Start kicking around the internet about the small stone building at Germantown Avenue and Springer Street in Mt. Airy and there doesn’t seem to be any mystery regarding the structure’s 1740s origins, back when the area was known as Beggarstown. “A rare example of a school building from the colonial era,” according to Wikipedia. Both the Library of Congress and the National Register of Historic Places list the building as Beggarstown School. Except, a school it never was.
According to local historians, recent redevelopment of the 283-year-old building has presented a new opportunity to set the record straight on its origins. They point to a 2017 nomination to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places of the adjacent campus of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church as the repository of correct information. According to that report, co-authored by Jim Duffin and Oscar Beisert, founder of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia, the building was indeed originally a home, changing hands between a series of Philadelphians before finally passing into possession of the church in 1803 for use as the sexton’s house. The official name of the building, then? The Walder-Essig House.
“I think the schoolhouse story is a classic case of what commonly happens to oral histories and traditions. Details and facts get conflated or rearranged,” said Duffin, an assistant university archivist at Penn Libraries.
Regardless of the building’s earliest days, its present path provides an undoubtedly happy story in a city where the futures of many historic buildings consistently hang in the balance. The Walder-Essig House, now owned by developer Ken Weinstein, has sat dormant for several years since its last use as a cafe. A major rehab is currently taking place and the building is slated for retail use this fall. Weinstein said that while the building will be receiving some modern updates and losing a few of its historic elements, he is largely aiming to ensure that its history endures.
School or no school, Beisert, who researched and prepared the lion’s share of the nomination, said the story of the structure remains significant. “Perhaps the most important thing about the building is the fact that it is one of the few one-story houses to survive along Germantown Avenue, representing the earliest house type built in the area.”
Reviewing the most publicly-accessible records of the Walder-Essig House, it is easy to see why so many believe it originated as a school. However, Duffin said primary sources contemporary to its earliest years offer proof that it was not. Particularly of interest are the will and estate records of Jacob Walder. Historical records show that Walder was a mason by trade and built the house at 6669 Germantown Avenue sometime between 1738 and his death in 1751 at age 41. Burial records at St. Michael’s also state Walder died in 1751 and describe him as a “neighbor living near our church.”
Additional records show the home then passed to Walder’s widow, Gertrude, who became remarried to Baltzer Essig, thus paving the way for the reference of “Walder-Essig House.” Following their deaths, the home was sold in 1800 to Christian Bosbyshell, who family records identify as a well-to-do shopkeeper in Philadelphia. Bosbyshell resold the home to the church for use as a sexton’s house in 1803. Interestingly, his grandson, Oliver Christian Bosbyshell, would go on to serve as superintendent of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia and claim to be the first Union solider to suffer an injury after being struck by an object while marching through Baltimore.
According to Duffin, most homes in the Germantown area at the time would have been simple one-story log structures–the equivalent of an 18th-century starter home before a family would move onto something more substantial. It is possible Walder would have first constructed a wooden home preceding the stone structure that stands today. Given his trade as a mason, it is just as likely he would have applied his skill to make a particularly nice starter home from the start, although he later did build a second home nearby prior to his death in 1751.
As for its location so close to the church, Duffin said there are different potential explanations. The era was one of transition. Germantown Borough proper had been established to the south, and property owners there typically also owned sidelots in the open space of modern day Mt. Airy. As more German immigrants arrived, these side lots became ripe for residential development, particularly for those of lesser means. As more people took up residence on the land, churches followed. Early German-speaking immigrants to Germantown were primarily Quaker and Mennonite, but then came waves of Lutherans and other denominations according to the 2017 nomination for St. Michael’s. By 1738, that Lutheran congregation had purchased a plot of land at the present day site for the construction of a church and graveyard, making St. Michael’s the first church of that denomination to own land in Philadelphia.
Benjamin Franklin, Governor Thomas Penn, and future Chief Justice William Allen were among those who contributed funds for the church’s original construction. Duffin said it is also likely the congregation would have paid visits to those living in the area to solicit a multitude of smaller donations, helping establish the area’s name of Beggarstown.
However, the presence of Walder, who belonged to a different denomination, remains an enigma. Duffin said that given his profession, it is possible Walder would have located near the site to work as a mason during the construction of the church, but it could also very well have been a simple coincidence of real estate.
The congregation of St. Michael’s appeared to have appreciated their neighbor, who was ultimately buried in its graveyard. Records from the church show he died on January 4, 1751 following a “tedious illness” during which the church’s clergy visited him, blessed him, and accepted Walder’s request to deliver a funeral sermon upon his death. According to records, his funeral was held on a cold, snowy day, but was well attended.
Duffin is pleased that the home Walder built still stands nearly 300 years later and will once again become accessible to the community. While more than one-in-three homes along the Germantown Avenue corridor used to be of this one-story variety, totaling more than a hundred in number, the Walder-Essig is one of the few, and potentially only, that remains. “It is a really remarkable thing about Northwest Philadelphia that you have a very old building like this right there,” Duffian said. “You have a little piece of history showing how people lived when they first came to the community, mixed in with the brand new stuff and everything in between. Not very many parts of the country have this kind of living history.”
Confusing Past, Bright Future
Exactly how the Walder-Essig house came to be called the Beggarstown School is unclear. Duffin points to the 1905 publication of a book titled A Brief and Succinct History of St. Michael’s, which appears to have erroneously mixed up the building with a different one on the church’s campus, already demolished at the time, which had served as a parochial school in the church’s first century.
Regardless, the name stuck. Even a mid-20th century pamphlet published by St. Michael’s and preserved by the Philadelphia Planning Commission states a belief that the building was a school and suggests the church even went so far as to renovate the space to appear as a mid-1700s schoolhouse.
Duffin said it is possible St. Michael’s could have used the building for a Sunday school or other educational functions at some point in its history after no longer using it to house a sexton. Yet, there is scant evidence of that, aside from the church pamphlet’s later claim that it was used for Sunday school until the 1930s.
By 2016, St. Michael’s congregation was at its end, holding its last worship service in September. The entire campus was then purchased by Weinstein. A large, stone Sunday school building was repurposed into the offices of Mt. Airy Pediatrics and a handsome three-story parsonage fronting Germantown Avenue was resold and converted to apartments. The main church building still remains unoccupied and in want of a tenant. The church and parsonage were also both used in the filming of scenes from the HBO series Mare of Easttown.
Even before the church’s closure, Weinstein said he had worked out an arrangement to lease and rehabilitate the Walder-Essig House for commercial use. That led to the 2012 opening of Little Jimmie’s Bakery and Cafe in the building, followed by its 2019 conversion to Alena’s Cafe, which closed in 2022. Weinstein purchased the building outright following the church’s closure.
Now, the Walder-Essig House is once again getting new life. As of early August, active renovations approved by the Philadelphia Historic Commission are underway for new retail, which Weinstein said will be a start-up small business.
As part of the renovations, a small attached shed to the rear of the building was demolished due to structural instability, but will be rebuilt as a bathroom. Similarly, the home’s slate roof will be replaced by a faux replica material, and its wooden double-hung Dutch door will also be replaced with a replica.
According to Weinstein the rest of the building’s historic charm will remain intact, including its Wissahickon schist facade, three large front-facing windows, and transom window overtop the main doorway. The interior will make generous use of the 1.5-story height. Duffin said it is likely the home originally contained an attic for storage, but at present the building’s interior is entirely open, which, according to Weinstein, will provide a nice, airy feeling with good light from the building’s two side windows, complemented by new interior LED lighting.
Notably, Weinstein is also in conversation with the Mural Arts program about decorating the eastern side of the building with a mural. That facade is plastered in stucco added during the building’s recent history, which can easily be removed or repainted at a future date to restore the building’s full historic appearance.
In all, Weinstein is excited about the project. It won’t be a moneymaker, but he said that is not the point for such a historic building on a heavily-trafficked avenue. “Some projects you lose money on and do the right thing and other projects you do much better financially. We like to find that balance,” Weinstein explained. “If you’re a single bottom line developer you’re going to knock a building like this down and start over. But if you’re thinking about the community, sustainability, and the fabric of the neighborhood, you are going to save a building like this and hopefully do better on your next project.”