Buildings Then and Now: A neighborhood’s retail anchor goes a-weigh

Former C. A. Rowell department store, 2013
The former C.A. Rowell department store building today. Photo by the author.

For most of the 20th century, Philadelphia’s other center city was the main commercial thoroughfare of its second oldest community, Germantown’s Chelten Avenue. Crossing Germantown Avenue just north of Germantown’s historic center, Chelten Avenue emerged as a shopping street to rival Chestnut and Market streets in the late 19th century, after the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads extended lines to the area and built stations where their routes crossed the street.

George Allen store, date unknown, early to mid-20th century. Germantown Historical Society collection.

And as befits a satellite downtown, Germantown had its own homegrown merchant princes, including George Allen and C.A. Rowell. Rowell opened his store at the southeast corner of Germantown and Chelten avenues in 1903. There’s not much in the way of historical material on Rowell himself or the early years of his store, but from some of the artifacts available on vintage clothing sites – for instance, this 1940s opera gown offered for sale on Etsy, or this 1950s wedding dress – Rowell’s catered to fashionable shoppers with a taste for the finer things in life.

Exterior, C.A. Rowell department store, July 8, 1950.
Exterior, C.A. Rowell department store, July 8, 1950.

Central Germantown’s shopping district quite likely reached its zenith in 1950, the year C.A. Rowell completed a major expansion and reconstruction of the store. The new store’s Georgian Revival exterior fit in with the neighborhood’s 18th-century historic buildings as well as the generally conservative architectural tastes of post-World War II Philadelphia. By contrast, the store’s interior was a 1950s Modernist showcase – sleek and refined, with indirect lighting, wood accents and lots of mirrors. Its architects apparently thought well enough of the job to thoroughly document it in pictures now in the collection of the Library of Congress; a sampling of these appear below.

Main floor, C.A.Rowell department store, July 8, 1950.
Main floor, C.A. Rowell department store, July 8, 1950.
Housewares department, C.A. Rowell department store, July 8, 1950.
Housewares department, C.A. Rowell department store, July 8, 1950.
Lamp department, C.A. Rowell department store, July 8, 1950.
Lamp department, C.A. Rowell department store, July 8, 1950.
Children's shoe department, C.A. Rowell department store, July 8, 1950.
Children’s shoe department, C.A. Rowell department store, July 8, 1950.

Not long after the new Rowell store opened its doors, Germantown’s fortunes began a decades-long decline as real estate agents, beginning in the mid-1950s, preyed on racial fears with a tactic known as “blockbusting” – selling cheap houses to low-income blacks, then spreading word of their arrival among white neighbors to spark panic selling. Central Germantown’s business district managed to hang on gamely into the 1960s – photos of Chelten Avenue from 1964 show Allen’s still in business and storefronts that continued to convey messages of old-school refinement – but by then, the downward trajectory had established itself. The district’s last department store, a J.C. Penney branch, closed in the early 1980s.

39 W Chelten Ave - 1964
Chelten Avenue, looking west from Greene Street, 1964. The Wilf Brothers facade, right, remains intact, but even in this picture, the store is partly vacant, and it has since been further subdivided into several smaller units. The George Allen & Co. store also remains standing, across the street. Photo from PhillyHistory.org.

Today, Chelten and Germantown remains a bustling intersection, and most of the storefronts along Chelten Avenue are occupied – but the merchants now cater to a much less affluent demographic than lived in Germantown in 1950. The old Rowell store now contains a Walgreens drugstore on its street floor; its upper floors have been renovated as office space and are being marketed for lease by the Philadelphia Suburban Development Corporation.

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs from the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Library of Congress