Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from the original.
Somehow, amid the decade-long argument over the fate of the Levy-Leas House at 400 South 40th Street, the historical significance of the building has receded from view. That obscurity deepened over the last six months, when hours of testimony before the Licenses and Inspections Review Board focused on the validity of the Historical Commission’s May 2012 “hardship” ruling, which supported the University of Pennsylvania’s demolition plans (the L&I Review Board voted 2-2 on the question of whether to uphold the hardship ruling allowing the ruling to stand). Bombarded by legal and financial data, attendees could be forgiven for forgetting why the building at the eye of the storm mattered in the first place. But that would be a shame. The grand, mistreated structure at the southwest corner of 40th and Pine Streets has, after all, been on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places for forty years and on the National Register for almost as long. Its story deserves to be told.
Before heading down that path, we should acknowledge the obvious: 400 S. 40th Street is not an easy building to love, at least not at first sight. Cinder-block additions, made to accommodate a nursing home, confront pedestrians at eye level. Even as one gazes upward, broken windows and peeling paint stand out. But beneath these blemishes lies an early and important work of suburban architecture. To understand its history is to catch a glimpse of an antebellum city in flux, an industrial fortune in the making, and a vision for a new neighborhood that both defied and replicated older patterns.
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By the early 1850s, John Patterson Levy (1809-1867) had had enough. Once the captain of commercial ships that plied the Atlantic Seaboard, he had survived terrifying storms off Cape Hatteras and a near-fatal bout of yellow fever–events that brought him back to the shipbuilding business for which he had trained in his youth. But it was domestic travails that weighed on him now. Living near his Kensington shipyard, Levy felt oppressed by the close-quartered, mixed-use neighborhood he had helped to industrialize. There was a large household to consider, including Levy’s wife, four children, three in-laws, and two servants in 1850. And there was the pull of religion. Levy’s brother, Edgar, was a noted Baptist minster whose preaching John admired. Edgar’s church stood in West Philadelphia, then a blossoming commuter suburb whose Hamiltonville section (roughly today’s University City) was especially appealing. “The rural beauties, the elegant cottages, surrounded by handsomely laid out grounds, the pure air, the freedom from the bustle and noise of the central part of the city, and yet within [a] thirty or forty minute drive of his office”–these were the factors that, in Edgar’s memory, lured his brother to a new home across the Schuylkill.
The area to which the Levys decamped was itself a hive of activity, albeit of a different sort. [Map.] Grand “villas” and more modest “cottages” were springing up on land that, until recently, had been part of the vast holdings of bon vivant botanist William Hamilton and his heirs. Hamilton had died in 1813 and his house now formed the centerpiece of Woodlands Cemetery. To the north, developers Nathaniel B. Browne and Samuel A. Harrison subdivided other parts of Hamilton’s property, creating wide streets and house lots for would-be commuters such as Levy. Many of these houses were designed by Samuel Sloan, an ambitious carpenter-turned-architect who was receiving a barrage of local commissions. One of them was almost certainly the house John P. Levy purchased in November of 1853. Erected on speculation by plasterer Thomas Allen (a known Sloan collaborator), it resembled the published designs for Italianate villas that were earning Sloan national renown at the time.
Much of what we know about Levy’s house comes from photographs and documents that post-date his occupancy. By the time the building appeared in Moses King’s Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians (1902), for instance, it had been remodeled by leather manufacturer David Porter Leas. Leas added a Colonial Revival porch and made a number of interior alterations, most notably around the main staircase and in an adjacent dining room. A 1913 insurance survey makes clear just how lavish the house had become: elaborate moldings and mahogany on the first floor, a library and a billiard room on the second. Some of these features were fashionable updates, others part of the original design. On the exterior, polygonal bays, stuccoed quoins, a bracketed cornice, and a cupola still confidently spoke the language of the 1850s.
This was the sort of house that took shape on blocks developed by lawyer Nathaniel B. Browne and his associates–blocks that included the one with Levy’s house. Browne himself lived in West Philadelphia and, in the words of an admiring biographer, “aimed to introduce a better style of building” in the area. But the emerging suburb of the mid nineteenth century was a patchwork, not one man’s vision. The villa district that grew up in Hamiltonville included clusters of row houses, and these multiplied in the Civil War era. Larger concentrations of such buildings appeared in adjacent working-class neighborhoods: Maylandville to the south and Greenville to the north. Often, it was only the presence of porches that distinguished these “suburban” structures from their inner-city counterparts.
We tend to think of households like Levy’s and those of contemporary working-class families as inhabiting separate worlds. And in a sense they did. Certainly, compared to their old neighborhood in Kensington, the one to which the Levys moved showed greater signs of class sorting. But John P. Levy’s own biography reveals the sorts of connections that sometimes existed among West Philadelphia’s disparate enclaves. When Levy’s brother, Edgar, moved his ministry to Newark, New Jersey, John resolved to perpetuate their shared faith by erecting the Berean Baptist Church on Chestnut Street west of 40th. [Map.] To provide income for this new institution, he also built the adjacent Berean Block on Oak (now Ludlow) Street. A group of modest Italianate row houses, they carried the telltale frame porches that signaled their suburban if down-market character.
It was as an industrialist rather than as philanthropist that John P. Levy became famous. Reaney, Neafie & Co., the shipbuilding firm he joined in the 1840s, prospered wildly in the following decades, becoming Neafie & Levy in 1861. Levy brought capital and management skill to the job, leaving engineering work to others. Chief among them was marine engine expert Jacob G. Neafie. Together these men grew their Penn Steam Engine & Boiler Works at Beach and Palmer Streets into a large enterprise that specialized in propeller engines. Over 200 such engines had left yard by 1857, prompting a contemporary chronicler to declare the firm “the Propeller builders.” When the business closed in the twentieth century, Philadelphia Electric, which bought the site for its Delaware Station, was keenly aware of its predecessor’s legacy. A plaque facing Penn Treaty Park bears witness to that local memory.
No plaque adorns the Levy-Leas house, much less the Berean Block. Indeed, were it not for ship-building buffs and odd bits of text on the internet, Levy and his story might have passed into oblivion. There are worse tragedies. Civil War-era Philadelphia was lousy with captains of industry and, in this roster of old, dead, white men, names like Baldwin, Disston, and Stetson surely deserve higher billing. But Levy’s mansion is another matter. At the time of its construction, the building was part of a string of grand houses that ran along 40th Street. Almost all of them were designed by Samuel Sloan, and almost all of them are gone. To get a feel for this sort of fabric, one should turn instead to the 4000 block of Pine Street. After the construction of Levy’s house, others like it sprang up to the west. They stand today as an extraordinary ensemble–the best-preserved cluster of free-standing suburban villas in West Philadelphia and among the best in the nation. Levy’s mansion anchors that streetscape in a way no replacement could.
The task of repairing the building and returning it to active duty is not herculean. Despite the acrimonious struggle between Penn and Levy-Leas’ neighbors, there are implicit areas of agreement: the house can be reused under the right conditions; other parts of the lot may be developed to generate revenue. (The same insurance surveyor who captured all that Gilded-Age opulence in 1913 also noted that the building was “occupied as Apartments” at the time.) Nor need one look far afield to find creative rehabilitation of such structures. Drexel University’s Smart House in Powelton Village offers one sort of model. Another, more pertinent one, may take shape at 3509 Spring Garden Street, where Drexel has again taken the lead with its Dana and David Dornsife Center. With any luck, Penn and preservation-minded neighbors will begin talking again. The community cares deeply about its past. And since that community may be said to include Neafie and Levy, both buried at Woodlands Cemetery, there’s a double incentive to get this one right.