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
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.
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.”
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. 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.
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.