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 Society Hill? Buy the stuff.
Welcome to Society Hill, which was once the playground of Philadelphia’s rich and famous and has become so again — after about 50 years as a slum. But after development, gentrification and a push by the city to restore the neighborhood’s historical significance, Society Hill rose again. Now the charming cobblestone streets are a clear sign of affluence among the highest concentration of 18th and early 19th century buildings in the country.
Society Hill is bounded by Walnut Street to the North, Lombard Street to the South, Front Street to the East and 8th Street to the West.
Population Age 20-to-34
1,617 or 26.7 percent.
Rent vs. Own
40 percent vs. 60 percent
Median home price
The median home price in Society Hill in 2012 was $832,500, which was up 28 percent from 2010, according to research conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust.
Society Hill is named after the Free Society of Traders, a company that was chartered in 1682 by William Penn to control trade and commerce with England.
Just a year after Penn first landed on the site of the new city of Philadelphia in 1682, he granted this area South of Market Street — then called High Street — to the Free Society of Traders which was based near Dock Creek (Not Dock Street…more on that later). It started being called the Society’s Hill, and later was modified to just become Society Hill, according to the Society Hill Civic Association. By the middle of the 1700s, wealthy families in Philadelphia started moving into the Society’s Hill area, as High Street was booming with commercialization. Society Hill enjoyed huge relevance while Philly was the capital of both the state and the country.
But after the capital of the state was moved to Harrisburg and the country to Washington, the decline began. While some made money off the industrial revolution, much of it wasn’t being spent in the city’s historical areas like Society Hill and Old City. The city became concentrated west at Broad and Market Streets, and the wealthy folks who once lived in Society Hill bolted for Rittenhouse, Chestnut Hill and eventually the ‘burbs. By the mid-20th century, Society Hill was a straight-up slum and was kinda known as the has-been area of the city. Other than some of the historical buildings left, there wasn’t much in the neighborhood in terms of architecture.
(Above: A ceiling at the food market off Second Street falls apart in Society Hill in 1956. Courtesy of Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Archives.)
Some factories were built and a food market was built along Dock Street, but it would be years before Society Hill returned to the prominence it holds today.
Then, in the 50s when the country was in an urban renewal mode, a guy named Edmund Bacon wanted to save Society Hill. He was in charge of the Philadelphia Planning Commission and created a master plan to restore the area without razing buildings and rebuilding them. The huge food market that sat on Dock Street was moved to South Philly so that the area could be less focused on commercialization and more on being a historical and residential hub. A lot of this was expedited by the construction and opening of the Society Hill Towers in 1964 which allowed for hundreds of new apartments.
Under Mayor Richardson Dilworth in the 1960s, Society Hill saw a gentrification boom that restored the neighborhood to what it had once been. Today, it’s home to some of the city’s most impressive historical preservation projects and sits as the No. 1 richest zip code in Philadelphia.
What Used to Be
Dock Street was once Dock Creek
Bear with me here: Dock Street used to be a creek. According to Robert Morris Skaler’s book “Society Hill and Old City,” the Blue Anchor Inn was the first building built in Philadelphia and it sits near current day Front and Dock Streets. The tavern abutted the Dock Creek, which flowed from the Northwest right into the city’s commercial center at the time. But by 1784, the creek had become so polluted that it was covered over and paved, becoming Dock Street.
John Penn – The grandson of William Penn and the last Colonial governor of Pennsylvania once lived at 242 S. 3rd St., a home that isn’t open to the public.
Dolley Madison – On the corner of 4th and Walnut is the John Todd house, where Todd lived with his wife Dolley Payne. After Todd died of Yellow Fever, Dolley married James Madison who went on to become president.
Thomas Sully – This famous 19th century painter rose to prominence in Philadelphia and the country and lived in a residence near 5th and Spruce Streets.
Benjamin Franklin – Well, kinda. Franklin founded the Philadelphia Contributionship, the oldest property insurance company in America that was located at 212 S. 4th Street.
Chase Utley – The Philadelphia Phillie lives in a sweet penthouse in the Society Hill Towers.
Lynne Abraham – Former district attorney and current mayoral candidate Lynne Abraham lives in Society Hill.
– Parts of M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense were filmed in Society Hill, including homes near and on Delancey Street. While the Philadelphia-native filmed his main characters in a home southwest of Center City, the psychologist in the film lived on Delancey Street in
Society Hill. Update: The psychologist in the movie, by most accounts, lived on Delancey Street closer to Rittenhouse, though most of the plot took place in Old City and Society Hill.
– The Mother Bethel A.M.E. church sits at 6th and Lombard Streets in Society Hill and was visited by African American activists ranging from Frederick Douglass to Lucretia Mott to Rosa Parks.
Things to check out
The Philadelphia history tours are worth doing. But beware: Don’t take everything they say at face value, and try to avoid this totally racist and terrible carriage driver. But riding around Society Hill with a guide is really one of the best ways to see the neighborhood and appreciate the historical architecture, especially of the regal old homes and the Society Hill Synagogue located at the corner of 4th and Spruce. This was built in the mid-1800s, and you can read more about the amazing structure here.
Be sure to check out the Magnolia and Rose Gardens located on Locust Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets. The garden was planted by the Daughters of the American Revolution and dedicated to the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
While you’re in the area, go see the Merchants’ Exchange Building located near Dock Street, Third Street, and Walnut Street. It was built in the 1830s and by 1875 the Philadelphia Stock Exchange took place there.
Make sure to take a peek inside St. Peter’s Episcopal Church which was first used for services in 1761 and is now one of the cherished landmarks of the Society Hill neighborhood. Interesting fact from VisitPhilly: “Among those buried in the churchyard are the chiefs of eight Indian tribes who died from smallpox while in town to meet with President Washington in 1793.”
And last but not least, be sure to visit the Second Bank of the United States building, located at Fourth and Chestnut. It was only the second federally-authorized bank in America, and opened in 1816. But it’s time as a functioning bank was short-lived, and by 1841, it had liquidated. But it still boasts some of the most impressive architecture in the city.
The Dilworth House
(Photo courtesy of PlanPhilly)
A court battle has ensued for years over the fate of the house above. The home was built in the 1950s for former mayor Richardson Dilworth and is widely seen by Society Hill residents as a signal of his dedication to a Center City revival and of the turning point for the neighborhood. In the early 2000s, controversy ensued after developer John Turchi, who owned the home, wanted to raze it to make way for a luxury high-rise of condos.
He claimed it had no historical or architectural relevance. The Society Hill Civic Association and a number of local politicians disagreed. After uproar, Turchi said he’d changed his plan and would keep the facade of the structure and only demolish the back end that faced 6th Street. But residents weren’t happy with that either, and even after the Historical Commission granted Turchi permission to demolish part of the building, the courts sided with the residents and disallowed the demolition permit.
Community Gathering Places
Old Pine Community Center – 401 Lombard St.
Headhouse Square Farmers Market – Near the intersection of 2nd Street and South Street, this well-attended Farmers Market is held every Sunday May through December and features more than 25 farmers.
Between the history and the cobblestones and beautiful brick houses, every corner of Society Hill is an A+ Instagram spot. Washington Square Park should go without saying, and any of the historical residences along Delancey Street are perfect. But Headhouse Square on Second Street between Pine and South Streets is perfect.
Engagement shoot yesterday in lots of Philly’s great neighborhoods #societyhill #headhousesquare #philadelphia #engagement #weddingphotographer #vscocam #vsco #35mm A photo posted by sarah brookhart (@seerahbrookhart) on