03 April 2016

Saturday Spotlight- 19th Century Folk Victorian (Turned Colonial Revival) in Roxborough

This week's Saturday Spotlight house is one with a storied past, a Folk Victorian in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia. It dates back to the latter half of the 19th century and was renovated and expanded in 1935-36 as a Colonial Revival.

Image courtesy of The Sivel Group
Architectural styles can be tricky sometimes. They change over times, of course, and sometimes a homeowner will want to update or expand a home significantly, incorporating details and stylistic trends of the day. The physical evolution of a home may fool one into thinking that the currently presented architectural style was always so. Fortunately here, the current owner of this home has a few historical photos which their listing agent was kind enough to pass along.

Image of the rear of the house, prior to 1935 addition. Courtesy of homeowner.
The house as shown in this older photo is clearly a folk, vernacular form, presenting as a two-story I-house with a side gable on one side and rear and front-facing gables at the other end. Tales of this house have its origins as far back as the 1850's. The intricate turned porch posts and the brackets at the roof eaves, however, suggest a few decades later to me. While a Victorian-style porch was a very common addition to existing earlier Folk homes of this time period and could have come after the original construction, I'd still wager that this house was constructed closer to the 1870's due to the eave detail. The simple frieze trim over the windows also was more likely to have occurred a bit later than the 1850's. This historical photo gives us a fantastic demonstration of how shutters were actually functional back in the day. Second floor window shutters were louvered, allowing a breeze to enter on a warm day, while first floor shutters were often comprised of solid raised panels to increase privacy. This arrangement was thoughtfully extended and maintained in future additions.

The facade shown in the historic image above is the current rear of the house. Take a look at it compared to a present-day image of the rear facade (below) and notice the asymmetrical window pattern largely intact, albeit with a door replacing one of the first floor windows, another door added, and the cross gable removed as part of an extensive 1930's renovation. Today we see much more of a Revival style, with the original house down to side gables on both ends, now accompanied by lower-height additions continuing the side gable form. Dormers are added on both the front and back at roof level to continue the rhythm of the facade's fenestration pattern. The white German siding set off with dark-painted shutters gives the house a classic farmhouse look.

Current rear of the house. Image courtesy of The Sivel Group


The home currently sits on land at what is modern-day Andorra, in Upper Roxborough. However, this was not its original location; more on that in a moment. At the edge of northwestern Philadelphia, this area was largely undeveloped through most of the 19th century, with groupings of houses along Ridge Pike surrounded by larger ownership tracts. As of 1875, this immediate area was still referred to as “Manatawna”, a name which persists today in the form of Manatawna Ave. The exact land on which the house exists today is marked by the ownership of a Mr. Sebold in that same year. A structure is shown on the 1875 map further northeast of the home which is the subject of this piece, existing close to the corner of Spring Lane and Ridge Pike. According to the current owner, the original frame structure of our feature house may have been sitting further to the south along the banks of the Schuylkill River at this time, to be relocated to its present site later on.

Aerial image from 1930. The house, pre-addition on its new (and present) site, is marked with the red arrow to the west of Ridge Pike, the main north-south thoroughfare.
In the last decades of the 19th century, local railroad executive and philanthropist Henry Howard Houston began acquiring many of the large tracts of land in Upper Roxborough. Houston had already burgeoned the adjacent neighborhood of Chestnut Hill as an upper class haven, having amassed a wealth of land and establishing his own mansion residence there (Druim Moir). By the time of his death in 1895, Houston’s holdings in Roxborough had yet to be developed to a significant extent. That would change, however, with the efforts of his son Samuel Frederic Houston, who took over the Estate’s real estate holdings. The younger Houston set out to replicate the section as an elite residential area similar to Chestnut Hill, with grand ambition to construct a cross-country parkway from Chestnut Hill, with a large bridge over the Wissahickon Gorge and through Roxborough, connecting to the Main Line to the west. Those plans never materialized, nor did S.F. Houston’s hopes for a massive Cathedral in Andorra a few blocks away from our subject folk house.

Samuel F. Houston, circa 1900. Image courtesy of UPenn Archives
Instead, smaller-scaled plans did materialize in the core of the neighborhood. This occurred largely through Houston’s commissioning of professional architects, such as Robert Rodes McGoodwin, to design elegant residential houses, including what is now the Renfrew Center further down Spring Lane. This, too, is where the tale of the white folk house picks up. According to the owner, the original house was relocated from its location along the Schuylkill River to a new foundation on its present site on Spring Lane. The house, missing from a 1910 property atlas, may have been moved to this site shortly thereafter. It appears with its smaller, original footprint in a 1930 aerial photograph (seen above). A large-scale renovation and addition was then executed by R.R. McGoodwin, commissioned by Samuel F. Houston’s wife. The Houstons never lived at this home, but merely commissioned its expansion. Fortunately, building plans have survived for this work and are in the care of current ownership. The addition and alterations nearly doubled the footprint of the house, to its current 4,930 sf, and altered the exterior style to its present appearance.

Left: The title block portion of a drawing sheet for the addition of the house, courtesy of the owner. Right: Robert Rodes McGoodwin, architect of the modified end result. Image via UPenn Archives.

1950s to Present

This house continued its expanded existence into the next few decades and eventually came under the ownership of George S. Greene, a financial investment banker. Greene performed some alterations of his own, hiring contractor William Milton in 1959 to remove an existing porch (in the location of, and perhaps the same porch shown at the left side of the historical image) and to add a small one-story cinder block addition. This addition is manifested as the infilled-corner portion at the far right of the house when viewed from the street.

Building permit drawing for small addition, 1959.
Ownership changes continued through the latter half of the 20th century, with a Harry & Susan West selling the house to Frank & Elizabeth Blair in 1973. Mr. Blair was a medical physician. The Blairs owned the home until 1991, at which time they conveyed the property to Paul Tucker and Mary Rugala who held it for the next twenty years. 

The current owners have owned the home since 2011 and have performed a number of tasteful modern improvements, including upgrades to multiple bathrooms and a master bath. Yet, at the same time, the historic character of the house itself has been maintained, and it awaits a new owner to carry on the legacy.

Interior images courtesy of The Sivel Group

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