Real estate development has obviously changed dramatically over the last hundred years, though some aspects of the experience remain the same as they ever were. Today, if a developer gets their hands on a sizable parcel, it’s common practice to build a bunch of new homes that look exactly the same or at least strongly resemble each other. This was also true in the past, as you can see on various blocks all over the city. While West Philadelphia is known for its unique homes with wonderful architectural details, developers still practiced this approach on this side of the Schuylkill, sometimes to dramatic effect. The south side of the 4700 block of Chestnut Street is a fine example, with a row of twins with matching bays, cornices, setbacks, and brickwork. We believe these buildings were originally constructed as huge homes, but they’ve all been converted to apartment buildings as the decades have fallen off the calendar.
Somewhere along the line, the building at 4702 Chestnut St. lost its twin, a building that we have to think matched its neighbor like the rest of the twins on the block. The land next to 4702 Chestnut St. has been sitting vacant for quite some time, and as is often the case in these situations, the Mural Arts Program stepped in to fill the void. For roughly a decade, the eastern wall of 4702 Chestnut St. has been home to a mural called “Dialogue on Race,” by artists Parris Stancell and Davis McShane. According to a post on the ERRANT blog, the creation of the mural was tied to a community project called B.R.I.D.G.E. (Bringing Race Into Dialogue for Greater Engagement).
If you look at the image above, you’ll realize that we weren’t just drawn to this corner by the mural or the handsome row of matching twins. The corner of 47th & Chestnut is no longer sitting vacant, as a foundation appeared there at some point in the last year. In addition to the foundation, there’s a single story’s worth of steel that’s also in place, covering some of the mural while awaiting wood framing above. Looking at some rough elevations drawing from the Zoning Archive, we see that the new 15-unit apartment building will match the height of its neighbor and copy the setback, but the design of the new building will differ considerably from its neighbors. This comes as no surprise whatsoever, as they don’t (often) build ’em like they used to.
As we considered the wonderfully intact row of twins on the 4700 block of Chestnut as well as the new building that won’t match its neighbors, we looked around and started wondering about just how much the area has changed over the years. Looking at some historic maps, we see that there’s always been large-scale commercial uses on the north side of the 4600 and 4700 blocks of Chestnut and parts of the south side of the 4600 block as well. The gas station right across the street was previously a row of apartment buildings though, leading us to wonder how they might have looked… maybe like the twins across the street?