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 base.vi

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.”

References:

[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. http://uchs.net/HistoricDistricts/wpsshd.html 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 http://www.clarkpark.info/AboutClarkPark.html 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.

Sources:

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.

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