Welcome to Riggtown logo

Articles on West Chester University
(West Chester, Pennsylvania)

by Jim Jones

---   Go to Riggtown Home or the HIS480 Syllabus   ---


An Early History of West Chester University
Dick Swain, the Director of the West Chester University Library, has a serious interest in local history, and that frequently brings him into contact with interesting things. One of them was a 1972 reprint of an 1870 history of the West Chester Academy, the ancestor of today's university.

The 1870 history was written by Joseph J. Lewis and placed in a hollowed-out cornerstone of "Old Main Hall," the school's first building. It remained there for a century while the school added to its original ten acres, constructed additional buildings, and grew from 600 to over 9,000 students. When Old Main was demolished in 1972, workers searched for the cornerstone without success. Later, it turned out that a worker had carried it off, thinking it might contain money, but when he discovered that all it contained was old papers, he arranged for its return to what was then known as West Chester State College.

 Parking behind Old Main Hall circa 1937
Parking behind Old Main Hall circa 1937
The enclosed document was transcribed by Dorothy Lansing, M.D. and published as a 24-page pamphlet in 1972. It contains an introduction by Frank Helms, who was the head of the college library at the time, and includes a short biography of Joseph Lewis, a West Chester lawyer whose main claim to fame was his work on the autobiography of Abraham Lincoln published in West Chester (at 28 W. Market St. -- check out the historical marker). Lewis was also the president of the West Chester Railroad, helped to start the State Normal School in West Chester, and once owned the Spring Grove mansion in the southwest part of town.

The complete text of Lewis' history is available on this web site. His original spelling has been maintained, so be prepared to recognize "scite" as site, read "ameable" as amiable, and ignore missing punctuation marks and irregular capitalization. Using the minutes of the Academy's board plus his own recollections, Lewis described a number of events familiar to fans of West Chester history including the construction of the West Chester Academy Building on Gay Street across from St. Agnes R.C. Church, the appointment of Humphrey Marshall's son to the board, financial problems at the Academy, and the role played by the namesakes for a number of Borough streets including Charles Miner, Dr. William Darlington, and Anthony Bolmar.

Here's the context for Lewis' history. The concept of a "normal school" was derived from French institutions known as écoles normales which specialized in preparing teachers. Various Pennsylvanians saw a need for such a school, and as Lewis described, West Chester's first "normal school" was a private operation founded by Dr. Franklin Taylor, Dr. Elwood Harvey and Professor Fordyce A. Allen in 1852, which lasted until 1864. Meanwhile, in 1857, the state legislature passed "the Normal School Act" which divided the state into twelve districts and grouped the counties of Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks into the "First District." The legislation provided no money with which to start a normal school, but it guaranteed teaching certificates to graduates as long as the school met certain physical requirements: a minimum of ten acres of ground, at least 300 students, and a hall large enough to accommodate 1000 people. It also had to have at least six professors plus enough tutors and assistants, and a "model school" (in which to practice teaching) that could accommodate 100 students.

The Civil War interrupted everything, but in 1869, a committee of prominent citizens met in March and organized a company to form a normal school in West Chester. A total of 74 investors bought $50,000 in stock subscriptions and raised $28,000 from the sale of the West Chester Academy property. With $15,000 from the state and a loan of $20,000, they raised a total of $113,000 and bought ten acres (at $1000/acre) on a small hill south of town, which ended at Union Street in those days. They paid local contractors Yarnall & Cooper about $80,000 to construct what J. S. Futhey described as "a massive structure, constructed of the beautiful serpentine stone so abundant in this region" using a design by architect Addison Hutton (who also designed the four greenstone mansions on W. Virginia Ave" in the north end of the Borough). Lewis' "History" was read on September 13, 1870 at the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone, and then sealed within the building until 1972.

---   Go to Riggtown Home or the HIS480 Syllabus   ---


Town-Gown Time Capsule
During the discussion at West Chester Borough Council's Public Safety committee meeting on Tuesday, April 8, 2008, mention was made of a West Chester University technical writing class that is composing a "guide to off-campus living" for their semester project. This was not the first time the idea has surfaced, as shown by this example of a similar publication produced in 1982.
"The Game of Off-Campus Life," 3rd edition, was published at a time when Town-Gown tensions were on the increase. The success of the first off-campus student rental units in the 1960s attracted "property investors" whose interests focused more on income than on neighborhood harmony. Coupled with the hedonism of the "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll" generation, residences in the Borough's southeast were transformed into "party houses" at a rapid rate. Borough government responded with a rental inspection program, rental inspection fees, rules for the conversion of houses into rentals, and the parking permit program, among other initiatives. The University (then known as West Chester State College) also responded by making violations by off-campus students subject to the school's judicial system and cracking down on open parties held at fraternity houses. Meanwhile neighbors discussed the creation of a "town watch" in the Southeast, linked up with the University and the Mayor to form the Town-Gown Council in 1986, and formed Civic Action South East, the Borough's oldest continuously active neighborhood association, in 1987.  Cover of the 1982 Guide
Cover of the 1982 Guide
In the midst of all this a group of WCU students decided to see if they could make a difference. In the spring of 1979, members of the Off-Campus Student Association put together a handbook for students living off campus. It covered basic life skills, like how to read a lease and plan a budget, but it also included more advanced skills like automobile repair.

The main sections cover "Housing," the "Apartment Lifestyle," "Commuting" and "Community Life." The Housing section covered issues that are just as relevant today as they were a quarter- century ago, like finding the right place, selecting your roommates, dealing with paperwork and legal issues, and how to move out. There was also a section on the Borough's Housing Code that contains pretty much the same things that appear in today's code, although landlords are no longer allowed to create apartments in basements, no matter how "dampness-proof" the walls and flooring are.

One of the longest sections covered leases, with subheadings like "Defensive Lease Reading" and "Obnoxious Lease Clauses." This was an era when rental housing was not well regulated, and as first-time renters, students were especially vulnerable to unscrupulous landlords. The Guide warned against leases that included waivers of the tenant's right to privacy and right to a jury trial, or clauses that allowed rent increases in mid-lease, or that required the tenant to pay the landlord's legal expenses no matter the outcome of a dispute.

The "Apartment Lifestyle" section contained mostly practical information, like how to open an electricity account, how to deter thieves, and what to do if roaches invade. There was a longish section on budgets and finances that included the contact info for six local banks (none of which still exist in 2014 when this article was last updated). The other long section covered food in all of its aspects -- how to balance a diet, how to save money, how to prevent grease fires while cooking, and so on.

The first paragraph under "Parking" in the "Commuting" section began: "When you return in the fall, the first problem you will encounter, even before you walk into your first class, will be parking." How true then and how true now! The Guide offered the same solutions that are available today -- park on South Campus and take a shuttle bus to class, carpool with other students, and for a few lucky ones, buy a parking pass from the Borough.

One thing that is not likely to appear in the 2008 version was the section on "Do It Yourself Auto Repairs." The 1982 Guide offered five pages on maintaining a car, reading repair books, and trouble-shooting car problems, but automobile technology has changed a great deal since the days when you could set the spark plug gap with a matchbook and change brake shoes with two wrenches and a screwdriver. Electronic ignition, anti-lock braking systems, and fuel injectors all require more tools and know-how to maintain, while the demands of school and part-time jobs leave less time for students to acquire them.

Another section that will probably not make it into the 2008 version was called "Hitchhiking." After pointing out twice that hitching is "dangerous," the 1982 Guide described it as "cheap, almost always available, and sometimes the only way to get where you want to go." With the "danger" in mind, the 1982 Guide offered tips: don't hitch alone, don't get into a car that already has three or more people in it, make sure the door on your side has a working handle, etc. It seems unlikely, however, that the University's current legal counsel would advise anyone to put this kind of information into a publication with "WCU" on the cover.

The last section on "Community Life" came the closest to the goals selected by the University Area Neighborhood Task Force. After a brief statement about cooperating with Borough residents and a description of Borough government, the 1982 Guide provided a page about voter registration and absentee ballots. That was followed by a long section on "Recreation" which revealed, among many other things, that there was still one movie theater in the Borough in those days (the High Street Theater at 120 N. High Street), two drive-in theaters within ten miles of the Borough (Exton, and US 202 south), six places to see live theater productions between Valley Forge and Kennett Square, and a ski slope in Chadds Ford.

The last section listed places to eat in the Borough, and not surprisingly, almost none of them survive under the same name today. Burger King still occupies the corner of High and Price Streets, and you can still visit the Courtyard Inn, DeStarr's Restaurant, Dilworthtown Inn, and two McDonalds (east and south of town), or get pizza at New Haven, Las Vegas, Pizza Hut, and Sam's Pizza island. On the other hand, there is no more Gino's, Hardee's, Ivory Chopsticks, Lamp Post, American Restaurant or Roy Rogers, and the Nields Street Deli has become the Riggtown Oven while the South End Deli (at 137 Lacey Street) is now a student rental property.

The names of the members of the Off-Campus Student Association who created the guide appear nowhere in the book, so there is no way to know where they are today or what they remember about the effort to make this book. But we should probably thank them for two reasons: for creating a "time capsule" for Town Gown relations and for promoting conversations about issues that affect everyone in the Borough.

POSTSCRIPT: In March 2014, Dr. Jones received two emails from Tom Lordan, who identified himself as the "Director of Off-Campus Life" at the time the Guide was created, and offered the following:

Off the top of my head, The Game Of-Off Campus Life was written and produced by:

Student Interns: Mele Eastburn, Pam Ehly
Graduate Intern: Scott Leggett
Assistant Director of Off-Campus Life: Frances Davis
Director of Off-Campus Life: Tom Lordan
Cover and Interior Artwork by Joan Lordan

The Department of Off-Campus Life was created in the Spring of 1978. The first edition of this publication was produced by the Universities Printing Facilities in Harrisburg with expert technical assistance in West Chester by Ann Rink (?) of West Chester University’s Graphics and Printing Department. Major inspirational credit goes to SUNY Binghamton whose guide served as a model for us.


---   Go to the top of this page, Riggtown Home or the HIS480 Syllabus   ---

Copyright 2010 by Dr. James A. Jones