Historic Sites Neighborhoods Uncategorized

The Germantown Cricket Club

Germantown Cricket Club, c.1900.

Hidden behind a high brick wall stands a forgotten masterpiece of American architecture, designed by the same firm responsible for New York’s Pennsylvania Station and the Boston Public Library.

The Germantown Cricket Club, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the few surviving structures in Philadelphia designed by McKim Mead & White.

It is a strange juxtaposition, indeed: one of the nation’s oldest country clubs situated in an dense, inner-city environment.

When Germantown Cricket Club was built in the 1890s, the surrounding area was a fashionable suburban district, popular with commuters and summer residents seeking clean air and green space.  What better place for traditional country sports?

Cricket is, of course, a British import, and an ancestor of modern American baseball. During the mid-19th century, Philadelphia was an American mecca of this quintessentially British game, and it’s “elevens” were competitive with the best teams from the other side of the pond. One of Philadelphia’s greatest cricketers was Germantown founder William Rotch Wister (1827-1911), who actively promoted the game to a broad American audience after watching English immigrant millworkers play it during their precious off-hours.  He was also the uncle (and father-in-law…) of novelist Owen Wister.*  Wister, along with a group of well-connected Philadelphia sportsmen, founded the Germantown Cricket Club in 1854.  The club first played on a crease in the Nicetown section of the city — conveniently close to the Wister family compound — until 1891, when the current clubhouse was constructed on Manheim Street.

The clubhouse is most likely the vision of Stanford White, the most creative and visionary of the McKim Mead & White partners.** White’s residential architecture, especially in New York, tended towards the theatrical, with plenty of rich materials and ornamentation.  He also had a hand in designing resort structures such as The Casino in Newport, Rhode Island, which used Japanese architecture for inspiration.  But perhaps in the spirit of appeasing his conservative Philadelphia patrons, White tempered his architectural language, giving Wister and his friends a staid, symmetrical, red-brick Georgian composition that harkened back to Philadelphia landmarks such as Independence Hall and Christ Church.

In the best Beaux Arts tradition, White created an efficient floor plan that revolved around a central axis, in this case a long hallway that ran the entire length of the first floor.  Since the club would be most heavily used in the warm-weather months, creating enough cross-ventilation in the fierce Philadelphia heat was a real design challenge.  White’s response was to place a double-tiered veranda in the center of the building. This feature not only allowed fresh air to circulate throughout the main public rooms (including the barrel -vaulted ballroom on the second floor), but gave members a shaded viewing stand for watching the matches on the crease below.  Brightly-colored striped window awnings, fixtures on homes throughout the city during the summer, also helped keep the building cool.

At Germantown, Wister’s cricket boosterism worked for a while — in the first decade of the twentieth century, thousands of people took the train out to the suburbs to watch the matches. Yet there were some fundamental problems with American cricket, especially as the pace of life quickened with industrialization and corporate consolidation.  First, it was a slow game, and matches could last for days.   Few spectators, let alone players, had the time to devote to such a leisurely sport.   Second, women were excluded by custom from elevens teams.  Above all, more Americans found cricket just plain boring, especially compared to collegiate football and nascent professional baseball teams.

By the 1910s, a new sport took over the grass creases of Germantown Cricket: lawn tennis. It not only provided vigorous exercise in a short period of time, but also allowed female participation.  It was at Germantown Cricket that William T. “Bill” Tilden II honed his skills as a boy and became America’s greatest tennis player. The tennis craze even spread to the White House.  President Theodore Roosevelt, America’s greatest exponent of physical fitness in the early 1900s, frequently played with a group of advisors that came to be known as the “Tennis Cabinet.”  Yet as an advocate of contact sports such as football and jujitsu, Roosevelt adamantly refused to be photographed in what he considered to be effete tennis whites.

During the middle of the twentieth century, cricket declined as Philadelphia became a tennis mecca. The city produced not just Bill Tilden, but also Wimbleton champion E. Victor Seixas Jr.  In the early 1920s, Germantown hosted the U.S. Open.  So great was Philadelphia’s place in tennis lore that Penn sociologist E. Digby Baltzell wrote an entire book about it — Sporting Gentlemen — in which the author lamented the supplanting of amateur players by professionals.***

Today, Germantown Cricket has been carefully restored and modernized, and its membership has diversified considerably since the days of Tilden.  It  now boasts programs not just in tennis and squash, but also an outdoor swimming pool and bowling alley.  And occasionally, the tennis nets are removed and two sets of “elevens” engage in a cricket match on the close-cropped grass courts.

Yet Philadelphia’s most active cricket field is not surrounded by a high brick wall, but is open to all.  During the summer, on the fields in Fairmount Park, teams composed largely of immigrants from the Caribbean and Pakistan play every weekend, keeping a distinctly Philadelphia tradition alive and well.

*Obituary for William Rotch Wister, Wednesday, August 23, 1911: “The Philadelphia Press.”  The former William Rotch Wister estate is now the site of La Salle University.

**In 1906, Stanford White was shot to death by Harry K. Thaw on the rooftop garden of New York’s Madison Square Garden.  Thaw’s wife Evelyn Nesbit had once been White’s mistress.  The murder (and all its salacious details) was dubbed the “Crime of the Century.”

***E. Digby Baltzell was godfather to Whit Stillman, director of Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona, and Damsels in Distress.

1893 watercolor of the Germantown Cricket Club by A.L. Church. Image: Wikipedia Commons
Bill Tilden. Image: Wikipedia Commons

William Rutherford Mead, Charles F. McKim, and Stanford White.  Image:


The Wrong Side of the Tracks

The Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct (the “Chinese Wall”) at 22nd Street, looking south. 1929.
The end of the “Chinese Wall” at 22nd and Commerce, 1929.
Broad Street Station, designed by Furness, Evans & Company, looking west from City Hall, 1889. The “Chinese Wall” was situated on what is today John F. Kennedy Boulevard.

by Steven B. Ujifusa

In the spring of 1921, a young man named John J. McCloy returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, eager to start his law career.  A poor boy who had grown up in a small house at 20th and Brown streets, he had just completed Harvard Law School, graduating at the top of his class.  His determined mother Anna, a widowed hairdresser of Pennsylvania Dutch origin, had scrimped and saved to send her beloved son to prep school and Amherst College.

McCloy called on one of the city’s most eminent lawyers, George Wharton Pepper, hoping to land a job at one of the city’s top law firms.

Pepper took the aspiring Philadelphia attorney aside.

“I know Philadelphians,” Pepper told McCloy. “It is a city of blood ties. You have good grades, but they don’t mean anything here. Family ties do. Even when I started out here it was difficult and slow. It would be impossible for you. You were born north of the Chinese Wall, and they’ll never take you seriously in this town. In New York, however, your grades will count for something.” *

A disappointed John took the older man’s advice.  He left Philadelphia for good.

Although most of Frank Furness’s buildings have sadly been lost to the wrecker’s ball, one of his Philadelphia monuments is happily gone: the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct, otherwise known as the “Chinese Wall.”  As part of his expansion of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station in the  1880s, Furness, Evans & Company designed a titanic, ten-track wide stone viaduct that ran from City Hall to the Schuylkill River.  Although adorned with a few token sculptures by Karl Bitter, it was by-and-large hideous. Much like the interstates that ripped through the hearts of American cities in the mid-twentieth century, the PRR viaduct severely hindered physical access from Center City to North Philadelphia.  Each one of its archways was a dark, stinking cavern, usually filled with refuse. At night, the prospect of crossing the wall, especially on foot, must have been terrifying. Surrounding real estate, especially on Market and Arch streets, suffered.  The steam trains belched black smoke at all hours of the day and night, soiling surrounding buildings with soot and choking the air with fumes.

Despite this massive stone wall blocking access to the city’s main commercial district, the blocks north of the viaduct blossomed into thriving middle and upper class neighborhoods.  Newly-wealthy industrialists built mansions on North Broad Street, while prosperous German Jews lived in substantial brownstones in Fairmount and Strawberry Mansion.  Artist Thomas Eakins lived and painted in his father’s big brick rowhouse at 17th and Mount Vernon. And then there were  families like the McCloys, who lived in small but well-kept homes on the side streets, making ends meet as best they could and hoping for a better future.

Yet the division on Market Street was more than physical: it was psychological and social, as well.  To the city’s insular, snobbish business and social elite, the only “proper” place to live in Center City was Rittenhouse Square. Not south of Pine Street. And definitely never north of Market Street.  In fact, “North of Market” was a pejorative expression.**  To men of George Wharton Pepper’s ilk, who sat on the boards of the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Railroad, it was used as a euphemism for nouveau riche, not part of the “in crowd,” not mattering. And in the case of John J. McCloy, the discrimination was very real, indeed.

Philadelphia’s “Chinese Wall” may also have given rise to an expression that has entered the American vernacular: the wrong side of the tracks.

After the rebuff from Pepper, McCloy went to New York and took a job with a law firm run by the hard-driving Paul D. Cravath. He would eventually become Assistant Secretary of War under President Franklin Roosevelt, president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, and earn the nickname of “Chairman of the Board of the American Establishment.”***

In 1953, Broad Street Station was demolished, and the “Chinese Wall” came tumbling down with it.  A new street, christened John F. Kennedy Boulevard replaced the viaduct.  New skyscrapers shot up on the site of the old barrier, forming a new commercial backbone to the city and soaring high above Billy Penn’s hat atop City Hall.  The Pennsylvania Railroad — once the biggest corporation on earth and the financial Gibraltar of Pepper’s Philadelphia elite  — declared bankruptcy in 1970 after a failed merger with the New York Central.

Ironically, a new barrier — sunken, rather than raised — was constructed just as the Chinese Wall came down: the Vine Street Expressway.

The viaduct at 22nd and Cuthbert, looking north, 1929.
Underneath the viaduct at 22nd and Cuthbert, 1955.

*Interview of John J. McCloy by Kai Bird, June 23, 1983.  Kai Bird, The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 57.

** Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963), p. 529.

***As Assistant Secretary of War, McCloy clashed with Attorney General Francis Biddle (another Philadelphian, from the “right” side of the tracks) regarding the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.   Biddle protested the constitutionality of Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, but ultimately McCloy and others in the administration prevailed.  The episode haunted Biddle to the end of his life, while McCloy vigorously defended internment to the end of his.

Historic Sites Uncategorized

Cliveden: An Historic Germantown Mansion Redefines its Mission

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Photograph of Cliveden taken by James McClees in
February, 1857.

In 2008, three men made a pilgrimage from Philadelphia to Frisby’s Prime Choice plantation in Cecil County, Maryland. The first was Phillip Seitz, curator of the Cliveden estate, a National Trust historic site in Germantown and the long-time home of the Chew family.  The second was John T. Chew Jr., a member of Cliveden’s board and a descendant of the original owner.  The third was John Reese, chef and former employee at Cliveden, who is captivated by the untold stories of those who lived and worked at the estate.

What prompted their visit were discoveries in the Chew family papers, recently archived by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These documents not only provide a rich record of seven generations of one of Philadelphia’s most eminent legal families, but also names and descriptions of the slaves that worked the various Chew plantations two centuries ago.

After driving through endless fields of wheat, Reese asked if they were getting close to Frisby’s Prime Choice. Seitz responded that they had been driving through the former Chew plantation for the past 20 minutes.  According to Chew family records, about seventy enslaved African-Americans farmed over 1,000 acres of land during the late 18th century.

After visiting the plantation house, they drove 40 minutes due east to the river landing, where two hundred years ago, the slaves loaded the produce they harvested by hand onto waiting ships.

As he stood on the river bank, Reese was convinced he could see ghosts of these men rolling barrels down to the dock.

Chew was deeply moved as he watched Reese tear up. “When I saw John visibly moved, looking out over fields of long grass, stretching to the horizon,” he remembered, “I was overcome with a deep sadness for enslaved people, and their plight. John – and the moment – helped me feel in a way I never had before the sorrow, the anger, and the frustration of people held against their will.”

* * * *

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Early sketch of plans for Cliveden c.1760, possibly drawn
by master carpenter Jacob Knor and Benjamin Chew.

Cliveden’s original owner, Benjamin Chew (1722-1810), was the son of Maryland Quakers.  He received his training in London’s Middle Temple, making him one of the most highly-trained lawyers in the Colonies. The Penn family recognized his talent, and he became their principal legal advisor.  Unlike other lawyers of the time, who had a penchant for flowery and wordy opinions, Chew’s writing was defined by brevity and clarity.[i] Chew’s crowning appointment was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Province of Pennsylvania – he was the last man to hold that position before America declared independence from Great Britain. In addition to his legal prowess, Chew was a shrewd land speculator. Much of the wealth that supported the family’s lavish Philadelphia lifestyle flowed from several tobacco and wheat plantations in Maryland and Delaware.

In 1767, Benjamin Chew completed a summer retreat in Germantown he called Cliveden, built in the highest Georgian style.   The estate had manicured gardens, wooded groves, and several outbuildings, including a large carriage house.  The inside of the stone mansion boasted elaborate woodwork and furnishings imported from England.  Although he possessed no architectural training, it appears that Chew had a hand in designing the house.

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Cliveden under assault by Washington’s troops
during the Battle of Germantown, 1777.

During the American Revolution, the pacifist Chew sided with the Crown and his principal clients, the Penn family. As a result, the Continental Congress placed him under house arrest in New Jersey.  After the Revolution, Chew returned to his successful legal practice. Despite questions about his loyalty, George Washington and John Adams had immense respect for him, and friendships such as these allowed Chew to reclaim his position in the Philadelphia power structure. Back on his feet, Chew repurchased and restored his beloved summer house, badly damaged by artillery fire during the 1777 Battle of Germantown.

The Chews continued to own Cliveden until 1972, when they donated the house and its contents to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today, the house is filled with antiques and family heirlooms, some dating all the way back to the time of Benjamin Chew.  But hidden away in Cliveden’s nooks and crannies were thousands of pages of letters, journals, account books, and other correspondence that the family maintained over the past two centuries.  Like the Adamses of Massachusetts, the Chews kept everything they wrote, making the collection a boon for American historians. These documents brought the human story of the Chews back to life — they mourned the deaths of loved ones, squabbled over inheritances, and kept track of their expenditures.

The papers also revealed in vivid detail about how much of the Chew’s early wealth had come from slavery. Correspondence between the Chews and their overseers demonstrated that the slaves on their plantations were far from compliant. During the Revolution, when Benjamin Chew was briefly imprisoned, a number of his slaves ran away.  Those that remained on the plantations developed their own unwritten social and work rules.  One time, the overseer at one of these plantations wrote Benjamin Chew pleading for back-up. Two slaves named Aaron and Jim had badly beaten him after his brutal treatment of the work force during the harvest season.  It took three weeks for Chew to send reinforcements and bring order to the plantation. Aaron and Jim submitted to the whipping, sacrificing themselves for the good of their fellow slaves.

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Illustration of Cliveden c.1850.

After the American Revolution, Pennsylvania abolished slavery, but the Chews continued to hold onto their properties in the slave states of Maryland and Delaware.  But by the early nineteenth century, the Chews saw the writing on the wall. They decided to divest themselves of their family plantations and put their capital in Pennsylvania industry and land speculation. Benjamin Jr., who served as his father’s principal plantation manager, was put in charge of this task for his extended family.  In 1809, Benjamin Jr. traveled south to settle the estate of an uncle who had died in debt.  In his letters home, he was clearly torn between family financial obligation and the fate of his uncle’s slaves, who had been denied the freedom their master had promised them.

“I found it absolutely necessary to return to this Place which I did last Evening and tomorrow sell off the Remains of any poor Uncle John’s Remnants,” Benjamin Jr. wrote his father on November 15, 1809. “I have fortunately succeeded in providing Homes for all but 7 or 8 of the Black People—a Task indeed of the most conflicting Difficulty—I have I believe succeeded in giving the poor Creatures as much Satisfaction as they could have, under a disappointment in not having their Freedom bequeathed to them—they generally thank me for what I have done for them—the Stock of all kinds I have also sold except what is necessary to retain to secure the Crops.”[ii]

* * * *

The Chew family papers — donated by the family to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1982 — were opened to the public last year.  A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities paid for the meticulous archiving and conservation process.  At the opening ceremony on October 14, 2009, representatives from N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) demanded that the legacy of slavery play a prominent role in shaping the presentation of these documents.  The meeting at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania at times grew heated. According to the N’COBRA website, “reparations are needed to repair the wrongs, injury, and damage done to us by the US federal and State governments, their agents, and representatives.”[iii]

As a result of discoveries in the papers, Cliveden found itself in the public spotlight.  Those interested in the future of Cliveden—people like Phillip Seitz, John Reese, and John T. Chew Jr.—decided the best approach was to face the controversy head-on.  It also could be an opportunity to revitalize what had previously been a rather traditional house museum that focused on the lives of its wealthy occupants.

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Artist’s sketch of the Main Hall.

“Cliveden was not afraid to face what the papers reveal,” curator Phillip Seitz said. “What we realized was that the grandeur of Cliveden was the very top layer of a very complex onion, an onion that needed to be peeled back.”

Since the release of the Chew family papers, Cliveden’s management has engaged the surrounding community in a number of meetings and dialogues.  This past fall, Cliveden sponsored a series of four well-attended lectures entitled “Cliveden Conversations” in the former carriage house.  Speakers included Phillip Seitz, who discussed the Chew family’s involvement with slavery; Dr. Erica Dunbar-Armstrong of the University of Delaware, who gave a broad overview of slavery in the Mid-Atlantic region from a woman studies perspective; Ari Merretazon of N’COBRA, who discussed his organization’s goal of reparations for the descendants of slaves; and Dr. David Young, Cliveden’s executive director, who framed the house in the context of 20th century race relations in Germantown.[iv]

Cliveden’s management hopes not only to bring about racial healing, but to more fully integrate their house museum into the predominately African-American Germantown neighborhood, making themselves “a catalyst for preserving and reusing historic buildings to sustain economic development for historic Northwest Philadelphia and beyond.”[v]

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Photograph of Cliveden, 1957. The Chew family owned the
mansion until 1972.

“We are giving people what they want,” Seitz said. “They don’t want more exhibits. They want story tellers, news articles, and they need affirmation that things happened here…not just bad stories, but also stories of survival.”

John Reese agreed. “Let’s have the courage to confront this.”  For his part, Reese sees Cliveden in a positive light, now that a more complete story is being told.  Exploring the house’s history was also a catalyst for friendships with curator Phillip Seitz and board member John Chew Jr.

“I love the house,” Reese said, sitting on a picnic table in the shadow of the craggy stone mansion. “That banister in the main staircase is solid as a rock. You look at how flimsy houses are today, and I have a hard time ever seeing Cliveden getting blown down.”

Special thanks to Philip Seitz, John Reese, and John T. Chew Jr. for their time and insights.  The interviews were conducted on October 8, 2010 at Cliveden.

[i] “Legends of the Bar,” The Philadelphia Bar Association. Accessed October 18, 2010.

[ii] Benjamin Chew Jr. to Benjamin Chew Sr., November 15, 1809. The Chew Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Accessed October 16, 2010.

[iii] “N’COBRA Information” Accessed October 18, 2010.

[iv] ‘Cliveden Conversations,” Cliveden: A National Trust Historic Site in Philadelphia.” Accessed October 18, 2010.

[v] “Mission Statement,” Cliveden: A National Trust Historic Site in Philadelphia.” Accessed October 18, 2010.

Historic Sites

Risen from the Ashes: St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and the Gesu Church, Part 2

As the Gesu parish flourished, so did St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. By 1927, the University moved from North Philadelphia to a new campus on City Line Avenue, giving the secondary school much more space. It was also in the 1920s that the school became known as “The Prep” and its students as “Preppers.” Because of its high academic standards, easy access to public transportation, and relatively low tuition, it attracted students from all over Philadelphia and its suburbs. Some hailed from as far away as Trenton, Phoenixville, and Cape May. Some of their fathers were doctors and lawyers; others were factory workers and shop owners. Most parents were upwardly-mobile and very involved in their children’s education. Above all, the school was a Philadelphia melting pot. As Preppers, students could form friendships outside of their respective economic classes and neighborhoods.

Old St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and University,
c.1910. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.

The Marble Staircase, the old St. Joseph’s
Preparatory Building, c. 1925, Collection of
St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.

According to a school history, the Jesuits impressed upon their charges that they should be “polite, as that is the surest sign of a gentleman and therefore they should diligently observe all the little customs prescribed by their teachers.” The students were also told to be “friendly with their peers and avoid quarreling, fighting, and language of low-breeding.” iii

Classes began at 9am and continued until 2:30pm. Students then participated in extracurricular activities and sports, with football being the most popular. Coach Frank Caton of the Fairmount Rowing Club started the crew team in the late 1920s. A dramatic club put on Shakespeare plays, and those interested in debate participated in the Barbelin Society — talented Jesuits advised both groups.iv

Sandy MacMurtrie, class of 1945, commuted to The Prep from his family’s home at 912 S. 49th Street. His family, parishioners at St. Francis de Sales Church on Baltimore Avenue, sent three sons to the Prep. Sandy and a few of his West Philadelphia classmates would catch the Number 70 trolley to Girard Avenue, and then hop the Number 15 to 17th Street. Mass would be said at 8am every day, with prayers offered to the alumni in the service — including Sandy’s brother Francis who was tragically killed in the Pacific.

The situation in Europe cast a shadow over school life, but the students still pulled old fashioned hijinks. In September 1941, The Prep scored a major football victory over South Catholic High School. The following morning, students held a celebratory pep rally in the auditorium. No one knows who walked out the door first, but scores of Preppers (including MacMurtrie) paraded down Broad Street, cheering and singing at the top of their lungs. The headmaster met the students at Rayburn Plaza and ordered them to turn around. To no avail. By the time the students reached South Catholic at 8th and Christian, the Prep’s headmaster had sent several squad cars there to meet them. The administration punished the offending students accordingly: for the next 2 days after school, they had to walk in circles around the schoolyard for 3 hours.v

* * * *

Within days of the fire of 1966, the Prep was back in business. Classes met in the one surviving building on Thompson Street. In spite of crowded and primitive conditions, enrollment did not decline. Most importantly, the administration decided the school would remain in North Philadelphia.

For teacher Gus Kueny Jr. ‘53, the decision to stay was a reaffirmation of the school’s social mission. “So many businesses and schools are closing up and leaving the city,” Kueny said at the time. “What could we accomplish by moving out? Kids come here from every neighborhood, from every suburb. For kids like this, just coming into this neighborhood shows them something they wouldn’t see out in the suburbs. It’s part of their education.” vi

The new school building would be built just south of the Church of the Gesu, on land acquired from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Ground was broken on May 29, 1967, and Cardinal John Krol consecrated the modern, $4.5 million structure a year and a half later.vii

Exterior of the old St. Joseph’s Preparatory Building
and Church of the Gesu, c. 1960, Collection of
St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.

Interior of Church of the Gesu, photograph by
Steven B. Ujifusa.

In the 1990s, due to falling parish membership, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia deactivated the Church of the Gesu as a parish. But St. Joseph’s Preparatory stepped in to save Father Villiger’s dream church. This remarkable structure now serves as the school’s chapel, hosting student masses several times a year. Its attached independent school, the Gesu School, is a model for inner city elementary education.

Today, The Prep has about 800 students, and continues to draw in students from all over the Philadelphia area. Despite its urban location, the Prep has found that more and more of its students are from the suburbs. Naturally, this has led to some tensions with the surrounding neighborhood, especially as the student body became more affluent. At the same time, the Prep opportunities for community service not possible in a suburban location, such as tutoring low-income elementary students at the Gesu School.

“We’ve been struggling to keep a base in the city,” said current headmaster Father George Bur S.J., ’59. “When I was there as a student, between 60 and 70 percent the students were from the city, now it’s only about 20 percent, and we are working to reach out to the Latino and African-American communities.” viii

A recent alumnus, Richard Pagano ’98, recently mused on the meaning of the school’s motto “Men for Others”: “Community service,” he said, “and the idea of commitment to aiding and providing for not only those less fortunate, but the community as a whole, is such a big part of that school. The school imbues in you a desire to succeed, to achieve, to make a name for yourself, and not to be complacent…the school’s location, and Jesuit ideals, cannot be discounted for doing that.”

Note: Special thanks to Bill Avington, Bill Conners, Father George Bur S.J., James Hill Jr., Gus Keuny, Sandy MacMurtrie, and Richard Pagano for their invaluable assistance.


[iii] Rev. James J. Gormley, S.J., Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, A History 125 Years, 1851-1979, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1976, p.12. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[iv] Rev. James J. Gormley, S.J., Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, A History 125 Years, 1851-1979, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1976, pp.46, 65, 105.

[v] Interview with Sandy MacMurtrie, August 27, 2010.

[vi] James Smart, “In Our Town: A Sentimental Alumnus Busy Rebuilding the Prep,” The Evening Bulletin, November 8, 1968. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[vii] Rev. James J. Gormley, S.J., Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, A History 125 Years, 1851-1979, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1976, pp.155-156. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[viii] Interview with Father George Bur, S.J, August 27, 2010.

Historic Sites

Risen from the Ashes: St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and the Gesu Church, Part 1

Old St. Joseph’s Preparatory School on fire,
January 30, 1966. Collection of St. Joseph’s
Preparatory School.
On the early morning of January 30, 1966, a watchman spotted a fire smoldering in the basement of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. He alerted Brother Stanley Leikus, S.J., who ran onto Stiles Street at 5:30am and pulled the firebox. But it was too late. The blaze ripped through the century-old Second Empire style main structure, consuming classrooms, libraries, and the white marble staircase at the school entrance.
Within an hour, eight fire companies had arrived at St. Joseph’s Preparatory, but high winds whipped the flames into a ferocious firestorm. It was a bone-chilling ten degrees, and giant sheets of ice from the fire hoses encrusted the blazing building’s façade.

At the neighboring Gesu Church, Jesuit brothers gathered up relics and vestments and moved them to safety. With smoking billowing around him, Headmaster Joseph Ayd S.J. shut the fire doors separating the burning school and the Gesu Church and then fled for his life.

After the fire. Collection of St. Joseph’s
Preparatory School, January 30, 1966.

After the fire. Collection of St. Joseph’s
Preparatory School, January 30, 1966.

At 8:00am, the Stiles Street building of St. Joseph’s Preparatory collapsed with a great roar, and a shower of sparks rained down upon the Gesu Church. If the Gesu’s wooden structure caught fire, the flames would almost certainly spread to surrounding houses.

Finally, at 9:13 am, the fireman had brought the blaze under control. The Gesu Church and its parish school were safe. But St. Joseph’s Preparatory School was a total loss, a blackened, gutted shell of its former self. Its 800 students were homeless, as well as its 40 Jesuit priests.i

There was no question that “The Prep” would rebuild. It was one of the crown jewels of Philadelphia’s Catholic school system, taking in bright boys and giving them opportunities they otherwise would have been denied. As a result, it had a loyal alumni base. But at the time of the fire, North Philadelphia was in severe economic decline, and many wondered if the school would move elsewhere and cater to a more affluent suburban clientele.

* * * *

St. Joseph’s Preparatory is an outgrowth of the oldest Roman Catholic parish in Philadelphia: St. Joseph’s Church, founded in 1733 by the Society of Jesus and located at 3rd and Walnut. Thanks to William Penn’s “Charter of Privileges,” St. Joseph’s Church was the only place in the British Empire where people could publically celebrate a Roman Catholic Mass. Following American independence, the parish, as well its college preparatory school (founded in 1851), grew by leaps and bounds, thank in large part to an influx of Irish and German immigrants. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the Jesuits were running out of space and needed to move.

In the 1860s, the Jesuits brought in Swiss-born Father J. Burchard Villiger to raise funds to build a new complex for the preparatory school and university. Villiger, educated at Georgetown University, had a genius for networking with the city’s upwardly mobile Roman Catholic elite, most notably the Drexels and Bouviers. In 1866, the Jesuits bought the entire 1700 block of Stiles Street in then-rural North Philadelphia as the site for a Catholic preparatory school and university. Appropriately, it was only a few blocks away from the Bouvier mansion on North Broad Street. Villiger quickly raised the money to build a large Second Empire-style school and university building, which boasted eighteen foot ceilings, a white marble staircase, and mansard roofs.

He then turned his attention to building a parish church, which would also be utilized by the school and university. His model was the home church of the Society of Jesus in Rome: hence, it would be named the Church of the Gesu. In 1878, Archbishop Frederic James Wood gave Villiger permission to start building to a set of plans by architect Edwin Forrest Durang.

Villiger planned on a grand scale: the church would be 115 feet wide and 250 feet deep. Its highest vault would soar 100 feet above the nave’s floor. Villiger purchased five bells for the towers, as well as a set of ecclesiastical paintings by Mexican artist Miguel Cabrera. He also had a passion for collecting relics, to be displayed in reliquaries set in the church’s side chapels.

But even the persuasive Villiger had trouble the raising funds to achieve his vision. Construction of the church took a decade and proceeded fitfully. He hoped to use gleaming marble to adorn the interior of the church. As a fundraising ploy, Villiger had the interiors completed in raw white plaster. According to a history of the church, the savvy Jesuit reasoned that “people would grow tired of it and buy the marbles of which he dreamed.” Ultimately, the white interiors were elaborately painted in a faux-marble finish by Brother Schroen, S.J.

Easter Sunday Mass at the Church of the
Gesu, 1913. Collection of St. Joseph’s
Preparatory School.

If Villiger couldn’t get his marble trim, he did secure a hefty $72,000 gift (over $1.5 million in today’s money) from the estate of Francis A. Drexel to complete the church, which was dedicated with great pomp in 1882. By the time Villiger died in 1902, critics had hailed the Gesu as one of the most beautiful sacred spaces in the city and a fittingly grand chapel for St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and University.ii

Note: Special thanks to Bill Avington, Bill Conners, Father George Bur S.J., James Hill Jr., Gus Keuny, Sandy MacMurtrie, and Richard Pagano for their invaluable assistance.


[i] “8-Alarm Fire Wrecks St. Joseph’s Prep School,” The Evening Bulletin, January 31, 1966.

[ii] Golden Jubilee, 1888-1938, Church of the Gesu, Privately printed: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1938, pp. 14, 15, 30, 32, 111. Collection of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Events and People

Grover Cleveland Bergdoll: “The Fighting Slacker of Fairmount”

Louis C. Bergdoll arrived in America in June 1846 from Germany and in 1849 founded a brewery in the heart of the appropriately-named Brewerytown neighborhood. The Bergdoll brand became one of the most popular brews in America and made Louis Bergdoll a multi-millionaire. Flush with cash, he then set about planning a new dynastic seat in Fairmount. Completed in 1882, the Renaissance revival family mansion at 22nd and Green was a monument to the Bergdoll family’s taste and sumptuous lifestyle. In its size and grandeur, it rivaled the Vanderbilt mansions on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Louis’s grandson Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, born in 1893, grew up in the big house in Fairmount. More interested in mechanics than brewing, Bergdoll purchased an airplane only a few short years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight and raced exotic automobiles. The charming playboy and swashbuckling aviator also was also known to be a momma’s boy.

But Bergdoll’s party days were cut short. In the three years before America entered World War I on the side of the Allies, a significant portion of Philadelphia’s large German-American community either urged neutrality or sided with the Kaiser’s army by holding benefits for the German wounded. The sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania in 1915 by a German U-boat, which killed 1,200 people including 110 Americans, caused the public to cry for revenge. When Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917, President Wilson instituted the first mass draft since the Civil War and cracked down on German-American organizations he believed to be supporting the enemy.

It is unclear whether playboy Grover Cleveland Bergdoll dodged the draft because of his pro-German sympathies or because he did not want the war to interfere with his social life. What is clear is that when the Draft Board called up his number, Bergdoll was nowhere to be found. His rich mother hid him in the big house on Green Street.

On March 20, 1920, two and a half years after the guns fell silent, two bounty hunters nabbed Bergdoll outside the house on Green Street. Imprisoned on Governor’s Island, Bergdoll asked his jailer if he could make one more visit to Philadelphia to see his mother at the family mansion. They agreed. Eluding two guards, Bergdoll jumped into a waiting car packed with bundles of cash and sped off into the night.

Bergdoll booked a ticket to Europe and settled down in the small town of Eberbach, Germany. He then flagrantly continued to live the high life using his family’s riches. Yet he lived in constant fear of bounty hunters. Two tried to nab him at a wedding, and Bergdoll fought them off. Another time, Bergdoll bit off the thumb of one would-be kidnapper and shot another one dead.i

These actions earned him the nickname “The Fighting Slacker” and made the exiled beer heir one of the most reviled men in America. Even so, Bergdoll wanted to make a secret trip to see his mother in Philadelphia. He even had the nerve to apply for a U.S. passport in Stuttgart. His application was flatly rejected. According to one contemporary report, “his stains remains [sic] that of an escaped prisoner who would be returned to prison to serve out the rest of his sentence if caught.” ii

In May 1939, Bergdoll returned to America, realizing that facing the music was better than being drafted into the Nazi army. Upon his return, he was tried, convicted, and sent to prison. There he remained until 1946. When he emerged from jail, Bergdoll was a shadow of his former self and was put away in an insane asylum. The one-time Philadelphia brewing heir, aviator and playboy died demented and forgotten in 1966.iii

By then, the Bergdoll family had left the big house on Green Street. After the stock market crash of 1929, the Fairmount area fell from its lofty status as a Rittenhouse Square North to that of a run-down slum. The 14,000 square foot Bergdoll mansion was cut up into apartments, although many of its original interior details were left intact.

The former home of Grover Cleveland (“The Fighting Slacker”) Bergdoll has recently been restored as a single family home and is now listed for sale. The asking price: $7 million.iv


[i] Willis Thornton, “Bergdoll – The Fighting Slacker,” The Olean Times-Herald,” Tuesday, January 24, 1933. Accessed August 3, 2010.

[ii] Willis Thornton, “Bergdoll – The Fighting Slacker,” The Olean Times-Herald,” Tuesday, January 24, 1933. Accessed August 3, 2010.

[iii] “Biographical Note: Bergdoll Papers,” The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Accessed August 6, 2010.

[iv] Deirdre Woollard, “Bergdoll Mansion, Estate of the Day,” Accessed August 6, 2010.


Point Breeze

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Since the time of its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, Point Breeze has been a no-frills working class neighborhood.  It was first settled by Eastern European Jews, many of whom set up shops on Point Breeze Avenue and lived in apartments above their businesses. Italian and Irish immigrants soon followed.i Conditions were primitive: chickens in backyards were a common sight. By the 1930s, these immigrant groups were joined by African-Americans from the Deep South, who had come to Philadelphia looking for work and to escape Jim Crow.

During the nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s African-American community was centered east of Broad Street, near Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 8th and Lombard. The Great Migration, however, pushed the boundaries of the African-American settlement west of Broad Street to Point Breeze. This expansion often brought them into conflict with neighboring Irish-Americans, described by W.E.B. DuBois as the “hereditary enemy” of urban African-Americans.” ii Many of Point Breeze’s African-Americans worked for Center City hotels, the Pennsylvania Railroad, local factories, and city government.

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Until the late 1960s, Point Breeze was a relatively stable, self-sufficient neighborhood. Its residents almost never went into Center City, as they had everything they needed within a few blocks of their two story rowhouses. At night, Point Breeze Avenue (known by residents as “The Breeze”) was illuminated by scores of shop signs advertising clothing, fresh produce, appliances, ice cream, and soda. There were two five and dime stores (Woolworth’s and Kresge’s), and the Curson family operated a dress shop patronized by residents for First Communion and weddings. There were also kosher butcher shops that catered to the still-large Jewish community.iii

“It was a very busy, beautiful area,” remembered Claudia Sherrod, whose parents came to Philadelphia from Georgia during the Great Depression. “There used to be over a hundred stores on the Breeze.”

Claudia spent her childhood in a rowhouse at 21st and Kater, just south of Fitler Square. The family had no refrigerator, indoor plumbing, or hot water until the early 1950s. As a ten year old, Claudia took the lead in beautifying her block by planting the first flowerbox. “It was a diversified community, with Caucasians and African-Americans living and working together,” she said. “We had a beautiful community growing up. I could go to anyone’s house and eat a meal. As children, we never looked at culture. We knew one was white and one was black and that was it.”

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After Claudia married in 1959, she and her husband – who worked for the city — moved across Washington Avenue to Point Breeze. “It was a great place for raising our children,” Claudia said. “My husband would go to the Landreth School to play ball with the kids…I didn’t have to worry about my kids being out-of-hand. If the neighbors felt they were, they’d call me. And we don’t have enough of that today.”

On Sundays, Claudia returned to her old neighborhood to attend New Central Baptist Church at 21st and Lombard, where she had worshipped and sang in the choir since she was a child. “It was my whole life,” she said. “We lived to go to church, and we spent all Sunday there.”

Claudia and her husband raised four children and two grandchildren in Point Breeze. “My children recently told me we thought we were rich,” Claudia Sherrod concluded. “We were rich,” she replied “…with love.”

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Claudia’s friend Alice Gabbadon, who grew up at 22nd and Dickinson, also had fond memories of life in Point Breeze. “After church, we would look in the store windows and fantasize about what we could buy,” Alice remembered about her childhood. “It was safe. We were allowed to go as a group to the 1700 block of Point Breeze to buy water ice.” When she wanted to go to see a movie at the Victory or the Dixie on Point Breeze Avenue, her mother would give her 16 cents: 5 cents for a bag of pretzels, 10 cents for the movie, and a penny for the tax.

Yet Alice realized she was not welcome in certain places. One day, she went to see a film at The Breeze, another theater on Point Breeze Avenue. But when she and her friends entered the theater, the white audience began harassing them. Alice stood in back, endured the tormenting, and never came back. There was no “Whites Only” sign, but segregation at this movie theater was an unspoken rule.

And at the 26th and Morris playground, Alice and her friends would wait for the white kids to get off the swings. They would often wait for a long time, then give up and go home.

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Wharton Square, one of the few green spaces in the area, was a friendlier place for Point Breeze’s African-American community, popular with picnickers. The three story houses fronting the square were the largest in the neighborhood. During the 1950s, Wharton Square was the home of Congressman Bill Barrett, who made sure Point Breeze got its fair share of city services. “If you had a problem,” Alice remembered, “you were told to ‘Go see Bill Barrett.’”

The race riots of the 1960s — which triggered mass “white flight” –signaled the decline of Point Breeze as a self-sustaining, relatively integrated neighborhood. Many Jewish shopkeepers sold their businesses and moved elsewhere, part of a pattern that repeated itself throughout the city of Philadelphia.iv Then, like adjacent Grays Ferry, Point Breeze was hit by the heroin epidemic of the 1970s and then the crack scourge of the early 1990s. Residents went into alleys to shoot up, and often never came out alive. Houses were abandoned and fell into disrepair.

In recent years, however, groups such as South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S. and the Universal Companies built new affordable housing to replace some of Point Breeze’s dated and deteriorating housing stock, as well as help entrepreneurs start new businesses on the decimated The Breeze. The Point Breeze Performing Arts Center, founded in 1984, has helped keep neighborhood kids off the streets with its intensive music and dance programs. During the past few decades, immigrants from Korea and Southeast Asia have moved to Point Breeze, steadily taking the place of those residents who left many years ago.

Alice Gabbadon is optimistic about the future of her native Point Breeze, citing rebuilding of businesses on The Breeze and positive involvement with members of the community. “We went through some rough times,” she said recently, “but now I think we are going through some positive changes.”


[i] “A History of the Point…” The Power of the Point: A Pictorial History of Point Breeze, July 1, 1996. Collection of South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S., Inc.

[ii] W.E.B. DuBois, as quoted by Murray Dubin, South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1996), p.60

[iii] Nintha C. Johnson, “My Memories of Point Breeze: Businesses As I Remember Them,” The Power of the Point: A Pictorial History of Point Breeze, July 1, 1996. Collection of South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S., Inc.

[iv] Jennifer Lee, “The Comparative Disadvantage of African-American Owned Enterprises: Ethnic Succession and Social Capital in Black Communities,” from Richardson Dilworth, ed., Social Capital in the City: Community and Civic Life in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 2006, p.142.

Interview of Claudia Sherrod by Steven Ujifusa, July 21, 2010.

Interview of Alice Gabbadon by Steven Ujifusa, July 28, 2010.


West Philadelphia: A Suburb in a City

When the University of Pennsylvania moved to its new campus in 1873, West Philadelphia was almost entirely rural. The University enrollment at the time was small and the student body almost entirely local. There would be no dormitories for another thirty years. Students either lived in rooming houses or commuted to campus from their parents’ homes. Each undergraduate class had fewer than 20 students. Law students spent most of their time learning on the job from partners at the prominent downtown firms, not in the classroom.

Penn’s relative calm ended in 1883, when the trustees appointed Dr. William Pepper Jr. as provost–the highest administrative position in the University. To fund professorial chairs and libraries, Pepper zealously went about asking Philadelphia’s most distinguished citizens for money. The University’s student body doubled from 1,043 to 2,680, and he also established the Wharton School of Business. So talented was Dr. Pepper at his job that the Philadelphia Times noted that “he could get donations from flinty hearted sources that were never known to give in their lives before.” i Sadly, Pepper worked himself into an early grave, retiring exhausted in 1894 and dying a few years later.ii

The physical expansion of the University from 1881 to 1900 fueled the desirability of West Philadelphia as a residential neighborhood. It was financier Clarence H. Clark who kicked up the development to the next level. Clark was one of several millionaires ensconced in family compounds just west of the new Penn campus; his block sized estate encompassed the entire 4200 block of Locust Street. His son lived down the street at 4200 Spruce. The Drexels owned several houses at the intersection of 39th and Locust, while the Potts family had a brick mansion at 3905 Spruce. Much the surrounding land remained undeveloped, described by one historian as a “crazy quilt of farms and estates, crisscrossed by free-running creeks.” iii

Seeing an opportunity to make profit from the expansion of the University, the Clarks and the Drexels commissioned prominent architects like the Hewitt brothers to design Second Empire and Queen Anne homes on lots adjacent to their estates.iv This neighborhood became known as Spruce Hill. Notable surviving examples of this housing stock are St. Mark’s Square (a small side street linking Walnut and Locust between 42nd and 43rd Streets) and an extravagant row of houses at 4206-4218 Spruce Street, complete with “fish scale” shingles and turrets. The three story rowhouses on St. Mark’s Square were popular with Penn professors.v In 1895, Clark donated a nine acre green space to the City of Philadelphia, a gesture that no doubt boosted nearby property values. Bounded by 43rd Street, 45th Street, Baltimore Avenue, and Woodland Avenue, Clark Park attracted strollers, picnickers and school children from all over the neighborhood. Its centerpiece was a life-sized bronze statue of author Charles Dickens, with a representation of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop standing at the

By the 1890s, electric trolleys made the area even more attractive to commuting professionals who wanted out of congested Center City. By 1910, developers Charles Budd and George Henderson had erected a new crop of homes in a section called Cedar Park, located to the south and west of Spruce Hill.vii Cedar Park was built up more densely than comparable in-town bedroom communities like Mount Airy or Chestnut Hill. Houses on main thoroughfares were usually twins, while houses on the side streets tended to be attached. These squarish, somewhat bulky brick homes were built in a loose interpretation of the “Colonial Revival” style, although they included eclectic stylistic elements such as Spanish tiles and scalloped Flemish gables. All had front porches, as well as three-sided bay windows on the second floor. Servants’ quarters were located on the top floor, and the kitchens in the rear.

As the neighborhood expanded, large churches mushroomed at major intersections throughout Spruce Hill and Cedar Park. Most prominent was St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church, designed in 1907 by Henry Dagit. Modeled on Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia, the church boasted two bell towers and a shimmering Guastavino dome that soared above the mansard roofs and chimney tops of the surrounding houses.

The MacMurtries, who lived in a colonial revival twin at 912 S.49th Street, were typical of the prosperous families that called West Philadelphia home. Dr. MacMurtrie, who purchased the house in 1921, was an obstetrician who kept an office at home. His wife reared their five children and managed the household. The MacMurtrie home was three stories high, with a finished basement that served as a playroom for the children. A maid came by every day at 7 am to prepare breakfast. During the day, she would do the family washing and cleaning and left after the evening meal. Homes were still heated by anthracite coal, and the boys of the family had to stoke the furnaces by hand.

Even during the 1920s, cars were not part of the daily lives of well-to-do West Philadelphians. The Number 70 trolley ran right in front of the MacMurtrie house, its bell clanging at each stop. “We didn’t have any garages attached to our houses,” Dr. MacMurtrie’s daughter Ann Hill remembered. “There were no cars parked on the street. Daddy left his car in a big garage on Warrington Avenue, and used it only when he made calls. Mother either took the trolley or called a taxi cab when she went into Center City.”

The MacMurtrie children did not attend the local public or parochial schools. Each morning, Ann took the trolley to Notre Dame Academy on Rittenhouse Square. Her brother Bill attended St. Joseph’s Preparatory in North Philadelphia, an even longer commute. On Sundays, the MacMurtries always attended the 8 am Mass at St. Francis de Sales. “We always walked with Mother and Daddy unless it was raining or there was a bad snowstorm,” she remembered. “There were a lot of priests there in those days. There were five curates, and the pastor was Bishop Crane.” Ann’s brother Bill MacMurtrie sang in the choir of men and boys, which was conducted by Albert Dooner, an eminent musician who counted Belgian composer César Franck among his friends.

When school was out of session, Ann, Bill and their siblings had plenty of things to do within walking distance of 912 South 49th Street. There were two movie theaters and rows of shops on 47th Street. During the hot summer months, residents pulled red-and-white striped awnings over windows and porches to keep their homes cool. Bill and his friends played touch football on tree-shaded Warrington Avenue. A police man who drove around in a little red car (their “natural enemy”) sometimes broke up these games. The boys also played basketball at the Kingsessing Recreation Center on 51st Street. In winter, Clark Park’s drained millpond (known as “The Bowl”) was popular with sledders.

In 1944, with the war raging and their children either out of school or serving in the military, Dr. and Mrs. MacMurtrie moved out of 912 S. 49th Street and purchased a more spacious home on the Main Line. Yet the long-time neighborhood obstetrician kept an office in the house for a few more years and rented out the upper floors to a young doctor and his family. His children Ann Hill and Bill MacMurtrie still have fond memories of growing up in West Philadelphia. “It was a very safe, secure environment,” Bill remembered. “It was a suburban existence even though we lived in an urban area.”


[i] Clipping from unknown newspaper, Papers of Dr. William Pepper, Jr., Volume 7, p.1507. Collection of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, University of Pennsylvania.

[ii] E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (New York, New York: The Free Press, 1979), p.261.

[iii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.50.

[iv] “West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District,” Placed on the National Register of Historic Places, February 5, 1998. Accessed June 23, 2010.

[v] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.46.

[vi] “About Clark Park,” Friends of Clark Park Accessed June 22, 2010.

[vii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), pp.59, 62.


Interview of James Hill by Steven Ujifusa, June 23, 2010.

Interview of Bill MacMurtrie by Steven Ujifusa, June 23, 2010.

Interview of Ann Hill by Steven Ujifusa, June 22, 2010.


An Irish Village in Philadelphia: Grays Ferry

The area now known as Grays Ferry was named after George Gray, who maintained a floating bridge across the Schuylkill in the mid-18th century. He also operated a well-known pleasure garden popular with Philadelphians who, according to one guidebook, “sought a few hours’ relaxation from the cares of business; near enough to court the visits of the idler and pleasure-seeker, and abounding in facilities for rational enjoyment…”

But as the nineteenth century progressed, so did the march of industry. As the same publication lamented, “the age of utility has shorn Gray’s Gardens of its beauties, and the ‘classic stream,’ which once echoed with festivity and mirth, now re-echo to the hoarse trumpet of the locomotive.” i The once verdant banks of the Schuylkill sprouted wharfs, tanneries, and factories. Brick streets and rowhouses replaced forests and fields. By 1900, Grays Ferry was a sprawling, working class neighborhood, home to a tight-knit immigrant Irish-American community. Its unofficial boundaries were Grays Ferry Avenue and 32nd Street on the west, Moore Street on the south, and 25th Street on the east.

Nora McCarthy arrived from County Limerick, Ireland in 1909. Ten years later, she married Patrick Delargey, a wagon driver fresh from the trenches of World War I. The newly-weds purchased a rowhouse on Oakford Street and started a family. Patrick, like many men in Grays Ferry, took a job at the nearby DuPont plant. They had three daughters (Nora, Mary, Elizabeth) and one son (Jack). Tragically, Patrick Delargey died in 1932, at the nadir of the Great Depression. There was no welfare or child assistance, so Nora Delargey cleaned houses and cooked meals at a nearby convent to make ends meet. She also relied on the support of the community, which was full of friends and relations. Eventually, Nora’s family received a small stipend from the Mothers’ Assistance Program: $40 a month.

“It was a poor time but there was such a feeling of unity,” remembered her daughter Nora Schneider. “People make a big pot of soup and shared it with their neighbors. My mother got sick a few times and a neighbor would do her wash. This was a time when there were no dryers, and you had to use a wringer. Everyone knew each other’s needs.”

The Delargey house was a typical Grays Ferry rowhome–most of the neighborhood’s housing stock was constructed between 1880 and 1910. It was two bays wide, with steps leading up to the front door. The first floor consisted of a parlor, dining room, and a kitchen in the rear. A narrow staircase led to three bedrooms on the second floor. A coal-fired furnace in the kitchen heated the entire house, but not well. Boys were usually relegated to the back bedroom, which was icy in winter. Although the houses were modest in size, they were almost always well-kept. Sweeping the steps, washing the windows, and polishing the doorknobs were weekly family rituals in Grays Ferry.

Big Catholic families meant close quarters indoors, so young Nora and her friends made the streets their playground. Green spaces were few, and there were no trees shading the streets. Since money was tight, they made toys out of whatever they found. “We learned to use our minds and hands,” Schneider remembered. “We had to make our own entertainment. Kids made their own scooters and skateboards. We built snow forts in winter. We played jacks on the steps. We were proud of the things we built. It was a nice way to grow up.”

Yet dating someone from outside the neighborhood was not just taboo; it was dangerous. “If a boy wanted to take a girl out from Schuylkill,” Schneider remembered. “he’d come back from Schuylkill with a black eye and no girl.”

The years following World War II were an improvement from the bleakness of the Great Depression, but life for Grays Ferry residents was still basic. Most of the men still worked at the DuPont paint plant, which spewed waste into the river and fumes into the air. Others worked at Bond Bread, the Sun Oil storage facilities, or the slaughterhouses along the Schuylkill. After their shifts, men would gather for drinks at Tom’s Café, cheek-by-jowl with the Grays Ferry Avenue railroad tracks. Few families owned cars, relying instead on buses and trolleys to visit relatives in other parts of the city. House cleaning was still a weekly ritual. Step railings had holders where the milkman left a bottle each day. Some houses were still heated by coal and had cast-iron boot scrapers outside. A home telephone was still considered a luxury until the late 1940s. Because there were few public parks, kids still played on the streets, and fire hydrants gushed freely during the sweltering summer months. Toys were still mostly cobbled together from found objects. And although families looked out for each other, bullies and hooligans were constant menaces to Grays Ferry youth.

One place where the residents of Grays Ferry sought solace was St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church at 29th and Dickinson. The massive Romanesque structure was constructed around 1900, its foundations dug and walls lofted by the young men of the community. Its polychrome nave, resplendent with marble and stained glass, was a beautiful oasis in the heart of the stark, tree-less neighborhood.

Nora Schneider’s nephews Kenneth J. Powell Jr. and Thomas Curley attended St. Gabriel’s both for church and parochial school. For young Ken Powell, church was where he picked up his lifelong love of singing. “I sang in the church choir which required about two hours of rehearsal a week and two hours on Sunday,” he remembered. Yet he was pressured by his mother and the St. Gabriel’s nuns to be an altar boy, which meant dropping choir. “I resisted because I loved to sing. I finally succumbed and became an altar boy when a nun convinced me that smart boys should serve God at the altar.”

As in Ireland, church festivals overflowed into the streets. “We went to church every day in October –the month of the Holy Rosary—and every day in May –the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary,” Powell continued. The climax of the May festivities was a neighborhood procession, “reigned over by the May Queen, usually one of the most pious eighth grade girls.” Church was a strictly formal affair, and social life in Grays Ferry revolved around the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. Even for families on a tight budget, white gloves and polished shoes were de rigeur at Mass.

“Any holiday was a big deal,” remembered Tom Curley, whose mother Elizabeth had been May Queen in her home parish of St. Anthony’s. “You bought new clothes and planned big family celebrations and meals. You didn’t eat meat on Friday and every Saturday you had to go to Confession.”

Churches in Grays Ferry were also rigidly segregated by ethnicity. St. Gabriel’s was strictly Irish. St. Aloysius was German. King of Peace was Italian. Few Irish boys dared go to Confession at King of Peace. Powell and his brother once did, and the parish priest told them to leave and never come back. Interactions between boys and girls were strictly controlled. Teen pregnancies were unthinkable. If they did occur, the girls were packed off to a convent for the duration of their “shameful pregnancies.”

By the early 1970s, racial unrest and a heroin scourge shook Grays Ferry to its foundations. As a result, many third and fourth generation residents who could afford to move out did so. “I had a great time growing up there,” recalled Tom Curley, now an artist and gallery director residing in Upper Darby. “The kind of upbringing I received sustains me now.” Ken Powell, now a municipal court judge living in Chestnut Hill, agreed with his cousin. “It was a neighborhood of great joy, but also of great anxiety,” he said. “I have a quick wit, necessary to survive cut-up fights…You always knew where you were and constantly looked over your shoulder…I have achieved a lot but am still unabashedly a Grays Ferry boy.”

Their 87 year old aunt Nora Schneider now lives in the Northeast. She still fondly remembers her immigrant mother’s reaction when she heard people singing nostalgically about Ireland: “I never want to go back!”

For a musical portrait of Gray’s Ferry, listen to “Tom’s Café” by neighborhood native James Curley (Tom Curley’s brother):


[i] Charles P. Dare, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore railroad guide (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fitzgibbon and Van Ness, c.1856), p.118-119.

Primary Sources:

Interview with Thomas Curley, June 8, 2010.

Interview with Kenneth Powell Jr., June 10, 2010.

Kenneth Powell Jr. to Steven Ujifusa, November 13, 2008.

Interview with Nora Schneider, June 9, 2010.

Historic Sites

“One price and goods returnable”: Center City’s Department Stores

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Market Street (formerly High Street) was a mix of residential and commercial, as Philadelphians clung to the Delaware waterfront for sustenance. Successful businessmen such as printer Benjamin Franklin and china maker Benjamin Tucker lived “above the store” or in houses adjacent to their businesses.i With the coming of the horse-drawn and electric streetcar, however, Market Street became almost exclusively commercial, as many business owners moved to fashionable residential districts to the south and the west.

Following the Civil War, there was an explosion in manufactured consumer goods, especially clothing and household wares. By 1900, fine furniture, crockery, carpets, tailored suits, and dresses were now available to an expanding (and increasingly discerning) middle class, not just the rich. For residents of neighborhoods like Germantown and West Philadelphia, shopping was no longer just a chore: it was entertainment.

A number of Philadelphia entrepreneurs capitalized on this embarrassment of riches by consolidating consumer offerings under one roof. The most famous merchandiser of them all was John Wanamaker, who came up with a simple slogan: “One price and goods returnable.” Like his contemporary John D. Rockefeller, Wanamaker was a proponent of the “Social Gospel,” a philosophy that maintained wealth was a tool to further “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” ii A devout Presbyterian, Wanamaker believed he could uplift his patrons through art, culture, and Christian morality.

After successfully operating two smaller stores in Center City, in 1875 he purchased the Pennsylvania Railroad’s freight depot at 13th and Market Streets, on the east side of Penn Square. He then refurbished it into a sprawling store with 129 counters. He also made sure his store was on the cutting edge of technology, equipping it with telephones, elevators, electric lights, and pneumatic tubes.iii Wanamaker bet that the unfinished City Hall –being built on what once had been quiet residential square—would transform the area into a booming commercial hub.

Wanamaker’s gamble paid off. Not only did the new City Hall shift the commercial heart of the city from Old City to Penn Square, but the new Broad Street Station funneled prosperous suburbanites right onto his store’s front doorsteps. His “Grand Depot” was so lucrative that Wanamaker built an even bigger store on the same site. Designed by Daniel Burnham and unveiled in 1911, the new store was 12 stories high and resembled an Italian Renaissance palazzo on the exterior.iv The interior was a glittering jewel box, encrusted with crystal, marble, and European paintings.v A gigantic pipe organ, originally built for the St. Louis World’s Fair, entertained shoppers as they strolled through the The 9th floor Crystal Tea Room, able to seat 1,400 guests, was one of the most beautiful dining establishments in the city. At Christmastime, a sparkling curtain of light cascaded down the walls of the main atrium, eliciting the “oohs” and “ahs” from generations of Philadelphia children.

“Pious John” Wanamaker was not modest about his own success. Read a plaque in the lobby: “Let those who follow me continue to build with the plumb of honor, the level of truth and the square of integrity, education, courtesy, and mutuality.” vii He was also sometimes credited with one of the most famous quips in advertising history: “Retailers Rule…The customer is always right.” viii

While Wanamaker’s was the store of choice for Main Line matrons, other department stores catered to Philadelphia’s middle and working class shoppers. Quaker partners Justus Strawbridge and Isaac Clothier founded their less flashy establishment in 1858. In 1930, Strawbridge and Clothier completed their big, but appropriately subdued, neo-classical store at 8th and Market Streets. Pipe organs, catchy slogans, and French salon paintings were not in the “Quaker plain” vein of Strawbridge and Clothier. Rather, the store’s trademark was the “Seal of Confidence” depicting William Penn shaking hands with a Native American. The “Corinthian Room” food court served hot dogs rather than high tea. This thrifty philosophy was appreciated by the store’s clientele. As one long-time Strawbridge patron said, “I’ve been coming here for many years. As long as the merchandise is good quality and it’s decently priced, I plan to keep on coming.” ix At Christmas, the fourth floor boasted a life-sized walk through set of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, complete with actors and Victorian sets.x

A stone’s throw away from Strawbridge and Clothier stood Gimbel Brothers, which took up the entire 800 block between Market and Chestnut Streets. Like John Wanamaker, founder Jacob Gimbel distinguished himself as a philanthropist as well as a businessman. In 1901, he was appointed president of the new Federation of Jewish Charities, which was charged to assist the thousands of Jewish immigrants fleeing czarist pogroms in Russia and Poland.xi Known to Philadelphians simply as “Gimbels,” this store brought the holidays to the streets by sponsoring the city’s annual Christmas Parade. The climax of this popular pageant was Santa climbing a fire truck ladder to the ninth floor of the Gimbel’s store.xii

Lit Brothers, like Gimbels, was also founded by German Jewish immigrants. Cheaper than most of its competitors, Lit’s slogan was “A Great Store in A Great City.” Lit Brothers flagship at 7th and Market store was created in 1907 by the consolidation of an entire block of cast iron commercial structures.xiii Unlike masonry construction, cast iron allowed designers to create open floor plans, ornate facades, and large windows.  Lit Brothers’ main holiday attraction was a complete “Colonial Christmas Village,” part of which survives at the Please Touch Museum.xiv

Sadly, due to buy-outs and the rise of suburban malls, none of these stores are in business today. Lit Brothers has been converted into a commercial building and Strawbridge’s sits vacant. The original Gimbels was demolished in the 1970s and has been replaced by a parking lot, although its warehouse at 833 Chestnut Street survives as an office building. Macy’s now occupies the original Wanamaker’s building, and happily its new owners have taken excellent care of the historic structure, restoring its 7,000 pipe organ and exquisite interior detailing to their original glory.


[i] “Philadelphia (Tucker) China – 1825-1838” Accessed June 5, 2010.

[ii] Jack B. Rogers, and Robert E. Blade, “The Great Ends of the Church: Two Perspectives,” Journal of Presbyterian History (1998) 76:181-186.

[iii] “Wanamaker’s Department Store,” World Architecture Images, Essential Architecture – the North East. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[iv] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: Philadelphia’s Broad Street, South and North (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2003, p.52.

[v] “Wanamaker’s Department Store,” World Architecture Images, Essential Architecture – the North East. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[vi] Friends of the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s, Philadelphia: Celebrating the Heritage of a National Historic Landmark, Facts and Figures about the Wanamaker Organ. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[vii] Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphian: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1963, p.173.

[viii] “Wanamaker’s Department Store,” World Architecture Images, Essential Architecture – the North East. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[ix] Associated Press, “At Strawbridge’s, customers seeking value, not nostalgia,” Reading Eagle/Reading Times, July 26, 1996, B7.,5034439 Accessed June 8, 2010.

[x] Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[xi] Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies, “The Iron Age, 1876-1905,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.489.

[xii] Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[xiii] Lit Brothers Store, 701-739 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA, HABS No. PA-1438. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record.

[xiv] Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. Accessed June 8, 2010.