In some ways, Mt. Airy can be overshadowed by the historic nature of its neighbor to the south, Germantown, and the bustling commercial success of Chestnut Hill to the north. But the redevelopment of a Roaring Twenties-era bank in the neighborhood is making a statement of its own: there is an interesting past, present, and future in Mt. Airy, too.
The building, located at 7208 Germantown Avenue, was constructed in 1928 and housed the former National Bank of Mt. Airy. It is a vestige of one of the neighborhood’s most consequential eras when it transformed from a largely rural community to the eclectic urban enclave it is today.
Spurred by rapid population growth in the early 20th century, Mt. Airy’s main corridor along Germantown Avenue evolved to meet the needs of its new residents. Among the changes, local civic leaders saw the need for a bank and commissioned architect Norman Hulme to design the three-and-a-half-story stone Colonial Revival building that still stands today.
That era of transformation and associated buildings like the former National Bank of Mt. Airy caught the eye of the Philadelphia Planning Commission when it successfully nominated a three-block stretch of Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy to the local register of historic places in 2019.
“Owing to its geographical position north of Germantown and south of Chestnut Hill, the Central Mt. Airy Commercial Historic District was not fully developed until after those two areas had reached much of their potential,” Planning Commission staff wrote in 2019. “While earlier change had been gradual and piecemeal, wholesale commercial development in the 1920s changed Mt. Airy, transforming it from a 19th century village of shops within buildings erected for residential uses to a retail center of purpose-built commercial buildings.”
Now, redevelopment of the former bank, which began with interior demolition in recent weeks, is indicative of another period of transition for Mt. Airy. At the same time as it was nominating Mt. Airy’s historic district in 2019, the Planning Commission was also working with City Council to upzone the area. Among other changes, the rezoning allowed buildings with frontage on the Germantown Avenue corridor to reach heights of 55 feet by-right, as opposed to 38 feet.
TierView Development quickly took advantage of the upzoning, purchasing the former bank and proposing in 2021 to build a two-story addition to the existing structure, while constructing a new five-story structure on an adjacent lot on Nippon Street and connecting the two. The combined building will hold both 1,600 square feet of commercial space and 19 residential units. The development firm is working on the project with Bright Common Architecture & Design.
When first proposed in 2021, the project drew mixed reviews from neighbors. Some lauded communication from TierView president Jenn Patrino, while others took issue with the building’s height and lack of parking. Those concerns fit the pattern of a larger, general anxiety among some Mt. Airy residents about growing density and traffic congestion in the neighborhood. But it appears TierView has since taken several steps to placate neighbors and officials.
Since the beginning, plans called for the building’s existing three-story Wissahickon schist facade to remain, with the new two-story addition tucked behind its gabled roof. But minutes from an August 2021 Historical Commission Architectural Committee meeting show members still expressed concern about the visibility and fit of the new improvements, before voting to recommend denial.
However, members of the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted to approve the proposal the following month, after TierView’s architects modified the proposal to cut down on the visibility of additions per the Historical Commission’s recommendation. “I think all of us are glad to see this, and glad to see the results of creating the district,” Historical Commission chair Robert Thomas concluded in the 2021 meeting.
Neighborhood organization West Mount Airy Neighbors said TierView also responded to community concerns, adding windows to what was originally designed as a blank five-story wall along the new building’s western facade on Nippon Street. “TierView’s willingness to adjust the design was exceptional,” WMAN stated in an email.
In addition, Patrino said TierView eliminated plans for a roof deck, which drew concerns from both neighbors and the Historical Commission about sightlines from the street. “We made adjustments to the addition on Nippon Street that positively impact the pedestrian experience and situate the building more in line with the aspect of the immediate adjacent structures,” Patrino said. “The Germantown Avenue facade will be retained to the fullest extent possible per the plans we shared with the Historical Commission.”
From Rural to Roaring
The 2019 nomination of the Mt. Airy historic district to the local register traces a long history of the Germantown Avenue coordinator in Northwest Philadelphia, all the way back to its origins as a Lenni Lenape trail cutting through hunting grounds.
In the 17th century, William Penn purchased tracts of land in the area from the Lenape and sold them to European settlers, with about 175 residents settling in Germantown by the end of the century. The purchase of their Germantown plots also came with “sideland” lots located in the area of modern day Mt. Airy.
The following centuries saw the significant growth of Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and the roadway connecting them. Spurred by the establishment of the Germantown & Perkiomen Turnpike, stagecoaches and then horse-drawn trolleys carried passengers to and from the neighborhoods and into the city. Yet, Mt. Airy largely remained rural.
But then came a series of changes, according to the Planning Commission. In 1832, Philadelphia incorporated all three neighborhoods into the city. In 1874, the City took control of Germantown Avenue, removing the turnpike gates and tolls. In 1884, a rail line was established west of the roadway, and, in 1895, came electric trolleys, which were twice as fast and carried more passengers than their horse-drawn counterparts.
“The rail lines and the trolley made it practical to live in Mt. Airy and commute daily to work in other parts of Philadelphia, such as the business district in Center City,” the Planning Commission noted.
Suddenly, the backwoods were prime real estate. First, as a place for the wealthy to build large summer estates from which they could commute to the city, including Cornelius Weygandt’s Uwchllan, Harlan Page’s Saracinesca, and Thomas Drake’s Montebello.
Then, a diversity followed: “Between 1880 and 1920, property developers such as Henry Houston, Ashton Tourison, and Frank Mauran built and sold developments in Mt. Airy of more modest year-round houses, ranging from large houses for the upper middle class to twins and rowhouses for those with lower incomes,” the Planning Commission explained.
By the 1920s, Mt. Airy had caught up to the times. Redevelopment along its Germantown Avenue corridor did away with stop-over inns and brought in three-story mixed use buildings: ground floor shops serving the neighborhood’s 25,000 residents with apartments above. The completion in 1928 of the still-standing Sedgwick Theater in Art Deco style by architect William Harold Lee “confirmed Mt. Airy’s change from rural to residential neighborhood,” the Planning Commission concluded. But one thing was still missing: a place to put all that new money.
Banking on the Future
Civic leaders of Mt. Airy in the 1920s realized they needed a local bank. In 1927, citizens came together and obtained a charter for the National Bank of Mt. Airy, opening a temporary location at Germantown and Mt. Airy Avenues with 158 members and $66,000 in deposits. Meanwhile, the bank purchased a property across the street and commissioned Hulme to design a Colonial Revival building for a permanent location. Opening in 1928, members and deposits quickly increased to more than $750,000.
The Planning Commission noted in its nomination that the building’s design was relatively staid compared to several of its Art Deco neighbors. Even still, TierView’s redevelopment plans call for preserving the original facade to the greatest extent possible, with the building’s demolition permit requiring the use of hand tools. The redevelopment will likely give the building’s exterior a facelift. Previously unoccupied, its stone pointing and windows, particularly a third-floor dormer, have fallen into disrepair in recent years. “The Germantown Avenue facade will get new, historic windows and a full restoration, but will remain in its essence the same,” Patrino said.
While the permit cites exterior demolition, Patrino said that refers to portions of a brick sidewall, which will allow connection to the new Nippon Street building. Two large holes are already visible in the sidewall, from which workers are removing demolished materials from the interior.
Floor plans of the building show new commercial space will exist in the front of the building along Germantown Avenue, including 570 square feet in the basement, 680 square feet at ground floor, and 390 square feet on an elevated mezzanine. Currently visible from the Germantown Avenue sidewalk is an existing staircase and mezzanine. Interior photographs available via a commercial listing depict an airy interior commercial area near the front of the building, with intact chandeliers, doorway trim, and wainscoting. Renderings do not indicate which of these features will remain, but the website indicates that “All the historic details are intact, including trim, doors, fireplaces, and windows.”
Residences will occupy the rear of the building and the new five-story Nippon Street addition. Renderings show eight residential units adjacent to the commercial spaces: one studio, one two-bedroom, and six one-bedroom apartments. There will be no off-street parking, by virtue of the 19 total units falling one short of off-street parking requirements for buildings with 20 or more units in the district. There will be seven dedicated bicycle spaces, and there is a SEPTA Route 23 bus stop immediately out front of the building.
Patrino said she anticipates the completion of construction sometime next spring.