Our History

What is now known as the Ralston Center was founded in 1817 as the Indigent Widows and Single Women’s Society under the leadership of Sarah Ralston. This, Philadelphia’s first home established strictly for aging women, remained its only completely age-segregated institution for thirty-three years.” (1)

We marked 200 years of providing service to older adults in Philadelphia on January 9, 2017.

Sarah Clarkson Ralston (1766–1820) was a daughter of Matthew Clarkson, described as an ardent patriot in the Revolution.  He served as Mayor of Philadelphia from 1792 to 1796, was a director of the Bank of the United States, and a vestryman at Christ Church.  Sarah, his eighth child, married Robert Ralston in 1785.  Mr. Ralston is described as one of the most prominent citizens of Philadelphia in his day.  A business man who amassed a large fortune in the China Trade, he was equally famous for his philanthropies, particularly relief of misery and suffering, and the promotion of education (he was a Trustee of the college that became Princeton University).

Sarah Ralston herself seems to have been an intelligent woman, public-spirited and possessing the same benevolent impulses as her husband.  The eulogy that appeared in newspapers upon her death, concluded:

1819 to Early 1900's

In the course of three years, from 1817 to 1819, almost 500 donors contributed nearly $10,000 to establish the Indigent Widows and Single Women’s Society, acquire a plot of land on Cherry Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets, and furnish the home for about 30 women.  The organization relied on the community for contributions of goods as well, ranging from “a keg of herring, a pound and a half of thread” to “one pound barley, two ounces laudanum” and “six chairs and a tea table.”  The Society’s membership consisted of “every female paying three dollars per annum, or thirty dollars as a Life Subscription.”  The women admitted to the home themselves paid an entrance fee, $150 in 1817 and rising to $400 by 1887.

The Minutes of the Society offer a fascinating record of fortune and hardship, and an unwavering commitment to “the relief of aged and indigent women.”

In the minutes of 1845, the secretary notes that the Society recognizes no sectarian preferences; “the only requisites for participation in its charities are advanced age [then defined as 60], destitution, and meritorious character.  It is especially designed to furnish an asylum for those whose earlier lives have been passed in the more refined walks of life, and whom experience, therefore, has not inured to the struggles of penury.” By the 40th anniversary the “asylum” had moved to larger quarters on Cherry Street between 18th and 19th Streets.  In 1876, the “asylum” was enlarged by erecting another building on the same lot adding twenty-two new bedrooms at a cost of $9000.

But in 1884 the proximity of the railroad and the encroachment of business made it desirable to find a home elsewhere and increase accommodations. In 1882, a very handsome bequest of $155,000 from Miss Mary Shields formed the cornerstone of a building fund, which together with a gift of $50,000 from Mrs. Elizabeth H. Farnum, a manager for thirty-five years, and gifts from about 50 other donors enable the Society to acquire land from the Keen estate at 3615 Chestnut Street Philadelphia. The sale of the institution on Cherry Street added $47,500 to the fund, so steps were taken for a new site and plans were drawn by Wilson and Brothers, architects (who also designed the train shed for Reading Terminal), for a building to accommodate one hundred inmates, with sunshine for each room, complete heating and lighting arrangements and household equipment. They were submitted to a committee of conference called by the managers, consisting of Messrs. Charles Platt, J.L. Erringer, A.J. Drexel, Richard C. Dale and George W. Childs, who strongly endorsed the movement. Many friends of the time honored institution assisted in completing the necessary building fund and in May 1886 the large family was moved to the new home and the building dedicate June 9, 1886, free of debt. In 1897 Mr. J. Dundas Lippincott contributed $2,000 as a memorial to his wife, a valued manager, which was used for an electric light plant. Gradually a diet kitchen was added to the infirmary, the dining room enlarged, and other improvements as required to the present have been provided.

1960's to early 2000's - A Time of Transformation

In 1962, the IWSWS merged with the Tilden Home for Aged Couples, and began to serve men as well as women.  The name of the organization was changed to Ralston House in 1973 to honor founder Sarah Ralston.

The Minutes of the Board of Managers meetings from the late 1970s through early 1980s record ongoing occupation with the challenges of maintaining the aging building; managing a large, unionized staff; maintaining the resident census to keep the rooms filled; dealing with budget constraints and funding shortfalls; and, due to the increasing frailty of many residents, planning the “hospital wing.”  Among the litany of issues and concerns, there are these references: Mrs. Wetherald, who joined the Board in 1977, conducted an exercise class for residents; the annual fair (3) was still going strong; and beginning in March 1979, office space in Hinchman House (4) was rented to the Gray Panthers.

In September 1981, Ralston House became a Graduate Teaching/Nursing Home funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with University of Pennsylvania Nursing master’s program students working under Dr. Cohen’s supervision.

In 1982 the east wing nursing facility opened, administered under an agreement with KendalCrosslands.  In May 1985, however, a strike by union staff closed the health care unit, as it was called, and all residents were relocated.  The following month, in June 1985, the Board convened an important meeting to hear a planning status report, and decided to promote the development of a “continuum of care” model of services.  Presbyterian Hospital and Courtland Foundation purchased the hospital wing and its equipment in November 1986, under an agreement that would allow Ralston to repurchase the property for a window of time five years later.

Real estate issues, including discussions of what to do with Ralston House, deliberations about the deteriorating Hinchman House (demolished in 1990), and the pros and cons of repurchasing the nursing wing, led the Board to consider various proposals from Kendal, Penn, and Presby Homes in early 1987.  Also under consideration was construction of a highrise to the west of the building, and purchase of air rights from the Lutheran Church (the latter completed in June 1989 for $17,500 per year for two years, with an option crediting the rent to the $175,000 purchase price).

By July 1987 a Memorandum of Understanding with Penn was signed, to establish the Penn Center for Gerontology & Geriatric Care.  Ralston agreed to provide support of $90,000 per year for three years, plus a rent subsidy.  Renovations to the building to convert from residential use to office space were completed by 1988, and Penn Geriatric Medicine moved in that year.  Ralston Center also supported the establishment of the Geriatric Arthritis Clinic and the Incontinence Program.  There was a standing advisory committee comprised of members of Ralston’s Board and the Penn-Ralston Center that met regularly to coordinate activities of the two organizations.

A year-long strategic planning effort was undertaken in January 1989, funded by a $200,000 grant from Pew, and conducted by KMS (Kendal Management Services).  [The Kendal relationship continued after the nursing home was sold, with their employee John Clancy functioning as Ralston House Administrator.]  The planning process seems to have led ultimately to a decision to develop programs and services establishing Ralston House as a Center for Excellence in Gerontology and Geriatrics.

Also in May 1989, the Center for the Study of Aging, directed by Dr. Vincent Cristofalo, moved into Ralston House.  Other building tenants included the Foreign Policy Research Institute; the Alan Wood III Coronary Disease Research Project; and the team from the Penn School of Nursing working on the restraint reduction research project.

John Clancy was appointed Executive Director in April 1990, and led the establishment of the program in Medical Ethics developed by an Ad Hoc Board Committee.  Launched in 1990, the first topic was Ethical Issues in Long Term Care, with a commissioned paper on the subject and a series of lectures.  The program continued for about three years, with Ralston House providing a fee up to $10,000 per commissioned paper plus related costs of the program.

Simultaneously, Ralston was assembling a geriatric library on the third floor and planning a day hospital (never carried out).  At this time also, Ralston was responding generously to requests for grant funds, supporting a variety of projects advocated by the Board, ranging from purchasing fans for the Philadelphia Senior Center to contributing to an exercise center at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and major funding for several Penn Nursing School projects (see summary of grants elsewhere in the binder).

The RalstonWellness Program was established in 1991.

Michael Erdman stepped down from the Board in December 1993 to undertake the position of Managing Director, carrying the organization through the planning for and construction of Ralston Mercy-Douglass House and capital improvements to Ralston House.  He served until 2004, when Thomas S. Rittenhouse was appointed Managing Director. In 2012, Joseph A. Lukach was appointed CEO of Ralston Center.

(1) Haber, Carole.  “The Old Folks at Home:  The Development of Institutionalized Care for the Aged in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 101, no. 2 (Apr. 1977), p. 240.
(2) Quoted here.  Robert and Sarah Ralston had fourteen children, 12 of whom survived, so the reference to their “numerous offspring” is an understatement.
(3) From the early 1800s, handicrafts made by residents and others were sold at an annual fair to raise funds for operations.
(4) Hinchman House was the building just to the west of Ralston House, in the area that is now the reserved parking lot.

Ralston Center and Ralston House Today

Today, Ralston House is home to administrative offices of Ralston Center and leases space to the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute on Aging, Penn’s Geriatric Medicine practice and researchers in memory, Alzheimer’s, sleep disorders, behavioral health and nursing.

For more information on Ralston House, www.ralstoncenter.org/…. or call 215-386-2984.

(1) Haber, Carole.  “The Old Folks at Home:  The Development of Institutionalized Care for the Aged in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 101, no. 2 (Apr. 1977), p. 240.
(2) Quoted here.  Robert and Sarah Ralston had fourteen children, 12 of whom survived, so the reference to their “numerous offspring” is an understatement.
(3) From the early 1800s, handicrafts made by residents and others were sold at an annual fair to raise funds for operations.

* The archives of the Indigent Widows & Single Women’s Society
are housed at the

Historical Society of Pennsylvania
1300 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107
215-732-6200