KNOW YOUR HISTORY: The Unique Courts of Kensington’s Sloan House
There is a small house on Front Street under the El that can be easily missed. In fact, if you have seen it, there is a good chance you were not aware that it was a house at all. Other than the front door, it does not really resemble a house you might see in the neighborhood. However, this house has major significance in the Riverwards, having been designated historic by the Philadelphia Historical Commission this past summer.
1527 N. Front St. has the style of a row home, but it is not connected to any other residences. It is one of two properties on that side of the block, unless you count the garage attached to it. To the naked eye, the most interesting thing about this property is the large graffiti artwork that decorates the entirety of the garage. When facing the building, to the left is a large vacant lot. To the right, another vacant lot. Behind the little house is an old building with advertisements for construction and real estate. That old building used to be the Second Associate Presbyterian Church.
This surprisingly historic property is called the Sloan House. The house itself is not why it was designated historic, however. Instead it is because of what that house created. According to Oscar Beisert, the individual who nominated the property, the Sloan House fit criteria A for designation: “Has significant character, interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the City, Commonwealth or Nation or is associated with the life of a person significant in the past.”
To Beisert, this property is a “significant representative of the type of dwellings that were planned and constructed as part of the development of institutional courts in the mid-nineteenth century in Philadelphia.” An institutional court is “a quadrangular area surrounded by a building or group of buildings.” Basically, an institutional court is an area of land within structures so that an individual can spend time outside while still being enclosed by other structures, as if it was an indoor location.
Examples of courts include Franklin Court and Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia. The same idea is imitated by many outdoor bars or beer gardens. Schmidt’s Commons is a large institutional court enclosed by restaurants, shops, and apartments. There are many courts along Germantown Avenue near Chestnut Hill that are created by similar structures.
There are many reasons why a court would be purposefully constructed. Uses include: agricultural, commercial, industrial, institutional and residential. Courts are common in Europe, especially England, though many of them have been covered up by new developments. In regard to the Sloan House, its purpose was to help create a court for the church it was next to.
The Second Associate Presbyterian Church purchased the lot where the Sloan House resides on May 8, 1850. The church purchased the deed for the lot from Alexander and Matilda Smith. A stipulation to the deed was that they would rent the lot but could subdivide it and construct upon it as they wished. “Renting” the land but owning the property on it made it easier to obtain the space at a cheaper cost. The church still had to pay $184 a year to the Smiths in order to keep their rights to the lot.
The Church found a buyer for the lot as quickly as possible, and they insisted that the purchaser would construct “a good substantial Brick Dwelling House.” To explain it simply, the Second Associate Presbyterian Church wanted to create an institutional court. To do this, they rented the ground of the lot, because it was cheaper than buying it. In order to pay for the rent of the land, they charged the new purchaser of the lot a rent as well. They enforced the buyers to build a large brick house because that is what the Church wanted for their surrounding area.
If nothing else, this church displayed an excellent ability to manipulate their surrounding landscape in an affordable way, through means of loopholes and business strategy. The buyers/renters of the Church’s lot (which was bought/rented from the Smiths) immediately began the construction of their brick dwelling. It is now called The Sloan House.
The owners of the Sloan House were Robert and Mary Sloan. It was built sometime between 1852 and 1854, and it consisted of five rooms and three-stories. According to McElroy’s City Directory of Philadelphia in 1855, Robert Sloan was a “gentleman.” A later City Directory called Mary Sloan a “gentlewoman.” Other than that, there is not a substantial amount of information known about the Sloans who lived at 1527.
It is important to note that there were other members of the Sloan clan in Philadelphia at that time that were rather notable. Samuel Sloan, a famous architect, lived in the city and collaborated on the design of many impressive buildings such as a Masonic Hall and Eastern State Penitentiary. However, this Sloan was not directly related to Robert Sloan. Interestingly enough, Samuel did have a sibling named Robert, but he did not ever live at the “Sloan House.”
The historic designation of the Sloan House is an intriguing concept. The building itself was not the reason why it was nominated, but instead it was what the building helped create. What makes this nomination even more interesting is that the court that the Sloan House helped create does not even exist anymore. The other structures around the Sloan House and Second Associate Presbyterian Church no longer exist and so the court no longer exists either.
At most, there is a partial-court still in existence, but a partial-court does not make definitional sense. The court is more of an alley in 2016, whereas in the 1850s, we could have been able to see a work of architecture that was much more impressive than the product we are left with today. Perhaps the vacant lots will be filled by structures that recreate the institutional court that was the reason behind the historical nomination in the first place.
Still, the idea that a property can be designated historic for this reason is fascinating. By itself, the Sloan House does not mean all that much, but when you consider what it helped create, that is why it was passed for a historic designation by a unanimous vote. When driving down Front Street, perhaps that historic designation will make the Sloan House turn more heads now than it did in the past.