Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Society Hill

Society Hill is one of Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhoods, with more buildings surviving from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than any other in the country. Usually defined by the boundaries of Walnut, Lombard, Front and Eighth Streets, this area south of Independence National Historic Park evolved over the centuries as a diverse, complex residential and commercial neighborhood. Although deteriorated by the 1950s, it was reborn as a city historic district and attracted international attention for its innovative combination of urban renewal and preservation.

A black and white photograph of a building with a large tower at the front of the rectangular building. There is an overhang covering the sidewalk along the building, and the sidewalk is filled with people and products.

Dock Street Market was a principal food distributor for many local restaurants and businesses dating back to the 1700s. It was among the buildings cleared to make way for Society Hill Towers. (PhillyHistory.org)

Society Hill’s history begins in 1682, when William Penn first set foot in his new colony at the point where Dock Creek poured into the Delaware, near the Blue Anchor Tavern. To spur development, he gave a charter to “The Society of Free Traders” and a strip of land in the same area, which became part of the new city of Philadelphia when Penn’s surveyor sketched the grid centered on High Street (now Market), a few blocks north. The Society flew its flag on the top of a small hill that soon become known as “The Society’s Hill.”

A color painting of a series of row homes along a street. People in dresses and coats are walking along outside the buildings.

Popular in Society Hill and throughout the rest of the city, row houses were typically inexpensive and easier to construct than stand-alone houses. Older row houses became the focal point for urban renewal campaigns in Society Hill during the 1950s. These houses, depicted in an 1830s painting, are grander than the row houses that later in the nineteenth center became a staple of working-class housing. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

All social classes and both enslaved and free blacks moved to the growing neighborhood, with larger houses on the main streets and smaller quarters filling in back streets and alleys soon added to the grid.  By 1776, the neighborhood had a diverse population. The elite built freestanding mansions such as the Physick House and town houses such as the Powel House. Close by were smaller structures for servants and workers, particularly those from the nearby waterfront. Farther inland were the homes of tradesman, craftsmen, and others.

Physick House (1786). Last surviving free-standing Federal-style mansion in Society Hill. Home of Dr. Philip Syng Physick, father of American surgery.

The Physick House, built in 1786, is the last surviving free-standing Federal-style mansion in Society Hill. It was the home of Dr. Philip Syng Physick, father of American surgery. (Photograph by Bonnie Halda)

Some of the city’s first public and community institutions took root here. The growing population prompted construction of a new market, which started with shambles (sheds) on Second Street in 1745 and gained a Head House in 1804. The neighborhood added churches of various denominations such as the Friends Meeting (a Quaker meeting house), St. Peter’s (Anglican), Old St. Joseph’s (Roman Catholic), and Old Pine Street Church (Presbyterian). Richard Allen founded Mother Bethel, home church of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, there. A Quaker and a public almshouse (predecessor to the city’s first public hospital and its large state hospital, Byberry) housed the poor, Pennsylvania Hospital (the first private hospital in the country) tended the sick, and the gaol, or the Walnut Street jail or prison, held prisoners and debtors. The Athenaeum, a member-supported library and museum, opened. Economic activities ranged from the port to taverns, the first insurance company, and the offices of investors, physicians, and attorneys. The diversity of people and interests also led to clashes, most famously a large anti-Catholic riot in 1844, part of a broader conflict between nativists and Catholics in the city.

The Fifth Ward

Once called the Dock Ward, the area came to be defined as the Fifth Ward, a designation that fit it until well after World War II. By 1860, 24,792 lived there. The population declined to just over 7,000 people by 1950, largely due to outmigration to the suburbs. By 2010, the population was just over 6,000 people. 

The population mixture changed as well. As Philadelphia grew, commerce and elite families moved westward, away from Society Hill. Always home to some African Americans, the ward’s southwest corner blended into the large African American community of the old Seventh Ward. This area was the primary subject of W.E.B. Du Bois’s (1868-1963) seminal sociological study of an urban neighborhood, The Philadelphia Negro (1899). He wrote that by the end of the nineteenth century the Fifth Ward was the worst Negro slum in the entire city, comparing it to a “cess-pool.”

During the late nineteenth century, the old Fifth Ward also became an important part of the city’s Jewish Quarter. Synagogues and Jewish newspapers and community institutions filled what is now Society Hill’s southern half, as Jewish immigrants crowded into the neighborhood. Indicative of the ethnic succession in Society Hill, in 1916, a historic Baptist church was renamed the “The Great Roumanian Shul” (as spelled out in Hebrew across the present façade of the Society Hill Synagogue).

The Powel House, located at 244 S. Third Street in Society Hill, was home of the last colonial mayor of Philadelphia and is an example of a townhouse for the elite.

The Powel House, located at 244 S. Third Street in Society Hill, was home of the last colonial mayor of Philadelphia and is an example of a townhouse for the elite. (Photograph by Bonnie Halda)

In 1900, the old Fifth Ward housed an often impoverished population, with all of the health and social problems attendant to that. At the same time, the area remained a mixed-use neighborhood with commercial and industrial establishments such as a wholesale food market located at Dock Street and warehouses and light manufacturing nearby. Several publishers worked out of large buildings fronting Washington Square, and the insurance industry expanded along Chestnut Street. The area near Willings Alley was the home to the headquarters of three of the country’s largest railroads. 

The Great Depression accelerated the old Fifth Ward’s transformation. Redlining limited investment, and colonial and federal houses were outfitted with storefronts and fire escapes and used as shops and rooming houses. A purveyor of hog bristles purchased the Powel House, intending  to convert it into an “outdoor garage.” Preservationists saved the historic structure  from that fate by acquiring it and operating it as a museum. But after World War II, as work disappeared from its factories and port, the old Fifth Ward sank further, with its councilman claiming Dock Street was a virtual skid row. The market was filthy, dilapidated, and congested.

Creating the New “Society Hill” 

Political reform swept over Philadelphia after World War II.  Mayors Joseph Clarke (1901–90) and Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974) led an effort to renew the city beginning with its badly decayed Center City. The city located a new food distribution center elsewhere. Mayor Dilworth built a house in the colonial style on Washington Square and moved his family there,  hoping such actions would encourage others to convert what was viewed as a dirty and dangerous “has been” area of an urban core into a place of renewal. 

Portrait of a young Edmund Bacon

As executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Edmund Bacon supported strategies to bring more middle-class residents into the center of Philadelphia, including Society Hill. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Led by city planner Edmund Bacon (1910-2005), an urban renewal plan gave a major role to restoration of many of the early residences. Bacon’s plan included the demolition of many nonresidential buildings and the creation of “greenways.” The hope was that several high-rise buildings such as Society Hill Towers, new single homes and developments that complemented colonial homes, red brick sidewalks and Franklin lamps, a new market near Head House Square, and a supermarket and shops all would help to draw in families. New organizations such as the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation were created to certify historic houses and acquire property and then resell it to owners who agreed to follow strict preservation guidelines. By adopting a historic preservation urban renewal strategy of saving an entire neighborhood, not only individual homes, Philadelphia built upon the precedents of historic districts created in Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Georgia, and elsewhere.  Locally, leaders such as Charles E. Peterson (1906–2004), employed by the National Park Service during creation of nearby Independence National Historical Park, joined Bacon in spearheading the effort. But Bacon insisted on incorporating greenways and new construction in modernist style, such as the high-rise Society Hill Towers and Hopkinson House, to create a neighborhood distinctly different from a collection of historic buildings.

Joseph Jefferson House, photographed here in 2014, has a garden and garage. A plaque marks the home as the site of his birthplace.

Joseph Jefferson House at Sixth and Spruce Streets, photographed here in 2014, has a garden and garage. A plaque marks the home as Jefferson’s birthplace. (Photograph by George W. Dowdall)

Peterson renamed the old Fifth Ward as “Society Hill” as part of rebranding of the area and an investment strategy. Newspaper stories of urban pioneers who had used their own labor or funds to refurbish historic structures helped change its image. But another reality was also present: Most of the African American renters were displaced from the area; merchants opposed closing their businesses; and one resident later talked about the area before renewal as “a fun little neighborhood.” In Society Hill, as elsewhere in urban America, gentrification also meant dislocation as wealthier individuals and lenders pushed older residents out. Property 

Photo of Joseph Jefferson House prior to its renovation.

The Joseph Jefferson House prior to its renovation in 1969-70. The photograph is undated, but the cars parked nearby suggest it is from the 1960s. (PhillyHistory.org)

values and rents rose. The later story line for Society Hill, however, became one of private initiative more than government effort remaking a city neighborhood. After all, banks, contractors, and corporations like Alcoa Aluminum had provided much of the capital for Society Hill’s renewal.

Plans to create a Crosstown Expressway would have leveled the South Street neighborhood, while off-ramps for Interstate 95 would have taken a corner of Society Hill. Older residents opposed to renewal and newer residents supportive of it combined their organizations into the Society Hill Civic Association in 1965, joining others in successfully opposing the expressway and ramps. Society Hill was nominated as an official city historic district in 1999, helping guard its historical character by vigilant review of zoning and historic preservation standards.

A black and white aerial image of the Society Hill area of Philadelphia. The image shows three large residential towers in the center, with row houses to the around the edges of the image, with a part of the Delaware river towards the top of the image.

The Society Hill Towers —the 30-story trio near center— brought hundreds of new residents into the city of Philadelphia while displacing the people who lived and worked in the buildings that were demolished to provide space for the new construction. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

The area went from being well below the poverty line to one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. By 2014 its population included a higher proportion of senior citizens, foreign born, and households without children than before renewal. Recent changes have included more tall buildings such as Independence Place and a wave of conversions of nonresidential buildings into condos, such as the former headquarters of the Reading Railroad transformed into a luxury condo building (The Willings). A 45-story tower (The Saint James) arose behind the façade of a nineteenthcentury bank. But high-rise projects have not succeeded everywhere. For example, efforts to construct a tower behind the Dilworth House have so far been stopped in the courts.

Over more than three centuries, Society Hill evolved from a mixed-use neighborhood of a colonial town, to a big city ward that contained skid row and slum, and now to a gentrified “gold coast.” Its recent history includes a largely successful effort to return it to a former glory as an urbane village of historic homes (and, now, luxury high-rises), but one largely stripped of the industrial, commercial, and civic institutions and the visible racial and ethnic minorities that once filled its streets.

 George W. Dowdall is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Saint Joseph’s University and Adjunct Fellow, Center for Public Health Initiatives, University of Pennsylvania.


Copyright 2015, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Boonin, Harry T.  The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: JWT of Philadelphia, 1999.

Brown-Saracino, Japonica (ed.). The Gentrification Debates. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Double, Bill. Philadelphia’s Washington Square. Charleston S.C.: Arcadia, 2009.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. New York: Schocken, reprint ed., 1967.

Gallery, John Andrew. The Planning of Center City Philadelphia: From William Penn to the Present. Philadelphia: Center for Architecture, 2007.

Heller, Gregory L. Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Hunter, Marcus Anthony. Black Citymakers: How the Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Philadelphia 2035: Central District Plan. Philadelphia: Philadelphia City Planning Commission, 2013.  

Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Society Hill (and Pennsylvania Hospital of Washington Square West) Historic District: A Guide for Property Owners. Philadelphia: Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, n.d.

Schweitzer, Mary M. “The Social Organization of Federalist Philadelphia, 1790.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24: 1, Summer 1993, 31-57.

Skaler, Robert Morris. Society Hill and Old City. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

Society Hill Civic Association. Preservation Committee. Guide to Historic Society Hill, Philadelphia, Pa. Radnor, Pa.: Chilton Company, 1994.

Spina, Laura M. and Elizabeth Harvey. “Society Hill (and Pennsylvania Hospital of Washington Square West) Historic District.” Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, March 10, 1999. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Historical Commission. 

Collections

Independence National Historical Park Library and Archives, 143 South Third Street, Philadelphia. 

Edmund Norwood Bacon Papers, Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, 102 Meyerson Hall, Philadelphia.

Charles E. Peterson Papers, University of Maryland, Hornbake Library, College Park, Md.

Society Hill Civic Association Papers, Special Collections Research Center of Temple University Libraries, Samuel L. Paley Library,  1210 Polett Walk, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Bacon-Peterson Historical Marker, Spruce Street at St. Joseph’s Way, Philadelphia.

Mother Bethel AME Church, 419 S. Sixth Street, Philadelphia.

Old Pine Street Church, 412 Pine Street, Philadelphia. 

Old Saint Joseph’s Church, 321 Willings Alley, Philadelphia. 

Pennsylvania Hospital, 800 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. 

“Phoenix Rising” sculpture by Emlen Etting, a memorial to Mayor Richardson Dilworth, Dock Street east of Society Hill Towers, Philadelphia.

Physick House, 321 S. Fourth Street, Philadelphia.

Powel House, 244 S. Third Street, Philadelphia.

Powel House Room, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Twenty-Sixth and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. 

Saint Peter’s Church, 313 Pine Street, Philadelphia. 

5 Comments Comments

  1. Excellent synopsis. We are very proud of our board member, George Dowdall’s contribution to the education of interested citizens wishing to know more about our neighborhood. —Matt DeJulio, Administrator, Society Hill Civic Association

    MATT DEJULIO Posted March 2, 2015 at 8:25 am
  2. Thank you George for this interesting summary of this wonderful neighborhood….and neighborhood it is indeed. I raised my three children here, and we enjoyed the benefits of living in a small town….friendliness, community concern and stewardship of our historic treasure.

    As zoning chair on the civic association for several years during the project to certify Society Hill as a Philadelphia historic district, we commissioned photographic and text descriptions of each property in Society Hill. This should be an interesting collection to review and it is likely housed at the Historic Commission.

    Joyce Cole Posted March 3, 2015 at 7:33 pm
  3. This well researched and informative summary of our beloved Society Hill will serve not only our own residents but anyone who wishes to know the very interesting recent history of the neighborhood. Many have no idea that it was once a slum. Thank you George for all of your extensive work on this. Bonnie–thank you for your beautiful photos.

    Martha Levine

    Martha Levine Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:32 am
  4. What a great introduction to one of Philadelphia’s most attractive neighborhoods! A MUST READ for current, past, and future residents. It will make you feel good to know who has created, transformed, and preserved so many delightful aspects of this community.

    Hans Bombeck Posted March 9, 2015 at 3:49 am
  5. A well researched and well written essay, George, thank you. I hope it encourages someone to also tell the stories of all the African Americans and immigrants who were displaced in the ’60s to create the success story that is Society Hill.

    Bob Skiba Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:42 pm

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