On Friday, October 14, Allentown’s Phoebe Home celebrated the 100th anniversary of its oldest building. Known today as the Paul P. Haas Administration building, the venerable stone structure, ground broken 1911, completed 1912, was once simply “the dormitory,” the first place occupied by the residents of Phoebe after they outgrew the original 13 room farmhouse of David Griesemer. And among those present that day enjoying the food and games was Frances Cunningham, David Griesemer’s stepdaughter.
Currently, Cunningham, 96, (“I’ll be 97 if I can make it until March," she quips), occupies a room on the third floor of Phoebe’s old main building. The view from the window offers her a glimpse of places she has spent most of her life. On a recent early fall morning it was possible to catch a glimpse, through the small patch of leafy trees, of Greenwood Cemetery. Located on land that was long in her stepfather’s family, it was developed into a cemetery by David Griesemer in the late 1890s.
Also visible from Cunningham’s window is the home she lived in for many years. “You can see it better once the leaves are down,” she says. “When my stepfather built the cemetery, he also built a row of houses for his workers,” she says, referring to a sturdy row of Victorian homes that still face out onto Chew Street across from the Allentown Fairgrounds. Later Cunningham was to make one of them her home for the rest of her life. And to this day it is still filled with her belongings.
Cunningham’s mother was pregnant with her older brother David when her stepfather died. Her mother’s parents came to Allentown from Kridersville to help her with the child. Shortly thereafter, Cunningham’s mother married her second husband Michael Mordaunt. She was born in 1915. Later she was to have two brothers.
About her childhood, Cunningham has many fond memories. “It was a pleasant neighborhood,” she recalls, “a really nice place to grow up in.” One of her favorite memories is of sleigh riding down the steep 19th Street hill.
She recalls attending the Franklin Street Elementary School, Raub Junior High School and Allentown High School, now William Allen High, in the 1920s and early 1930s.
“I had a lot of friends when I was in school,” she says. Pausing for a moment Cunningham’s voice grows wistful, “They’re all gone now.” Asked if she remembered seeing any famous people of the day like General Harry C. Trexler, she chuckles. “Yes I use to see him but he was a wheel,” she implies as in “big wheel” and not likely someone she would be expected to know well. “Wished that I had had his money,” she concludes.
Although she was never inside it, Cunningham has very definite memories of the Greisemer farmhouse where Phoebe was first formed. Located where Phoebe’s band shell is now, it stood until the early 1930s. “I always thought of it as my mother’s house,” Cunningham says, “and even though I never saw the inside of it, I just knew it was lovely.”
Along with being a residence for about six patients, the first being Pauline C. Hoffeditz starting on August 20 1904, it was also where the deaconess, who staffed the early home lived and trained. The concept of the deaconess, women who did nursing and charity work with the poor, came from the Reformed Church in Europe and clearly had links to the Roman Catholic tradition of nuns. It was brought to the Lehigh Valley from the Midwest in 1902 by Reformed minister Rev. Abraham Koplin. Despite the best efforts of the church, the concept did not work out in the region and was discontinued in the late 1920s.
But the numbers of elderly who wanted to come to Phoebe continued to grow. It was this that inspired the building of the dorm in 1911-12. Photographs from that era show the residents sitting in their rocking chairs. Although this does not exactly fit with what is now considered ideal living for senior citizens, at the time the alternative, living at the county home with its stigma of poverty, was far worse.
At the same time this was happening, Frances Cunningham was growing up. She graduated from high school in 1935.As it was the middle of the Great Depression she considered herself fortunate to have found a job as a clerk in the McCrory’s dime store on Hamilton Street.
After about a year of trying, Cunningham’s father who worked for PPL managed to get her a job there in the mailroom. She recalls having to lug around huge canvas sacks of mail. But eventually Cunningham’s mathematical skills came to the attention of supervisors and she got a position in the finance office. It was also here that she met her husband, G. Blair Cunningham, an engineer who worked for the utility. He died about 25 years ago.
Cunningham continued to work for PPL until 1985, a full 50 years. “They were very good to me and I had nothing to complain of,” she says. Almost every day Cunningham walked to work at 9th and Hamilton from 19th and Chew Sts. She attributes her longevity in part to that. “When it snowed I would walk where the trolley sweeper car had plowed and get to work that way,” she recalls.
Memories of snowstorms past are not something Cunningham particularly dwells on. But she is pleased that Phoebe is remembering its roots by honoring its oldest surviving building at age 100, and through that its links to her family. “My only regret is that my mother is not here. She would be thrilled.”
Photos courtesy of Phoebe Ministries