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Articles on Society and Culture
(West Chester, Pennsylvania)

by Jim Jones

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West Chester's Baha'i Roots
With most of the news about religion today emphasizing disputes of various types between factions of the world's major religions, it is worth refelcting on West Chester's reputation for religious toleration. That reputation is of long duration, beginning in the 17th century when the Friends (Quakers) who first settled here allowed Presbyterian Scots, Lutheran Germans, Mennonite Rhinelanders and Irish Catholics to move in. That tradition continued in West Chester and resulted in 12 churches by 1879, 13 by 1896 and 20 churches by 1932. During the 20th century, it also resulted in the foundation of a Baha'i congregation. Baha'i logo
Baha'i is a religion that was founded in Persia in the first half of the 19th century. It unites all of the major world religions by viewing all monotheisms (one-god belief systems) as expressions of the same single creator. That places Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, and Buddha on the same level, and adds figures like Adam, "the Bab" and Baha'u'llah to the list of divine Manifestations. The basic expression of the Baha'i view is that the world is one country and everyone is a citizen of that country.

The first record of Baha'i members in the West Chester area dates from around World War I. That was a time when many people in the USA and especially Europe -- which had lost millions of its citizens -- were horrified by the results the first "industrial war" in history. Along with diplomatic efforts like the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations, there were many non- governmental efforts to prevent future wars, such as the creation of the "universal" language of Esperanto. In such an environment, the unifying religion of Baha'i spread easily.

The Baha'i message reached the USA even earlier, however. It was mentioned at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 by a Christian at the Parliament of the World's Religions. From there, it spread to the areas around Chicago and New York, and received a boost from the Hearst newspaper family. In 1911-1912 Abdu'l-Baha toured the United States, and in 1927 the son of Baha'u'bab spoke in New York City at the Baha'i Center led by Mrs. Mary Hanford Ford.

One of the first Baha'i followers in the West Chester area was Dr. Leslie Pinckney Hill, the president of Cheyney State Teachers College (now Cheyney University) and one of the founders of the West Chester Community Center (now known as the Melton Arts & Education Center). Dr. Hill worked with Alain Locke, an influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, on the National Baha'i Race Amity Committee.

At the beginning of World War II, a group of Baha'i began to hold regular meetings in West Chester. The instigation appears to have been a visit by Madame Ali Kuli Khan, the wife of the Persian representative to the Versailles Peace Conference, to an apartment at 17 S. Church Street.

The apartment was occupied by Jeannette Sharpless, born Jeannette Lear in 1886 in Snowshoe, Pennsylvania, about ten miles north of State College. She came to the southeastern part of the state to attend the Presbyterian School of Nursing in Philadelphia, and after she graduated, she remained in the area. Ms. Lear married Albert W. Sharpless, a member of the family that owned the Sharpless Creamery and Dairy in West Chester. Her brother Clarence also settled in West Chester and became a partner of Martin Lorgus in the Morris Nurseries located on the present site of Henderson High School.

Sharpless and her husband bought a house on W. Miner Street in 1926, but unfortunately, he died in January 1931 leaving her with two children. Fortunately, he also left an estate worth over $130,000, so she was able to stay in the house, at least at first. But some time before the beginning of 1941, she moved to the apartment at 17 S. Church Street. After the visit by Madame Khan, Sharpless began to hold regular Baha'i meetings.

Jeanette Lear Sharpless circa 1910
Jeanette Lear Sharpless circa 1910

In that first year, the group met on Sunday evenings for worship service and Tuesday evenings to study the religion. In 1944 they moved down the street to 27 S. Church Street, and after World War II was over, Sharpless organized a program to commemorate the 1819 birth of the "Bab" (a Baha'i prophet) on October 20, 1945.

In the late 1940s, their meeting place moved several times. They met in the Farmers & Mechanics Building (2 W. Market) in 1947, moved a half block east to 22 E. Market in 1948, and met at 154 E. Gay in 1955. Some time after that, Mrs. Sharpless moved to the home of her daughter Massachusetts where she died on June 5, 1960. Her obituary noted that she was "a member of the Baha'i faith."

Today, the Baha'i religion claims more than five million followers in 204 countries. Locally, there are congregations in Tredyffrin, Wilmington and Swarthmore, and members in West Chester. For more information, visit www.bahai.org or bahaibookstore.com.

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Borough Botanist Was Also a Birder
One of the byproducts of hosting a popular website with the word "history" on most of its pages is email from various researchers. Every so often, a truly difficult question arrives, like the one conveyed in a recent email from a man named Ken Kostka that began "I am attempting to locate detailed information about a Purple Martin colony transplantation project conducted by Josiah Hoopes in 1899."

The Columbia encyclopedia had no listing for "purple martin," but under "martin," it said "see swallow." A swallow is a variety of birds that are found all over the world. They are distinguished by their forked tails and dark blue-black coloring, as well as their practice of feeding on insects while in flight, and their preference for nesting in flocks. The entry also mentioned that "the purple martin is deep violet with black wings and tail." Purple martins were once common throughout Pennsylvania, but the introduction of DDT after World War II seriously depleted their food supply. They suffered a final blow in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes passed through, because it generated a week of nearly continuous rain that kept insects from flying. As a result, the purple martins starved to death.

 Josiah Hoopes, founder of Hoopes Brothers & Thomas
Nursery in West Chester
Josiah Hoopes (1832-1904)
Ken Kostka (the author of the email) is a volunteer with the Purple Martin Preservation Alliance (PMPA) whose goals include the restoration of purple martins to their former habitats in Pennsylvania. He became interested in West Chester history after reading an article about a successful attempt to move a purple martin colony to a new location. The article, entitled Martins Removed to the "Zoo" described how "Josiah Hoopes, of this place" constructed a special martin house whose doors could be locked shut after the birds were inside, and used it to transport them to "the Zoological Garden, in Philadelphia."
Apparently, this was a lot trickier than it appears because martins, who migrate south each year, always return to the same location. Simply removing the martin house would not suffice because the martins would simply look for someplace else to build their nests. Hoopes devised a plan based "upon the love the old ones bore their young" to move them within a few days after their eggs hatched. He reasoned that the martins would remain at the new location in order to make sure that their young survived. Based on the above-mentioned article, his plan worked.  a purple martin in flight
A purple martin in flight
The PMPA wanted to know if the plan had really worked; i.e. did the martins return to Philadelphia the following year. To answer that, they wanted to know more about Josiah Hoopes, in the hope that his personal papers included notes on the project. They also wanted to find plans for the trick bird house so that they could build one to move purple martin colonies to new locations in Pennsylvania. The first step was to find out of Josiah Hoopes was same man who founded the Hoopes Brothers & Thomas Nursery in West Chester.

A quick survey revealed that Hoopes was an accomplished botanist, but offered nothing about any involvement with purple martins. There was, however, an 1893 newspaper clipping that mentioned Hoopes' "collection of mounted birds." A search through the Chester County Historical Society's ornithology records turned up a wealth of information about Hoopes' interest in birds, of which this is merely one sample:

Doubtless the finest collection of birds in Chester county is at the home of Josiah Hoopes, Maple avenue, West Chester, where about 6,000 stuffed specimens, all catalogued and labeled and many of them superbly mounted, may be seen by those fortunate enough to be shown through the gentleman's apartments. Every bird is American. In the same rooms are cabinets containing thousands of eggs which are arranged as carefully as the birds and which represent all the varieties which can be procured. The work has occupied forty years of the owner's life and has cost an infinite amount of work, to say nothing of the money which has been expended in laying hold of rare specimens and those which are found only in distant parts of the country.

Source: "Thousands of Birds. The Largest Flock in Chester County Seen Yesterday. A Peep at the Superb Collection of Josiah Hoopes, West Chester. Forty Years' Work" in Daily Local News (February 6, 1894), located in the CCHS clippings files, "Natural History, Ornithology, 1890- 1899."

That, plus the absence of references to any other Josiah Hoopes in the Philadelphia area with an interest in birds, suggested that West Chester's man was the one who moved the purple martins. The next step was to learn if he had left behind notes, drawings, photographs ... anything that could show how he did it and if it was ultimately successful. Since Hoopes was such a successful businessman, his life has been studied by others, including one of the archivists at the Chester County Historical Society. All reached the same conclusion that Hoopes' personal papers did not survive in any accessible collection (i.e. library or archive). It is possible that they are still in the hands of one of his descendants, but he married late (at age 66) and fathered only one child before he died. That child, Josiah Morgan Hoopes, grew up in West Chester, but he died in 1972 and efforts to locate his daughters produced no results.

Thinking that the purple martin experiment might have merited coverage in one of West Chester's two daily newspapers, the next step was to narrow down the search. Martin eggs are most likely to hatch in early June, so and the move would have taken place in the middle of the month. That reduced the task to combing through a month's worth of and Village Record but poduced no results, most likely because 1899 was the year of the Borough's centennial celebration, and local news coverage in May and June was dominated by that.

The last hope was that a photograph of Hoopes' Maple Avenue home might show a purple martin house on the property. Purple martin houses are easy to recognize because they look like little "bird apartment houses" with multiple entrances on each side, situated on a pole in the middle of an open space. Unfortunately most of the photos of Josiah Hoopes' property in the Historical Society's collection focused on his business enterprises, and the only photos of his home show it from the front and on side.

 a purple martin house
A purple martin house
The PMPA crew was undaunted. Kostka's last email says that he has applied for state and federal wildlife permits to try a Purple Martin colony transplant experiment again, and added "I'm very excited about it and have high hopes. If successful, it would be a major advance for Purple Martin conservation efforts."

For more information on the Purple Martin Preservation Alliance, visit their web site or write to them at 2322 Buchanan St., Natrona Heights, PA 15065.

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The "Four Sisters"
It is no surprise to hear someone say that West Chester's architecture is special. Just watch the groups taking walking tours through our neighborhoods throughout the year, or Google "West Chester" and "architecture" to see what comes up. From institutional buildings like those at the Courthouse and University, to commercial structures like the F&M Building in the town center and the churches along S. High Street, there are lots of examples of buildings that do more than just keep out the weather.

There are also plenty of impressive private homes in the Borough, although to see the best of them, you have to travel north of Marshall Street. One set of four located along W. Virginia Avenue even has its own name -- the "Four Sisters" -- and distinctive look, since all were designed by the same architect and built from green serpentine stone on sites equipped with broad front lawns.

The "Sisters" were designed by Addison Hutton and built in 1872 on parcels sold by John Rutter. Rutter was a farmer who came to West Chester from Delaware County around 1829 and became a lawyer. Besides serving on Borough Council in the 1840s and on the board of the West Chester & Philadelphia Railroad in the 1850s, he invested in land for orchards including farm that stretched north from Chestnut Street up to what is now the West Chester Golf & Country Club.

Hutton was born in western Pennsylvania and studied architecture in Philadelphia. His career began to take off after the Civil War and by the time it ended, he had designed major buildings as far away as North Carolina. In this area, his work included numerous buildings at Swarthmore, Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges, a number of banks and office buildings in Philadelphia, the George School in Newtown, the main building at Westtown School, the Germantown Friends Meeting House, several buildings at Lehigh University, and many more. In 1870, Hutton was hired to design "Main Hall," the first structure of the West Chester State Normal School. Completed in 1871, the four-story serpentine structure so impressed the local folks that Hutton received commissions to build a half dozen private homes including the "Sisters."

 the Four Sisters on W. Virginia Ave.
(L-R) 101, 121, 205 & 221 W. Virginia Ave.

Who lives in houses like these? Not ordinary people, to be sure, since it takes a lot of money to buy one and more to maintain it, as well as hired help to dust all the chandeliers and maintain the landscaping (one is over 100,000 square feet while the other three are all around 48,000 square feet).

The first house is located at the northwest corner of Church Street and Virginia Avenue. Nowadays it is distinguished by the security fence that surrounds the property, but in 1872, it was a country estate owned by Thomas Marshall, the president of the National Bank of Chester County and the West Chester Golf & Country Club, as well as a member of assorted other boards like the First Presbyterian Church of West Chester and the "State Hospital for the Insane at Norristown."

The next house was somewhat more modest, situated on a lot that was only half the size of its predecessor, at the northeast corner of Darlington and Virginia. It was constructed for Samuel Parker, the owner of one of West Chester's premier stores at the turn of the century. He and his partner, Joseph Barnard, opened a store on W. Market Street before the Civil War where they manufactured and sold men's shirts. Barnard eventually moved on, but Parker continued to operate a dry goods store at different locations along Gay Street until his death in 1909. In 1872, he purchased a lot from Rutter and had Hutton design the house at 121 W. Virginia Avenue. His family kept the house until 1919 when Parker's daughter Elizabeth sold it for $14,000.

The house at the northwest corner of Darlington and W. Virginia was constructed for Robert T. Cornwell. Born in rural New York state, Cornwell came to Pennsylvania to teach in the "Normal School" that opened in Millersville in 1854 and received a commission as captain of company I of the 67th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers during the Civil War. After the war, he came to West Chester and studied law with William B. Waddell, who built the last of the four Sisters next door to Cornwell. Cornwell lived to be 92, and besides working as a lawyer in West Chester for more than fifty years, he served a quarter century on the West Chester School Board and even longer as a trustee of the West Chester State Normal School. He also spent a year on Borough Council in 1878, ran for district attorney in 1879, and received appointments to numerous positions like that of the board of the Philadelphia House of Refuge and the Chester County Hospital. After his death in 1927, the house was owned by a succession of Hemphills -- Cornwell's youngest daughter married into the family -- while Cornwell's grandson Gibbons went on to become the president of the Denny Tag Co. and chief burgess of West Chester from 1950-1953.

The last house was built on the northeast corner of New and Virginia for William B. Waddell. Like his neighbor, Waddell was a lawyer, but he started his practice in West Chester before the Civil War. He too received an officer's commission during the Civil War, although he never saw battle. Instead, he served in the Pennsylvania State Assembly from 1864 to 1866 before returning to his law practice in West Chester, although he filled out the remainder of Henry Evans' state senate term after Evans died in 1872. Waddell also served on Borough Council from 1856 to 1861, including four years as the chief burgess (mayor) in 1859 and 1860, and later in life became the President Judge of the Courts of Chester County. By then, Waddell no longer lived on Virginia Avenue however -- the 1896 Borough directory lists him at the home of his son Robert Waddell (also a lawyer) at 310 N. High street. Like the rest of the men of his class and generation, Waddell also held numerous appointments of which the most unusual was as a founder and officer of the Brandywine Base Ball Club.

With the exception of Waddell, the other "first families" stayed in their houses for at least two generations, but as they died out, the people who bought them often "outsiders" like Everett Smith of New York City, who bought the Parker house, Roland Dunn of Thornbury (Delaware County) who bought the Cornwell/Hemphill house, and John Bleecker of Washington DC (by way of Boston and Philadelphia) who bought the Waddell house.

Although the "Sisters" raise questions about the role of class and wealth in West Chester, for those with an interest in the Borough's history, the preservation of these houses was a good thing. It is made more remarkable by the fact that serpentine is a poor building material because it is soft and crumbles easily as a result of freezing and thawing. The survival of all four is a tribute to the efforts of their owners, as well as to the culture of West Chester which attracted such people to invest in them.

NOTE: Two other residences designed by Addison Hutton still stand in the Borough. One is "Cedarcroft," which was built for Robert Monaghan at 413 W. Miner Street in 1872 and now serves as an apartment house. The other was built in 1872 for Joshua Hartshorne, an iron merchant, and currently serves as the headquarters of John Milner Associates, an architectural and planning firm.


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Copyright 2010 by Dr. James A. Jones