By the 1920s, American city planners and developers were forced to confront the exploding popularity of the automobile. Automobile ownership tripled from 8 million in 1920 to 23 million by the close of the decade. The price of a Model T had fallen to a mere $260 for an open touring car, or the equivalent of about $10,000 for a comparable machine today. In the mean time, somewhat fancier marques such as Hudson, Nash, and Oldsmobile offered cars with more comfort and style than the “flivver” to a burgeoning postwar middle class. Many of these cars, painted in alluring colors and equipped with powerful straight six or straight eight engines, were sold to consumers by the newly-devised installment plan. This mass-purchase of depreciating assets on credit would lead to dire economic consequences in 1929.
Although the average Philadelphian still took the trolley or rode the Market Street Elevated to work in the mid-1920s, the mass of parked cars on city streets, especially in residential areas, was reaching a crisis point. The very affluent escaped the dirt, noise, and congestion of Philadelphia to the Main Line suburbs, where there was plenty of space to park their Packards and Cadillacs.
Congestion, chaos, and near-misses in 1920s New York City and Los Angeles, with a cameo of Babe Ruth in a runaway Ford Model T taxicab. Traffic lights and cops were few and far between, leading to complete anarchy.
As a trolley-car based neighborhood, West Philadelphia was not so fortunate. Long the leafier alternative to Center City living for middle-class commuters, this part of town saw its population growth slow and then stagnate. Between 1910 and 1920, West Philadelphia’s population skyrocketed by 110,000 residents, its greatest increase ever. The residents, as Samuel Bass Warner Jr observed in The Private City, were, “Negroes who had achieved a steady living, Jews and Italians, who having prospered a little, moved out of the south Philadelphia ghettos,” as well as “the rest mass of Irish and old-stock Americans who manned the stores and offices of downtown.”
During the 1920s, however, it grew only by 50,000, leveling off at 411,000 (out of a city of 2 million people). Despite the size of its houses and strength of its middle class population, many saw the area as dowdy and dull. Warner himself was quite qualified about the district: “West Philadelphia in the 1920s was not a pretty place, but it offered its residents a narrow range of sold benefits: converted rooms in big old houses, brand-new efficiency apartments, solid twins with bay windows and ample porches, a few blocks of expensive detached houses, and miles upon miles of row-house domesticity.”
One developer, Clarence Siegel, felt the need to create something truly special in West Philadelphia during this transitional period. He also saw an opportunity to let Philadelphia homebuyers have their cake and eat it too when it came to the car and the row house. In 1919, he purchased a large tract undeveloped land in West Philadelphia and announced plans for a new development called “Garden Court.” The land had previously belonged to heavy hitters Eli Kirk Price and Anthony J. Drexel, and had been largely bypassed by the trolley lines. Garden Court would be bounded by 46th Street to the east, 52th Street to the west, Cedar Avenue to the south, and Spruce Street to the north.
Siegel’s “Garden Court” development had three components: high-rise luxury apartments on its northern edge (Garden Court Apartments and Garden Court Plaza), a varied selection of semi-attached and attached dwellings its core, and several almost mansion-sized detached homes. The apartment towers boasted street-level stores and restaurants, as well as an indoor swimming pool and a garage. The single-family houses, designed by architect John Coneys, reflected a more informal aesthetic than the big, rather gloomy Victorian twins built a decade earlier: Tudor facades, enclosed sunporches in front, and an absence of dark wood paneling and stained glass windows. In the rear of these houses were alleys and discreet individual garages. This final feature gave Garden Court, in the words of architectural historian George Thomas, “the only provision of any urban neighborhood for the car, and were so advertised itself in the period newspapers.”
With its easy access to transportation (Market Street Elevated and the Baltimore Avenue trolley lines), proximity to West Philadelphia High School, garages, and stylish housing for a wide spectrum of incomes, Garden Court became immensely popular for upwardly mobile Philadelphians, and was described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as, “the most exclusive residential locale in West Philadelphia,” providing “modern apartments of magnitude, comfort, and luxury, surrounded by beautiful homes.”
The area remained relatively stable during the Great Depression, even as homes in surrounding developments were subdivided or neglected. In his historical nomination form for the Garden Court Historic District, Thomas wrote of Siegel: “few Philadelphia developers dared to provide such variety, but the net effect seems to have been a cause of the long-term success of Garden Court.”
Today, Garden Court remains a highly desirable neighborhood, is racially diverse, and almost completely architecturally intact. It also provides an interesting alternative glimpse of what mass-suburbanization could have been after World War II: absent of ranch houses, expressways, carports, and strip malls.
George Thomas, “Garden Court Historic District” (PDF). National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1984.
Samuel Bass Warner Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Growth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), p.194.
“The Age of the Automobile,” USHistory.org, http://www.ushistory.org/us/46a.asp, accessed December 23, 2015.
Untitled manuscript on West Philadelphia by Robert Katz, provided by Peter A. Evans to author, pp. 4-5.