Behind the Scenes Neighborhoods Urban Planning

Campus Clearance: A Look Inside UPenn’s Lost Houses

4045 Walnut Street, c.1955.


Apartment building on the corner of 40th and Locust, May 8, 1953. Demolished.

It’s hard to believe that before the 1960s, adaptive reuse was an alien concept to architects and city planners.  To universities, the planning ethos of “out with the old, in with the new” was especially potent.  Disciples of Le Corbusier and other modernists were in control of the University of Pennsylvania and American schools. The classical Beaux-Arts tradition as taught by Paul-Philipe Cret was largely replaced by the Bauhaus creed of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.  There was little interest in fixing up old buildings. They represented an unenlightened past — the gloomy “horse-and-buggy era” — out of sync with modern life, technology, and especially the automobile.

3910 Walnut Street, c.1955.
The former Comegy mansion at 4203 Walnut Street, photographed on April 20, 1959. Built originally in the 1850s as a streetcar suburban villa, a century later it was in the heart of inner-city West Philadelphia.

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, of course.  As is nostalgia.  In Penn’s defense, the GI Bill and the general “opening up” of American universities to the sons and daughters of the middle class caused serious strain on the old campus infrastructure.  Once largely the preserve  of the sons of the wealthy, an Ivy League education in the 1950s was well within the reach of young men and women from middle income families.  Penn president Gaylord P. Harnwell realized that in order to satisfy growing demand for classrooms and beds, the Penn campus would have to expand upward and westward. He built the massive new Van Pelt Library, and closed the trolley lines that ran down the middle of Locust Street, creating a new pedestrian greenway through the center of campus known as Locust Walk.  Most importantly, Penn leveled the four blocks bounded by 38th, 40th, Spruce, and Walnut Streets, replacing them with three concrete high-rise skyscraper dormitories designed by Penn Design dean G. Holmes Perkins, as well as several low-rise student housing structures. All of these were surrounded by lawns and walkways.The clean lines and smooth surfaces of the International style represented something striking, modern, and optimistic, a break with the dreary years of the Great Depression and World War II.

The Professor Henry C. Lea mansion at 3903 Spruce Street, November 9.1967. Originally built in the 1860s, this Italianate house served as the suburban residence of Penn professor Henry Lea (1825-1912). After serving as a fraternity house, it was pulled down in 1967.
The former dining room of the Lea mansion, just prior to demolition in 1967.


Fraternity paddles in an upstairs bedroom of the Lea mansion, just prior to demolition, November 1967.
Interior plasterwork, the Henry C. Lea mansion, just prior to demolition in November 1967.

Most of the houses on these blocks dated to the mid-to-late 19th century, and were built for middle class, white collar commuters. There was also were truly grand suburban residences built for the Drexels and other wealthy families.  Few people saw these grungy old homes as having much architectural value in the 1960s: what had once been a fashionable suburb had become a slum to be cleared. Critics derided Victorian architecture as decadent, ugly, and functionally obsolete.  From a practical standpoint, the buildings were old and run down, serving as ad hoc classroom space, student housing, fraternity houses, low-rent apartments, retail, and restaurants.  Their electrical and plumbing systems were at the end of their useful lives.  There was also a human cost to this expansion: scores of families, mostly African-American renters, were displaced. In fact, Penn’s expansion ignited tension in the surrounding neighborhood that lasted for years.

The destruction wasn’t total. Penn adapted a few houses for new uses: the Eisenlohr mansion became the president’s residence, while the Fels mansion housed the Fels Institute of government.  Two of the Drexel family houses survive as fraternity houses, while the Potts mansion survives largely intact as the headquarters of the Penn Press. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church also escaped the bulldozer.  Yet almost every other structure came down to make way for the “Superblock,” which stands in stark contrast to Penn’s historic, compact campus to the east.

Miraculously, city photographers documented many of these homes before the wreckers arrived and smashed them to pieces. These photographs give a rare glimpse into these homes, which appear remarkably intact despite decades of neglect and alterations. During this mass demolition, scavengers picked through these homes, salvaging paneling, piping, leaded glass, and other examples of fine 19th century craftsmanship.  The carved wood and plasterwork dated from a time when labor was cheap and rich materials plentiful: solid walnut pocket doors, for example, were common in West Philadelphia houses.  After the Civil War, machines could cheaply churn out elaborately ornamented furniture and fittings that previously could only have been laboriously made by hand.

Much of what is seen here in these pre-demolition shots had been dismissed not only as out-of-date, but just plain hideous.  Who wanted a monstrous Frank Furness fireplace in their home, anyway?  Most of these houses were simply smashed to smithereens and hauled off to the nearest landfill.

The remarkably well-preserved library of the Comegy mansion in April 1959: the paneling is most likely either walnut or mahogany. It is doubtful that any of this fine 19th century craftsmanship survived the wrecker’s ball.
39th and Locust Street, looking east, February 11, 1930. The Drexel mansion on the left is still standing, while the Second Empire rowhouses on the right are gone, replaced by Harnwell College House, one of three skyscrapers designed by G. Holmes Perkins.

It took a new generation of urban pioneers, real estate investors, and preservationists to realize the aesthetic (as well financial) value of historic structures, no matter how tired, in urban areas such as West Philadelphia.