Whether your wedding is planned or last minute, Yerkes Wedding Salon has you covered. All you need is a marriage license, $100, and heart full of love. Yerkes, a well-known staple of East Baltimore Pike, is a one-stop shop of matrimony. This civil service business has been helping Philadelphians tie the knot since 1912.
Dawson Martin Yerkes ran his wedding business out of the basement of his home at 6413 Market Street. At the time there was a need for secular weddings with a flexible schedule. “A lot of people got married in a church, and those people who didn’t have somewhere to go went to the courthouse,” said Karen Terwilliger, Yerkes’ current owner. “But those weddings could only happen during regular business hours. So when Yerkes started, it was only on the weekends.”
Terwilliger’s father and former mayor of East Lansdowne, William Smyrl, worked for Yerkes as a Justice of the Peace in the 1970s and later bought the business after the owner died. He says that Yerkes was a Marion County Magistrate by day and officiated every wedding himself. “He would always mark down the weddings, the date and time, 7PM, 8PM, sometimes 10PM. Because it was his home, he would just go down, do the weddings, and the people were gone. From 1920 on, he really did a lot of weddings. [He] must have done 1,500 weddings a year,” said Smyrl. When Yerkes died in 1962, Sylvia, Yerkes’ secretary, took over. The borough code for officiating weddings changed in the late 60s and took away a magistrate’s power to marry, so Sylvia hired Smyrl and two Baptist ministers to take over the legal wedding duties. The dedicated Yerkes’ personal records reveal that his huge workload at the wedding salon could have easily been split between three men.
Joseph Guzman recalls stories of his parent’s marriage at Yerkes’ original location on Market Street in 1959. An Italian couple from South Philly, David proposed to Catherine while on a chaperoned date in Wildwood, NJ. David wasn’t Catholic, so they sought the secular help of Yerkes. Guzman’s parents only lasted seven years, though the two never moved out of their neighborhood and remained close friends. “They were too young,” says Guzman. “My mother would say ‘I loved your father, but I was too dumb.’ He was a little older, more street wise, hanging on the corner, that sort of thing. But I don’t think he ever got over my mother, either. He would come around and she would sit on his lap and play with his hair. And he never removed the tattoo of her name on his arm.”
‘Everybody knows Yerkes’
After 80 years on Market Street, Smryl moved Yerkes to Baltimore Pike in East Lansdowne. “When my father and I took over, we had to keep the name, because it was a household name,” said Terwilliger. “I used to ask people, ‘How did you find out about Yerkes?’ and they would just laugh and say ‘Everybody knows Yerkes.’ In fact, I’ve heard people refer to other chapels as Yerkes. They’ll say, ‘Well there’s a Yerkes down this street,’ but really, there’s just the one,” she said.
Stephanie and Willy have both been married at Yerkes before taking the plunge together. They plan on moving to Mississippi soon, and wanted to make it official before they leave. “Yerkes is easy,” said Willy. Right after their ceremony their next stop was to pick up their five kids from school. “We’re going to tell them first thing,” said Stephanie, “We’re married!”
Smyrl says the location has changed, but not the experience. Even the décor resembles the old Market Street basement. “In the old location, one wall was all mirrors and we stole the same design for here,” said Smyrl. Throughout the years, those mirrors have reflected an endless kaleidoscope of special days. Spend an hour in the lobby and you’ll hear at least two languages, four weddings, and meet five generations of families.
Recently, Bruce, from Lansdowne, married into Huda’s Yemeni family. They met on the street in their neighborhood. Bruce had plans for an exotic honeymoon in Hawaii or Puerto Rico, but when asked Huda said, “I want to go anywhere with him. I want to go in his heart,” to which Bruce romantically replied, “I change my answer! I don’t want to go any of those places. I want to go in her heart.” And thus Yerkes has worked their magic again.
Terwilliger recalls one bride’s close call with breaking tradition. “One time a couple came in and they were so late I didn’t think they were coming. As they were getting married, a man came through the door with her dress. And halfway through the ceremony, she put it on. She really wanted to be married in her wedding dress,” she said.
Facilitating unique ceremonies is what Yerkes does best. “I married one couple in a taxicab. That was a funny one,” said Smyrl. They met in a cab and kept seeing each other. “When they got married, they wanted the wedding in a cab, so we did it parked out front in the gas station,” he said.