Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them.
Elfreth’s Alley feels a bit like Disney World and a bit like Venice, so beautiful and so touristy that it seems more like a painting or a museum than an actual place to live.
But several people live in the Alley’s 32 houses. That’s why it has the distinction as America’s oldest continuously inhabited street. They put up with sometimes-loud, sometimes-intrusive tourists, knowing they have the perks of living near some of Philadelphia’s best shopping, restaurants and entertainment while spending every day in a slice of history.
“It’s a miracle this street is still here because you always have developers wanting to do weird things,” says Sue Kettell, who has lived on Elfreth’s Alley for 40 years.
Most of the houses on Elfreth’s Alley are three stories tall, with some of them being four stories. Nearly every house has a little backyard. In the 1700s and 1800s, multiple families would live in one house, often keeping the first floor as a store or for work. Dolly Madison and Betsy Ross also lived on the street at one point. The homes are now mostly inhabited by couples and families.
Sue Kettell and her husband Robert Kettell moved to Philadelphia 40 years ago when Robert was studying at Penn. They heard from a friend about Elfreth’s Alley, loved the charm of the street and got a great deal paying $210 a month. The house was in less-than-stellar condition. Sue Kettell recalls seeing mice feces in the kitchen, the stove door falling off and other signs of disrepair. They rented for 12 years, fixing it up, and then bought the house. They’ve stayed since, raising two kids along the way.
The ground level of their house opens to a family room followed by a kitchen and a courtyard. The floors creak with nearly every step — most are the original wood, including red pine on one of the levels.
The second floor features a master bedroom, bathroom and office room. The third floor also has two rooms. The Kettells have set up the attic on the fourth floor to be used as a bedroom, too. When they moved in they found an old pair of Victorian shoes in a closet on this level.
“There are probably artifacts buried underneath things we’ll never find,” Kettell says.
Other aspects of the house have been around for centuries, such as little buttons protruding from the wall that once held gas lights, chair rails and fireplaces. Most of the houses have several fireplaces that were used for heating.
Prices for homes vary, but a few went on the market last year ranging in price from $599,000 to $850,000. The small sizes of rooms, spiral staircases, narrow halls and odd requirements (only the houses on the north side of the street can get cable because of digging issues on the other side) keep costs from getting any higher.
“It’s cozy,” Sue Kettell says. “It’s not perfect. I love it that way.”
Most of Elfreth’s Alley residents are personable.
“You have to like people,” says Cyndi Gutierrez, who has lived there for 18 years.
That’s because crowds walk through Elfreth’s Alley on a continuous basis. Gutierrez, who carries a business card touting herself as an “informationalist” who wants to help people experience the best of Philadelphia, regularly chats with people walking by. She says her only major problems are when tourists step on cellar doors, knock on windows or doors or put cigarettes in flower bins.
Kettell says despite all the tourist traffic, the street isn’t usually that noisy. Only the big groups of school children who come by get really loud. And even when the kids come, Kettell will sometimes invite them in to “explain how the houses are different.”
Prices for Elfreth’s Alley have risen over the years, but neighbors insist the neighborhood retains a working-class feel. Gutierrez and Kettell say the most of the neighbors know each other and friendly with each other, bonded by their respect for the street.
The crowds clearly don’t bother Gutierrez. A few minutes after saying she gets tired of kids climbing on cellar doors and peeking into windows, she volunteers without asking to take a group picture of tourists from Uzbekistan. She also volunteers to take a picture of a couple, convincing them to kiss for the photo.
How you can get a look at Elfreth’s Alley houses
Don’t just walk in. Gutierrez remembers shortly after she moved to the street not keeping her door locked all the time. One night while eating a meal of steak and potatoes, a woman walked through the front door, followed by her husband, and just started looking around.
“I say, ‘I live here. I’m having my dinner,’” Gutierrez remembers.
The woman didn’t pay any attention and just asked if some piece of wood was from the original house.
“I pick up my fork and knife,” Gutierrez says, “and say, ‘we have an open house, but it’s not today.’”
Top image courtesy of Visit Philly