University Settlement House, Philadelphia, PA — 1898-1963

By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

Introduction: Members of the University of Pennsylvania’s Christian Association (CA) founded University Settlement House in 1898.  The mission of the CA, as its charter stated, was to promote “spiritual welfare of the students of the University of Pennsylvania by encouraging Christian fellowship and cooperation.”  The organization linked its mission for Christian advancement with such social services as operating settlement houses for the poor and providing summer camps for kids from less fortunate families in the vicinity of the University campus.

The Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania Is Organized

In 1892, the University of Pennsylvania branch of the intercollegiate Young Men’s Christian Association was founded with John R. Mott as its first director. Six years later, at its annual business meeting in April, 1898, the organization resolved that its relationship with the YMCA of the City of Philadelphia be dissolved. In 1901, it incorporated under the name of the “Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania.” The mission of the new institution, as its charter stated, was to promote “spiritual welfare of the students of the University of Pennsylvania by encouraging Christian fellowship and cooperation.”

The history of the Christian Association (CA) mirrors the changing values of the American society, as well as the flow and ebb of Protestantism in the country. Traditionally, the institution linked its mission for Christian advancement with such social services as operating settlement houses for the poor; providing summer camps for kids in the neighborhood.  The CA’s history can be better understood through a closer look at the spectrum of its diverse programs. Shortly after its incorporation, the CA embarked on its mission along two lines — a commitment to social service and a salient international interest. In 1898, two Penn undergraduates, Josiah C. McCracken (M.D., 1901, and CA president of 1898-1900) and William Remington (B.S., 1900, and CA vice president of the same period), started a Saturday-afternoon School for a group of boys in the neighborhood in a destitute area east of the Schuylkill River.

University Settlement House – 2601 Lombard St.

This attempt turned out to be the forerunner of two major programs of the CA’s social services in future years — the settlement houses and summer camps. The CA General Secretary reported in 1899 that a “U.P. Christian Settlement” formally opened on January 1st, 1899, at 2524 South Street, and that the inauguration of the program and the supervision of the work had largely been a credit to Andrew H. Woods (M.D., 1899). As the program grew, the CA moved the University Settlement House to 2601 Lombard Street in 1906. Later on, the settlement house program further expanded, first in 1928, by establishing the Dixon House at 1920 South 20th Street, a property it eventually owned, and then in 1932 and 1945 respectively, to two others which it operated — the Oxmead Farm work camp in Burlington, NJ, and the Western Community House at 1613 South Street (the latter being formerly the Western Soup Society founded in 1837).

In the meantime, a summer camp for boys started in 1907, when a property in Greenlane, PA, was donated for that purpose. A similar camp for girls followed in 1925. The camps were required to maintain as close as possible to a 50/50 white/non-white ratio, and had Penn students serve as counselors during the summer. Both programs–the settlement houses and the camps — flourished from the late 1920s through the late 1950s, when Dana G. How was the CA director. In 1963, the camps and settlement houses were separated from the CA and placed under control of the Diversified Community Services (DCS). The DCS, while having a board comprising mainly of CA Board members, was religiously unaffiliated so as to be eligible for funding from the United Way.

University House Like other settlement houses of the time, University House served an immigrant population and created programs consisting of clubs, games,

Settlement House Playground 1908

athletics, crafts and needed social services.  University House provided an array of programs and activities that emphasized education, recreation and cultural enrichment. In the tradition of early settlement houses, the top floor of University House was organized as a “residence” able to accommodate ten to fifteen full time staff/volunteers with private sleeping rooms, a living room area and kitchen.

Neighborhood residents were encouraged to participate in a variety of group activities for different ages and sexes: classes, clubs, athletics and special events. The building included a basketball size gym and a three chair dental clinic managed by dental students from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Dental Medicine.  It is interesting to note since University House was founded by Protestants the clergy from the two local Catholic parishes were not very supportive of the agency’s activities. Reportedly, the local parish priests routinely, but ineffectively, admonished parishioners and neighborhood residents not to use “Unie” House as it was known.

Note: In 1911, two settlement house pioneers,  Robert A. Woods and Albert J. Kennedy, collaborated on a  survey of existing settlement houses and published their findings in a book entitled: “Handbook of Settlements” and published by The Russell Sage Foundation of New York.  Below is the entry about University House as it appeared in the publication: University Settlement House – Philadelphia, PA pp 268

The University Settlement (Undenominational)

Locations. (Formerly University Christian Settlement) Lombard and 26th Streets (1906-). Girls’ Work, 403 South Taney Street (1904-) Establ1shed winter 1898, by the “University Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania,” as an outgrowth of mission and club work for boys begun in 1897. It purposed “to inculcate Christian morals into the lives of an essentially rough neighborhood.”

“This particular Settlement has really two aims: 1. To bring practical Christianity to bear effectually upon a particular section of Philadelphia. 2. To develop student character through service to others less fortunate than themselves, and to train students for effective, intelligent, Christian work after graduation.”

“The Settlement is not a church nor a mission so far as methods are concerned, but in spirit it is both. All residents are expected to do definite, positive Christian work, either in a public or personal way.” “The Settlement idea and method is foremost and fundamentally religious and Christian. It really originated in the residence of God Himself among His people on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The essential feature of a genuine settlement is that men and women become actual friends and neighbors of those whom they hope to inspire to better living. A complete settlement must touch the people physically, morally, socially, mentally and religiously. It stands for the spiritual solution of the problems of society, well expressed by Prof. Edward A. Steiner as follows: ‘The love of Jesus is the only scientific method of redeeming society.'” 1908.

Neighborhood. The east bank of the Schuylkill, just across from the University, in a district fairly crowded with a mixed class of less fortunate families. The neighbors are of American and Irish extraction.

Ma1nta1ns kindergarten; library; bank; children’s playground; athletic field; resident trained nurse; modified milk station; dispensaries and district physician; medical social service; religious work and resident missionary; gymnasium and gymnastic events; clubs for all ages; class work; lectures; entertainments, etc. Summer Work.—” University Farm” for Summer camps in the upper Perkiomen Valley, near Pennsburg; two children’s playgrounds, athletic field, and a farm house on Darby Creek open all summer for mothers and children.

Former Locations. Boys’ Work at 2623 South St. (Winter of 1897-8); Boys’ Work at 2524 South St. (Winter, 1898-Fall, 19oo); Boys’ Camp Work, 1899 ff.; Boys’ Work at 2623 South St. (Fall 1901-1903); Boys’ Work at 2609 Lombard St. (Winter 1903-1906); Boys’ Work at Branch, 2635 Christian St. (Winter 1903-1904). Girls’ Work. Home of Mr. and Mrs. T. S. Evans (1901). Rescue Work (Men), S. W. Cor. Lombard and Taney Sts. (Winter 1903-4).

Residents. Women 4, men 1o. Volunteers. Women 40, men 4o. Head Res1dents. Thomas S. Evans, 1898-19oo; J. Bruce Byall, 19oo-1903; Percy R. Stockman, 1904-1905; Thomas S. Evans, 1906-.

Literature. Annual Reports And Statements. The University of Pennsylvania Christian Settlement and Summer Camp, Nov., 1904 — “University House.” Jan., 1907 (Contains history of work) — The University Settlement Gangs. Pamphlets (undated) — Some Actual Methods of Student Christian Work, Sept., 1908. See also: The University Settlement. Commons, vi, No. 64 (Nov., 1901) — University of Pennsylvania Christian Settlement. Commons, ix : 148 (April, 1904) — Watson, F. D.: The New University House, Philadelphia. Charities, xvii : 1041-1042 (Mar. 9, 1907).

Sources: Christian Association Records, 1857-2000, University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center, Philadelphia, PA: www.archives.upenn.edu/

Handbook of Settlements By Robert Archey Woods and Albert J. Kennedy (1911)

 

 

20 Responses to University House of Philadelphia

  1. NAN HAMILTON says:

    I was lucky to be both a camper and counselor at Green Lane and Oxmead camps in the 1960’s. I was able to discover myself as a christian and worthwhile person during this time. The life lessons I learned have been invaluable to me.
    I have been trying to research any names of campers and/or counselors but have been unsuccessful. Does anyone know if this information is available? And how would I access it.
    I spent many happy summers at these camps.
    Any guidance will be appreciated.

    • ann palaitis says:

      I loved Camp Oxmead

    • ann palaitis says:

      My 3 sisters and I were campers and counselors at Oxmead from 1955 thru 1965. We did not know at that time that we were disadvantaged! We all most heartily agree that the Oxmead experience enriched our lives. We hailed from South Philly so the woods and rural environment opened up a new world for us. We all now have a tremendous love and appreciation of the outdoors. We would love to hear from other Oxmead alumni.

      • jhansan says:

        I am not certain University Settlement House or Camp Oxmead are still in existence. Your best bet is to Google and see if there is any way to obtain help in locating other campers from the period you described. Thanks, Jack Hansan

  2. joyelcamps says:

    This is good nice words and i Like this

  3. John Fries says:

    I lived on oxmead camp in the early 1950’s in the tenant house. I was told my farther farm the land and took care of the grounds. I remember the summer kitchen the swing pool and the way they shape the trees so you could seat on them

    • jhansan says:

      Thank you for the comment. Jack Hansan

    • Dusty Miller says:

      I lived across Oxmead Rd. two houses south of the entrance to the camp’s driveway (the local school bus stop) during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. I remember what seemed like a lot of happy campers at Camp Oxmead during the summers. I also enjoyed lots of hours hunting and hiking there and the surrounding area. That all makes me feel like an old man now!

  4. Rob Gurnee says:

    Hi Nan,
    Contact me at the Christian Association and I may be able to help you.

    Rob Gurnee
    Executive Director
    Christian Association
    215-746-6350

    • Frank Ventrola says:

      Being active at both the Dixon House and Camp Oxmead from approximately 1955-59, I consider the opportunities offered to me as a child to have been a minor miracle. I remember the names of some of the adults, in particular Zita Atkinson, director of both institutions. Some of the others by first name only. I have been trying to recall the name of the woman who ran the pottery shop at the Dixon House. She looked frail, but was a dynamo. About 60 years old at the time, she had a prosthetic leg or foot that caused a rather severe limp. I would love to hear from anyone who recalls her name, and any of the other adult counselors of that period. Thanks, Frank Ventrola

  5. Frank Ventrola says:

    Being active at both the Dixon House and Camp Oxmead from approximately 1955-59, I consider the opportunities offered to me as a child to have been a minor miracle. I remember the names of some of the adults, in particular Zita Atkinson, director of both institutions. Some of the others by first name only. I have been trying to recall the name of the woman who ran the pottery shop at the Dixon House. She looked frail, but was a dynamo. About 60 years old at the time, she had a prosthetic leg or foot that caused a rather severe limp. I would love to hear from anyone who recalls her name, and any of the other adult counselors of that period. Thanks, Frank Ventrola

    • jhansan says:

      Dear Frank Ventrola: Thank you very much for the comment. My wife and I were living and working at University House 1954-1956 (a part of University Settlements that included Dixon House and South Side Settlement). We both knew and respected Zita Atkinson. I am sorry I cannot supply the name of the person you mentioned. Warm regards, Jack Hansan

      • Dear Jack Hansen. Thanks for your response re: Dixon House and Zita Atkinson. Did you lead any groups at Dixon House proper or Camp Oxmead? In 1955 my family lived in the 1800 block of Hoffman Street, literally a stone’s throw from the Dixon House. I was 11 years old at the time, and continued going until I was 15 or 16. As I said, I remember some of the counselors, such as Benny Banks, a Scottish exchange student, who led a lot of sports activities, and Oliver, a middle-aged Englishman, who led theater workshops. And the pottery lady whose name I don’t remember at all. Do you know the name of the white-haired woman who was the Director of University Settlements on Lombard Street—a Mrs Mc…or Murray, a name of Irish descent. She was definitely more of a traditionalist in social work than the much younger Zita. Thanks, Frank

        • jhansan says:

          Mr. Ventrola: I was a graduate student living in and doing field work at University House (2601 Lombard St.) in 1955. Three neighborhood houses (University House, Dixon House and South St. Neighborhood House) were merged into University Settlements. The Executive Director was Annette Murphy. I knew Zita Atkinson but no other staff at Dixon House and I never visited Camp Oxmead.

          Thank you for the memories. Jack Hansan

          • Mark says:

            Jack
            i was checking some sites and found this, my family is from 2614 pine street, i remember the settlement house, im 56
            and my family came to schuylkill around 1840
            i used to play basketball there and we had a type of bank where i used to go upstairs and put a couple of dollars in my account,
            the buses used to leave from sylvan seal parking lot to take the kids in the neighborhood to greenlane.
            good memories
            Mark

          • admin says:

            Mark: Many thanks for the comment. Jack Hansan

  6. Bernard west says:

    Oxmead camp made me a better person

  7. Bernard west says:

    Oxmead camp made me a better person today bernard

  8. Anna m Palaitis says:

    My sister called me today to say she saw a fox outside and it made her think of the Camp Oxmead song- “The fox went out on a chilly night” and I still remember all the words.And Frank, I also remember the name of the woman who taught pottery at Dixon House- Mrs. Neilson. Also, the name of the camp director was Miss Murphy- she always looked so proper and wore a bow in her hair. And I remember you, Frankie Ventrola and Bernard West. Do you remember me (Anna Cavaliere)and my sisters and cousin? We all agree the our lives have been enriched by our experinces at Camp Oxmead. It opened our world to new people and places and nature.

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