In cities like Boston, New York, and Baltimore, it is not difficult to find examples of eighteenth century rowhouses in the older residential sections. But, only one block in Philadelphia can claim to be the “oldest continuously inhabited street in America,” where generations of working-class Americans have lived for over 300 years.
“Elfreth’s Alley is almost like a living museum,” said Joan McErlane, 40, who has been living in House 117 since 2000. Though McErlane was not born in Pennsylvania—nor even on the East Coast—her tie to the Alley can be traced back to the early 1800s. “My great-great grandmother lived here … my great-grandmother got dressed here on her wedding day … my mother grew up playing in the Alley,” said McErlane, while pointing at a framed news article that hangs on her living room wall, in which her great-great grandmother Florence Rearden was quoted. The article was published in the June 21, 1936 issue of the now defunct Philadelphia Record. “My great-great grandmother was the fifth generation living here,” she said. “I think the significance of the street is that time has changed, but the building itself stay unchanged … it’s basically untouched.”
The Alley, which runs with cobbled simplicity from Front and Second Street between Arch and Race, is only six feet wide and is well worn from curb to curb. It started out as a simple cart path connecting the heart of this colonial city at Second and High (now Market) streets with the growing western Philadelphia County towns of Germantown, East Fall, and Manayunk. With no contractor’s blueprints guiding them to a patterned uniformity, the alley grew as each colonist built his home according to his taste, and subject to his needs. The fine colonial doorways, doors with brass knobs and knockers, and the odd, small-panned windows with shutters and turnbuckles—all these little elements of architecture reflected the British and Continental houses the settlers had left behind. “The houses that line this narrow lane remind us of the ways Philadelphia’s earliest artisans lived and worked … it is the homes and lives of ordinary people,” said Bob Bernstein, executive director of the Elfreth’s Alley Association, a non-profit group aimed at preserving the Alley and educating the public about the site’s history.
The two oldest surviving dwellings on the entire alley are House 120 and 122 on the south side. According to a 1975 National Park Service document, Benjamin Franklin frequently visited House 122 to see William Maugridge, a tenant from 1728 to 1731 and one of the original members of the Junto, a club Franklin founded to discuss social issues and philosophy with his compatriots. Other well-known residents of the Alley included Betsy Ross, designer of the first American flag; Dolly Madison, the spouse of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison; and Stephen Girard, one of the wealthiest men in the 1800s.
Courts and alleys were usually named by the residents who chose whatever names seemed natural. Some alleys and lanes received names like Little Boy’s Court and Pewter Platter Alley. The first official listing of Elfreth’s Alley was not made until 1785. “A lot of people think that the Alley is named after its founder, but it is not,” Bernstein said. When the first house was built in 1694, it was called Gilbert’s Alley after merchant John Gilbert who owned the land. Later, Jeremiah Elfreth, a blacksmith, who came to Philadelphia about 1690, married Gilbert’s eldest daughter and inherited the Alley property. “Elfreth had little to do with it,” Bernstein said.
PRESERVING A NATIONAL TREASURE
Elfreth’s Alley has overcome numerous obstacles in order to become a prominent example of preservation and education at work. Many houses were in disrepair in the 1930s; tenants were scarce and rents were low. Some owners turned to the idea of cutting taxes and maintenance costs by tearing the properties down. The Alley as it stands today is the result of a grassroots preservation effort by its residents. One of the preservation pioneers was Dolly Ottey, who moved into House 115 in 1933, and opened a tearoom there. Realizing the historic worth of the street, Ottey and a small group of concerned residents founded the Elfreth’s Alley Association in 1934 and started restoring the little colonial street.
Ottey advocated for the Alley on numerous occasions and wrote letters to the Evening Bulletin seeking help for preserving the “charming street.” Her words attracted the interest of a larger preservation powerhouse: the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, the city’s leading force in restoration work at the time. The publicity and support that the Society lent to the cause proved a powerful force. In 1937, Mayor S. Davis Wilson guaranteed financial support from the City to save the Alley, thus ending the Alley’s first threatening situation. As the Mayor remarked, this site was “too precious a heritage for the city to allow them to be torn down.”
As the Association’s March 1957 newsletter proclaimed, “Elfreth’s Alley is the only street on the American Continent with houses on both sides which have been continuously occupied as dwellings for over two hundred and fifty years.” Ottey and the Association restored broken buildings, and bought House 126 to keep it as a museum house to the public. The Association also prevented demolition of properties in multiple occasions. One of the biggest threats to the Alley, however, did not take place until the 1950s. According to early newspaper clippings, the City of Philadelphia and the Federal Government began planning a massive highway project in the early 1950s: The $300-million Delaware Expressway, also known as Interstate 95 or I-95. The highway was designed to extend between South Street and Spring Garden Street, close enough to the Alley to cause demolition of nearly one-fifth of the colonial houses.
Initially, the city called for demolition of everything 150 feet west of the elevated train on Front Street, which would have taken seven houses from the Alley. Later, a revised plan suggested cutting that down to 120 feet, which meant two houses on the north side of the Alley, commonly known as Bladen’s Court, would have been torn down.
“When the public knew the Alley was threatened, reaction was fast, firm, and sometimes frantic,” said John A. Duross, former president of the Elfreth’s Alley Association, in a 1958 interview. The Association and its supporters opposed to both initial and revised plans; more than 18,000 names were signed within a few months to the petition asking that the Alley be spared. “We realize that expressways must be built, but we hope this one may be arranged so that it will not cut into the Alley,” Duross said. “We feel there is something here that belongs to all America—a small and simple example of an earlier way of life … it should be preserved forever in order that future generations might come here and partake of the spirit that inspired the founders of Philadelphia and our nation.”
The Association’s museum house today still keeps copies of a thousand-odd letters from concerned citizens that were sent to Philadelphia’s mayor, state officials, or the newspapers. These letters were written by people from all walks of life: local printers, businessmen, lawyers, teachers, even architects from other states. In 1953, Elfreth’s Alley Association had more than 500 active members. They organized rallies, petitions, and lobbied at the state level. These efforts were not wasted; city planners were forced to revise the highway plans. Elfreth’s Alley was saved.
In 1954, the Alley was finally given an official recognition by the U.S. Government for what it is—the oldest complete and continuously inhabited street in Philadelphia and, possibly, the nation. This recognition, Registration of National Historic Landmark, identifies important areas of the American heritage and is the way the Government classifies sites of exceptional value. While the architecture of the Alley gives us a largely untouched, authentic picture of colonial America, the Alley’s amazing survival provides a solid example of grassroots social movement in Philadelphia history.
HISTORY LIVES ON
Today, Elfreth’s Alley has a population of about sixty people, with half of the households having bought their homes within the past twenty years. The question must be asked, why did people want to live in these old buildings? We can imagine that the experience of living in the Alley was not always a pleasant one. In the past, raw sewage floated in the Delaware River, factory smokestacks poured soot into Philadelphia’s air, and the pit toilets behind the now-crowded houses smelled bad in cold weather and terrible in hot weather. Even today, with no garages or on-street parking, only about a third of residents own cars; and because there is no cable TV, some houses have discretely placed satellite dishes. Yet, most residents of Elfreth’s Alley are still enthusiastic about living there. They enjoy telling people that Thomas Jefferson often walked down the alley; that John Clymer, a Declaration of Independence signer, once owned House 113; and that Franklin flew his kite nearby. But, they don’t merely admire the Alley’s past.
Rob Kettell, 68, who lives in House 129, said what he likes most about the Alley is the strong connection to the past and a sense of community. Kettell said he and his wife, Sue, have been living in the Alley since 1975 when he decided to go to a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania. “We moved from California. We had no idea it is a historic building or street, or anything—it just met our immediate needs.” After settling down, Kettell said he started to love the street. “It is a fairly convenient location and we have great neighbors,” Kettell said. “We extended our lease, and ended up buying the house from the owner in 1987.”
Even though the little street is no longer the center of attention, it continues to make history and build tradition with its annual special events that commemorate the lost character of colonial Philadelphia. Since the 1980s, two events have been held annually by the Alley’s Association: Elfreth’s Alley’s “Fete Day” on the first Saturday of June, and “Deck the Alley,” on the first Saturday of January.
“Fete Day,” formerly called “Elfreth’s Alley Day,” is an event that originated in conjunction with the Association’s preservation efforts. The first “Elfreth’s Alley Day” was held by Dolly Ottey in the summer of 1934 to rally the public to the Alley’s aid. The tradition began as an open house into the private homes of Alley residents and a social event to rally and instill Philadelphians with pride about their colonial heritage. Every year, the museum house will be furnished as it was in pre-Revolution days and hostesses will be in colonial dress to tell stories of the homes and those who lived there. Additionally, special tours will be offered during certain festivals. This Halloween, for example, some visitors were led by a tour guide costumed as a Yellow Fever victim to learn about the history of the Alley and the Yellow Fever epidemic, an infectious disease that ravaged the city of Philadelphia in 1793.
“These events are important for educational and public outreach efforts, but they are also responsible for 25 percent of the Association’s annual budget,” Bernstein said. Since the Alley has been given the U.S. Landmark recognition, Bernstein said the buildings are not likely to be torn down in the near future. He said the Association’s current goal is to preserve the historic site and showcase the Alley as a “living museum” that has been continuously inhabited for the past 300 years.
As Duross wrote in the Association’s March 1957 newsletter, “Any city can build towering skyscrapers, erect magnificent museums and plan imposing highways and boulevards, but few cities have old treasures to preserve.” One of the most remarkable aspects of the street is that today it is what it has always been: a residential street—all but three of the surviving structures remain private residences, where neighbors continue to live and work. The Alley is not just another historic site telling the story of a Founding Father. Its preservation was unique because it commemorated the lives of everyday Americans in early America. That’s why the site attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world.
“It’s really cool walking down a street that is a bazillion years old and kept in its original state,” said Lisa de Brouwer, a tourist from the Netherlands. “This is a treasury of Philadelphia.”
Kettell said visitors are always welcome in the Alley. “We love to show off our house to visitors,” he said. “Living in these houses, you tend to be more special, you treat them with a little more care and respect. You don’t want to completely modernize it, make them twenty-first century.” Speaking about the Alley’s assets—its history, its lovely gardens, and most of all a friendly neighborhood—Kettell said it is just great that the Alley can continue its primary function, as a residential street, while showcasing the way of life in the eighteen century.
“It shows people what a colonial street would have been like for the ordinaries,” Kettell said. “I think the future looks good for the Alley.”