Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Road Trip - Philadelphia's Elfreth's Alley

Elfreth's Alley dates back to the first decades of the 18th century.

Twenty years after William Penn founded Pennsylvania & established Philadelphia as its capital, the town had grown into a thriving, prosperous mercantile center on the banks of the Delaware River.

Philadelphians had abandoned Penn’s plan for a "greene countrie towne" creating a cityscape similar to what they remembered in England.

Wharves stretched out into the river, welcoming ships from around the world.

Shops, taverns, & homes crowded the area along the river.

On Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphians made & sold items essential to life in the New World.

Two of these colonial craftsmen, blacksmiths John Gilbert & Arthur Wells, owned the land where Elfreth’s Alley now sits.

In 1702, each man gave up a portion of his land to create an alleyway along their property line that connected their smithies near the river with Second Street, one block away.

During the 18th & early 19th centuries, numerous artisans & craftsmen resided on Elfreth’s Alley, often living & working in the same building.

Among the alley's residents were tradesmen & their families, including shipwrights, silver & pewter smiths, glassblowers, & furniture makers.

In the 1770s, one-third of the households were headed by women. In the 1790s, Sarah Milton, a mantua maker living there, died of yellow fever.

The Georgian & Federal-style houses & cobblestone pavement of the alley were common in Philadelphia during this time.

From an early date, Elfreth’s Alley had a diverse population.

English colonists, who worshipped at nearby Christ Church, lived next door to Moses Mordecai, a Jewish merchant who was a leader of Mikveh Israel Synagogue.

Cophie Douglass, a former slave, began his life as a free man in post-revolutionary Philadelphia while living on Elfreth’s Alley.

During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the Alley became a neighborhood of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, & other parts of Europe who sought new opportunities in America.

By the early 20th century, the Alley had become a run-down, impoverished area facing numerous demolition threats.

In 1934, a group of men & women organized to save several colonial houses from demolition by absentee landlords.

The rescuers called themselves the Elfreth's Alley Association.

Since 1702, Elfreth's Alley has been home to more than 3,000 people.

Today 32 houses, built between 1728 & 1836, line the alley.

They form one of the last intact early American streetscapes of everyday homes in the nation.

Elfreth's Alley is a National Historic Landmark District, one of the first districts that celebrates the lives of everyday Americans.

The alley is an endearing tourist attraction & a rare surviving example of 18th-century working-class housing stock.

The site stands in sharp contrast to the more frequently preserved grand mansion houses of Philadelphia's Society Hill neighborhood.

This history, plus great photos of each & every house including its individual provenance, may be seen at the website of the Elfreth's Alley Association.