In the fall of 1960, my immediate family–Mom, Dad and me–moved to a place called Penn Wynne, Pennsylvania. What the Hell was a Penn Wynne? As opposed to, say, a Penfield, a Penn Argyl, or Penn Hills? Well, it was glamorous suburban living with a view in a beautiful “modernistic” house solidly built by McWilliams and Meloney. A cottage type home: we lived in the Wm Penn model cottage. No kidding. Once again, I’m gonna show you. I don’t make this stuff up. Penn Wynne was right over the line from West Philly and 66th Street, not to mention South Philly, where I also spent a lot of time. But Penn Wynne was another world, believe me. While I’d like to think I still have a lot of South and West Philly in me, I know, my wishes to the contrary, that Penn Wynne, Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County probably has more to do with who I am today. What a thought.
A little background on Penn Wynne. You can skip if history bores you. If you are an American, it probably does. Artistic beauty. Modern Comforts. Lasting Endurance.
The list price of the Wm Penn model (a double home in 1928) was $10,000, so let’s say $5,000 for one (this may be incorrect). According to the good people at Measuring Worth, that could be anywhere from $143 thousand to $308 thousand in 2021 dollars, depending on what yardstick you’re using. My inclination is to split the difference, and say $221,000. It’s funny, but I think my Mom’s home sold for $175 thousand in 2016, but it needed work and certainly wasn’t brand new. So, you get the idea, more or less. Amazingly, my Dad paid, I think, $10,000 for it in 1959, so very roughly, the place appreciated at about 2.5 percent per year. Basically, that was about average annual inflation over the period. The moral of the story, my friends, if you fear inflation, buy a decent house. Anyway, so what took us to Penn Wynne.
This is another twisted fairy tale. Basically, I had the impression that my Mom thought she had to get me out of West Philly before I went native. My friends weren’t particularly thuggy, as thuggy city kids go, and, Skippy apart, there weren’t any real criminals around (that she knew of). But she worried. And, I suspect, she and my Dad probably figured it was time to go out on their own, although I don’t think my grandparents were all that happy about it. But, you know, my Dad was now over 40, and this was America, where everybody was going to the suburbs. I guess they figured it was high time. Not my call anyway. St Donato’s was not a problem (my B- conduct grade notwithstanding), but I guess that wasn’t exactly what she had in mind either. You know, city school, city kids, Italian immigrants who used word that made the Cabrini nuns blanch. We had looked at a number of developments, mostly in Delaware Country including one inauspiciously named Delmar Village(Spano realtor, the slumlord of Delco). You can see why Penn Wynne beckoned. Besides, my Dad’s oldest brother, Tony, lived there on Rock Glen Road, so I guess he had some inside information. In the Summer of 1959, my Dad began to fix the place, on Harrogate Road, up. I was just 8 years old, and man, hanging with Louie was a blast.
My Dad may have been an accountant, but he was a musician by soul and a craftsman by dexterity. Man, he could do anything–plumbing, flooring, painting, windows–he knew how to do it, and to do it right. The place was sort of a mess when we got it, which may have made it affordable. Boy did Lou Larkins dress it up. But good. He could also fix cars, program IBM mainframes, and do woodwork. Where did I come from? I never realized just how accomplished he was. We spent the summer with my eating hoagies and listening to Sinatra while he worked, by himself, day after day, so that we could move in by the Fall. We didn’t have much furniture, and a braided rug on which I watched a console black and white RCA TV. But it was home, it was warm, I felt safe, and my parents were good people. When I think now how young they were, it spooks me. I have become my grandfather.
The house, unbeknownst to me, had some history. Aside from being a Meloney and McWilliams Wm Penn gem (see below), it was probably about 30 years old when we moved in. That meant we were not the first occupants, much less the second, or even the third. Oh no. 223 Harrogate had a history by the time we came into the picture. And it isn’t too sensational to say, I blush, but Nazis lived here. Well. So I’m given to understand. No one came right out and told us that. But Our House was seized by the Alien Properties Commissioner during World War II because it was, ahem, owned (occupied, who knows), by a German national with the auspicious name of Madeleine DuPont. Yeah, a direct descendant of them DuPonts, you know, Alfred I DuPont. Don’t believe me? Well, he goes.
Alfred Irénée du Pont, an orphaned son of Eleuthère Irénée du Pont II, left MIT in 1884 to work at the family’s manufacturing powder plant on the Brandywine river. He became a partner in the company and was sent to Europe as the U.S. Army’s Chief of Ordnance. He was also assistant superintendent of the Hagley and Lower Yards. Alfred became a director in 1899.
In 1902 with a looming threat of the du Pont business being sold to competitor Laflin & Rand, Alfred and his cousins, T. Coleman du Pont, and Pierre S. du Pont, formed a partnership to buy the company. Alfred served as vice president of the new corporation and took over the black powder manufacture and sat on the Executive Committee. Alfred helped create a research program.
Yeah, that DuPont. You tell me what his daughter was doing with a house in Penn Wynne? I do have a theory, but since it’s a bit risque and unproved (not to say uninvestigated), I’ll leave for another day. Ms DuPont apparently had active love life, and I can’t imagine that a nice, unpretentious suburban hideaway, snuggled by Route One, that ran between New York and Baltimore, would have inconvenienced her unduly in her assignations. The neighborhood was still pretty remote in those days, but upscale enough to have one model priced at $20,000. You could probably figure $600,000 today, nothing to sneeze at. That home was across from the very toney Convent of the Sacred Heart, which educated daughters of the elite until 1969. What better place for a hideaway?
Now, Mom and Dad were buying a workaday home, not a hideaway. But Ms. Dupont was, well, sort of notorious. Believe me, I had no idea growing up that we resided in a place hat had been seized by the United States government. Coincidentally, the family from which we bought the place moved in in 1949. That was exactly one year after Ms Dupont and her then German husband (there had been two other, considerably less exotic exes) were instructed to dispose of the home by the Federal government, according to papers I have found. Again, since I am afraid you’re gonna think I have an overactive imagination, I’m going to reproduce part of that here. See. I told you. We moved into a place once owned by, er, fans of the Third Reich. Ms Dupont went to Germany in 1932, must have picked up said Ruoff there, and came back to the United States in 1946. Very interesting choice of dates. Almost coincide with the Third Reich. Hmm………..
I have no idea who occupied the house during the 1940s. Or if the place was even occupied. One curious thing was that our next door neighbor in the double house was of German extraction. He had been there a long time. I never thought anything of it until sometime last week. He was an odd bird, for sure.