People’s pride in their country is connected to pride in their home. If they can decorate and build their homes to symbolize the values they hope to embody, such as prosperity, education and patriotism, they will be happier people and better citizens.
-Andrew Jackson Downing
Back in the fall of 2003, I took the R8 Chestnut Hill West train to visit a friend who taught history at Chestnut Hill Academy. I had just started graduate school at Penn. Being the ignoramus I was, I stupidly thought that I was on my way to the famed Main Line suburbs that my late Philadelphia-native step-grandfather mentioned when I was young.
Was I wrong. I learned from Dmitri that confusing this part of Northwest Philadelphia and the Main Line was a major faux-pas, to say the least.
During that train ride, remember one name standing out as the conductor bellowed the the station stops. “Tulpehocken!”
It means “Land of the Turtles” in Native American dialect.*
Several years later, I explored West Tulpehocken Street myself. Even though this neighborhood has declined economically since its heyday in the early twentieth century, it immediately struck me as one of the most beautiful parts of Philadelphia. The houses on here were not just big — they were bona fide mansions. Some, like the Ebenezer Maxwell house, were Gothic or Italianate confections. Others were big, craggy Victorian behemoths of gray Wissahickon schist, bristling with turrets and carved wooden balconies. Tall shade trees arched lazily over the street.
This late nineteenth century residential area, known as the Tulpehocken Station District, sprang from the vision of designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1853), the so-called father of American landscape architecture. Largely self-taught, Downing was a Jeffersonian at heart, who felt that the geometric, formal gardens of Europe were incompatible with the democratic American landscape. He argued that American houses and gardens should avoid the monumentality and symmetry, and aim for the informality and harmony with their natural settings and plantings. In his watershed book The Architecture of Country Houses, co-authored with architect Alexander Jackson Davis (designer of the famous Jay Gould “Lyndhurst” estate in Tarrytown, New York), Downing argued that the country, not the congested, industrialized city, was best suited for happy family life, and that “perfect architecture no principle of utility will be sacrificed to beauty, only elevated and ennobled by it.”
Although he died young in a steamship fire, Downing’s influence was profound. His commissions included landscaping for White House and the Smithsonian Institution. He also trained a young British artist named Calvert Vaux, who went on to partner with Frederick Law Olmsted in the design of New York’s Central Park. By the Civil War, Downing’s philosophy of laying out walkable, picturesque communities had spread to numerous new developments along the East Coast, including the Philadelphia commuter suburb of Germantown.
According to the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places, the Tulpehocken Station District is, along with the tony planned community of Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, among the first suburbs in the country to “put Downing’s theories and designs into practice.” The neighborhood was the result of the subdivision of rural parcels owned by the old Germantown Haines and Johnson families, who had owned property in Germantown since the 18th century. In the 1850s and 60s, residential development of West Tulpehocken Street remained within walking distance of the horse-drawn Germantown Avenue trolley line. By the 1880s, electricity powered the trolleys, speeding up commuting times between Germantown and Center City Philadelphia. These homes for city commuters, although substantial, were built according to Andrew Jackson Downing’s principles of picturesque simplicity and charm. They were asymmetrical in composition and were built in either the Italianate or Gothic Revival styles. At least one design has been attributed to Samuel Sloan, who also designed the Italianate twin houses of Woodland Terrace in West Philadelphia.
In 1884, the Pennsylvania Railroad opened a new commuter railroad line running parallel to Wayne Avenue, and a new crop of even grander homes was constructed within walking distance of the new Tulpehocken Station. These new homes, located on Wayne Avenue and fronting the greenery of Fairmount Park, were designed by notable architecture firms such as Hazelhurst & Huckel (Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church), Cope & Stewardson (the Penn Quadrangle), and the Hewitt Brothers (the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel).* These new homes reflected the growing prosperity of industrializing, Gilded Age Philadelphia, built to impress visitors, as well as to comfortably house large families and domestic staff.
Despite some physical neglect and subdivision of many of the large homes into rental units, Tulpehocken Street is remarkably intact today, an overlooked example of a golden age of American suburban development.
*Tulpehocken Settlement Historical Society, http://www.tulpehockenroots.org/
**Tulpehocken Station District, National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, http://www.brynmawr.edu/iconog/gtn/regtulp.htm