Whatever the reason, vacationing in Media was no chance occurrence. Wealthy Philadelphians were among the first to build homes there to escape the summer heat, smelly sewers and daily grind of city life in the late 1800s. The rest of the discerning set simply followed.
Henry G. Ashmead, in his 1884 History of Delaware County, offered this analysis of the resort phenomenon:
"The beauty and healthfulness of Media, the picturesqueness of its surrounding hills and valleys, the fact that the sale of liquor is prohibited, and its easy accessibility from Philadelphia have caused many people who prefer quiet, rest and true recreation rather than the fashionable dissipation of the great resorts, to seek summer homes in the town or its neighborhood."
A house built by noted Philadelphia architect Frank Furness still stands at 110 Idlewild Lane, as does Hillhurst, the John Biddle home at 216 S. Orange St., and the Gifford-Risley House at 430 N. Monroe St.
They are among the few remaining finer examples of summer residences that flourished in Media during this period. The Monroe Street property was purchased in 1877 by Philadelphia merchant Elton B. Gifford, a Quaker, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It later became the home of Samuel Risley, a prominent physician.
Media historian I. Frank Lees says the borough area had four major resort hotels at the turn of the century, three of which were situated in the immediate vicinity of the old Philadelphia, Baltimore & Washington railroad station. Two were commodious four-story structures boasting state-of-the-art conveniences such as elevators and bowling alleys.
Families renting for the entire summer also could avail themselves of a number of cottages near the hotels and the station. A row of those cottages remains as private residences along South Avenue between Franklin and Jefferson Streets.
The hotels most associated with the era were the Idlewild at Gayley Terrace and Idlewild Lane, the Colonial at Orange and Jefferson Streets, the Charter House at State Street and South Avenue (now Veterans Square), and Brooke Hall at Baltimore Pike and Lemon Street.
The only one of the four still standing is the Charter House, and that has long been converted into an apartment building known as Plymouth Hall that fronts Veterans Square.
Newspaper accounts in the archives of the Media Historical Society say the Charter House was built by public subscription as a temperance hotel in 1851. It had broad verandas and a lawn set back about 30 feet on State Street. Oldtimers remember seeing guests on the front porch relaxing in rocking chairs in the heat of midsummer and viewing the passing street scenes.
Promenading along the streets of Media, according to an account by businessman C. Frank Williamson written for the borough's centennial in 1950, were women attired in bustles, hoop skirts and "large hats with a small flower garden on them."
The fashionable women also had "finger rings with dainty lace handkerchiefs attached to them. Indian shawls and very small parasols with long handles. Dresses reaching to the ground with several highly starched underskirts. It was highly improper to see above the shoe top."
"High silk hats denoted prosperity for men. Beards were worn, and big watches with large Masonic charms were carried," Williamson wrote. "High boots for men were common."
In later years, the Charter House's porches were removed, and stores were built along the hotel's entire frontage, hiding all but the fourth-floor mansard roof and dormers, which can still be seen facing Front Street and the courthouse.
The Brooke Hall Female Seminary was founded in 1856 and became a widely recognized finishing school for young ladies before being closed and converted into a summer boarding house about 1897. The historical society's archives at the Media-Upper Providence Library indicate that the school was named for its builder, H. Jones Brooke. Brooke also built the Chestnut Grove House, later to become the Colonial, in 1855, as well as the row of South Avenue summer homes.
Ida Saxton, who became the wife of President William McKinley, was a distinguished graduate of Brooke Hall along with her sister, Mary, the archival accounts say. After the school closed, a newspaper advertisement dated 1905 said that "the thoroughly renovated Brooke Hall (Hotel) will make a specialty of coaching, sleighing and trolley parties."
Brooke, a land developer and politician who served in both branches of the state legislature, probably was as responsible as any single person for turning Media into a resort town. But David Reese Hawkins was surely close behind.
Hawkins was the first proprietor of the Charter House. In 1871, he left with his sons, John H. and Alfred L., to build the posh Idlewild Hotel on a woodland hillock just across the borough's southern boundary with Upper Providence. Because it was outside Media proper, the Idlewild could serve liquor legally.
Much of the Idlewild's land later became the property of Notre Dame High School for Girls along Manchester Avenue, and more recently the Pennsylvania Institute of Technology. Single homes were built closer to the site at Idlewild and Letitia Lanes.
According to archive records, the Idlewild accommodated 150 guests, and was within a seven-minute walk of the railroad station via a boardwalk built between the station and the hotel's rear veranda. An 1876 Idlewild ledger in the historical society's archives shows that rooms rented for $10 a week. Dinners cost $1. Horses rented for $1.50 a day; carriages went for an extra
The hotel had a water-powered elevator system and bowling alleys, and was surrounded by 20 acres of woods, gardens, stables, bridle trails, tennis courts and a nine-hole golf course.
It maintained a herd of cows for fresh milk and grass-cutting, and kept a pond full of live trout for the kitchen. Guests played billiards, pool and shuffleboard, and enjoyed Saturday-night ballroom dances and luxurious meals, for which the Idlewild was well-known.
On May 29, 1879, almost 4,000 people swarmed to the Idlewild's grounds for a county fair. About 1900, the Idlewild was regarded as the most popular summer resort in eastern Pennsylvania. By 1926 it was closed, and was torn down seven years later, archive records show.
Margaret Hawkins, a granddaughter of the founder who spent much of her early life in the hotel, recalled in newspaper accounts now in the archives that about 80 guests would arrive at the Idlewild in May with their dogs, horses, grooms and maids and stay until November.
In the mornings, she said, the gentlemen walked the boards to the train en route to their various Philadelphia brokerages. Toward the end of the day, a
carriage would meet the train and bring them home for golf before dinner.
She reminisced about riding in a pony cart down State Street, "where many of the hotel guests would shop." Hawkins died a few years ago in her late 90s, but not before returning to the scene of her youth at least once to chat with new residents of the area.
Hawkins had been introduced in the 1940s to Marie Gebeleine, who was about to build a home on Idlewild Lane. Gebeleine recalled Hawkins telling her of the time Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and his wife stayed in the Furness House at the Idlewild during a period of political unrest in China. It was about 1915 or 1916, and the couple lived in a house on the hotel grounds. The general would later become president of the Republic of China.
Hawkins, who also had managed the Idlewild's kitchen, acknowledged that her family's hotel catered to "a snobbish set of Philadelphians who lived in the Rittenhouse Square area, and wouldn't speak to anyone who didn't."
Gebeleine, now in her 80s, lives in a home on the exact spot where the hotel was located. The white stone steps in front of her property, in fact, are all that remain of the original building, Gebeleine said Monday.
Brooke's Colonial Hotel also was a four-story building, with a capacity for 200 boarders and an elevator system similar to the Idlewild's. Media's archives say it, too, had music parlors, card rooms, a ballroom, billiard and pool rooms, shuffleboards, and bowling alleys, but no liquor.
Situated on a ridge above the Ridley Creek valley, the Colonial was even closer to the Media railroad station than the Idlewild was, and was shaded by a grove of chestnut trees that gave it its original name.
According to the archives, in 1903, a new owner named Nicholas H. Wagner sought permission to sell liquor out of a building just over the borough line
from the Colonial. He had proposed erecting an underground passageway for patrons between his hotel and the liquor building. An estimated 900 people had assembled in the Media courthouse to protest the issuance of a license, and Wagner reportedly failed.
By the late 1920s, Media's heyday as a resort had passed. A number of factors had affected the leisure time of the rich, not the least of which were the stock market crash and the onset of the Depression.
Ironically, the hotels were out of the resort business when the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 finally opened Media to the sale of liquor. Equally ironic is the fact that the only hotel still standing, the former Charter House, was the one founded by, and catering exclusively to, teetotalers.