Oldest street in nation celebrates 300 years

Sunday, June 2, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- Joan Reardon McErlane's great-great grandmother moved to a small brick row house on Elfreth's Alley in the 1850s. Her great-grandmother got dressed there on her wedding day. Her mother grew up playing in front of the home.

But the family never owned number 117, and after McErlane's mother left in 1968, other people moved in.

Still, her mother never forgot the house on the narrow alley, hidden away in Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood. So almost two years ago, McErlane's father bought the house as a surprise present and his 32-year-old daughter, who hadn't lived in the area since she was a child, moved across the country from Minneapolis to live there.

"It's very special," she said. "It's going to be in our family for the rest of our lives."

McErlane is from one of the long-standing families on Elfreth's Alley, which locals contend is the oldest continuously populated residential street in the nation. Elfreth's Alley will celebrate its 300th anniversary this spring with an old-fashioned festival and a reunion of former residents and descendants of residents.

Stories of the street

"We want to capture the stories of the people inside," said Beth Richards, the executive director of the Elfreth's Alley Association. The group is researching the histories of people on the street and trying to find anyone with memories of the alley.

The tiny alley, lined with little two- and three story-brick houses, started out as a side street in 1702 for carts to get to the nearby wharf.

The name comes from Jeremiah Elfreth, a blacksmith who was the biggest landowner on the street by the mid-1700s. The houses were inexpensive and over the years an eclectic mix of people lived there -- laborers, artists, sailors, shopkeepers with homes above their shops.

"The alley is a continuum of urban life in Philadelphia," said Jim Dunn, chairman of the board of directors of the Elfreth's Alley Association. "In this little street you can see how much Philadelphia has developed."

The street claims the longest residential title because, except for two homes used as a museum, the 33 houses are all lived in, with about 75 people. Some other historical streets are no longer residential, Richards explained.

Houses were built on the street between 1712 and 1830. The fact the houses are still intact is unusual, Richards said, noting that fires destroyed other streets in the area during the 1800s.

"Some of it is luck and serendipity," she said.

By the 1930s, many of the properties had fallen into disrepair and were condemned. The Elfreth's Alley Association was founded by a group of women who began raising money to purchase the homes and save them.

"The architecture is amazing and that it's survived intact is why we're a National Historical Landmark," Richards said.

Cobblestones and brick pave the tiny alley dotted with leafy trees, potted plants and window boxes. Old-fashioned street lamps appear along the sides of the street. The houses are different shades of brick, two or three stories high and the doors and shutters are painted bright reds, blues and greens.

Some of the newer houses from the 1800s have several steps up to the front doors. Old wooden doors that lead into cellars are fixed on the ground in front of the house.

Now that the houses are taken care of, the association is trying to piece together the history of the people who lived on Elfreth's Alley. They have been researching old census data and are trying to locate all former residents and descendants for the reunion.

"We've had a thousand hits on the Web site," Richards said. "We've found the person with the first television on the alley."

McErlane, whose parents still live in Minnesota, said her family will have 50 or 60 people there, all with special memories. "I have one cousin who did some graffiti in my neighbor's house in 1922," she said. "He put his name in her windowpane."

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