HAMILTON VILLAGE

"A FAMILY AFFAIR"

Hamilton Village, or Hamiltonville, was on the grounds of the Hamilton family and was laid out by William Hamilton sometime between 1804 and 1809. It lay generally east of 41st Street, west of 33rd, from Filbert on the north to Woodland Avenue (or Darby Road) on the south.

The Hamilton family was a most interesting one. The first Andrew Hamilton was a famous colonial lawyer. It was he who gave rise to the legend of the "Philadelphia lawyer," by his successful defense in 1735 of John Peter Zenger, the persecuted New York publisher. Hamilton was a prominent Mason, and it was largely through his financial and architectural efforts that the building which later came to be known as Independence Hall was constructed.

In 1735 he purchased from Stephen Jackson three hundred acres in Blockley Township west of the Schuylkill River to Manganesy (Mill) Creek running north to Market Street. On it he built a summer home, which was later demolished to make way for the Woodlands. When he died in 1741 he willed his lands to his son, Andrew, who survived his father but six years, devising it to his son, William.

It was William, patron of the arts, an ardent horticulturist and a host of great renown, who built the Woodlands in 1788 and developed its beautiful gardens. As late as 1830 the mansion was

considered one of the most magnificent in America, furnished as it was with pieces by the finest cabinet-makers and with works of art from all over the world. Its gardens were stocked with every native and exotic plant that would grow in this climate, and noted travelers from every country were sure to visit the Woodlands on coming to Philadelphia.

In 1762 (probably in the old house before Woodlands was built) he gave a dinner to all his University classmates. This was undoubtedly the first class banquet in America, and was appropriately given within the confines of University City. When he died, a bachelor, in 1813, he willed his lands to his nephew, William, {Sic, James} who was also a fine host and bon vivant.

The first William was evidently a good businessman. Of the 356 acres he inherited, he sold the eastern-most portion running down to the Schuylkill River, thus consolidating his position and providing funds to improve the western part. Then he laid out Hamilton Village and proceeded to develop the town.

Initially small attention was paid to the settlement, and Hamilton realized that he had to provide the conveniences of his day for his potential residents.

Broad highways were laid out, most of them named for members of the Hamilton family. (The street names in West Philadelphia were to go through many metamorphoses, especially in the Mantua area. In Hamilton Village, after the consolidation, people began associating streets with the names used in the central city and they were soon so designated officially.)

Ground was granted for a Presbyterian Church and a Protestant Episcopal Church (St. Mary's). It was the latter on Locust Street between 39th (then William Street) and 40th (then Till Street, named for William's mother, Miss Mary Till) where the deed stipulated "ye steeple must be so placed that it can be seen from ye manor house."

A schoolhouse was built on the south side of Chestnut Street (James Street, named for William's brother {Sic, nephew} James), between 39th (William) Street and 40th (Till) Street. In this building the first

Protestant Episcopal services in West Philadelphia were held and the first Sunday School organized.

The Hamilton Village Academy, a sort of private school for girls, was opened on 40th (Till) Street near Chestnut (James) Street. Later this building seems to have been used as a community meeting hall.

Gradually more lots were purchased and homes built. Because of its position on high ground it became popular for summer country homes. Many French refugees from the troubled France of Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods decided to settle in Hamilton Village.

In 1840 it was described as "a handsome village of West Philadelphia situated about one mile west of the Market Street bridge. Its plan is regular, and its streets, most of which are prolongations of those in the city, are wide and well-regulated. The buildings, about 80 in number, generally stand apart from each other, leaving garden spaces between them. Taken altogether, Hamiltonville is probably the prettiest village in the neighborhood of Philadelphia. The dwellings are occupied principally by families who reside in the city during the winter season, or merchants or others who reside here and transact business in the city."

It appears that as late as 1781, the Darby Road, which ended at Gray's Ferry Road, was cut through the grounds of the Woodlands to 32nd Street, and named for the Estate through which it went. At the point where Baltimore Turnpike turned out of Woodland Avenue (Street) at 39th (William) Street stood the Old Star Tavern where many a tired bone was refreshed and many a thirst slaked.

After the death of the second William Hamilton {Sic, William's nephew James} in 1821 {Sic, 1817} the heirs began selling off portions of the Estate. In 1840 the 80 acres of the Woodlands became the Woodland Cemetery. Among the many interred there are Commodore Charles Stewart, Commodore David Porter and Admiral David Dixon Porter. Natale Perelli, a famous tenor of those days lies there, as does Anthony J. Drexel, founder of Drexel Institute of Technology, and his life long friend, George W. Childs, owner of the Public Ledger, with whom he walked into town every morning. Soon after 1840 the identification of Hamilton Village began to lose itself in the rapidly rising West Philadelphia, which became a borough in 1844.

In 1849 Henry Banks advertised that the West Philadelphia Post Office had been moved to the West Philadelphia Drug Store at 38th (Mary) and Market (Washington) Streets. The new Borough Commissioners met at the schoolhouse at 33rd and Ludlow (Oak) Streets, then moved to Keen Hall at 33rd and Market (Washington) Streets and then to their own Commissioners Hall on the southeast corner of 37th (Park) and Market (Washington) Streets. The building had originally been intended as a Masonic Hall. It burned in 1939 and shortly thereafter its remains were torn down .

In 1850 the Pariah of St. James the Greater was established. It was the first Catholic parish west of the Schuylkill, and the same year ground was purchased at 38th (Mary) and Chestnut (James) Streets, and within two years a church was erected on the same site where the present Cathedral now stands.

In 1808 the Hamilton family donated ground on Walnut (Andrew) above 39th Street for the erection of a Presbyterian Church within 20 years. In time's nick on the 20th year the Trustees of the First Presbyterian Church raised sufficient funds to erect a stone and mortar building on the land. In 1840 the "First Presbyterian Church of Hamiltonville and Mantua" was organized and in 1855 changed to The Walnut Street Presbyterian Church. The present edifice was opened in 1860 and renovated in 1878.

Many of Philadelphia's wealthiest and best known citizens bought large plots of ground on which they erected palatial homes, until Hamilton Village in the area of 38th and 39th Streets at Chestnut and Walnut became an aristocratic section of the town.

In 1794 Chandler Price built a country residence at the northwest corner of 38th (Mary) and Chestnut (James) Streets. In 1804 he made it his permanent residence until his death in 1827. His original estate had run from a point between 34th (Moore) and 36th (Margaretta) Streets to 39th (William), and from Market (Washington Street) to Chestnut (James). Although through the years much of the land was sold away, the mansion house was occupied until 1894 when Miss Ellen Price, the last of the daughters, died. The place was then purchased by William Weightman, who had been developing West Philadelphia with many building operations, and a dozen homes were erected on the site.

One of the Price daughters had married Col. Constant Eaken. He purchased land across from his wife's old home and in 1839 erected a mansion on the southeast corner of 39th and Chestnut Streets. Later he sold it to Morehead, one of the Jay Cooke partners, who in turn sold it to Charles W. Wright. Mr. Wright lived in it until his death when it became the site of Hamilton Court, among the first apartment houses to be erected in Philadelphia.

The Allibone Mansion stood at 39th and Walnut Streets. Allibone was President of the Pennsylvania Bank, but when the bank failed he sold his home to the Protestant Episcopal Divinity School, which occupied it until it moved to its new building at 51st and Woodland Avenue.

Another great holding was the Freeman Estate which covered the area from 38th to 39th Streets, Locust to Walnut, with a magnificent mansion in the center of the grounds. It was sold to the Altemus family who then sold it to Anthony J. Drexel, after they had erected a new home on the northwest corner of 38th and Walnut Streets.

Mr. Drexel was a man who had great faith in the future of West Philadelphia and bought vast acreage throughout the section.

He demolished the Freeman mansion and built one for himself on the southeast corner of 39th and Walnut Streets, and one for his son-in-law, James Paul, on the corner of 89th and Locust Streets. The Drexel mansion later became the Samuel S. Fels residence and is now one of the buildings of the University of Pennsylvania.

Many fine families lived along Chestnut and Locust Streets at the turn of the century and before; the Keens, the Norths, the Decherts, Judge Allison, Judge Ludlow, Dr. Lee, Dr. McLeod, Dr.Daniel Hughes and others.

The area along Market Street naturally became commercial. Stores of various kinds were established West of 38th Street was the William Penn Hotel, a famous hostelry which was long the starting point of the stage for Newtown Square, a line that ran until the turn of the century. Legend has it that the last driver was a woman.

On the northwest corner of 40th and Ludlow Streets the Philadelphia Electric Company occupies a building that was dedicated in 1876, built by the West Philadelphia Institute, a mechanic's institute incorporated in 1855. Later the building housed the West Philadelphia Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library and still later Cell's Dancing School.

The Monumental Baptist Church at 41st and Chestnut Streets was an early Negro church, its cornerstone laid in 1884. It is still an active congregation. At 4012 Ludlow Street was the House of St. Michael and All the Angels, a home for young colored cripples, one of the first of its kind in the City.

Hamilton Village has the distinction of having one of the first public schools, the West Philadelphia School, which opened in a three story brick building built in 1842 at the southwest corner of 38th and Spruce Streets. in 1867 it was rebuilt and renamed the Newton Public School. In 1873 it was altered and rededicated "to the purposes of education," and in almost the same condition it remained the Newton School until torn down for new University of Pennsylvania development and street widening in 1960.


Originally published in 1963.
Reprinted with permission of the West Philadelphia Partnership.


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