Girard Estate Historic District Historical Significance
The Board of Directors of City Trusts, the trustees for the estate of Stephen Girard, developed the farmland surrounding Girard's former country estate in Philadelphia to earn revenue for Girard College. The resulting district of 456 semi-detached houses, 25 roughhouses and one apartment-house deviated greatly from the usual brick roughhouse development of South Philadelphia. The Girard Estate Historic District possesses significance for its design as an urban response to suburbanization, evocative of the "Garden City"; its association with a single architectural firm, James H. Windrim, succeeded by his son, John T. Windrim; and for its connection with Stephen Girard. The garden-like setting and architecturally mixed, semi-detached houses create a neighborhood unique in character and development. It also allowed the City of Philadelphia, through the Board of Directors of City Trusts, to enter the real estate market as developer and landlord.
A merchant by trade, Girard established himself in banking and insurance ventures and made himself the wealthiest man in America by the time of his death. His chief residence was the farm and house in Passyunk Township, now South Philadelphia, known as Gentilhommiere. Upon his death in 1831, he left the bulk of his estate to the City of Philadelphia, which created the Board of Directors of City Trusts to oversee the estate. At the turn of the 20th century, the Board searched for ways to generate funds for the College. The restriction in Girard's will forbidding the sale of his property led the Board to establish Girard Estate as a community of rental properties.
Almost all of the streets within the District have trees lined at the curb, many houses still have a patch of grass at the front and almost all of the buildings have side as well as rear yards creating a park-like setting for the District. The architecture of the houses has a wide variety of styles, including Bungalow, Prairie, Mission, Jacobean Revival and Colonial Revival. The Board aimed to provide a suburban-like atmosphere for those who needed to live within close proximity to the City. The design of the houses in Girard Estate resulted from a father-son architectural team, James and John Windrim. The influence of the Arts and Crafts and Prairie styles are evident in the Girard Estate houses. Numerous windows for light and air, yards on two or more sides and front porches were included in the design of each house for the comfort and health of the tenants. The Board took pride in the workmanship and use of innovative mechanical systems in the houses.
As a part of the self-contained community, the development's design also included a school and library within its boundaries. In 1913, the Board of Education built the Jacobean Revival school on the southeast comer of 22nd and Ritner Streets, designed by Henry deCoursey Richards. Also built in 1913, the Passyunk Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library was one of twenty-five libraries built by the City of Philadelphia using a grant from Andrew Carnegie. The Board added a series of garages at the south side of the development to accommodate the automobile.
By 1916, Girard Estate reached its full development and the Board did not add to the site. Rent increases caused friction between tenants and the Board throughout the subsequent decades and Girard Estate did not escape the financial troubles of the Depression. By July 1950, the Board sought court permission to sell the first of the 481 houses within the development. Like their rentals, these houses sold in record numbers, with the entire development sold in just over two years. Now in private ownership, the community of Girard Estate has resisted large-scale change. The District, with only a few exceptions, has retained most of its architectural integrity. By naming the neighborhood the Girard Estate Historic District, the City of Philadelphia now recognizes the importance of this unique 20th century housing development.