By Robert P. Thomas, AIA
Spring Garden Street is about to come full circle. The Pennsylvania Environmental Council has proposed a collaboration with the City of Philadelphia and neighborhood organizations to bring back the grand boulevard Spring Garden once was – or at least a 21st Century version of what it once was. Soon a new Spring Garden Street Greenway may be built and become a destination and the connecting link of choice from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill.
In the 19th century Spring Garden Street was an elegant, leafy boulevard that accommodated an interesting mix of uses. It had little through traffic since it extended only from 6th Street to the reservoir atop Fairmount where the Art Museum stands today. The early predecessor of the Spring Garden Bridge, a suspension bridge known as the “Wire Bridge” linked instead to Callowhill Street.
There was a huge landscaped median with sculpture, iron fencing, trees and fountains on the blocks from 6th to Franklin Streets, and from 12th to Broad Streets. Market sheds, like those on 2nd Street in Society Hill, extended all the way from Franklin to 12th Streets. In this area, instead of six or seven lanes of traffic as there are today, there were only two lanes on each side of the broad median.
Many important institutions – churches, schools, and societies lined Spring Garden Street, particularly east of Broad Street. The German Society of Pennsylvania, featured in the photograph below, is an excellent example which remains. The street hosted its share of industry as well, ranging from the Baldwin Locomotive Works to later examples such as the U. S. Mint, now part of the Community College of Philadelphia.
With the great period of industrialization following the Civil War, many of the nouveau-riche, being rejected from more established areas such as Rittenhouse Square, settled in North Philadelphia. Spring Garden Street thus saw the development of the huge brownstones and other elegant mansions west of Broad Street, many of which survive today as part of the Spring Garden Historic District.
The cross section of Spring Garden Street’s western part resembled Commonwealth Avenue in Boston – broad sidewalks, richly landscaped front gardens (a few of which survive today), ornate iron fencing, and a grand mix of facades featuring elaborate brickwork, brownstone, marble and limestone. Elegant stairways, complex bay windows, and richly detailed dormers are found on many of these mansions.
But what happened to the street in the 20th Century? With the building of the Delaware River Bridge (now the Ben Franklin) in the 1920’s, plans were drawn and then executed for an inner and outer ring of circulator roads. Spring Garden Street was selected for this system because of its wide right-of-way. Its green medians were turned over to heavy motorized traffic. Many of the wealthy residents migrated to quieter, more suburban locales, and many of the grand homes were divided into apartments. Iron fencing was sold off or donated to war efforts, front gardens were paved over, and mature trees were not replaced. The “greenway” became a noisy “urban arterial.”
The opening of the Vine Street Expressway, and its completion around 1990, removed much bridge traffic from Spring Garden Street. Some redevelopment ensued, yet many sections of the street retained a beaten-down character.
Now the new design for the Spring Garden Street Greenway will blend an understanding of Spring Garden’s history and of how to respectfully work in a historic district; with the best practices of how to better serve pedestrians and bicycles as well as motor vehicles, and to provide stronger stormwater management and landscaping. Overall, the project will bring back a sense of delight to all users of the street.
About the Author
Bob Thomas, AIA, is a founding partner of Campbell Thomas & Co. Architects, founded in 1976. The firm is noted for historic preservation, energy conscious design, community development, greenways, accessible design and appropriate technology. Bob serves as the First Vice-President of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance. He is also a member of the City of Philadelphia’s Historical Commission, chairs the City of Philadelphia’s Accessibility Advisory Board and is the former Chairman and Board Member of the Schuylkill River Greenway Association.