"THE REAL ESTATE PROMOTION
THAT GREW AND GREW"
Mantua, or Mantuaville as it was later termed, is a perfect example of a nineteenth century land development becoming an established town or village. Originally Mantua was planned north of University City, extending from about the present Girard Avenue to Spring Garden Street and Haverford Avenue and west from the Schuylkill River to about 41st Street. Later it crept steadily southward, so that at the time of the Consolidation Act it is described as extending to the northwest corner of the Market Street Bridge west to Lancaster Avenue thence along Lancaster Avenue to Westminster Avenue and thence northerly to the Schuylkill River. This would bring a portion within the present confines of University City. Much of the history of that portion will be discussed in the chapter on the Borough of West Philadelphia, but since
Mantua, as a contiguous and overlapping neighbor is so integral a part of the city west of the Schuylkill, its history lends emphasis to that of University City.
Although regarded by early Philadelphians as a separate town, Mantua never seems to have been a formal political entity, being merely a housing development within the boundaries first of the Township of Blockley and later the District of West Philadelphia.
The land was owned by Judge Richard Peters (1744 -1828) who in 1809 worked out a plan for its sale and promotion as a settlement. He adopted the name from the city of Mantua in Italy, the home of Virgil, whose writings the scholarly Judge admired. Judge Peters was the owner of Belmont, the vast estate on the banks of the Schuylkill. The mansion house of Belmont still remains and is utilized as a restaurant close by the summer theatre in Fairmount Park.
Although his father, William Peters, from whom the Judge inherited Belmont, was a Tory, the Judge was an ardent patriot. During the Revolution he was Secretary of the War Board and one of Washington's ardent supporters. He was active in the erection of the first military bridge across the Schuylkill at Market Street, and thirty years later, as we shall see, he promoted its replacement with the first Permanent Bridge. After the war he was appointed a Judge of the federal District Court and was active in civic affairs. He was one of those fabulous hosts whom visitors to this city found ever ready for their welcome.
Judge Peters originally planned but a small development. An early advertisement describes Mantua as being "on the west side of the Schuylkill River, in Blockley Township, on the road leading to the Upper (Spring Garden) Ferry, one mile from the western abutment of the Permanent (Market Street) Bridge.
He appears to have at first offered his land for sale in larger plots but with no success. When a friend later remarked on his finally having his project laid out, the Judge, who was noted for his wit, answered that it might well be, since it had been dead these many years.
Haverford Road was the main street of the village. To its north were the partially opened streets of Story (Mt. Vernon), Elm (Wallace) and Sycamore (Fairmount Avenue). To the south were Bridge Street (Spring Garden), (which was not opened until 1812), Hamilton (named for the founders of Hamilton Village), Baring (for the famous English banking family which had investments in the area) and Powelton (for the Powel Estate which bordered on it).
Bridgewater (31st) Street and Butcher's Lane (35th Street) were the only north-south streets opened, and then only to Lancaster Avenue. The next street to the west was Cedar Lane (40th Street) which became Till Street at Filbert. This "street" was a country lane that became all but impassable in the winter or wet weather, and was actually not in Mantua, but Greenville.
As remarked before, the growth of West Philadelphia can be measured by the improvements in access and transportation. One immediate consequence of the erection of the Spring Garden Bridge in 1812 was the increase in real estate activities in Mantua. In April, 1813, John Britton, Jr., a builder who himself lived on Haverford Road, published his proposal to sell lots and houses in Mantua, subject to ground rent.
Many citizens who were to become prominent in the area began building substantial homes. 1Squire George C. Kooken erected a brick dwelling on the northwest corner of Haverford Road and Butcher's Lane (S5th Street). Close by was the fine mansion of Thomas Tyson Butcher, from which the Lane took its name. Not far from the Kooken house lived Squire Wyncoop, and about a block westward Dr. Gallagher, one of West Philadelphia's first physicians. John Armstrong lived at about what later became 5th (now 34th) Street and Sycamore (Wallace, at one time also known as Atlanta) Street. William Perrins, who built many of the Mantua homes in the 1840's, lived at 7th (36th) and Sycamore (Wallace) Streets.
In 1837 a Sunday School was started in rooms at the northwest corner of 4th (33rd) Street and Spring Garden Street. From this developed the First Presbyterian Church of Mantua which established a church two blocks west in 1846. In 1873 the church moved to 35th and Baring Streets, and two years later changed its name to Northminster Presbyterian Church.
About 1850 a man named William Cure built a home on the brow of the hill overlooking the Schuylkill River. As late as 1905 the house was still standing on what had by then become Brown Street between 36th and 37th.
Thus Mantua, the town that wasn't a town, became a landmark, and though officially its name survives only as that of a street (formerly Merion Avenue), its overtones designate the area east of Powelton Village and north to the Pennsylvania Railroad main line.
Originally published in 1963.
Reprinted with permission of the West Philadelphia Partnership.
go to next section
go to Table of Contents
go to University City Historical Society homepage