Settlement Houses: Doing Good in the Neighborhood

September 9, 2019 | by Stacia Friedman


When Marilyn and her husband Rick purchased a three-story, red brick row house in South Philly they discovered that their property was of historic significance. From 1920 through the 1980s it was known as the Grace Settlement House. While this is a source of pride for the couple, both of whom are educators, most Philadelphians are unaware of the pivotal role of settlement houses in our city’s history. If you think immigration is a hot topic today, imagine life in Philadelphia between 1870 and 1920 when Philadelphia’s predominantly English, German, and Irish population had to absorb a tidal wave of Eastern Europeans, Russian Jews, Italians, and Poles. At the same time, African Americans were migrating north from the Jim Crow South. All were fighting for employment and living space within the same overcrowded, and often unsanitary, tenements.  

To combat these growing pockets of poverty, Philadelphia turned to a concept started in London in the 1890s at the height of the Progressive Era. College-educated, middle class women, many of whom were aspiring social workers, were encouraged to “settle” in the heart of immigrant and African-American neighborhoods. Their mission was to provide classes in literacy, nutrition, health, and job skills, as well as sports and recreation. By 1912, there were 21 settlement houses in Philadelphia. While most were red brick row houses that blended into the neighborhoods, a few were larger stone edifices resembling schools, many of which continue to serve today as community centers.

Addressing Racism and Poverty

An illustration published in The News of the College Settlement from 1916 showing poverty and the close quarters of newly arrived immigrants to Philadelphia. | Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The first settlement house in Philadelphia opened in 1892 at 617 Mary Street (now Rodman Street) and later relocated to 4th and Christian Streets. Known as the College Settlement of Philadelphia, it was located in the 7th Ward, running north-south from Spruce to South Streets and east-west from 7th Street to the Schuylkill River. This was the heart of city’s poorest African-American neighborhood where 9,700 residents were plagued by overcrowding, raw sewage, and horse manure in the streets.

Four years after it opened, College Settlement collaborated with the University of Pennsylvania to sponsor a sociological study of African Americans by W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois and his wife Nina lived in College Settlement’s building for one year while he conducted his research door-to-door. The resulting publication, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, blew the roof off of common theories held by many whites. Du Bois found that racial discrimination and unequal opportunity, which excluded blacks from living in single-family homes and obtaining desirable jobs, were at the root of the problem. 

After World War I, many settlement houses gave way to neighborhood centers and YMCAs. Today, the College Settlement of Philadelphia is headquartered in Horsham and serves over 6,000 children in its Environmental Education Program, along with its overnight and day camp program on its 235-acre property in the Poconos.

Still Going Strong in Kensington

Lighthouse Settlement community center has provided residents of Kensington, North Philadelphia, and Fairhill with recreational, educational, and economic outreach programs since 1893. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Founded in 1893 at Episcopal Hospital in Kensington, Lighthouse Settlement was established in 1895 in a three-story brick building at 153 W. Lehigh Avenue and has served North Philly for over 100 years. The only addition to the original structure is a contemporary entrance featuring a three-story mural.

Lighthouse Settlement’s initial function was to combat alcoholism. At the time, Kensington had 135 saloons within a five block radius. Now known as The Lighthouse, Inc., this former settlement house launched the first Meals on Wheels program in the U.S. and was a pioneer in the Suffrage and Women’s Rights movements. In 1940, the Lighthouse Boys Club was the largest single soccer organization in the world. In the 1950s, its playing field, known as Lighthouse Field at 199 E. Erie Avenue, hosted the Ringling Brothers Circus. Today, Lighthouse provides thousands of children with sports and recreational programs, including an urban garden to promote healthy eating.

 Another century-old settlement house still serving Kensington is Lutheran Settlement House, founded in 1902 at 1340 Frankford Avenue. The original three-story structure received a $1.5 million renovation in 2016. Today, the non-denominational center offers a wide range of community services, including a bi-lingual domestic violence program, homeless services, community education and employment, senior services, medical advocacy, caregiver support, and health and nutrition education.

Championing the Arts

Settlement Music School dance class, 1932. | Image courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University

Settlement Music School was founded in 1908 in Queen Village as the music program of College Settlement of Philadelphia. It also assisted immigrants in finding employment. In 1917, after receiving a $150,000 gift, the school’s Mary Louise Curtis Branch was built at 416 Queen Street in the Federal style with limestone trim and ornate wrought iron balconies.

The school initially provided music lessons taught by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Dance and art lessons were soon added. The school became the umbilical cord of the Curtis Institute of Music. In the 1950s, Albert Einstein was a member of its board of advisors and a regular chamber music participant. Former students include Buddy DeFranco, Kevin Eubanks, Mario Lanza, Chubby Checker, and many members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. One of its more infamous students was former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo. The piano lessons didn’t work out, apparently.

Today, Settlement Music School is the largest community school of the arts in the United States with branches in Germantown, Willow Grove, Wynnefield, Northeast Philadelphia, and Camden. The one branch to undergo significant alteration is located at 6128 Germantown Avenue. In 2015, a $1.5 million, four-year project added a contemporary brick extension to the original, stone Edwardian structure built in 1925. Architect Alan Metcalfe created a modern canopy shaped like an open grand piano lid.

About the Author

Stacia Friedman is a Philadelphia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and Los Angeles on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, Broad Street Review, and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history, and vibrant arts scene.

One Comment:

  1. MIke Barbera says:

    My parents met at the settlement house in south Philly in the 30’s or 40’s. Grandfather died in flu pandemic. Newly birthed interest in this history of settlement houses. Interesting- I served in an inner city outreach ministry in New Orleans upon graduation from seminary in the 70’s. Realize generational connection with heart of grandparents and settlement house history.

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