The Architecture of Wissahickon: Urban, Suburban, Mid-Century, Victorian

January 20, 2012 | by Stephen Stofka

The controversial Roxborough development proposal that caused quite a stir last week is at the edge of one of the city’s more remarkable neighborhoods. Staunchly middle-class, this neighborhood hangs tenaciously onto the slope between Ridge Avenue and the beginning of the Wissahickon Gorge, like a mining town halfway up a mountain.

The area is also remarkable in that it has been continuously developed and filled out over the last century and a half, with a housing mix ranging all the way from the dense rowhomes that characterize Manayunk and much of Lower Roxborough, through superb Victorian twins and manors on a par with those found in University City, up to a large field of airlites–attached housing commonly developed between the 1920s and 1960s which accommodated the automobile–and finally, at the top of the hill, a small mid-century suburb, replete with several major examples of mid-century modern residential design along with other detached housing. It is this area that is directly behind the proposed development along Ridge; we will swing along onto Walnut and down Ridge to see what its surroundings look like.

We start our tour at Wissahickon Station, at the edge of Manayunk and Roxborough, and about a hundred feet above the Wissahickon Creek and its bike trail. The side we’re looking at here is sometimes considered its own separate neighborhood–Wissahickon. A low-key commercial townscape extends from the station to Ridge Avenue.

Rochelle Avenue, Osborn Avenue, and Ridge Avenue all come together in a five-way intersection not far from the station. Streetscape improvements are ongoing at this corner; the strikingly mid-century Flatiron Construction Company has pride of place, greeting everyone and anyone who passes.

The corner of Sumac and Manayunk holds this little delight–a former corner store. What a natural spot for an ice cream parlor!

The hills in this part of town are steep. The stepped rooflines remind me of San Francisco.

These structures are fairly representative of the kinds of houses you get in this part of town. It’s at the corner of Righter and Kalos.

Some of the fancier houses here are dense twins. These two, I believe, are along Manayunk Avenue.

Rowhomes like these are typical for the area. A mix of masonry, brick, and–some of the youngest–cheap G-Ho-like façades permeate this neighborhood.

These rowhomes remind me of Manayunk.

Some handsome duplexes at the corner of Kalos and Manayunk. This was taken last summer.

These rowhomes, along Righter between Kalos and Osborne, have a weirdly Old Worldly sort of feel–almost like something you’d find going up a hill in Britain or Scotland–although the front porches give the game away. I’m not sure what it is.

Looking down Righter from Kalos, we can see a stately series of Victorian twins with generous surroundings. In 1870 this was about as far as one could comfortably get from the city.

Closeup of one of the twins. Many of them have been converted into duplexes and such.

This house dominates the intersection where Manayunk tees onto Rochelle. Taken, along with the next few, last summer. Notice the creepy doll in the attic. Creepy!

These twins are somewhat later, their simple farmhouse lines contrasting with the Victorian ostentatiousness and panache seen elsewhere in the neighborhood. The two mix freely along Rochelle and Sumac Avenues.

Streetscape along Rochelle. The houses are large, and the lots, filled with green. They’re also close to the Wissahickon Gorge–a big plus.

Gorgeous turreted Victorian and mansard-roofed neighbor. These are the first two houses one sees when coming up from the Hundred Steps.

Another handsome row of these houses. All of them are either semi- or fully detached, and come with big, deep yards. Neighborhoods like this one were some of the country’s first suburbs, long before the 1950s–in fact, they were idealized in 1950s planning.

I like that big house on the corner, by the way.

By the 1920s, however, neighborhoods like this had seen their value grow to the point where developers wanted to densify them, often building big new apartment buildings. (This is why so many University City corners have apartment buildings on them.) This kicked off a major NIMBY movement, which resulted in the legislation we now call zoning. (And you wondered why NIMBYs always seem to have the advantage when it comes to getting zoning variances? Well now you know…)

This building, at the corner of Rochelle and Vicaris, is way far away from the neighborhood center and not easy to find, by the way. I have a suspicion the original developer way back yonder lost his shirt on this one.

The vinyl is kind of ugly, but the idea isn’t. What we’re looking at here is a granny flat, a secondary cottage unit at the rear of a property–in this case, that property at Sumac and Vicaris, a Victorian that’s already seen all manner of expansions. Granny flats work particularly well in neighborhoods such as this one, and particularly when the neighborhood has a lot of alleys. In fact, with enough granny flats, an alley will start to feel like a street.

When people talk about adding density incrementally, this is how it’s done.

This farmhouse graces the corner of Osborn and Vicaris. It’s easily the oldest building in this neighborhood, and among the oldest in the city. A lost treasure.

Here we get an overview of Vicaris. Look at that! Vicaris–the street running to the left–is just a lane! (It’s only about 20 feet wide, much narrower than anything else in this neighborhood.)

This new development lies between Rock and Osborne. Three structures have been built so far; the  foundations for the fourth are being dug to the right. This development is hideous–it’s oriented entirely the wrong way!

Incompetence such as that takes time to set in. We’re entering the city as mid-century planners saw it–a large field of postwar airlites. Whatever one’s opinion on the aesthetics of these places, they were at least built competently enough to have the front door facing the street and the backyard, insofar as feasible, away from it.

By the time these were built, alleys were so yesterday. Even so, notice how the rhythm of the front porches takes your eye away from the garages.

Another excellent example. In this case, the rhythm of the houses draws the eye down the block. Why would that be…?

It’s because the garages dominate the front and those roofs, being passive, don’t work to shield them or draw one’s attention away from them the way that the active porches do.

Even so, especially when outfitted with alleys, airlite streetscapes can be charming in their own right. Even though the houses are attached, and so the planners and developers thought of them as urban, however, notice how the most dominant aspect of these houses are their generous front yards. Even the most urban mid-century developments tend to feel deeply suburban.

Mid-century design sometimes has this curious quality of feeling gaudy and subdued at the same time.

Going through this neighborhood, and especially along this street, one of the most striking sounds was that of wind chimes. Although I remember wind chimes from when I was growing up, I don’t normally hear them in the city. Why is that, I wonder…

Although officially a street, Hermit Lane looks kind of like a glorified alley. Narrow and lightly used, it feels like a street for people with the occasional car passing through. By the time we reach Henry Lane, the attached houses–the airlites–drop off in favor of more detached housing.

Along Hermit Street we find this handsomely muscular mid-century house, at one with nature.

So at one with nature is it that a hole was cut in the roofline so a tree could grow through it. Notice, by the way, that it’s slightly gabled.

A smaller mid-century modern cottage along Barnes Street, on the opposite side of Hermit Lane.

This is an area with a lot of these kinds of houses! Our final example is this Zen-looking thing at the corner of Hermit Street and Houghton Avenue.

Houses here, at the corner of Houghton and Seville, are typical of this part of the neighborhood. Well-built mid-century houses, but not Modernist, in a fashion similar to the older houses along Rochelle and Sumac further down the hill.

Another streetscape, this one looking along Kingsley toward, I believe, Henry Avenue.

We find this ’60s-era split-level along Kingsley directly behind the development site. Though hardly the newest home around here, it’s still one of the newer in the neighborhood. Let’s look at the conditions surrounding that site now.

This is the bed of Markle Street as seen from Houghton.  Homeowners on either side have staked out their property with fences, leaving the public bed unclaimed.

Strange gates adorn the end of Kingsley here. Was this an old estate of some sort? To the right is the dirt alley behind Walnut Lane.

The corner of Walnut Lane and Houghton is a mixture of 1920s and mid-century construction. Heading further along the street in any direction, save the one we came out, takes us into a denser neighborhood.

This is the housing stock fronting Walnut Lane. Most of these houses also have carriage houses behind them.

Kingsley Street’s bed can also be seen along Ridge Avenue here, split into an alley for a house at left and the driveway for the former personal-care facility.

This block of brick rowhomes is archetypical of those along the south side of Ridge, here. Little of that housing is detached.

From Ridge we can see a strange sight–this bungalow was apparently built facing Markle! The neighborhood plat shows that Markle and Kingsley were originally supposed to go straight through to Ridge Avenue.

This short block of East Falls-style attached housing is typical of the housing stock between Ridge and Houghton. This was found along Seville.

Poor choices in new construction–once you get past the shininess, that bank has a horribly suburban site plan, unfit for such an urban area as around the corner of Ridge and Hermit.

By the time we reach Ridge and Hermit, we find ourselves drained from walking up the hill. This was hardly an exhaustive survey, but that slope certainly sucks the wind out of you. Manayunk’s nearby–let’s go get a coffee down on Main Street.


About the Author

Stephen Stofka Stephen Stofka is interested in the urban form and the way we change it. A graduate of the Geography and Urban Studies program at Temple University, he enjoys examining the architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city.


  1. Michael Penn says:

    A great photo essay.

  2. Joseph A. Gervasi says:

    Oh! I can see my own house in one of these photos. Ace.

  3. Jo Ann Desper says:

    Great article. I think the wind chimes are mine!

  4. Dan says:

    You go all that way and then decide skip Crossroads in favor of a coffee shop in Manayunk?!

    Otherwise, nice work! You’ve captured much of the feel of the area.

  5. Phil C. says:

    Great demonstration of a neighborhood that has evolved for over 100 years.

    I understand your assessment of the TD Bank construction. It is better than the abandoned gas station surrounded by a cyclone fence that stood there for over five years. I’ll take something not blending over blight.

  6. JanetS says:

    What a great essay of the neighborhood. Thanks!!

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