Name of Property: Bye-Benson House

Address of Property: 2033 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

Name of Historic District in which Property is Located: Walnut-Chancellor


Description of Physical Appearance:

The Walnut-Chancellor Historic District centers on Walnut
Street in the vicinity of Rittenhouse Square. The Bye-Benson House, located at 2033 Walnut Street is a critical part of the district's visual cohesiveness owing to its architectural style, scale and detailing. Located on the north side of Walnut Street, it is a four story building, with full basement, two bay brick structures, measuring 20 feet in front and extending a depth of 100 feet north to Sansom Street.

Built by Samuel K. Bye, circa 1858, this building anchors a five structure speculative row designed in the Anglo-Italianate style, with Renaissance Revival overtones. While this style is rarely seen in Philadelphia, the Italianate style was widely used in fashionable, mid-nineteenth century construction.

Much of its popularity is attributed to John Notman, who designed America's first Italianate Villa as well as the Philadelphia Athenaeum, one of the first Renaissance Revival structures in this country. Italianate architecture is characterized by smooth and plain wall surfaces providing a neutral background for windows and doorways; large bracketed cornices and molded lintels; hierarchical progression of window sizes; and use of brownstone and sandstone skins. Renaissance Revival structures, while similar in much of this detailing may have smooth surfaces on the upper stories of the building off-set by a rusticated stone finish on the first floor.
  The Bye-Benson House, retains much of its original Italianate-Renaissance character on the upper stories. The fenestration is regular with two windows on each floor. The second and third floors have double hung one over sash with projecting sandstone hood moldings, supported by carved scroll-shaped brackets. The fourth floor has smaller one over sash with flat stone lintels. All of the window openings have sandstone sills. Crowning the building is a large, molded wood cornice with scrolled bracketing at the building ends. As originally designed, these structures had full height basements, which effectively lifted the first floor rooms from street traffic. Access to the basement was provided by a set of stairs, directly off the street. The net result of this distinctly English design treatment was a fašade, which sat back from the building line allowing for greater sidewalk width. 2035 Walnut, the building's companion structure, unaltered on the first floor, shows that this portion of the fašade was originally rusticated sandstone with a large main door entrance and bracketed hoods over the windows.

Statement of Significance:

During the period of 1850-1900, often referred to as Philadelphia's "Golden Age", Rittenhouse Square was the most fashionable and prestigious neighborhood in which to live. Its building stock reflected the aspirations and accomplishments of the local aristocracy and the lifestyle created by these residents represented an urban social structure, which lasted until the turn of the century. Part of this architectural and social heritage is preserved in the Walnut-Chancellor Historic District, of which the Bye-Benson is a contributing structure. This residence, located at 2033 Walnut Street, and its companion structures offer insight into the visual cohesiveness of the nineteenth century streetscape. Further, it represents a rare building type in Philadelphia's design vocabulary, Anglo-Italianate architecture.

In its earliest period of development, brickyards, glass and china factories, stables, open lots and a concentration of worker housing characterized the southwest quadrant of the city. After Southwest Square, later renamed Rittenhouse, was laid out in 1825, scattered residential development occurred. This initial period of growth did not, however, match in degree or intensity the development that would take place in the approaching "Golden Age." Beginning in the 1840's, the city started a movement westward towards Rittenhouse Square, taking with it fashionable Philadelphians and their businesses. By the end of the century, the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood housed the railroad barons, merchant bankers, lawyers, industrial tycoons and Old Philadelphia families. Included among this impressive list of notables was Gustavus Benson, banker and lawyer, who took up residence at 2033 Walnut Street during the 1880's.

Walnut Street, in particular, held significance as the center for sophisticated society. At the lower end of the strip, towards Broad Street, the seeds of the downtown business district began to take root, while along the upper reaches of this strip, at the Square and west, Walnut Street was the place to build an elegant in-town residence.

Although Rittenhouse Square evoked images of Victorian mansions and townhouses designed by Philadelphia's notable architects, the area's first residents were not particularly style conscious until after the Civil War. Rather, early development pattern focused on speculative rows, replaced, in the late nineteenth century, by individually built, architect-designed residences. The 2000 block of Walnut Street exemplifies mid-nineteenth century, speculative row development. In 1858, Samuel K. Bye purchased five lots of land, formerly part of the Preston Retreat tract, and built five residential row structures, numbers 2033-2041. By trade a carpenter, Bye began listing himself in the city directories as a builder, as early as 1838. Presumably construction on Walnut Street started shortly after the property was purchased, although the brief on title indicated that a James Paxton purchased 2033, at sheriff sale in 1868, after Bye defaulted on a loan from Eliza Vaux. Considering the row's elegant, yet simple design, it is feasible that Bye designed as well as built the house.

Bye's row is an unusual example of Anglo-Italianate architecture, rarely found within the city of Philadelphia. The Italianate style, popularized throughout the city, typically consisted of flat fašades with projecting detailing, heavy cornice bracketing and often, brownstone or sandstone cladding. The uncommon, "Anglo" influence can be seen in the high front steps with the service entry below, or at street level, modeled after the full height English basement. The buildings on the 2000 block of Walnut Street successfully combined the usual with the unusual to create an understated, urban, residential design.

Like Walnut Street, the Bye-Benson House experienced a period of change as commercial establishments began moving to Walnut Street and once elegant singe family residences were demolished or converted to multi-family use. In keeping with subsequent changes in building use, the exterior has been altered, most notably the first floor, for commercial space.

Despite these alterations, the Bye-Benson House continues to convey a discrete sense of Victorian Philadelphia. The scale, materials and style of the structure play an integral role in preserving the visual unity of the row, one that historically shaped the built environment of Rittenhouse Square. Located within the boundaries of the Walnut-Chancellor Historic District is the single larges extant collection of nineteenth century residences on Walnut Street, as well as a rare group of Anglo-Italianate row houses. 2033 is an essential and contributing part of this tradition, embodying the social and architectural values, which influenced the development of Rittenhouse Square.

(Building History by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.)





© 1999 Thomas F. Grady, P.C.
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