The western portion of the Rittenhouse Fitler Historic District is one of the most varied residential areas in the city, with housing types from grand mansions of some of Philadelphia’s wealthiest 19th–century entrepreneurs to tiny “trinities,” the vernacular houses thrown up by the hundreds to house the humbler classes.
The oldest houses in this district are survivors of the working-class neighborhood that grew westward from the Schuylkill River beginning in the 1820s. Notorious for its shallow rapids, the Schuylkill only became navigable for commerce with the completion of the Schuylkill Navigation System in 1825. The riverbank on the western edge of Philadelphia was soon lined with wharves and yards where coal and other commodities were unloaded and stored. These sites drew mostly unskilled workers and their families, who settled close to their places of work. The main streets and narrow alleys cut through larger blocks were lined with small brick houses rented to the mostly poor, mostly Irish immigrants who made up the majority of the population. Once known as “Ramcat,” the neighborhood remained for decades an Irish enclave whose men did backbreaking labor and whose women served as maids and housekeepers in the fashionable households further east.
From the oldest part of the city east of Broad Street, residential development crept westward beginning in the 1840s and intensified dramatically after the Civil War. During this boom period, developers undertook large-scale speculative projects in which rows of identical houses were offered for sale to the growing middle and managerial classes. Some of these projects, like the 2300 block of Delancey Place and the 2200 block of St. James Street, were exceptional in the quality of their design. In the later-19th and early-20th centuries, some grand houses were custom designed for wealthy clients by the most prestigious architects in the city.
Eventually, the working-class neighborhood to the west and the upper-class neighborhood to the east met and merged. The stylish mansions on the main thoroughfares backed up to tiny houses on what local residents call the “little streets.” As the Schuylkill waterfront gradually lost its industrial role in the first half of the 20th century, Ramcat became an early focus of rehabilitation. But even as apartment buildings began to replace mansions further to the east, the western portion of the district remained relatively unaffected. To this day, many of the blocks look more or less as they did at the turn of the 20th century. The physical fabric of the neighborhood, various in origin, style and scale, continues to provide the setting for a thriving 21st-century community. Along with the blocks surrounding Rittenhouse Square to the east, the neighborhood was designated by the Philadelphia Historical Commission as the Rittenhouse Fitler Historic District in 1995.
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