Wednesday, June 25, 2014

American Heritage Trail: Spruce Street

Philadelphia is home to some of the nation's most continuous avenues of architectural heritage. Elfreth's Alley comes to mind, of course, but it's but one block in a long line extending all the way to 69th Street that provides us with examples of America's architectural history.

Philadelphia isn't the only bicentennially aged city in the country. Boston shares a similar collection of history along its curved streets that grew atop the Charles River and Boston Harbor. But William Penn's original plan for Philadelphia provides us with a linear catalog of architecture along each of its central corridors, from America's beginnings to the decades following the Great Depression. A vast amount of it remains in tact, particularly along Spruce Street.

What makes it so unique is as the city grew westward, its architecture evolved.

Developers, Edmund Macon in particular, chose to salvage what Colonial architecture could be restored throughout Society Hill. Although modern townhouses dot the street scape, nearly each block between Front Street and the Washington Square neighborhood retains examples of architecture from the era of our nation's birth. 

Westward, the buildings grow taller but with the same sensibility of its time. As you cross Broad Street and approach Rittenhouse you begin to see the city, and thusly the nation, transform. Brownstone begins to replace Colonial brick and you experience the experimental architecture afforded by the years predating the Civil War.

None of Spruce Street's blocks are more astounding than those that carry on past the Schuylkill River, where the Girards and the Drexels built towering feats of engineering, an homage to wealth of the Gilded Age.

Around 48th Street you begin to see the nation's decline. Apartment houses abound, a return to modest living following the Great Depression, but still adorned with carvings and design elements signaling the nation's reluctance to abandon the opulence of former decades. 

From the Man Full of Trouble Tavern at 2nd Street to Spruce Hill, our city's premier avenue of architectural heritage is a lesson in design any historian could only dream of. And it's right here in Philadelphia.

Block by block, one could spend a day watching the nation unfold, evolving, displaying its wealth and then crashing, only to recover and rebound. 

Almost entirely uninterrupted, you can feel the presence of each generation as the blocks climb higher. A definitive Architectural Heritage Trail, Spruce Street shows us how America transformed through its built world. 

It's nice outside. Go discover our country on Spruce Street.

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