Paul Steinke: My Love Letter to Philadelphia’s Garden Court Neighborhood

Preservation Pennsylvania is delighted to share insights from Paul Steinke, Executive Director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, former Preservation Pennsylvania Board Member and current advisor for our Ruby 40th Anniversary!

(Visit the PAGP website to check out their speaker series and tours. The April 5 program is “Preserving the Legacy of Coltrane & His Philadelphia Roots,” featuring Tonnetta Graham and Homer Jackson and will discuss efforts to create a cultural center at the former home of jazz legend John Coltrane. (Preservation Pennsylvania listed the Strawberry Mansion home on the Pennsylvania At Risk list in 2020.)

Meet Paul Steinke

a man smiles at the viewer against a neutral backdropPaul Steinke serves as executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, a membership-based organization whose mission is to promote the appreciation, adaptive re-use and development of the Philadelphia region’s historic buildings, communities, and landscapes. He started in this role in June 2016 after serving on the organization’s board of directors for many years.

Paul ran for Philadelphia City Council in the May 2015 Democratic primary. Although he was not elected, Paul received endorsements from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, Philadelphia Tribune, and former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell, and was recommended by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

Prior to his run for public office, Paul served as general manager of the Reading Terminal Market for 13 years, where he oversaw numerous improvements in the facility and tenant mix. In 2014, the market was recognized by the American Planning Association as one of the Great Places in America.

Earlier in his career, Paul served as the founding Executive Director of University City District, a neighborhood improvement organization that has been central to the revitalization of West Philadelphia. Before that, Paul was a founding staff member of the Center City District, Philadelphia’s downtown improvement agency, where he served as its Finance Director.

A lifelong Philadelphian, Paul holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Economics from Penn State University and a Master of Business Administration from Drexel University. Paul serves as board treasurer of The Fund for the Water Works and serves on the board of directors of the National Preservation Partners Network, Temple University Libraries, and the City & State Pennsylvania Advisory Board. He is immediate past co-chair of the William Way LGBT Community Center and served for nearly a decade on the steering committee of the Human Rights Campaign, Philadelphia Chapter. He lives in University City with his husband and partner of 27 years, David Ade, an architect with a practice based in Philadelphia.

My Love Letter to Philadelphia’s Garden Court Neighborhood

My Valentine love letter is to my neighborhood, the Garden Court section of West Philadelphia, where I have lived since 1998. An early automobile suburb-in-the-city, Garden Court took shape during the Roaring ‘20s and is now marking a century as one of Philadelphia’s loveliest 20th century planned communities.

vintage newspaper clipping promotes "Siegel's Artistic Homes" with an illustration of a twin residence
“Three-story homes of unique and varied design, strikingly beautiful, amid select surroundings, containing every convenience and innovation known to the arts of home building. (Image provided by Paul Steinke)

Much of West Philadelphia was developed after 1890 as electrified streetcars spurred a residential building boom. However, the parcel that would eventually contain Garden Court remained stubbornly undeveloped until an established if undistinguished West Philadelphia residential developer named Clarence Siegel acquired the tract beginning in 1919.

Siegel saw that private automobile ownership was taking hold, and that home buyers desired a place to store their cars. He designed a combination of detached and semi-detached homes in a variety of picturesque architectural styles, each with attached garages accessed from the rear by a common alleyway spanning the block. The rear alleys not only provide access to the garages, but also relocate trash collection from the front of the houses to the back, allowing the street fronts to be given over to lovely, landscaped gardens and shade trees.

a row of homes feature artistic details, such as bay windows with decorative detailing and brick medallions set in stucco facades
Photo by Paul Steinke

The development is unified by a charming palette of materials including red and sand-colored brick, stucco, half-timbering, decorative tiles, and Spanish tiled roofs. Newspaper ads of the day heralded the houses as “Siegel’s Artistic Homes,” letting buyers customize interior details such as built-in shelving and decorative paneling.

a row of homes feature glass in entryways, tall chimneys and tudor-like styling, a front garden with a low stone wall along the edge of the sidewalk
Photo by Paul Steinke
A brick and limestone Art Deco highrise building features retail at the ground level and apartments above
The 13-story, Art Deco Garden Court Plaza anchors a city corner and features a parking structure topped with a landscaped roof garden in Siegel’s early effort to sensitively accommodate automobile ownership.

At the northern end of the development, Siegel built the neighborhood’s namesake: Garden Court Apartments, a six-story, block-long complex of variously sized units ranging from studios to sprawling 3-bedroom flats. The final block to be developed would be that bounded by Pine, 47th, Spruce and 48th Streets. Here, Siegel planned his piece-de-resistance: a dense development of four 13-story high rises, each anchoring its own corner of the block. All would be served by a central parking structure topped with a landscaped roof garden. Alas, only one of these towers, the Art Deco-styled Garden Court Plaza, along with the parking garage with roof garden, ended up being built. The onset of the Great Depression scuttled the rest of Siegel’s ambitions for the block. But the one high rise he completed along with attached garage and roof garden, together represent a remarkable early effort to sensitively accommodate automobile ownership.

The area was designated as a National Register historic district in 1984.

Today, as Garden Court marks its centennial, the area retains many of the features that made it distinctive when new, including the architectural beauty and forward-thinking urban design of its founder, Clarence Siegel. Diverse and friendly neighborhoods and easy access to downtown Philadelphia help make it a wonderful place to live. I love it!