Neighborhood History


William Allen, prominent Philadelphia merchant and Chief Justice of the Province of Pennsylvania, built his mansion and estate on Germantown Avenue in 1750, and the area eventually took the building's name, Mount Airy, as its own.[1] Before this, the area was known as Beggarstown (also Beggars-town or Beggar Town). Beggarstown is a corruption of Bebberstown, an area of Germantown Avenue between Gorgas Lane and Cliveden Street that had been named for Rev. Mathias van Bebber.

Much of Mount Airy was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spreading out from Germantown Avenue and two railroad lines. Large three-story, grey stone Victorian, colonial revival, and Norman and Costwald-style houses and mansions, with stained glass windows and slate roofs are situated on many of the area's tree lined streets, and dominate districts like West Mount Airy's Pelham section.

Racial integration

The area is recognized by many civil rights groups as one of the first successfully integrated neighborhoods in America. [citations needed] Mount Airy continues to be the most well-blended neighborhood in Philadelphia, and was recently cited in Oprah Winfrey's O magazine for its racial diversity and neighborhood appeal. The community has also been recognized by US News & World Report for racial harmony and balance.

The overall proportion of blacks and whites is similar to the overall demographics of Philadelphia. There is a large Jewish community in Mount Airy, and the Germantown Jewish Centre is located in West Mount Airy. Mount Airy has long been the neighborhood of choice for the city's elite African Americans. Mount Airy is also known for being gay-friendly, and two-mother or two-father families are not uncommon in parts of the neighborhood. [citations needed]


Mount Airy's main commercial district lies along cobblestoned Germantown Avenue, which also divides the neighborhood between East and West Mount Airy. Like Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy has a large array of Mom and Pop style boutiques and eateries that cater to a baby boomer generation consumer — especially those who live and work in Philadelphia, and seek alternatives to the suburban malls. The style of this shopping district along The Avenue gives it a small town feel, though there are also a few chain stores, such as the Wawa at Germantown and Allens Lane that serves as an unofficial nexus for teenagers. One of the stand-out features along Germantown Avenue is the Sedgwick Theater, a 1920s Art Deco movie theater, one of the few remaining in Philadelphia.


In addition to racial integration, Mount Airy is sometimes noted for the presence of many of its residents having advanced degrees. [citations needed] This could explain why Mount Airy's residents tend to be more engaged in Philadelphia City politics, which may give Mount Airy a leg-up when it comes to resources and city services. The political tone of the neighborhood is predominantly liberal.[citations needed] Mount Airy is favored as a neighborhood of choice for city politicians, judges, and others who are required to reside within the city's limits.[citations needed] One prominent Mount Airy politician is former Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz.

Mount Airy residents often resist the interest from larger, trendy chain stores, and prefer their small co-op grocery stores and local, tented farmers' markets. [citations needed] Upscale ethnic restaurants are common and well supported.

West Mount Airy has a reputation for being affluent, similar to Chestnut Hill, and the East more working class, although counter-examples abound. [citations needed] In general, the affluence of the neighborhood increases with proximity to Fairmount Park and Chestnut Hill. West Mount Airy has a small commercial district of its own centered around Greene Street and Carpenter Lane; East Mount Airy has a more diffuse distribution of corner stores, and commercial corridors along Chew and Stenton Avenues.

In 2005, the median home sale price in the 19119 zip code was $188,409. This was an increase of 18% over the median sale price in 2004. [citations needed]


Public schools in the neighborhood include C. W. Henry, Henry H. Houston Elementary School, Eleanor Cope Emlen, J. E. Hill, Leeds Middle School, and the Academy of the Middle Years (AMY) Northwest. Most of these schools are much less ethnically diverse than the neighborhood as a whole, Henry being a notable exception. [citations needed] Mount Airy's neighborhood public high school is Martin Luther King High which is located in East Germantown. Private schools include the Waldorf School of Philadelphia, Project Learn, and Holy Cross Catholic School.

Many children living in Mount Airy go to school outside the neighborhood. [citations needed] Some of Philadelphia's best regarded magnet schools, such as Girls' High, CAPA, Central and Masterman traditionally have a disproportionate amount of their studentry from Mount Airy. Germantown Friends School and Greene Street Friends School, Quaker schools in nearby Germantown, number among some of the numerous private schools in the area that have a sizable population from Mount Airy.


Most residents drive and the commute to Center City takes no more than 20 minutes without heavy traffic, but the SEPTA Regional Rail lines are very popular for getting into Center City. The R8 runs through West Mount Airy, and the R7 through East Mount Airy. The neighborhood is also served by bus routes 18, 23 (formerly a trolley line), 53 (formerly a trolley line), H, XH and L.

History Courtesy of
  • Pelham History
    By Burt Froom

    In his expansive 1989 work, Greek Revival America, Roger Kennedy says that Phil-Ellena, George Carpenter’s 1841 mansion, named for his young wife Ellen, was “the largest of America’s Greek Revival palaces.”

    Because George Carpenter thus championed Greek Revival architecture, let us look at this style more closely. The Greek Revival style was in full swing from 1825 to 1855. Where did it come from? The generation of the 18th century founding fathers of our country grew up with the Georgian architectural style, imported from their mother country, England. But the succeeding generations of Americans rejected Georgian styles as too English and imperial.

    Greek Revival buildings, whether public buildings or private homes, often emphasize a columned and pedimented entrance. Philadelphia was at the center of this movement that swept the country’s public and domestic building until it was succeeded by the Picturesque Italianate and Gothic styles in the 1850s.

    A Philadelphian, Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), was the great champion of Greek Revival architecture. Biddle traveled in Greece in 1805, and fell in love with Greek architecture for its freshness and simplicity that expressed the new American values of democracy and freedom. Biddle was the historian (1814) of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He became president of the Second Bank of the United States in 1823. He aspired to make Philadelphia the “Athens of America.” Biddle’s competition for the design the Second Bank was won by William Strickland. His Greek temple (1824), that still stands on Chestnut Street between 4th and 5th, was based on the Parthenon in Athens.

    Among the noted architects of the American Greek Revival style are Benjamin Latrobe, William Strickland and Thomas Ustick Walter. The English-born Latrobe (1764-1820) introduced the Greek Revival style to the U.S. He worked with Thomas Jefferson on the Virginia state capitol, and he was the third architect of the U.S. Capitol building. He designed the north portico of the White House and the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Baltimore

    Strickland (1787-1854) was a student of Latrobe, and, in addition to the Second Bank, he designed the Merchant’s Exchange (1834) with its semi-circular portico at 132 South 3rd Street, and the Tennessee State Capitol Building in Nashville. Walter (1804-1887) was trained by Strickland. He designed the Greek Revival buildings of Girard College (1833), under the patronage of Biddle. Walter designed the extension of the House and Senate wings of the U.S. Capitol building, and the cast-iron dome (1855-63). Biddle chose Walter to transform his simple 18th century home, Andalusia, in Bucks County, with porticos of fluted Doric columns (1834).

    The Fairmount Water Works (1812-15) are also early Greek Revival style. Phil-Ellena is a part of this august company. It is not unusual that George Carpenter did not employ a noted architect for Phil-Ellena. Our neighbor, Jon Farnham, who is Acting Historic Preservation Officer of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, has told me that the professional architect was not common until after the Civil War, and that wealthy men often designed their own homes. The presence of so many columned porches among our Pelham homes is testimony to continuing Greek Revival influence at the end of the 19th century.

    In my next article, we will walk into the Phil-Ellena mansion to explore its interior.

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