The legendary Kelly family has left their mark not only on the world, but on the East Falls neighborhood where they hail from. Now, thanks to the efforts of the East Falls Historical Society (EFHS), a historical state marker will make their place in history even more visible.
Over the weekend a dedication ceremony was held at McMichael Park to commemorate the family and their many accomplishments. The marker sits at the site of the Kelly’s former family home, located at 3901 Henry Ave. and built in the late 1920s by John B. Kelly, Sr.
The family’s most notable members are highlighted on the marker, including Princess Grace of Monaco, or Grace Kelly, an Academy Award winning actress; her father, John B. Kelly, Sr., three time Olympic gold medal winner for rowing; and John B. Kelly, Jr., also known as “Kell,” who is best known for winning the 1947 Henley Regatta and an Olympic bronze medal for rowing.
“We’re very grateful,” said John B. Kelly, III, who spoke on behalf of the Kelly family. “This reflects the permanent place that East Falls has in our hearts.”
Kelly spoke to the crowd about his grandfather, Kelly Sr., who began working in Philadelphia as a bricklayer before becoming the president of his own bricklaying company, John B. Kelly, Inc., known best by the infamous slogan, “Kelly for Brickwork.”
“When my grandfather became a success, he stayed here,” said Kelly, who noted his own ties to the Vesper Boat Club, St. Bridget Parish and Bill Murphy’s Irish Saloon, known best as ‘Murphy’s.’
“East Falls is a great community; I still love being a part of it,” he said.
Joseph Sweeney, former commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, which consists of the clubs on Boathouse Row and conducts four regattas annually, spoke about his time rowing alongside Kelly Jr.
“I remember traveling to Hong Kong as the first U.S. Dragon Boat team from Boathouse Row,” said Sweeney.
He described the Kellys as a family who gave the neighborhood “a legend of mythical proportions.”
Paul Horvat, current vice commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, echoed his sentiments.
“The Kellys are an example of lives well lived,” said Horvat, who highlighted the family’s local and national leadership positions in rowing and politics.
The application process
Out of about 60 application submissions, only 15 were selected to receive a marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).
“The family has had such an impact on Philadelphia,” said William V. Lewis, representative of the PHMC. “They are a truly wonderful Philadelphian and American family.”
Earlier this year East Falls resident Patricia, “Patty,” Cheek, filed an application for the marker. Cheek spent weeks preparing the application, which required research to explain why the marker would be historically relevant. With the help of Ellen Sheehan, president of EFHS, Cheek was able to find books and articles related to the Kelly family.
“The Kelly family was a huge part of East Falls,” said Cheek. “They were rowers, and rowing is really at the heart of the East Falls identity. A lot of people don’t even know that Grace Kelly’s house is here.”
After receiving approval, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia worked with the EFHS to organize a slew of Kelly-focused events this October, including a Kelly family bus tour, which took residents to places the family frequented such as the Women’s Medical College, Old Academy Players, St. Bridget’s Parish, Raven Hill Academy and the Kelly family home. The EFHS also hosted a screening of the movie “To Catch a Thief,” starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, at Philadelphia University.
Attendees of these events received an authentic royal wedding stamp of Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace’s wedding, which were issued in April of 1956, the year of their wedding.
A ‘Fallser’ legacy
Many Fallsers have embraced the local Kelly family legacy.
“The Kellys are iconic,” said Don Donaghy, who, as a child, remembers seeing the former tennis court and greenhouse in the Kelly’s backyard, where a new home now resides. “They’re a part of the fabric of this community.”
John Thain, who grew up in nearby Germantown, remembers visiting the former Kelly home, which has been occupied by the Bamont family since 1973.
“I was friends with Mrs. Bamont’s son,” said Thain, who now lives in Lafayette Hill, Pa. “I practically grew up in that house.”
He described the home as “grand scale” with ornate details, extravagant woodwork, built-in bookcases and a grand staircase at the entranceway.
“I remember in the second floor linen closet the heights of all the Kelly children were inscribed,” said Thain.
Hopes for the future of the property
Carolyn Sutton and Nancy Pontone, who both own homes on historically registered blocks of Midvale Ave. and West Penn St., say they can imagine the home eventually becoming a museum, but have doubts about finding funding for such a project.
“House museums usually struggle to stay alive,” said Sutton, “they need funding. It may be better for the house to stay residential.”
Pontone has hopes that future owners would act as stewards of the home.
“I’d hate to see it change,” said Pontone.
The women also expressed their disappointment in not seeing the name of Margaret Kelly, Grace’s mother, displayed on the marker.
“Mrs. Kelly was a driving force to keep the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania alive,” said Pontone. “She was very active in the community, her name should be listed.”
As of Saturday, the marker is scheduled to be taken down due to a spelling error – the rowing term “scull” is written incorrectly as “skull.”
Overall, the dedication ceremony brought out a strong crowd of about 60 Kelly family fans and local residents.
“The historical society has done a lot to highlight the Kelly family connection and make it accessible to all of us,” said Pontone.