The most surprising thing about Philadelphia is that everyone seems to hail from somewhere else. Not Poland or Puerto Rico, but New York, Boston, Texas. “It is such a wonderful city,” runs the universal chorus of approval. “It has everything you can want, yet it is so human in scale.”
For this, we have William Penn to thank: an English Quaker who landed along the Delaware River in 1682 with a land charter from Charles II, intent on making this the capital of his new colony. In accordance with his Quaker beliefs, he named this the City of Brotherly Love, and set about designing a city centre based on a grid of streets barely wider than those of his native London.
Subsequently, the US may have used a blunt knife to cut the umbilical cord with Great Britain, and Philadelphia may have served as the nascent nation’s first capital – but Penn has never lost his hero status in the city he founded, and his Quaker principles of modesty and philanthropy persist, manifesting themselves in the city’s vibrant cultural scene. Virtually all exhibits at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum and the Barnes Collection are the result of personal donations. The world-famous Curtis Institute of Music offers free tuition to all its students, along with the loan of a Steinway grand. “The Philadelphian ethic is both generous and discreet,” says Bostonian Norman Keyes, director of communications at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “So perhaps we don’t trumpet our virtues as much as we should.”
This inherent modesty is reflected in the high standard of living and relatively low costs – another powerful attraction. A number of restaurants that sit comfortably among the best the world has to offer, for instance, maintain prices at less than stratospheric levels. And whereas prime property in New York – a mere hour-and-a-half away by train – tops $2,000 per sq ft, in Philadelphia the equivalent hovers at about $750 – with the odd exception. “We are climbing back to the high of 2008, when prime property sold here for $1,000 per sq ft,” says Laurie Phillips of Prudential Fox & Roach, who specialises in the premium residential property market.
Philly’s skyscrapers may not rival those of New York and Chicago, but the city’s architecture is refreshingly eclectic. Building styles range from 18th-century “row houses”, grand 19th-century brownstones and magnificent period condos, to contemporary high-rise living. For a long time, humility restrained the aspirations of skyscrapers that refused to stick their necks above the giant bronze statue of William Penn that crowns the second empire-style city hall at 491ft. Then, in 1987, the towering One Liberty Place broke the unspoken tradition by climbing 400ft higher than the landmark statue, and a new – albeit unpretentious – era was born.
One of the most desirable areas in the city centre, where old money still rules, is around Fitler and Rittenhouse squares, where handsome family houses rub shoulders with contemporary condos. A 5,325 sq ft apartment in a period condo at The Barclay is conveniently close to fine dining establishments such as Stephen Starr’s Barclay Prime, the elegant shops of Rittenhouse Row and Walnut Street, or the great Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Centre. The property, which overlooks Rittenhouse Square, is for sale at $3.925m through Laurie Phillips.
The charm of Philadelphia lies in the diversity of its neighbourhoods. Venture west of the Schuylkill River, and you will find yourself in the renowned University District. South of South Street is home to a large Italian community, with its thriving market (and cheesesteak establishments) into which young middle-class families are migrating, drawn by the friendly atmosphere, and low house prices.
A walk east of Rittenhouse towards the Old Town (Philadelphia arguably being the most pedestrian-friendly city in the US) sees warehouse conversions around 3rd and 4th Streets, to create large “boutique condo” residential spaces in demand with a more bohemian set. Nearby, west of the industrial, yet-to-be-chic Northern Liberties district, a 5,000-plus sq ft Victorian-era house can be had through Sotheby’s International, for $699,000. While for those in search of old-world charm, Elfreth’s Alley claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited street in the US, dating back to 1702. A restored three-bedroom, 19th-century milliner’s is available for close to $500,000 through Sawbuck.
While more affluent families might make for the leafy suburbs of Wynnewood and Haverford, or the town houses of Spruce and Delaney Streets, vertical city living will always have its devotees, and the award-winning 14-storey Ayer Condominium on historical Washington Square ranks among the top developments. Built in 1929 as America’s first advertising agency, it gradually morphed into 49 highly desirable apartments.
But a new kid has arrived on the block: 1706 Rittenhouse Square Street, a 31-storey glass tower in the midst of a residential neighbourhood of elegant, shuttered brownstone houses, is notable for its full-floor apartments of more than 4,000 sq ft, with private elevator access and 360° uninterrupted views.
“This development accounts for 85 per cent of all residential sales above $4m in the city,” says Paula Celletti-Baron, vice-president of marketing for 1706 Rittenhouse. “The building is very popular, particularly with VIPs who want a discreet, 24-hour service.”
Despite mutterings of “overpriced” in some quarters, the penthouse was quick to sell, for $12m. At the time of writing, five apartments remain, including the show flat at $5.2m. It remains to be seen whether the market can sustain further developments at this level.
● An excellent reputation for its higher educational establishments
● Transfer tax is payable, at 2 per cent of the purchase price
● Can be very cold in winter, hot and humid in summer, with temperatures from 12C to 35C
● Condos attract monthly maintenance fees (typically, upward of $3,000/month for super-prime)
● With an annual rate of 50 per 1,000 residents, Philadelphia has one of the highest crime rates in the US
What you can buy for …
£500,000 A five-bedroom Victorian house on North 5th Street
£1m A six-bedroom house on Delancey Street
£5m An apartment in 1706 Rittenhouse Square