Society Hill is generally defined as an area bounded by Walnut Street, Front Street, Lombard Street, and Seventh Street. Its name has nothing to do with social status – it was named after the Free Society of Traders, a group of Quaker investors, formed in London, who wanted to invest in Penn’s new colony.
Their original parcel ran from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River as well as other holdings including most of what is now the Frankford area of the city. Their headquarters sat on a small rise of land south of the original city center and people began to refer to the area as Society Hill.
As Philadelphia grew rapidly and commercial uses displaced residential uses in the 1700’s, Society Hill became Philadelphia’s first suburb. Partially separated from the commercial center by Dock Creek, it was still close enough for merchants to walk to their businesses along Market Street and along Front Street.
It’s interesting to note that unlike modern suburbs, it was heterogeneous in its housing stock with large houses built adjacent to smaller middle and working class housing. This was partially due to the common practice of building (often smaller) rental units on the rear of one’s property.
The reformers who took office after World War Two decided to relocate the food market to more modern quarters in South Philadelphia and then capitalize on Society Hill’s huge reservoir of colonial era houses to build a desirable community close the Center City.
Historic Williamsburg had whetted America’s appetite for all things colonial and the city moved in with powerful laws to tear down hundreds of Victorian era buildings and those Colonial era buildings beyond saving. Houses (which were sometimes just shells) could be had for little cash on condition the new owner agreed to restrictions such as having to restore the building’s external appearance and make it their primary residence.
These efforts, combined with rigorously controlling commercial uses and offering new residential development in both in garden apartment and high rise configurations (both by the noted architect I.M. Pei) for those who wanted more modern digs succeeded and turned the area into one of the most desirable neighborhoods of the city, which it remains today.