Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

One hundred years ago, in 1908, two community-minded, socially-conscious single young women, Philadelphians Jeanette Selig (1886–1965) and Blanche Wolf (1886–1983), unwittingly created a school that’s become recognized as the largest community arts school in the United States, serving more than fifteen thousand students.

In 1982, as the Settlement Music School observed its seventy-fifth anniversary, Wolf, who had married clothing manufacturer Isidore Kohn (1871–1964) in March 1910, recalled the impulse that prompted Selig and her to explore the Christian Street neighborhood in South Philadelphia where many European immigrants had settled. Wolf had just completed her education at Bryn Mawr College. “Those were the days when you did things because you wanted to do something,” she remembered. “Jeanette Selig and I walked down to the College Settlement House and volunteered to teach something, and we were asked to teach gymnastics.” Neither of the twenty- two-year-old German Jewish women knew anything about the subject but taught it anyway.

Jeanette Selig, who married Edwin G. Frank (1886–1973), a clothing manufacturer, was a pianist and suggested the idea of music lessons. She and Wolf sent postcards to families in the Southwark section of Philadelphia. “The response was overwhelming,” Kohn said. “We charged five cents a lesson, but later raised it to ten cents on the theory that anything you don’t pay for doesn’t do you any good. I always felt the two of us should have paid the kids.” More than thirty children applied — far more than the two could handle. Kohn then recruited members of the Philadelphia Orchestra to give lessons. By 1914, enrollment at the school had grown to 250 students, with a hundred more on a waiting list. Needing more room, school leaders rented space in a building at 427 Christian Street. They also incorporated the music program in 1914 as a separate entity, the Settlement Music School of Philadelphia, an independent school of the arts.

Jennie May Fels (1855–1943) married philanthropist Samuel S. Fels (1860–1950), president of Fels & Co., manufacturer of the enormously popular household soap, Fels Naphtha, in 1890. She became acquainted through the Philadelphia Society for Ethical Culture with Johann Grolle, a violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra who played for the society’s Sunday services. Grolle, who had been volunteering at the Settlement Music School, served as the school’s first executive director, a position he held for forty years. He introduced Jennie Fels to the school shortly after the school moved to a new building at Christian and Fourth Streets and needed funds for its maintenance. Fels contributed to the building’s upkeep and in 1914 became chairman of the school’s newly formed board of directors and its first president. Under her watchful eye, the Settlement Music School epitomized the spirit of a settlement house, becoming an integral part of its community with teachers and social workers living in the same area. “Often children were clothed, fed, and even bathed before they began their studies,” wrote Evelyn Bodek Rosen in The Philadelphia Fels, 1880–1920: A Social Portrait, adding “friends of the school contributed clothing as well as funds. Americanization of the immigrants was uppermost in the minds of the school’s personnel, who hoped that through music immigrants might imbibe something of the culture and ideals of American society that would lead them towards a ‘higher form of citizenship.’”

Philadelphia’s College Settlement House, organized in 1892 by a group of college-educated women, looked after the welfare of neighborhood immigrants. Such settlement houses were important reform institutions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of which the most well-known is Chicago’s Hull House, founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Settlement houses taught adult education and Americanization classes, provided schooling for the children of immigrants, organized job clubs, offered after-school recreation, initiated public health services, offered trade and vocational training, and taught classes in music, art, and theater. In their earliest days, settlement houses were synonymous with social work and by 1918, more than four hundred had been established in the United States.

The settlement movement began in a slum in London’s East End in 1884. Toynbee Hall, the movement’s prototype, was home to an Anglican clergyman and his wife, as well as several young men from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Unrelated middle-class women and men lived cooperatively at Toynbee Hall as “settlers,” hoping to share their knowledge and culture with their poor, largely uneducated neighbors. The settlement concept immediately appealed to young Americans who hoped to bridge the gulf of class and help the urban poor. Underlying the multitude of services was a philosophy that encouraged upward mobility and assisted each immigrant group to become part of main-stream society and achieve the American Dream. African American educator and activist W. E. B. DuBois (1863–1968) lived at Philadelphia’s College Settlement House in 1896 and 1897 while collecting data for his classic study published in 1899, The Philadelphia Negro. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected a state historical marker at Sixth and Rodman Streets in 1995, commemorating DuBois and his stay at the settlement house. In 1917, three years after the Settlement Music School’s incorporation, philanthropist Mary Louise Curtis Bok (1876–1970), the only child of Cyrus H. K. Curtis (1850–1933), founder and owner of the Curtis Publishing Company, and Louisa Knapp Curtis (1852–1910), editor of the company’s Ladies’ Home Journal, financed the construction of a new building at 416 Queen Street, christened the Mary Louise Curtis Branch of Settlement Music School. In 1896, Mary Louise Curtis had married Edward W. Bok (1863– 1930), who succeeded his mother-in-law as editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1889 and authored several books, including The Americanization of Edward Bok: The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years After (1920), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Mary Louise Bok was introduced by Jennie Fels to Jeanette Selig and Blanche Wolf after the death of her mother. Cyrus Curtis had asked Fels to help his depressed and listless daughter find something that would give her purpose and lift her spirits. The Settlement Music School proved to be the perfect antidote. Mary Louise Bok’s involvement with the school also led to the founding of one of the country’s most important cultural institutions, the Curtis Institute of Music.

Guided by Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977), appointed conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912, and celebrated pianist Josef Hofmann (1876–1957), Mary Louise Bok established the Curtis Institute of Music, an outgrowth of the Settlement Music School’s conservatory department, in October 1924. In its February 11, 1924, edition, Time had predicted that “Philadelphia will soon possess a great music school, an institution which will take rank with the greatest of the German schools of past years, the present Conservatoire of France, maintained by the French government or any institution of musical learning in this country.” Mary Louise and Edward Bok purchased three large buildings — the commodious residences of the Drexel, Sibley, and Cramp families — on the east side of Locust Street for the school. Named in honor of her father, the Curtis Institute is one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world. Jennie Fels helped Mary Louise Bok establish the institute and served on its board of directors until her death in 1943.

On July 6, 1943, thirteen years after her husband’s death, Bok married Efrem Zimbalist Sr. (1889–1985), a widower for eight years and renowned concert violinist, composer, teacher, and conductor. Zimbalist served as director of the Curtis Institute of Music for twenty-seven years, from 1941 to 1968. Noted alumni include composer Samuel Barber, composer and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti, sopranos Benita Valente and Anna Moffo, pianist Peter Serkin, and conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein.

While the Curtis Institute of Music offered advanced students the opportunity to study with highly trained professional music teachers, the Settlement Music School continued its tradition of providing musical training to children whose families could not afford lessons. During the heady period of early growth and dazzling success, the Settlement Music School managed to remain true to its roots as a settlement house serving newly arrived immigrants. Among the services offered were an employment bureau,classes in Italian, a vocational guidance program, scout troops, and organized athletics in a covered cage on the building’s rooftop. An Observation Club organized visits to historic places, art galleries, museums, and to what was described as “commercial industries in process of manufacture, followed by quizzes on what has been seen.”

Settlement Music School had come a long way in a relatively short period, evolving from the days of five-cent piano lessons to an array of music education in violin, mandolin, and cornet. Vocal lessons began in 1916, followed by instruction in the cello. By 1918, teachers gave lessons in the viola and the school added a second orchestra. Two choruses and a chamber music ensemble were added in 1925. Music history and advanced harmony became part of the curriculum in 1927, and a wind instrument department was added in 1936. By mid-century, the Settlement Music School had become a mainstay in Philadelphia’s educational and cultural community. It stood poised to make great leaps forward — to greatly expand its reach to the city’s boundaries and beyond, and to provide services to more of the area’s broadly diverse population.

The individual tapped to lead the momentum as the school’s executive director in 1957 was Sol Schoenbach (1915–1999). Born in the Bronx, he began playing the piano at the age of five but was given a bassoon to play in the Heckscher Foundation’s Children’s Orchestra five years later. “I thought it was exotic,” he later said of the instrument. “I brought it home and my father threw it out the window. He never gave me a cent for music from that day on . . . . I supported the bassoon myself by selling soda water to construction men building new homes in the Bronx.”

After graduating from high school at the age of fifteen, Schoenbach entered the Institute of Musical Art (later merged with The Juilliard School) on a full scholarship. By the age of seventeen, he began playing with the CBS Orchestra. In the evenings, he continued his studies at New York University, from which he received degrees in economics and linguistics. In 1937, he auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra before co-conductors Eugene Ormandy (1889–1985) and Stokowski and won a seat. At just twenty-two years old, he was one of the youngest musicians to ever win a first chair in the orchestra. Schoenbach was instrumental in reviving the orchestra’s children’s concerts. He organized the orchestra’s pension fund and convinced Arturo Toscanini to play a benefit concert for it and helped establish a credit union for orchestra members. He was a founder of the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet and served on the board of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Andy Wallace and Peter Dorbin, staff writers for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote that he “was at his most productive during the 24 years he spent at Settlement, 1957 to 1981.”

The timing of Schoenbach’s joining the Settlement Music School was ideal. As newly retired first bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Schoenbach knew both musicians and many of the city’s music lovers and patrons. With his charismatic personality — he was described by newspaper reporters as “energetic and forceful” and as “a warm whirlwind of a man” — he was the right individual at the right time to propel the school into the modern era. When he took over as director, the Settlement Music School was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and its student population had shrunk to less than seven hundred and was still plummeting. When he left, enrollment had grown to seven thousand students and was still burgeoning.

Schoenbach was committed to the settlement concept in his approach toward enrolling students. “When Sol arrived, Settlement Music School was a very small, relatively high-quality, but somewhat exclusive place that catered to what it perceived as its constituents,” said Robert Capanna, Settlement’s current executive director. “Sol walked in and asked, ‘Why not open the doors?’” He offered guitar classes for the first time and stressed chamber music as a way of bringing people together. Settlement began offering a therapeutic program for the handicapped and a summer music program.

His mission was to bring music lessons and performances to as many people as possible. “If you can tell the difference between the front door bell ringing and the telephone ringing, you’re okay with me,” Schoenbach once said. He launched a period of unprecedented growth for the school that continues to this day.

Less than two years after Schoenbach arrived at Settlement, the school expanded beyond South Philadelphia by opening a branch on Germantown Avenue in 1959. Its growth was meteoric. In 1960, the Northeast Branch opened at the Frankford YMCA and later moved to Bustleton Avenue. In 1975, a new facility was built through the generosity of businessman Emanuel S. Kardon, owner of the American Packaging Corporation, who served as chairman of the Settlement Central Board. The Kardon-Northeast Branch, named for his parents, Samuel and Rebecca Kardon, is located on Clarendon Avenue.

In 1982, the school’s board of directors named Robert Capanna, who had been director of Kardon-Northeast since 1976, as executive director. A prolific composer and skilled administrator, Capanna continues to lead the school on a steady course of expanding physical facilities to meet growing needs. He is also credited with creating and devel- oping innovative programs to broaden the school’s reach. In 1987, Settlement merged with the Jenkintown Music School and established a fifth branch in West Philadelphia, now located on Wynnewood Avenue. The school leapt across the Delaware River to New Jersey and opened the doors of its Camden Branch in 2006.

In partnership with ARA-MARK, an international leader in professional food service and the hospitality industry, the school established the Kaleidoscope Pre-School Arts Enrichment Program in 1990. The program provides tuition-free instruction for inner-city children living in the Courtyard Apartments at Riverview, formerly the Southwark Public Housing Development. To date, six hundred students have participated in the program. In 1998, the enormously successful program was honored with one of the first ten national Coming Up Taller Awards, presented by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1993, Settlement launched the Teacher Training Institute for the Arts, which applies the lessons of Kaleidoscope to enhance the teaching techniques of pre-school, elementary, and art educators.

With Settlement’s explosive expansion, what direction does Robert Capanna see the school taking? “Ah,” he replies thoughtfully, “that’s the big question. We now have six branches. Should we grow to eight? Ten? Or, just stay where we are? The board hasn’t addressed that yet, but it will have to. It probably will all come down to money.”

Programs themselves will most likely continue to grow. In 1992, the school inaugurated the Sixty Plus or Minus Players at the Jenkintown Branch for senior citizens. “My teacher is fantastic,” says seventy-eight-year-old Jeanette Russell, a trumpet student. “Every lesson is a combination of something disciplined and something fun. I have always wanted to play jazz, and he pushes me and encourages me to keep trying it.” An enthusiastic Capanna agrees. “This program currently has approximately two hundred students participating and this is where I see real growth potential,” he says. “The program has evolved into the Adult Chamber Players, an adult orchestra, and even a lecture series with guest speakers.”

Settlement Music School has produced an impressive list of alumni who have achieved success in their careers, among them Florence Quivar, one of the world’s leading mezzo-sopranos; soprano Wilhelmina Fernandez, star of the 1961 French film, Diva, that has become a cult classic; bass vocalist Eric Owens; tenor Mario Lanza; brothers actor Kevin Bacon and musician and composer Michael Bacon; and pop star Karen Sledge of Sister Sledge. Others include jazz bassist Stanley Clarke, jazz violinist John Blake Jr., clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, pianist Joey DeFrancesco and guitarist Kevin Eubanks. The list also includes singer Buddy Greco, pianists Jerome Lowenthal and Leon Bates, Hollywood composer Alex North, entertainer Chubby Checker, and many members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as symphony musicians throughout the country. U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah and Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo also studied at Settlement. Scientist Albert Einstein served on the board of advisors and played with the school’s chamber music ensemble.

In October 2007, Governor Edward G. Rendell presented an Outstanding Leadership and Service to Youth Award to the Settlement Music School in recognition of its outreach programs in the community. The Governor’s Awards for the Arts program has been a tradition since its inauguration in 1980 by Governor Dick Thornburgh. Recent recipients in various awards categories include painter Nelson Shanks (2006), opera singer Marilyn Horne (2005), pianist Lang Lang (2004), and film director M. Night Shyamalan and arts patrons Marguerite and H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest (2002).

As the Settlement Music School celebrates its centennial this year, all eyes are on the future. If past tradition holds true, the institution will continue educating even more diverse audiences and garnering coveted awards. From five-cent piano lessons to a host of distinguished alumni, from rented headquarters to a half-dozen branches, and from thirty pupils to fifteen thousand students, Settlement is living testament to the magic of music.


Travel Tips

A handful of arts magnet programs in Pennsylvania offer the public rare opportunities to enjoy the debuts of future musicians, singers, actors, visual artists, and dancers. Many students will pursue careers in the performing arts, become famous, or enjoy performing as a lifelong avocation. Magnet schools offer recitals and stage presentations, sometimes free or often at a minimal admission fee. For example, every other week, three branches of the Settlement Music School offer performances by adult chamber players, ensembles, orchestras, as well as lectures, with free and secure parking, at the Jenkintown Music School Branch, 515 Meetinghouse Road; the West Philadelphia Branch, 4910 Wynnefield Avenue; and the Mary Louise Curtis Branch, 416 Queen Street, Philadelphia.

Students at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts have achieved recognition performing as a choir or backup singers at major concerts, in parades, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. The school occasionally presents performances by students, a traveling children’s theater, and concerts.

In Harrisburg, the Capital Area School for the Arts, established in 2001 by the Capital Area Intermediate Unit and Open Stage of Harrisburg, a professional theater company, offers students from twenty-five participating school districts study in visual arts, film, music, dance, and theater. Some arts studies culminate in student performances at the nearby Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts.

The Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts (LVPA) offers a college preparatory curriculum in Bethlehem, a city that straddles Lehigh and Northampton Counties. One of the school’s unusual studies is figure skating. Programs in dance, instrumental and vocal music, and visual arts offer occasional public presentations during the school year, while the theater program offers at least four public productions ranging from Molière to Rodgers and Hammerstein each season.

In western Pennsylvania, students at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts High School concentrate on disciplines in dance, theater, instrumental, vocal, visual, and literary arts. Public performances are occasionally presented at the school’s Black Box Theater at the school’s Ninth Street location. Instrumental students have performed with recognized guest jazz and contemporary recording artists at the theater.

In communities without a formal arts magnet program, local high schools have gifted and talented young people eager to perform. Many of these schools offer musical performances, lectures, plays, choir and band concerts, and well known guest performers. Productions are often free to the public, or require only a nominal donation to support school activities.


For Further Reading

Dubin, Murray. South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Friedman, Murray, ed. Philadelphia Jewish Life, 1940–1985. Ardmore, Pa.: Seth Press, 1986.

Kupferberg, Herbert. Those Fabulous Philadelphians: The Life and Times of a Great Orchestra. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969.

Rosen, Evelyn Bodek. The Philadelphia Fels, 1880–1920: A Social Portrait. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.

Toll, Jean Barth, and Mildred S. Gillam, eds. Invisible Philadelphia: Community Through Voluntary Organizations. Philadelphia: Atwater Kent Museum, 1995.


The editor gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Kristine Parsons, director of communications for the Settlement Music School, for providing illustrations for this article.


Jim McClelland, a resident of Philadelphia, contributes frequently to Pennsylvania Heritage. He is the author of Fountains of Philadelphia (2005) and Philadelphia Guide to Visual and Performing Arts (2007).