In 2015, South Camac Street's wooden pavement was in disrepair. Z22/Wikimedia Commons

The restoration of a historic Philadelphia thoroughfare has proven more difficult than expected.

South Camac is one of those old, narrow Philadelphia streets with buildings that hug the sidewalk so closely they seem to spill onto it. It’s made even more charming by the fact that it has hosted many of the city’s most venerable literary and art clubs since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And if that isn't enough, until last year one section served as the only restored wood-paved street in Philadelphia.

South Camac was paved in wood in 1917. It and a few other streets in such cities as Pittsburgh and Chicago are the last remaining examples of this once-prevalent practice of the early 20th century. Wood was in greater supply than cobblestone and thus less expensive, but its real advantage was that it dampened the clip-clop of horse hooves. As a result, wood blocks were often used to pave streets in high-traffic areas as well as around buildings for which noise was particularly disruptive, such as churches, hospitals, and schools—and, in the case of South Camac Street, social clubs.

Wood blocks did have a disadvantage: their smell. They were soaked in creosote to prevent them from rotting, and they absorbed a whole lot of horse urine. With the advent of the rubber-tired automobile, wood blocks were no longer needed, and streets were paved over with less malodorous asphalt.

In late 2015, the city of Philadelphia removed South Camac’s wood-paved section. It turned out that a 2012 restoration, which was supposed to last at least five years, had been a failure. Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that almost as soon as the street was repaved, the blocks began to rot. “Some dissolved into pulp,” she wrote. “Others began to pop out of place.”

(Z22/Wikimedia Commons)

Philadelphia’s Streets Department, fearing that pedestrians would trip over the deteriorating blocks, took out the wood and spread asphalt over the area. Chief highway engineer Steve Lorenz and engineer Nicholas Baker say they have a few unconfirmed theories about why the restoration failed, including substandard drainage and inferior treatment of the wood.

“When we install it again,” they tell Citylab via email, “we will be exploring different wood, the size of the blocks, improving drainage, restricting vehicle traffic, and different sealers.” The plan is for Camac Street to be restored once again in 2017—in time to mark its centennial in old-world style.  

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    Berlin Will Freeze Rents for Five Years

    Local lawmakers agreed to one of Europe’s most radical rental laws, but it sets the stage for a battle with Germany’s national government.

  2. A person tapes an eviction notice to the door of an apartment.
    Equity

    Why Landlords File for Eviction (Hint: It’s Usually Not to Evict)

    Most of the time, a new study finds, landlords file for eviction because it tilts the power dynamic in their favor—not because they want to eject their tenants.

  3. A photo of a new apartment building under construction in Boston.
    Equity

    In Massachusetts, a ‘Paper Wall’ of Zoning Is Blocking New Housing

    Despite the area’s progressive politics, NIMBY-minded residents in and around Boston are skilled in keeping multi-family housing at bay.

  4. Environment

    Paris Wants to Grow ‘Urban Forests’ at Famous Landmarks

    The city plans to fill some small but treasured sites with trees—a climate strategy that may also change the way Paris frames its architectural heritage.

  5. A photo of Madrid's Gran Via
    Environment

    Is This the End of the Road for Madrid’s Car Ban?

    With more conservative leadership moving in after elections, the Spanish capital’s pollution-fighting regulations on private vehicles may be in danger.

×