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Neighborhood Guide: Society Hill

A section of Philadelphia that oozes elegance and history.

Boasting the largest concentration of original 18th- and early 19th-century residential architecture in the United States, Society Hill wears its pedigree on its sleeve. Graceful Georgian and Federal townhomes bear plaques designating them historic properties. Three story “trinities,” originally featuring one room per floor, anticipated the tiny house movement by a couple of centuries. In fact, the entire neighborhood—loosely bounded by Front and 8th,Walnut and Lombard Streets—is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s first and foremost a historic neighborhood,” says Martha Levine, vice president of the Society Hill Civic Association (SHCA). “Homeowners here feel it’s special for that reason and want to safeguard its provenance.”

Preservation is one of the roles of SHCA, which Levine describes as active in keeping “undesirable development from encroaching on this national treasure. We are stewards aiming to preserve what we are lucky enough to have.” The residents’ association also uses membership dues and contributions to provide services — weekly sidewalk cleaning, upgraded lighting and tree planting, among others — not typically available from the city. “We work to keep [the neighborhood] safe, clean and beautiful,” says Levine.

Jonathan Barach, founder of the Barach Group and a Society Hill resident for more than a decade, admires the neighborhood’s quiet elegance. Unlike the commercial neighborhoods surrounding it, “Society Hill is almost entirely residential,” says Barach, who compares it to New York’s Upper East Side in this regard. It’s “a village within the city,” says Levine. “People say hello on the street. It’s peaceful — a real neighborhood. There’s a feeling of community here.”

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Once exclusively inhabited by older, more established residents, Society Hill has begun to attract young professionals looking to start families. With the McCall School Catchment one of the most desirable in the city, and highly regarded private and parochial schools adding value, Society Hill presents an appealing place to raise kids.

The neighborhood is also attractive to empty-nesters who appreciate the lifestyle Philly offers but don’t want to downsize. Society Hill’s townhomes offer the benefits of city living without compromising on space. “There’s so much to do in Philadelphia,” says Barach. “The second their kids get to college, [empty-nesters] are selling their homes in the suburbs and moving here.”

Barach has also seen an influx of new residents coming from New York and New Jersey. “They are buying homes here,” he says, “and commuting to Manhattan for work. For $1 [million] to $2 million, they get a lot more bang for their buck than they would there.”

In a neighborhood where a million dollars will buy you a fixer-upper, however, expect to pay top dollar for the privilege of living there. A Society Hill mansion recently listed for $16.7 million is the most expensive house for sale in Philadelphia. The median sale price of a single family home is $1,069,759, while the median sale price of a condo is $355,000. The price of admission to this affluent enclave, however, affords its discerning residents an enviable quality of life.

Stroll Society Hill’s cobbled streets, and you’ll discover hidden courtyards and pocket parks — such as Three Bears Park on the 300 block of Delancey — where residents take advantage of the relaxed rhythm of the neighborhood. Historic places of worship — such as St. Peter’s Church, Society Hill Synagogueand Mother Bethel AME (the oldest church property in the United States to be continuously owned by African-Americans) — present opportunities for quiet contemplation. History lovers will appreciate the two 18th century house museums in the neighborhood, Physick House and Powel House. And film buffs are spoiled for choice with a dozen screens at three Ritz Theatres within easy walking distance.

Barach points out that despite not having many businesses of its own, Society Hill is centrally located to nearby restaurants and services. “It’s accessible to every single point of the city,” he says, “a 10-minute walk to Rittenhouse, and five minutes to Queen Village and Old City.” For those who embrace its pace, Society Hill offers a welcome respite from Philly’s bustle.

ON THE MARKET

For sale

322 Delancey Street

$2,100,000

5 bedrooms, 4 full baths, 1 half bath

This Federal style home has been immaculately updated with luxury finishes that highlight its original character and detail. A large foyer leads to the grand staircase and an elegant, sun-drenched living room boasts gorgeous built-in shelving and a gas fireplace. This historic property doesn’t sacrifice modern amenities, however, and no detail has been spared in the chef's kitchen or baths (where you can soak in a deep, stand-alone tub in front of an original fireplace). French doors from the 4th floor entertainment space open to a truly magical, landscaped private roof deck. Parking for one car is included.

Contact: Jonathan Barach, Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, Fox & Roach Realtors (215) 521-1527 jonathan.barach@foxroach.com

For rent

8 Saint James Court, #16

$2,350/month

2 bed, 2 bath

On a quiet cobblestone block in the heart of Society Hill, this property has been completely renovated in Mid Century Modern style. An open concept living room/dining room is illuminated by beautiful natural light from clerestory windows, and features a wood burning stove for chilly evenings. From the master suite, sliding doors lead to a large terrace overlooking mature trees and plantings in the courtyard.

Contact: Travis Rodgers, Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, Fox & Roach Realtors (215) 790-5234travis.rodgers@foxroach.com

LOCAL HANGS

Zahav

James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov has opened several notable restaurants, but his first, Zahav, has stood the test of time. Come hungry for superb modern Israeli fare. If you don’t fill up on the ethereal hummus or Salatim (the daily selection of salads), try the Al Ha’esh (vegetables, meat or fish grilled over coals). And even avowed carnivores will love the rightly famous fried cauliflower.

237 St. James Place zahavrestaurant.com

The Olde Bar

Located in the landmark Old Original Bookbinders building, The Olde Bar is Iron Chef Jose Garces’ take on an oyster bar and classic cocktail lounge. With both leather booths (the story goes that Frank Sinatra preferred number 25) and communal tables, The Olde Bar feels equally clubby and welcoming, the kind of place you might meet friends after work or arrange a quiet assignation.

125 Walnut St. theoldebar.com

WHAT IT COSTS

$1,069,759 median sale price for a single family home

$1,749 per month is the average rental price for a two-bedroom apartment

$355,000 median sale price for a two-bedroom condo

New in the neighborhood:

In a neighborhood that prides itself in preserving its historic character, a hot topic among residents is the fate of a stretch of 5thStreet just north of Pine where a strip of commercial properties – including the neighborhood’s only supermarket –is under consideration for mixed use development. Some neighbors have started a campaign called Save our Society Hill 5thStreet Shopping Village (SOS). “Our hope,” states SCHA Vice President Martha Levine, “is that the two parties will work out a way to retain the Acme and not build more stories above it.”

 
 
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