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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.