The Story of Our Row House

Today, after I got dismissed from jury duty, I thought I’d stop by the historical commission office in City Hall to get a definitive answer on exactly how old my house is. In Philadelphia, when your house becomes certified historic, your home gets its own folder that holds all the information the city can find about your house. Sometimes there isn’t much. Sometimes you can learn about your house because your neighbor’s house has more paperwork. This afternoon it was a little from column A and a little from column B.

I met a neighbor, who is very involved with the neighborhood’s historic homes, at the last open house tour. She was kind enough to email me really detailed instructions for finding the right department within city government that holds all the information on older homes. It was really easy to walk into City Hall and ask to visit the historical commission office. I showed the friendly security guard my license and put “how old is my house” under the reason for my visit on the registration ledger.

From there I went to the fifth floor of City Hall where they had a lovely diagram of the floor with the room numbers but no names. So I had no choice but to choose one way and start walking. Along the way I marveled at the beautiful tile and wood work in City Hall. For those who don’t know, Philadelphia’s City Hall is really a marvel of a Second Empire style building that took 30 years to make! There are worse places to have to wander around looking for an office. Below are a few photos:

Tile work at the Philadelphia City Hall.
Tile work at the Philadelphia City Hall.
A window seating area at the Philadelphia City Hall.
A window seating area at the Philadelphia City Hall.
Octagon stairs at City Hall.
Octagon stairs at City Hall.
Etched glass windows at City Hall.
Etched glass windows at City Hall.
An outdoor passageway in City Hall.
An outdoor passageway in City Hall.

Eventually I found the office and the lovely person there was able to find the folder on our, as well as our neighbor’s house, within five minutes. Below is what I discovered.

In July 1831, Samuel Turner, a doctor of divinity, who resided in Manhattan, New York, owned the plot of land where our house now stands. At that time there wasn’t any buildings there. On the one hand, I’m bummed out. On the other, I bet our house is happy to be back in the hands of New Yorkers. Anyway, at the time, Turner rented the land to a Joseph Rogers, who was a “merchant taylor” for $56.00 a year. A merchant taylor is someone who sells or trades textiles. Considering 4th Street is “Fabric Row” it’s not an unlikely association.

By May 1832 Turner was no longer renting out the property and instead had built four homes, one of which was ours. Originally, our house was a two-and-a-half story, Federal house, with a kitchen in the basement, two floors, and an attic with a dormer window. Each floor had one room, roughly 10 by 10 feet. The main window had paneled shutters, the two second-floor window had louvered shutters.

Soon after, it seems that Turner transferred the properties to Rogers. Sometime afterwards, Rogers died, leaving his widow unable to pay her debts. She applied for a petition to divide the property and sell the four houses as separate homes in 1835. Approval was granted and she sold all four homes to Joseph and Jedediah Ewan. The Ewans purchased our house for $725.00 (Ha! I wish we purchased our home for even $72,500!)

In 1839 Jedediah gave up his shares in our, and our neighbor’s, house to his brother Joseph, who was a dry goods merchant. At the time, our street was called Harmony Street and even today it is a very harmonious place to live!

By now, I’m learning that our poor little house had been passed around like a hot potato and since we are approaching six years, I feel like we’re entering the long-term owner category. I hypothesize that since it originally was a very, very small house, less than 500 square feet, it was likely due to people having more kids than they could fit in the house. In any case, sometime between 1840 and 1842, Joseph Ewan sold our house to James Faye.

The next bit of information I have is from 1877, when the house was repossessed by the sheriff’s office. Then nothing more for a while. In the 1960’s, the City went around and took pictures of almost every property in the city.

Our house is the third in the row, with a bench in front. Photo is from the Philadelphia archives, taken in 1963.
Our house is the third in the row, with a bench in front. Photo is from the Philadelphia archives, taken in 1963 – http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/Search.aspx.

In June 1974 (I was a month old) my house became deemed worthy by the City of Philadelphia for preservation. Yay!

Sometime before 1978 someone added an extension to the main floor because that year, owner Roger Tuttle applied for a permit to totally renovate the house and add an additional extension to the upper floors, the extension to the first already existing. During this time, the HVAC system was installed. The  estimated cost of the renovation was listed as $9,500. This renovation didn’t include new windows because a former tenant stopped by a few years ago and said the original windows, along with the original main waste pipe, had been replaced in the early 1990s.

The last owner purchased the house in 1997. We bought the house from her, almost six years ago to this day, in 2007.

And that’s it, so far. I’d like to fill in the gaps between 1877 and 1977 and look forward to learning even more.

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