The end of five 19th-century buildings on Jewelers Row could be near, with plans for a 16-story residential building by Toll Brothers slated to take their place. Thousands of people have signed a petition to prevent the demolition, urging the city to keep the storied diamond district in tact.
Jewelers’ Row is not designated historic, yet a deep dive into the street's beginnings reveals that the block has a rich past that tells the story of how one man's downfall became another's cash cow.
Before Jewelers Row, the entire block stretching from Chestnut to Walnut and 8th to 7th streets belonged to Robert Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and friend to George Washington. In 1791, the wealthy merchant bought the lot of pasture land for 10,000 pounds and had grandiose plans to build a massive mansion on it, "intended to be on as scale far exceeding any example of the times," writes Thompson Westcott in his book The Historic Mansions and Buildings of Philadelphia.
Morris brought on P.C. L’Enfant, who designed the city of Washington, as architect, selling off his other properties—including the Morris Mansion to George Washington—to come up with the $60,000 to pay for the home. For the next five years, the pair worked to design and construct the mansion.
As the home was constructed, Westcott writes that locals looked on disapprovingly:
Although there was show and expensive among a few families which aimed to be fashionable, the majority of the population lived very frugally; and such a magnificent edifice as Morris had planned for himself, which was intended to have all the characteristics of a place, was looked upon as offensive to plain and simple people."
Images of the home remain few and far between, but records reveal that the part of the mansion that was actually built was a two-story, red brick building with marble finishes and a Mansard-style roof.
Yet, as historian Ryan Smith writes in Robert Morris’s Folly, the mansion was doomed from the start. L’Enfant proved to be too extravagant of a designer even to Morris’s standards, and Morris himself made a series of bad land deals that ultimately led to his downfall: Prison, bankruptcy, and a nearly-wrecked U.S. economy.
By 1797 Morris had fled the partially-built mansion, which earned the moniker "Morris’ Folly." The building and the lot were eventually sold to developer William Sansom for $25,600.
Sansom promptly had the mansion demolished and commissioned Thomas Carstairs to build a series of rowhomes on the southern portion of the lot.
Dubbed Carstairs’ Row, the 22 homes became the first speculative housing development in the nation. Sansom also used his own money to pave Sansom Street between 8th and 7th streets.
This series of 19th-century buildings is now known as Jewelers’ Row.
- Jewelers' Row demolition to make way for Toll Brothers high-rise [Curbed Philly]