by Lou Mancinelli
Before Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill was lined with shops, many mills and farms sprawled across the Northwest section of Philadelphia.
The simple stone structures built by German immigrants that lived in Germantown around the Colonial era, when it was a village, laid the groundwork for the more elaborate mercantile buildings that followed.
“Historic Architecture in Northwest Philadelphia: 1690 to 1930s,” (Schiffer Books) the second historic architecture book from author, photographer and architectural historian Joseph Minardi, released this past December, presents a comprehensive look in photos at the rich architectural history of the area.
For Minardi, Philadelphia is where places like Colonial Williamsburg live in real time. In Old City and in the Northwest alike, where some buildings erected in the Colonial era dating back to the late seventeenth century still stand.
Minardi strives to tell a narrative about the neighborhood he presents in this, the second book of his Historic Architecture series.
“People tend to romanticize the past, and in reality the past was a lot more difficult than people think about,” said Minardi, also the editor of the University City Historical Society Newsletter.
Minardi offers a look into that past by taking present-day images of the exteriors and interiors of buildings constructed years ago. When possible, he strings them together with archival images captured during different time periods that he has gathered from various sources like the Free Library of Philadelphia.
The book offers almost 750 images of 450 different structures constructed between the Colonial period and the 1930s, from Wayne Junction in Germantown to Northwest Avenue in Chestnut Hill. It includes structures like the well-preserved Stenton, an example of Georgian architecture, and the Ebenezer Maxwell mansion, a Victorian home with castle-like spires at 200 W. Tulpehocken St.
“Philadelphia has such a great wealth of architecture,” Minardi said.
The Northwest has played home to various architectural styles through the centuries, including the Georgian, Colonial and Federal styles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the revival of those styles and others, such as Italianate, Second Empire and Romantic Eclecticism.
One of Minardi’s favorite buildings in the Northwest is Cliveden, also known as the Benjamin Chew House at 6401 Germantown Ave. It is a historic mansion in Germantown constructed between 1763 and 1767. The original property also included a stable and coach house, smokehouse, hen house and summer house. It once boasted more than 200 species of trees and shrubs.
It was also situated at the heart of the Battle of Germantown in 1777 during the Revolutionary War. During the battle, the home served as a refuge for British Colonel Thomas Musgrave, who occupied the mansion and fought off General Washington’s troops from inside. The Colonial troops were forced to retreat back along Germantown Avenue.
Minardi, 48, is a South Philadelphia resident who worked as a graphic designer for 20 years in the Philadelphia area before he decided to leave his career in 2009 and pursue writing, which he had wanted to do for years.
“It’s probably not the usual progression for people who are authors,” said Minardi.
He published his first book “Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930s,” (Schiffer Books) in 2011. His third and forthcoming book is “Historic Architecture in East Falls, Manayunk and Roxborough.” It took him about a year to compile the book about the Northwest area of the city. The books also include introductions to local neighborhoods and sometimes a brief history of the buildings and photos.
Minardi was raised in South Philadelphia and graduated from Saint John Neumann High School in 1983, when it was an all-boy’s school. He enrolled in the Tyler School of Art at Temple University before transferring to the Hussian School of Art, where he earned his associate’s degree in graphic design in 1988.
After a short stint working for a plumbing company, Minardi started to work as a graphic designer. A decade into his career he was hired by McCormick Taylor Inc., a planning and engineering firm. It was there his longtime interest in history was reignited. He remained with the company until 2009.
Minardi’s work at McCormick and Taylor involved working with its historical resources department, which in turn meant working with local historical organizations. He was often required to include historical reports and in doing so learned about and refined his ability to perform and present adequate research.
Since his departure from the world of graphic design, he’s spent his work day researching and writing the Historic Architecture books. Sometimes he works for two hours, sometimes he works for ten hours. While he earns money from royalties on sales, about 10 percent, he works without having received an advance payment from his publisher.
He’s able to do that with funds he’s saved over the years, but it’s more for his love of the buildings. Still, it’s been something of a learning experience.
“The best education I got is the education I got from writing these books,” said Minardi.
That means some from research, but more from interacting with the people he meets while he explores the neighborhood he is writing about.
“I’m very interested in how people lived their lives – the lives of the past,” he said.
For more information visit www.schifferbooks.com.