After World War I, there was a period of great American pride. Across the country, citizens and towns were erecting statues and monuments to honor soldiers. Eldridge Reeves Johnson, the president of the Victor Talking Machine Co. (later bought by RCA), decided to honor WWI heroes with more than just a statue.
In 1918 a committee of citizens wanted to build a “Peace Memorial Community House,” but funding was slow. The Civic Association was planning dances and fundraisers left and right, but then the Eldridges stepped in, offering their eight-acre property that included their home, a carriage house, and caretaker’s cottage. They also helped bring in the $250,000 that was needed to demolish their home and build what we today know as the .
While the massive granite steps became the lintel over the door for the porte-corchere in the new building, the rest of the home was demolished to make way for the new Neo-Gothic manor.
Local architects Livingston Smith and Walter Karcher were brought in to design the new community venture. (Karcher lost a son in the war.)
The planning had only a tiny bit of controversy. Civic Association president Edward Bok declared the plans too “ornate” and refused to approve them, but eventually everything was resolved. The community house featured a lecture hall / auditorium and meeting rooms for the Merion Civic Association and the American Legion.
The outside of the building shows the grandeur and lush grounds that is characteristic of classic Main Line buildings—this was not your average neighborhood community center.
“It was important to do everything by hand,” described Colette Speakman, current manager of the Merion Tribute House. “They brought all the materials here, so it has that old European-style workman craftsmanship.”
The building is not privately owned—it was deeded, entrusted to a board of directors to ensure the building and its grounds would be for the community of Merion. Even the carriage house was entrusted to the local Boy Scout troop, which was one of the first troops in the country. .
As you tour the property, you can see an elegant ornate nature inside and out. The main entrance has high ceilings and as you head into the ballroom, there is a memorial to the soldiers of the area who fought and died in WWI. The newly renovated ballroom features new art-deco lighting and carpeting that copies the pattern from the wrought iron front doors.
Speakman explained they tried to make simple renovations that would maintain the original historical elements, but fix a few of the older flaws. The floor, like most of the manor, was built in 1924 and appeared to be down on “it’s last sanding.” They laid carpet down, but made sure it could easily be removed in case someone wanted to revert back to the original floor. The carpeting also solved a severe acoustic problem. Since the room was originally designed for lectures, bands and DJ’s have had a heard time with the sound bouncing off the walls.
The Merion Tribute House can usually accommodate events of about 130 to150 people comfortably. Speakman has found older documents saying the auditorium, now the ballroom, used to fit up to 300 people.
“Never in my life could I see 300,” she laughed.
There is a parlor area that looks out to the terrace and leads into the American Legion room. Both rooms still have their original working fireplaces. The windows of the Legion room have leaded glass insignias of the regiments from WWI.
Outside, the terrace wraps around the front of the structure, and Speakmen says they are planning a new master plan for the landscaping. Elsie Eldridge used to be an exceptional gardener; in fact there are remnants of several of her garden plans still on the property. While Speakman said there are no plans to recreate Mrs. Eldridge’s gardens, it would be nice to emulate them a little.
The Merion Tribute House is not just for parties, weddings and civic meetings. Residents are free to walk, run or walk their dogs (on leash only) on the lush property.
“I think we have pretty unique brides. We get brides that are not wanting the run-of-the-mill country club thing,” said Speakman. A recent medieval-themed wedding had guests and bridal party in full medieval garb.
Neighbors in this tight knit community never have to worry about traffic or noise, Speakman said, explaining they are very careful to make sure the noise levels are practically inaudible at the street level.
“This community resource is a balancing act,” explained Speakman.
Only five minutes from St. Joseph’s University and City Avenue is a community gem from a bygone era. While buildings and deeds change hands with passing time, the Merion Tribute house is still standing and is still property of the community, just as it was when it opened almost 90 years ago.