EF Historical Society solves mystery of ‘Daisy Quilt’
East Falls Now, January 2021, by Patty Cheek
Sections from the Daisy Quilt, sown in East Falls in 1890s
Everyone loves a good mystery. How about a little history with your mystery? This is the story of a very special quilt which was donated to the East Falls Historical Society by the Clayton family who were former residents of East Falls. It was in early spring that Tom Clayton contacted Ellen Sheehan regarding an old quilt which was found in an attic. At first it seemed like a plain old quilt, 6 ½ foot square, white with red embroidery. The center rectangle had the embroidered outline of a church, surrounded by 32 squares, each with a red daisy and names stitched within.
As we looked closer, it became clear that there was a mystery about this old blanket. The church on the quilt was an image of the Methodist Episcopal Church of East Falls. The pastor’s name, Reverend R.A. McIlwain and the words “Pearls of Price” were stitched around the outline of the church. “Pearls” appears to refer to the bible parable which describes the great value the Kingdom of Heaven places on believers. According to Wikipedia, The Methodist Episcopal Church became the Methodist Church in 1939. In 1968 it was renamed again as the United Methodist Church. At that time the building became the Falls United Methodist Church, which is located on Indian Queen Lane and Krail Street. It currently houses office space and boasts organ pipes as decoration.
When Ellen Sheehan and I began to examine the quilt, we saw that there were hundreds of family names embroidered within the daisy petals on the quilt, along with the dates 1894 to 1897. We began the fascinating task of transcribing the names as best we could decipher them onto paper. We could imagine the families that had lived and worshipped here in East Falls in the late 1890’s. As we compiled our lists, we noticed some interesting names in the center of each daisy. Sometimes it was a family name but other times it was a title such as “Royal Cadets”, “Willing Workers”, “Sunbeams”, “Earnest Workers”, or “ 8 Jewels”. What could these names represent? Then, longtime member of the EFHS reference committee, Joe Terry unearthed the information: these were the names of Sunday School classes. Curiouser and curiouser. Why did the church members create a quilt with names of Sunday School classes on it?
At last, we came upon the one square that gave us the key clue to the quilt’s existence. On one particular flower were embroidered the words, “Nearly three years was the quilt in making – by it, $200 was raised for the Church.” AHA! This quilt was lovingly stitched and put together as a fund raiser for the church. There are so many interesting aspects to it. It’s clear that the embroidery is not the hand of one stitcher. Therefore, each square was probably taken home by a church member as they worked on it, before the quilt assembly. Not only that, but the quilt reaches across state lines, as one square bears family sur-names from other states including Florida and California. Finally, the understanding of the words “Pearls of Price”. In the context of this quilt’s evolution, it may be the words “Pearls of Price” referred to the value of donating to the cause of the quilt itself, as well as a salvation parable. Mystery solved!
Click here for the Quilt Page – detailed images, list of names, and more.
The Falls Bridge: Past and Future
East Falls NOW, February 2021, by Steven Peitzman and Wendy Moody
The year 1809 saw the completion of the first bridge to span the Schuylkill at East Falls (known earlier as Falls Village or Falls of Schuylkill), an innovative chain suspension bridge. A novel wire suspension bridge followed: Fallser Josiah White had started a wire mill in the town. Innovative but not durable, both soon failed; and subsequent bridges yielded, one after another, to floods or wind. Finally, city engineer George Webster designed a heavy steel truss bridge capable of resisting water, wind, and fire. Completed in 1895, it reached 125 years of service in 2020. To mark this occasion, the East Falls Historical Society on December 9 hosted Justin Spivey, a preservation engineer and authority on the Schuylkill River bridges, to provide a (Zoomed) talk on the bridge. A video of the presentation can be found on our website, eastfallshistoricalsociety.org, under “events,”
Why was bridging the Schuylkill at the Falls important by the early and mid-nineteenth century? This was, of course, before Fairmount Park and the river drives, which the span now connects. Falls Village had become an important industrial site. And industry also flourished on the West bank, most notably Simpson’s Mills, a large complex centered on printing and dying textiles. South of it was a small village which may have had the name Coxsackie or Cocksockie. No visible trace of these exists. But beyond the local, the Falls of Schuylkill was where the Ridge Road from Philadelphia, and two lanes from Germantown, met. The bridge offered a route for goods and people not just to the west bank, but onward, to the western part of the Commonwealth, and nation.
The Falls Bridge is a Petit truss, a sub-type of the popular Pratt through-truss bridge. It comprises three spans for a total of 540 feet, and is 40 feet wide. Two piers and abutments of stone masonry, built on solid bedrock, form the substructure. These supports were started nearly 10 years prior to the bridge’s completion.
Many of the various components under tension or compression are joined by pins, an American technique. The bridge is steel, though the railings which we admire are of wrought iron. The bridge is on a slight incline, downward from west to east, as cyclists will recognize.
The original flamboyant paint colors of red, buff and light blue made the bridge a striking sight. The Falls Bridge was designed to support an upper deck – hence the top-heavy appearance – for connecting the high ground on both sides, and for a possible streetcar. Probably for reasons of budget, it was never completed.
The bridge has held up generally well for so long in part because it was never stressed by two levels of traffic, and has been mostly spared heavy trucks.
But even steel wears out, and our beloved Falls Bridge is in need of serious repair, particularly the heavy plate girders forming the floor beams. PennDot will carry out the work, with federal funding. Because it lies in an historic environment, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will monitor the developing plans. EFHS has engaged Justin Spivey as our consultant: we signed on as an interested organization, since we want to see the appearance unaltered and as much original fabric as possible preserved. It’s not clear yet when actual work will begin, but PennDot expects that the bridge will be out of service for two years! So enjoy it and study it, preferably by foot or bicycle, while you can.
A “Glow In The Dark” – Gas Street Lamps in East Falls
East Falls NOW, March 2021, by Ellen Sheehan
A photograph of a gas street lamp on Penn Street in the snow was recently given to EFHS by Janet Colianni, a resident of Penn Street. Janet received it years ago from a teacher at Thomas Mifflin School. We are not sure who took the photo but Mrs. Rosberg was a long time first grade teacher at Mifflin School and lived on Penn Street. Mifflin School is possibly visible on the left side of the photo.
On February 8, 1836, forty-six lights burning manufactured “coal gas” were lit along Philadelphia’s 2nd Street by employees of the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works. Gas lamps soon became an important part of establishing safe night travel in the city. Many were right here in East Falls well into the 1950s.
One I remember was in front of the last house on Arnold Street, home of “Jigs” Donahue. As his name implies, he was one of East Falls well known characters. Taking a short cut from the shops on Midvale Avenue to my home on Indian Queen Lane, I often observed the lamplighter at dusk. He unfolded a small wooden ladder that was slung over his shoulder, climbed up and by some magic unknown to me, “poof” – a flicker and then the faint light would grow as darkness descended. I always welcomed this as it was otherwise a dark route home through Dutch Hollow.
My research led me to Arthur King who remembers three gas lamps on Ainslie Street between Vaux and Conrad Streets. He comments that they disappeared sometime in the 1950’s along with the cobblestone streets. Susan Schmidt contributed that her great-great-grandfather, Antoine Hosephas, was a lamplighter on Ridge Avenue.
On April 15, 1959, Mayor Richardson Dilworth, wearing a 3 piece suit, mounted a ladder with a young boy in front of him (also wearing a 3 piece suit) to extinguish Philadelphia’s last gas streetlight. Located at 45th and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, the crowd reportedly cheered to see this vestige of the Victorian age gone.
Abbottsford Homes: From a Dobson estate to an East Falls community
East Falls NOW, April 2021, by Rich Lampert
For most people in East Falls, the Abbottsford Homes are a clump of blocky brick buildings seen out of the corner of an eye while hurtling along the lower stretch of Henry Avenue. However, to hundreds of people living in 230 apartments, it’s home. Abbottsford reveals a history so fascinating that East Falls Historical Society is devoting two columns to the place.
If you can slow down and take a thoughtful look at the Abbottsford site, you’ll see that it’s high on a hill, with views across the Schuylkill and into downtown Philadelphia. This was such an attractive site that James Dobson, one of the brothers who created Dobson Mills, built a 50-room stone mansion there in the 1870’s. Until the outbreak of World War II, the mansion was the center of a 28-acre estate called Bella Vista that was famed for its landscaping, including some renowned sunken gardens (and, during the Great Depression, five acres of vegetable gardens for the surrounding community). Bessie Dobson Altemus, Dobson’s daughter, a prominent socialite and the president of Republican Women of America, inherited the estate. Although Philadelphia was controlled by notorious Republican machine run by William Vare, Mrs. Altemus favored the reform wing of the party and supported the Teddy Roosevelt admirer Gifford Pinchot. (What about Mr. Altemus? Lemuel and Bessie Altemus divorced in 1911 after just ten years of marriage. Bessie remarried, but her second husband died in 1935.)
As the portents of World War II darkened, the Federal Government took its own thoughtful look at Bella Vista. It beheld a location within a ten-minute walk of some 50,000 jobs, many of them critical to the war effort. The employers included the Atwater Kent radio company, Budd Wheel Company (as it was then known), Midvale Steel, Bendix Aviation, and the Army Signal Corps. And the workers at Tasty Baking were poised to provide treats in countless lunch boxes of workers in the war industries.
Seeing the need to house many of these workers, the Federal Government bought Bella Vista from Bessie Dobson Altemus using the power of eminent domain. In August 1941 she was evicted. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, she wasn’t sure where she would live. She said, “It doesn’t really matter. I have no home now.” (She didn’t take to the streets; she had a choice of homes owned by a daughter who had married into still greater wealth.)
Demolition crews immediately took over, tearing down the stone house and its numerous outbuildings. Where they could, they spared some of the mature trees and other landscaping features, and the project architects worked around them. You can still see some of the stone walls that were part of the Bella Vista layout. The government engaged well-known Philadelphia architect W. Pope Barney, a former pupil of Paul Cret; and Penn landscape professor James Bush-Brown. (Much later, the notable landscape and garden designer Harriet Pattison contributed to the Homes’ renewal.)
On May 20, 1942, just nine months after Mrs. Altemus lost her home, Abbottsford Homes opened, with 700 units. As planned, the residents were primarily workers at the nearby defense industries. On-site resident aides helped the community organize hobby clubs, Boy Scout troops, and a community newspaper, all operating out of a community center within the project.
Abbottsford Homes continued to house workers from nearby industries until 1953. Then, as part of a process that was taking place throughout the country, the Federal Government sold the entire project. The residents, aware this was coming, had formed a corporation to buy the project themselves, but the Philadelphia Housing Authority had already stepped up as the preferred purchaser. Residents of Abbottsford who did not qualify for public housing were given weeks to find new homes and leave, and their apartments were quickly occupied by PHA tenants.
These tenants, some of whom lived here for decades, built a community that interacted in some respects with the rest of East Falls, but also had its own internal dynamics. In next month’s column, several residents will describe life at the Abbottsford Homes.
*Photo: Drexel University Legacy Center
Abbottsford Homes: A rich and evolving neighborhood
East Falls NOW, May 2021, by Rich Lampert and Wendy Moody
Last month’s column from East Falls Historical Society described the origins of Abbottsford Homes, built during World War II on what had been an estate owned by the family of James Dobson, one of the owners of Dobson Mills. This column explores what it was like to live at Abbottsford Homes, as seen through the eyes of two people who lived there during different eras. Lorraine Brown was interviewed in 2019 by Katy Hineline and Wendy Moody, our EFHS Oral History Chair. The telephone interview with Audrey Hood was conducted recently by Wendy, thanks to an introduction by Linda Norris.
Lorraine Brown lived at Abbottsford for about three years starting in 1953, moving there shortly after the federal government sold the complex to Philadelphia Housing Authority. PHA envisioned using it as housing for veterans. Ms. Brown, married and with her second child on the way, moved to an apartment on Defense Terrace, one of the streets named to honor veterans, and paid $50 per month. Ms. Brown recalls “there were very few people who were not white.”
The two-bedroom apartment was spartan. News reports stated that there were no doors on the closets – only a curtain rod on which a resident could put their own curtain. An open area called “the gully” was available for walking and sports. When Ms. Brown lived there, there was no playground, although one was built later. There was an onsite grocery store. Ms. Brown recalled, “It was no Giant, just one person waiting on you at a counter.”
Ms. Brown recalls a warm community, bonded by the shared experiences of the veterans. She said of the veterans: “[Abbottsford] gave me a new sense of what these people went through and what turmoil they must have lived. And I think this quieted them. They were patriots – on holidays with flags, they didn’t disappoint.”
Unfortunately for Ms. Brown and her family, pressure was building on PHA to restrict Abbottsford Homes to low-income renters. Ms. Brown moved before Abbottsford was formally designated for low-income people, but she recalls moving “in the middle of the transition – people were leaving and coming.”
Audrey Hood moved to Abbottsford in 1958, and still lives there. She applied to move there after noticing the homes when taking her children to the Woman’s Medical College pediatric clinic on the opposite side of Henry Avenue. By then, the apartments did have closet doors and cabinets, but tenants had to purchase their own washing machines. She recalls that most of the families in 1958 were white, although the proportion of white families declined steadily. “When we moved there it seemed like a summer resort….,” Ms. Hood remembered. “There were white picket fences, a playground, a basketball court, a little grocery store, and a community center with a big room for monthly resident meetings. There used to be a lot going on here – Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, an Abbottsford parade, a Miss Abbottsford contest.”
Did Abbottsford residents consider themselves part of East Falls? Ms. Hood said: “My children used the Falls Library and went to Mifflin School, where I served as President of the Home & School Association. But if you asked me where I lived, I would tend to say Abbottsford, not East Falls.”
Ms. Hood has seen changes over the 63 years she has lived at Abbottsford. “Families started breaking up and women moved in with their boyfriends. There were some cases of domestic abuse and some drugs. Gradually, over five or six years, most of the white families left.”
While the erstwhile Schuylkill Falls project near the river was undergoing its radical and contentious makeover into Falls Ridge, Abbottsford underwent its own significant physical change, most obviously the reduction in total units from 700 to 236. Ms. Hood recalls, “My house was one of [those that were demolished], and I moved to another unit. In my new unit there is no room to store anything. The Housing Authority made promises they didn’t keep, saying they would rebuild the houses that were torn down, but this still hasn’t happened. I miss my old house, and I’m disenchanted.”
Still, Ms. Hood says, “I feel safe at Abbottsford – everybody knows everybody and we look out for each other.”
And Abbottsford continues to be an integral neighborhood within the larger East Falls community.
Weddings in East Falls: Glimpses of the past
East Falls NOW, June 2021, by Rich Lampert
June is traditionally the favorite month for weddings, and with the easing of the pandemic, there’s no telling how many will take place this month. My fellow East Falls Historical Society member Wendy Moody and I found abundant allusions to weddings on the EFHS website (eastfallshistoricalsociety.org), and they provide a window into how our East Falls predecessors lived.
For a slice of early 20th-Century life, here are excerpts from a wedding announcement in The Weekly Forecast, a now-defunct community newspaper, about a wedding that took place on June 9, 1915, in the (old) St. Bridget’s Church. The bride, Anna Maloney, lived at 4314 Dobson Street. The groom, Joseph E. Maher, lived “in Germantown” – no address given, because what did an address mean if it wasn’t in East Falls?
“The bride wore a pretty gown of French net over white satin, and carried a shower bouquet of bride roses and lilies of the valley. The bridesmaid, Miss May Maloney, sister of the bride, wore a gown of white lace with blue satin and a picturesque hat to match, and carried a bouquet of pink roses…Shortly after [the wedding breakfast] the couple left for a trip to Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Toronto.”
Not all weddings happen in June, of course. Two East Falls-related weddings that happened at other times of the year pop up frequently in our archives. The first of these was the wedding between Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, two entertainment icons. EHFS founder Ellen Sheehan collected a vivid account in an oral history. The wedding, which took place on November 7, 1951, was planned to be performed at the mansion now called White Corners at the corner of Henry Avenue and School House Lane. It was then the home of Leon Levy, the founder of WCAU radio and a legendary host to a legion of entertainers who visited Philadelphia. The wedding was supposed to be quiet, but the press got wind of it. To throw off the reporters, Levy’s son Bob dressed the butler in a tuxedo and put a wig on the maid and seated them in the back of Sinatra’s limousine. A family friend drove to the bottom of School House Lane where reporters could see them, and led the reporters on a chase back to the Levy mansion. On arrival, the butler and the maid emerged from the limousine, presumably to the outrage of the reporters. By then, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, and the rest of the wedding party had escaped to the home of Levy’s friend Manny Saks, across the Walnut Lane Bridge in Germantown, and the entertainment press never did get its wedding pictures.
The most famous East Falls bride remains Grace Kelly. Unfortunately for our place in history, her wedding to Prince Rainier took place in Monaco in April, 1956. However, Rainier proposed to Grace at her parent’s home on Henry Avenue during the Christmas holidays of 1955 – so this was a marriage made in East Falls, if not consecrated here.
Back in June, 1981, Wendy Moody and gerontologist Cherie Snyder facilitated a conversation among East Falls seniors about weddings. Some of these are gems:
Memories of the wedding of Elizabeth (Bessie) Dobson to Lemuel Altemus at St. James the Less in 1901. This is the same Bessie Dobson who lived in Bella Vista, the mansion that was demolished in 1942 to create a site for the Abbotsford Homes.
Weddings during World War II: They were small, and brides had difficulty getting dresses that fit properly.
Single ring ceremonies, back when men didn’t have to wear a symbol of marriage.
Newlyweds buying a new house on Ainslie Street for just $2000, during the Depression.
Wedding cakes from Rosie’s Bakery on Ainslie Street near Conrad, and wedding photos by “Mucky” Brownsworth, whose studio was in the Odd Fellow’s Hall (Palestine Hall) on Midvale Avenue.
Honeymoons in Atlantic City or New York.
The West Falls Bridge and Anthracite
East Falls NOW, July 2021, by Steven J. Peitzman
The February, 2021, issue of NOW included an article on our beloved Falls Bridge. Here we feature another of our historic bridges, the West Falls Bridge, or more correctly (and bulkily), the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Schuylkill River Viaduct. It’s also sometimes called the “Skew Bridge.” We chose this topic having in mind the current on-site and on-line exhibit at the Library Company of Philadelphia, “Seeing Anthracite,” created by staff conservator and visual artist Andrea Krupp. It merits a careful viewing. Pennsylvania contains the largest deposits of anthracite in the world, in enormous veins to the north and west of the Delaware Valley.
East Falls can claim several connections with anthracite. Inventor and entrepreneur Josiah White (1781-1850) as a young man owned property in the Falls Village (and resided here), and attempted to become wealthy by taming the falls for water power. It didn’t work out. He also set up a mill to make wire and nails, also short-lived. Later, as an ex-Fallser in Mauch Chunk–Jim Thorpe today–he is credited with finding the way to burn the dense anthracite coal, which can be close to 99% pure carbon. His passion for waterways as commercial conduits –canals particularly — fostered the spread of anthracite as an industrial and household fuel.
Not one of White’s many projects, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (it was never actually known as the “Reading Railroad”) was chartered in 1833 to haul anthracite along the Schuylkill River to Philadelphia. To ship the “black gold” to the world, it created the docks of Port Richmond on the Delaware, and opened its “Richmond branch” in 1842. Reaching Philadelphia on the west bank of the Schuylkill, the Reading had to cross the Schuylkill to then run north and east through the city to the Delaware, and it chose to do the river crossing at Falls of Schuylkill. At first, it built a wood bridge, but soon wanted something more durable, stronger for heavier trains and locomotives, and fireproof. Steam locomotives tend to ignite their neighborhoods.
Designed by the railroad’s “General Superintendent” Gustavus A. Nicolls, the stone arch viaduct we now view near the route 1 bridges overhead was completed in 1855, when coal cars carried only a few tons each and the steam locomotives were small. But a century later it easily held the weight of massive “T-1” steam locomotives pulling enormous strings of heavy loaded coal hoppers. The coal is mostly gone, but the bridge still sees occasional use, over 160 years since it was built. The structure comprises seven arches, of 90-foot length over the river and 35 over the drives, for a total length of about 700 feet. Its deck rises about 3 inches per 100 feet from west to east. What about the “skew”? American railroads often were built along rivers – that’s where the towns were, and it was cheaper. Trains cannot make sharp turns, so when a line needed to cross the river, it would do so on an angle, or skew. This also maintained the direction of the route. That presented a problem for stone arch bridges, since both the water passages and the piers need to be aligned with the flow of the waterway, but both will be perpendicular to the line of the bridge in a simple construction not on a skew. In our viaduct, the solution was building eight thin series of parallel arches joined together, but staggered. This is a lot easier seen than described, at least by me: go take a look.
So in the heyday of anthracite, and steam engines, immense trains struggled upgrade across the viaduct, then through East Falls on an even sharper gradient. Fallsers were afflicted with smoke, soot, and roaring noise. The train buffs loved it. But why do we see a second rail bridge (built in 1889), this time curving? That’s the “Blue Line Bridge,” a story for another time.
A New Acquisition
East Falls NOW, August 2021, by Wendy Moody
In May 2020, during the darkest days of the pandemic, a unique acquisition came our way via the Friends of Falls of Schuylkill Library.
North Carolina resident Tommy Taylor contacted Margaret Sadler, then President of the Friends, offering a penned chronicle of the Sorber family, beginning with Mr. Taylor’s second great-grandfather, Falls resident Joseph Sorber. Although the document’s author is unknown, it is possibly Bernard Dowdall, whose history of the Falls included research on the Sorbers. Why donate this to the Friends? The journal contained some old library records.
The library board, with Mr. Taylor’s approval, decided a more appropriate recipient was the East Falls Historical Society which can keep the journal archivally protected and accessible to researchers. The EFHS thanks the Friends for this decision as we add this special document to our collection. The transfer marks a fine example of cooperation between two Falls organizations.
Mr. Taylor explained the journal had been found among his aunt’s papers. And how lucky it wasn’t overlooked – it measures just 3″x5″! Penned in calligraphy, it has loose pages, perhaps some missing ones, but absorbing content.
It contained two sections:
1) A Financial Log from the Schuylkill Falls Library Association, instituted Feb. 22nd 1844, and handwritten by Joseph Sorber, its treasurer. Why is this intriguing? The first lending library in East Falls opened, as we know, on June 1, 1901 as a Deposit Station on the second floor of the Old Academy. This journal indicates a precursor – perhaps an earlier subscription library. As former librarian at the Falls Branch for 25 years, I found this news fascinating.
The entries are brief. Examples:
– “Rec’d March 25th 1848 of Jos. Evans, Sec. – Three dollars and 9 cents. Dues collected for the Schuylkill Falls Library Association. $3.09.”
– “Rec’d April 29th 1848 of Jos Evans, Sec. Five dollars and 25 cents money collected for dues & fine due to the Schuylkill Falls Library Association $5.25.
Each entry was signed “Joseph Sorber, Treas.”
2) A Chronology of the Sorber Family.
As librarian, I had heard the Sorber name frequently – this generational East Falls/Germantown family was often mentioned in East Falls’ histories. The Sorbers were fishermen, carpenters, and pharmacists (see entry about Joseph Sorber in East Falls: 300 Years of History).
– The Sorbers date their ancestors among the first settlers of Germantown. In 1732, two brothers came from Sweden. One brother tried his fortune in Canada, but Jacob, the original of the Sorber family in this vicinity (Falls), remained in Germantown and followed his trade as carpenter, building the first cupola on the old School House Academy. (i.e. Germantown Academy).
– Jos. E. Sorber came to the Falls in 1803, occupying a house on the Ridge south of Queen Lane (now Indian Queen Lane). Joseph built an addition – the first grocery store in the Falls. Besides the store, Jos. E. also operated fisheries on the west side of the river, which remained in the family many years. He also manufactured carriages.
– When Joseph E. died (1827), his sons Jacob and William continued the carriage building, with William’s two sons assuming control in 1854 (a “coach” or carriage factory shows up on atlases at Ridge near Indian Queen Lane as late as 1895).
– The wife of Jos. E. Sorber was a midwife and was widely known for her kindness to the poor. An incident is mentioned relating to a call from the Mifflin family to attend the wife of the Governor – the carriage was sent and waiting at the door, but, as she had promised to attend to a poor woman, the carriage returned to the mansion empty.
– The journal also reveals that Joseph E. Sorber “built on his property, shortly after his coming, the first building used for school purposes in the Falls. It was a small stone building and was located on… Queen Lane, just above the junction with Ridge.”
As yet, we have not been able to verify the new information about the early history of Falls of Schuylkill found in this remarkable document, nor date it. But it is evident that generations of Sorbers added to the quality of life in East Falls. Visit them at Laurel Hill Cemetery or online (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/31919346/joseph-e.-sorber)
Returning style to two East Falls homes
East Falls NOW, September 2021, by Nancy Pontone
Neighbors in East Falls have recently restored architectural features on their historic homes. Many, in fact most houses, in East Falls, can be deemed historic. As Falls of Schuylkill grew from an eighteenth-century fishing village on the river into an industrial center, East Falls expanded uphill around the rail line which arrived in 1834. It would serve industry and later commuters.
Small two- and three-story vernacular row houses for owners of modest means characterize many East Falls residences from the early and mid-nineteenth century. But in the decades between 1860 and 1880, the architectural styles Italianate and Second Empire, with mansards, dominated urban housing for more prosperous owners. Many residences in these styles are found on Conrad and Ainslie Streets, and Sunnyside Avenue. Italianate is characterized by projecting cornices with brackets often elaborated with moldings, tall narrow windows commonly arched or curved above with one- or two-pane glazing, and rectangular or arched doorways, often in pairs.
Emily DeWoolfson’s home on Conrad Street expresses the Italianate style in simple but elegant form. Recognizing the hidden feature, Emily comments on what led her to restore her home’s cornice. “When we noticed water getting into the house in winter last year, I talked to my mason Bill McMonigle (from Custom Property Restoration) and he helped me plan repairs including re-pointing and re-sealing much of the exterior. We decided to renovate the cornice as well, hoping it would bring more historical charm to the block. I love the results and I hope the neighbors do too! I’m excited to keep working with Bill on other projects, and help this house reach the potential I know it has.” Emily, a PhD candidate at Temple University, replaced brackets and restored moldings in her cornice, improving her home, and her block.
From 1925 to 1931, M.J. McCrudden developed the woods above Conrad Street on either side of Mifflin Run, a creek that later became Midvale Avenue, into a Tudor Revival style row house neighborhood. This architectural style, including the Cotswold cottage style, was popular from the 1890s to the 1930s in areas like Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy. Tudor Revival is characterized by steeply pitched slate roofs, fieldstone (Wissahickon schist), false half-timbering with rough plaster and brick infill, large casement windows, and prominent chimneys. McCrudden created rows of houses with the look of expansive Tudor residences.
Maeve and Jackson Siu’s home on Midvale Avenue is one of ten 2-story, stone cottage-style houses in the Tudor East Falls Historic District, composed of 210 houses built by McCrudden. Similar in form to other District houses, these ten houses feature fieldstone facades and more formal neoclassical-inspired doorways. The slate roof on their home had been replaced with asphalt shingles. Here is what they said about their project to restore the roof with slate: “One of the things that drew us to this neighborhood were the beautiful historic homes. We love how our little house is nestled into the set of homes on the block; one piece of a full puzzle. Being one of the few houses that had an asphalt shingle roof, when the time came to replace the roof, we knew we wanted to restore to slate but worried about the high price tag. We are thankful that the rise in market values enabled us to invest in our home this way!” The Sius restored the prominent roof feature of their home with salvaged, multicolored, graduated slates replicating the original and improving the Historic District.
Look around at other houses in East Falls and especially look up. Preserved and restored cornices and roofs give architectural continuity to our beautiful streetscapes.
We will discuss Second Empire and Spanish Revival styles in future East Falls NOW issues. Visit the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Field Guide at http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/architecture/index.html for information about architectural styles.
The Onetime Garden Spot at 3515 Midvale
East Falls NOW, October 2021, by Lyda Doyle
Even longtime Fallsers might have trouble identifying 3515 Midvale Avenue on the streetscape. Currently, it’s a deep hole in the ground that will become a new apartment building from the Argo Group. The new building will succeed the onetime Chuck’s Garage, itself part of a long lineage of service stations at the same location. Along with three other service stations that once stood between the Falls Library and the railroad line, this site formed a stretch once known locally as “Gasoline Alley” perhaps recalling the classic comic strip. This particular station stood out, however, and it became the subject of a full-page article in a national trade publication.
The site was featured in the Exide News of July 1949, a monthly publication by the Exide Company, then the leading manufacturer of car batteries. The location was then a full-service gas station that both sold gas and did auto repairs. It was leased from the Atlantic Refining Company by Mr. David Furman. When Mr. Furman arrived on the scene as a new operator, the station building itself was in good shape. However, the hill behind the station was a slope of weeds littered with tin cans, tires, and rubbish. Along with his mechanic, Arthur Simpson, himself no stranger to gardening having worked on large estates in the Philadelphia suburbs, Mr. Furman started a landscaping project which started with good topsoil and fertilizer. According to the above-mentioned July 1949 publication: “Today as summer develops, this station has become a thing of beauty and joy to motorists from all parts of the country who are attracted to it. It is a burst of color and rich green shrubbery.”
To complement the plantings, Mr. Furman started a rock garden, using large stones he had found behind the garage. The rock garden proved enticing to his customers in the neighborhood, who contributed rocks from their travels around the country, until there were rocks there from all states in the US. His customers also brought rare plants for the garden. Among them were 37 varieties of irises, including one from the Vatican. Planting had to be done according to the individual plant’s needs, and eventually there were flowers and shrubs blooming from Spring to late Autumn. Adirondack chairs in the garden gave customers a place to relax while their cars were being serviced, and women customers often were treated to bouquets of flowers. Customers were also treated to fresh strawberries from the strawberry patch within the garden. Mr. Furman’s landscaping was the subject of color motion pictures shown before civic improvement groups.
Thanks to the wonderful volunteer gardeners of the Falls of Schuylkill Library, a tradition from the past has been renewed and Midvale Avenue has a wonderful public garden which wraps around to the rear of the library. In addition, just up the hill from the onetime gas station, Vault & Vine has developed its small plot of land into a green oasis. It would be wonderful if Mr. Furman’s example inspired the current crop of developers as well.
Photo taken from the June 1949 magazine published by the Exide Storage Battery Co. shows the long-gone former garden behind the now-demolished gas and service station — most recently Chuck’s garage before its demolition earlier his year.
Taking a do-it-yourself walking tour through the oldest parts of East Falls
East Falls NOW, November 2021, by Nancy Pontone
On a beautiful September Saturday, East Falls Historical Society lead a tour through the oldest sections of East Falls, highlighting architectural and historical heritage. One month later, East Falls NOWreaders who missed the experience can use this self-guided tour to visit the same sites—some lost, others still with us.
Originally a Lenape fishing settlement, Falls of Schuylkill or “Falls Village” developed a fishing industry, mills, and tourism on its exquisite river setting. Two large estates on either side of Mifflin Run, now Midvale Ave, developed mid-18th century. Sadly, buildings from this period are gone.
The 19th century brought railroads and major industry — Powers and Weightman’s chemical plant (now Merck), Dobson textile mills, and breweries. Homes, churches, retail and community buildings arose to support industrial workers.
Inn Yard Park on Ridge Ave, was property of General Thomas Mifflin, first governor of the Commonwealth, whose uphill mansion, Fountain Green, became a brewery and beer garden before demolition.
A founding Falls family, the Shronks owned buildings next to Inn Yard Park. William Shronk built a stone home at 4254-56 Ridge in 1849.
Ridge Ave was lined with retail stores with residences above. 4245-4251 Ridge at the corner of Calumet and Ridge, although greatly altered, are mid-19th century gabled buildings.
Buildings north on the 4200 block are later 19th century examples in the Italianate style with projecting bracketed cornices. 4253 Ridge became a dispensary for Woman’s Medical College before the Henry Ave hospital opened in 1930.
4243 to 4235 Ridge, five brick Second Empire style three-story buildings with mansard roofs, built circa 1880, have elaborate facades and well-preserved cornices. The end unit with an angled doorway evidences an original storefront.
Italianate buildings line Ridge to Midvale Ave.
Three story Palestine Hall at Ridge and Midvale, on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, used for community purposes and retail, was built for the Odd Fellows by Henry Becker in 1868.
4203 Ridge Ave extends up Midvale with five retail units built in 1923 by John Hohenadel in a classical revival style with the center framed by two-story pilasters supporting a pediment.
3721 Midvale Ave, a 1914 Arts and Crafts movie theater, with heraldic shield caps on end piers joined by a terra cotta tiled roof, follows the curve of the street.
William Smith, the Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, created Indian Queen Lane in 1760 for access to his now gone hilltop home; it later extended to Germantown. By 1763, Smith had built the Falls Inn, demolished 50 years ago, replaced by a gas station.
Structures in the style of the times appear randomly up Indian Queen Lanefrom Federal style 1780-1820, to Gothic Revival 1830-1860, to Italianate 1840-1885, to Second Empire 1855-1885, to bay over front porch row houses late 19th early 20th C. Note these and many more uphill:
3617 Indian Queen Lane built circa 1850 is a large bracketed Italianate home with an added third story.
3611 Indian Queen Lane built circa 1820 in the federal style has a gable roof.
3503-3535 Indian Queen Lane is a stone two and ½ story Gothic Revival twin with central gable and steep gabled roof and arched windows.
Continue up to 3572 where Fiorino’s, historically a venue for groceries and baked goods, adjoins Second Empire residential buildings. Note the authentic retail facade with transverse door and a cast iron column supporting a pent roof.
The Old Academy, at 3536, on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, erected in 1819 in the federal style, functioned as a school, library and church, and
This is only a sampling of the tour. Get out and appreciate these 19th-century to early 20th-century architectural structures with good craftsmanship, materials, design and charm, some surviving for 200 years. East Falls Historical Society envisions a designated Historic District to preserve this history.
Memories of Christmas in East Falls
East Falls NOW, December 2021, Compiled by Patty Cheek,
Lyda Doyle and Wendy Moody
Christmas is a special time of year that evokes comforting memories–the smell of pine roping, the taste of candy canes, and the songs of carolers. The East Falls Historical Society has collected some holiday memories from Fallsers:
Board member Lyda Furman Doyle remembers the Reading Christmas Train stopping at East Falls:
“I was pretty young. I just remember my mother bringing me to stand on the outbound platform. My guess is that it was the Saturday before Christmas and there were at least two flatbed open rail cars. Santa and his sled were on one and the reins went across to the car in front of his. The reindeer weren’t real but there were elves dressed in green outfits with red trim with pointy hats and shoes who got down from the train and passed out candy to all of the children in the platform. I also remember that the Christmas Train would be playing Christmas music.”
Lyda recalls the Christmas parties at the Italian Club (now home to Franklin’s): “Santa Claus was at the Christmas party and the children would get to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted. Parents could take a picture of them on Santa’s lap also… the Italian Club held a children’s Christmas Party every year and each child received a wrapped gift. There were treats and hot chocolate for the children. “
In 1980, local senior citizens reminisced, in a taped session, about Christmas traditions in East Falls during their youth:
All the children chopped the tree. We made chains and stars but we didn’t put them on the tree; we let Santa decorate it.
We got our tree from the woods and decorated it with popcorn and cranberries.
We would go to Dobson’s on Christmas Eve and he would throw out coins.
I remember the thrill of being awakened at midnight by the carolers from all the churches.
We took the steam train to Wanamaker’s to see Santa. Gimbel’s had ponies and a Punch and Judy Show. Then we went to the automat – for 5 cents we got an éclair.
We went to the 5am mass. It was so cold. Some of the carolers were still out.
We sledded down Ravenhill and skated on Gustine Lake, the Duck Pond, and the Schuylkill River, too.
My dolls would go to the 9th St. Doll Hospital to get their hair restrung and new clothes made.
Before Christmas, my doll furniture would mysteriously disappear and then reappear on Christmas with new paint, covers, and pillows.
Our gifts reflected the weather – ice skates and sleds.
Fresh killed turkey which we hung out.
Turkeys full of pinfeathers. Many people had goose, but only a good cook could get the grease out.
Caraway seed cake. It was an English custom; I think they put the seeds in so the kids wouldn’t eat it!
Saffron cake. That was English also.
We had plum pudding. It was made in a cloth, steamed, and hung in the cellar. On special occasions silver coins were put in it.
Monsignor Walsh gave each Sunday school child a 4×2 box of candy guaranteed to send you to Dr. Rubin, the dentist. We were told not to eat it during Advent, but we all did!
The electric decorations were in series and were forever going out…
I remember the custom of having one lighted candle in the window to lead the way to the Christ child.
It was a rich human experience; that’s what we had. It didn’t deal with things. It was the preparation and the getting together. [Wisely said].