Re-energizing Merion Village

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From the August 2014 edition

Longtime neighborhood resident Ron Solove and his wife, Donna, purchased their 107-year-old home 35 years ago without even realizing they’d just moved to Merion Village. 

“We didn’t know it was Merion Village,” Donna says. “We thought it was just south of German Village.”  

The working-class neighborhood was once home to bustling Buckeye Steel Castings—led by Samuel Prescott Bush, great-grandfather of George W. Bush—and was formerly known as Steelton. Though it led to major growth in the mid-1900s, the company was bankrupt by 2002. 

Prosperity hasn’t touched Merion Village like its neighbor to the north, but the neighborhood is slowly experiencing resurgence. And according to third-generation resident Mark Greiner, a new trend is emerging: Residents on streets just south of German Village are updating and reinvesting in their homes. Younger families are moving in and rehabbing theirs, too, and new businesses are opening in the area while more established ones are renovating their properties. 

DEEP ROOTS

Greiner, head of the Merion Village Garden Tour, and his wife raised three children in their brick, foursquare-style Merion Village home, where they have lived 28 years. He likes that his church, St. Paul’s Protestant, is just a stone’s throw away.

The Greiners are only the fourth family to own the home, which was built in 1913 “based on plans bought from Sears and Roebuck,” he says. In fact, when he was a child, Greiner recalls playing with children who lived in the house; he grew up just a couple blocks south.

The family from which the Greiners purchased the home raised 12 children there, so the space offers unusual features. Its finished attic includes a kitchen and full bath, as well as living space, and the home’s basement also boasts a full bathroom. As is customary with homes built more than a century ago, hardwood floors and doors abound.

“As a kid, there were a lot more Germans, who held solid, middle-class jobs,” Greiner says. “Today, it’s a mix. One of my neighbors is a doctor; another owns a painting company. The farther south you go, the neighborhood becomes more modest.” 

While he says parts of his neighborhood have “gone downhill,” the area closest to where he lives is on the upswing. “It’s a nice neighborhood where you need to be willing to live with a diverse group of neighbors,” he says. “It’s full of life with a different vibe than in the suburbs. It’s improving and will continue to do so.”

You might think living in the shadows of a better-known and more expensive neighborhood would bother Greiner, but it doesn’t. “We benefit from German Village. The longer I am here, I see changes and improvements block by block,” he says. “Merion Village has continued to benefit from that. My same house would probably sell for $150,000 more (in German Village). And I live on triple the land.” 

LIFER PRIDE

Like Greiner, Sherry Rea has lived in Merion Village her entire life. She loves the neighborhood so much she persuaded her boyfriend of 22 years to buy a place just two houses down from hers in 1996. Her 83-year-old mother, who grew up in German Village, lives with her. When Rea was born, her parents bought a house on Mithoff Street for $6,000. 

Of that house, Rea recalls her father often asking rhetorically, “Why would I ever want to live anywhere else?” 

Rea’s mother enjoys sitting on the front porch in the summer to watch neighborhood goings-on. She loves the noise and hubbub, which includes a consistent flow of pedestrians. “It’s good people-watching,” Rea says. 

Rea is proud of her Merion Village roots—it’s never bothered her to admit she lives here, rather than German Village. 

SUSTAINED INHABITANCE 

The Soloves, who raised two sons here, are the third owners of their century-old home. They are avid gardeners who participated in the Merion Village Garden Show for the third time in June. When they renovated their kitchen a dozen years ago, one of their must-haves was an oversized window from which they could see their backyard garden while cooking, eating or entertaining friends. “We wanted a roomier, more modern kitchen and wanted to add a downstairs bathroom where part of the old kitchen had been,” Ron says. The addition includes a larger cooking area, new appliances and a large island.

Ron also revels in the miniature train tracks that circle their way through their backyard garden. He could barely contain his enthusiasm when he announced the imminent delivery of a battery-powered locomotive to wind its way around his backyard. “It’s very exciting,” he says.

Meanwhile, the Soloves didn’t waste time repurposing their sons’ rooms once they left the nest. When their oldest moved out, Donna transformed it into a huge walk-in-closet. Their younger son’s room evolved into an upstairs den, while another bedroom became Ron’s dressing area because, as he jokes, “I don’t have a fancy closet.”