In the great marginal fringes of the city, some buildings sit in strange poses. Some are canted awkwardly across parking lots, others seem to straddle ancient fault lines. Silently, they defy the unrelenting rigor of the grid. They are silent adherents to the old laws of property.
Like any built environment, Philadelphia’s physical world is composite of building culture and legal arrangements governing private property. In some cases the property in the city is still governed by the legal strictures brought over by William Penn brought the Welcome. Certainly, the geometry and dimensions of some parcels have origins in the 17th century. The English legal tradition of metes and bounds to determine property still prevails in law and, eerily, in the built form of the city.
Metes and bounds describes the definition of a piece of property by identifying a series of bounds, or distinct features in the landscape (a tree, a crook in a creek, a stone, a man made reference or a road) and linking these features by metes or set distances. Starting a point of beginning, a written survey would specify a compass direction and length of run to the next feature and so on until returning to the point of beginning. For the purpose of legal deeds, a graphic survey would accompany the written description.
Because of the inherent fluidity of the metes and bounds system, roads were often preferred referents for property surveys. Thus property was organized around the ancient road system of the city much like the French in Louisiana set long property lots in great arcing fans against the sinuous bends of the Mississippi.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, architects of the grid began erasing the old thoroughfares with vigor. These roads and lanes linked small industrial hamlets to the larger market towns out in Philadelphia County and to the City itself. They were well descendants of indian paths which dutifully adhered to those high, dry ridges that afforded little topographic variation. Soon after the city and county were fused in 1854, mapmakers began devising elaborate promotional fictions that showed the grid stretching across the whole expanse of the combined city. These maps, like R.L. Barnes 1855 citywide atlas and Smedley’s imaginative 1862 atlas showed the neat orthogonal grid extending undaunted through rural regions, what would become Fairmount Park, and down to the marshy banks of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.
Despite cartographers ambitious revisions, property boundaries still cleaved to the skeleton of the colonial and early nineteenth century road system. Because most thoroughfares were still “legally open” until they were stricken by Council ordinance, property lines remained fixed to the ancient referents as the grid closed in upon them. Numerous property transfers over time concreted these old cadasters.
Today, South Philadelphia appears unrelentingly orthogonal. Only Point Breeze Avenue, Passyunk, Penrose and Moyamensing cut defiantly against the right angles, their names and courses indicating that they were means of crossing the Schuylkill and entering the old colonial core of the city. But in what was once known as “The Neck”, other roads and lanes spanned the marshy fastland, canals, and high dikes linking numerous small self-contained villages like Martinsville (just behind Ikea) and Frogtown. Roads like Stone House Lane, Old Second Street, League Island Road and Buck Road meandered through the sparslely populated almost coastal neighborhood of truck farms, sportsmens’ hotels and colonial farmhouses down in “the Ma’sh”.
By the 1880s and 1890s, cheap land and river frontage drew industrial firms to the Neck. To the east, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Greenwich Point terminal emerged as a coal, grain and lumber entrepot in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the very southern tip of Broad Street stood the solemn Navy Yard and to the west along the Schuylkill, the Gas Works and new petroleum refining and storage facilities. League Island (FDR) Park followed in the 1910s and 1920s, and began beckoning the intrepid residential developer. Despite its moderate success as a national fair, the Sesquicentennial Exhibition left “improvements” in its wake and did much to induce Philadelphians further south. But most of the residential infill development occurred between 1930-1950, the relentless grid creating the framework for growth.
If you look hard enough, you can still find vestiges of the old property boundaries set against the long lost road system.
At 3rd and Oregon, the Oregon Diner’s is pared into a pie shaped wedge because the property it sits on was defined by old Stone House Lane. To the east of the Diner, the CVS and the McDonald’s parking lot further east is angled according to old property lines coming off of Stone House Lane.
At the northeast corner of 6th and Vollmer Sts. a series of houses sit desolately amid a school parking lot, their eastern boundary angled in precise 45 degree angles off of the former bed of Old Second Street.
And an apartment building at the corner of Bigler Street and S. Darien St. is canted because of the former bed of League Island Road.
By layering Bromley’s 1895 Philadelphia atlas with current Google streets you can analyze the old property cadasters. To do your own analysis, check out phillygeohistory.org.