Allens Lane Art Center Turns 70

August 31, 2023 | by Amy Cohen

Allens Lane Art Center, headquartered in a repurposed carriage house, was founded in 1953. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Allens Lane Art Center in West Mt. Airy turns 70-years-old on October 16. I have spent hours digging through a box filled with minutes from committee meetings, newsletters, membership forms, invitations, programs, course catalogues, and correspondence to understand how this long-standing institution came to be. In addition to these archival materials, I have read oral history interviews and spoken to several key individuals and/or their children. What I learned is that a confluence of dedicated leaders and conducive social conditions made the founding of Allens Lane Art Center possible. These same factors led to spectacular success during the organization’s early years.

A Speedy Start

Beginning in 1949, members of the Henry School Home and School Association (HHSA) discussed the need for a recreation center in the neighborhood to benefit the increasingly racially and religiously diverse children of West Mt. Airy. A committee tasked with finding a site for such a center suggested the seven-acre parcel at Allens Lane and McCallum Street, then controlled by the Fairmount Park Commission. This initiative, however, failed to make progress.

In September 1952, HHSA president Marjorie Kopeland invited a group of Henry School fathers to her living room, ostensibly to get the dads more involved in the activities of the HHSA. Kopeland, who had a background in battling antisemitism and racism, was committed to finding a means to bring the young people of the community together outside of school. The fathers, rather than supporting the idea of a recreation center, proposed the creation of an institution dedicated to the arts. Given that two of the fathers at the meeting were members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and that several others were notable artists or patrons of the arts, this choice might not be surprising.

Allens Lane Art Center during its first summer program season in 1954. | Photo courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Over one year later, the idea conceived in Kopeland’s living room had become a reality. Given the strict gender roles of the day, her decision to include men was a stroke of genius. With the vast majority of neighborhood women not working outside of the home, the HHSA had legions of female volunteers. HHSA newsletters are chock full of updates on holiday bazaars, class teas, fundraising activities, etc. As former Allens Lane board chair Sylvia Melvin recollected in a 1993 interview, “While the kids were in school we had plenty of time to make telephone calls, plan events, and hold committee meetings.” What the women lacked, however, were prominent contacts and professional expertise.

The leader of the Fathers’ Committee, Nathan Marder, was a supervisor at the Veterans Administration. He organized an elaborate presentation to the general membership of the HHSA scheduled for January 20, 1953. The meeting date was changed to January 21 to enable the attendance of representatives of the Ford Foundation, which eventually gave the arts center significant funding through its “Living Together Through the Arts” program. The January meeting featured several speakers Marder had lined up including the deputy commissioner of recreation, the assistant to the director of the Fairmount Park Commission, and a representative of the Board of Education. After the speeches, a panel of neighborhood residents discussed the importance of the arts in individual and community development. A resolution in support of the formation of an art center in West Mt. Airy was approved unanimously.

Children attending the center’s summer program play a game of cage ball in 1954. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Kopeland and Marder were charged with forming a planning committee to pursue the art center idea. With remarkable speed and lack of red tape, the Fairmount Park Commission agreed to lease a former carriage house and the surrounding land located at Allens Lane and McCallum Street for $1 a year. It also agreed to take care of the maintenance of the building and the upkeep of the land. The planning committee, which eventually expanded to become the first board of directors of Allens Lane Art Center, included numerous strategic appointments. For example, the building subcommittee charged with overseeing repairs to the old carriage house was comprised of three architects, including my cousin Henry Magaziner.

On June 13, 1953, a business meeting and cocktail party was held to celebrate the progress thus far and to raise additional funds for the center. As he did consistently throughout the planning process, Marder updated Philadelphia’s power players and tried to get them invested in the success of the project. He also invited them to the June cocktail party, although nearly all declined as they were either fishing in Maine, traveling in Europe, or, in the case of Fairmount Park Commissioner John B. Kelly, brother of actress Grace Kelly, celebrating a family birthday in Ocean City, New Jersey.

Children attend ballet class at the center in 1957 with long-time dance instructor Jacqueline Packman. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In another move to ensure the support of city leaders, members of Allens Lane Art Center’s board of directors invited prominent Philadelphians to become honorary trustees. Mayor Joseph Clark declined, but a congressman, a judge, a city council member, and real estate mogul Albert M. Greenfield all signed on.

During the summer of 1953, the Fairmount Park Commission began work repairing and restoring the carriage house, large numbers of residents became members (at $5 a person or $10 a family), and professionals were hired to teach visual arts, dance, theater, and music to children and adults. By September, classes were well enrolled and a temporary headquarters was established at Summit Presbyterian Church. As repairs to the building continued, classes began on October 16, 1953 housed temporarily at Henry School and the church.

Early Success

The A Capella Choral Group performs at the center in 1957. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The mid-1950s through the 1960s were a golden age for Allens Lane Art Center. Classes across all art disciplines were offered for preschoolers through seniors, including sculpture courses for the blind, a program that continues to this day. Monthly newsletters described film screenings, discussions, puppet shows, science classes, holiday parties, family fun nights, and an art rental service. There were also dance performances, art exhibits, music recitals both by professionals and students. Hedra Packman, daughter of long-time dance instructor Jacqueline Packman, recalled that such events drew large and diverse crowds. Each spring, an elaborate “country auction” was held to raise funds beyond tuition and membership dues. An arts-based summer camp was launched in 1954, and a nursery school program drew parents who wanted a secular preschool experience for their children.

Actor Sidney Poitier attended a 1963 production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin the Sun. | Image courtesy of Allens Lane Art Center

For a few years, a robust teen program featured Friday night canteens and Saturday night square dances. An April 1957 newsletter depicts the Friday night gatherings: “These nights feature such activities as dancing to phonograph records, checkers, chess, ping pong, and magazine corner. In the best teenage tradition, Cokes and pretzels disappear in incredible quantities. The endless chatter about Elvis, the latest “who’s-going-with-who,” the newest thing in ham radio transmitters, or the nifty new nickel-plated accessory that Bill got on his car, may not exactly be what dad thinks of as elevating discourse, but then Dad’s a square anyway even if they do love him in their own odd teenage way.”

With a tiny paid staff, these many activities were made possible through hefty time commitments made by board members and volunteers. The organizational chart depicting the roles of various board members, committee chairs, volunteers, staff, and instructors looks like it could belong to a Fortune 500 company or the Pentagon.

What Changed?

Children ride the bus to Allens Lane Art Center circa late 1960s-early 1970s. | Image courtesy of Allens Lane Art Center

By the 1970s, Allens Lane was a much smaller operation. This was due to several factors, most significantly the increased number of women in the workforce. Allens Lane Art Center, like the HHSA, relied heavily on female volunteers. A volunteer reply card sent to art center members in the early days asked for the husband’s occupation, but not did not even have a space to answer the same question for the wife.

Not only did women entering the workforce deprive the organization of volunteers, but it also took away the drivers. The center has never been easily accessible by public transit, so when mothers weren’t around, it became difficult to ferry children to and from classes after school. The nursery school petered out when working moms needed daycare rather than a preschool that met only a few hours a day. With women in the workforce, weekends tended to fill up with chores and errands, giving less time for the programs and performances offered there.

The center in 1977. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In the years after the golden age of Allens Lane Art Center, Americans have become much more focused on individual achievement over community cohesion. As Jake Meador recently wrote in an article for The Atlantic, “Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children.” This shift is problematic for an institution that seeks to enhance community life through exposure to the arts.

The more competitive social milieu hurt Allens Lane Art Center in another way: it was conceived of as a place to experiment and try new things. It was never a conservatory. Today, however, children are increasingly pressured to specialize in one sport or a single instrument to enhance their chances for college and eventually career success. Not to mention that chess and square dancing hold little appeal for teenagers who have access to smartphones, streaming services, and video games.

What’s Next

Despite the challenges Allens Lane Art Center faces 70 years after its founding, there is reason for optimism. Mt. Airy is known for being a stably integrated, cohesive community that has a record of supporting its neighborhood institutions. West Mt. Airy Neighbors was established in 1954 to foster peaceful integration and continues to serve as an active civic organization. Weavers Way Co-op, launched in 1973, is thriving. Mt.Airy sustains a 50-year-old babysitting co-op that grew out of a cooperative summer “Tot Lot” for children that is also ongoing.

Blind ceramics artist Ron Bryant presents a recently completed sculpture. The center’s Vision Thru Art program has been providing a creative outlet for the visually impaired for 30 years. | Photo: Amy Cohen

Additionally, a societal shift seems to be underway. Gen Z, people born between roughly 1996 and 2012, report wanting a much healthier work-life balance than their baby boomer and millennial predecessors. If this generation achieves the goal of working fewer hours and having more time for other meaningful pursuits, perhaps there will once again be a higher priority placed on community activity.

Vita Litvak, the current executive director of Allens Lane Art Center, has high hopes for a new golden age. A variety of classes for kids and adults continues to be a staple of the center. It regularly hosts art exhibits by the center’s students and by professional artists. Although Sidney Poitier is the last famous actor to visit the center–he attended a 1963 production of A Raisin in the Sun–the Allens Lane Theater is soon to open its 70 season. The arts-based summer day camp continues to enroll well over 100 children each season. As Litvak explained, “The benefits of engaging with art and our creative side are becoming more widely understood after several studies have been released. Community art centers across the country, that make the arts accessible to all, are well positioned to grow their impact and serve their neighborhoods with meaningful and effective art programs. After 70 years of doing just that in our neighborhood, Allens Lane Art Center is as relevant and needed in our community as ever.” 

On September 9 the public is invited to The Mt. Airy Arts Festival: A Celebration of 70 Years of Allens Lane Art Center. See the center’s website for more information.


About the Author

Amy Cohen is an educator, historian, and writer. Her forthcoming book "Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy" will be published by Temple University Press.

One Comment:

  1. Mary Kurtz says:

    Thank you so much for this great article about ALAC!

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