Elaine Peden spent her life savings on projects concerning William and Hannah Penn, including making them U.S. honorary citizens. Now she’s looking for her last hurrah.
Elaine Peden is tired of talking about the time she made William and Hannah Callowhill Penn honorary U.S. citizens.
Spending a decade of her life and around $10,000 on granting the Penns the same status as Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa and only four other people in history is enough. At 89, it’s certainly her most publicized accomplishment, but far from the only one. In fact, she penned an entire book about the 10 major projects she’s endeavored — all involving the Penns.
Still, she’s planning one final initiative. She wants to see a mural for Hannah Callowhill Penn down on Callowhill Street.
“It’s my last hurrah,” said the lifelong Frankford resident, who will turn 90 next February, the day after Hannah Penn will turn 348. She’s lived in the same Frankford home her entire life.
“After that, the party’s over,” she said.
Callowhill Street is perfect for a Hannah mural, as the street was named after her father. Penn named the street after Thomas Callowhill after the man encouraged Penn to marry his daughter. Peden even has the perfect location on the street picked out — near the Callowhill Center on 7th Street.
She’s communicating with people in charge of the building and raising funding. Every 10 years her family throws her a birthday party — for her 90th, instead of asking for presents, she wants to ask for mural donations.
She may have been around for almost nine decades, but her track record shows you don’t want to bet against her. A museum upstairs in her home stuffed with paintings, tomes and letters mostly relating to Penn exhibits her dedication. Of her endeavors, only an effort to get William Penn on a postage stamp didn’t pan out.
Her book is called Good Intentions: A Woman’s Thirty Year Crusade To Promote William Penn, Hannah Callowhill Penn. Only two copies exist. “I’m not a writer,” Peden said, yet her playful attitude and uncompromising willpower ring true in this document of her 36-year Penn odyssey.
Penn Treaty Park statue
A 2004 Star News article reads, “Fishtown residents, as well as anyone else who enjoys Penn Treaty Park, have Elaine Peden to thank for that.” The article is referencing the William Penn statue sculpted by Frank Gaylord, installed in the park in 1983. Without Peden’s aid and insistence, the statue may have been removed by unsatisfied residents.
When Gaylord first submitted the statue, he received criticism from park officials and community members that the statue did not capture Penn’s likeness. The feedback wasn’t pretty. One comment said the statue’s head didn’t look like it could fit a brain inside.
Peden reached out to Gaylord and provided him with materials to help the statue look more like Penn. At her insistence she got the Fishtown Civic Association, Fairmount Park Commission and Philadelphia Art Commission to approve moving forward with the statue.
As for Gaylord, he went on to be selected to compose the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I found it amusing that Frank was selected after being so maligned in Philadelphia,” she wrote. “As I said before, it’s a big city with a small-town mentality.”
Restoration of the Penn statue atop City Hall
“The city drags its feet on issues,” Peden wrote, so she figured she would take cleaning up City Hall into her own hands.
After a friend approached her in 1987 about cleaning the scaffolding around the Penn statue atop City Hall, she immediately agreed. The 37-foot, 53,348-pound statue was bolted into place in 1894. Over 100 years’ worth of weathering made the restoration necessary.
She volunteered at Reading Terminal Market for five months selling merchandise themed “Free William Penn.” The experience rendered her unable to eat fish for a while due to the smell.
The endeavor was a success, costing $775,585, far below the initial $1 million price tag. A free event titled “The Freeing of William Penn” was held Sept. 14, 1987 at Dilworth Plaza.
Images in the book show Peden herself at the statue before and after its restoration. “547 feet in the air. What a thrill!” is scrawled on an accompanying sticky note. “I am holding on for dear life,” reads a caption.
Recreating the Liberty Bell is the type of activity Peden undertakes with her family. She came across a replica of the bell made by an Upper Darby sculptor and immediately purchased it for a thousand bucks. She and her son took measurements, scraped bark off trees and mixed an unmeasurable amount of paint before they created the perfect replica platform, yoke and brackets on which to mount their model.
The bell replica struggled to find a home. It spent 14 months at the CBS Channel 10 station and got cracked at the top when it was moved. Peden refused to sue the station despite others urging her to.
Later, it returned home to Upper Darby in the Township Building. Unfortunately, the story there wasn’t a happy one, either — when Peden visited years later it was missing, and no one could give an answer about where it went. She was later told it was destroyed by a dump truck during a parade.
Still, the bell had its happy moments, like being used by the Philadelphia Boys Choir on stage at the Academy of Music while the boys sang around it.
Peden has no idea if the tavern she owned for 35 years is still standing.
After she walked away from Elaine’s and left behind over $100,000 in mortgage, she would avoid looking in its direction whenever she would pass Frankford and Foulkrod on the El.
“I was shot at and said it was time to walk away,” she said.
She wasn’t actually shot at, but a robber did point a gun at her. She recalled crouching behind the organ while nobody in the tavern stopped the robber from jumping over the bar.
Truthfully, Peden never wanted the tavern. But, she said, she grew up in a time where women weren’t sent to college — they went to the family business, and “had to be grateful” for that. Her father came to the country from Ukraine in a “banana boat” and called her ungrateful for what he had given her.
“I was fortunate my mother gave me a tavern and they gave me this house, so I had the luxury of spending the money on what I wanted to do,” she said.
While she was a tavern owner she said she needed something to supplement the negativity in the bar. That’s when the Penns became important.
“Instead of going to a psychiatrist, I said I’m going to get into something that’s going to divert what happened to me,” she said. “And William Penn came into my life.”
She worked until she was 82 to support her projects. There’s still time for one more. ••