“Lot 212”: Speculation and Flip, Prewar Style, Part 1 of 2

In previous posts we discussed the numerous families who lived at 3711 Melon St over the course of the twentieth century. Most of those families were renters, with the notable exception of Leona Richardson, who purchased the home in 1946. Who actually owned 3711 Melon over the years is a long, and somewhat complicated, story, reflective of speculative development trends dating back to the late nineteenth century, and the seemingly rampant, unregulated, flipping of residential property in prewar Philadelphia.

We begin with the earliest transfer of property on record. On June 5, 1866, Henry W. Baltz, a local contractor and developer, purchased “Lot 10” from Isaac Starr. At the time Lot 10 comprised roughly half a city block, with potential properties fronting Grape St (Melon), Eighth St (37th), and Sycamore St (Fairmount). In 1866 Mantua was essentially an underdeveloped suburban outpost on the former estate of Richard Peters. Some churches and residences were in place, and a spring ran through the neighborhood originating roughly at the current location of the Philadelphia Zoo, but it would be another decade before heavy residential development was underway. As discussed in previous posts, the lots fronting the north side of Grape St were in place by 1872 (as evidenced by G.M. Hopkin’s 1872 Atlas of West Philadelphia).

Smedly Atlas 1862 Lot 10

Selection from Samuel L. Smedley’s Atlas of the City of Philadelphia, 1862, with arrow indicating approximate location of Lot 10, comprising homes along north side of Grape St; image courtesy Greater Philadelphia Geo-History Network

 

With those lots in place, the year 1899 marks the beginning of a whirlwind of speculative transactions and rapid residential development on the little block of Melon St (then Grape St) in Mantua, West Philadelphia. In June of that year, Charles S. Carpenter purchased lots 208 through 218 (3703-3723 Melon St) from Catherine Baltz, wife of Henry. Those lots would be alternately bundled, subdivided, and repackaged over the next five decades. One week after his initial purchase, Carpenter flipped properties 3703 through 3717 Melon to Catharine D. Haskell.

Haskell later transferred those properties to William J. Sloan on May 12, 1906, by which time she and her husband George W. had also acquired lots 216 through 223 (3719-3737 Melon St).  Then, on the very same day, Sloan flipped lots 208 through 212 (3703-3711) to Conrad Itter. One month later Itter sold 3703 Melon St to Frank Cunningham, a rare example of the transfer of just one property. Frank, his wife Margaret (both Irish immigrants), and their six children are listed in the 1910 Census at 3703 Melon and remain until at least 1920.

Conrad Itter holds the remaining properties until August 20, 1919 at which time he sells lots 209-212 to Charles R. Hart.  Curiously, Hart flips those properties the very same day to James McIntyre. Houses of this type in the early twentieth century typically sold for anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000, depending on amenities and age of the structure.

McIntyre and his wife Mary held those properties for roughly a year before selling to Sam Seltzer and Harry Feldman, an intriguing pair who will remerge later in the narrative.  Seltzer and Feldman sold lots 209 through 214 (now including 3713 and 3715) to Philip Silverman in 1922.

Baltz - Carpenter Deed Abstract

Cover Page to 1899 Deed Transfer between Catherine Baltz and Charles S. Carpenter, comprising lots 208 through 218; Courtesy Philadelphia City Archives

I take pains to map all this out because it illustrates just how volatile the housing market was in Philadelphia at a time when it is often championed as a “City of Homes.” That distinction was most certainly true, as evidenced by the explosion of housing construction in the decades surrounding 1900, but as Bernie Herman reminds us in his contribution to Funeral for a Home’s publication (Art Editions North, forthcoming) the implication that it was also a “City of Homeowners” is perhaps a bit overstated. Philadelphia did not have a preponderance of  the sort of classic urban immigrant ghettos popularly imagined by writer and photographer Jacob Riis, but the working poor were no strangers to its neighborhoods. What Philadelphia did offer, if not a place to own, was a place to rent, a modest, two-story home that could accommodate a large family newly arrived to the United States or the urban north, and which could offer both refuge and domestic privacy. If the number of Philadelphia’s owner-occupied homes is somewhat inflated by the “City of Homes” narrative, the distinction nonetheless carries weight amidst sister cities Chicago, New York, and Boston, who were harder pressed to offer such accommodations to the flood of immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century.

Next, we explore a wild day in the home’s transaction history, and finally, arrive at 1946 when 3711 Melon’s “patron saint” Leona Richardson purchases the home…