In Germantown, The Work Of Henry Houston Lives On

 

6135 Wayne Avenue, built 1886. Architects Hewitts executed five designs playing off of similar floor plans, while providing a variety of details and bold geometry. 6135 was once owned by James R. Wood, general ticket agent for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

6135 Wayne Avenue, built 1886. Commissioned by developer Henry Houston, architectural firm G. W. & W. D. Hewitt executed five designs playing off of similar floor plans, while providing a variety of details and bold geometry. | Photo: Joshua Bevan

The stretch of Wayne Avenue that runs roughly east to west between Rittenhouse Street and Washington Lane in Germantown features one of Philadelphia’s greatest pockets of Queen Anne and late-Victorian homes. Down perpendicular streets Tulpehocken, Walnut, and Harvey, additional examples of Italianate, Second Empire, Gothic and Tudor Revival houses complete what is undoubtedly one of the city’s most architecturally diverse neighborhoods. The area, typically referred to as Tulpehocken, was added to the National Register of Historic Places as an historic district in 1985. The neighborhood derives its name from the SEPTA Regional Rail train station located along the Chestnut Hill West Line. The station was established in 1884 when the Philadelphia Germantown & Chestnut Hill Railroad was a subsidiary branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. When the line was extended through northwest Philadelphia it brought with it community planning developer Henry H. Houston and a second wave of suburban growth.

Houston Takes Germantown

Henry Houston was a general freight agent of the Pennsylvania Railroad during the Civil War and was a member of the company’s prestigious board of directors and deeply influential in growing the Pennsylvania Railroad during and after the Civil War. His real estate holdings in Germantown evolved over two decades, representing the transformation of a community with an historic, architectural presence that is largely intact today.

Houston’s Germantown properties were centered on Wayne Avenue, bound to the east by Rittenhouse Street, and the west by Washington Lane. Beyond this main corridor, Houston-owned land extended south toward Wissahickon Avenue, bordering land owned by descendants of the storied Rittenhouse family and George Thomas (for whom Thomas Mansion at 6245 Wissahickon Avenue is named). A comparison of historic atlases spanning the era of Houston’s residency in Germantown shows a decade-by-decade increase in real estate activity between 1860 and 1890. Pairing these atlases with transactions listed in Houston’s personal deed books and PRR records, reveals Houston’s significance. As his wealth grew and his navigation of Philadelphia’s upper-class echelon progressed, his portfolio of investments in oil, gold, and land proliferated, enabling a man with a high aptitude for logistical organization to bridge transportation success and community planning. Houston’s plan was simple and brilliant: first acquire land, then influence the extension of a commuter railroad through that land, and, finally, construct high-quality housing on lots adjacent to rail stations.

6129 Wayne Street. Built 1886. Former home of merchant Orlando Crease. Note the canted square bay window on the left and faceted dormer with hipped roof. These elements combined with decorative wood molding and fish scale shingles created a signature aesthetic of G. W. & W. D. Hewitt’s designs. | Photo: Joshua Bevan

In the summer of 1860, Houston, his wife, Sallie, and young son moved from the city’s center to 223 W. Tulpehocken Street, an Italianate twin they rented over the next two-and-a-half years. In 1863, Houston and his family moved into a different Italianate villa, at 9 W. Tulpehocken Street, where they resided for 23 years. (The property remained in the possession of Houston’s extended family until 1922 when it was sold to developers who demolished the villa and subdivided the then 1.5 acre parcel into twenty-plus lots.) During his first 16 years at 9 W. Tulpehocken Street, Houston acquired roughly half the land he eventually held title to in Germantown. He began by acquiring vacant parcels and largely undeveloped land along and to the south of Wayne Avenue in 1865, a pattern that continued through the mid-1880s. He also purchased the former land holdings of the then-defunct Germantown Water Company, whose main infrastructure was located around the intersection of W. Tulpehocken Street and Wayne Avenue. As Houston’s portfolio expanded, he maximized his estate’s position along the southward sloping topography to oversee what was becoming his domain within the Wissahickon Valley.

Houston continued to acquire property despite the economic depression of 1873. He provided financing to the Episcopal diocese for the construction of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on land Houston owned at Wayne Avenue and Harvey Street. Houston chose the firm of Frank Furness and G.W. Hewitt to design the church, completed in 1874, and served as Rector’s Warden of the church until his death in 1895.

One of six twins Houston built in 1834 along the south side of Wayne Avenue between W. Rittenhouse and Harvey Streets. These twins were the most restrained of the Hewitts' contributions to Houston’s portfolio of rental properties. Octagonal bay windows and incorporation of local Wissahickon schist stone found their way into subsequent Hewitt designs for Houston. Originally all 6 of these cottages were 2 1/2 stories in height. | Photo: Joshua Bevan

One of six twins Houston built in 1834 along the south side of Wayne Avenue between W. Rittenhouse and Harvey Streets. These twins were the most restrained of G. W. & W. D. Hewitt’s contributions to Houston’s portfolio of rental properties. Octagonal bay windows and incorporation of local Wissahickon schist stone found their way into subsequent Hewitt designs for Houston. Originally all 6 of these cottages were 2 1/2 stories in height. | Photo: Joshua Bevan

Houston’s investment in the community he lived in, as evidenced by the establishment of St. Peter’s and his role as a landlord beginning in the early 1880s, separated him from being purely a speculative developer, who perhaps would otherwise have acquired land, constructed housing or other improvements, and then sold hoping for a quick profit. Instead, Houston leased properties to personally selected tenants in order to maintain the character of his Germantown development over the course of several decades. It was during 1850 to 1900 that neighborhoods throughout Germantown joined the broader trend of suburban expansion, which ultimately reshaped the city and the region. Architecture and community development both factored into the sense of place of the neighborhood Houston was creating and simultaneously residing in.

Five years after the establishment of St. Peter’s Church, Houston, and a covert contingent of attorneys, conveyancers, and real estate agents–including Houston’s own brother in-law–initiated what became one of the largest land grabs in the city’s history–over 3,000 acres within the city limits–turning the railroad magnate’s wealth derived from speculative investment into wealth manifested in land ownership. Prior to 1884, most of the expansive acreage acquired was farmland. Houston then used his influence within the Philadelphia transportation sphere to ensure the extension of the PRR’s Philadelphia Germantown & Chestnut Hill Railroad line, today SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill West line, through land he owned in Germantown and Chestnut Hill. In 1881, “A Petition to Demonstrate Support for the Proposed Extension of Rail Service to Phoenixville through Germantown, and Chestnut Hill,” circulated among the owners of property along the rail’s proposed right-of-way and neighboring streets. The petition was most likely initiated by Houston.

St. Peter's Episcopal Church, now the Waldorf School. The only property with association to Houston's development on both local and national historic registers. Designed by Furness and Hewitt. | Photo: Joshua Bevan

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, now the Waldorf School. The only property with association to Houston’s development on both local and national historic registers. Designed by Furness & Hewitt. | Photo: Joshua Bevan

With a critical mass of residents eager for a new rail line, acquisition of parcels subject to right-of-way damages became a priority for Houston. Once properties were obtained, he had to allow the PRR to run its proposed route through his property, which he accomplished through the donation of right-of-ways, which were donated on paper in October of 1884, three months after the branch’s inaugural run.

When it came time to build on the many parcels acquired between 1865 and 1884, Houston relied on the venerable architectural firm of Hewitt and Hewitt to design his Germantown housing, just as he did in Wissahickon Heights where the Hewitt brothers designed at least 80 dwellings, some with striking similarity to those in Germantown. Brothers George and William Hewitt’s previous work with Frank Furness on St. Peter’s Episcopal may have been the impetus for the formation of the Houston-Hewitt commission relationship that resulted in the Anglo-centric aesthetic seen in Houston’s properties. Their partnership is firmly established in buildings like the Wissahickon Inn, Houston’s Wissahickon Heights mansion, the Druim Moir estate in Chestnut Hill, St. Martin-in-Fields Church, and many others.

Preserving Houston’s Legacy

Although Houston’s vision for the neighborhoods he developed was never officially plotted on paper beyond a few surviving deed maps of Chestnut Hill, what is evident from the remaining buildings is that Houston favored a variety of housing types for potential tenants of varying economic stature. From single-detached to semi-detached houses, with a variety of footprints, Houston’s properties created residential opportunities in what was surely a desirable, if not exclusive Germantown neighborhood in the mid-1880s. These dwellings designed by the Hewitt brothers infused the neighborhood with an emerging architectural vocabulary, signaling a rise in popularity of the Queen Anne style after its introduction to Philadelphia during the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Houston’s houses in Germantown, linked together by material and style, also signaled to prospective tenants and potential buyers that the neighborhood provided high-quality housing and the advantages of rail connection for traveling between Center City and beyond.

266 W. Tulpehocken Street. Built 1886. Designed by G. W. & W. D. Hewitt. Houston’s high-end homes were located at the highest elevation of all the houses he commissioned in Germantown, while being within eyeshot of Tulpehocken Station. Stacked and balustraded porches, dormers piercing through hipped roofs, and complex gable arrangements along secondary elevations made these homes attractive from several approaching perspectives. | Photo: Joshua Bevan

The transformation of the neighborhood in the years leading up to and immediately after the extension of the PGCH rail line was acknowledged in the National Register District designation. After an update to the nomination in 2001, the district still did not include any Houston-commissioned buildings east of Harvey Street as either contributing or significant. Even if the narrative of Houston’s role in bringing the railroad through was removed, there would still be over 40 houses designed by the same architect with a notable significance in Philadelphia in the late 19th century. A Houston-Hewitt Historic Residential District could stand on its own.

Largely well-maintained save for a missing bracket under a cornice, some shingles in need of replacement, and peeling paint, Houston’s Germantown development endures largely under the radar. Most of the buildings in the Tulpehocken section are not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, leaving an exceedingly rare collection of thematically-connected, late 19th century homes vulnerable to redevelopment.

About the author

Josh Bevan is an architectural historian and graduate of Penn’s Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. Bevan, a Springfield, Delaware County native, grew up with stories of his family’s beginnings in Southwest Philadelphia and Juniata Park and further afield in Berks County, spurring an interest in discovering cities neighborhood-by-neighborhood. He worked in residential real estate and for Fairmount Park Conservancy prior to pursuing a full-time career in historic preservation. His interests in roadside architecture, photography, and cycling are currently keeping him busy in and around San Francisco.



14 Comments


  1. This is a wonderful piece. Thank you for highlighting this marvelous neighborhood. I believe Houston was also warden at St Martin in the Fields, Chestnut Hill.

  2. The Tulpehocken National Historic District names at least 25 homes as significant and another 25 or so as contributing. They are preserved from that point of view aren’t they?
    Why hasn’t the City of Philadelphia Register of Historical Places recognized the district?

    • National Register designation, whether on an individual property basis or within a district, does not guarantee against alteration that potentially compromises historic integrity, or demolition. The current NR nomination includes many structures as contributing or significant, spanning the 1850s through the 1920s. Some of course were commissioned by Houston, however, many buildings that could at the very least be considered contributing are not included.

      Local designation to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places offers a more robust system for protection of designated properties, including a stay of demolition and design review for properties that contribute to, or are significant to, historic districts. To see these properties still standing in 2016 is wonderful, but it’s important to know that as of 2016, many are not locally designated and ultimately not locally protected.

  3. You left out Andrew Jackson Downing. He designed the neighborhood. Houston bought property to get rich. Leave out the artist, immortalize the capitalist.

    • I’m not positive that Jackson Downing designed the neighborhood, but his work was certainly influential to the Fallon brothers(John and Christopher)who were responsible for the growth of the neighborhood around the Germantown Water Company, and other speculative suburban developers of the time. An important aspect of Houston’s properties, namely his residential rental properties was that he was not making a great deal of profit off of his tenants. Houston’s wealth was largely derived from investments in Standard Oil and gold, which he later used to acquire vast amount of land. David Contosta’s, A Philadelphia Family: The Houstons and Woodwards of Chestnut Hill, provides great insight into Houston’s real estate practices.

  4. Want to share with you that the family of Henry Houston donated about 90 acres of land for the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (PSD) to build its new stone clad campus in 1892. Today, a bible college sits on the site and PSD has move don to its campus on School House Street.

    • James, thank you for sharing that information. Another interesting facet of Houston’s Germantown story was the Italianate villa that currently stands at 5909-5919 Wayne Avenue. The Athenaeum’s, Philadelphia Architects & Buildings site attributes the design to Samuel Sloan from c. 1850. Houston acquired the property in 1885 from the estate of Samuel Harvey, Jr. and later donated space within the building to used as the Home for Aged Episcopalians. According to Houston’s rental ledger and property appraisals from the 1930s, the building was rented for free.

    • Wow – thank you – this is all I needed to hear; Houston is my hero, as I went to Spring Garden College in the 1980’s until it’s demise in 1992. I love that campus dearly.

  5. Jeff, the National Register provides NO protection to buildings it lists. Only listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places does that.

  6. Thanks Josh – this is a great article about a really incredible part of the city. I’ll tell everybody I show the area that we are touring the Houston-Hewitt Historic Residential District 🙂

    That book by David Concosta – I hope it is at the Free Library – I’m adding it to my list.

    • Thank you, MickR! The best place to start such a tour could be the statue of Houston located at Harvey Street and Lincoln Drive. Good Luck!

      • Elizabeth Solomon

        It’s a wonderful statue which is almost impossible to see unless you walk down Harvey street to Lincoln drive. So glad you mentioned it.

  7. Can anyone provide information about the row and twin houses built in the Germantown section in the latter half of the 19th century. Such as the twin houses with turrets that still exist on Washington Lane. I’m particularly interested in Chew Avenue.
    There is plenty of info on line about the mansions but my peeps did not live in mansions.
    Thanks in advance,
    Virginia Denham

  8. Ira is right. National Register designation does little or nothing to protect when demolition permits are requested. It’s already too late, unless a property is listed on the PHILADELPHIA register. (As witness, what’s going on with Jeweler’s Row) Not fair, you say? It’s the law–until we change it. Meanwhile, let’s get busy! Check out what Paul Steinke of the Preservation Alliance has to say on the subject. –rf

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