By Lou Mancinelli
Imagine the Oak Lane, Olney and Logan neighborhoods of Philadelphia surrounding North Broad Street, between Cheltenham Avenue (North) to Wingohocking Street (South) and Tacony Creek (East) to Washington Lane (West) as a rural hinterland home to sprawling farms, orchards and estates.
Present-day East Oak Lane was home to Dr. George deBenneville, first local physican and founder of the Universalist Church of America; T. Henry Asbury, owner of Enterprise Manufacturing, and Edward Bromley from the great Bromley textile family. East Oak Lane developed into a Victorian neighborhood after the North Pennsylvania Railroad was built in 1853, first with large summer hotels like the Lawnton and Kenilworth Hotels and later with grand Victorian family homes.
Currently the West Oak Lane neighborhood is a conglomeration of row homes and urban development. But in the mid-19th century, Joseph Wharton, founder of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of Bethlehem Steel, once the world’s largest steel company, built Ontaluana, his family mansion, on 63 acres there. Until the early 20th century, in fact, he owned much of West Oak Lane.
West Oak Lane was also home to Fannie Kemble, a famous British Actress and abolitionist who lived with her wealthy husband, Pierce Butler. The Logan neighborhood was home to other notables like James Logan, who built Stenton Mansion, and Charles Wilson Peale, the great American painter, who lived at Belfield Mansion on 104 acres.
Even earlier, during the 18th century goods produced at mills along the Tacony and Wingohocking Creeks were transported along Old York Road, the Kensington-Oxford Turnpike (now Rising Sun Avenue) and Olney Road (now Tabor Road).
“The Philadelphia region was often described as the best poor man’s country in the world because the land was fertile and the climate moderate,” write Marita Krivda Poxon and Rachael Hildebrandt in the Introduction to their new book, “Images of America: Oak Lane, Olney and Logan” (Arcadia Publishing, 2011).
Krivda and Hildebrandt collaborated with the Old York Road Historical Society (OYRHS) to collect hundreds of historical photos of the area that by the late 19th-century, with the advent of the steam engine and railroads, began to appeal to developers and merchants who could access the city via public transportation.
Krivda and Hildebrandt’s book chronicles the transformation of the area from rural to urban. Its photos reveal the dichotomy of old American architectural gems that exist less than a mile from North Broad Street.
Today much of Olney and Logan are dominated by once majestic row homes which have deteriorated because of lack of maintenance and newer construction which lacks architectural style and imagination. The book’s photos tell the tale of the American industrial revolution and its effect on the 20th-century landscape.
The idea for the book grew from an organized series of lectures on the architectural history of East Oak Lane presented by Krivda in 2009 and 2010, to benefit the Oak Lane Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Krivda, 64, is a medical librarian (for more than 30 years) who recently worked as director of the medical library at Chestnut Hill Hospital until it shifted to a volunteer-only library. She was raised in a Queen-Anne style East Oak Lane home designed for hosiery manufacturer Owen Osborne by the architectural firm Briean and Godwin, and built in 1888.
Krivda’s parents bought the home in 1945 from Dr. Charles Percy Major, who for 25 years had run an in-home medical practice there. When her mother died in 1994, Krivda “just couldn’t sell the family home,” located at 904 Oak Lane. There was too much history in it.
So she bought the 18-room Victorian home from her family (next door, at 902 Oak Lane, is a mirror image home Osborne built for his daughter) with her husband, Philadelphia lawyer T. Michael Poxon, and the couple moved to East Oak Lane from Blue Bell Hill off Wissahickon Avenue. Since then, the couple and their neighbors have been active in reinvigorating the Oak Lane Community Action Association, the East Oak Lane Tree Tenders and the Friends of the Oak Lane Library.
Krivda attended Holy Angels Roman Catholic School and Cardinal Dougherty High School, both in East Oak Lane. After graduating from Temple University in 1968, she attended graduate school at Trinity College (’71) in Dublin, Ireland.
When she moved back to East Oak Lane in 1994, Krivda began to research her home, the important families who built her neighborhood and the local Victorian architecture.
She read an undergraduate thesis by John DiBenedetto in 1976 called “Oak Lane: A Study of Urban Growth and Architectural Development, 1876-1976,” which inspired her.
about 130 years ago, East Oak Lane was home to several factory owners looking to build summer homes or large country homes away from the city. The most important was T.
Henry Asbury, the Father of East Oak Lane. “He wanted a neighborhood,” said Krivda, “so one of the first things he built was St. Martin’s Protestant Episcopal Church in 1887.” He gave land to build other churches and Melrose Hall, a social club with its own lake and cricket field.
“Many people in Philadelphia don’t even know East Oak Lane exists,” said Krivda during an interview at her home in late April. “The neighborhood experienced changes in the 1970s and 1980s, but the architectural integrity of the homes on landscaped, tree-dotted plots is still very evident today.”
At the turn of the 20th century, as the city limits began to expand, men like Wharton sold their large estates, and developers built affordable row homes to accommodate a rising working class. This development did not change East Oak Lane. The last area developed in East Oak Lane was Oak Lane Park, built between 1900-1930, a Frederick Law Olmsted- inspired area with large, stone colonial revival homes. The 20th century row house grid in West Oak Lane had very little effect in East Oak Lane.
For marketing purposes, real estate agents called the area with row houses west of Broad Street West Oak Lane to catch some of the prestige of Oak Lane. The old Oak Lane with its large, single homes became East Oak Lane.
According to Krivda, a Welshman named Griffith Miles bought 250 acres of land in 1695 from the Quaker Samuel Carpenter and erected a log home near the present day street called Oak Lane. For many years the surrounding area was known as Milestown. Around 1870, the neighborhood was re-named Oak Lane by a farmer, Hall W. Mercer, after a storm caused a 300-year-old oak tree to fall onto the country lane in front of his farm. The old name for West Oak Lane was Branchtown, based on an old Indian name.
As Krivda compiled more information for her lecture series of Oak Lane, she realized her research might be publishable, so she contacted Arcadia Publishing, of South Carolina, which had already published similar books on Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Germantown.
David Rowland, president of OYRHS, put Krivda in touch with Hildebrandt, a Chestnut Hill College student who was looking for a way to publish her own research on Olney. Together, the trio made this book possible.
When the North Pennsylvania Railroad was built in 1853, the Oak Lane, Olney and Logan neighborhoods became incorporated into the city. Before that, present-day East and West Oak Lane, Olney, Fern Rock and Logan neighborhoods were all part of Bristol Township.
Many pockets of the old rural hinterland remain in East Oak Lane. If you turn east off Broad Street at the Oak Lane Diner, you can drive along 66th Avenue and find old homes in East Oak Lane built with the local grey stone known as Wissahickon schist.
Much of this stone came from blasting done for the railroad in the 1850s and later for the Oak Lane Reservoir. By 1928, Wharton’s extensive land holdings were sold, and 66th Avenue and Broad Street, part of his former estate, was turned into row homes. While many old East Oak Lane homes have been demolished, “We still have preserved a large number of Victorians and almost all Colonial revival homes in Oak Lane Park, and we want to inspire a grass roots historic preservation movement in East Oak Lane,” said Krivda.
“Images of America: Oak Lane, Olney and Logan” (Arcadia Publishing, 2011) is available online at retailers like Amazon.com and at Under the Oak Café, 804 Oak Lane (215-924-1410) and from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.