One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in this region's communities.
It's a leafy oasis, a neighborhood many people long to move to but whose residents never want to leave: Girard Estate, specifically the L-shaped historic district roughly bordered by Shunk, Porter, South 17th, and South 22d Streets.
The district, created in 1999, contains 442 houses built at the turn of the 20th century in several architectural styles popular at the time - Prairie, Tudor, Colonial Revival, and Mission, among them.
The vast majority, however, are brick, schist, or stucco semidetached houses with porches, yards, and large rooms that set them apart from most of their rowhouse neighbors in South Philadelphia.
"There are large singles along the 2100 block of Shunk Street, and they tend to be the most expensive, with sale prices typically running from $320,000 to $375,000," says veteran Realtor William Festa. "They are the only singles in the neighborhood."
The rest of the homes - those in the historic district and the two-story brick rowhouses built between 1910 and 1930 - "start in the low $200,000s, depending on the condition," Festa says.
Few of those 442 houses ever come on the market.
Prudential Fox & Roach agent Connie Turco, a longtime resident, says 10 homes are on the market now, from $209,000 to $489,000.
"Only four . . . houses settled between Nov. 12 and June 28," Turco says.
Girard Estate is much larger than the historic district, but those houses set the tone of this place, direct descendant of the Passyunk Township farm of Stephen Girard, with a pear orchard second to none and home to America's first artichokes.
Though Girard lived in town, he went to the farm from the day he acquired it in 1797 to his death in 1831, leaving it and the rest of his estate in trust to the City of Philadelphia.
His recently restored home in what is now Girard Park is the center of neighborhood activities, says Turco, a place where residents gather each month for meetings and that children fill for the annual Halloween party and a chance to meet Santa before Christmas.
Resident Lois Janke - with husband Tom and daughter Grace, now 19 - moved to their Colonial Revival on South 22d Street seven years ago. She calls it "a pocket of suburbia in the middle of a city," a place with "mature trees that add so much to the neighborhood."
Janke's parents had taken her to Washington Township in South Jersey as a child, but she returned to South Philadelphia in 1990, living at the edge of Girard Estate, hoping to buy here someday.
When her first marriage ended, she and Grace moved back to New Jersey, but Grace continued to go to school at St. Monica's - Janke drove her on her way to work.
"After a few months at the house in New Jersey, we were lying in bed one night and could hear the sound of crickets," recalls Janke, who works at UBS Financial. "Grace said to me that she missed the sound of the SEPTA buses. I put the house on the market the next day."
When she and Tom, a stockbroker, married, they looked at Girard Estate so they could live within the parish and Grace could go home for lunch.
Turco, 76, and her husband, Sal, 81, have lived in the neighborhood for 46 years. They owned a pharmacy at 15th and Ritner Streets, and when Sal decided to go back for his doctorate, they bought a house in Girard Estate, paying $27,500 in 1967.
The houses had been rentals from the time they were built in the first two decades of the 20th century, with the rents financing the operations of Girard College.
During World War II, the houses were rented to officers stationed at the Navy Yard, but the trust decided to begin selling properties in 1952, Turco says, with the first buyers paying $12,500 for them.
Those early buyers were locals, says Festa: small-business people, plumbers, and those in similar occupations who had grown up nearby and used the Free Library branch or went to St. Monica's or the Jacobean-style Edgar Allan Poe School.
"In recent years," Festa says, "the buyers are more upscale with nice incomes, taking advantage of a neighborhood that is between Center City and the ever-expanding corporate and business center at the Navy Yard."
For Turco, Girard Estate is about family - hers, with her daughter and grandchildren living across the street and the rest nearby - but also those of Asian residents who, she says, contribute greatly to the vitality of what still is very much an Italian American neighborhood.
Not only is Girard Estate "growing more diverse," she says, "but people who moved out in the 1970s and 1980s to South Jersey are moving back, and it is not just because the property taxes are high."
"This is just an incredible place," Turco said.
It's a phenomenon seen in much of the rest of South Philadelphia, says Festa, who has been selling real estate here . . . "well, some say since Elfreth's Alley was new construction."
John Westrum, who developed the Reserve at Packer Park from 2004 to 2007, targeted South Jersey residents who wanted to move back to South Philadelphia and were attracted by the city's 10-year tax abatement.
Many of his buyers were Italian American and Asian business owners tired of the commute, and who wanted to live closer to family but could not find anything they wanted in the old neighborhoods.
Says Westrum: "The father of a large family actually bought 11 houses in Packer Park and made some purchasing arrangement with his children and other relatives, so they all could live close by."
Town By Town: GIRARD ESTATE BY THE NUMBERS
Population: 5,200 (2010)
Median income: $43,799 (2009)
Area: 0.319 square mile
Homes for sale: 10
Settlements in the last three months: 1
Median days on market: 89*
Median price (single-family homes): $225,000**
Median price (all homes): $225,000**
Housing stock: Girard Estate Historic District holds 442 houses, built at the turn of the 20th century
School district: Philadelphia
*19145 zip code, which includes Girard Estate Historic District
**Estimates only, because of low volume of transactions, and determined over longer period than 90 days.
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau; City-Data.com; Prudential Fox & Roach HomExpert Market Report; William Festa; C. Constance Turco
Town By Town: >Inquirer.com
For more photo, go to www.inquirer.com/ girardestate
Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, email@example.com, or @alheavens at Twitter.