An occasional series of little-known stories of the town and its environs
The Park Avenue Presbyterian Church The Swarthmore Presbyterian Church is 120 years old this February. It had a beginning that was marred by a little-remembered squabble between competing land developers.
In December of 1886, Andrew G. DeArmond began to solicit money and pledges from people interested in having a Presbyterian church in Swarthmore. The money was intended for the purchase of a building lot on the northwesterly corner of Park Avenue at Yale, which was owned by The Swarthmore Improvement Company, and designated Lot 72. The intended church was to be called the Park Avenue Presbyterian Church. DeArmond was developing the 300 block of Vassar Avenue at that time, and he looked forward to having his church nearby.
DeArmond contributed $119 to the fund and appointed himself a trustee of the Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, an entity that existed in name only. He then asked Fred Simons and Henry Ingham to be co-trustees in purchasing Lot 72, and in August 1890, DeArmond paid The Swarthmore Improvement Company $800 for the land. However, a powerful group of subscribers, five of whom were directors of the Improvement Company, had decided that they wanted the church to be built on Harvard Avenue, west of Chester Road.
For three years after receiving payment, The Swarthmore Improvement Company put off giving a deed for Lot 72. DeArmond threatened legal action, and on August 15, 1893 a title to Lot 72 was issued to DeArmond, Simons, and Ingham. The land had been purchased, but DeArmond was unable to raise more money to begin construction.
As their membership increased, the Presbyterians became anxious to leave the Swarthmore Church Union, a mixed congregation of Protestant denominations which had been meeting in various places, and have their own church building. The Harvard Avenue faction met at the Strath Haven Inn in November 1895 to establish their church, which was to be the Swarthmore Presbyterian Church on Harvard Avenue, and not the Park Avenue Presbyterian Church on Lot 72. Fred Simons donated two lots on Harvard, and architect William Lightfoot Price was hired to design the building. Construction began in December 1895, and on February 3, 1896, with the building not nearly finished, the Swarthmore Presbyterian Church (SPC) was chartered as a Pennsylvania corporation.
The SPC Board of Trustees ordered Andrew DeArmond to sign over the deed to Lot 72 but he refused, as he felt that the effort to build a Presbyterian church in Swarthmore had been hijacked, and that a significant number of contributors to the Park Avenue Presbyterian Church had been betrayed. In October 1896, DeArmond was sued by SPC and numerous individuals, including Fred Simons and Henry Ingham. This group of men, seeing themselves as the greatest contributors to a Presbyterian church in Swarthmore, had incorporated their church and constructed a building on a property of their choosing, and they wanted to sell Lot 72 to bolster their finances.
Although DeArmond had presented his list of 72 subscribers as being supporters of the Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, it seems likely, because of the many members of other denominations who signed, that the subscribers actually thought they were supporting the Church Union. The lawsuit was scheduled for trial in February 1897, but DeArmond reached a settlement with the plaintiffs beforehand, and Lot 72 was then conveyed to SPC.
Andrew DeArmond’s dream of a Park Avenue Presbyterian Church vanished, leaving the merest footnote in Swarthmore’s history.