Hamilton Townhomes

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The dark red monochromatic running bond brick dominates the block.

The large complex between 19th and 20th Streets and between Hamilton and Nectarine Streets is one of the few sections of the neighborhood that looks much the same now as it did 160 years ago, at least as far as layout. It has been predominantly residential for those years, and except for two buildings, has had a quiet history.

 

In 1971 it was part of the Franklin Town Development project, but unlike much of the other construction for that project, it was built within the promised time. To get a sense of the quick transition of this parcel, read our first and especially the second article on Franklin Town. But first let's look at the block prior to the 1970's.

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Portion of map from 1862 showing the Hamilton Townhomes block almost filled with row homes and one church. Spring Garden Street runs horizontally at the top. 20th Street runs vertically between the block under discussion and the Foster Home (Preston Retreat). The surrounding blocks were slower to develop.
The current layout of the drive passages on the block recall the streets on this map, although Earp is now Nectarine, Fairview is Buttonwood, and Rockford became Ralston and then parking.

In 1855 the Third Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church constructed a building on 20th Street between Rockford and Fairview Streets, on a lot that was 52 x 78 feet. On the very day of its scheduled dedication, it burned to the ground. It was quickly reconstructed, and later changed its name to the Fifth United Presbyterian Church.

In 1909 the church was demolished and replaced with the 9th District police station. For more on this station and the others in our neighborhood see our article here.

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The Fifth United Presbyterian Church, built in 1855, in 1893.

Buttonwood Street looking east is on the left, and the front door opens onto 20th Street.

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Portion of 1917 Sanborn insurance map
Notice the very dense housing with some addresses having another house in the rear with a xxxx1/2 address. There were no other blocks in the neighborhood with this degree of housing density. These tiny houses were three-story brick houses split by frame partitions (the dashed lines).
The 9th District Police Station is discussed here. The one-story garage at 502-508 North 19th Street will be replaced in 1927 by the three-story Otis Elevator Machine Shop and offices.
An X over a pink building represents a brick livery stable. Wood frame structures are in yellow.
1907 Hamilton Street was a boarding house for the nurses who worked across 19th Street at the Garretson Hospital.
Like many houses of the era, but less so on these blocks, businesses like plumbing were run out of the first floor.
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The east face of the police station in 1960, with its main entrance on Buttonwood Street.
The trees in the distance are on the overgrown lot where the Preston Retreat will be demolished in 1963. Many of the lots and houses in the neighborhood were vacant by this time.
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The southwest corner of the police station at 20th and Ralston Street in 1960, shortly before demolition. The ivy-covered house on the right is 509 N 20th street and will also be demolished.

The water tank with the logo for Otis Elevator is seen in upper right.

Three things made tall buildings possible in the late 19th century: Bessemer steel framing, a high-pressure water pumping system to fight fires, and the elevator. The High-Pressure Fire System (HPFS) is now defunct, but steel framing and elevators are only becoming more common and applied to shorter buildings.

 

Elisha Graves Otis in 1852 invented a safety device which would prevent free-fall of the elevator car should the cable break. His company became what is today the world's largest elevator company. Elevators have extended their reach from tall commercial and residential structures into shorter buildings; e.g. the homes on 17th and Wood Street are individual townhouses recently built with elevators.

In 1927 the one-story garage on 19th Street between Ralston and Buttonwood Streets was demolished and replaced with a three-story-plus-basement Otis Elevator Company workshop and office building.

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Two of the three necessities for a skyscraper. On the left is an image of the Elverson Building under construction over the Callowhill Cut in 1923. The freight yard in the foreground would also be covered over by a parking lot.

On the right is one of two High-Pressure Fire Service (HPFS) hydrants in our neighborhood. This one is on 16th Street at Hamilton Street; the other is just 300 feet north. The HPFS was instituted in 1903 and could shoot a two-inch stream of water 230 feet vertically. It was decommissioned in 2005, replaced by fireproof construction and sprinkler systems. The HPFS fire hydrants are red, with three turn-offs on top, and with a manhole cover marked "HPFS" within a few feet.

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Sketch from the 13 November 1927 Inquirer.

The 61 x 162 foot structure, occupied solely by Otis Elevator, would fill the block between Ralston and Buttonwood Streets. The basement and first floor were workrooms and storage; the second floor general offices; and the third floor executive offices. The facing is light-colored brick and the base and cornices are of Indiana limestone. Total cost: $275,000. A nice looking addition to the neighborhood!

A quick synopsis of the 1970's on this block:

April 1973 -- Condemnation notices sent to 82 home and business owners. This included the five houses on 20th and the five houses on 19th between Buttonwood and Nectarine Streets. 

1974 --  Ten new replacement homes on the 500 block of North 20th Street completed, with parking for each. These houses were the result of negotiations between the Franklin Town Development Corporation (FTDC), the City , and the families to be displaced by the project. These are 501 through 519 North 20th Street. The five homes on 20th Street and five on 19th Street between Buttonwood and Nectarine were originally condemned, but spared and remodeled for use as replacement housing, as FTDC realized it would be cheaper to move the neighbors into remodeled houses rather than new ones.

1975 --  Korman Suites at former Preston Retreat site between 20th and 21st and Hamilton and Nectarine Street are completed. This is now the north tower of City View Condominiums

1976 to 1978 -- Hamilton Circle Townhomes built in two phases, totaling 82 units with parking at each, one block east of Korman Suites. Thus, Hamilton Townhomes have sat untouched for the last 43 years.

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Google maps view from 2021. The layout is just about the same as 100 years ago (compare with 1917 map above).  Since there is only one street within the complex, and its not really a circle, the numbering system on the homes can get confusing.
Also note that the 500 numbers start at Hamilton Street on 20th Street, but not until what used to be Ralston Street (now a drive entrance) on 19th Street. This compensates for the fact that in 1917 (above map) the single 500 address stretched from Hamilton all the way to Ralston Street.
McCrossen's Tavern at 527-529 is the only business operating today in the area under discussion.
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1936 photo. The pink balloons point to the Otis building on the left and the police station on the right.
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Sanborn insurance map from 1950 starting to show some vacant lots.
You can also see the Calvin Research and Development Corporation lab at 1909 Buttonwood Street. It here is labeled Photo Play Lab and produced motion pictures and processed and developed film. The building, which went from Buttonwood through to Nectarine Street, seems to have been built around 1940.
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View in 1966, looking east, from the corner of 20th and Hamilton Streets. The whole frontage on the north side of Hamilton Street is vacant.
The tall I-T-E factory buildings at the northeast and southeast corners of 19th and Hamilton Streets can be seen in the middle distance. In 1966 Hamilton Street continued only until 18th Street, when it encountered the Lit Brothers warehouse in the distance.

The next six pairs of photos will show buildings on this block then and now.

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1947 and today
These five houses, with first floor stores in two of them in 1947, run between Buttonwood and Nectarine Streets on North 19th Street, and still exist (without the stores). At the left edge of the left photo is the beautiful Otis Elevator building, which no longer exists.
In the right photo you can see the different brickwork at 518 N 19th Street that hides its retail past.
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1971 and today, looking west down Buttonwood Street. The trees on the empty Preston Retreat lot are seen in the distance in 1971. There is a courtyard behind the fence today that marks the former location of Buttonwood Street. That drug store and fountain on the corner in 1971 is McConomy's Drugs.
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If that name McConomy sounds familiar, it is because it appears in our article about Bridget Carey, the accused murderer who lived at 1842 Hamilton Street. She allegedly bought her rat poison at McConomy's drug store when it was at 2000 Callowhill Street in 1906. That block was wiped out by the Fairmount (now Ben Franklin) Parkway, and McConomy moved even closer to the future Baldwin Park.
The image is a want ad from the Inquirer in 1942. 
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1971 and today, looking at the west side of North 19th Street at those houses between Buttonwood and Nectarine Streets. These houses were slated to be demolished for Franklin Town, but were spared because they turned out to be inexpensive replacement housing for displaced neighbors.
It's never a good sign to have the City coming to your neighborhood to photograph houses; the houses are usually not going to be there for long!
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1971 and today, looking north on 20th Street from near Hamilton Street. 509 North 20th Street is a gorgeous double-wide house covered in ivy.
The ten replacement houses in the photo on the right were built in 1974 for residents of the neighborhood whose homes were threatened with eminent domain and demolished for the Franklin Town project. Three of these ten homes are still owned by members of those relocated families. The most recent sale was of 519 North 20th for $520,000 in 2019.
ham townhouses otis from nectarine 1971.
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1971 and today, looking southeast from the west end of the 1900 block of Nectarine Street.
The Otis Elevator building has the ghost outlines of already demolished houses. Just to the right of the Otis building can be seen the rather nice looking I-T-E Imperial building, built in 1922. It is now the site of the Tivoli.
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1971 and today, looking west down Nectarine Street from 19th Street. 
The windowless wall of the photo lab at 1908-1910 Nectarine is visible in the left photo halfway down the block.
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1970 photo showing removal of everything except the five houses between Buttonwood and Nectarine Streets on both 19th and 20th Streets; 509 North 20th Street; the photo lab; and the Otis Elevator building. The last three would come down within the next three years. Parking spaces were not an issue in the neighborhood in the 1970's.
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Hamilton Townhomes in 2021 looking northwest from above the corner of 19th and Hamilton Streets.
authored by Joe Walsh, April 2021