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The Carriage Houses of Van Pelt Street

247 and 249 S. Van Pelt Street, July 3, 1969. Ponies have given way to Porsches.

Two months ago, while giving a book talk at Bucknell University, I was fortunate to tour an actual working carriage house, attached to an 1840s brick mansion in the small town of Mifflinburg.  My host Karl Purnell had restored his family’s carriage house to its original condition and configuration. Within its walls were a horse named Mercedes and two antique carriages: a two-wheeled runabout and a six-seat surrey. The second story contained the hayloft — bales are hoisted up to this level by a set of block-and-tackle above the doors — as well as additional storage and quarters for the coachman.

Mifflinburg used to be known affectionately as “Buggytown” — during the late 19th century, the town was the largest manufacturer of carriages in the state of Pennsylvania.  The former William Heiss carriage works, one of the few intact carriage shops in the country, has been restored as the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum.  Amish farmers in the surrounding counties keep the tradition of carriage building alive, although obviously not in the flashy colors and trim of the 1860s and 70s.

Getting the horse and surrey ready for a ride took about half-an-hour.  First, Karl had to tack up the horse.  Then the two of us shoved the surrey out of the carriage house and turned it onto the street, using the mechanical brakes to keep the vehicle from rolling out of control.  Then Karl led the horse out of the stable and attached him to the carriage.  Then we were off, trotting down High Street.

Karl Purnell, the horse Mercedes, and his 1870s surrey, built in Mifflinburg, PA. April 4, 2013.  This house, with the carriage house in back, was similar in set-up to homes in early Philadelphia suburbs such as Germantown. Photograph by the author.

The short trip was a rare insight into 19th century life, when traveling anywhere — church, market, visiting relatives — was a significant undertaking and the instant gratification provided by a modern car was a foreign concept.  Compare all this work to pushing a button or turning the key, shifting into reverse, and backing the car out of the garage.  Then there’s caring for animals and finding parking…or a hitching post.

“The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand” by Thomas Eakins, 1879-1880. This is an iconic, world-famous image of Philadelphia during the horse-and-carriage era. The setting is Fairmount Park near today’s “Please Touch” Musem. Eakins meticulously studied and sketched the horses’ gait and physique before committing brush to canvas. Fairman Rogers, a long-time patron of Eakins, lived in a Frank Furness-designed mansion on West Rittenhouse Square, which was later occupied by Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt. Their horse-and-carriages may have been kept on Van Pelt Street.

In the late-19th century, the carriage works in Mifflinburg and other Pennsylvania towns supplied middle class and wealthy Philadelphians with their horse-drawn transportation. Companies such as Brewster, Wolfington, Fleetwood (later purchased by General Motors’s Cadillac division), William D. Rogers, D.M. Lane and Sons, and Heiss crafted a variety of colorful custom bodies using exquisite woods for the body, fine leather for seats, polished brass for the trim, and high-grade steel for the springs.  Shaping wood into wheel rims was particularly tricky: the wheelwright would have to steam the wood and then bend it over a “spoke turning lathe.”

In a congested urban area like late 19th century Rittenhouse Square, where real estate was at a premium, storing a horse and carriage was a logistical nightmare.  Unlike a car, horse and carriage could not be “parked” in an outdoor lot, but rather had to be stored indoors, usually in a structure apart from the main house. For the wealthy denizens of Rittenhouse Square, carriages were as much fashion as they were basic transportation — much like luxury automobiles today. On a typical Sunday in the 1880s, the parade of horseflesh and equipage on Walnut Street, in the words of Senator George Wharton Pepper, “made upon the onlooker an impression of urbanity, of social experience and of entire self-satisfaction. If during church-time they had confessed themselves miserable sinners, by the time they appeared on parade their restoration to divine favor was seemingly complete.”

By contrast, most 19th century Philadelphians either had to walk or pile into a horse-drawn omnibus, if they could afford the fare.  On hot summer days, the city reeked of horse excrement, and many people pressed flowers close to their noses in a futile effort to fight the stink.

Portrait of Berthe Morisot holding violets by Edouard Manet, 1872. Whether in Paris or Philadelphia, urbanites fought the stink of horse manure as best they could…

Van Pelt Street — a small, tree-lined alley located between Spruce, Locust, 21st and 22nd Street — is lined with several carriage houses once affiliated with the big townhouses along Spruce Street.  In a carriage house belonging to a well-to-do Rittenhouse Square household, the horses dwelled in stalls on the first story. Next to them was kept an assortment of carriages used according to the weather and the needs of the family: church, the opera, a picnic, house calls. The range of coach bodies available to potential buyers was bewildering:

  • Landau: a formal four-seater coach with a collapsible roof, pulled either by a pair or a four-in-hand. Appropriate for open-air city touring. Driven by a coachman. The curved landau roof bar would later find its way onto early motor cars.
  • Buggy: a two person carriage with either two or four wheels, and pulled by one horse. Usually driven by the owner.
  • Surrey: the ancestor to the modern station wagon or minivan. A four-wheeled box topped by a fringed-canopy, with 3-4 bench seats.  Driven by the coachman or owner.
  • Brougham: a two-passenger enclosed coach with four wheels. Driven by a coachman.  The namesake of the Cadillac “Fleetwood Broughams.”
  • Berlin: an enclosed four-person coach for foul-weather travel, pulled by a pair or a four-in-hand.  Driven by a coachman.

And so on.

To accommodate all of this coachwork and horseflesh, the carriage houses of Rittenhouse Square were quite large: two or three stories high, 20 feet wide, and 80 feet deep. Then there was all labor required to keep this urban menagerie in tip-top condition.  In addition to the coachman and grooms — who would feed the animals, maintain the carriages, and muck the stalls — a farrier frequently would visit to re-shoe the horses, crafting shoes to fit each individual hoof.

By the early 1900s, many of these carriage houses were converted into garages, housing cars like Mercedes, Wintons, Renaults, and Packards. The cars often had bodies with coach names such as phaeton and coupe. Coachmen were replaced with chauffeurs, who doubled as live-in mechanics. In the early 1900s, young men would race their family cars along the roads of Fairmount Park. Their clanking pistons and backfiring exhausts frequently scared horses out of their wits, causing them to bolt and run.  In response to this racket, the Fairmount Park Commission banned cars along the Wissahickon Creek between Germantown and Chestnut Hill.  Hence the name Forbidden Drive.  It remains a haven for pedestrians and equestrians to this day.

The carriage houses on Van Pelt Street were service buildings for the big townhouses like this on the 2100 block of Spruce Street. The kitchens were in the basement, and the servants lived in the dormer rooms in the attic. Irish domestics –often forbidden to speak Gaelic under their employer’s roofs — frequently referred to the neighborhood as “Rottenhouse Square.”

Today, Van Pelt Street’s carriage houses have been converted into private residences.  One serves as the clubhouse for the Orpheus Club of Philadelphia, the nation’s oldest male singing society.

The horses and carriages have long been exiled to the fields of Chester County, the grounds of the Devon Horse Show, and the roads of Lancaster County.

Riding in the 1870s surrey owned by Karl H. Purnell, April 2013. Filmed with the 1920 setting of the 8 MM iPhone app.

Don’t scare the horses! Footage of the 2009 London-to-Brighton Veteran Car Run, showing many of the 1890s and early 1900s automobiles that terrorized pedestrians and horses around Rittenhouse Square…these noisy and expensive “contraptions” led directly to the creation of Fairmount Park’s Forbidden Drive.


“Wood Bending: Applied Mechanics in Wheel-Making,” Hub, November 1878, pp. 388-389. From:

Carriage Museum of America

Mifflinburg Buggy Musem