Looking back from the vantage of 2018, it is hard to believe that Philadelphia officials once fought tooth and nail to build a parking garage on Rittenhouse Square. The legal battle took place in the early 2000s, when the large empty lot at Walnut and 19th was owned by the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the city believed any development was good development.
What put a stop to the wasteful and destructive project was the existence of a small, but exuberantly tiled, rowhouse at 1904 Sansom St. The house occupied a far corner of the development site and would have been torn down to make room for the garage. But because it was listed as a significant building on the city's Historic Register, the Parking Authority was ultimately forced by the courts to abandon its dream of garage decks with park views.
Despite having its landmark status affirmed, the charming house ended up sitting vacant for another decade (along with two other historic buildings) while the coveted site passed from developer to developer (or, if you prefer, speculator to speculator). But now that a new owner, Southern Land Co., has broken ground on a more appropriate project — a residential tower called the Laurel — the colorful house will finally get the renovation it deserves.
Its future is likely to emulate its past. Until the Parking Authority acquired the parcel in 1997, the building housed the Rittenhouse Coffee Shop, a glorified diner that was famous for its bargain breakfasts. Southern Land has talked about installing a 21st-century version, i.e. a cafe. But whatever kind of retail goes in there, we can expect the vibrant facade to be scrubbed and restored to its old glory.
Notice I didn't say "original." The three-story building started life around 1860 as an ordinary redbrick rowhouse, back in the days when the Rittenhouse Square area was just another residential neighborhood. As Walnut Street evolved into a tony commercial district, the house was converted to commercial use. In 1923, the John F. Buchanan Co. acquired the building and hired architect Clarence E. Wunder to turn it into offices.
As part of the remodeling, which involved eliminating the rowhouse stoop and bringing the entrance down to sidewalk level, Wunder transformed the facade into a miniature Spanish Renaissance hacienda. He started by coating the bricks with ochre stucco, then traced the door and windows with intricately detailed bands of terra-cotta tiles. The final touch was an ironwork lamp over the door, an elaborate assemblage of curlicues, swirls, and budding tulip heads.
The tile work, though, is what makes the house so memorable. Produced by the O.W. Ketchum pottery in Ridley Park, it features a garden's worth of flowers and vines, along with classical acanthus motifs and urns. The red Spanish-style tiles at the cornice, and Juliet-style windows on the second floor, all add to the sense that the house would fit in easily somewhere on a Spanish colonial ranch in California. Ketchum, incidentally, was responsible for a lot of the colorful terra-cotta you see in Center City, including the former Market Street National Bank on the east side of City Hall.
Given all the years of neglect, Ketchum's tile remains perfectly intact, as vibrant today as it was in 1923. This is a tough little building. It had to be to defeat a mammoth garage.