Off The Grid: Exploring Fragments Of Philly’s Lost Roadways

July 28, 2017 |  by  |  Vantage  |  , , ,

 

The history of Philadelphia’s street system is a familiar one. The city’s wide-reaching grid began with William Penn’s original concept for organizing Philadelphia between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Several of the city’s major diagonal arteries are colonial roads that followed high ground or connected disparate settlements and towns. Some of the best examples of these roads include Germantown Avenue and Ridge Avenue in Northwest Philadelphia, Passyunk Avenue in South Philly, and, to the north, Old York Road, Frankford Avenue, and Richmond Street. Scattered among the city’s all-encompassing network of roads are subtle remnants of Philadelphia’s pre-grid street system. These roadway fragments pepper the grid all over town, providing unique markers of urban evolution.

Quirky Connections in North Philly 

George Washington Carver High School at the intersection of 17th and Norris Streets. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Last year my family and I attended an open house at George Washington Carver High School, just west of Temple University. One thing that struck me was the school’s unusual orientation. It sits at a 45 degree angle to the grid at 17th and Norris Streets. Carver’s unusual orientation is a relic of Monument Cemetery, which was at this location during most of the 1800s and the first half of the 20th century before being demolished in the 1950s. The cemetery’s diamond-shaped orientation itself resulted from a pair of the pre-grid streets, Turner’s Lane and Camac Lane. 

Turner’s Lane ran northeasterly from what we now call Brewerytown to the current location of Germantown Avenue and West Cumberland Street. The shorter Camac Lane formed the northeast side of Monument Cemetery and traveled out to Kensington. As the grid expanded to encompass North Philadelphia, it was overlain around Monument Cemetery, leaving triangular parcels of land. One of these triangles was at 17th and Norris Streets–what is now Carver High School. The other triangular parcel, at Broad and Norris Streets, included a group of houses known collectively as Triangle Apartments. In early 2015, Temple demolished the apartments in preparation for the site of their widely contested football stadium that may or may not be built on the site. There is also a very small building at the northeast corner of 16th and Norris that sits at 45 degrees to the intersection, likewise marking the orientation of the long-gone cemetery. 

Other examples of these road remnants are more permanently embedded into our urban fabric, although they often require research to understand where and what they are. The most obvious examples of the early layout of the city road system are some of our major arterials, those that create awkward, angled intersections throughout the city and throw the grid off-kilter. Other examples of pre-grid roads reveal themselves in unexpected places and they range in size from small street fragments, to a few blocks, to whole neighborhoods.  

West Lycoming Street curves along the base of Hunting Park after it crosses Old York Road. | Photo: Michael Bixler

One of the smallest pre-grid fragments is a portion of West Lycoming Street, which forms the southern boundary of Hunting Park. This three-block section of West Lycoming is a remnant of the much longer Nicetown Lane, which appears on maps as early as 1808. Nicetown Lane led from a ford of the Schuylkill River at what is now Laurel Hill Cemetery and traversed the city to Frankford. By 1895, the western sections of Nicetown Lane were renamed Hunting Park Avenue. If you take that route today, you are following the same road that was travelled by Philadelphians over 200 years ago.

In the Hunting Park neighborhood, as Germantown Avenue crosses Broad Street and Hunting Park Avenue, the right-angled regularity of the grid breaks down and several side streets are oriented to Germantown Avenue, rather than to Broad Street, a relative newcomer to this neighborhood. The lower reaches of Germantown Avenue formed the boundary between the Northern Liberties and Penn Townships. As early as 1862, there were a number of small streets running at right angles to Germantown Avenue. This pattern of development persists today in McFerran and Kerbaugh Streets, along with several additional side streets along Germantown Avenue between Hunting Park Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard. When navigating McFerran and Kerbaugh Streets, you are unwittingly confronting the grafting of the late 19th century street grid onto the post-colonial road system.

Vineyard Street does a diagonal dance across Poplar Street on its way to Ridge Avenue. | Photo: Michael Bixler

When travelling along Ridge Avenue, you are confronted with similar types of odd intersections. As Ridge Avenue transects the network of numbered and cross streets, it often results in five-and six-way intersections. But, for a few blocks in Francisville just south of Girard College, a few streets are oriented at right angles to Ridge Avenue. These small roads, Ginnodo, Vineyard, Edwin, Wylie, and Francis Streets, appear on maps by 1808. Francisville is likely the oldest settlement in North Philadelphia, originating as an area for vineyards.

At the southern edge of Francisville, Fairmount Avenue does not run exactly parallel to its adjacent east-west neighbors, Brown and Wallace Streets. This is because Fairmount Avenue is much older than the other two, appearing on maps by 1808. It was first named Plumstead Lane, then Francis Lane, and then Coates Avenue before being named Fairmount Avenue in the late 1800s.

Sideways In South Philly

Washington Avenue gets bent as it crosses 11th Street headed for Broad Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

I have been visiting the shops on 9th Street in the Italian Market for all of my life. My great aunt ran one store and three generations of cousins ran another. But it wasn’t until recently that I started to wonder why Christian Street, Carpenter Street, and Washington Avenue all veer slightly to the south–at 9th Street for Christian Street and at 11th Street for Carpenter Street and Washington Avenue. One of the best places to see this is by looking west from the corner of 9th and Washington Avenue, towards the former warehouse buildings west of 11th Street. 

To account for this difference in orientation you have to look at the development of Philadelphia County before its consolidation in 1854, when the City of Philadelphia was bounded by Vine Street, South Street, and the two rivers, while the remainder of the county was divided into townships and districts. Southwark District, parts of which are now Bella Vista, Queen Village, and Pennsport, had its own street system, related to, but developed separately from Philadelphia’s grid system. The streets in Southwark were oriented perpendicularly to Moyamensing Avenue, rather than being a continuation of the grid north of South Street. This makes perfect sense when you consider that Moyamensing Avenue was the main thoroughfare in this district. It makes far less sense when these streets needed to accommodate their later neighbors, again creating a number of oddly-angled intersections throughout eastern South Philadelphia.

Lots of options at Moyamensing Avenue and Reed Street. One of the weirder intersection in South Philly. | Photo: Michael Bixler

In studying historic maps of Philadelphia, these early road fragments and alignments ebb and flow, like watching disappearing ink come and go. One of my favorite street fragments occurs in the Hawthorne neighborhood. Trying to understand the westward expansion of Christian Street and Washington Avenue to the west, I noticed Shippen’s Lane, a southern continuation of 13th Street, below South Street. The lane has been completely erased by modern streets, with the exception of two very short blocks of South Clarion Street that run at an angle between South and Bainbridge Streets.

The locations highlighted here are a few of many examples throughout Philadelphia where early 18th century road patterns still reveal themselves. There are many more, located in almost every neighborhood. Next time you are out exploring the city, take notice of the streets that do not fit. They often tell a story of the city’s interesting, and not always logical, development. We often think of historic preservation in terms of buildings, but not as often in terms of the broader, urban landscape. It is worth remembering that these eccentric intersections and small side streets reflect our history and the evolution of a city in constant transition.

About the author

Tony Aiello is Curator and Director of Horticulture at the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. This position has allowed him to travel throughout the U.S., Europe, and China to find novel plants suitable for growing in the Delaware Valley. He has written extensively about his travels, a variety of trees and shrubs, and the history of horticulture. A native Philadelphian, when he is not gardening, cooking, reading, or spending time with his family, Tony enjoys exploring the city, often in search of the ideal taco or slice of pizza.



14 Comments


  1. I love the diagonal streets that give interest in an otherwise static streetscape and I love the way they interject physical history into our modern lives.

    One note – The caption for the Vineyard Street photo says Vineland…

  2. The definitive book about old diagonal roads out of Philadelphia is “Old Roads Out of Philadelphia” by John T Faris, which is 100 years old this year.

    “JT” conducts the reader on a delightfully detailed walking tour of each Colonial-era diagonal arterial from Center City to the suburbs as they existed in 1917—a historic double entendre!

    I own two copies of the original (as well as several other “JT” walking tours) but—through the wonders of modern technology—Google has provided a free digital copy that can be pursued on-line. Read and enjoy!

    https://archive.org/details/oldroadsoutphil00farigoog

  3. I’ve always been curious about Poplar Street – parallel to Girard west of Broad, but veers more and more south towards Front St.

    • Many of the streets – Fairmount, Green &c – in the Northern Liberties veer south as they head toward the river. This area was not part of the city until 1854 and hence developed its own street grid early on.

  4. Very interesting and informative article.
    I always thought Fairmount Ave which we live on was formally Hickory lane, I did not realize the other names which is good to learn. It led me to research and apparently Fairmount was Hickory but only from Old York Road to Ridge.

  5. Where were the remains and soil from Monument Cemetery transported?

  6. I’m very partial to Meetinghouse Lane in West Philadelphia. The last visible fragment starts on 53rd St slightly before Poplar St and runs North-East diagonally to Girard Ave just west of 52nd St.

  7. I love this story , thank you for the writeup!

    FYI the last photo is Reed st, not Wharton.

  8. My favorite part of the Pennsport grid-shift is that, because 2nd Street is also parallel to Moyamensing, it suddenly “becomes” 3rd Street south of Mifflin and a new, stump of a 2nd Street appears to its east.

  9. Phillip Schearer

    This wonderful article reminds me of my own (not nearly as well organized) observations in the western suburbs, especially around the Main Line, of buildings that sit at odd angles to modern streets. Most are due not to expanding grids like in the city but rather reflect no-longer-existing railroad and trolley lines or roads that were straightened when converted from horses to automobiles. It is mentally invigorating to look on modern scenes and see underneath to the past.

  10. I absolutely love, love, love everything about this article. This is exactly the sort of thing I wonder about when looking at an urban landscape. (One suggestion for the editors, though: some maps would be helpful!)

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