Thomas J. Wieckowski

Historical Sidelight

The music that accompanies the slideshow has a significant connection to the Wyncote story.

As music lovers celebrate the two-hundredth birthday of composer Frederic Chopin, we have a resident of Wyncote to thank for his introduction to America. His Nocturne in B, which you heard with the slideshow on the homepage, was performed at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth by a young pianist who studied and lived in Wyncote.

Mary Elizabeth Hallock was born in 1871 in Beirut to an American father and a young woman from a wealthy Arabic family, Sara Tabet. Samuel Hallock was a publisher and an American diplomat stationed in Beirut. Unfortunately, he suffered the death of his wife when she was only in her twenties. The distraught father sent his two sons and two daughters back to the United States to continue their education. For his daughters Ethel and Mary Elizabeth, he chose a new boarding school in the countryside outside of Philadelphia, the Chelten Hills School.

Mary Elizabeth arrived the year the school opened in 1882. Despite the shock of losing her mother, leaving her home, and becoming established in an environment entirely foreign to her privileged  life at home in Beirut, Mary Elizabeth thrived at the small school operated on an old family farm by sisters Annie, Gayner, and Eliza Heacock. The rigorous curriculum included study of the piano, and Mary Elizabeth not only finished school at the top of her class in 1888 but as an accomplished pianist, was accepted for study in the prestigious Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, the forerunner of today's University of the Arts.

Study in Vienna followed graduation, and upon returning to the States, she met and married Dr. Frank Lindsay Greenewalt, the chief surgeon of Girard College in Philadelphia. She secured the position of principal pianist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and widely performed in the area and throughout the country. She was internationally recognized for her introduction and interpretation of Chopin in the United States. This accomplishment led to a contract as an early recording artist for Columbia Records.

Experimenting in musical theory, she wrote a book, Nourathar, which proposed using colorful lighting to amplify the impact of music, an astonishingly modern-sounding concept. She then proceeded to invent an instrument, the light organ, to produce her enhanced music. Nine patents were awarded to her which marked the innovative electronic devices she produced to operate the organ. She named the instrument the "Sarabet" to honor her late mother. Her first performance was at the Bellevue-Stratford hotel in Philadelphia to a conference of electrical engineers and she later performed at the Wanamaker stores in Philadelphia and New York. Opposition from many businessmen who were skeptical that a woman could invent such a device led to widespread piracy and she spent considerable time in her later years pursuing patent-infringement lawsuits against such companies as General Electric. She was successful, and the technology Website Techman calls her an "early Woman-geek", a compliment that only a modern person might understand, but one that Mrs. Greenewalt might have appreciated.

Above is a 1920 recording of Mary Elizabeth Hallock playing Chopin.  Click on the player controls below to hear an excerpt.

The Joseph Heacock, Jr. mansion at the end of the nineteenth century overlooks Glenside Avenue and the park. A classroom was constructed in the building when it was built in 1881 shortly after Glenside Avenue opened. Children of the Chelten Hills School can be seen sitting on the porch.

Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt is pictured at the Sarabet, her light organ.

Header Photograph: Juliana's cave along Chelten Hills Drive served through the years as a shelter for the Leni Lenape indians, a reading nook for a local farm girl, and the playground of generations of neighborhood children.
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