Look Up! A gilded age of architecture in the Germantown landscape

The city’s first suburb was a canvas for great design and a variety of 19th century styles.


“Look Up!” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. The photo essays focus on different Philadelphia areas and their distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.


Beginning in the mid 18th century, wealthy Philadelphians escaped the heat and noise of the city by building summer homes along rural Germantown Avenue. Development of sprawling stone and wood mansions intensified in the area in the mid 19th century, beginning with the dedication of Walnut Lane as a public access road and the establishment of local streetcar lines. The opening of the Pennsylvania Railroad stop for which the Tulpehocken Station Historic District takes its name did not occur until 1878.


But whatever the mode of transport – horse, car, bus, train or bike – the west-central Germantown neighborhood is a beautiful destination in spring, particularly for the eclectic architecture of West Walnut Lane.


The 19th-century designers of the city’s first permanent residential enclave away from the downtown were inspired by the theories of Andrew Jackson Downing, the father of American landscape architecture who believed country houses should blend with and complement their natural surroundings.


One of the earliest homes on West Walnut Lane is the Mitchell House, built in 1856 and attributed to architect Samuel Sloan. The Mitchell House ascribes to Downing’s exquisite landscaping philosophy and his taste for the Romantic architecture of the English countryside.


Just north is the Van Dyke Residence, 150 West Walnut, built circa 1861 and also attributed to Sloan. But this Gothic mansion has a dramatic Italianate tower, and the landscaping allows the building to rise menacingly into the sky.


Diversity is the theme along this street. The house at 125 West Walnut Lane was designed as a relatively compact Flemish Dutch chalet by George T. Pearson, who kept this home for himself. Pearson also built the magnificent Spanish Jacobethan-styled Pardee House at 239 West Walnut. Architect Mantle Fielding chose a Georgian Revival design for Comaweban, 50 West Walnut, built in 1899 out of the local stone, Wissahickon schist.


The Tulpehocken Station Historic District, consisting of 37 structures and 118 contributing houses, was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. The district “stands as a significant example of suburban residential development, the first in Philadelphia and possibly in the country,” according to the nomination.


Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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