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The Green Line trolleys connect our neighborhood along one of its main thoroughfares: Baltimore Avenue. They provide environmentally sound transportation to downtown Philadelphia and are a living link to the founding of West Philadelphia as an early suburb.*
When William Penn laid out the plans for his new city, he left the land to the west of the Schuykill River for farms and what small settlements might develop. Light industry rose up around Mill Creek, a fast-flowing river whose traces remain as the bowl in present-day Clark Park. By the 1860s, the mills had mostly disappeared, but residential development had picked up speed, thanks to a new form of public transit that connected the newly annexed city district to downtown: streetcars drawn by horses along tracks. (A city ordinance soon fixed the width between the rails at 5 feet, 2 1/4 inches, the standard that prevails to this day.*) The horsecar lines stopped at 43rd Street, and therefore, so did most development.*
In the next few decades, horsecars were joined by steam-powered, financially unprofitable "dummies," then streetcars pulled by cables. But the big boom arrived with electrically powered trolleys in 1892.* Fast and clean, the trolleys were immediately popular, and within five years, all lines were electrified.* Tracks quickly spread, connecting existing neighborhoods and fostering new ones to the west and southwest. By 1906, every West Philly resident lived within four blocks of a trolley line.
Trolleys on Baltimore Avenue predated electrification. The first service began in 1890, with tracks running from 20th and South Streets to 40th and Baltimore via Lancaster Avenue.* Electric-powered streetcars began operating on 13 January 1895 under the flag of the Delaware County and Philadelphia Electric Railway Company.* The next year, service ended on Lancaster, and tracks were laid westward along Baltimore to 61st Street in the then-distant community of Angora. Service along Baltimore became known as the Angora Line.*
Initially, the eastern end of the route took trolleys on a loop around 40th, Locust, and 36th Streets, and sent them back westward on Spruce and then Woodland to Baltimore. But the traction companies quickly noted the demand for a line that connected West Philadelphia with the Delaware River waterfront, and in February 1895, the route was extended to run east along Lombard to Front Street, returning westward on South Street.*
For a few months in 1896, the route from West Philly terminated in the depot at 25th and South Streets. It was reextended in September to Front Street via Chestnut (eastbound) and Walnut (westbound). The West Philly path was altered as well; instead of using 40th and 38th streets to get from Baltimore to Spruce, trolleys began using 42nd Street for their brief north-and-south legs.*
As the number of "traction companies" proliferated, the tracks became clogged with competing streetcars. Less than a decade after the arrival of electric lines over Baltimore Avenue, four companies were operating on the Angora Line. The Delaware Cty & Philadelphia Elec. Ry. Co. had been quickly joined in January 1895 by the Electric Traction Company, followed by The Union Traction Company in July 1896 and the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company in July 1902.* City leaders decided that the solution to this transit traffic-jam was a colossal merger, and in 1903, 33 transit firms were consolidated into the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company.*
The supersized PRTC quickly built a subway tunnel to link West Philly's trolleys to City Hall in 1906, and opened the elevated Market Street line in 1907. It also slashed the number of free passes issued annually to local politicians.*
In 1911, the city's streetcar population hit its all-time high: 4,000 cars. The year also welcomed the first of 1,500 Nearside cars, so named because their front-end passenger doors required a stop on the "near side" of intersections instead of the far-side stops made by rear-door trolleys.*
Late in the year, Philadelphia began to redesignate its electric railway routings with route numbers, becoming the first American city to adopt the practice, which was already widespread in Europe. Initially, routes were numbered in the order in which they were equipped with Nearside cars. The following year, a citywide plan was drawn up assigning lines 2 through 78. (No. 1 was assigned to the Market Street subway-elevated line.) In March 1913, the list was changed once again to reflect the planned consolidation or elimination of several lines; this list ran from 2 to 65.* The Angora Line became Route 34.*
The next decade brought tighter management to the city's streetcar lines. In 1920, the PTRC noted that the average speed of a streetcar had risen to 9.33 mph, up 1.3 mph.*. A two-cent rate hike brought the price of single ride to 7 cents, or four fares for a quarter.*
But the arrival of the automobile had increasingly drained transit ridership and fomented sprawl, and in 1939, Philadelphia's trolley company declared bankruptcy. It reemerged as the Philadelphia Transportation Company. By 1953, the PTC was running 49 trolley routes,* making it the world's largest urban transit company still in private hands.*
But the forces that had changed its larger cousins would not be denied, and in 1965, the PTC was absorbed by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, established two years earlier to help area railroads keep running unprofitable commuter rail service.
In 1981, the first of SEPTA's 112 Kawasaki LRV trolleys began arriving. PCCs were phased out of service on Route 34 (although 15 rebuilt PCCs were returned to service on Route 15, bringing trolleys back to Girard Street after more than a dozen years of bus service).*
Today, SEPTA's Route 34 stretches 10.1 miles from downtown's Juniper Station to the Angora Loop at 61st Street and Baltimore Ave., the shortest of the remaining Subway-Surface lines.*
The area that trolleys helped foster is recognized as the West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District (map).