In Fishtown, Thompson and Palmer Streets, is Alexander Adaire elementary school. Despite the name, barely anybody is familiar with its namesake or history (but then again, perhaps the same could be said of all buildings). The school was a very interesting one, and the individual it is named after was perhaps even more fascinating.
Adaire School was opened in 1892, and was quite beautiful. Even in its day it was quite the alluring architecture. Its exterior looked very much like a mansion, one could say. This is referring, of course, to the original school building. Unfortunately, the new building did not attempt the same design and, even more unfortunately, resembles a more conventional building. Upon its inception, Adaire was a combined grammar, primary, and secondary school. The classrooms were quite large. At the time, it was a very innovative school. It had one thousand students and twenty classes, and its walls were adorned with such things as maps and pictures. This is quite commonplace, unsurprising, and even expected of the schools of today to have such things, but at the time they were a bit rarer than that. The school prided itself in such innovation. Naturally, these graphical representations not only improved the atmosphere of the school, but also supported the learning process. It was believed such academic adornments would enhance the learning process and give more meaning to the students, that is, to show them visually as opposed to merely studying.
The school was constructed out of Alexander Adaire’s lumber, but that is not the reason why it was named after him. A little-known fact is that Adaire was heavily involved in education. He was on the board of education and advocated the night school program, which is so in use today. Yes, indeed: night school began in Philadelphia and Adaire school was named after the gentleman who established education in the evening. Speaking of that gentleman…
Alexander Adaire himself has quite the interesting story. His official job was that he ran a lumber mill; more specifically, he was the president of the Philadelphia Lumber Exchange. Knowing this, it seems strange that the school would be named after a gentleman who worked with lumber, even if the school was built out of his lumber. In addition to running a lumber mill, Adaire also improved certain aspects in education and was overall a good person.
The current principal of Adaire School, Mr. Robert McGrogan, describes Adaire as a philanthropist. He was not only a wealthy businessman; he helped other people with his wealth. He was a very generous, giving person whose primary interest was improving the lives of people in the neighborhood. In addition to merely being a kind soul, he also was very involved in education. Adaire was on the board of education and was responsible for the founding of the night school program. He wanted people to receive an education, and he found the best way to do it was have classes in the evening when people were not working.
Alexander Adaire was born on May 7, 1834, in Philadelphia. His father died when he was young, which left him to be raised by his mother, who did not remarry. The loss of his father at such an early age might have affected his nature as a good man later in life. Such a loss would lead him to understand exactly how hard life could be on people. Alexander lived with his sister Margaret and his mother until somewhere near 1870, when his mother passed away. He and Margaret still stayed in the house.
Alexander Adaire worked as a carpenter for the early years of his life, and this and his money allowed him to become an important figure in Kensington, going so far as to be in the Pennsylvania State Legislature, and was later put on the Board of Education, a position which he held for nearly 30 years. He was appointed as the chairman of the night school, and was honored by the city of Philadelphia by naming Alexander Adaire School after him. He was also the chairman of the Railroad Committee during the time Pennsylvanian railroads were being mapped out.
Around 1880, Alexander married a teacher named Anna Soumeilan. They had two children, Anna and Alexander. Alexander Adaire (the one the school was named after, not his son) passed away on January 14, 1904. His death certificate is quite unique and fascinating: his cause of death was “acute nephritis,” that is, inflammation of the kidney. That is not the interesting part, though. Contributing factors to his death – written on his death certificate, even – are “exhaustion, grief over loss of wife.” It is certainly not common for something such as “grief over loss of wife” to appear on a death certificate, in fact, the writer has never even seen such a thing appear on a death certificate. If anything, it goes to show what a great man Alexander Adaire was, to love his wife that much and die as a result of her own death.
Alexander Adaire lived in the Fishtown-Kensington for his entire life. He was buried at Odd Fellow’s Cemetery in January 1904.
Alexander Adaire’s Death Certificate. 1904.
Adaire’s death certificate really wasn’t that big of a reference. It was about his life, not his death, after all. However, the final part of the project raises the question of why “grief over loss of wife” is written on his death certificate. That, his year of death, and the cause of his death are the reasons for which his death certificate was referred to.
Hamersly, Lewis. Who's Who in Pennsylvania. 1st ed. New York City: Lewis R.
Hamersly Company, 1904.
Who’s Who in Pennsylvania is a book containing short biographies on important people in Pennsylvania Naturally, there are a lot of people and not a lot of space, so descriptions are a page at most. Alexander Adaire has a page in this book, mentioning his Philadelphia Lumber Exchange Company and his involvement in education.
McGrogan, Robert. E-mail/telephone Interview. Oct 2010. 5 Nov 2010.
Robert McGrogan is the current principal of Alexander Adaire Elementary School. I had emailed him regarding the history of Alexander Adaire/the school, and he provided me with a bit of information regarding him. He described Adaire as a philanthropist (a comment which went into the project). Very helpful.
Milano, Kenneth. E-mail Interview. Oct 2010. 5 Nov 2010.
The local historian and genealogist of the Fishtown-Kensington area, Kenneth W. Milano (http://kennethwmilano.com/page/default.aspx), is the writer of several books about the history of the area, like the history of Penn Treaty Park and the history of the Kensington Soup Society. Milano puts a lot of time into his research and makes sure that everything he writes is factually accurate. He was contacted in an effort to collect information about Adaire or the school, and he responded with a great deal of information from a book he has written, but that is, at this time, unreleased. In addition to this, some pictures come from his website. Kenneth W. Milano was probably the greatest source of information in the completion of this.
Matusov, Eugene. "USA public schools." Eugene Matusov's Webs. N.p. Web. 05 Nov 2010. <http://ematusov.soe.udel.edu/classrooms/usa.htm>.
This site didn’t provide much information, but a picture or two was lifted from here. Truly invaluable. Few pictures of the school exist today, so any pictures around are highly important.
United States. United States Census. Multiple Years.
The Census was referred to for the purpose of checking where Adaire, his mother, and his sister were living. Most of that didn’t find its way into the final product, but the census was a large reference early on and at least some remnant of it must exist in the final product somewhere, in some form. The census confirms that Adaire lived with his sister and mother, and then that he had a wife, and two children later on.