Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Union Traction Company Battery House, 1896
8100 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19118

Jane Mork Gibson, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

This building is now in commercial use and not easily recognized as a link with our industrial past. It was built by the Union Traction Company as a battery house/power plant for the trolleys on Germantown Avenue and is an example of an early technology that fell out of use by World War I. It served two functions: it acted similar to a surge tank on a car radiator when there was a line drop, and it provided extra power when needed. Direct current (d.c.) electricity necessary for the trolleys cannot travel over long distances, the limit being about six miles. Battery stations at strategic locations made up for the fact that portions of the line were far from the substation, in this case the Chelten Avenue Substation. The batteries were charged by the line in off-peak times when there was a line drop and were put on line at peak load times. 1
The transit line at that date extended to Northwestern Avenue, and the ascent of the hill on Germantown Avenue in either direction made heavy demands on the electric power available. The cars of the Union Traction Company (later Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company in 1902, and then Philadelphia Transportation Company in 1939) made connections with the Lehigh Valley Transit Company, operating lines to Lehigh County, and the Schuylkill Valley System, extending through Montgomery County to Pottstown.  
The battery station went out of use c.1919. Up until that time the traction company had generated its own power, but went out of the power business in the 1920s and turned over its power facilities to the Philadelphia Electric Company, obtaining the power for traction at a very low tariff, which continued following the electrification of the
Subsequent use of the building has destroyed any trace of its original use. The building is a one-story, stuccoed brick commercial building recently altered and modernized with mansard roof and new openings. There were changes made in the building in 1919, but the change in use is not known.  A building permit in 1955 probably signifies the date when the building was occupied by a Volkswagen repair shop. Following this use, an antique car collection was stored in the building. In 1984 the present owner made renovations for commercial use, and three businesses are now in operation: Sherlocks (hair salon), Renaissance Real Estate (office), Little House on the Hill (developmental learning and child day care). The present owner is George Lapworth of Renaissance Real Estate.

1   Information on the trolley system obtained in telephone interview with John Tucker, September 1, 1989.

Update May 2007 (by Jane Mork Gibson):
Currently called “Little House on the Hill," a daycare center occupies the entire building, with a play yard outside. It was established in 1983 and is operated by Carrie O’Donnell (“Miss Carrie"). George and Marie Lapworth own the property. A sign on the building provides the following information: “Little House est. 1983—Ages Toddlers to 5 years—Spacious, Bright, Airy Facilities—Kindergarten readiness—Arts, Crafts, Gym, Music & Field Trips—Quality Care by a Quality Staff—Full Days—State Licensed—Hours 7:30 a.m.–6 p.m. year round—215-248-4990—Now enrolling children in our summer & fall programs."