Look Up! Ronald McDonald House is a perfect repurpose

“Look Up” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. The photo essays focus on a different Philadelphia area neighborhood and its distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.

What attracts the eye of passers-by at 3925 Chestnut Street is the red-haired clown in yellow jumpsuit waving in the front yard. Once you get past the fast-food mascot, West Philadelphia’s Ronald McDonald House is a stunning turn-of-the-century mansion and one of the great examples of reuse for a unique architectural and historic resource.

The mansion was built in 1893 by architect William H. Decker, who also designed one of the city’s first skyscrapers, the John F. Betz Office Building on site of the Wanamakers complex; the Manhattan Building at 4th and Walnut; and utility buildings in Brewerytown. At 3925 Chestnut, Decker used large, rusticated limestone blocks that run in rows around the thick walls of the Romanesque/Norman Gothic house.

The home was built for William James Swain, the editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger and later founder of the Public Record. The handsome stone faces that appear on the exterior of the house and carved in the wood of the grand staircase are Swain’s children, subsequent owners have been told.

The house was occupied by the Andrew J. Bair & Son funeral company from 1955 to 1980. The property was then sold to Dr. Audrey Evans, representing the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. With the support of the Philadelphia Eagles and the McDonald’s Restaurant chain, the first Ronald McDonald House, a home away from home for families with children undergoing treatment for cancer or other critical illnesses at nearby hospitals, had opened in 1974 in a seven-bedroom building at 40th and Spruce Sts. The organization moved to the roomier Chestnut Street site in 1981.

There are now 307 Ronald McDonald Houses around the world. Philadelphia has two, the site on Chestnut Street, with 45 guest rooms, and one at Front and Erie, with 17  rooms. Together, they host about 1,600 families each year. Guest fee per night: $15.

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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