UC Review: Touring the little republic known as Powelton

UC Review: Touring the little republic known as Powelton

Whenever architect David S. Traub has work in Powelton, he calls in advance for permission to enter. He’s asked at which check point he’ll approach and at what time. He’s told to have his papers in order and not to deviate from his proposed itinerary.

On a crisp Sunday morning in April, historian and UCD tour guide Mark Silber hadn’t realized he’d entered a people’s republic. Ready to start his walking tour with a dozen “Powelton-peepers,” his group was approached by Bill and Emil Baumann patrolling with a guard dog. The group was told that the homeless, while welcome in Powelton, are expected to call in advance. Silber was then thoroughly sniffed and photographed, and told that he resembled some of the FBI agents who’d been stationed in Powelton back in the 1960s.

Silber, who in looks and demeanor does resemble Peter Ustinov a wee bit, took it all in stride and began what proved to be a splendid 1-1/2-hour tour of four Powelton blocks, 32nd to 36th along Baring, and then back via Powelton Avenue. Appropriately, the tour began and ended on the edge of the new Drexel Park, where one of the best views of downtown Philadelphia is to be had, best as in spectacular. If Powelton residents were asked to situate a new home for Drexel’s incoming president, John Fry, they’d probably pick a spot on or near this hillside park, dedicated less than two years ago by the late Dr. Constantine Papadakis (UCR Nov. 5,’08). 

Tour guide Silber is an engaging enthusiast who exudes architectural history and who’s quick to speculate on where terms and styles may have come from, and how they’ve evolved. His UCD tour groups are intentionally small; the cap is 12, to encourage more involvement. Powelton, always the teasing but gracious host, provides a rich mosaic of architectural styles and door-to-door history lessons.

Where else, for example, can you stroll through the 1865 Victorian stone mansion where artist Maxwell Parrish played as a child, at 3300 Baring (today the Cornerstone B&B), and then walk west a few blocks to the house where city planner Ed Bacon was born, at 3603 Baring, and from where the lean, energetic agent-of-change could be seen in the early 1920s walking to the Friends School at 3500 Lancaster (today’s CEC).

And where else can you stand on a corner, for example at 34th and Powelton, and take in Queen Anne architecture (Drexel’s restored Ross Commons) across from East Lake and Richardsonian Romanesque styles, all just a few steps from Drexel’s Art Deco Rensselaer Hall?

As technology, many have argued that a bicycle, umbrellas, and chopsticks approach perfection, i.e. that they can’t be improved upon. Some feel the same way about Queen Anne architecture, with its domed turrets, gabled roves and wraparound porches. Esthetically, how could Ross Commons be improved upon? Add a few mature trees nearby, but otherwise, it’s transcendental—like the John Wanamaker house in Jenkintown, a song on air.

A good architect, like a good carpenter or painter, will come to your house, listen carefully to your priorities, then address the task at hand and save you money. Francois Mansard (1598-1666) was just such an architect. In designing his French Baroque homes, he’d suggest to his clients that the top floor be simply roof, with portions of the roof pulled down like shades. Throw in a window here and there and bingo—your house now has an additional floor, but technically it’s just a roof, not taxable as a habitable floor. And so the Mansard Roof came about, as narrated by Silber, enhancing Paris, Powelton and other distinct destinations.

Can the new be introduced amidst the old and not diminish the twin to which it’s attached, or the fabric of the larger site? Yes and no; Powelton has examples of both. The two newest homes on Baring Street are textbook examples of how to add the new and get it right.

About a year ago the rear portion of the house at 3313 Baring suddenly collapsed, seriously damaging the remaining structure. The house was demolished and a new one built in its place, attached to its Italianate twin at 3311. Thanks to architect Cara Carroccia, a new Powelton house has been designed as though it had always been there, much as Frederick Law Olmsted designed his many parks.

A second, equally stunning example is the house that was built in the 1980s by Drexel president Bill Gaither at 3601 Baring, the site of a former frat house that had been burned and destroyed by reckless students. Designed by architect Tony Atkin, the house is a textured mix of style and materials, distinct but fitting. This American arts and crafts-style house has actually won an award for its elegance.

A hundred years ago our city had craftsmen who specialized in gargoyles, those little “munchkins” you find on old University of Pennsylvania buildings (note the little stone scholars along Hamilton Walk), and on old firehouses* and churches. One of Silber’s favorite churches, at 36th and Baring, has several stone goblins that are high in the sky and for the most part unnoticed by those of us who, while also in the sky, are just walking on the street. Just to clarify, since the sky does in fact touch the earth, then a walking tour takes place in the sky; only our feet touch the earth.

Visit poweltonvillage.org and you’ll get yet another tour of historic Powelton, where Samuel and Elizabeth Powel once had a country estate, a favorite retreat for George Washington during the drafting of the Constitution. Even the Duponts had a Powelton mansion, on the southwest corner of 35th and Powelton (today’s residential Courts), as researched by historians Doug Ewbank and Scott Ryder. Walk into the Powel School any weekday and in the hallway you’ll see enlarged photos of two other mansions that stood on the north side of the 3500 block of Powelton, photos taken in the 1950s by planner Bob Fowell. When I asked him why the Scattergood Mansion was demolished in 1960 instead of being saved, reused, or recycled as a school, Bob responded, “Back then, that kind of idea just wasn’t around.”

As Powelton celebrates its 150th anniversary as a community this year, the UCD tour was a nice kickoff, with carriage house owner Sandra Sudofsky among the walkers, as well UCHS photographer Joe Minardi. Silber’s next tour is scheduled for May 23rd, when he’ll tour Spruce Hill. Even if you’ve lived there for 10 or 20 years, join Silber’s tour, and I guarantee you’ll learn things. To register, email Silber at: buddmar@mail.com.

* See “The Munchkins on Life and Death,” Philadelphia Daily News, July 30, 2007.

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