After a $70+ million restoration, Alden Park Apartments now recalls its heyday in the 1920’s, when its lush grounds and dramatic vistas were once a playground for the well-to-do.
As we prepare to celebrate a new Alden Park this July 22nd, local historian Joe Minardi sets the stage with the scoop on this old Strawbridge estate that became an architectural wonderland in our own backyard.
The 1920s was an exciting time of change and optimism in America. It was an era of bootleggers, flappers, and hot jazz music. Before the stock market crash of 1929 millions of Americans were getting rich in the stock market. Bankers were more than eager to lend big dollars to builders with big dreams. Alden Park Manor on Wissahickon Avenue was just such a dream.
Alden Park Manor was the third property of that name built in the United States, the first built in Detroit in 1921, followed by another in Brookline, Massachusetts. The Jacobean Revival style apartments were an early example of high-density living set in a bucolic park-like setting. This design was unusual for its time, having no courtyards, recesses, or backyards.
Ninety percent of Alden Park’s 20+ acres were covered with beautiful lawns, gardens, and abundant trees. The original three towers contained 270 apartments of three to six rooms each and represented the finest in Jazz Age living.
Alden Park’s saga began in 1925 with a mortgage worth $3,100,000 on the former estate of department store mogul Justus C. Strawbridge (1838-1911) at School House Lane and Wissahickon Avenue. His justly famous house, Torworth, was remodeled and used as a restaurant where one could purchase a “special supper” for $1.25.
At the same time, A.T. Martyn announced the construction of a new apartment building at a cost of nearly $6,000,000, a staggering sum for its day. Opulence was the key word for this new project. Plans for a ballroom, a public dining room, a swimming pool, and other modern features enticed potential buyers even before ground had broken.
Alden Park Manor proved to be a successful venture right out of the gate. With an innovative co-operative idea offering 100 percent ownership, the apartments generated an income of $8,575.55 over operating expenses by 1928. Managing Director Lawrence E. Jones exclaimed, “any saving thus made goes directly to the apartment owners.” The ownership advantages were further driven home by this gushing advertisement blurb:
“The art of living well at Alden Park is based on the ownership plan which enables you to live luxuriously at a minimum expense. The Co-operative Ownership Plan brings you many luxuries – at the cost of bare necessities elsewhere.”
It was obvious from the onset that Alden Park was the place to be for up-and-coming Germantowners. The Beehive of April 1927 ran a front cover feature on the exciting new local digs. By this time, two of the 12-story buildings, the Manor and the Kenilworth, were completed, cutting a dramatic profile in the growing neighborhood.
Exteriors were finished on all sides in Old English Art Texture brick, in pastel shades of buff, red, blue, and brown, rough laid, and trimmed with special color-cast stone. Gardens were landscaped with flowers and sculpture.
The two towers contained 89 apartments ranging in size from seven rooms and two baths to 10 rooms with four baths — all completely furnished with every convenience of the Roaring 20s. The living rooms featured sun parlors, covered plaster ceilings, waterproof cork floors, built-in bookcases, and wood-burning fireplaces.
Kitchens were equipped with mechanical refrigerators (a tremendous selling point!), white enamel stoves, incinerators, and inlaid linoleum floors. The master bathrooms had showers, built-in tubs, china pedestal lavatories, and steel-enameled medicine cabinets with beveled plate glass mirrors and shelves.
Then there is the elegant Great Hall of the Manor — talk about making a fine first impression! Residents and visitors alike were greeted with marble floors, wood-paneled walls, wood and sculptured plaster columns, ceiling beams, wrought-iron chandeliers, and an impressive fireplace with carved overmantel.
For those individuals who enjoyed an active sporting life, Alden Park provided an Olympic-size swimming pool (complete with a roof that retracted when the weather was agreeable), tennis courts, a hot tub, and a health club, all free of charge.
The nearby Wissahickon Valley was still a place for a quite retreat or a horseback ride. The local social calendar included athletic competitions, theatrical events, art shows, a garden club and brunches.
Alden Park even had a fireproof three-story garage with a capacity of 225. In addition, the complex boasted that their garage had been rated “the Garages of the First Class” in Philadelphia, with up-to-date devices for washing, lubricating, vulcanizing, and battery re-conditioning. What a classy way to park one’s automobile!
Of course, such luxuries weren’t just for everyone. Potential tenants had to be of a certain social standing (and a rather large bankroll to match). A typical three-room apartment at The Manor required an investment of $3,300, while a four-room required $3,900 — this, when the average worker only made around $1,500 per year.
The “filthy rich,” as we now might call them, were the early denizens of the Alden Park Apartments. Residents were noted for taking extravagant vacations, unthinkable (as well as unaffordable) to the common worker. Summers might be spent cruising the Great Lakes or touring the Rocky Mountain West. Others owned cottages at the Jersey shore or in the Poconos.
Fitting they lived like royalty — they practically lived in a castle. Alden Park’s Jacobean Revival architectural style evoked Britain under the rules of Elizabeth I and King James (mid-16th century to early 17th). The octagon tower, the port-cochere, and the Romeo and Juliet balconies all spoke to a bygone romantic era. It’s no wonder that the chief architect, Edwyn Rorke, was a protégée of the great classical revivalist, Horace Trumbauer.
But soon, such lavish living would end. The last of Alden Park Apartment’s buildings was completed in 1929, just before the great stock market crash in October of that year. The extravagant parties and debutante balls continued at the “ruby city” into the twentieth century, even the surrounding neighborhood of Germantown began to lose some of its luster. Even as the buildings themselves were stripped of ornamental spires and decorative domes.
By the late twentieth century, Alden Park began identifying itself less with Germantown and more with East Falls, a growing neighborhood whose boundaries reach south of Wissahickon Avenue. East Falls brought extra cachet, too, thanks to its affiliation with Grace Kelly (indeed, Grace’s mom retired to Alden Park Apartments after selling the family home on Henry Avenue).
In 1988, Bennett Kaplan purchased Alden Park and proceeded with a $35,000,000 restoration that saw the property balloon to 38 acres while downsizing many larger units into several smaller ones — some as compact as 250 square feet!
With renovations complete by 1998, rental prices ranged from $475 to $3,500 per month and appealed to a broad range of Philadelphia professionals. “I fell in love with the place… and the architecture,” said a 3-year resident, “I feel like I’m in the middle of everything I think this is the best value for my rental dollar in Philadelphia.”
Flash forward to 2017: Alden Park Apartments have once again been overhauled — this time, to the tune of $70,000,000! As a historian, it’s a thrill to see these fascinating old buildings come to life with all the charms of a bygone era.
Get your Gatsby on this July 22nd! Free guided tours will help you appreciate all the architectural nuances — I’ll be on hand to answer your questions and hook you up with his awesome book at a special “Miami” discount, signed by the author himself. RSVP now for this very special event.
Joseph Minardi is a local photographer and author, specializing in historic architecture in Philadelphia. The third of his books features the East Falls neighborhood, as well as Manayunk and Roxborough. Joe is also the vice president of the University City Historical Society and editor-in-chief of their bi-monthly newsletter, On The West Side. Joe currently resides in the Girard Estate neighborhood on South Philadelphia.
Follow Joe on Facebook for great photos & info about the fascinating old architecture of Philadelphia. And keep your eye out for more “History Matters” on East Falls Local.
(all photos in this post by Joseph Minardi except for the vintage images, of course, and the Steinway piano above by EFL. B&W image of Torworth from the collection of Joseph Minardi.)