of larger homes to apartment units, in some cases prior to the development of a municipal zoning code, changed the community from one primarily inhabited by homeowners to that of a denser multi-family setting. The end of Prohibition brought with it an influx of establishments dispensing alcoholic beverages in the Disston Estate. It wasn’t until 1938 that the neighborhood successfully enforced the Disston deed restrictions and forced several bars and nightclubs to move outside the boundaries of the Estate.
1945 – 2000
Although the Disston Saw Works expanded for World War II contracts which included armor plating for tanks, the company’s 24/7 operation for wartime production took a toll on its machinery and its bottom line. From the 1940s to the 1980s the migration of families to the suburbs, loss of manufacturing jobs, and aging infrastructure and architecture were all factors which led to a gradual decline in neighborhood conditions. The Disston family sold the company in the mid-1950s. The Dodge Steel Company was one of the last major industries to close its doors in the early 1980s. Some of the traditional mom-and-pop enterprises along Torresdale Avenue gave way to national retailers.

Various neighborhood organizations were formed in response to increasing quality of life issues in the community.
2000 – Present
The historic area, known as the Disston Estate, retains much of its architectural integrity and community fabric. Although economic conditions have impacted the quality of life in small pockets of the neighborhood, on the whole Tacony is still considered a stable area. Various community organizations are in place which have operated independently for between 10 and 30 years each and have galvanized to help improve the community.

The residential areas have remained relatively healthy with only an occasional neglected or abandoned property viewed from block to block. Longshore Avenue has seen measured improvement with private investment evident at various multi-family properties and at the restored Tacony Music Hall, while Torresdale Avenue business corridor has benefited from an energetic community development corporation and targeted streetscape investments.

Tacony is at a critical crossroad in its evolution. The area is generally stable, although pockets of neglect remain, especially along the Delaware River at underutilized or vacant industrial sites. In 2016, the Tacony Disston Community Development Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing the varied architectures and development patterns immediately east of the industrial sector.
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.

Some additional sources of Tacony history:



NEW VIRTUAL LECTURES
Watch from the safety and
comfort of your own home! 
Tuesday, June 16, 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM
Truth, Fire, and Frank Furness
Presented by Michael Lewis, author of Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind and Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History at Williams College.

Frank Furness never wrote a single word of theory and yet his buildings brim with ideas. Drawing on contemporary interviews with Furness, this talk reconstructs the architectural philosophy behind his aggressive banks, libraries, and train stations. It proposes that Philadelphia’s beloved rogue architect, notorious for his profanity and for shooting his revolver in the office, was actually a closet intellectual.
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.