Carpenter Lane, a pitch-perfect example of a walkable urban thoroughfare, runs for one mile between Germantown Avenue and Wissachickon Avenue in Mt. Airy. The fleeting stretch is a mix of stucco farmhouses, Victorian twins, old storefronts, a school, a church, and a train station. Without historic plaques or interpretive signs to guide the way, one must read the architecture to understand the street’s long, rich history and its 300-year journey to the present day.
Prior to the 1854 consolidation of Philadelphia County, Wissahickon Avenue (once called Township Line Road) marked the boundary between Roxborough and Germantown Townships. Carpenter Lane served as cross-street, connecting Germantown Avenue (known in the 19th century as the Germantown and Perkiomen Turnpike) to Manayunk by way of Kitchen’s Lane and a bridge over the Wissachickon Creek.
By some accounts, Carpenter Lane likely dates back to the late 18th century. It appears as Morgan’s Lane in A plan of the City of Philadelphia and Environs Surveyed by John Hills published in 1808. The street’s name evolved over time, appearing as Trullinger’ Lane in 1843 and Carpenter’s Street in the late 1800s. To eliminate confusion with Carpenter Street in South Philadelphia, it became Carpenter Lane in the early 1900s.
One of the most fascinating things about Carpenter Lane is the mix of housing styles that do not form a linear progression, but rather show a history of infill and development along its length. These homes include row houses, twins, and singles, providing examples of nearly two hundred years of Philadelphia architecture. Some of the oldest homes occur in the 800 block, between Wayne and Wissahickon Avenues. Here, on the south side of the street, are a series of attractive mid-18th century farmhouses. A recent real estate listing for 854 Carpenter Lane claims that a portion of the house dates back to the early 1700s. According to the current owner, the original stone structure, possibly a barn, was built in 1690 by Scottish hog farmers. While documentation of this claim remains elusive, the front portion of the home appears to be the oldest structure along the lane. Farmhouses from the 1800s pepper the 500, 600, and 700 blocks. At 734 Carpenter Lane, a lone, wood-framed home stands out among all of its brick, stone, and stucco neighbors. The history of this house reflects the evolution of the street’s architecture, with the front portion constructed with cedar-framing in the 1840s, the side porch likely added in the 1880s, and a two-story rear addition rounding things out in the 1920s.
Contemporary to these mid-19th century homes was one of the most interesting pieces of Carpenter Lane history. Glen Echo Mills (namesake of nearby Glen Echo Street) is long-gone, but its memory still serves as a key example of the pre-suburban development and industrial function of this part of Philadelphia. The mill once occupied what is now Carpenter Lane and Lincoln Drive. It was operated by McCallum, Crease, & Sloam and produced wool army blankets during the Civil War. Afterwards, the mill manufactured a variety of carpet types. A mill existed in the this location along the Monoshone Creek (also known as Paper Mill Run) since the early 1800s, and wonderful illustrations of this mill throughout its history can be found within the pages of the Hexamer General Surveys, 1866-1896 (see plates 294, 529, and 1513 below). By some accounts, Glen Echo Mill was the largest of its kind in Pennsylvania during the mid-1800s. With the extension of Lincoln Drive in the early 1900s, all traces of this industrial site were obliterated.
The demise of the Glen Echo Mill on Carpenter Lane coincided with the arrival of suburban railroads into northwest Philadelphia, marked by the 1884 opening of Carpenter Station as part of Pennsylvania Railroad’s expansion of service into Germantown, Mt. Airy, and Chestnut Hill. The extension of the train line, now known as the Chestnut Hill West Line, served as a harbinger of the shift from farming and industry to widespread suburban development. The transition is reflected in a wave of Victorian homes along the Carpenter Lane. Stunning signposts of the era include sets of twin homes near McCallum Street and three Queen Anne-style single homes opposite Charles W. Henry Elementary School. On the eastern end of Carpenter Lane closer to Germantown Avenue are a series of large, single homes built during the development of the Pelham neighborhood in the late 1800s. They are punctuated by pre-World War II single homes.
The most prominent building along Carpenter Lane is the C. W. Henry Elementary School, which occupies nearly the entire 600 block. The original section of the school, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, was built between 1906-08 and designed by prolific Philadelphia public school architect Henry deCourcy Richards. The architecture of C.W. Henry reflects the progression of neighborhood development. Following the handsome, original building a more streamlined addition was added in 1949, which included the current auditorium and gymnasium. The late 1960s addition, while architecturally much out of context with the rest of the school and neighborhood, is very functional and better experienced on the inside than out. The mid-century section replaced a neighborhood horse stable. Living adjacent to the school, I have found horseshoes while digging in my garden.
The commercial district of Carpenter Lane, at the intersection of Greene Street, demonstrates similar architectural changes over time. Clearly there were more businesses in the past, but vibrant shops still flourish today including an independent bookstore, Weaver’s Way Coop, two dry cleaners, two art studios, and a coffee shop. According to the owner of Gem Cleaners, the longest continuously operating business in the neighborhood, this section of storefronts previously contained a bakery, pharmacy, and hardware store. One of the Weaver’s Way buildings, 542 Carpenter Lane, was previously a garage and service station. There two other old garage buildings on the 700 block. Fuller’s Fine Art Auctions has the clerestory story windows running along its roof ridge and Carpenter Lane Garage still has an old-fashioned pedestal car tire pump in front of the building.
A new condominium was recently built along Carpenter Lane’s expressive architectural timeline. Its boastful scale and lack of context greets the harmonious tone of the street with indifference. Perhaps, with time, the neighborhood will absorb the brassy new development.
Until then, a walk along Carpenter Lane provides a fascinating insight into clues of the past and one of the closest experiences Philadelphia has to time travel.