Good Eye: North Broad's First Mansion

The Baird Mansion is on the city and national historic registers, thus, one of the lucky ones.

All the gems on North Broad Street are hidden in plain sight, and the Matthew Baird mansion is no exception. The first of the great houses built on the avenue by Philadelphia's 19th-century industrial barons, it is now squeezed between Johnnie Bleu's nightclub and a vacant shop, and it gazes out on two gas stations across the street.

Baird had the 19-room brownstone house erected in 1863, while the Civil War was raging, with money he earned designing engines and troop carriers for the Baldwin Locomotive Works. In the mid-19th century, it was rare to build a grand home so far uptown, but Baird wanted to stay close to the factory, a sprawling compound on North Broad near Callowhill. It wasn't long before other newly rich industrialists joined the parade.

The facade is typical of early Victorian mansions, elegant without being ostentatious. You can see Romanesque elements, such as the arched entrance and the arched second-floor window directly above it. But the simple form and sloped mansard roof give it more of a Second Empire or Italianate feel. Carved brownstone lintels drape sinuously around the windows like fabric, and each floor features a stone valance in a distinctive pattern.

After Baird died in 1877, his house was divided into apartments. Its usefulness has helped preserve the building, which is listed on both the city and national historic registers.

The mansion is one of the lucky buildings on North Broad, which is in flux right now as Temple's campus creeps south and as Center City spills north. Though a Baird resident told me heroin dealers still gather on the sidewalk, several adjacent buildings are undergoing renovations. Unfortunately, their architectural details have been obliterated because they are not historically protected.

More change is coming. This week, Temple began demolishing William Penn High School, several blocks north, to make room for deluxe athletic fields, and a developer released a proposal for a clumsy façadectomy on a handsome 19th-century factory just north of the Rodeph Shalom synagogue.

The Baird mansion made a brief cameo in Creed, the new Rocky flick, but, ironically, as old-news evidence of North Philadelphia's blight. The worry today is that the beauty created by the old industrial barons will soon be erased by modern real estate tycoons.

The Baird mansion is at 814 N. Broad St., between Brown and Parrish. See a map of all Good Eyes here.

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