My fiancee and I have just purchased a c.1905 twin house in the Cedar Park section of West Philadelphia. It is a typical house for what was originally an upper-middle class streetcar neighborhood (according to the National Register of Historic Places, West Philadelphia contains America’s largest intact collection of Victorian housing stock): three stories (four including the finished attic), a front and back garden, polychrome brickwork on the front facade, and plenty of carved interior oak woodwork and leaded glass. The work of those long-dead woodcarvers is truly outstanding– the baroque scrolled staircase and latticed screen in the front parlor made me wonder if these men also plied their craft in Cedar Park’s grand churches, such as Calvary United Methodist and St. Francis de Sales.
Cedar Park combined the walkability of the old city with the spaciousness of the country. In fact, before the rise of the mass-produced automobile, Cedar Park was considered a Philadelphia suburb. Unlike the ornate, turreted “Queen Anne” homes in the vicinity, our Cedar Park house is square and stolid, with minimal exterior ornamentation. The use of space is very efficient. Although the house is almost 3,000 square feet, one wouldn’t guess it when looking at it from the street. Philadelphia architectural historian/photographer Joseph Minardi describes houses built in this idiom as “colonial revival,” but they actually don’t bear much resemblance to the “authentic” colonial models in Society Hill. Perhaps a hybrid of Colonial Revival and Arts & Crafts would be a fairer description. These big houses, Minardi states, were “far from fancy,” but still considered “comfortable for an upper-middle class worker and his growing family…spacious and modern with room for servants to assist the lady of the house.”
One of the first things I did after we decided to buy the Cedar Park house was learn more about its history. It appears that its first owners were members of the Bricker family. William Elmer Bricker, a “transitman” at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (headquartered at 730 Market Street) and a 1907 alumnus of Lehigh University, is listed as living at the house in the 1908-1909 proceedings of his alma mater’s alumni association. According to the mayor of Philadelphia’s annual report, Bricker earned $70 per month, or about $1,700 in today’s money, a solid wage in the early 1900s, and was a son of a veteran of the “War of Rebellion.” As an undergraduate, he belonged to Delta Upsilon fraternity. No spouse or children are listed. In 1917, he is listed as still working at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, with an office at 820 Dauphin Street.
It appears that the PRT was a family affair for the Brickers. On March 20, 1913, the Transit Journal noted the death of James E. Bricker, 70, superintendent of the PRT and Civil War veteran. A native of Cumberland County, he had started his career as a conductor on the West Philadelphia Street Railway during its “horse car days” and rose to become superintendent of the Union Traction Company until its takeover by Widener’s Philadelphia Traction Company, and then the PRT. It appears that William Bricker shared the house with his parents, as the Harrisburg Daily Independent notes that Miss Emma Stewart was spending the month of February, 1910 with her sister Mrs. James Bricker on Cedar Avenue.
To borrow Minardi’s phrase, the PRT was one of many prosperous businesses that employed West Philadelphia’s “upwardly mobile meritocracy.” It was chartered on May 1, 1902, with John S. Parsons as its first president. Its board included Peter Arrell Brown Widener–the richest man in Philadelphia–who had created his $100 million fortune by building electrified trolley lines and developing land around them. Also on the PRT board was his son George Dunton Widener, who would perish in the RMS Titanic disaster in 1912. PRT’s purpose was to construct an electrified, high speed rail line that would run from Frankford in North Philadelphia all the way to 69th Street in Upper Darby. The PRT needed bright young men like Bricker to manage the complicated logistics of constructing an elevated railroad along Market Street: in Center City, where the railroad went underground, the tracks were was built using the “cut-and-cover” technique previously employed in the construction of New York and Boston’s underground system. In West Philadelphia, the line ran above ground, through what was then largely undeveloped farmland.
By choosing to buy a house in Cedar Park, William Bricker had the best of both worlds when it came to commuting into Center City. He was only two blocks north from the electric trolley line that ran along Baltimore Avenue, and seven blocks south of the 52nd Street stop on the Market Street Elevated, which opened for business in 1907. Travel time from West Philadelphia to the Center City business district was cut to a mere 10 minutes. Between 1910 and 1920, West Philadelphia’s population skyrocketed by 110,000 residents, its greatest increase ever, to hit a peak population of 410,000. Within a few years, the rowhouses and apartment buildings of the Garden Court development filled up the sylvan landscape separating the Bricker house from the elevated line.
Considering the number of Philadelphia transit-related articles I have written over the past several years, I found the purchase of this particular house to be quite a fortunate coincidence. To the PhillyHistory.org readership: if anyone has additional information on the Bricker family, please let me know!
Note: to read about the creation of the Center City Commuter Connection, click here to read my PlanPhilly article from 2008.
Music from the period of our “ragtime” house: the “Top Liner” rag, composed by Joseph Lamb in 1916.
Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930s (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2011), p.94.
Samuel Bass Warner Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Growth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), p.194.
Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, February 18, 1910.
Catalogue of Delta Upsilon (New York: The Arthur Crist Company, 1917) p.479.
Annual Report of the Bureau of Railways, Department for Internal Affairs, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Part IV: Railroad, Canal, Telephone, and Telegrah Companies (Harrisburg: C.E. Aughinbaugh, 1910), p.507.