June 2, 2017

Diamonds Are Forever, But Jewelers Row Might Not Be

  • By: Meghan White
A street view of several jewelery stores with visible signs

photo by: Terry Robinson/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

Sansom Street today is a vibrant mix of the old and the new in low-rise historic buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1986, my father, Tim White, sold his car. With the funds, he walked into Sydney Rosen Company on Sansom Street in Philadelphia. After perusing the jewelry cases filled with jewels that sparkled and settings that twinkled as he walked by, he chose a gold band and a pear-shaped diamond in a Tiffany setting.

"If you could live as long as this stone will stay in this ring!" he was told confidently by the Rosen family who, to this day, runs the store that first opened in 1947.

With this ring he proposed to my mother, Karen, who accepted. She didn’t think much about the shop until she read the Transitions section in the Spring 2017 issue of Preservation magazine. There, the blue-bordered sign of the Sydney Rosen store stared at her from one of the images.

She read that the street where her ring was purchased was part of Philadelphia's historic Jewelers Row, the oldest diamond district in the country. However, the street may be changed dramatically in the near future, if the Toll Brothers, a local development company, succeed in demolishing five historic structures (702-710 Sansom Street). In their place, a 29-story condo building could rise, towering above the other shops and unquestionably altering the character of Jewelers Row.

The Toll Brothers, in a statement, assured the public that they will maintain the cornice line that exists currently to protect the feel of the street. To preservationists and local businesses, however, that is a small comfort to make up for demolishing five historic structures that contribute to the cultural and historical significance of Jewelers Row.

Locals recognized the implication of this threat immediately when it was first announced in August 2016. Jewelers Row has been a part of Philadelphia for generations. Most agree that its 300 businesses have something for everybody, whether you are looking for name-brand jewelry, or historic pieces with vintage charm, or the perfect ring to propose with.

A sketch of Morris' unfinished house at Chestnut Street

photo by: Library of Congress/LC-USZC4-553

Morris' Folly as it would have appeared in 1800.

The land that Jewelers Row was built on—Sansom Street from Chestnut to Walnut and 8th to 7th streets—was first set eyes on by a prominent local merchant Isaac Norris Sr., who was given the land by William Penn’s son, Thomas, in 1726. The undeveloped land passed through the Norris family for three generations until it was sold in 1791 to Robert Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a financier who helped finance the American Revolution.

Moris bought the land with the intent of building an expansive and elegant mansion designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who would become famous for creating the L’Enfant Plan that organized the city of Washington, D.C. However, after being worked on for five years, the mansion—which many considered ostentatious—remained unfinished, as Morris (ironically) fell into bankruptcy. "Morris’ Folly," as the plot of land soon became known, was purchased by William Sansom, a developer, for about $25,000.

Sansom hired Benjamin Latrobe, often called the "Father of American Architecture," to design a row of 22 houses on the spot of the soon-demolished house. He also asked the Scottish immigrant and architect Thomas Carstairs to build another set on Sansom Street. These became America’s first speculative housing development, as well as the country’s first block of rowhouses.

They were built between 1799 and 1820 on what was then the outskirts of Philadelphia. To entice prospective buyers, Sansom himself paid for Sansom Street between 8th to 7th streets to be bricked over, which differed from the city’s dusty and muddy dirt streets. These bricks exist to this day, a testament to Sansom’s vision for Carstairs Row, as the block was first called.

The first section of Carstairs Row was completed in 1803. All 22 connected rowhouses were identical. They stood three-and-a-half stories tall, 18 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. In addition to sharing walls, these houses also shared marble steps and interior chimneys.

At a time when the predominant architectural style in Philadelphia was Georgian, these rowhouses, with their belt courses and parapets, echoed of British Neoclassicism. Local critics found these rowhouses, with their lack of embellishment or variation, boring.

However, this opinion belied the eventual popularity of the rowhouse form that is now iconic to American cities like Philadelphia. And for Carstairs, these were his only known commission unquestionably attributed to him in the country, making them all the more significant.

The 700 block lived on, though it soon became converted into a commercial sector, rather than residential. The rowhouses remained architecturally intact until around 1870. By then, Philadelphia was home to thousands of people and numerous manufacturing industries. Downtown especially felt the changes to the city's economy, as people with highly skilled trades opened up shop with increasing frequency.

One of the original rowhouses on 707 Sansom Street

photo by: Library of Congress/HABS PA,51-PHILA,602

707 Walnut Street, part of Sansom's Row.

Philadelphia directories show that by the 1870s the majority of businesses were printing and publishing companies. Jewelry sellers moved in over the next two decades, and it became known as the Diamond District. It is the oldest in the country and the second largest, following New York City’s.

In the years leading up to the Great Depression, shopkeepers remodeled or rebuilt at least eight buildings on Jewelers Row, including the four-story building where the Sydney Rosen shop is located. The area stagnated due to the financial depression and World War II, but in the 1960s this changed with the Plan for Center City, the neighborhood where Jewelers Row is in.

The plan focused on redevelopment on the nearby Society Hill neighborhood, Independence Hall, and Independence Hall National Historical Park. Jewelers Row was directly impacted; the area became more popular, and jewelers adapted. Many altered storefronts to make their shops more noticeable and unique. Large, colorful neon signs caught pedestrians' attention as they strolled along the sidewalks.

Today, the buildings at 730 and 732 Sansom Street are the most recognizable as belonging to the original plan, but this does not diminish the significance of Jewelers Row, nor of the five buildings that may be demolished to make way for a modern skyscraper. Even though the buildings bordering the brick-paved street are no longer identical, the histories reflected in their diverse storefronts and neon signs tell a broader story of the progression of commercial city architecture. Losing five of these would be an irreparable loss that could establish an unsettling precedent not only in the city, but in other places where progress is sometimes synonymous with new development.

A sketch of Sansom Street in 1914 shows how busy this commercial street was. That hasn't changed.

photo by: Library Company of Philadelphia

This sketch by Frank Taylor in 1914, illustrates how busy Sansom Street was. That hasn't changed.

For my mother, hearing that Jewelers Row could change dramatically in the upcoming months was disheartening, made more palpable by her connection to it: "Not only is it a part of our personal history, but it's a part of the history of Philadelphia, something unique and unusual and important."

Unfortunately, Jewelers Row is not a designated historic district, and therefore it does not have access to protections that could lead to better understand its significance and find a viable option for its future. (In fact, according to the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, just three percent of Philly’s historic buildings are protected.) The advocacy group, after learning of the threat to the five buildings, nominated 704 and 706-708 to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places several months back. There is still no word on whether or not these have been approved.

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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