One Of City’s Oldest Commercial Buildings Restored

 

Northwest corner of 3rd and Market | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Northwest corner of 3rd and Market | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

A longtime Old City eyesore and one of the oldest commercial buildings in the city–and once the tallest–was recently restored. The careful exterior restoration of 301 Market, which revealed handsome stone lintels, was completed late last year by the building’s Florida-based owner, who was advised by Randal Baron, a staff preservation planner at the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

Photo: Google Streetview

Photo: Google Streetview

The building, which dates back at least as far as 1795, when Philadelphia was the United States capital, is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. An AT&T retail store occupies the ground floor.

Exacting 18th century Federal style windows have replaced the boarded up window openings. The Old City building’s previous color, a sickly faded pink, is no more, for the brickwork has been restored to the shade of Philadelphia red that one would expect.

In the 1918 book Market Street, Philadelphia: The Most Historic Highway in America, historian Joseph Jackson notes that 301 Market was “one of the few ancient buildings still standing on Market street.” It was supposedly the first four story building in the city.

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The building was put up sometime around 1795 by the iron and hardware dealer Richard Wistar, grandson of Caspar Wistar, who came to this country from Germany in 1717 and established what was probably the first glass factory in the colonies near Salem, New Jersey. Caspar spelled his named Wüster, but it was registered here as “Wistar.” When Caspar’s younger brother John, arrived ten years later, he was registered with the surname “Wister.” The two spellings of the famous Philadelphia name exist to this day. Richard’s brother Caspar, a physician, would become one of Philadelphia’s conservative elite. He was known for the “Wistar Parties” that he hosted at his house on Fourth Street.

Richard Wistar was raised a Quaker but eventually was read out of Meeting for supporting the armed Revolution. He married the daughter of Captain Samuel Morris who, although a Quaker, fought in the Revolutionary War. Wistar advocated the defense of his property by arms.

Richard’s great uncle John lived only a few doors away, at 325 Market Street. When John purchased it, the property was thickly covered with blackberry bushes. Instead of cutting these away, John Wister gathered the berries and converted them into wine. He became so successful at this that he began to import wines from his native country. Successive generations of Wisters carried on at 325 Market as dry good merchants.

historic images 301 Market Street. (images are from a variety of sources, as collected at www.brynmawr.edu/cities/archx/05-600/proj/p1/grps/web-content/301-305.htm)

historic images 301 Market Street. (images are from a variety of sources, as collected at www.brynmawr.edu/cities/archx/05-600/proj/p1/grps/web-content/301-305.htm)

With his profits, Richard bought lands and several houses throughout Philadelphia. One house, which he called Hillspach (after his ancestral German home), had been built at Fifteenth and Spring Garden Streets as a country residence. He once remarked that that he could see men constructing his Third and Market building from Hillspach, indicating how sparsely built Philadelphia was in the 1790s. Richard was also an inspector of prisons, and was one of the early friends and supporters of the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Hospital. He attained a reputation for punctuality and is said to have lived by the maxims and proverbs made familiar by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard Almanac.

A c. 1917 image of 301 Market.

A c. 1917 image of 301 Market.

Besides Richard Wistar’s iron and hardware business, 301 Market Street has a long history of housing retail operations of all sorts on the ground floor, just like the other buildings on the block. After Wistar’s shop closed in 1814, the Philadelphia Post Office moved in. The structure was an umbrella and parasol factory by 1860 then a saloon selling Schmidt’s beer by the 1910s. In the mid-20th century it was the Germantown Hosiery Company. More recently, it has been a hardwood flooring shop and a Jack’s Camera’s outlet.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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8 Comments


  1. The Old Stone Prison, which predated the Walnut Street Prison, was located directly across the street at 300 Market Street http://media.wix.com/ugd/4c2da0_41bed342ea390827839e1ffa4b3dca97.pdf. All that remains of a once three-story 19th century mercantile building is the butchered first floor, a pair of original shutters closing off a first floor window and a series of marble entrance steps that once graced the 3rd Street side. Great restoration job by Randy at Historic Commission and the Florida owner of 301 Market.

  2. Is there any information about when the metal roof and dormer windows shown in the 1917 image where added and why it was subsequently removed?

    • Sorry, I can’t tell you.. But here’s more info, from http://www.brynmawr.edu/cities/archx/05-600/proj/p1/grps/web-content/301-305.htm, that may help:

      The buildings at 301 – 305 Market Street are depicted as they looked in 1860 (fig. 3.), the early 1900’s (fig. 4) and in 2005 (fig 7). The same buildings shown in the 1860 Baxter Panorama still exist today much unchanged except for the removal of the pitched roof and dormers on the 301 building which is first apparent in the 1960 photo.

      The four story brick building at 301 Market (shown in figs. 1, 2, 5&6) is well-represented in newspapers, books, City Directories and Philadelphia���s institutional photo archives. The coverage on 301 may be due both to its prominent location and original owner, Richard Wistar who is credited with building the four story brick structure between 1790 and 1795.

      Records and photographs reveal that that this building served as a hardware/iron shop (1801 directory), an umbrella & parasol manufactory (Baxter���s 1860 directory), a Saloon (1918 City directory & fig.2.) and a Hosiery Co. (1960 Phila. City Archive photo). Sales of gloves, shoes, fruits and cigars took place at various times at 303 and 305 Market Street according to city directories. All these buildings have a long history of housing retail businesses on the ground floor level .

      A close look at photo 2 shows at least two skylights on neighboring buildings, likely used to light shop spaces for production of goods. The removal of the skylights and boarded upper story windows seen in the 1960 (fig. 6) and 2005 photos are evidence that the use of these upper stories declined as production moved from small shops to larger facilities and the residential population moved�� out of the downtown. Through the 1900���s more fashionable shopping was relocated westward on Market street and eventually to the suburban malls. The demolition of similarly scaled buildings starting at the center of this block and continuing to the other side of Independence Mall left these buildings and their east Market Street neighbors isolated from the modernizing city. The resultant lack of capital for renovation and rebuilding helped to preserve these buildings for 200 years with few major modifications.

  3. The Richard Wistar house included a dormer story when first constructed, cc. 1795. As far as I can tell, it was removed in the 1940s, when the building was, in a manner of speaking, “modernized.”

    The building across the street, at 300 Market, which has been chopped down to one story, was built about 1790 (soon after the prison was demolished) as the house and shops of the merchant John Fries. You can see in Birch’s print of 1800 that it was originally two and a half stories. It was raised to four stories in the early 19th century, and reduced to one story in the middle of the 20th century.

  4. Good to see this work done, but surely that brick cornice isn’t anywhere near the original and the lack of the dormer story seems out of keeping.

  5. i love preservation stories with happy endings…not as many as i would like..the first photo has an old wooden water tank at the top like you see in new york..have these ever been inventoried in philly? cant be too many left..are they protected? thanks

  6. Sorry, I don’t know…

  7. Thanks so much for this article. Amazing history like this can be suddenly revealed here in philly.

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