With New Center Coming, Remembering The Southern Home For Destitute Children

 

The James Hamilton Windrim-designed Southern Home For Destitute Children, 1896 | Courtesy of Historical Images of Philadelphia: the Print and Picture Collection at The Free Library of Philadelphia

The Community Health and Literacy Center is slated to open in December of this year at Broad and Morris on the former site of the Southern Home for Destitute Children orphanage. The 96,000 square foot, $42.5 million center, designed by VSBA Architects and Planners, is a partnership between the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the City of Philadelphia. It will include a health care facility, a branch of the Free Library, and a new playground and recreation area. When I told former Southern Home resident Louise Gudknecht Lindinger about the new construction, one of the first things she asked was, “Is the stone wall still there?” For fifty years, a portion of the old, stone wall that enclosed the grounds of the orphanage remained on the site even after the Home relocated to Broad Street and Packer Avenue in 1960 and the South Philadelphia branch of the Free Library was built in its place. Lindinger was anxious for reassurance that this relic of the orphanage not be lost. For her, the wall–recently demolished to make way for the new CHLC–was not a grim symbol of Dickensian imprisonment. Rather, it was a fond reminder of what she considers the happiest years of her childhood.

Louise on May Day

Louise, age 9, on May Day, 1949 | Photo: Photo: Alan Gudknecht, courtesy of Louise Lindinger

Founded in 1849, the institution that became Southern Home was originally called the Moyamensing Union School and Children’s Home and was located at 1100 South Street. In 1854, it moved to 12th and Fitzwater, and in 1874 it adopted the name Southern Home for Destitute Children. By 1889, the orphanage had outgrown its building. The trustees purchased the large lot on South Broad Street between Morris Street and Castle Avenue for $43,000. In 1890, construction on the new building began, and on October 31, 1891, the children of the Southern Home moved in. The building, designed by James Hamilton Windrim, was described in the 1892 Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of Public Charities as an impressive, modern facility: “The dormitories, schools, play rooms, infirmary, etc. are large, well-lighted and well ventilated, the house is fully equipped with modern improvements. A large play-ground, enclosed in the square has been laid out with walks, trees and flowers, making a small park of beauty and shade, for the health of the inmates which will also be of public benefit as an open air space.”

From 1947 to 1951, Lindinger’s activities were bounded by the four South Philly establishments she frequented: Francis M. Drexel Elementary School at 16th and Moore, The Scots-Presbyterian Church at Broad and Castle, The Savoia Theater on the east side of Broad and Morris, and her home, the Southern Home for Destitute Children, on the west side of Broad and Morris. At the age of five, she and three of her older brothers were brought to live at the home by their mother. Her father, an alcoholic, was unable to care for his nine children and her mother, forced to work, needed to seek care for the younger kids until the family home was stable and suitable for their return. It took four years, but at age nine, Lindinger was summoned one afternoon from the playground. “You’re going home today,” she was told.

Another former resident, Bill Elliott, lived at the Southern Home much longer than Lindinger. He and two of his seven sisters were brought to the orphanage in 1945 when he was seven years old. Elliott’s other five sisters were adopted by various families. He was never reunited with any of them. Elliott lived at Southern Home until he was sixteen years old. He remembers his childhood like many older South Philadelphians might: watching the Mummers Parade strut up Broad Street on New Year’s Day, going to movies at the Savoia, and the horse that pulled the milk wagon that delivered in the area. “I used to love that horse,” he said. “I used to give him my apple.” Elliott also remembers hanging out with Frankie Avalon at Southern High.

Christmas Party, 1898 | Source: Charitable Institutions of Pennsylvania which Received State Aid in 1897 and 1898, Volumes 1 & 2, 1898

The notion of an orphanage is out of fashion in the United States. Waxing romantic about a type of institution with a legacy so complex and problematic seems counterintuitive. Yet contrary to negative preconceptions of the antiquated child welfare system, Lindinger said Southern Home was a lifesaver. “If we hadn’t gone into that home, we would not have had three meals a day. We would not have had clean sheets on our beds,” said Lindinger. Life was regimented and expectations were clear. Both Elliott and Lindinger recall the harsh discipline. From her own account, Lindinger was a well-behaved child, self-regulated by her fear of a guilty conscience, so her own experiences of punishment were few. On one occasion, she refused to eat squash and was told that she would eat bread and water until she acquiesced. On another, she was made to stand facing the corner all night after attempting to steal a piece of candy from the top shelf of a closet in the playroom. For a kid like Lindinger, it didn’t take much to keep her in line, and she didn’t mind the structure, though she observed other kids having a harder time. “We were locked in that home,” she said. “The only way to leave there other than to go to school was to escape, and some kids did try to escape.” When I ask Elliott if he ever tried to escape, he laughed, “No. But I used to dream of it. I was going to jump a boxcar and live off the land.” As an older resident, Elliott had much more freedom than younger children like Lindinger did. He worked as an usher at the Savoia Theater and even owned a motorbike that he would drive to New Jersey on occasion.

Drawing of the Francis M. Drexel School | Source: The Public Schools of Philadelphia, 1897

Drawing of the Francis M. Drexel School | Source: “The Public Schools of Philadelphia: Historical, Biographical, Statistical” by John Trevor Custis. Burk & McFetridge Company, 1897

For Lindinger, the only painful part of living at the Southern Home was the stigma attached to it, which she learned at Drexel Elementary. All the girls from the orphanage were given the same style of haircut, branding them as orphans and separating them from their classmates. Once, a little blond girl from the neighborhood stole a dime that Lindinger found in the gutter on her walk to school. When Lindinger confronted her, the girl called out, “At least my own mother feeds me.” That moment, she says, is the first time she remembers ever feeling rage. “I tried to pull every one of her blond curls out of her head,” said Lindinger.

She never internalized the shame that some associated with living at Southern Home. Years later she tried to reach out to some former residents. She called one woman who denied ever living at the orphanage and hung up on her. Lindinger says that for some former residents the shame and stigma never dies.

Maypole Dance at Southern Home

Maypole Dance, 1948 | Photo: Alan Gudknecht, courtesy of Louise Lindinger

When I relayed this anecdote to Elliott, he seemed perplexed. “I don’t know why someone wouldn’t want to talk about it,” he said. “We were all like brothers and sisters.” When Elliott learned that some former residents came together for a reunion in 1985 he was heartbroken to have missed it. He has lived in Texas for decades, but says he would have been on the next flight to Philadelphia if it meant he could see and talk with his old friends from Southern Home.

Much of Broad Street would look the same to Lindinger and Elliott as it did when they lived at the orphanage—the long stretches of mansions set back along the wide sidewalks haven’t changed much. But their most beloved landmarks are gone. The church was demolished in 1955 and a low-slung post office stands in its place. The Savoia closed in 1965 and the building is now home to the Bethany Indonesian Church of God. Although Drexel Elementary was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, it was demolished in 2010 and will soon be replaced by the ReNewbold condominium development currently under construction.

The forthcoming Community Health and Literacy Center | Rendering: VSBA, LLC

At the opening of the new CHOP facility, memories of the Southern Home for Destitute Children are unlikely to be shared. We’re still not sure an orphanage could be a good place. In 1900, a county commissioner reported that the Southern Home building was “large and well suited to the needs of the institution, and is surrounded by an ample and beautiful playground.” Then again, the same report called the cells at Eastern State Penitentiary “light and airy” and the inmates at the Germantown Poorhouse as “unusually bright and happy.” Outside observers can see things in whatever light they choose. It’s not a simple matter to decide whether administrators of the orphanage did things well or poorly. Perhaps the people who don’t remember their time there fondly are less willing to tell their stories. Without romanticizing the past, though, it can’t hurt to remember the hundreds of Philadelphia children who lived between Southern Home’s long forgotten walls between 1891 and 1960. They played on a playground in the very location that children in South Philly will soon be occupying again. They were nursed through sickness at an infirmary on the same ground where a new healthcare center will care for 21st century kids. They read books and expanded their minds on the same patch of earth soon to be a new library.

About the author

Sarah Kennedy lives and writes in South Philadelphia. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Camden and a BA in Women's Studies from Harvard. She has, at other times, been a writing teacher, a lexicographer, a travel writer, a waitress, a bartender, a clothes peddler at Saks Fifth Avenue, and an amusement park ride operator.



10 Comments


  1. This is fascinating. Thank you!

    • Cynthia Winters

      LOUISE

      Very nice history accout. My mother was there as well. Elizabeth Ann Vogel. She has passed away 1970. So I got to understand more of my mom through your article.
      Thank you

  2. It’s just wonderful, Sarah! Thank you! I read it with tears streaming down my face—happy tears, for all the memories I have of that old Victorian structure and my little brothers and sisters who lived there with me—-and tears of sadness, too, as I realize that every trace of my childhood is really, finally gone. At the same time, I am pleased to know that the location will be used to fill the needs of so many children now living in that neighborhood. And while I shed many tears knowing that an important part of my life is gone forever, I am filled with gratitude that you have shone a light on the story of The Southern Home for Destitute Children. It is hoped that—as a result of your article—those who pass by the new structure in coming years will know that, in a much earlier time, an imposing, ivy-covered mansion once stood there, and that it served to care for—and became a refuge for—many thousands of children who desperately needed the care they provided. God bless you—and thank you again.

  3. Loved the story …..

  4. Great story ….

  5. great story …..

  6. Fred Allen Barfoot

    Great story about an institution that was my daily life for several years in the 1980s when Southern Home Services was at Broad and Packer. I worked there as an administrator, but my fondest memories were when children completed classes in rooms across from my office and came into my office for a piece of candy or fruit — always asking politely but excitedly. And a great joy — and a great chore — was the summers when one of the teachers and I volunteered after hours to cultivate a garden with some of the children. The kids who stuck with it were in awe when they harvested potatoes. Thank you for stirring my heart.

  7. Robert (Bob0 Barfield

    Was in Sothern Home from 1937 (age 3 ) till 1947 (age 10) with my brother John who was a year & a half older. We both live in Orlando ,FL. I am married with 4 sons and one daughter. Have been married 32 years (2nd marriage). Article brought back a lot of memories some bad, most good. Served 3 years Army in Korea, was a sergeant First Class at age 18 earned Silver Star, Bronze Star with “v” for valor, Combat Infantry Badge, Parachutist Badge and found out in 1995 that I was recommended for the “Medal of Honor” for my actions in 1953!! Was told by the Army my “Time Limits” had expired for the award. Was a Parachutist in the Army. I then served 4 years in the Navy and made one free fall parachute jump in the Navy as a 2nd Class Parachute Rigger. I retired as a letter from the US Postal service.
    Remembered the May Pole dances, Mummers Parades, Drexal School, Church, Savoy movie. Church has a big beautiful organ, It’s a shame it was tore down. Visited S Home while I was in the Navy in 1958 before it was demolished. One girl I knew was still working there. If any one
    knows me please contact me, email rnj187@ yahoo.com Bob Barfield

  8. PAMELA B DOLMAN

    I believe this is the home my mom, and her sisters were in. “The Daring Girls” if anyone remembers them. Millie, Ethel, Alice, and my mom Eleanor.
    She tells me many stories of this home. She says it was a blessing to have been there.
    They were there for many years, and went home to their mother and grandmothers home when they were teenagers.
    She has told me some wonderful, and heartbreaking stories of the home, but even still is thankful she lived there, and was treated very well.
    My Aunt Ethel has passed away many years ago, Aunt Millie is now in a nursing home. My mom, Eleanor and Aunt Alice are inseparable, they are together every day, and call each other all the time.
    If anyone remembers them, please contact me, happypammy3@gmail.com
    I’m trying to find pictures or anything from their past for them.
    Thank You,
    Pamela Dolman

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