House of the Democrat

A local architect designed it believing workers and the wealthy could live side by side.

William Price’s Rose Valley prototype, as it looks today.Nothing makes virtue as attractive as overindulgence.

In the ashes of our most recent “gilded age,” Americans are now pushing back as from a whopping holiday meal. We’re shopping less. We’re paying off debt. McMansions? Done. In 2009, for the first time in 30 years, the average new home actually got smaller—by about 100 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Something like this also happened at the end of the original Gilded Age. In 1911, as progressives struggled to break up business trusts, introduce labor reforms, and tame what Teddy Roosevelt called “the malefactors of great wealth,” a leading local architect proposed what he called the “House of the Democrat.”

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“My definition of democracy is a state wherein there is no special privilege,” wrote William Lightfoot Price. “And the House of the Democrat? It must need no special privilege for its gaining, and it must not oppress by its possession.”

Such a house, said Price, would be well built and comfortable, not bloated and gaudy to impress the neighbors. It would respect nature. It would not, by copying Colonial houses (built in the era “of slavery and serfdom”) seek to mentally “bind the hands of tomorrow with the precedents of yesterday.”

Form would follow function. Price meant “democrat” in a small-D way—i.e., a believer in democracy.

The house still stands in Rose Valley, the Arts and Crafts utopia that Price founded just south of Media. But neither the house nor the community had the influence he had hoped. Today, Rose Valley is 95 percent white, with a median household income in excess of $114,000 —more than twice that of the county. And, according to a borough official, Rose Valley is so overwhelmingly Republican that residents joke about how one “House of the Democrat” is one too many.

For years, Price had made his living designing mansions for the super-rich. In an early project, the developers of Wayne, Anthony Drexel and George Childs, paid Price to populate their new subdivisions with Queen Anne, Shingle, Tudor and Colonial Revival spec houses. Later, in 1893, Price designed Woodmont, steel magnate Alan Wood’s immense French Gothic chateau that still overlooks the Schuylkill at Conshohocken.

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Eventually, Price grew sick of it. Working for rich clients and developers rarely demands much imagination. He found himself doing the same thing over and over, which bored him and offended his progressive ideals.

“When the call of new conditions, new purposes and new materials is answered by the songs of the past, however lovely, then art becomes a misnomer for our efforts, no matter how learned, no matter how glorious [they are],” he wrote in Gustav Stickley’s magazine, The Craftsman.

Born in Wallingford, Price was the son of an insurance salesman. He and two brothers, Walter and Frank, all became architects, though Will led the pack. As an adult, he told of watching his siblings draw crude animals and knowing he could do better. “I knew that I could draw,” he said. “And, scorning the easily erased pencil, my chubby, untaught fingers seized pen and ink and drew a fair large bull.”

Price attended Westtown School until age 16, then worked as a carpenter, possibly helping to build the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park. “Among elite Philadelphians,” wrote Price biographer George E. Thomas, “it remained the custom for youths to be taught a trade before taking on professional education.”

In 1878, Price began his study of design in the office of Addison Hutton, a Quaker architect often chosen to design traditional buildings for local colleges, including Parrish Hall at Swarthmore.

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Price’s brother, Frank, meanwhile, joined the office of cutting-edge architect Frank Furness. At the time, Furness was working on the Provident Life & Trust building, which biographers later called his best work—a commercial temple whose façade had an air of “tension and compressed energy.”

Price himself soon left Hutton’s office to join his brother and Furness. In 1881, they launched their own firm.

According to Thomas, Price’s work in his first couple of decades was nothing special. Industrialization had brought immense wealth to Philadelphia, and the city’s architects were tasked with creating palatial houses for the newly rich. At this, Price made a fair living.

Price’s contacts with executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad also gained him clients elsewhere. He designed a house in Indianapolis for Frank Van Kamp and, in Asheville, N.C., did his first hotel, the Kenilworth Inn. But Price was drifting away from Furness’ functional emphasis.

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Maybe he had a midlife crisis. Or perhaps the approach of a new century encouraged him to take a longer view. What is known is that, in 1896, Price went abroad, where he came into contact with English reformers, including John Ruskin and William Morris, whose Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against the industrialization they considered dehumanizing. Instead of the factory system, in which each worker was a mere cog, they favored a revival of medieval guilds. Then, craftsmen were part of the entire creative process.

Price was taken by the architectural harmony of the English village. “Unlike modern suburbs, in which each house was as different as possible from its neighbor in style, material and shape,” wrote Thomas, “older English villages were still characterized by a vernacular simplicity of form and unity of material that joined the entire array of buildings.”

Back home, Price became involved in the Single-Tax Movement and ran unsuccessfully for Philadelphia City Council on its platform. Professionally, he began a series of plans for “Houses of Moderate Cost” that ran in the Ladies’ Home Journal, thus spreading his name beyond the city.

In 1901, Price found an outlet for his interest in social reform and the building of communities. With Joseph Fels—inventor of Fels-Naptha Soap—and Frank Stephens, an artist friend, Price established a single-tax colony at Arden, Del. Arden’s founding theory was that all land would be held in common to reduce economic inequality, and that the only tax would be on land. Price created a plan for the community, with wooded buffers to separate the village from the road and houses organized around common areas. It was, wrote Thomas, “like a New England village with a central common, affirming the democratic sharing of resources.”

But Arden lacked the resources to be much more than a summer colony. Price wanted to create a real community. So, that same year, he bought 80 acres surrounding the former Rose Valley Mill in Nether Providence Township. Price’s idea was that the old mill buildings would be converted for use by craftsmen—particularly furniture makers.

The manufacturing idea never took off. The furniture that was made was expensive. Worse, skilled artisans were rare. “You cannot find a cabinetmaker because there is no use for him,” a shop owner had told Price. “I can get you a good dowel sticker, or a good man on the lathe or mortise machine, but there is no such thing as a cabinetmaker in the cabinetmaking shop.”

Price had just finished a new house for his family in Overbrook, but sold it and moved his family to temporary quarters in a former worker’s house. They later moved into an existing Victorian nearby. Following them were relatives and friends also interested in reform—developer M. Hawley McLanahan, publisher Edward Bok and railroad car manufacturer Charles T. Schoen.

Price converted other existing buildings for various early residents. One barn became Thunderbird Lodge, the house and studio of the illustrator Alice Barber Stephens. He enlarged an existing farmhouse for Schoen, which showed that the wealthy could live among modest houses.

New structures included large houses for wealthy clients and small $1,200 cottages for artisans, several draftsmen from Price’s office, architects, and many others who were involved in artistic pursuits. Later, there were spec houses. As in the English villages, all were designed with existing buildings in mind, in an attempt to create a regional style. Decorative tiles set in exterior walls became a hallmark of the community.

“Price strove to create a sense of community between the houses,” wrote historic preservationist Elizabeth Tighe Sippel, “yet he felt that they should be far enough away from each other to maintain a sense of privacy.”

Privacy was maintained by adequate distance between each house and very careful placement and orientation of the buildings. As Price described it, “No objectionable feature of any adjoining property is imposed upon its neighbor.”

Before the “House of the Democrat” was built, Price published its design in several influential magazines. In articles, he tried to convince Americans that they didn’t need to keep up with the Joneses. “Dispense with the plush albums and tea-store chromos and self-playing (organs) and comic operas and the daily installment of wood pulp which calls itself the modern newspaper,” he urged. “Resigning these luxuries, they will get what in return? They will still have the necessaries of life and some of the comforts.”

But few were converted. Rose Valley remained primarily an upscale community. The craftsmen who briefly worked in the community commuted from ethnic city neighborhoods where they were more comfortable. After the workshops closed, the affluent were left to themselves.

The unpretentious cottage near Price’s own house probably went up about 1910, and may have been built by Henry Hetzel, a Quaker who was in Rose Valley by 1903. It featured the “wide spreading” porch and gardening space—an acre or so—that Price recommended because “democracy will provide leisure, and your democrat will not only pluck flowers but grow them.”

One-and-a-half stories, it’s low and wide with a gambrel barn-style roof, plus the same wall tiles used throughout the community—because, said Price, among democrats, no home should be “so humble that it may not touch the hem of art.”

That was tolerated for a while. But following the lean years, when Price’s democratic thinking seemed to make sense, came the free-spending Roaring Twenties—and after that, the 1950s.

An attic conversion at the House of the Democrat in 1950 created two additional bedrooms and two baths. (Perhaps, despite Price’s promise, it didn’t have “rooms enough for the privacy of each and the fellowship of all.”) Another wing has been added since.

Apparently, a taste for virtue lasts only until we get hungry again.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments.
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