GIRARD ESTATE HISTORIC DISTRICT
In 1797, wealthy merchant, financier and philanthropist Stephen Girard (1750–1831) purchased 500 acres of land in a section of South Philadelphia then known as Passyunk Township. With the property came a modest farmhouse, which Girard modified in 1800 and again in 1825 to create Gentilhommiere, a country retreat and working farm where he could pursue his interest in scientific agriculture.
By the time of his death, Girard was considered the wealthiest man in America. He left his estate, mainly real estate holdings valued at $6 million, to the City of Philadelphia with the stipulation that none of it could be sold and that the income be used to support Girard College, a school for orphan boys.
In accordance with their mandate to produce income for the school, the Trustees of the Girard Estate in 1906 hired architect James H. Windrim who, with his son, John Torrey Windrim, created a neighborhood of “ideal city homes,” which departed in many respects from the typical pattern of development in South Philadelphia.
Intended for rent to middle-class tenants, the semi-detached twin houses all offered porches, front and back yards, modern kitchens and bathrooms, ample windows for fresh air and sunlight and heat, hot water and electricity all provided by the Estate from a central plant on Oregon Avenue. The houses were designed in a variety of architectural styles including Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Prairie, Arts and Crafts and Spanish Colonial/Mission.
The Girard Estate project was an immediate success, with houses renting quickly to lawyers, bankers, managers and naval officers, among others. In 1913, a school and branch library (funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie) were completed. The Trustees originally planned an even larger development of some 1,500 homes, a self-contained neighborhood to be entered through a ceremonial gateway at 21st Street and Passyunk Avenue. For reasons that are not recorded, however, construction came to a halt in 1916 with 481 houses.
The Trustees continued to rent the homes until the early 1950s when, following a tenants’ revolt over rising rents, they successfully appealed to Orphans Court for permission to sell the properties. So popular were the houses that they were all sold within two years, earning over $5 million for the Trust.
Girard Estate today survives as a rare planned community in Philadelphia,
a community of homes that retains the character of a “village within the
city proper.” Girard Estate was designated as a historic district on the
Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1999.
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