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Girard Estate: ‘A pocket of suburbia’ that was home to Stephen Girard, Rocky II and a mob boss

It’s all about the neighborhoods here in Philadelphia, and Billy Penn will take a deep dive into many of them with these “postcards” throughout the year. We’ll go over their history, their demographics, community centers and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love Girard Estate? Buy the stuff.

Once called a “pocket of suburbia” that’s still in the city, Girard Estate is one of Philadelphia’s most secluded neighborhoods — it’s really more like a village of its own. Falling in South Philly, this family-oriented neighborhood is largely designated historic and is chock full of stories about the 480 homes built here in the early 20th century.

The neighborhood has been home to influential Italian-American families ranging from politicians to mobsters, and now the community members are working to preserve the history found here off of West Passyunk Avenue.

Welcome to Girard Estate:

Boundaries

Boundaries for Girard Estate, also known as “Girard Estates,” are all over the place depending on what you’re talking about. Some consider the neighborhood to be a small portion of South Philly that’s five square blocks in between Shunk and Porter streets, AKA the Girard Estates Historic District.

Others consider it to stretch from West Passyunk Avenue to the north, Oregon Avenue to the south, 25th Street to the west and 17th Street to the east. We’re going to go with the larger designation.

Note: Census-related data like population and renter ratios will include a larger area because of the way the census tract is set up. The tract reaches south to the Schuylkill Expressway.

Population

3,734

Population age 20 to 34

1,107 or 29.6 percent

Racial composition

Girard Estate is a largely Italian-American neighborhood and consists of 99.1 percent white residents, according to the latest census figures.

Rent vs. Own

17.9 percent vs. 82.1 percent

Home prices

The median home value in Girard Estate is $149,000, which represents a 3.5 percent increase over the last year, according to Zillow.

Name origin

The historic district area of Girard Estate, according to The Inquirer, is the “direct descendant” of the one-time farm of Stephen Girard, one of the richest men in the country during the early part of the 19th century. His farm included a pear orchard and America’s first artichokes. When he died in 1831, he left his farm — along with the rest of his estate — to the City of Philadelphia.

There seems to be some debate over whether the neighborhood is called “Girard Estate” or “Girard Estates.” For the purpose of this story, we’re going to use “Girard Estate,” as that is how the neighborhood association identifies.

History

In 1797, Stephen Girard purchased more than 500 acres of land in the neighborhood that would one day be named after him. At the time, this portion of South Philly was called “Passyunk Township.” Girard created his large summer estate Gentilhommiere by 1825 which included the land of what is now Girard Park.

When Girard died in the early 1830s and left his estate to the city, he had one stipulation: Any income incurred from the estate would have to support Girard College, which was then a school in North Philly for poor, white orphan boys. From there, the trustees of the estate hired James H. Windrim and his son John T. Windrim to create a neighborhood “of ideal city homes.”

Originally, the houses they built were rented out to raise money for the college. But in the 1950s, tenants who lived there became angered over rising rents prices and successfully appealed to the court for permission to sell. All 480 homes that made up the area were sold within two weeks.

The neighborhood, part of which received a local historic designation in 1999, has always retained its feel of being a village within a city, a small community with a canopy of tall trees and streets lined with historic architecture that now — because of the designation — can’t be touched.

What Used to Be

Stephen Girard’s summer house

girards house
PlanPhilly

Technically, this house is still here, but it’s “What Used to Be” because of what it once held. In addition to being a working farm, Gentilhommiere was Stephen Girard’s summer home where the Preservation Alliance notes he “pursued an interest in scientific agriculture.” Girard was once the wealthiest men in America and is credited with saving the government’s finances following the War of 1812. This place he called home in the summertime isn’t currently open to the public.

Alumni

Phil Testa

Phil Testa

Phil Testa

This one-time mob boss lived at 2211 W. Porter St. in Girard Estate. Known as the “Chicken Man,” Testa was once head of the Scarfo organized crime family here in Philly. But a nail bomb planted on his front porch in 1981 exploded, killing Testa and setting off the mafia wars of the 1980s.

Rep. Maria Donatucci

Rep. Maria Donatucci

Rep. Maria Donatucci

State Rep. Maria Donatucci grew up across the street from Girard Park in Girard Estate and called the neighborhood home for most of her life.  Donatucci has been representing Philadelphia in the General Assembly since 2011 when her husband Robert Donatucci passed away and she ran for his seat in a special election.

Backdrop

Rocky II

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 4.01.21 PM
Google Maps

Parts of Rocky II were filmed on the 2300-block of S. Lambert Street in Girard Estate in front of a 90-year-old house belonging to Rocky and Adrian. The 1,036 sq. ft. home was only used for exterior shots in the movie.

What to check out

The historic homes

google maps
Google Maps

All built between 1906 and 1916, the homes in the historic district of Girard Estate (between Shunk and Porter streets) were, according to the neighborhood association, built in different styles including Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Prairie, Arts and Crafts and Spanish Colonial/Mission.

Controversy

Quartermaster Plaza

This quickly developing area at 23rd Street and Oregon Avenue caused controversy with the Girard Estate Area Residents. Some community members didn’t want large stores coming to the plaza in 2004 when it opened, for fear of cheapening the neighborhood. But the plaza ended up opening anyway, and now holds a BJ’s, a Home Depot and more. It’s 98 percent occupied and was recently sold off to a New York-based company.

Community gathering spaces

Girard Park is really the center of the neighborhood activity here in Girard Estate. This park is where community members hold events like open movie nights and meet-and-greets. The park is located at 2101 W. Shunk St.

Instagram this

The preserved, historic architecture.

 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had a typo in the Scarfo family name.

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