When two real estate owners combined their properties in 1706 to create a narrow residential street to accommodate the swiftly growing population of artists and tradesmen in Philadelphia, little did they know that it would still be in use more than three centuries later.
Although Elfreth’s Alley, in the city’s historic district close to the Delaware River, is erroneously touted in many tourist guides as the oldest continuously used residential street in the United States, others predate it (like Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, New York, settled in 1677). But Elfreth’s Alley is certainly the oldest in Philadelphia, and probably Pennsylvania itself.
The street, named after silversmith Jeremiah Elfreth who is said to have commissioned and developed it, was not a part of the original blueprint for Philadelphia. As business flourished, especially around the river, the city center grew, and there was a need for more homes. The narrow cobblestone alleyway, with residences built in the Federal and Georgian styles, housed people from different walks of life and was an active site of commerce. Many tradespeople like grocers and cabinetmakers used the first floors of their homes to run their businesses.
During the 18th century, families were moderate in size. During the 19th century, the homes began to hold larger families, especially families of German immigrants, leading to some homes having small additions built in the back to gain extra living space.
This spirit remains in place today as many artists and entrepreneurs have made Elfreth’s Alley their home, even as visitors constantly walk up and down the alley and peer at the features of the 32 buildings. The charming flower boxes, colorful doors and windows, and elegant brickwork have endured across centuries, with the help of conservation activists who have worked to preserve it as a model colonial street.
Know Before You Go
The only access to the street itself is by foot. The Elfreth's Alley Museum is located in the former home of dressmakers and has been restored to showcase their lifestyle. There is currently construction from the National near the front, obscuring the entrance. Go to the left of the construction to enter the alley.