Well into the second half of the 19th century, West Philadelphia was still country, dotted with sprawling estates and a few small villages. The introduction of efficient electric streetcars in 1890 changed everything. Within a few years, developers had carpeted the hilly landscape with buildings, filling in nearly every inch of every block with rowhouses.
Well, not every inch. As you travel the streets of West Philadelphia, you occasionally spot a stray building that stands alone, unconnected to those blocks of rowhouses. Given that developers are scouring the city for underused sites, it’s remarkable that a pair of tiny eccentrics have managed to survive undisturbed, one on 44th Street, the other on 55th.
The better-known building is a former carriage house on 44th Street midway between Locust and Spruce. A favorite neighborhood taco spot (most recently Honest Tom’s), it was erected in 1901 by the owner of a large twin home that then faced Spruce Street. That was rather late in the rowhouse-ization of West Philadelphia. Most of the street already had been filled in with handsome, dark red, three-story Victorians.
Given the tight location, the carriage house puts on quite a show. Faced in rustic gray schist, the tiny structure has a slate-covered, Second Empire-style mansard roof that is almost as tall as the ground floor. The metal crest at the top makes what is essentially a one-room building appear even more statuesque.
If that weren’t enough, the windows and doors are elaborately detailed. The single upper window is decked out with a classical frame, flanked by columnlike brackets and topped with an unusual rounded pediment. Both doors have similar frames, but their pediments are pointed. Although the carriage door was cut down at some point to make room for a shop window, some of the original X-braced mill work is still visible. The house on Spruce Street was later expanded and turned into an apartment building.
The one-room building on 55th Street, between Spruce and Delancey, is even smaller, but no less grand. The little structure was built in 1903 as a real estate office, according to Amy Lambert, a local preservation architect who has researched its history. It is essentially a redbrick version of a Greek temple. The simple Doric door frame dominates the facade, leaving just enough space for a pair of narrow arched windows, complete with keystones. Instead of inscribing a cornerstone with the date of construction, the builders embedded a flat stone in the roof pediment. The two lion statues at the base of the columns appear to be a recent addition.
It’s a big statement for a marketing office, especially one set up to sell a developer’s subdivision. The surrounding houses are smaller than the ones built a few blocks east, in the streets near the carriage house. Most are just two stories, although they come with front porches, a common West Philadelphia architectural feature. The developer probably hoped the tiny temple would enhance to the project’s status.
There is something irresistible about seeing a miniaturized version of classic architecture. If either of these structures were the size of, say, the Museum of the American Revolution, a neo-Georgian knockoff, the facades probably wouldn’t seem quite so charming. Recent scientific studies have found that people are attracted to small, cute things, whether they’re puppies or dolls. They may “provide our sensory-seeking brains with highly concentrated dosages of tantalizing stimulation,” one article has suggested. Or maybe we’re drawn to this pair because they’re close to our own size. Whatever the reason, these little buildings are so adorable, you almost want to hug them.