The Preston Retreat

At the 20th Street driveway entrance to The City View Condominiums stands as plain a tribute to Greek architecture as you can find.

Column at 20th Street main entrance to City View

Other column sections are strewn about the City View grounds, as this view of the 21st and Hamilton Streets corner shows.

Column segments at rear of City View

Source of columns, as the Retreat sits forlorn around 1962, image from here

These columns are the remnants of the Preston Retreat, a maternity hospital which began construction in 1837, functioned as a foster home from 1840 to 1865, and finally opened for maternity services in 1866. This lying-in hospital was funded by the estate of Jonas Preston, a Philadelphia physician, politician, and philanthropist. Apparently philanthropy was in vogue in the early 1830s, with Stephen Girard in 1831 leaving the City of Philadelphia $6 million (inflation adjusted $140 million today) to fund a private K-12 boarding school for poor white male orphans. Not to be outdone in spirit if not in dollar amount, in 1836 Preston left $250,000 (today $6 million) to the State for the construction and maintenance of a lying-in hospital for indigent married women of good character. Per his will: "The persons to be admitted shall be married women of good character, and in indigent circumstances, who are near the time of their confinement and at the time of application shall be resident in the city or county of Philadelphia or county of Delaware, and shall produce satisfactory testimonials of character." The location chosen may seem a bit out of the way, but in this area in the 1800s there were several centers of women's care: the City Hospital for general care at 19th and Wallace (site of St. Andrews Catholic Lithuanian Church today); the Gynecean Hospital for gynecology care at 18th and Vine (now the Holy Family Center annex to the Cathedral); the Indigent Widows and Single Women's Society and adjacent orphanage at 19th and Cherry (now the Logan Hotel); and the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia, an "institution for the shelter and reformation of fallen women," at the northeast corner of 21st and Race (on land now part of The Franklin Institute). The wealthy had the privilege of delivering in their own homes.

engraving circa 1840 from The Free Library

The architect of this Greek revival building was Philadelphia's own legend, Thomas Ustick Walter. He was born in Philadelphia in 1804, and was responsible for the following local structures: the Spruce Street Baptist Church (now the Society Hill Synagogue at 418 Spruce Street), Moyamensing Prison, Girard College, and several suburban estates. In addition, he designed the cast iron dome of the US Capitol Building and the wings for the United States House and Senate. 

Thomas Ustick Walter historical marker at 1218 Arch Street.

For original floor plans of the Retreat, and other architectural proposals see here.

After the three years of construction (cost $85,000), the estate's financial holdings had decreased in value due to the crash of 1837, necessitating a hold on the maternity hospital and instead running it as a foster home, as seen on the map below. 

Detail from 1867 map here

The foster home occupies the southern center of the eight acre square block, allowing a quiet landscaped retreat within the city, as seen in the Library of Congress image below. There were rowhomes along the Spring Garden Street side of the block. The future Baldwin Park is on the block bisected by Tatlow Street.

Original plan for landscaping at the Retreat

The hospital finally opened in 1865. Under the direction of Dr. William Goodell, it admitted pregnant women 16 days before their due date, offering clean clothes, good meals, and two baths per week. The Retreat had a deserved reputation for a low infection rate and mortality. Throughout the world, maternal mortality was dreadful, in large part due to infection, until the latter half of the 19th century. For example, in 1854 an outbreak of childbed fever closed the maternity hospital at Pennsylvania Hospital on Spruce Street. In 1843 Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the father of the future US Supreme Court justice, published his monograph The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever. In it he suggested that physicians themselves were transferring the infection between patients, and recommended avoiding assistance at childbirth immediately after performing an autopsy. In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician, noted that women who delivered at home or in a hospital with midwives had a much lower risk of infection than mothers delivering in a hospital with physicians and medical students. He recommended, in addition to Holmes' advice, that doctors wash their hands in a bleach solution before assisting in deliveries. At this time germ theory was not generally known. The notion that doctors might be spreading disease did not sit well with doctors, and attention to the advice of Holmes and Semmelweis was not widespread until the 1860s, when Louis Pasteur showed a biologic mechanism for transmission of infectious disease via germs, and Joseph Lister showed a way to make instruments and procedures more antiseptic via using carbolic acid sprays. The Preston Retreat had regulations that prevented the training of medical students there, which may have been one reason for the lower infection rate. Another reason may be favorable patient selection, since patients required "testimonials" before admission, and those without presumably went to the Blockley Almshouse in West Philadelphia, which opened its massive new facility in 1835 (the future Philadelphia General Hospital, and then the site of CHOP).

Lister's carbolic acid sprayer on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

The Mutter also has paraphernalia from Pasteur and the skeleton of a 3 foot 6 inch tall achondroplastic dwarf who died in 1856 from infection after childbirth.

The need for maternity care grew with the city. In 1908 the Retreat was expanded: the third story was raised, a pediment added to the portico, the cupola was restored, and the interior was extensively remodeled to include electricity and an elevator. The architect was Edgar Viguers Seeler. As you can see in these images from the Free Library below, the expansion was hardly noticeable as the raised roof and extra floor blended in with the original configuration.

Pre-1909 on the left. Post-1909 on the right. The fourth floor has been added and a pediment placed atop the tetrastyle portico.

Although a nice remodel job is a joy to behold, even better is preservation of an existing structure. If you look at the images below looking towards the north side of Hamilton street between 20th and 21st, pre-1909 on the left and the current street view on the right, you can see the mortared wall running the length of the block. In the blow-up, you can see that it is the same wall. The stones match up stone for stone. Most likely there were stone separations and remortaring done, but this is a nice remnant of a 180 year old structure. The entrance to the Preston Retreat has been filled in with poorly matching stone to the right of the white block (gray in the pre-1909 image). 

pre-1909

pre-1909

today

today

Below are two photos from over 100 years ago that connect the Preston retreat to two other area businesses, the Baldwin Locomotive Works and the William Sellers Company.

A replica of Old Ironsides, Baldwin's first locomotive, rolls east on Hamilton Street in 1917. The Preston Retreat is in the background.

Triple connection: a Baldwin locomotive on a Sellers turntable with the Preston Retreat in the background. The tracks seen here are still at street level prior to 1898 and the Callowhill Cut.

This turntable was at the current site of Philadelphia Sports Club at 20th and Pennsylvania Avenue.

The photo is looking northwest. When the rail tracks were dropped into the cut, the turntable was relocated to the southwest corner of 21st and Pennsylvania Avenue, the future site of 2001 Hamilton Condos.

In 1961 the Preston Maternity Hospital affiliated with Pennsylvania Hospital and services were transferred to Pennsylvania Hospital. The Preston Retreat building was sold to the Redevelopment Authority which demolished the building in 1963. The lot sat vacant for a decade until the Korman Suites (also called Korman Buttonwood Suites or One Buttonwood Square in honor of the east-west street to the east) were built as part of the Franklin Town development. Pennsylvania Hospital at least kept the name alive when in 1970 they opened the new maternity building at the southwest corner of 8th and Spruce as The Preston Building.

Detail from aerial map from 1970: Korman Suites construction will begin in a few years as part of the Franklin Town development.

If you wonder where the idea for the fidget spinner came from, check out the Best Western Motel on the far left.

1985: north tower

1990: two towers

The first (north) tower was built in 1975, and the second (south or City View II) in 1989. The hotel/apartment units went condo in 2003. Some of the column remnants that had been bulldozed over in the demolition of the Preston Retreat were resurrected during construction of the south tower and used to pepper the grounds. Since the property was a Redevelopment Authority property, the One Percent for Art requirement was first fulfilled with the sculpture below, which was placed in 1975 east of the first tower. This was removed for construction of the second tower, and a different artwork was installed. This current memorial in front of the main entrance makes reference to the circle of life in which the Preston Retreat played a role for a century. The art requirement for the second tower was fulfilled with the abstract neon light display placed near the roof line of the second tower. For this and other Baldwin Park neighborhood One Percent for Art projects see here.

Public art work number 1: Sagg Main Street, 1975, by Kenneth Snelson

20th Street driveway entrance prior to south tower construction. Image from here.

Public art work: How to Retain Site Memory While Developing the Landscape, 1990, by Winifred Lutz

20th Street driveway entrance

1952, image from book here

This entrance would have faced Hamilton Street, just east of the entrance to the new Veterinary Hospital. The circle of life continues, albeit with different species.

authored by Joe Walsh, October 2018

Matthias Baldwin Park 

423 N 19th St 

Philadelphia, PA 19130

Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to preserve the Matthias Baldwin Park

© 2018 Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park