by Laura B. Hoover
Every day, Doris McGonagle laces up her sneakers and takes her beloved Shih-tzu, Dewey, out for a four-mile walk around Chestnut Hill. The retired teacher used to travel the same route she and her father followed when she was little: starting at their Ardleigh Street home and then looping up to the first driveway of Norwood Fontbonne Academy. But since Dewey came into her life, she varies her walk and leaves when the dog sits up and bats her on the knee.
A lot has changed in the 65 years McGonagle has lived in Chestnut Hill. The longtime resident will take those memories with her when she moves in the coming weeks to be closer to her sister’s family near Boston.
“It’s hard, but I know all the people in my sister’s area; my nieces are there, and they’re like my grandchildren,” said McGonagle, 74. “It’s going to be sad and happy at the same time. There’s no place in the world like Chestnut Hill.”
The oldest of seven children, McGonagle grew up in her 100-year-old, three-bedroom Ardleigh Street row home, first purchased by her grandmother in 1938. For years she lived there with her father, who worked at Standard Pressed Steel Co. in Jenkintown for 20 years, her mother, who worked for an answering service and held various jobs, and her aunt, uncle and their daughter.
“Times were very hard,” she said. “There was a backlash from the Depression.” McGonagle’s earliest memories of the neighborhood include ice skating on the pond at Pastorius Park, stuffing socks into her skates to make them fit and warming herself by the fire, and participating in gymnastics, dance and games at the nearby Water Tower Recreation Center.
“The teachers were wonderful. If you misbehaved, you couldn’t come back for two weeks,” she said. “The playground was so safe, you could leave your gloves, hats, bike or wagon, and they’d be right where you left them.”
McGonagle remembers being treated well as a child by the shop owners on Germantown Avenue, even though she was rarely buying. One of the ladies who worked at Bredenbeck’s, which was located farther up the hill, took the time to put red cinnammon hearts on the cake she bought for her mother. She frequented a former five-and-dime store near the Chestnut Hill West train station and former Foster’s Dry Goods store at the corner of Willow Grove and Germantown avenues, which she thought had the best soda fountain, booths and ice cream in the area.
When her father and four uncles went off to World War II, McGonagle remembers the owner of the then-Hilton’s Pharmacy saying, ‘“You tell you mother if she needs something, come see me.’ There was always somebody coming home and going.”
While the still-surviving Kilian’s Hardware and Robertson’s Flowers were there, a few things looked different on Germantown Avenue. There were gas lights in front of Jenks Elementary School, and the Bell Telephone Building used to house a movie theater. A visitor could see news clips, cartoons and a double feature for 16 cents, she said. McGonagle had a thing for cowboy movies.
“My father was strict. He had a sense of humor, but you didn’t always see it,” she said. “He’d pick us up from church and drive cowboy-style (swerving back and forth), just for half a block. Then he was back to normal.”
McGonagle walked up the hill everyday to school at Our Mother of Consolation and visited the Chestnut Hill Library on the way home. To travel to high school at Little Flower Catholic, she rode the trolley, which then held a conductor in the middle. She commuted to her job as a complaint adjuster for Curtis Publishing Co. at 6th and Sansom streets and to the Flourtown Country Club, where she worked as a bookkeeper and collected tickets for parties. That was before she went on to teach elementary school for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for 33 years.
In her 20s, Doris left Chestnut Hill to live in Cleveland and then Baltimore, and while married, lived in Wyndmoor. Her husband, who was originally from Ireland, died a year-and-a-half later of a heart attack at age 37. McGonagle never remarried. “He was just like Germantown Avenue, one of a kind,” she said.
Feeling drawn back home, McGonagle returned to Ardleigh Street in 1994. The memories and neighbors on the street are what she’ll miss the most. Like when her grandmother wanted to talk to neighbors without the children understanding, she’d speak Gaelic. Or that time she sat up all night on the porch talking to her best friend, who lived next door; or how her parents liked to throw big parties and feed friends and neighbors on holidays or whenever they could.
“We’d head to bed and say, ‘Good night, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. In the morning we’d come down and say, ‘Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” she said. “I miss the time we spent around the kitchen and dining room table with family and friends.”
McGonagle got a glimpse of that recently as dozens of Ardleigh Street neighbors gathered to say goodbye. “She’s the nicest neighbor I’ve ever had,” resident Liz Trainer said.
“Doris is the epitome of a great neighbor,” said Patricia Conran, “with always a big hello and a watchful eye to make sure everything was secure on our street. My family will miss seeing her friendly face strolling down Ardleigh Street.”
McGonagle said that while neighbors may not know each other as they used to, there is still a strong sense of community here.
“It’s all part of the fabric of Chestnut Hill, just the kindness of one person to another. They don’t have to know you. They’ve seen you. It’s a good feeling.”
Laura B. Hoover is a freelance writer living in Chestnut Hill.