Based on research that historians have weaved together, 139 Elfreth’s Alley has likely been home to a carpenter, a sea captain, a saddler, and a French diplomat.
Soon, it may add Philadelphia tourists to its long list of tenants.
For the first time in nearly four decades, the centuries-old Elfreth’s Alley home is officially on the market, listed for $1.2 million. If received, the sale price would be a record for the block — considered the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in America.
Yet that isn’t the only notable thing about the potential sale of house No. 139. It’s also being marketed as a potential Airbnb.
“It’s narrow and it’s cozy, but we really see the buyer of this property being someone who can rent the property out based on its historical value and its proximity to historical attractions in Philadelphia,” said Ryan McManus, the listing agent and founder of the real estate company Agent PHL. “It’s a historical attraction itself. That’s [a] market for Airbnb.”
The prospect of 139 Elfreth’s Alley being turned into a short-term rental, though certainly no guarantee, marks the latest possible evolution of the quaint cobblestone block and underscores just how much the Old City neighborhood and the real estate market have changed.
Elfreth’s Alley — formed in the early 1700s after two landowners combined properties to make a cart path to the river — has seen and survived multiple uses (and non-uses) in its more than 300 years.
It was only a matter of time, market observers and local historians say, until the real estate industry tried to capitalize on its history with an Airbnb.
“I think it says a lot about the market,” said Tom DelColle, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent who has sold properties on Elfreth’s Alley. “In general, we’re seeing more and more people invest in real estate. I would say that a good one-third of my clients right now are investors.”
“New Yorkers or people from other metropolitan areas are seeing [Philadelphia] as a gold mine,” DelColle said. “You can still buy a property for $125,000 in Philadelphia. There aren’t many metropolitan areas where that can happen.”
To be sure, the house that currently stands at 139 Elfreth’s Alley, estimated to be built as early as 1747, is listed for nearly eight times more than Philadelphia’s median home price ($160,700, according to Zillow) — and an analysis of the block’s recent sales suggests that obtaining the $1.2 million sale price could be difficult. In the last five years, eight of the 29 properties facing the block have been traded, with only one fetching more than $700,000. That property, 133-135 Elfreth’s Alley, which sold in 2017 for $790,000, was the largest on the block at 2,848 square feet.
139 Elfreth’s Alley, by contrast, is 12 feet wide, and totals 912 square feet. Still, McManus remains confident that the property can fetch $1.2 million, especially amid a local housing market that he said has “never been so strong.”
“The asking price is not reflective of market comps,” McManus said. “It’s more of a collectible piece of real estate that a nostalgic investor would want to add to their collection.”
139 Elfreth’s Alley — if transformed into a short-term rental — would not be the street’s first Airbnb, with at least one other property on the block operating as a short-term rental investment. That property, which can sleep 12 guests, is currently listed on Airbnb for $849 a night, though smaller portions of the home can be rented for less.
“If you can stay right on the most historic block in the country, that’s pretty cool,” said Mike McCann, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Philly. “Personally, I would consider that a positive thing.”
Other Philadelphians linked to the alley agreed.
“It’s kind of exciting,” said Ted Maust, associate director of the Elfreth’s Alley Association, the street’s advocacy group, which also operates the Museum House inside one of the block’s homes. “The opportunity to live and spend time with any of these homes is really exciting, so if more people get to do that, I don’t personally have a problem with that.”
“If we suddenly moved to a place where half the houses were Airbnb, that would be a little bit unsustainable, I would think, if there became a habit of late-night, loud people,” Maust continued. “This is a quiet place."
Since Airbnb’s launch in 2007 by two San Francisco roommates looking to earn a few bucks by renting out air mattresses in their loft, the platform has exploded in popularity, with more than six million rentals in 81,000 cities. Listings inside historic properties are not unusual, with travelers now able to rent properties such as a 14t-century monastery in Suffolk, England, or a three-story Gothic Melville Castle in Scotland.
Last year, according to Airbnb data, 404,000 people used Airbnb while visiting Philadelphia, and in 2017, the city had 8,400 listings. Philadelphia in 2015 became the largest U.S. city to legalize the platform, with legislation allowing residents to rent out a property for up to 180 days a year.
McManus’ interest in putting another Airbnb on Elfreth’s Alley illustrates the changes that the tiny street has undergone over three centuries. Though initially occupied by artisans and merchants, some of whom ran businesses from their homes, the alley is often remembered for the famous colonial-era figures who may — or may not — have traveled there. A New York Times article from 1964 recounted how Betsy Griscom — later Betsy Ross — walked the street on her way to school, and how Benjamin Franklin once roomed at 108 Elfreth’s Alley.
Maust, from the alley’s association, said it’s unlikely that Franklin stayed on the street, though he can’t “disprove it.” Instead, he said, Stephen Girard, the merchant who helped finance the War of 1812, was likely the most famous figure to occupy a house.
(And though McManus is currently marketing 139 Elfreth’s Alley as the oldest on the block, pointing to a plaque on the property that cites 1703, Maust said the plaque more likely represents the year the alley was formed. He said some homes on the block are older.)
With all of the tales surrounding the street, it is often easy to forget the times that Elfreth’s Alley barely survived. For decades, homes on the block faced threats of demolition, encroaching development, and neglect. From the 1890s to the 1930s, Maust said, Philadelphia even rebranded the block — named for 18th-century blacksmith Jeremiah Elfreth — as Cherry Street. At least one of the street’s homes, No. 106, is thought to have been demolished in the last century.
Perhaps the largest threat that the alley faced was the construction of I-95 in the 1950s, when the Federal Highway Administration proposed demolishing nearly half the block. The Elfreth’s Alley Association — formed by resident Dolly Ottey to protect the street in the 1930s — responded by delivering 12,000 signatures to City Hall, pleading for the street to be spared.
Today, the alley is designated a National Historic Landmark and listed on Philadelphia’s historic register, protecting it from demolition or alteration as new development, such as the National apartments, has popped up around it.
139 Elfreth’s Alley, with its bright-red shutters and door, is perhaps the block’s most famous house. It has landed on commercials, postcards, and book covers. It’s a frequent background for wedding photo shoots. Tourists so frequently knock on the door that the current owner, Alfred Krawitz, said that he jokingly contemplated gluing the knocker to the door.
Yet the building might not be standing today if not for the late Philadelphia builder Sam Marinucci, who purchased the property in 1974 after it had sat vacant for 25 years. At the time, a wall had fallen in. The chimney collapsed.
Restoring the building was a “passion project,” his daughter-in-law Angela Marinucci said this week. He devoted nearly four years to the interior details.
Krawitz contends that, when he purchased the rowhouse in 1978 for $53,000, he knew nothing of the block except that it was “old.” But after living there for nearly three decades (he moved out five years ago), he came to love the little “ordinary” home — even when tourists tried to walk through his open front door.
Still, he noted, the home is “fragile" and in “mint condition.”
He offered one piece of advice to the next owner: If the interiors “got messed up, it would be hard to replace.”