Playing your way to Merion
by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
In his eighties, it’s easy for Stephan Whelan, MD to look back and pinpoint the reason he’s lived nearly 50 years in Lower Merion.
“My interest in the Main Line came from John M. McClatchy,” Whelan says. “He lived on the Main Line and I though it was the most beautiful area,” he says. McClatchy was a well-known and successful contractor and had built the house and development in Upper Darby where the Whelans lived. “My father was a custom tailor with a shop at 12th and Walnut,” he says. Whelan’s family was one of the first to move in.
This was in 1916, Whelan recalls. McClatchy was an active contractor, spending a lot of time on the site. But the boy’s friendship with McClatchy actually started through Paul’s father. The contractor was friends with Whelan’s father, and the young Whelan worshiped him. “He was a hero to me, and his son, Paul, was a contemporary of mine. We became very friendly,” he says. Through the years, McClatchy would be a mentor to Whelan as well as a friend. “He always cared about what I was doing, and when I was going through university and medical school, I always had a job with him. It was great to have a patron like that,” he says. “He lived on Highland Ave., at the corner of Old Lancaster Rd. I would ride my bicycle out there in the summer and play ball and stuff with Paul and his friends,” he says. It was probably like going to another world for the young boy. The difference between city and country was much more significant then than now.
The ride would be a death trip today, but then it wasn’t so bad. “There wasn’t any traffic to speak of then, and in 1923 the speed limit was 10 mph, so it was pretty safe,” he says, in all likelihood answering a question his youthful self never considered. “I was probably about nine years old when I first started riding out there,” he says. My friends and I would bike from 69th St. I remember Haverford Road to what was City Line wasn’t even paved then, it was just loose rocks,” he says. Whelan remembers City Line Ave as being a roughly paved two-lane highway. “There was so little traffic that it was never a problem to cross,” he says. Then they would head up Merion Rd. to Highland Ave. “There were nothing but beautiful mansions along there, each one with 40 or 50 acres of land,” he says. Then he’d turn at Merion Station and go up to Old Lancaster Rd.
“In the spring, the fragrance of the trees and flowers was an unforgettable sensory experience. Those big estates were so beautiful,” he says. “My friends and I probably road up there more in the spring, but never in bad weather, so all my memories of the area were in nice weather,” he says.
At the corner across from Merion Station was the Bok mansion. “I remember seeing the Edward Bok outside one day when I’d ride by. But there was hardly any traffic on those streets then. “At the corner of Merion and Highland there was a cast iron sign that said “Run Slow, Blow Horn,” he says. “I have never forgotten that sign, it seemed such a strange command.” Whelan recalls that the big Victorian house sat on about 10 acres and there was a big house and several outbuildings, such as a garage and separate facilities for the help,” he recalls. While McClatchy was affluent and successful, he was clearly not wealthy by the standards of the area. A 10-acre lot in that part of Merion wasn’t a large parcel, although nothing to sneeze at. But McClatchy was a working man with 13 children.
Over the years Whelan stay friends both with the father and his children. “There are only two of the children left alive,” he says. “Paul moved to Tampa, Fla., but wasn’t well. I’ve tried for years to contact him, but have been unable to do so,” he says.
The property was developed into housing in the early 1960s, broken up into small lots. The big house is gone, and Whelan thinks that it had been built originally around 1912. Like many of the larger plots of land that were “normal” in the early part of the century, the land values exploded, as did the taxes. Not only were there large amounts of money to be made in developing the land, the cost of keeping it intact rose significantly. So, like many of the large plots, there was just too much money to be made in splitting up the land and building a number of houses where once one had stood. So for Whelan all that’s left are the memories of those wonderful days. Except for one thing.
The most important impact was that young Stephan Whelan would never lose his love of those tree-lined streets and peaceful, if imposing, neighborhoods. “I was always in love with Merion and dreamed of living there. Eventually, he would.
He went to the University of Pennsylvania, and was graduated in 1940. He wanted to go into the Army, but was turned down. “They refused me because I had high blood pressure, and said I would be dead in two years,” he says. At that time there really was no treatment for high blood pressure, and it often led to a heart attack.
But Whelan wasn’t to be put off, so he volunteered for the Public Health Service and ended up serving in the Canal Zone at Gorgas Hospital. “I was officer of the day on Dec. 7, 1941 when they got the word that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. We went on high alert, and everyone was called in because the Panama Canal was certainly a prime strategic target,” he says. “We thought they might try to blow up a couple of locks, or block the canal, and that would have been disastrous.”
In spite of their concerns, for some unknown reason the Japanese never attacked the canal. “Thankfully we never had anything happen, except an awful lot of drills,” he says. Had they been able to put the canal out of commission, the ability of the Allies to support the troops in the Pacific Theater would have been severely affected. All the millions men and hundreds of millions of tons of material would have either had to go around the South American continent or be shipped to the West Coast and then reloaded onto cargo ships. More importantly, the ability to get warships to the area would have possibly slowed down the Allied war-making ability.
Whelan tried again to get into the army, figuring they wouldn’t be as strict because of the war, but he was unsuccessful. “After all that, the Korean War broke out and they called me in to be tested,” he says. This time he passed, and though the’d finally be an Army doctor. “The army said to go home, that they’d call in about two weeks,” he says. “But I never heard anything from them, and even though I called, I guess they decided against me.”
He had set up practice in Philadelphia, and although the practice was brand new, and he had a young family, Whelan went out on a limb and bought a house within a mile ofthe site of so many memories. “I bought the house I now live in during the early 1950s, when I could ill afford it, but it was a great decision,” he says. Since then he has lived in the same house, near the train tracks in Merion, where listening to the trains has told him much of the recent history of the Main Line. “When wemoved in there would be freight trains coming along all day and night,” he says. “Now there are only a couple,” he says.
But what has remained, in spite of the decades, is the peace and beauty of the Merion neighborhood. Streets now have cars traveling much faster than that 10 mph of the 1920s. But the trees are still tall and straight, and in the spring the flowers still make magic with their fragrance. The community which offered its rural beauty just a short train ride from the bustling city is just the modern interpretation of that wonderful place and time.