Paintings by Ruth Wolf at the Germantown branch of Settlement Music School.

By Michael Caruso

When students at the Germantown branch of Settlement Music School return for lessons Tuesday, Sept. 5, they’ll enter a facility that has undergone extensive renovations and additions during the past decade.

Branch director Eric Anderson, of Glenside, explained that the property at 6128 Germantown Ave. that forms the central core of the branch was built as a private home for Philadelphia merchant Charles Magargee.

“His family lived here for 30 years,” Anderson said, “until they were what was called at the time ‘financially embarrassed’ and had to sell it. For a short period of time it was a private boys school, and then in 1900 it became the home of the German Society of Germantown. By 1910, it was the YWCA for those who were then called ‘colored women.’ It had tennis courts in the back and a small recital hall on the second floor.”

By the late 1950s, Settlement’s executive director Sol Schoenbach believed the music school should expand beyond its historic Mary Louise Curtis branch, located at 416 Queen St. in the Queen Village section of South Philadelphia. The Settlement Music School was founded in 1908, operating in three row homes on the south side of the 400 block of Christian Street. (They have been replaced by public housing.) Mary Louise Curtis Bok gave the school $8 million to build the building at 416 Queen St., which opened in 1917.

“Settlement’s board of directors approved the purchase of the Germantown property on April 21, 1959,” Anderson recalled. “The price was $22,000, and another $28,000 was set aside for renovations and additions to turn it into a music school. Sol fervently believed that it was part of Settlement’s mission as a community music school to branch out from the original venue in Queen Village to Germantown. Then, only one year later, Settlement rented a house in the Northeast and used in until 1976, when we opened our own facility in the Northeast.

“Sol believed that the densely populated Germantown community was in desperate need of a community music school that could provide financial aid and scholarships for those who couldn’t afford music lessons and classes on their own. Families living in sections such as Chestnut Hill and West Mt. Airy could afford lessons and classes, but many Germantown residents might not have been able to do so at the time.”

In 1986, Settlement took on the Jenkintown Music School and merged it into the Settlement system. Several years later in a move of “déjà vu,” Settlement acquired a large home in the Wynnefield section of the city and opened a fifth branch there. Renovations and additions followed. Although the Mary Louise Curtis branch remains the largest, with approximately 1,600 students in private lessons and classes, the Germantown, Northeast and Wynnefield branches boast nearly 800 students apiece.

Anderson explained that major renovations at the Germantown branch began in 2011, when the lower lobby was revamped. In 2013, all the windows throughout the original building and the extensive additions behind it were replaced. By December of 2015, the parking lot was moved from the back of the building to its north side along Germantown Ave. and completely repaved and re-lighted with space for 75 cars. Less than a year ago, a new entrance lobby was completed. The branch’s concert hall, originally built in 1987, has also been renovated. The hall can seat 250 and boasts two Steinway & Sons concert grand pianos, one America-made and the other made in Hamburg, Germany.

One of the most interesting offerings at the Germantown branch is its collaboration with the Allens Lane Art Center in West Mt. Airy. “When I was the branch director down at Queen Street,” Anderson said, “we started a collaboration with the Fleisher Art Memorial, which is located only a few blocks away at 719 Catharine St. Some of their works of art by students studying there were put on display at Settlement. When I came here as branch director in 2011, I got in contact with Craig Stover, the executive director at Allens Lane, and offered him the opportunity to display some of their art works on the walls of our concert hall. They don’t have enough space of their own to showcase all their art works at their facility, so I invited Craig to come by and take a look at our concert hall.

“He said that the space was fabulous but that the lighting wasn’t good for displaying paintings. But I was determined that we could make it work. We’ve installed a gallery-style hanging system and improved the lighting. The cost was about $1,600, and we decided to divide that figure in half for each institution. We change exhibits approximately every six weeks and coordinate the opening of a new exhibit with one of our student recitals. It’s a wonderful opportunity for our music students to interact with their artists.”

Speaking of the collaboration, Settlement CEO Helen Eaton said, “The partnership between Settlement Music School’s Germantown branch and the Allens Lane Art Center has been a rewarding and inspiring one. This unique collaboration provides a space for visual and musical artists to interact and share their talent and art with one another and the wider Germantown community. The exchanges and unexpected connections that the Lieberman Gallery has spurned over the years demonstrate the broader impact that arts organizations have when they put forward shared creative endeavors.”

The Germantown Branch of Settlement Music School will hold an open house Saturday, Sept. 16. For more information, call 215-320-2610 or visit www.smsmusic.org.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the piano faculty at the Mary Louise Curtis Branch of Settlement Music School. You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net.

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