Merion Cricket Club Turns 150
A rare look at a Main Line institution.
Merion Cricket Club, Fall 2014//Photo by Jared Castaldi
It’s a crisp fall day at Merion Cricket Club, where, among a bevy of athletic activity, there’s a cricket match on the immaculate Great Lawn. Brian Crochiere, the club’s immediate past president, describes it as “green velvet,” though he swears the turf was brown a week earlier, before grounds superintendent Mark Finnerty and his team aerated the lawn and worked their magic.
Last week, Merion’s opponent was an Australian team. Today, the match appears to be an inter-squad affair, though even Crochiere can’t tell. The men are so far away, they’re specks of white in the sun. The fact that you can’t identify the members is as it should be. After all, Merion is a rigorously private club—one that’s set to celebrate its 150th anniversary in the year ahead.
Merion’s clubhouse architecture, athletics, aesthetics and atmosphere all ring true, its manicured lawns off Montgomery Avenue in Haverford on par with England’s Wimbledon. While there was an early notion of switching to a baseball club due to a lack of permanent grounds, the first cricket match was held in Wynnewood on May 19, 1866. From 1873 to 1892, the club occupied grounds in Ardmore before moving to its present location. Two massive back-to-back fires in the late 19th century threatened the club’s future, but this quintessential Main Line institution has endured into the 21st century. It currently has some 2,500 memberships.
To begin commemoration festivities, the club hosted its annual Christmas Ball in December. Then, it turned its attention to reinstating a New Year’s Day Open House that’s complimentary to members, just as it was in the event’s heyday, when it attracted as many as 2,300. On Jan. 10, the club will
also host the annual William White Singles/McRory-Tully Doubles Invitational squash tournament. “We’re stewards moving forward with the same level of integrity,” says Crochiere, a continuing board member. “The constant challenge is to deliver a value proposition that’s appealing to an ever-changing membership. Club trends can change over time, and Merion must continue to adapt where needed, while continuing to maintain the traditions that make it unique.”
Two other sporting events are part of the planned celebrations, one honoring winter sports and another summer. Recognition of the milestone year will end with Founders Day on Dec. 16, the date the club’s article of incorporation was recognized in 1865. “We’re honoring the athletics and the social history, and spreading it over the entire year,” says Crochiere, who was president between 2009 and 2012.
A. Carter Fergusson is both a typical and an atypical Merion Cricket Club member. A past president (1976-79), he’s been a fixture since 1947. Though he’s 91, he’s not the oldest living member. That honor belongs to someone 15 years his senior.
A 1942 graduate of the Haverford School, Fergusson lived in Gladwyne for 40 years and now resides at Beaumont in Bryn Mawr. He played golf, tennis and soccer at Merion—but squash was his game. He qualified for 62 consecutive national tournaments. “I get a good mark for attendance, but I never won,” he reports from the club’s living room.
For years, Fergusson was among the nation’s top 32 overall players, ranked as high as No. 3 in 1952. He played in his last national tournament in 2009 at age 88. Recently, the U.S. Squash Grand Master Honor Roll was renamed in honor of Fergusson.
These days, squash has moved to a softball. Merion still has three hardball courts and hosts the national hardball tournament, but it’s a dying endeavor. A softball guarantees longer play between points. In hardball, you could put people away, Fergusson says.
Merion Cricket Club was founded in 1865. It has been at its present location since 1892 and its current clubhouse since 1896, offering members a variety of activities, from bridge and bowling to dinner and entertainment.
Fergusson and his 87-year-old wife, Dudy, are at the club as much as twice a week. They’re usually the first couple on the dance floor, and sometimes the last. “I’m probably of the age where I should be looking backwards, but I also see that the future is bright,” says Fergusson, who worked for his grandfather’s company, Alex C. Fergusson, a textile, tanning and (eventually) soap-and-sanitation supply specialist.
Looking to the future of the club, there have been ongoing renovations. The far-south end of the clubhouse was reconfigured from a formal dining area into a casual eating space with a bar, soft seating, two fireplaces, and French doors that open to an enormous clubhouse-length wraparound porch. “This is a better use of the space,” says Crochiere about what’s referred to as the Furness Room, so named for the clubhouse’s famed architect, Frank Furness. (Crochiere stresses the correct pronunciation: “Fur-nace.”)
Furness’ original clubhouse blueprints include a horse and buggy parked in the porte cochere. “We’re serious about preserving what was built and what has lasted 150 years,” says Crochiere who was instrumental in having the Cricket Room, another bar-and-casual-dining area, moved from the lower level to the main level six years ago.
Upstairs, two stained-and-leaded-glass windows in the ballroom were discovered a decade ago. They’d been boarded up. With their cricket-paddle motif, they’ve since become a focal point—because they do still play cricket here.
Portraits of past presidents rotate throughout the clubhouse every three years, when a new president is elected. “I could end up in the attic one day,” Crochiere jokes.
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Merion Cricket Club's first team, circa 1888// Photo courtesy of Merion Cricket Club
Merion Cricket Club: A Timeline
1834: Cricket is introduced at Haverford College. From 1850 to 1920, 160 cricket clubs were active in the area. By 1980, there were just three: Philadelphia, Germantown and Merion.
October 1865: Fifteen young men ages 14-22, led by William Montgomery and Maskell Ewing, pledge, “We, the undersigned, agree to unite together
in a cricket club to meet for play next spring at least once a week.”
1865-1866: Archibald Montgomery serves as the club’s first president.
April 21, 1866: The original grounds are secured just above the Wynnewood train station. Quarterly dues are 30 cents, along with a $4 entrance fee. Scarlet is chosen as the club’s color.
1873: The club leases (with an option to buy) five acres at the end of a road—since called Cricket Avenue—in Ardmore.
March 1874: Merion Cricket Club is chartered and a constitution and bylaws are adopted. Dates are sealed from the meeting.
October 1875: The grounds are acquired outright.
1881: The first tennis match is held on club grounds.
1888: A committee is appointed to explore the possibility of obtaining a suitable tract within 600 feet of a station on the Pennsylvania Railroad between Merion and Rosemont.
1891-1906: Alexander Cassatt, seventh president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and owner of Chesterbrook Farms in Berwyn, serves as club president. A room in the clubhouse is named in his honor.
1892: The Haverford Land and Improvement Company leases 13 acres to Merion Cricket Club for 999 years.
Nov. 23, 1892: The Main House formally opens.
May 13, 1893: The grounds formally open.
1895: The first bowling alleys are built.
1896: The first golf course is laid out; others were added in 1912 and 1914.
Jan. 4, 1896: The clubhouse and its contents are destroyed by fire. The new building is designed by Frank Furness and is set farther back toward Grays Lane, providing more field space for cricket and tennis.
1896: A soccer team is organized.
Sept. 24, 1897: Another fire badly damages the new clubhouse (above and opposite page).
1897: A cricket match is held between Gentlemen of Philadelphia and Mr. Warner’s English Eleven.
1899: Gentlemen of Philadelphia play KS Ranjitsinhji’s XI.
July 1900: Ladies Home Journal depicts Merion Cricket Club in all its turn-of-the-century glory.
1900: Ladies’ field hockey is added, and three singles squash courts are constructed.
Sept. 30, 1901: Gentlemen of Philadelphia host Gentlemen of England.
1900-16, 1919-34, 1937: The National Intercollegiate Tennis Tournament is held at the club.
1936: Three Merion members win berths on the first United States men’s field hockey team and participate in the Olympic Games in Berlin.
1938: Softball is added.
Photo Courtesy of Merion Cricket Club
1939: The Davis Cup Challenge comes to Merion Cricket Club, Sept. 2-4.
January 1942: Merion’s cricket and golf clubs formally separate.
1961: Two platform paddle-tennis courts are built.
1962: The Pennsylvania Lawn Tennis Championship continues at the club. The first edition was held there in 1894.
1964: The Orpheus Club hosts a cricket match, and the typical revelry follows.
1968: The Pennsylvania Lawn Tennis Championships feature Arthur Ashe.
1969: The club starts a soccer program for members’ children.
1973: The Cricket Room, an informal dining space, is built. It’s since been moved from the basement to the ground floor.
1974: The indoor tennis building is completed; it later houses a small fitness center above the courts.
1983: Central air conditioning is installed in the ballroom, sun lounge, the Cricket Room and certain meeting rooms.
Spring 2013: Timelines are commissioned to create a members-only keepsake book detailing the people and events that have made Merion Cricket Club special.