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History of 3819 Walnut

Chapter & Alumni News

By Dylan Adelman (Pennsylvania)

Dylan Adelman is a current Beta Rho (Pennsylvania) initiate. One night, he joined several chapter brothers in walking around their chapter house. They examined the old organ pipes that remained and wondered aloud about the unique architectural features of the home. They had always heard stories about the house from previous generations. Stories that it was once a church, as it had a steeple, and that notable alumnus and author Zane Grey lived in the room that had become named after him. Inspired by this, Dylan started researching at midnight that same evening. Within 24 hours he had uncovered as much as he could about the chapter house’s history and discovered that while some of the stories had been false, the truth was even more interesting.

There is no information available about when the house at 3819 Walnut was built. Until the 1880s, there is zero information in the historical records about a property at 3819 Walnut Street. City records estimate that the house was built in 1850, which would make the house the oldest building in the area by at least a decade. The earliest-recorded landowner for the property is BP Hutchinson, though it is unclear whether he built the house or not. An 1872 map of West Philadelphia shows a house on the property under his name, which looks similar to the shape of the current house.

During this period, 38th and Walnut was considered among the nicest neigh­borhoods in West Philadelphia. There is evidence of other mansions being built in the area as early as the mid-1860s, notably the mansion of Anthony J. Drexel, the later founder of Drexel Uni­versity, in 1866. His house was located at 39th and Walnut, the current location of the Fels Institute. Drexel’s house was torn down and replaced with the Fels mansion in the 1890s.

The earliest purpose of the house is unclear. Most evidence points to the house being an early Victorian mansion, as most other buildings in the neigh­borhood were also upscale mansions. There is no evidence that the house was a church, and there is strong evidence against this theory. There is documen­tation of the churches built in the area, including the ones currently at 39th and Locust and 38th and Chestnut. There are city records that cover the history of various churches from the period of 1800-1900, and none mention a church located at 3819 Walnut. Moreover, there is no evidence in the house that un­equivocally points to its use as a church. The steeple was a common feature of mansions during this time (Drexel’s mansion included one), the “shrine” area in the current dining room was a com­mon of many Christian households, and the organ has another explanation that will be given later. Finally, the construc­tion of the house, having a normal house shape, a large number of rooms, and no large common area, does not match with the design of any other churches in the West Philadelphia area.

The house came under the owner­ship of parishioner Robert Innes in the 1880s, whose use for the house is the earliest evidence of purpose of 3819 Walnut. During the 1880s, the house served as a refuge for disabled children and was known as the “Home of the Merciful Saviour for Crippled Children.” This purpose served only until the early 1890s, when the location of this refuge was moved to 44th and Walnut. Evi­dence of this purpose is given in the city building records from the period.

The history of the house becomes more complete in 1904, when the house came under the ownership of Herbert D. Allman. Allman was an esteemed member of the Jewish community in Philadelphia, and he earned his wealth as the president of the prominent wallpaper company Kayser & Allman. In other words, a wallpaper magnate owned the house.

The January 18th, 1907 edition of The Jewish Exponent provides more history about the house. First, the pipe organ found in the chapter room was specially purchased for a musical held in the house during 1907. The organ was not used in a church, but rather for a musical. Even more interesting is that the Allman family named their mansion “Condrupaul,” and the house was called this in local newspapers.

From 1894-1922, the Beta Rho Chapter was located at 3312 Walnut. This means that the chapter was previously located at the current Walnut Street entrance to the David Rittenhouse Laboratory. This dispels a long-standing myth about Zane Grey and the fraternity house. Although he was a founding member of Sigma Nu at Penn in 1894, Zane Grey never set foot in the house at 3819 Walnut. The Zane Grey room may be named for him, but he never lived there.

This is everything new that we know about the house as of this writing. While it was never a church or home to Zane Grey, it is easily over 150 years old. Here’s to the next 150.

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Phone: 540.463.1869 | Fax: 540.463.1669 | Email: headquarters@sigmanu.org

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