Nestled between Pine and Lombard and 19th and 20th Streets lies a concealed and curious block cut into quarters by the east-west alleyway Waverly Street and perhaps the best-named thoroughfare in Philadelphia, Uber St. While the boundary streets: Pine, Lombard, 20th and 19th have remained, the names of the internal alleys have changed dramatically.
If you’ve had an opportunity to walk easterly along Waverly and turning the corner northward onto 19th you may have noticed an inconspicuous plaque reading, “The Ringgold Place Houses (Built 1862) have been registered on the National Register of Historic Places.” Looking at the inlaid sone street sign on 1902 Waverly (below) compounds the confusion. Somewhat like our modern developers whose projects names are seemingly plucked out of thin air, the name “Ringgold Place” was contrived by an ambitious Philadelphia builder.
The naming and renaming of Philadelphia’s streets throughout the 19th century confirms the unbounded power of the individual (and [with few exceptions] his capital) to transform the basic organizational grammar of the city. While much has been written about Philadelphia as a city forged by groups of “private money makers,” the creation of the Ringgold Place Houses development — and the renaming of streets that followed — seems to reinforce this interpretation of Philadelphia’s growth.
Ringgold Place Houses were the creation of Walter Allison, a builder/carpenter who is listed in McElroy’s 1861 Philadelphia City Directory as having offices at 24 S. 18th St. and S. 21st St. From the scant materials that exist, it appears that Allison enjoyed a level of prosperity and power in antebellum and Civil War Philadelphia. In 1856 he was elected into the prestigious Carpenters’ Company and was politically aligned to the Republican Party. In 1865 he urged members of the Company to establish a “contribution box for benefit of the Soldiers and Sailors Home.”
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Allison probably built entire blocks of two to three story rowhomes, perhaps designing them himself — each block with its own idiosyncrasies. By the 1840s builders like Allison were in great demand: medium scale industrial operations fled the dense old core of the colonial city and began situating their works in the undeveloped blocks west of Broad.
Now a fashionable string of homes, the Ringgold Place Houses are distinctive examples of mid-19th century workers’ housing. Although the plaque claims the Houses were constructed in 1862, analysis of the Hexamer and Locher 1858 map of Philadelphia (above) shows that only 14 units were built during the period 1858-60. In 1858, modern-day Waverly was Watt St. while Uber appears as Elm St. (later Ford St.). Watt St. did not extend through the block; it terminated just before 19th St. in the backyard of a horse “car shop.” The rest of the units were constructed between 1860-62, thus the different lintels in the 1912-1913 Waverly units and the 1910-1911 twins (above).
The houses were in close proximity to the Berkshire Cotton Mill pictured above, which was situated in the northwest quadrant bounded by Pine, Elm, and Watt St. A four story mill employing about 150 hands, it probably prompted the construction of the Ringgold Place Homes. With this industrial operation in such close proximity it is doubtful the area was fashionable. Though many Philadelphia homes were sometimes occupied by several families, it seems the Homes’ were built expressly to allow subdivision. The most distinctive feature of the Homes: the dual sub-street access and above street grade stair access effectively divided the homes into two private spheres. Of course, two families or bachelor mill hands meant more rent.
Though Allison probably drafted most of his earlier housing designs, this dual access feature may have been the product of a trained architect, perhaps someone familiar with trends in industrial worker housing. As Richard Webster has pointed out in Philadelphia Preserved, by the 1870s “row developments…appear to be the work of architects rather than builders or house carpenters.” It is unclear whether Allison constructed the homes with any broader social purpose than to derive more rent. Yet, most homes were sturdy and workers soon gravitated toward home ownership in the Quaker City.
The reason why Allison renamed Watt St. “Ringgold Place” may have been to soften the idea of industrial slums, maybe to suggest English coziness. Yet the innovative design and the branding suggests a modern approach to housing marketing. What is definitely known from the National Historic Register documentation is that the street was named for Col. Samuel Ringgold, an innovative artillerist on Gen. Winfield Scott’s staff and the first officer killed in the Mexican War in 1846. Shortly after his death an almost national cult of devotion sprang up to memorialize his heroic actions at the Battle of Palo Alto. But these public tributes would have faded by the 1850s, calling into question the 1861 date for the establishment of the street and the construction of the Ringgold Place row. Presumably, Allison had a soft spot for Ringgold well after the Mexican War. Since some of the homes were definitely constructed by 1858 and the western half of the street remained Watt, the development may have been known informally as Ringgold Place but not on the official city plan.
By 1875, maps show current-day Waverly St. divided into Wall St., (probably incorrectly) and Ringgold St. By 1885, Wall St. had reverted to Watt. Sometime between 1885 and 1895, the Berkshire Mills ceased operation and the lot turned into fashionable rowhomes — perhaps reflecting the growing influence of Rittenhouse Square upon its surrounding environs. Sometime between 1895 and 1942 the streets assumed their current names.