Full Disclosure: Arielle Harris is the nominator of the application to place The Mary & Frances Wister Studio on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
On Friday, the Philadelphia Historical Commission will revisit nominations for 704 and 706-08 Sansom Street for placement on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. No matter how the commission rules, the proposal, by a suburban housing developer, Toll Brothers, to demolish 702-710 Sansom Street on Jewelers Row and replace the legacy commercial buildings with a 29-story apartment tower, has exposed the weakness in the city’s system of historic preservation.
While demolition is not imminent for two other properties on the Historical Commission’s Friday agenda–The Mary & Frances Wister Studio, at 2101 W. Clarkson Avenue, and an early 19th century house, Little Wakefield, at 1701 Lindley Avenue–it is not out of the realm of possibility that they will suffer such a fate if not designated. La Salle University, which owns both homes, may elect to tear them down in order to make room for more student housing. Although the Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation unanimously recommended their listing in the local register, it is unclear how the Commission will act given their sympathy toward university projects and campus master planning, cases of financial hardship, and the arguments of property owners’ retained counsel. These two nominations have sought to be proactive rather than reactive, as it is clear that last-minute attempts to stop the process of demolition in order to save particular buildings are woefully insufficient and ultimately self-destructive.
La Salle still wishes to argue against designation of the two homes despite having no concrete plans for what to do with the land if and when the properties are torn down, already owning and maintaining buildings listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, and having a notorious track record of demolishing properties that had been either been listed or were eligible for placement for protection on the local register.
The university moved to its present 19th and Olney Streets campus location around 1930, gradually acquiring surrounding land and razing nearly all evidence of the surrounding historic building stock. Only one building on or around the campus, artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale’s Belfield mansion, used as the La Salle Office for Mission, is safeguarded by Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. If the Historical Commission declines to designate Little Wakefield and the Wister Studio, more of Germantown’s history will be permanently erased.
Peale purchased a 104.5 acre tract of land in Bristol Township, near Germantown, in 1810. Seeking to retire to the farm there, he added to an existing 18th century homestead and cultivated extensive gardens. This was a common practice of the time for men of his stature, as to maintain a ferme ornée, or ornamental farm, allowed for the intersection of scientific study with ideals of beauty, aesthetics, rationality, and worksmanship.
Due to the passing of his wife in 1821 and his frustration in failed attempts to build a cotton mill on the property, Peale sold Belfield to Quaker merchant and entrepreneur William Logan Fisher, a descendant of James Logan, the colonial secretary to William Penn who owned the Stenton estate. At the time, Fisher lived in Wakefield, which was built in 1798 by his parents on Stenton land bequeathed to them by James Logan. That same year, his daughter, Sarah Logan Fisher, married William Wister—a descendant of John Wister, a Germantown resident and owner-occupant of the Grumblethorpe estate on Germantown Avenue. Although the Wisters were Quakers, they were not birthright Quakers, and an outraged William Logan Fisher forbade the ceremony from occurring at the Fisher family homestead and Meeting. Perhaps as a peace offering, Fisher presented the newlyweds with part of Peale’s estate—12 acres total, including the Belfield mansion. Three years later, William Logan Fisher gifted a piece of his own Wakefield estate to his son, Thomas Rodman Fisher, upon his marriage. The house Thomas Rodman Fisher constructed, Little Wakefield, was close to his factory, Wakefield Mills, and was where Fisher raised his seven children—one of whom, Mary Carpenter, came to inherit the property.
Little Wakefield is an intact example of austere Quaker adaptations of the architectural styles of the time. While the house may appear plain, its restrained classical features, which include a low pitched roof, symmetrical bays and gables, large windows, and a front porch, are an intentional display of the Quaker tenet of simplicity that was especially important for wealthy Quakers like Thomas Rodman Fisher to demonstrate in his day-to-day life.
The Mary & Frances Wister Studio
While the Wisters were establishing themselves at Belfield, Germantown was transitioning from a seasonal retreat for the elite to a year-round suburb for the middle class. To many long-time or seasonal residents, changes visible in the built environment were alarming, but others capitalized on the demand by building speculative housing. The Wisters and Fishers held on to their land as an asset, but ultimately decided to build upon it for themselves. The marriage of William Rotch Wister to Mary Channing Eustis in 1868 was the impetus for building the first such house. The cottage, 2101 W. Clarkson Avenue, was constructed on the Belfield land holdings. This modest stone house was designed with many of the fashionable characteristics of late 19th century suburban residential architecture, but, as with Little Wakefield, within the standards of modest Quaker taste.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that local architect and cartographer J. C. Sidney designed 2101 W. Clarkson Avenue. Sidney was well-known in Philadelphia for his cartographic and architectural design skills, ranging from the Map of the Circuit of Ten Miles around the City of Philadelphia, to the master plan for East Fairmount Park, to an architectural pattern book, American Cottage & Villa Architecture. Having surveyed Germantown as a cartographer, he was likely known among property owners and designed a number of properties in the vicinity. One such area is East Logan Street, designated a local historic district in 2010. 81 E. Logan Street is a near identical copy of 2101 W. Clarkson Avenue. Sidney also designed a number of school buildings throughout the city of Philadelphia.
At 2101 W. Clarkson Avenue, the Wisters welcomed two daughters, Mary Channing and Frances Anne, and the cottage became too small for the growing family. In 1876, William Rotch moved his family across the street to “Wister,” his ostentatious family home, and younger siblings John Caspar and Ella were born there. Meanwhile, in 1884, Jones Wister moved to 2101 W. Clarkson Avenue with his two young daughters. The family compound was vital to daily life at Belfield. Ella Wister’s autobiography recalls weekly family dinners with parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, who lived not just within the family compound at Belfield but also at the other family estates, including Wakefield (destroyed by fire in the 1980s), Little Wakefield, Waldheim(demolished in 1928), Stenton, and Butler Place (demolished in the 1920s).
During the 20th century, the National League of Workers used Little Wakefield as the institution and demonstration center for its Germantown chapter during World War I. As part of the programming, high school-aged women resided at Little Wakefield for two-week periods and worked on gardening and planting projects. At this time, a gazebo was built adjacent to the house in order to conduct demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Frances Wister, born at 2101 W. Clarkson Avenue, had become one of the city’s most active civic reformers. Through her sister Mary, she participated in activities with the Civic Club of Philadelphia, and Frances’ passion for music led to a heavy involvement with the Philadelphia Orchestra, serving on its Volunteer Committees, Women’s Committee, and as Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association.
Upon discovering that Powel House was slated for demolition to make way for parking, she mobilized fundraising to save the house and in doing so helped to pioneer the American preservation movement. Her advocacy group became the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, present owner of the Powell and Physick houses in Society Hill, Grumblethorpe (saved by Frances Wister), and Historic Waynesboro. Through Frances Wister’s preservation work she also became involved with the Fairmount Park Commission (1867-2010), eventually donating the Wister House and surrounding woods to them. Unfortunately, the Commission demolished the mansion several years later.
Respecting History Before Campus
Although La Salle boasts a Wister Hall, it is Charles Willson Peale’s connection to Belfield that is touted by the university. On the university’s online campus map, Belfield is referred to as the “Peale House,” yet does not mention any history of the family who owned the property for 159 years (as opposed to Peale’s 16). The Mary & Frances Wister Studio is described in relation to Mary Wister’s husband (and cousin), novelist Owen Wister, but omits Frances and her contributions to Philadelphia civic life. Little Wakefield is noted for its former association with St. Basil’s Orphanage, yet not for the mercantile contributions of the Fishers. It has been through the work of professors, students, and staff at La Salle that the history of the Wisters has come to life at Belfield. Writing professors and art history instructors have used the Wister properties as classroom laboratories, with students learning skills such as architectural description and primary research.
In recent years, La Salle has invested in new academic and residential facilities; recently, the university aggressively lowered student tuition. Despite this, should these two buildings be approved for historic designation by the Historical Commission, it seems likely the university will make a legal claim of financial hardship; indeed, they’ve already spent considerably to attempt to block designation, more evidence of our city’s reactive rather than proactive preservation system. In any of our peer cities, these historic buildings would have been protected long ago.
The following list details buildings that were demolished for La Salle campus expansion. All were significant for their architectural and historical contribution to the narrative of Germantown and Philadelphia.
The House of the Good Shepherd Magdalene Home for Colored Girls
Saint Katherine Drexel donated $15,000 for the Religious of the Good Shepherd to purchase the future site of their orphanage in 1882. According to deeds for the property, the House of the Good Shepherd operated with the mission to “afford protection and a retreat for [African-American] females who have had the misfortune to fall into crime and who may wish to reform their lives, and for the preservation of young girls in virtue and morality.” Eventually, the House of the Good Shepherd came to occupy the entire block of Chew Avenue between Church and Wister Streets, including a preexisting home named “Edgewood” that is attributed to architect J. C. Sidney. As state-run childcare replaced charitable organizations in the 20th century, the Good Shepherd Sisters found other uses for their campus like operating a daycare there and renting buildings to La Salle. Their agreement with the university terminated early, however, due to a lack of upkeep and respect for the property. La Salle eventually bought the lot from the Good Shepherd Sisters in 1981, and, in 1985, leveled the asylum, all outbuildings, and a baseball diamond. In 2009, the lot was converted to a strip mall called The Shoppes at La Salle. With the Fresh Grocer serving as its anchor, this area of Germantown was given its first local supermarket in 40 years. Edgewood is still standing and is used today for Good Shepherd Hall, La Salle’s campus security headquarters.
700 Church Lane: The Jewish Foster Home.
A former orphanage designed by prominent architect Willis Gaylord Hale in 1890, the complex also included a carriage house, gymnasium, Synagogue-turned-library, and dispensary. When the Foster Home closed, the property was used by a Catholic school and other religious institutions. The building was subjected to arson in 1999, but retained its imposing stone shell. In May 2007, La Salle purchased the property. Despite being listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places since 1986, La Salle demolished the Foster Home in 2008. No demolition permits can be found in the City zoning archives, so it is safe to assume that the demolition was performed without any permit—and thus illegally. The site was used to build a replacement baseball diamond for the one razed on the House of the Good Shepherd site.
5501-35 E. Wister Street, 2118 Cottage Lane, 2138-40 Cottage Lane, and 2105 W. Clarkson Avenue.
These properties were part of the Wister family compound, and were classic examples of 19th century residential architecture in Germantown. La Salle acquired the houses between 1963 and 1985 from the Wisters and used them for student dorms. Once La Salle took ownership the houses were demolished for parking lots and dormitories.
Church of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church
The newest addition to La Salle’s campus, Founder’s Hall, is on the former site of Church of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church built in 1887. The parcel was purchased by La Salle in 2007, and the church and parsonage were demolished in 2012. The $35 million, 87,000 square foot project was paid for with bond issues and alumni donations. Founder’s Hall was officially dedicated in September of last year.
Given La Salle’s demolition track record, what does survive on their campus from the late 19th century is all the more special. 2101 W. Clarkson Avenue and Little Wakefield have unique individual histories and contribute to a broader historical landscape established by prominent Quaker families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and thus are worthy of designation and protection from demolition.
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