Abbottsford Homes

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Philadelphia, PA
United States
Abbottsford Homes

Constructed for employees of nearby industry serving the military, this residential complex was built in 1941 by the federal government to house some 2,500 people. The East Falls location overlooking the Schuylkill River had been the nineteenth-century site of the 50-room Bella Vista mansion, owned by James and Bessie Dobson Altemus. Throughout the Great Depression, the Altemus family had permitted impoverished people to use five acres of the estate for vegetable gardens. The federal government, responding to war-time needs for industrial labor, appropriated the property and razed 80 gardens in 1941. Architects William Pope Barney and Victor Able and landscape architect James Bush-Brown were commissioned to design the planned community. A terraced effect was created by orienting the rectilinear brick buildings parallel with the natural topography of the site. More than 50 structures comprised 700 residential apartments and commercial, religious, and recreational facilities. Shared open spaces—small and rectilinear lying between buildings—were vegetated with lawns, while rectilinear roads were lined with trees.

In 1953 the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) was granted control of the complex with the understanding that it would be used for low-income housing. In the following years, several of the buildings were demolished and the landscape became neglected. From 1993 to 1997 architect Robert Couch and landscape architect Harriet Pattison worked with the PHA and Abbottsford residents to revitalize the buildings and surroundings. With only half of the original structures remaining, expanses of lawn interspersed with trees and connected by curving sidewalks unified the property. Horticulturally rich gardens and a diverse blend of flowering trees were planted; playgrounds, an amphitheater, and tennis courts were constructed to provide various recreational opportunities.