Edward MacNeal: Other and personal: Alden Park

Alden Park:

The following "introduction" to Growing Up in Alden Park, a book by Richard MacNeal, brother of Edward MacNeal, describes the special geographic and social niche that makes Alden Park of interest. The tales in the rest of the book give a vivid impression of what it was like to grow up there.

by Edward MacNeal

It gives me great pleasure to introduce my brother's tales of growing up in Alden Park. So much pleasure, in fact, that I've been wondering why. I've found three reasons, all inspired by childhood memories evoked by Dick's tales.

Dick has always been two years older than I, a matter of little import now, but one that deeply affected our relationship as children. Back then we had different roles and probably didn't really share as much as it might have seemed. Writing this introduction pleases me because it somehow seems to close that divide.

Next, as the older brother, Dick usually led while I followed. I think that's why the child in me is pleased right here to lead, or at least to lead off. Sure, I only get to write a context-setting, sociological introduction to his set of charmingly candid memories of childhood adventures in an enchanted place and time, but still my introduction comes first.

Finally, I take great pleasure in agreeing with my brother. As children it seemed we mostly differed. He was tall, light-complected, left-handed, and Dad's favorite. I was short, dark, right-handed, and Mother's favorite. We even differed on things as silly as what route to take walking home, split, and took our separate paths. As adults we continued to differ, in choices of college, hometowns, careers, and interests. But it pleased me a few years back to find that we'd begun, just barely, you understand, to resemble each other, and now it pleases me greatly to note our fundamental agreement about Alden Park.

We clearly agree that there never was and never will be another place like the Alden Park of the 1930s. It occupied a geographic and social niche unlike any that either of us has ever found elsewhere. Our agreement on Alden Park's uniqueness is more than adult nostalgia applied to our common, delightful, but limited boyhood experience. It's a considered opinion, aided in my case by training as a city planner and a career in transportation consulting that has involved me with every large city in our country, and in my brother's case by his having built an international computer-aided-engineering corporation that has permitted him to indulge his love of travel and the outdoors on all seven continents and not a few islands between. I think that you, too, will agree that the Alden Park of the 1930s was unique, no matter what your own experience, once you've considered its geography, timing, and social niche in a little detail.

Lawrence E. Jones (and two associates who later dropped out) opened the first of Alden Park's three apartment houses, the Manor, in 1926. The original 30 or so acres, enlarged by later purchases to 38, had been the magnificent Strawbridge estate. The second floor of the Justus C. Strawbridge home, Torworth, an 1885 Georgian masterpiece, provided elegant office space for the several Alden Park corporations set up to finance and manage the apartment-house complex. Its even grander first floor housed a complete restaurant. The estate had been beautifully landscaped. It included a sunken garden (which stayed), a stable (which went to make way for a swimming pool), a resident gardener (who stayed), and other amenities (mostly preserved).

Plan view

One corner of the property lay at the intersection of School (House) Lane and Wissahickon Avenue. In his pioneering 1958 work, Philadelphia Gentlemen: the Making of a National Upper Class, E. Digby Baltzell states that whereas in the 1890s "many Proper Philadelphians still lived in Germantown, especially along School Lane and Wissahickon Avenue [and] several Proper Philadelphians still lived in Germantown in 1940 (Attorney General Francis Biddle lived on School Lane), most of the families had moved away by the time of the first World War." Alden Park (like the William Penn Charter School nearby across School Lane) owes its location to this residential change.

Thus situated, Alden Park was well within the boundaries of the city of Philadelphia, then one of the world's most populous urban areas. Yet Alden Park had sole occupancy of 38 acres of high and fairly level ground with no public or through road. Its neighbors were all benign. Along most of its irregular boundary (almost a large square and a smaller rectangle joined at one corner) in the early 1930s lay other estates, some occupied and some dormant, awaiting sale to developers. On one side, and actually below Alden Park, lay what is still the most undeveloped section of Philadelphia's huge Fairmount Park. At that time, Alden Park's one nine-story and two twelve-story apartment houses had no nearby rivals in height. Even from halfway up, one could see for miles, mostly trees, in every direction. One could also, after crossing a single road, ride on bridlepaths or walk for miles on footpaths that ran through the forests bordering both sides of Wissahickon Creek.

Aerial view

Complementing this magnificent location was Alden Park's unusual economic and social niche. Its apartments were not rented, they were sold, and then the buyers charged for maintenance, a cooperative arrangement rare at the time. This plan alone almost ensured the financial responsibility and continuity of residents. Added to it, however, was the Alden Park management's view of, and actions on, its prerogatives, which by today's standards would be politically incorrect as stated and illegal as practiced. The prerogatives were plainly spelled out for all to see in the Alden Park catalogs of the late 1920s.
Although Alden Park offers a wide variety of apartments it accepts only one type of guest. Our success in the future, as in the past, will depend upon the character and compatibility of those who live here no less than upon the equipment, management and service. We shall continue to require complete and satisfactory information from all prospective residents and reserve the right to refuse application for an apartment if, for any reason, we feel the applicant would not be congenial
The standard of congeniality meant in practice that no minorities need apply, that the residents of Alden Park were to be exclusively white, at least culturally Christian, primarily (although not exclusively) of British and northern European extraction and Protestant faiths, and presumably to have good manners, moral character, and finances. Four private secondary schools within walking distance along School Lane (Germantown Academy, Germantown Friends [actually a short block off School Lane], Penn Charter, and Raven Hill Academy) clearly added a further attraction for upper-class and upper-middle-class families. Most residents had at least part-time maids; some retained live-in help.

The great depression, coming as it did hard on the heels of Alden Park's development, accentuated its exclusivity and turned it into a genuine neighborhood. As former resident Anne Atlee Jenkins pointed out, the people who would later once again disperse to their various country clubs were forced first by the depression and then by World War II to turn more to each other and the other good things they found at Alden Park.

Obviously, even if law didn't prohibit it and changes in the world make it all but impossible, it's unlikely anyone would want to see this particular configuration of social, economic, and military factors crop up anywhere again. However, they came together at Alden Park from 1929 until 1945, a range that includes all the years covered by my brother's stories.

Actually, our family had come to Alden Park in 1926, when Dick was three. Dad had known Alden Park's developer, Larry Jones, since at least 1915, when Dad was 20 and Jones 27, and they had formed a partnership in Chicago. They were brother Phi Gams, but how they met I don't know; Dad was a physician's son from a Chicago suburb, Jones was born in a log cabin on a farm in southwestern Missouri. Jones had by 1918 borrowed money from Dad's father; Dad wrote home several times from France in 1918 asking whether it had been repaid. In the early 1920s Dad, by then a CPA, went into an ill-fated electric-drill business with Jones in Indiana, where both Dick and I were born. Jones got out early, leaving Dad, so Mother said, holding the bag. Meanwhile Jones had started Alden Park. Dad joined him there in 1926 to be secretary-treasurer of all the Alden Park corporations. Their association outlived Jones, who died in 1961, for Dad was one of his two executors.

Over the many years after the war, when Dick and I lived a continent apart, we each knew that the other had a soft spot in his heart for Alden Park. Yet neither of us had done anything about it. Then, early in 1997, Dick called me from California to say that he was coming east to accept an engineering award in Washington, that he'd like to come visit and, as he put it, "go over to Alden Park in style." I asked him humorously what "in style" meant. Did he expect a press gallery? "No," he said, "I just don't want to be stopped by the guards at the gate asking me what I'm doing there."

In the 1920s and '30s Alden Park had had no gates or guards, but time had overtaken many sections of Philadelphia, including parts of old Germantown, in the next half century. Alden Park, even though it is said to be the largest residential property on the National Registry of Historic Places (its building facades and open grounds are protected by easement), was no exception. It continued to resemble the old Alden Park but fell into enough disrepair to require for the 1990s what the Chestnut Hill Local described as "the largest renovation of a certified historic residential project ever undertaken in the United States." It also required guards and gates to attract tenants and protect the investment.

So in March 1997 I called the Alden Park rental office to ask how two old residents, my brother and I, and our wives could gain access when he came east in May. The rental office reassured me that such a visit could be arranged and suggested further that I call Robert Scheller, an enthusiastic fellow in his early 40s who had an interest in Alden Park history. Bob was intrigued by some pictures and news items I had from the 1920s and '30s and by a story my brother had written on the 50th anniversary of his 1939 bicycle trip, which later became a chapter herein. Bob wanted to learn more about early Alden Park, and his reaction to a homecoming was, "Why stop with you and your brother?"

This led to invitations to, and requests for more memorabilia from, Anne Atlee Jenkins, Allen Potter Crolius, Thomas P. Crolius and his wife (nee Patricia Mosser), all of them early Alden Park residents. The collection quickly mounted to more than 500 pages of private photographs, letters, and publicly printed items, some of which now grace these pages. I gave Dick booklets containing copies of the entire collection shortly after he arrived for his visit.

Then, the next afternoon, Sunday, May 4, 1997, Dick and I, Anne Atlee Jenkins, Potter Crolius, and our four spouses reunited at Alden Park as Bob Scheller's guests. Other current residents opened apartments to us, including some we'd lived in 50 or more years earlier. These visits were mixed with a two-hour tour of the buildings (their lobbies, apartments, and basements), the pool, and the grounds. Almost every corner we turned reminded one of us of some marvelous childhood event, which the others then elaborated upon. My brother even found and showed us his initials carved into our favorite climbing tree more than 60 years before.

Garden view of The Cambridge

Then we returned to Scheller's apartment to meet with Mrs. Barbara Silberman, Director of the Germantown Historical Society, and a dozen current residents Bob had invited. Our function was to serve as a panel for one hour answering questions about what Alden Park had been like when we'd lived there. Our answers consisted, as you can imagine, in good part of our swapping stories from our youth in the golden olden days.

Thus inspired, Dick, on returning to California, wrote the ten stories about his childhood escapades and experiences that, with his earlier bicycle-trip story, make up the remaining chapters, the real stuff of this book. They are a fitting memorial to the time and completely in keeping with the feel and substance of the exciting memories that brother Dick, Potter and Sue Crolius, Anne and Dick Jenkins, and I experienced and exchanged while touring Alden Park. During those magic hours I sensed again what it was like to have been a kid who just drank in the world as it came and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Read Dick's stories. You'll see what I mean.

If you have an interest in Alden Park, perhaps to relate stories or contribute memorabilia of your own, perhaps to see the existing collection of memorabilia, or perhaps to try to locate old friends, whatever, let me know.

For memorabilia, etc., email Edward MacNeal.

For the book, fax Richard H. MacNeal: 626 793-4418