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. (

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. (

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. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Row Houses in Society Hill (1839)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

When Society Hill became the focal point for an urban renewal campaign in the late 1950s, many of the houses covering the area were older brick row houses, Philadelphia's preferred housing style since the late 1600s.

This painting from 1839 shows the east side of Fourth Street (near Spruce Street) packed with seventeen brick row houses of a size that suggests they belonged to well-off owners. Smaller row houses for factory employees and other working-class occupants grew along with industry later in the nineteenth century. In 2015, about half a dozen of the houses in this block remained, gentrified and occupied, while modern buildings fill the rest of the block on Fourth Street.

Constructing a series of row houses was cheaper than building separate housing, since contractors could work on multiple houses at once and shared walls minimized the materials required. The population increase in Society Hill during the nineteenth century increased the demand for housing, but population declines in the early twentieth century left many row houses empty and dilapidated.

Dock Street Market

The area of the Dock Street Market in Society Hill was a place of commerce for more than two centuries before it was demolished in 1959 to allow construction of the residential Society Hill Towers. Business owners constructed warehouses along Dock Creek in the late 1600s so ships could unload food, materials, and other products efficiently. The city filled in Dock Creek in 1784 and paved the new land with stones, creating Dock Street. The blocks surrounding Dock Street continued to be popular in the nineteenth century, as hundreds of merchants established distribution warehouses and sidewalk storefronts to sell a variety of food to other Philadelphia businesses and individuals. This image from 1914 shows the Fish Market building, an enclosed warehouse that sold fresh fish from dozens of merchants. The Dock Street market diminished in size after World War II as competition from other markets and changes in distribution forced some merchants to move elsewhere. After the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation purchased the property around Dock Street in 1959, many of the remaining merchants moved to the Food Distribution Center in South Philadelphia.

Society Hill Towers

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

As part of the renewal project for Society Hill that began in 1957, three 30-story residential buildings, the Society Hill Towers, were the tallest of the construction projects and provided 720 apartments designed to attract middle-class residents. Architect I.M. Pei designed the towers to incorporate floor-to-ceiling windows along the exterior wall of each apartment, giving occupants expansive views of Philadelphia or the Delaware River. The apartments had modern amenities and views unavailable to people who purchased a historic row house in Society Hill. As part of the construction process, thirty-one acres of houses and commercial buildings were razed to provide enough space for the redevelopment project, forcing hundreds of individuals and merchants to relocate. Society Hill Towers claimed five acres of that area; the rest of the space, seen in this 1965 aerial image, was filled with other commercial buildings and landscaped parks by 1977.

Physick House (1786)

The last surviving free-standing Federal-style mansion in Society Hill, the Physick House was the home of Dr. Philip Syng Physick, father of American surgery. The Physick House is located on property that held a public almshouse in the eighteenth century. Located at 321 S. Fourth Street, it is open to the public for tours. (Photograph by Bonnie Halda)

Pennsylvania Hospital (1755)

Located on the western edge of Society Hill, Pennsylvania Hospital, founded by Dr. Thomas Bond and Benjamin Franklin, was the first hospital in the country. The hospital also offered the first institutional care for the mentally ill in two basement cells. In the background of this photograph 2014 are contemporary buildings of the hospital, now operated by the University of Pennsylvania Health System as an acute-care facility. Self-guided tours of the historic building are available to the public. (Photograph by Bonnie Halda)

Powel House (1765)

The Powel House was home of Samuel Powel, the last colonial mayor of Philadelphia and the first mayor after independence, and is an example of a townhouse for the elite. By the early twentieth century it was owned by a purveyor of hog bristles who wanted to convert it into an "outdoor garage" but ran up against early preservationists who successfully intervened. The Powel House is available for public tours, and several of the interiors and furnishings of its rooms are on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The house is at 244 S. Third Street in Society Hill. (Photograph by Bonnie Halda)

Original Joseph Jefferson House

This is the house on Spruce at Sixth Street where actor and comedian Joseph Jefferson was born in 1829, a house that, like the community, changed substantially over the years. In 1860, the population would have been very dense, as Society Hill had reached nearly 25,000 residents, compared to about 6,000 today. By the time of the Great Depression, the area had declined, and colonial and federal houses were outfitted with storefronts and fire escapes and used as shops and rooming houses. In the “after” photo that follows this one in the gallery, showing a renovation completed in 1969-70, the storefront and fire escape are gone, a garage and garden have been added, and the house blends nicely with its neighboring structures.

Restored Society Hill House

Renovated by architect Edwin Brumbaugh in 1969-70, the Joseph Jefferson House at Sixth and Spruce Streets, shown here in 2014, was modified to include a garden and garage. A plaque marks the home as the birthplace of Jefferson (1829-1905), who in his lifetime was a well-known comedian and actor. Late in his career he was especially known for his performances depicting Rip Van Winkle. (Photograph by George W. Dowdall)

Edmund Bacon

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Pictured here years before his appointment as executive director of Philadelphia Housing Association, Edmund Bacon is sometimes referred to as “the father of modern Philadelphia.” Born in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1910, he studied architecture at Cornell University and introduced a plan for a new civic center for Philadelphia as part of his senior thesis. He was awarded a scholarship and continued his study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, later finding work in Flint, Michigan, before returning to Philadelphia and heading the housing association.

Bacon joined the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and became its executive director in 1949. Earning a national reputation during the mid-century era of urban renewal, he was featured in Time and Life magazines and was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the White House's Conference on Recreation and Natural Beauty.

New Society Hill Construction

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Restrictions created by the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation prevented new homeowners in Society Hill from drastically altering their historic homes, but regulations for new construction were more lenient. New buildings could reflect modern architectural styles and the owner's tastes, as long as the designs were approved by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. This house on the corner of Second and Lombard Streets used building materials typically used in adjacent row houses, such as brick and concrete, but applied a modernist design to give the building its distinctive look. This image from 1973 shows the house while the interior was still under construction. This building became a commercial property in the 1980s and later a pharmacy for Society Hill residents.

The NewMarket

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

As part of the redevelopment of Society Hill in the 1970s, the NewMarket was an attempt by real estate developers to create a modern shopping center within walking distance of local residents. Opened in 1973, NewMarket was constructed in the middle of the block bounded by Front, Lombard, Pine, and Second Streets, which left some row houses around the block standing, like the one in the background of this 1978 image of the shopping center. NewMarket had entrances on Front and Second Streets, leading to a large courtyard, a central fountain, and the entrances to many of the shops. Neighborhood shoppers were not drawn to the modern building design and its variety of restaurants and specialty shops. Low sales forced dozens of businesses to leave the building over the years and the NewMarket formally closed in 1987. The building was used sparingly in the 1990s as new owners attempted to find a market, but the building remained largely unoccupied and the whole complex was demolished in 2002. The land finally came under redevelopment after the Toll Brothers purchased the land in 2013 to construct condominiums.

Head House Farmers Market

As redevelopment of Society Hill took hold in the latter half of the twentieth century and the neighborhood's population grew, so too did services for the community. The turn-of-the-century interest in locally grown food eventually brought a weekly farmers market to the Head House pavilion on Second Street. This scene from August 2012 shows the robust Sunday market, sponsored by the Food Trust and held during fair-weather months since 2007. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Community Festivals

Today, summer in Society Hill brings a heavy festival schedule, with events such as this clean air fair that spread along Second Street near the Head House pavilion in September 2014. Rising in the background are the three high-rises that make up Society Hill Towers, one of the area's most visible landmarks. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Society Hill Map

Residents of and visitors to Society Hill are never more than a few steps away from history. This map shows historical sites and other landmarks mentioned in the essay.

Related Topics


Time Periods



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.

Related Collections

Related Places



Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy