PlanPhilly

Look Up! Even Elfreth's Alley has issues

    • A view of the historic alley looking east from 2nd Street.
      A view of the historic alley looking east from 2nd Street.
    • A view of the homes looking west.
      A view of the homes looking west.
    • One of the two oldest homes still standing on the alley, built in the 1720s.
      One of the two oldest homes still standing on the alley, built in the 1720s.
    • The house at 109 Elfreth's Alley is on the Preservation Alliance endangered list.
      The house at 109 Elfreth's Alley is on the Preservation Alliance endangered list.
    • The early 19th century houses on the alley have recessed entrances and windows that provide more privacy.
      The early 19th century houses on the alley have recessed entrances and windows that provide more privacy.
    • The narrow house at the end of the alley's south side is known as the
      The narrow house at the end of the alley's south side is known as the "Half House."
    • Contemporary homeowners have carefully altered some of the buildings, including this former carriagehouse.
      Contemporary homeowners have carefully altered some of the buildings, including this former carriagehouse.
    • Bladen's Court, a courtyard off Elfreth's Alley, once contained the public privy.
      Bladen's Court, a courtyard off Elfreth's Alley, once contained the public privy.
    • Many of the original fire insurance company plaques can be found on the homes.
      Many of the original fire insurance company plaques can be found on the homes.
    • Tours are available of the house built but never occupied by Jeremiah Elfreth.
      Tours are available of the house built but never occupied by Jeremiah Elfreth.
  • Previous
  • Next

“Look Up” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. Each week, the photo essay will focus on a different Philadelphia area neighborhood and its distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.

Elfreth’s Alley is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. The alley dates back to 1702 and is the oldest, intact residential street in the country. The block of homes off Second Street south of Race Street in Old City is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and is designated a National Historical Landmark.

Residents of the alley have done a great job of maintaining their homes, which were built over a 100-year period and reflect the evolution of housing stock from Colonial to early 19th century design. The Elfreth’s Alley Association (www.elfrethsalley.org) runs a small museum and tours, and works to preserve the historic streetscape.

Early inhabitants of the block were craftsmen who worked on the first floor of the buildings and had living quarters above. Residents included African-American and Jewish families in Colonial times, and Irish and German immigrants in the 1900s, explained tour guide Robert Kettell.

But the alley has not been immune to modern economic problems. One of the houses was named to the Endangered Properties List of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia last year. The building at 109 Elfreth’s Alley, erected in 1811, was abandoned by its owners in 2008 while in the midst of constructing a rear addition, and the house was foreclosed in 2010. It has suffered water infiltration, mold infestation and vandalism, according to the Alliance, and is currently uninhabitable.


"Look Up" Architectural exercises on Boathouse Row

"Look Up!" John Notman's brownstone temples

"Look Up!" 19th Century luxe on Locust St.

"Look Up!: 20th Century evolution in East Falls

"Look Up!" Rural retreats in Northeast Philly

"Look Up!" Modernist lines on Haverford Ave.

"Look Up!" Chestnut Hill's modernist gems


Contact the writer at

"Look Up!" The Art Deco Palace of Mt. Airy
"Look Up! An architect's legacy on Spruce Street
"Look Up!" The French Village in Mt. Airy
"Look Up" and check out the nouveau mansions of North Broad

"Look Up" and check out elegant Southwark
"Look Up" and check out Henry Disston's company town
"Look Up: and check out Spruce Hill
"Look Up" and check out Green Street
"Look Up" and check out West Laurel Hill
"Look Up" and check out Parkside
"Look Up" and check out Awbury Arboretum
"Look Up" and check out Nicetown
"Look Up" and check out Overbrook Farms
"Look Up" and check out Girard Estate
"Look Up" and check out Rittenhouse/Fitler Square

About the author

Alan Jaffe, Contributor

Alan Jaffe has been a contributing writer for PlanPhilly since 2008, focusing on overlooked buidlings and historic preservation issues. He was a writer and editor in the newspaper industry for nearly 30 years, including eight at the Philadelphia Inquirer and nine at the South Jersey Courier-Post. He is currently the director of communications for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He is also an antiques writer and collector and the author of “J. Chein & Co.: A Collector’s Guide to an American Toymaker.”

ajaffe@planphilly.com



blog comments powered by Disqus

Article Information

Recent Comments on PlanPhilly

Powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Which weekly emails would you like to receive?