A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
The corner of North 8th Street and Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, after rehabilitation, 1961. City of Philadelphia

The corner of North 8th Street and Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, after rehabilitation, 1961.
City of Philadelphia

In Philadelphia’s East Poplar neighborhood, at North 8th and North Franklin streets between Brown Street and Fairmount Avenue, sits a rather unassuming block of 19th-century townhouses. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in October 2015, the Friends Housing Cooperative is in fact a truly unique example of historic preservation as a model for urban rehabilitation. The co-op was a leader in the development of self-help living in the United States and a pioneer in the fight against institutionalized segregation in public housing.

Built in the 1850s the three-story, brick townhouses were high-end for their day. Selling for roughly $6,000 each, they included such features as gaslights, second-story bathrooms, hot-air furnaces and luxurious finishes. By the turn of the century, many of the original occupants had passed on, and the houses were soon purchased by absentee owners and turned into income-generating tenements. By the 1940s the structures had largely become what one account described as “hovelish catacombs.”

In 1949 the Friends Neighborhood Guild (FNG), a Quaker-run housing center that had long focused on helping immigrants adapt to urban life through recreation, health services and skilled training, partnered with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) on a neighborhood redevelopment project at the dilapidated East Poplar townhouses. The project aimed to create and strengthen a racially integrated community, reflecting changing neighborhood demographics; offer lower-income residents an opportunity to invest using sweat equity; and provide democratic management under a mutual housing cooperative model.

Creating a strong, racially integrated community was a long-held goal of AFSC. In the early 20th century, during the Great Migration of African Americans northward in search of better opportunities in the industrial cities, Philadelphia’s black population began to increase rapidly. The newly arrived African Americans, however, found themselves in competition for housing as they met with a long-established system of racial segregation. This forced many blacks to concentrate in overcrowded and dilapidated neighborhoods as their only option. By 1925 AFSC created the Interracial Section within their organization and continued to support civil rights activists in efforts to bring about quality public housing for low-income families.

Entrances to North 8th Street houses. Past Forward Architecture/Photo by Leila Hamroun

Entrances to North 8th Street houses.
Past Forward Architecture/Photo by Leila Hamroun

Initially, it was difficult to secure funding for the Friends Housing Cooperative. The combination of sweat equity, interracial occupants, lower-income neighborhood location and co-op style ownership was seen as a negative selling point. The partnering organizations were written off as “naïve” and “not business minded.” Eventually, however, AFSC and FNG were able to convince funders to support the project, and soon loans were secured from the Federal Housing Authority and the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society.

Prominent Philadelphia modernist architect Oscar Stonorov (1905–70) was selected to design the rehabilitation project. Stonorov was an advocate for affordable and quality public housing. He recognized that public housing in Philadelphia, and around the nation, had become austere and sparse, focusing only on the bare essentials of shelter and light. This, he said, was “a form of habitat in which we [architects] would hesitate in most instances to move ourselves.” For the Friends Housing Cooperative, Stonorov was able to preserve and revitalize a portion of a dilapidated Philadelphia neighborhood through adaptive reuse and rehabilitation.

In 1952 the combined vision of FNG, AFSC and Stonorov was realized in the creation of multifamily dwellings in a landscaped setting, with common amenities, shared gardens, and child-centered recreation areas, all at a human scale that blended what Stonorov called the “romanticism of decay” with modern standards of decency.

The Friends Housing Cooperative still thrives as a model of rehabilitation for revitalization in Philadelphia’s inner-city neighborhoods and a groundbreaking application of self-help cooperative living as a path to ownership for residents in urban public housing.

 

Recent listings in the National Register of Historic Places include Hotel Lykens, Lykens Borough, Dauphin County; Israel Building, Lykens Borough, Dauphin County; Tacony-Disston Community Development Historic District, Philadelphia; and Carver Court, Cain Township, Chester County.

 

Dave Maher is a historic preservation specialist who coordinates the National Register Program for the central part of the state at PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.