The House That Kindness Built
The parking lot at 940 Central Avenue offers no clue to the heartwarming chapter in Ocean City history that unfolded here. It was at this site that for nearly 50 years, a group of dedicated and compassionate women provided a safe space for other women at Hostess House.
The story begins in Philadelphia in the early years of the twentieth century when these women started a club centered on their love of good music. As time went on, they wanted to expand their club to include philanthropy. Soldiers returning from World War I—wounded, ill, or unemployed, some without family, and many lonely and at loose ends—gave these women an opportunity to put their considerable skills and good will to work.
At first the club members took soldiers into their own homes, doing their best to provide for them and make them comfortable. However, the number of veterans needing help quickly outgrew the ability of the women to care for them. They sought a place where the men could be nurtured and feel part of a community. Ocean City seemed a natural solution, with its healthful sea air and wholesome atmosphere.
A small store on the Boardwalk offered a perfect site for this endeavor, and Hostess House was born. The men slept in a dormitory that held 18 cots, but there was no kitchen; feeding the men became the first problem to overcome. The hotels of Ocean City came to the rescue, with each providing meals for two to four soldiers. As the war continued, Hostess House was kept full and busy; the men who left were immediately replaced by others returning from Europe. Even after the war ended, “The House That Kindness Built” continued to fulfill its mission.
In 1921, the U.S. congress consolidated existing veterans’ programs to create the Veterans Bureau, including an ambitious program for the construction of veterans’ hospitals. With the government taking over the care of veterans, the women of Hostess House were left with a choice: they could disband or repurpose their organization. It is not surprising that they soon identified another group that could use their help. The facility was now called The Hostess House for Convalescent Girls.
In Philadelphia and other large cities at this time, many jobs available to girls were low paying and often unsafe; girls who were injured on the job or who became ill had no resources to see them through their convalescence. If they were helping support their families, the loss of their pay was a catastrophe. In the summer of 1923, Hostess House opened its doors to these girls. Once again, Ocean City would be a haven for the needy, the sick, and the dispossessed.
Hostess House first opened its door to girls in the summer of 1923. That year only 12 girls stayed there. Even then the facility was inadequate, but by 1926 the number had grown to 30-40 girls. Clearly, it had outgrown the store on the boardwalk. The women of the Hostess League were pleased to be able to rent a 10-bedroom house at 416-418 Ocean Avenue. Girls now came from all over the country; they paid what they could, but if they couldn’t afford anything at all, they were still welcomed. All of them were able to benefit from sea breezes, nourishing food, and companionship.
Sadly, the house that had seemed so perfect soon proved to be a disappointment. The landlord refused to paint or make repairs. The League members rolled up their sleeves and painted and varnished the halls and all ten bedrooms. But the old beds had broken down springs, and there was no money in the treasury to buy new ones. Then, disaster struck! The roof began to leak, ruining the wallpaper, threatening the newly varnished floors, and forcing the women to run around the house with buckets to catch the rainwater. Still the landlord refused to fix anything.
The League came up with a plan to replace the beds; 17 well-to-do Philadelphians donated beds as memorials to recently departed loved ones. But clearly new beds did not solve the other problems in the house, so a committee was formed to find new quarters. The members combed the city street by street, but houses that were large enough were too expensive or too rundown. Finally, they came across a house at 940 Central Avenue, which was filled with workers doing repairs. The house had been intended as a wedding gift to a bride, but with 17 bedrooms, it was just too big for a private home, but not really big enough for a business. The women were thrilled to find that the house was for sale. It was an answer to their prayers.
The asking price for the house was $21,000; the League had only $2300. But these were women who were not easily discouraged. With shrewd negotiating and generous donations (including one from the owner), the women were able to obtain a mortgage and buy the house for $16,500. Furnishing the large house was a daunting task, but once again donors supplied what was needed. As the years went by, visitors to the house would often notice what was lacking or in need of repair and arrange to remedy the situation. Eventually, the kindness of these donors provided an extension with a large kitchen and laundry room.
The Hostess League continued to use their ingenuity and considerable energy to raise funds to support their worthy cause. One such effort was the annual Mile of Dimes on the boardwalk; visitors could deposit a dime in a box labelled with the name of their home state. The League was able to expand the scope of Hostess House to include older women, and those who were disabled or had experienced other misfortunes. Many of the girls and women who had spent time at Hostess House wrote warm thank you notes; their stay in Ocean City had helped them regain their health and a positive outlook on life.
Hostess House closed its doors in 1972, after more than five decades of service. The building was deeded to Shore Memorial Hospital in 1973. It was sold to St John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1993. Although today all that can be seen at the site is a parking lot, the kindness that built and sustained Hostess House is an indelible part of Ocean City history.