In 1876, as Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition was in full swing, the Pennsylvania Railroad quietly bought up the trolley rights on Lancaster Avenue from 52nd Street to the western city limits. The PRR shrewdly sought to control as much development as possible along its Main Line to Pittsburgh, which paralleled Lancaster Avenue — also known as US 30. The lack of trolley cars — seen as a noisy but necessary nuisance by many residents of West Philadelphia — allowed developers to create build larger houses on more spacious lots. One property ripe for development was the 165 acre John M. George farm, which in the 1890s had not yet been developed by traction magnate Peter Widener and his cronies. A consortium lead by the PRR and Drexel & Company then transformed the George farm from bucolic fields to upscale housing development.
Overbrook Farms, like Chestnut Hill on the other side of the Schuylkill, was a carefully planned community of suburban-style houses built within walking distance of a train stop. The Drexels were no strangers to development in West Philadelphia — Anthony Drexel, who died the year after his bank purchased the George farm, was responsible for much of the trolley car housing development around his family’s compound at 39th and Locust. In Overbrook, however, commercial enterprises were banished from residential streets, confined to a circumscribed shopping area near the railroad station, rather than strung out along main trolley car routes such as Baltimore Avenue to the south.
Small wonder the real estate promoters unabashedly advertised Overbrook Farms as a “suburb deluxe.” Compare the freestanding and twin houses of Overbrook Farms with the streetcar developments built elsewhere in West Philadelphia at the same time. These 500 or so homes — many designed by noted architects such as William Price, Angus Wade and Horace Trumbauer — are ancestors of the suburban houses that Americans take for granted today but were so novel at the end of the 19th century. A typical detached house in Overbrook Farms contains over 2,000 square feet per floor, and cost anywhere from $12,500 to $35,000 in the 1890s, making them the modern equivalent of million dollar plus homes. The Overbrook homes are free from the constraints of traditional row house lots, the largest of which were typically 21 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The twin homes Church Road, Drexel Road, and Woodbine Avenue are massive, almost mansion like in scale. They are also more richly decorated than their boxier counterparts in West Philadelphia’s trolley car suburbs of Cedar Park and Spruce Hill, which were built at almost exactly the same time. Rooflines are more playful and varied, and walls are ornamented with Tudor half-timbering, Spanish stucco, and Colonial Revival windows.
Another advantage of larger lots was room for on-site carriage houses, which within a few decades would be transformed into garages. On Woodcrest Avenue, just to the south of the original Overbrook Farms development, rowhouses and twins constructed after the First World War had alleys built in the rear for parking.
Originally located outside the western boundary of Philadelphia in the 1890s, Overbrook Farms was eventually annexed by the city, making it distinct from neighboring Merion and Wynnewood, which were also developed by the PRR. It became popular with wealthy Philadelphians such as real estate mogul Albert Greenfield and chemist/art collector Albert Barnes, who were put off by the Main Line’s exclusivity but were attracted by the high quality housing stock.
Although Overbrook shares some qualities with Chestnut Hill — a fashionable suburb located in the city limits — it never had a Henry Howard Houston or George Woodward-type landlord who carefully curated its insular, exclusive mystique by building churches like St. Martins-in-the-Fields or clubs like Philadelphia Cricket. Churches of various denominations were sponsored by individual congregations, most notably St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Philadelphia’s city’s oldest historically African-American Episcopal congregation, which before its move to Overbrook was located at 52nd and Parrish. Rather than the firm hand of the Houston-Woodward clan, control of neighborhood aesthetics was overseen by a more democratic entity: the Overbrook Farms Club, the oldest continuously operating neighborhood association in the United States.
The result was that Overbrook Farms abounds in character and beautiful period architecture, but it never for a second feels like an English village. Its tree-lined streets are thoroughly American in feel and layout. Overbrook Farms was also a taste of things to come in American suburban development, which would boom in the 1920s and 50s, coinciding with middle class prosperity and the rise of the automobile.
Thanks to the hard work of the Overbrook Farms Club, this distinct neighborhood has survived remarkably intact, despite widespread abandonment and subdivision only a few blocks away. Most of Overbrook Farms’ historic homes are still single family residences.
“History: Overbrook Farms Club,” accessed April 29, 2015. http://www.overbrookfarmsclub.org/?page_id=213
Edith Willoughby, “Overbrook Farms,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory Form, 1985, p.7. https://www.dot7.state.pa.us/ce_imagery/phmc_scans/H082616_01H.pdf