June 24, 2010

Chestnut Hill Dining Guide

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He’s definitely on the right track
Living in a Hill train station for 78 years

Albert Jerdan has lived in and taken care of the Gravers Lane Station much longer than most Chestnut Hill residents have been alive. (Photo by Len Lear)

People often peek in the windows of Albert Jerdan’s house on Gravers Lane or try to walk through the front door to get inside, but he does not take offense at this invasion of privacy.

After all, Jerdan explained, after living in a house in the middle of the Gravers Lane Station, on the Chestnut Hill East Line, for 78 years, it is just part of his most unconventional routine. “People try to get in the doors, but you get used to it,” said Jerdan, 81. “I realize it’s an unusual place.”

Of course it is not just about people trying to get inside; sometimes, Jerdan said, people who do not realize it is private property by the station set up a picnic in his backyard. “I let them stay as long as they clean up after,” he said. “I don’t mind them being here.”

Built in 1883, 30 years after the inauguration of rail service to Chestnut Hill east of Germantown Avenue, the railroad station at Gravers Lane represents the efforts of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad's proposed line to the western part of Chestnut Hill, which they knew would be opened in 1884.

The house and train station were designed by legendary architect Frank Furness. (Frank Heyling Furness, 1839–1912, was an acclaimed American architect of the Victorian era. He designed more than 600 buildings, most in the Philadelphia area. Among his most important surviving buildings are the University of Pennsylvania Library, the  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia.)

Built in 1883, 30 years after the inauguration of rail service to Chestnut Hill east of Germantown Avenue, the railroad station at Gravers Lane has been home to Albert Jerdan for almost eight decades.

The Gravers Lane Station is considered by some experts to be "one of Furness' finest, extravagantly displaying his love of abstracted and stylized High Victorian forms ..." The building consists of a one-story ticket office and passenger waiting room, and the two-story residence that has been home to Jerdan's family for almost eight decades.

It is a brick structure with timber sections, and has a hip roof, a port-cochere and a shed porch, as well as a semicircular tower that rises from the ticket office and is topped with gables, dormers and a conical roof. The station was restored in 1982 through the efforts of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, but there is now no ticket selling or railroad activity except for the trains and the passengers boarding or arriving.

When he was three years old, Jerdan moved from Wyncote to the house with his parents, Wilfred and Ella, and five siblings — Lin, Walter, Russ, Ada and Bill. Albert's father, a brakeman for the Reading Railroad Company, had rented the living quarters of the station. “The house was empty and a mess, but we fixed it up.”

When his family first moved in to the house set about 50 yards back from Gravers Lane, the family put in copper tubing for the electrical system and installed a pot-bellied stove, among other changes. But, as it was when he moved in 78 years ago, there is still no heat in the kitchen. “You get used to it,”said Albert, who still pays rent to Septa.

With his father working for the railroad station, which was once owned by Conrail and is now owned by Septa, Jerdan’s family would open the waiting room at 6 a.m. and close it at 7 p.m. “We helped out at the station and kept the furnaces going,” he said.

And Jerdan enjoyed playing on the grounds with his siblings. “We used to play around. We had an embankment, but we were not allowed to go too far. We used to get in the trains, and people would stop by for coffee.”

With a living room, dining room, bedrooms and 11-foot ceilings under which it can be difficult to hear, the house became his unusual home for decades as he later lived with his wife, Constance, of 58 years, and raised four children — Steve, 54, a Central High grad; Wayne, 53, a Penn Charter grad; Charlene, 52, a Stevens School grad, and Holly, 51, a Girls High grad. Now Albert cares for Connie, who has been an invalid for more than two years.

Almost 30 years ago, Connie told the Local that the scariest experience they ever had at the station was when a passenger lit a fire in a five-gallon drum in the rest room. Shortly thereafter, Connie went downstairs to put coal in the furnace, but when she opened the door, she was met by dense smoke, and the fire had already begun to spread to the rafters. After taking her children to a neighbor's home, she called the fire department. “Five minutes more,” a firefighter told her, “and the whole place would have been gone.”

“The kids always liked the house,” Albert said. “They were on softball teams, and the house was always loaded with people from the teams. And we had picnics here.”

Jerdan has always loved Chestnut Hill and is glad to have raised his family here, but so much has changed over the years as farms turned into residential properties and long-time residents moved away.

As a young boy, Jerdan attended the John Story Jenks Elementary School, then entered Dobbins Area Vocational High School in North Philadelphia, where he learned to be a radio technician, a job he held for 30 years at Leeds, an electronic outfit in North Wales. “I was a job instructor. I taught people how to run machines, and experimented with new ones.”

But as he changed and grew older, Jerdan remained in the house while his siblings moved away to such locations as Warminster and Doylestown. “The town has been built up a lot over the years. One farm is now an apartment house, and there are eight or nine homes where another farm used to be.”

When Jerdan was a child, there was a farm across the street with orchards, chickens and cows. He said the farmers used to bring eggs to his parents. “And there was Caruso’s property (down the street). That was the family that owned the market (where Weaver’s Way is now)” for about 100 years. (Caruso's property was where Station Avenue is now. Numerous smaller houses were built there in 1980.)

Jerdan believes that people have also changed, particularly the younger kids, whom he sees walking along the tracks and in the neighborhood. “In a way, it is hard because the younger generation is not like what I used to know,” he said. “They talk back to you when I am trying to get them off the tracks. I also pick up the trash that a lot of adults leave.”

Despite the changes, Jerdan is happy to still be living in the house, and enjoys caring for a backyard that contains rose bushes, tiger lilies and other plant life. He does, however, miss the 11 maple trees that once stood on the grounds but then had to be cut down.

“The backyard is fairly big, and it takes an hour to cut the grass. There is also sometimes graffiti I have to wash, but there isn’t too much because I don’t take it from the kids.”

As for the constantly passing trains, the only time Jerdan actually notices them is if there is a change in the schedule. “I’m so used to it that I don't even hear the trains. When I say that to people, they think I’m crazy. If a train is off schedule, though, then I  do hear it, and I know something’s up.”

In addition to the random visitors who are unaware that the house is actually private property, Jerdan often has students from Drexel University and other local colleges coming by to take pictures of, and study, the architecture of the building. “They ask me questions, and I’m used to it. They just show up because they don’t realize it’s private.”

Still, despite the constant train train traffic and often a lack of privacy, Jerdan is pleased to be living in a house he has been in almost all of his long life.

“Everything’s changed,” he said, “but it’s a wonderful world.”


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