Penn students help develop virtual West Philadelphia history museum

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Locust St.

Photo credit: University Archives

A 1905 postcard depicts St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and the twin houses on Locust Street east of 40th Street.  A horse-drawn Wanamaker delivery wagon is parked alongside the corner storefront.

An academically based community service course has given Penn students the opportunity to help tell the story of the West Philadelphia neighborhood.

The West Philadelphia Community History Center is a virtual history museum that paints a nuanced portrait of the history, families and institutions that are part of the neighborhood around the University. The project was spearheaded by Penn Professor of History Walter Licht as a way to tell the story of West Philadelphia—a historically significant area that housed the country’s first zoo and a major Civil War hospital, and was the birthplace of anthropologist Margaret Mead, actor Will Smith and journalist Ed Bradley.

The neighborhood was first settled thousands of years ago by the Native American Lenape tribe, who were joined in the 1600s by the first European settlers. West Philadelphia later became America’s first “streetcar suburb” spurred on by the Industrial Revolution. At its height, the neighborhood was home to more than 300,000 people.

The students, who studied under the direction of Licht, Penn Archivist Mark Frazier Lloyd and Professor of History Robert Francis Engs, pored through archives from religious, educational, social and cultural institutions, as well as information gathered and donated by long-time residents. Students also collected oral histories from members of the community.

The site contains meticulously researched neighborhood histories that are augmented by a treasure trove of photographs, maps and statistical information. The interactive educational resource can be supplemented and used by residents, schoolteachers and students. Teachers at four West Philadelphia public schools have made available the educational guides they’ve created from the site.

The West Philadelphia Community History Center can be viewed at

Originally published on June 25, 2009