An occasional series of little-known stories of the town and its environs
John W. Graham was born in Ireland and came to the United States as a young boy. He was a partner in the Philadelphia carpet firm of Griffin, Graham & Company, and by 1903 he had his own profitable retail business, John W. Graham & Company, at 1708 Chestnut Street.
As befitted a prosperous burgher, Graham hired Del Lewis, who had built the Strath Haven Inn, to construct a 3-story, 10-room house on Harvard Avenue in Swarthmore. Construction began in the Spring of 1895, and the Graham family moved there in November. John and his wife, Jennie, named their home “Maerex” after their children, Mae and Rex.
John and Jennie celebrated their wedding anniversary each year with a grand party at their home. The house and grounds were brightly illuminated, an orchestra played throughout the evening, and guests arrived from Philadelphia, New York, and Boston for Swarthmore’s “social event of the season.”
Graham was a trustee of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church, which was built across the street from Maerex, and was president and a founding director of the Swarthmore Building Association. He helped organize winter skating carnivals on Crum Creek, and was also interested in politics. After losing a nomination to run for school director in 1897, he was appointed in 1900 to fill the vacant position of Swarthmore Inspector of Elections. Graham was elected to that position in 1903. In March 1906 he took office as Swarthmore’s Burgess, a title that decades later was changed to Mayor.
Two months after being sworn in as Burgess, Graham moved his family to an enormous stone mansion he had had built on a 30-acre estate along the north side of Baltimore Pike, just west of the intersection with Swarthmore Avenue. (The driveway entrance was the site of John Taylor’s blacksmith shop, which had been there since the late 1840s, and its removal was the beginning of the demise of a small community of shops and houses clustered along Baltimore Pike at Paper Mill Road.) The grand house had a red tile roof, was dominated by a 2-story, 4-column portico, and was featured on post cards of the time. John and Jennie called their new home “Maerex on the Hill.”
Graham continued his duties as Swarthmore Burgess. In August, 1906, he vetoed a revised Dog Ordinance because he objected to a requirement that all dogs running at large be muzzled. An irked Borough Council then questioned whether a resident of Springfield Township could legally hold the position of Swarthmore Burgess, and after a conversation with borough solicitor Morton Paul, Graham resigned. A Council committee spent the next two months trying to find someone willing to accept the appointment of Burgess for the remainder of Graham’s term, and finally had success with Shade E. Simmonds of Vassar Avenue, who was sworn in on October 15.
In September 1911, with more than 1,000 invited guests packing Swarthmore Presbyterian Church, Mae Graham married lawyer Edgar Barnes, whose best man was Rex Graham.
In December, 1912, patriarch John W. Graham and was remembered as “a good fellow.” The Maerex-on-the-Hill property was subdivided, and the house with 16 acres was owned in the 1920s by W.C. Bickley. By 1936 it had become Gertrude Stewart’s Stewart School for Retarded Children, which continued in existence until it was torn down to make way for the Springfield Mall.
Maerex on Harvard Avenue had a succession of prominent and less-well known residents, became run-down, and was renovated in 2014. Its Queen Anne architecture is a fine example of Swarthmore’s classic early houses.