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History of Pier 3 

The Piers at Penn's Landing

In 1907, the City of Philadelphia established the Department of Wharves, Docks and Ferries as a division of its Department of Commerce to meet the needs of the city's growing foreign, inter-coastal, coastal and Delaware River trade.  Besides having regulatory power for the entire local urban waterfront, the new department oversaw the construction and maintenance of dozens of municipally-owned piers and port facilities in the early decades of the 20th century.  The Department of Wharves, Docks and Ferries built Pier 3 North and its sister building Pier 5 North in 1922 and 1923 as the last component of this particular phase of improvements to the Port of Philadelphia.

Municipal Piers 3 and 5 were specifically designed to: 1) accommodate ships with much greater draw, 2) enable the loading and unloading of more than one ship simultaneously, and 3) facilitate the rapid transfer of cargo to railroads, wagons and trucks.  The City of Philadelphia spent four and a half million dollars in building these warehouse piers, and they were the last general cargo piers constructed by the city along the central Delaware River district.  When new, these two double-deck depots were state-of-the-art in cargo-handling technology and were actively promoted as such.  In fact, they were said to have transformed Delaware Avenue into the "greatest shipping thoroughfare in the country."

The piers were raised on the site of several obsolete wooden wharves that were put up in the late-19th century with money left to the city by Stephen Girard, the famed Philadelphia shipping merchant, financier and philanthropist.  (Click here for a photo of these long-gone piers.)   Hence, Piers 3 and 5 were officially called the "New Girard Group" (or just "Girard Group" or "Girard Piers").  Completed first, Pier 3 was officially dedicated by Mayor J. Hampton Moore on June 29, 1922.  (Click here for detailed historic information about Pier 3.) 

The chief designer of the complex was John Penn Brock Sinkler, City Architect from 1920 to 1924.  The New Girard Piers were made of steel and concrete with brick and limestone facing, and stand on large timbers submerged into the riverbed; Pier 3 has some 8000 such timbers alone.  (Like Philadelphia's City Hall, these imposing edifices were built to last!)  They extended about 550 feet into the Delaware River channel, which was as far as federal law allowed to ensure safe navigation on the river.  Their 185-foot width represented a balance between the desire for a wide wharf for sorting cargo and the need to leave enough space between them for ships to maneuver.  Several ships could load and unload simultaneously at each pier, or a ship could unload at one berth and then load at another.

Each pier's steel frame was exposed on the north and south elevations.  "Turn over" cargo doors, which folded upward and inward before rotating toward the roof, filled almost all the bays on the first and second stories.  These doors enabled the direct movement of cargo to and from either deck from any point on the pier.  Above the doors, a band of windows admitted light into the cargo areas.  Horizontal steel girders towering over the roof level provided a place for block-and-tackle rigs to be hung.  Referred to as "cargo masts," these gave longshoremen great flexibility in moving cargo to the appropriate level of the pier for storage.  Pier 3 offered about 101,000 square feet of storage space while Pier 5 offered about 98,000.  (Click here for a cross-section and interior view of a typical municipal pier built by the City of Philadelphia in the early-20th century.)   Both buildings had automatic fire sprinklers and numerous fire stations connecting to city water pressure.  They also contained several offices for dock and shipping purposes on both the upper and lower decks.

In the front facade of each pier, two doors for trucks and one door for railcars led to the interior.  One of the truck doors opened to an inclined ramp leading to the second floor.  The center rail door admitted a single track from Delaware Avenue which divided to accommodate two sets of railroad cars.  A seven-foot wide concrete apron extended down the sides of the piers, providing a place for longshoremen to work.  In the 1950s, Pier 3's southern apron was widened to accommodate an additional set of tracks connecting to Delaware Avenue.  And along the avenue, a single-story shed with loading platforms linked the two piers by the river's bulkhead.  The entire facility, carefully designed for optimal efficiency of loading and unloading cargo, occupied almost one thousand feet of water frontage.

After several decades of hard and faithful service on the Delaware riverfront, Municipal Piers 3 and 5 succumbed to more modern methods of port operations and cargo transportation.  Huge new port facilities were constructed in South Philadelphia after World War II, and containerization, in particular, spelled doom for the Girard Group Piers.  The two outmoded warehouses lingered on into the 1960s, after which they stood abandoned and forlorn along the area that would eventually become known as Penn's Landing.

Planned in the early 1960s, Penn's Landing between Market and Spruce Streets was constructed on landfill in the late 1960s and early 1970s in preparation for the U.S. Bicentennial.  (The site is called "Penn's Landing" because William Penn's ship The Welcome landed in the area,about where Dock Street is now,when Penn first visited Philadelphia in 1682.)  Like most other derelict docks and ferry landings in the river district, Piers 3 and 5 were slated for demolition in the grand urban renewal plans.  But only half of Penn's Landing was ever built, thus sparing the two structures, as well as Piers 9 and 11 further north.  (Both of these were narrow warehouse piers built by the Department of Wharves, Docks and Ferries soon after its formation; Pier 9 still stands intact.)

Slowly, the rough and tumble dock area along the Delaware River was transformed into an appealing destination for Philadelphians and tourists seeking recreational activities.  Instead of cargo ships, cruise ships and pleasure boats began plying the Delaware.  As Penn's Landing became increasingly popular, adaptive reuse of the Girard Piers was sought.  Meanwhile, they were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 in recognition of their early art deco architecture.  Soon after this, in a stroke of genius and a leap of faith, developers converted the piers into residences on the water.  And so rather than house cargo, Piers 3 and 5 were transformed to house people.  (Click here for photos of Pier 3 under renovation.) 

One of the most striking aspects of the conversion was the removal of the roofs of both buildings to produce a charming open-air atrium in each one.  All sorts of living spaces large, small and multi-level, were created with the addition of interior walls made of modern materials.  Structural steel was not only retained (out of necessity), but was also highlighted in the atriums and elsewhere.  Plus, the all-important amenity of a parking lot was incorporated on the lower level of each building.  The condominiums did not sell well at first, so the Piers at Penn's Landing became apartment complexes in the later 1980s.  By 1994, however, the Piers became condominiums again and quickly sold out.

Today, the Piers at Penn's Landing are successful established condominiums.  The residences here are woven into the beautiful and powerful structure of two historic buildings with an interesting past.  The industrial facades of Piers 3 and 5 grace the Riverwalk, a landscaped promenade along the waterfront and Columbus Boulevard that celebrates Philadelphia's maritime history.  The unique location of the Piers at Penn's Landing is not only picturesque, but also practical.  The Delaware River functions like a castle's moat, enhancing the privacy of the community within and buffering the community from the noise of the city.  The sounds heard are those of the river, and the views seen are the dazzling sights of water, sky, boats and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.  Fireworks are visible from many living rooms on some holidays.  At one time, railroad tracks ran through some of those living rooms...

By Harry Kyriakodis, Pier 3 resident and author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (The History Press, 2011)