Historical Northeast Philadelphia
Stories and Memories ~1994
The history of Mayfair was taken from an earlier work done by Dr. Harry C. Silcox
Looking north on Frankford Avenue from Cottman, circa 1913. Note: Absense of sidewalks, iron fence on the right marking the expanse of the Edwin Forrest Home for the Retired Actors and Actresses, the trolley with the "cow-catcher", the approaching horse and wagon enjoying the middle of the road. Photograph courtesy of St. John's Lutheran Church Member.
Edwin Adams, Superintendent of Schools, speaking at the dedication of the laying of the cornerstone of Lincoln High School, October 1949. Note: unfinished school in background. This was the long awaited first High School in Northeast, first request came in 1926. Photo Urban Archives, Temple University.
Edwin Forrest Home for the retired actors established by Edwin Forrest in 1874. In 1926 the home was sold to a building developer and moved to Overbrook.
St Dominic's Church celebration, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center.
Commercial Class of St. Dominic's, 1922. Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center.
Mayfair is the youngest community in Northeast Philadelphia having been incorporated in the 1930s. It is principally located in what was once the open area between Holmesburg and Tacony. The intersection of Townships Line Road (later renamed Cottman Street after a farm family that lived east of Bustleton Avenue on Township Line Road) and Bristol Pike (Frankford Avenue) was the center of the community. As late as the 1920s the police horse patrol from the Tacony Police Station at Longshore and State Road would ride once a day from Tacony to city line at the Ryers Estate and back to Tacony. This was the only provision for contact with the law for the Northeast. Residents needing a policeman knew they could walk to Township Time Road and wait, and sooner or later a patrol would pass by. All complaints, requests for arrests and security matters were reported in this fashion by the people of the Northeast. This provision for police patrol placed much of the authority for justice in the area on the magistrate at the police station at Tacony. The Mayfair area also was dependent upon the village of Holmesburg. Those living in what would later become Mayfair relied upon the Holmesburg Water Works located on the west side of Frankford Avenue south of Hartel Street for their water.
Mayfair’s citizens worked at the Lower Dublin Poor House located on the site of Lincoln High School’s athletic fields, at Rowland’s Shovel Works (Father Judge High School), at the Holmesburg Prison, or in the many shops located around Frankford Avenue and Rhawn Street. Prior to completion of the Frankford-Market Street Elevated Train in 1922, few people from Holmesburg/Mayfair traveled into Center City to work. Holmesburg was a wonderful little village in a farming area far from the bustle of Center City.
Entertainment in Mayfair happened within family and church celebrations. In the winter, shows and presentations by world famous actors took place at the Forrest Home for Aged Actors located east of Frankford Avenue between Township Time Road and Rhawn Street. Special trolleys from Rhawn Street and Frankford Avenue took people to the Music Hall of Tacony at Longshore Street and State Road for dances and social activities. In the summer, Taconyites and people from Holmesburg would get the trolley on Frankford Avenue and travel to Linden Avenue to swim and frolic in the Delaware River at Pleasant Hill Bathing Beach.
Independence came to Mayfair as a community in the 1930s and the community emerged as a focal point for residential housing development in the years following the Second World War.
As late as 1930, the small farms and country setting still marked most of the Northeast section of the city north of Frankford. The opening of the Market-Frankford Elevated to Bridge Street, in 1926, was the impetus that lead to the development of Mayfair. Now just twenty minutes from Center City, Holmesburg’s open fields and the Forrest Home tract of land became valuable to developers. Land speculation began soon after the completion of the el project when developer John N. McGarvey purchased the Forrest Tract for $600,000. McGarvey, a West Philadelphia builder, had moved his operation to the northeast building homes east of Torresdale Avenue above Cottman Street. At the time, there was house construction on every side of the Forrest Home tract. On the west side of Frankford Avenue, directly opposite the Forrest home on a two hundred acre tract of land, West Philadelphia builders H. W. Quick and Benjamin Hoffman built homes. Soon speculators purchased most of the land along Frankford Avenue north of Bridge Street and south of Holmesburg. This new area eventually became known as Mayfair.
How Mayfair got its name is uncertain. Some say it was the original telephone exchange. Others say that local civic leader, Thomas Donahue (3521 Aldine Street), gave the community its name in 1928 when he declared at a community meeting that “We ‘may fare’ well if we get behind this community and push- so why not call it Mayfair?” Whichever story is true, it is clear that the opening of the Mayfair movie house and the organization of the store owners adjacent to the area into the Mayfair businessmen’s Association cemented the name to the community. This area, composed of new row homes and a work force that traveled throughout the city during the day and returned to their community at night, soon had a population larger than Holmesburg.
The growth of Mayfair required another school. The Forrest School resulted. The older children in the communities of Tacony, Holmesburg and Mayfair traveled to Eighth and Lehigh Avenue to attend Northeast High School or to Oxford Avenue and Wakeling Street to attend Frankford High School both miles away. Pressure was put on the School Board by members of the Mayfair Improvement Association for a high school in the community.
The resolution of this conflict highlights the different perceptions each of these communities held concerning their neighborhood. The proposed school was called “Mayfair High School” by those planning the building, since the site for the chosen building was at Rowland and Ryan Avenues in the heart of the new Mayfair community. Charles H. Williams of Benjamin Franklin High School was named principal and given the task of opening the school. The process was interrupted when a group of Holmesburg residents concerned over the school’s name asked for a hearing with the School Board.
At the meeting it became clear that the three communities closest to the school had different ideas as to what the school should be named. As one Holmesburg citizen said, “There is no such community as “Mayfair,” it is nothing more than a builder’s trade name.” The Tacony community was less vocal, but let it be known that they objected to the school being named after either the Mayfair or Holmesburg communities.
The Board, sensing a deep split in the communities over the issue, chose a name no patriotic American could find objectionable — Abraham Lincoln High School. Who could find fault in naming a school after one of America’s greatest presidents? But Mayfair leader Thomas Donahue did. “We’re proud of our community. Why should this school be named for Lincoln or any other man?” Mrs. Adelene Welsh, of Mayfair, added that “We’re proud and disappointed by the switch. We’re going to do everything we can do to fight it. It’s just an example of jealousy on the part of some of the older communities.” Mrs. Thomas B. Everist of the Holmesburg Association objected, stating that “everybody had an opportunity to submit a name. ‘Abraham Lincoln’ was one of the several submitted by Holmesburg. Why all the fuss? The main thing is that the whole section will have a high school.”
Unable to change the School Board’s position on the name Abraham Lincoln High School, Donahue and the Mayfair Association took the case to court on September 19, 1949. In one of the rare law suits ever filed over the naming of a school, Judges George Gowen Parry and Joseph L. Kin ruled in favor of the School Board, criticizing the motives of those in Mayfair who objected to the name Abraham Lincoln.
The citation from the ruling was as follows:
After the decision, Donahue and his followers were told by the School Board that the planned elementary school at St. Vincent and Hawthorn Street would be called the Mayfair Elementary School. The issue was settled as well as the dispute between the communities.
This feud reflects the historic developments in each of the three geographical areas. The proud people of Holmesburg simply did not like the idea of a new community, carved out of their boundaries, lending its name to the new high school. Taconyites felt just as strongly as those in Holmesburg about the use of the name “Mayfair”, but they were opposed to the use of the name “Holmesburg” as well. Ultimately, the real estate industry had the final say. Mayfair had newer homes, with parking space for cars, and thus the section was attractive to home buyers after World War II. Because the price of homes in Mayfair generally was higher than those in the older sections of Tacony and Holmesburg, advertisements in the papers now called Tacony “Lower Mayfair” and homes in the heart of Holmesburg were advertised with a Mayfair label. Today, the name “Mayfair” has triumphed.
The interviews were completed by students from Abraham Lincoln High School.
Interview with Patrick Edward Cava
by Peter di Donato and Jennifer Lewis
Patrick Edward Cava has lived in Holmesburg for all eighty years of his life. He comes from a large family with four brothers and five sisters. His parents were not from this area. Joseph Cava, his father, was born in Brooklyn, New York and Jenny Ennico, his mother, was born in Avondale, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Cava died when Patrick was only ten years old.
All of his brothers were in the service. Paul Cava died in 1936, after serving in the navy during World War I. Leonard Cave was drafted into the army, and Jack Dempsey Cava, who was named six days after the fighter Jack Dempsey won the title 86 o Historical Northeast Philadelphia: Stories and Memories enlisted in the Marines during Pearl Harbor. Rose and Ida, two of Ed’s sisters, have recently passed away.
While growing up in Holmesburg, Ed recalls living in a very tight knit neighbor- hood. One memory he has concerns the time his mother was pregnant with one of his brothers. During this time, a neighbor would come over to take care of the rest of the family. He also can remember having to clean the tobacco spitting cups at his father’s barber shop with his brothers.
Ed was extremely active in community activities. If he wasn’t playing football, then it was baseball. Unfortunately, when he was fourteen his father made him give up sports to help out with the business. (We learned that for some football games, 10,000 people came to watch. One year for a city championship game 50,000 people came.
As a young boy, Ed had the privilege to play along side future professional football players. One such player was Jack Potts. His athletic achievements include being President of the Holmesburg Boys Club and coach of Holmesburg’s American Legion Team.
Ed knew many people worked at the Henry Disston Sawmill. Every person in the community had someone they knew working there. One man, after working fifty-five years, retired and received a six dollar a month pension.
As Ed matured, he married. Then he enlisted in the navy, but could not leave immediately for service because his wife was ill. He was stationed in Virginia and ran the barber shop there. For the first five hundred haircuts he received a dime. After that he got a nickel for every cut. In about a week, he would probably receive about fifty dollars in tips. The shop was like a “club” where people would come to talk for hours and would never want to leave. It was a very friendly atmosphere where everyone would get together to enjoy themselves and get a haircut.
Ed sold his shop about twenty years ago but it still exists. Although he was a barber, it was not his only employment. He was also a barber inspector from 1947 to 1952. After that, he was a court crier and has been retired for twelve years.
In his retirement, Ed faithfully plays golf three times a week. He has three career holes in one. Presently, he lives with his grand-daughter in the heart of Holmesburg. He is still a very active voice in the community and for the past two years has been the President of the Mayfair Exchange Club.
Ed Cava attributes his greatest thrill to his Uncle Ben Johnson. One sunny Saturday afternoon, Uncle Ben took Ed to see Babe Ruth play in a double header. Ed was in awe. Babe Ruth was his idol and a legend in the making. Ed can still picture the starting line up of that very game as if it were played yesterday. After speaking with him, you could tell this was true.
Ed blames the problems that youths have these days on drugs. He feels more money needs to be spent to educate today’s youth and to battle peer pressure. He can also remember when athletes played for pride and enjoyment; not fame and fortune.
Ed Cava is an energetic eighty-year-old man who enjoys sharing his experiences and passing them onto younger generations. This definitely must be due to his tight-knit neighborhood and family oriented up bringing.
Interview with Dr. Albert Potts
by Julie Billrnan, Erica Collins, and Andrew Buttenbush
Dr. Albert Potts has lived in Holmesburg all his life. He was born on July 4th, 1928 in Dr. Marsden’s small hospital, located on the 8000 block of Frankford Avenue. He grew up on Crispin Street, near Father Judge High School. the section in which Dr. Potts lived was once owned by the Benniger Estate. For many years, alcohol was not allowed to be sold in that area because it was written in the property deed.
The doctor presently resides on Hartel Street, not far from where he was raised. His daughter lives in the same house in which he grew up and his son lives on Fairview Avenue, only one block away.
St. Dominic’s, located on Frankford Avenue, was the elementary school that Dr. Potts attended. He graduated from Northeast Catholic High School, but decided to take his education one step further. He went to college at St. Joseph’s and then attended the Temple Dental School to pursue his career. He now has his dental practice on the corner of Frankford Avenue and Hartel Street, just down the street from the residence.
“The dropout rate was minimal when I attended high school,” stated Dr. Potts. “When I was in high school there was a large student body. However, not many students went to college, college was considered only for the rich kids.”
As a child, Dr. Potts enjoyed playing in Pennypack Park and on the Lincoln High School grounds. At that time, a poor house was located on the grounds where Lincoln stands today. The poor house was built where the amplification system for the football field is currently found, and it extended on through the soccer fields. The poor house was a place for the less fortunate, people who had lost there homes, jobs, and/or family. Some lived there for their entire lives. Mr. Kelly, a friend of Dr. Potts’ grandfather was the administrator.
As a teenager, Dr. Potts would often hang out with his friends on the corner of Rhawn and Frankford, near a large pharmacy. Before meeting there, he and his friends would go to Brown School and play baseball. Afterwards, they would all go to Russel’s ice cream parlor. At Frankford and Cottman, there was a large movie theater, called Mayfair Movies, or the Holmes Theater: later this became the Pennypack Theater.
“When I was young, there was a lot of open space,” said Dr. Potts. “I often visited swimming holes, the boat house behind Lincoln, Smidties on Welsh Road and Kings’, near fishing, and ice skating. It was possible to do all this because the water was deeper then. The dams held back the water. Now the creek is neglected and the water has become more shallow.”
Many people also went horseback riding. The park had many bridle paths and stables. Children, including a very young Dr. Potts, would chase pheasants and rabbits in the open fields. Although hunting was prohibited, sometimes he would hunt in the part.
There were few playgrounds then, so children had to find other ways to occupy themselves. Behind what is now Austin Meehan Middle School, there were once corn fields, and Jeans Pizza was once a baseball field where Dr. Potts and his friends would play.
According to Dr. Potts, an average day for him as a child would be to “go to school, play football, eat dinner, and then do my homework.” He also stated that he thinks “children then made do with less.”
Most people living in the community worked at the Disston Saw Company since manual labor was usually the only available work. Some also were employed at Stetson Hats, Nesbitt, Janey Cylinder, individual stores, the prison on Torresdale, and by either the police or fire stations. “I think industry has decreased somewhat in this community, though what we do have now is a lot nicer.” Many children had to take over the family businesses. There were not many jobs for high school students. Many students had small jobs as paper boys or as delivery boys for the local stores.
Some of the buildings from the past have survived this changing community. These include Acme, the libraries (Holmesburg and Tacony), and the fire house on Frankford Avenue and Hartel Street. There were even stores on Frankford Avenue fifty years ago. The stores then were individually owned. The largest food chain at that time was called the Unity Food Markets.
Years ago the family unit was much stronger. Family loyalty was important; tradition was a high factor among family members. Due to so many single parents working and leaving their children with babysitters, today’s family has little time together. “Today, children have less guidance and less respect for their elders,” remarked Dr. Potts.
“The community has changed. There is more vandalism today. Years ago, you would never see graffiti on walls of buildings. You would never see cars being stolen.
“The Holmesburg community is mainly a middle class community. When I was growing up, people usually had one car!”
We enjoyed this interview very much and learned many new things about the community in which we live. Dr. Potts was very pleasant to talk with. This assignment helped us to change the way in which we look at the things around us. Since the interview, we have become more observant of our surroundings and its history.
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