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Philadelphia Converts Second Most Old Buildings into Apartments Nationwide

There’s something about old buildings that stand the test of time and rise from the ashes ready to face a new era. With residential conversion projects on the rise in the U.S., a recent study by RentCafe showed that, since the 1950s, almost 2,000 old buildings had been transformed into apartment complexes — including 800 just last decade.

When it comes to the number of projects, 85 Philadelphia buildings converted into apartments means the city is ahead of New York City and Los Angeles and surpassed only by Chicago. Specifically, with nearly 11,300 new apartments created throughout the last seven decades, RentCafe included Philadelphia among the top U.S. cities riding the adaptive reuse wave. The city’s rich history and major economical role as an industrial nexus since the 19th century make Philadelphia the perfect example of how conversion projects help preserve cultural value without disrupting the historic fabric of a community.

So, to find out more about how one of the oldest cities in the country manages to reinvent itself through adaptive reuse, we turned to Yardi Matrix data.

Conversions result in 85 new apartment buildings in Philly

Nowadays, Philadelphia boasts 85 converted apartment buildings (the second-largest number after Chicago’s 91) with 11,266 apartments, following only Chicago (14,167) and New York (18,488).

Philly experienced its first boom in the 1980s as conversion projects began to rise nationally throughout the latter half of the last century. During that decade, 17 buildings were repurposed after just 5 were converted in the 1970s. That’s a jump from 632 apartments converted in the 70s to 2,042 in the 80s. One of these buildings was a former leather tannery built in 1901 — better known today as Penn’s View Apartments — which still loves its exposed brick-interior walls.

philadelphia buildings adaptive reuse

Courtesy of The Chocolate Works

Following the national trend, the most conversions in the last 70 years in Philly were completed last decade, when 3,765 new apartments were introduced as a result of 30 rehabilitation projects. Among them was the history-heavy Brownhill & Kramer Hosiery Mill, which was built in 1905 and is known today as The Chesterman Building.

Old factories, hotels office buildings most popular Philadelphia buildings to be converted

We’ve already covered mills and tanneries, so it’s no surprise that, given its vast inventory of industrial use buildings, Philadelphia favors repurposing vintage factories. In fact, of 85 successful conversion projects, 23 are the result of converted factories. One sweet example is The Chocolate Works, which was formerly home to the world-famous Wilbur Chocolate Company back in 1902. Moreover, the high number of such repurposed structures, including 1870s Oxford Mills, is a statement of the city’s rich industrial past.

However, Philly has also had its fair share of vintage hotels and open-space office buildings, which are also perfect for residential use. With 19 conversions, hotels are the second-most popular building type to convert into apartments, followed by 15 repurposed office buildings. Examples include Griffin Center City, a former Beaux-Arts office space dating back to the 1890s, and The Arch, a mixed-use hotel and office building that still features the intricate, 1914-era terra cotta details that made it stand out back then, when it was known as the Wesley Building.

Check out a few more of historic Philadelphia’s converted residential buildings and what they used to be in their former lives:

Philly’s oldest repurposed buildings are mostly vintage factories

Industrial structures make up most of the city’s oldest buildings to be repurposed, with 9 out of 10 entries consisting of mills, refineries, warehouses or manufacturing buildings. In particular, the oldest — and perhaps most well-known — is the historic Philadelphia Sugar Refinery. Dating back to 1792 and converted in the 1970s, this industrial-chic landmark is one of the earliest residential adaptations in town. And, squeezed between historic Philadelphia’s oldest repurposed industrial gems is Lehigh Park, an 1880s hospital turned affordable housing.

Top 10 Oldest Buildings Converted in Philadelphia

NameYear BuiltConversionFormerlyUnits
Sugar Refinery17921976Factory66
Crafts House18451985Factory55
The Canal House18471986Factory82
Bank Street Court18551985Factory59
Dobson Mills18561990Factory414
Oxford Mills18732014Factory114
Orinoka Mills Civic House18802017Factory51
The Lofts at Chimney Hill18841995Factory85
Lehigh Park18861997Healthcare Building75
Fairmount @ Brewerytown18912017Warehouse126

Most recently converted Philadelphia buildings

Interestingly enough, two of the oldest buildings in town were actually some of the most recent conversions: Fairmount@Brewerytown — an 1891 warehouse — was converted in 2017, and Orinoka Mills Civic House, the result of a rehabilitating B.L. Solomon’s Sons, was an 1880 “dye house” and textile company.

Finally, the residential transition of a former paintbrush manufacturing facility from back in 1926 was completed in 2020. Today, Brush Factory Lofts come complete with industrial-sized windows and cozy exposed brick. Below are Philly’s latest conversion projects:

Top 10 Most Recent Apartment Conversions in Philadelphia

NameConversionYear BuiltFormerlyUnits
Brush Factory Lofts20201926Factory60
Edison 6420191905School66
The Harper20191935Entertainment167
The Irvine20191958Warehouse153
Divine Lorraine20181892Hotel101
Lyndon at the Curtis20181907Office building63
Sixteen Hundred Lofts20181910Factory95
Orinoka Mills Civic House20171880Factory51
The Beacon20171926Office building98
Fairmount @ Brewerytown20171891Office building126

The most unusual apartment conversion projects of Philadelphia buildings

Across the United States, unique buildings are just waiting for rehabilitation projects to uncover their hidden potential. Fortunately, in addition to spacious factories and convenient hotels, developers in Philadelphia have also seized the opportunity to bring life back to some of the city’s most interesting buildings, such as schools, stores and… an Armed Forces building.

historic philadelphia buildings

Courtesy of The Metropolitan

For instance, one unusual choice to turn residential is The Metropolitan, which used to serve as the former Philadelphia YMCA Armed Forces Building and home to U.S. servicemen during World War II. The beautiful late-1920s Art Deco building still showcases the original façade details.

Schools make for another interesting residential conversion in historic Philadelphia. Specifically, the original Thaddeus Stevens School, built in 1926, is better known today as the gorgeous Mural Lofts. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places long before it even got the iconic “Common Threads” mural.

The Collins at Midtown Village is another great example of an unusual, non-residential building that works great as a repurposed apartment complex. Built in 1898, the former retail store still offers retail space to some of the most well-known brands available while also placing its residents close to the action.

Breathing new life into old architecture is not only a great way to pay homage to the history of a community, but it can also help meet demand and even sustainability needs. As 2020 draws to a close, we can’t help but wonder what kinds of adaptive reuse projects that cities like Philadelphia have in store for the next decade.

Methodology

RentCafe is a nationwide apartment search website that enables renters to easily find apartments and houses for rent throughout the United States. Apartment data was provided by our sister company, Yardi Matrix, a business development and asset management tool for brokers, sponsors, banks and equity sources underwriting investments in the multifamily, office, industrial and self-storage sectors.

Adaptive reuse refers to reusing an existing building for a purpose other than what it was originally intended for. The study is exclusively based on apartment data related to buildings containing 50 or more units. For the purpose of this study, certain building subcategories have been grouped into a general category that encompasses them. For example, manufacturing units, mills, or breweries fall under the Factory category.

Featured image courtesy of Kardon Atlantic Apartments. All building photos used with expressed permission from the respective property management. RentCafe does not grant the right for property image use.

Fair use and redistribution

We encourage you and freely grant you permission to reuse, host, or repost the research and graphics presented in this article. When doing so, we ask that you credit our research by linking to RentCafe.com or this page, so that your readers can learn more about this project, the research behind it and its methodology. For more in-depth, customized data, please contact us at media@rentcafe.com.

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Alexandra Ciuntu
Alexandra is a creative writer and researcher for RentCafe. With a background in e-learning content writing and a passion for knowledge-sharing platforms, she's covered topics from prop-tech to renters insurance to interior design tips. Very familiar with the renter lifestyle herself, Alexandra enjoys researching and writing about renter demographic shifts and residential real estate market trends as much as she loves writing about how to get along with roommates. You can connect with Alexandra via email. Alexandra’s work includes collaborations with financial and business publications. Her articles have been featured in several national and international online publications, including the New York Times, Barrons, Inman, Forbes, Architectural Digest, Marketwatch, Bisnow, and Curbed. Her educational background includes a B.A. in Japanese and English and an M.A. in Journalism and Cultural Studies.

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