Vogdes Street skitters in one-and-two-block bits, like a seam with uneven stitching, through West Philadelphia. It begins at the southern end as a diagonal spur linking Paschal and Woodland Avenues between 55th and 56th Streets. Here Vogdes is a typical Southwest Philadelphia block, packed tight with 19th century brick row houses in various degrees of dereliction–except it holds a surprising treasure. Nestled here is a small, gray stone farmhouse. The front porch and entry face southeast, perpendicular to the street, toward the morning sun and the Schuylkill River, which once would have been visible from the second story window. Carved in the schist, just above the porch roof, is the date of the house’s construction: 1764, framed by the initials “I S” and adorned with an 8-point star.
Tiny, old, and frail, the farmhouse inspires tenderness in those who know it. “I love that little guy!” said Patrick Grossi, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s advocacy director in an email when I contacted him inquiring about the building. Like me, he first stumbled upon the colonial relic by accident, while walking through Southwest Philadelphia. When he investigated, he was pleased to discover that 1817 South Vogdes Street has been listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places since 1963. The cottage is on the Preservation Alliance’s radar too. Advocates named it as one of its most endangered historic properties in the Alliance’s annual listing of 2003. At the time, by order of the District Attorney’s office, the house had been evacuated and boarded up for drug activity. Unlike historically significant structures in rapidly gentrifying sections of Philadelphia, the main threat to preserving the Vogdes Street cottage, says Grossi, is not pressure from developers, but the undermining effects of decades of neglect in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Today, the little farmhouse on Vogdes Street may seem like an anomaly, but it embodies a time and place just as the brick row houses surrounding it exemplify the late 19th century residential architecture of Southwest Philadelphia. Built before the American Revolution, the house harks back to when Kingsessing Township was a pastoral landscape of farms and fields. A time when Woodland Avenue was the King’s Highway (also known as Darby Road), following the path of a Lenape trail on the high ground above the west banks of the Schuylkill and serving as the main overland route connecting Philadelphia to the southern colonies.
In form and structure, the two-story house, with a downstairs front hall and side parlor, was built of irregular blocks of Wissahickon schist akin to John Bartram’s farmhouse which was once its next door neighbor. Little chips of stone pock the mortar of the west wall, a masonry technique known as galleting. This method of strengthening mortar and protecting joints by using the small pebble-sized remnants from trimming schist is a regional trait, found in several other surviving 18th century buildings in Southwest Philadelphia–the 1760s greenhouse at Bartram’s Garden, St. James Church at 68th and Woodland, and Blue Bell Tavern at the intersection of Woodland and Cobbs Creek, as well as in the foundation of the Woodlands Mansion, and at Belmont in Fairmount Park. Joel Fry, Bartram’s Garden curator, speculates that the stone buildings of Kingsessing, all built in the 1760s and linked to the Darby Road, were built by a single mason, craftsman, or group of masons who had brought this technique, at once decorative and practical, from their native England, France, or Germany, and taught it to other locals, perhaps even John Bartram himself. In his research, Fry has determined that “galleting occurs in small, isolated districts in [the British Isles and Europe]. It’s generally not common anywhere, but can be locally frequent.” Speculating further, he says, “It was only in Scotland, with granite building that chips of stone were used as gallets. In most other areas it was small, natural pebbles, or flints. So that might suggest the technique used in the area around Bartram’s garden came from a mason/craftsman trained in Scotland.”
Whatever its European origins, the Vogdes Street farmhouse speaks the Kingsessing vernacular of its day. It also testifies to a seminal moment in Philadelphia’s history, says Patrick Grossi. As Philadelphia’s urban center was taking shape in the 18th century, with townhouses, churches, and civic buildings like Independence Hall under construction down by the Delaware, the fertile region between Cobbs Creek and the Schuylkill River was being apportioned into plantations and productive farmland. City and adjoining countryside grew in tandem, contributing together to Philadelphia’s economic and cultural boom. “We associate the mid-18th century with the Delaware Riverfront, with the buildings of Independence National Park,” says Grossi. “[The farmhouse] is a reminder of how in that period rural Philadelphia was just as much in development as the waterfront.”
In fact, an influential figure in Philadelphia’s development in that era, “Colonel” James Coultas, was likely the cottage’s first owner. Both Aaron Wunsch, assistant professor of historic preservation at Penn (and a Hidden City Daily contributor) and Joel Fry believe Coultas leased the stone house, large for its day and built to endure, to a tenant farmer managing part of his plantation. The chain of title for 1817 S. Vogdes Street shows Coultas acquiring a 25-acre parcel of land in 1760, which after his death in 1768 was listed as one of the tracts in his 400-acre estate. Whitby Hall, Coultas’ manor house, stood less than a mile northwest of the property at what is now the intersection of 58th Street and Florence Avenue, and connected directly with the farmhouse via Gray’s Lane, a diagonal road that still exists today, running north of the cottage across Woodland Avenue.
James Coultas cut a wide swath in 18th century Philadelphia. He was known as “Colonel” for his leadership of the militia that defended the county from “Indian incursions” and “French privateers,” according to Eberlein and Hubbard’s 1939 book, Portrait of a Colonial City: Philadelphia 1670-1838. Coultas also held public office in a variety of capacities–High Sheriff, Justice of the Peace, and, at the end of his life, Judge of the Orphans’, Quarter Sessions, and Common Pleas courts. This colonial mover and shaker had his hand in promoting and implementing many public work projects that improved daily life for Philadelphians, while also enriching his own coffers. He held the lease for the Middle Ferry before the first Market Street bridge was constructed, and demonstrated that the Upper Schuylkill was navigable above the falls. In 1735, he married the stepdaughter of George Gray, who held the lease of the Lower (Gray’s) Ferry, the crossing that linked the city directly with the King’s Highway, the major transport road south and west. Later, James Coultas’ niece would marry George Gray’s son (also George) consolidating the ties between these two families who together controlled two major ferry crossings and much of the farmland of Kingsessing and Blockley Townships. Coultas’ role as civic booster extended to his involvement in the construction of the Swedish Lutheran Church, now St. James Episcopal Church, on Woodland Avenue at 68th Street, for which he laid the cornerstone in 1762. With its schist walls and galleted mortar, the church bears stylistic and structural affinities with the Vogdes Street farmhouse.
At Whitby Hall, named after his British birthplace, Coultas recreated an English country estate in the Cobbs Creek wilderness, where he lived the life of a gentleman squire. Eberlein and Hubbard, in their gushing, nostalgic celebration of colonial Philadelphia, wrote: “Colonel Coultas rode to hounds and entered into the wonted diversions of his day with just as much zest as he displayed in quitted himself of the more serious businesses of public and private life, and was all the better for it.”
Whitby Hall has its own fascinating story. Its exterior was moved, stone-by-stone, to Haverford, Pennsylvania in 1922, where it still stands today as a private home. The hall’s interior was sold to the brand new Detroit Institute of Art, a museum designed by Philadelphia’s own Paul Cret, to serve as a period room representing Colonial America.
But if the farmhouse belonged to Coultas, who was the “IS” whose initials are carved on the façade? The “I” may actually be a “J”, suggests J.M. Duffin, technical services archivist at Penn’s University Archives, as those capital letters were often interchangeable in 18th century inscription. If so, the original tenant might well have been a man named Joseph Sellers, listed on the 1767 county tax rolls as having paid rent to James Coultas. Sellers appears again in county records as a tenant of George Gray, husband of Coultas’ niece, and heir of his 400-acre estate, including the 25-acre tract on one side bordering John Bartram’s land where the farmhouse still stands.
The title chain shows the 25-acres being diced into smaller and smaller parcels. As early as 1779, George Gray sold the house as a six acre lot to a Kingsessing resident named Abel Lodge, occupation listed as tailor. Over the next 90 years, the parcel was whittled down and reapportioned among various Lodge descendants. What had been a three acre tract owned by a succession of farmers from 1865-1872 was, by 1880, a small plot surrounded by the subdivision of southwest Philadelphia by developers into tight residential lots.
By the end of the 19th century, railroad and streetcars had rapidly transformed the southwest bank of the Schuylkill into an industrial corridor of paint factories and lumberyards, and carried Philadelphia’s urban grid west. Those newly criss-crossed streets grew dense with housing for workers. Reminiscent of The Little House, that beloved 1942 children’s book by Virginia Lee Burton, the city crowded around the old stone cottage, the green fields gave way to concrete, and still the house stood. Owners had modified it over the years to accommodate the needs of a 19th century household and technology, demolishing a shed, adding a kitchen and other amenities. The house, large by 18th century standards, was engulfed by the brick row houses that rose and stacked up around it.
There’s an air of defiance in its stalwart survival. The house looks so singular, like the lone twin on the 3700 block of Chestnut Street refusing to succumb to development pressure. Was it some early preservation impulse that kept the house intact or an owner’s stubborn refusal to let go of his diminishing land?
According to Wunsch, neither accident nor defiance account for the house’s endurance. “There was real intention,” he says. “It didn’t just happen.” The block’s developers saw the farmhouse’s presence as an opportunity. Wunsch cites a photograph from 1900 that shows how the cottage was “cleverly incorporated” into the block around it. The house next door, the northern end of a row, is turned to face the 18th century cottage, with a porch and a patch of grass that turns the space between the two houses into a courtyard. This thrifty solution, says Wunsch, of “using an existing building and a weird lot to good effect amid new row houses,” had the added benefit of providing the tightly-packed street with some sunshine, breathing space, and a refreshing patch of green.
A 1942 map shows this southern block of Vogdes Street as a residential enclave not far from the railroad tracks in an industrial landscape of lumber yards, leather and paint factories, ice and coal distributors, and container corporations. The map clearly shows the narrow row houses on the west side of the street and the two more ample lots, little old farmhouse occupying one of them, on the other. Today some scattered light industry remains–auto body shops, printing presses–but major manufacturers, like the MAB Paint factory, are long closed. Working class whites fled to the suburbs of Delaware County as African American families migrated west in the 1960s and 70s. Today, the neighborhood is economically ravaged. The 1800 block of South Vogdes Street seems half abandoned. Plywood boards block windows of many homes, metal cornices rust and sag, plastic bags and broken glass pave the street.
Yet in the side yard of 1817 S. Vogdes Street, collards, cabbages, and other vegetable are starting to sprout. After being shut down by the District Attorney for drug activity some 15 years ago, the farmhouse has an occupant again. The current tenant, 85-year-old Samuel Cooper, is a retired agronomist from Liberia who studied at Cornell University and then served as Liberia’s deputy minister for agriculture. He has settled into the house’s very tight quarters and is making a home and a garden on land that was first cultivated 250 years ago.
The Vogdes Street farmhouse is more than a precious colonial artifact. From its early days as part of “Colonel” James Coultas’ and George Gray’s vast land holdings in Kingsessing to its creative incorporation as “green lungs” in a tight block of brick row houses, from its more recent criminal past to its current restoration as a cozy home for an African immigrant, the little house stands as a fascinating witness to the physical development, economic growth and decline, and the shifting demographics of Philadelphia’s Southwest.