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Design

A Modernist's Guide to Society Hill

At the time of its redevelopment, contemporary design was believed to bring out the best of this historic Philadelphia neighborhood. It’s aged quite well.
While occasionally dull or disruptive, the '60 and '70s additions to Society Hill are often fascinating and manage to complement and accentuate the character of its surroundings.
While occasionally dull or disruptive, the '60 and '70s additions to Society Hill are often fascinating and manage to complement and accentuate the character of its surroundings.Mark Byrnes/CityLab

Philadelphia’s Society Hill is a delightful, historic neighborhood, containing the largest concentration of 18th and early 19th century structures in the country. Unlike Beacon Hill in Boston or Charleston’s Battery, it also contains a remarkable amount of unapologetic Modernism. This is not the result of an accident but a precise plan, one which produced a result that doesn’t quite exist anywhere else in the United States.

Society Hill is generally advertised as a banner success for preservation amidst an age of fecklessly sweeping urban renewal. For the most part, it was, yet that’s not quite all of the story. Its 1960s redevelopment accomplished a great deal of preservation, but that was enabled by wholesale condemnation and forcible land acquisitions. It also produced a demographic pattern that’s all too familiar: a lower-class and substantially African American neighborhood transformed abruptly into one that was affluent and white.