THE MAIN LINE
In the days when railroad was king, there was no nobler line than the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line. Running from Center City to Paoli, today’s “Thorndale Line” encouraged the daily migration of railroad executives and other wealthy Philadelphians from the urban jungle to sophisticated suburban enclaves northwest of the city limits. Once known as the Welsh Tract, the area has a rich history as home to generations of the “landed gentry” who built expansive estates here.
Remember Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of socialite Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story”? That was the Main Line, c. 1940, and for many people, life on the Main Line is still quite charmed even as it has moved into the 21st century. The Main Line is known for a genteel lifestyle, and many of the Philadelphia region’s most discerning buyers choose coveted addresses like Merion, Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Wayne – all stops along the train line – or surrounding communities including Bala Cynwyd, Gladwyne and Newtown Square. Exceptional architecture is abundant. Expect to find leafy suburban streets lined with gracefully appointed homes. There is a diversity of housing, too; Main Line real estate offerings range from modest twins and comfortable condominiums to over-the-top mansions set securely behind privacy walls and gated entryways as well as plenty of traditional-style homes in-between.
Many residents still commute to Center City Philadelphia from the Main Line, keeping demand for homes quite strong. This select part of eastern Pennsylvania spanning parts of Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties has more $1,000,000+ homes than any other part of the state. Don’t be surprised to find one or two Main Line zip codes (hello, Gladwyne and Villanova) listed among the wealthiest in the country.
Accordingly, there are a range of private clubs that serve as the gathering places for the area’s elite as they have for many decades. They include Merion Golf Club, noted for its challenging play; Merion Cricket Club, which includes lawn tennis and squash courts, softball and soccer teams and other sports; various tennis clubs; Overbrook Golf Club and Aronimink Golf Club to name just two golf options; Radnor Hunt Club for equestrian pursuits; and many more leagues for a range of sports.
The area has a high concentration of elite educational institutions, including colleges and universities such as Bryn Mawr College, Cabrini College, Haverford College, Eastern University, Rosemont College and Villanova University. There is also an array of private secondary schools (The Agnes Irwin School, Shipley School, The Baldwin School, Episcopal Academy, The Haverford School, to name a few) and highly acclaimed public schools.
Shopping and dining on the Main Line are predictably posh, and there is no shortage of entertainment. The King of Prussia Mall and Suburban Square are popular destinations, and quaint boutique shopping districts line the Lancaster Avenue corridor. For those who may miss the foodie renaissance of downtown, it will come as a pleasant surprise that some of Center City’s most lauded restaurateurs have opened successful fine dining destinations along the Main Line. Movie buffs can take in independent, foreign and first-run fare at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, the Clearview Anthony Wayne theater and the Narberth Theater.
Philadelphia, home to so many firsts in U.S. history, has come into its own as a first-class, high-energy metropolitan area for those seeking affordable living, top-notch cultural activities and easy access in and out of the metro area.
William Penn’s original 1683 plan for the city, 1200 acres stretching from the Delaware River on the eastern edge to the Schuylkill River in the west, bisected by what is now Broad (running north-south) and Market (east-west) Streets, called for quadrants with a green public space in each. Those park-like spaces still exist today in the form of Rittenhouse, Franklin, Washington and Logan Squares. In addition, Penn believed it was important for the city to be surrounded by ample open space, and for that reason city residents and visitors today can enjoy Fairmount Park, the largest landscaped park in the United States. It stretches from the heart of city all the way to its outermost northwestern boundaries.
In part because Penn’s original plan is very much intact, Philadelphia is a very walkable city of neighborhoods each with its own ambience and amenities. It has the largest collection of 18th– and 19th-century residences of any U.S. city, and one can’t help but appreciate the streetscapes that in many ways are little changed from the time of the Founding Fathers. Behind the preserved and restored facades are elegant, updated single-family homes and comfortable condominiums. Tucked in between these Colonial- and Federal-era homes are some of the most famous buildings in U.S. history. As of 2013, Philadelphia had 540 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and 67 National Historic Landmarks.
For those who prefer more modern living quarters, one look at the skyline shows abundant high-rise-living options, particularly in the Rittenhouse Square, Society Hill, Washington Square and Art Museum neighborhoods, and more are on the way. Concierge, amenity-rich buildings with 24/7 service are quite popular and ease city living, especially for those who are moving from the suburbs to the city.
For those who want to be in the city, but not exactly in the center of things, places like Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy and Manayunk could be the closest the city has to “suburbs.” All are about a 20-minute commute from Center City and are within the city limits. Housing options range from simple rowhouses to classic stone mansions bordering Fairmount Park and some single-family homes in-between.
Whether one chooses a luxury home in the sky, a jewel-box trinity (that’s what Philadelphians call three-story, three-room rowhouses) or an early 20th-century, robber-baron-esque mansion, what is striking about Philadelphia’s housing market is how affordable it is compared to New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C. Its per-square-foot prices are significantly lower, yet the city has a thriving employment market dominated by law firms, healthcare organizations, financial services companies, insurance companies, universities and telecommunications companies, including Comcast. It has restaurants, cultural activities galore and mass transit. And it has world-renowned hospitals and universities. For city living on a budget, it’s hard to top the City of Brotherly Love.