The imposing Daniel Baugh mansion, which once stood on the northwest corner of 16th and Locust, was one of dozens of grand residences built to last the ages but only lasted a few decades. Its ephemeral presence is a contradiction: perhaps no American city is more conscious of its past and traditions. Yet at the same time, Philadelphia could be just as quick as New York to destroy its architectural treasures.
The mansion, designed by Hazelhurst & Huckel, was completed in 1891. Designed by the same firm responsible for Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, the Baugh mansion was a defiant rebellion against the brick-and-brownstone sobriety of its buttoned-up neighbors. Its rounded turrets broke the square outlines of the Locust street scape, and let plenty of light flood into its upper-floor rooms. (As a comparison, it closely resembles the still-extant Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C., built about ten years later).
A native of Downingtown, Daniel Baugh (1836-1921) was one of those lucky Civil War veterans who returned from the killing fields of Virginia and found that the post-bellum Quaker City was the perfect place to make another kind of killing. The war had been a boon to Northern manufacturers, and Baugh & Sons Company — a producer of chemical fertilizers located on the Delaware River — was no exception. A sampling from Baugh’s products in 1915 includes Excelsior Guano, High Grade Potato Grower, Export Bone with Potash, and “The Old Stand-By” (Dissolved Animal Base). Factories like Baugh’s produced tens of thousands of jobs, but they were also noxious and dangerous by today’s labor and environmental standards. Wealth from the toil and smoke of Pennsylvania’s factories, shipyards, steel mills, and coal fields flowed like a churning river into the placid reservoir that was “The Square.” Rittenhouse Square was so sedate and proper that residents even complained about the tolling of the bells at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. The novelist Henry James, who wrote in Portrait of a Lady that “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” rather smugly described the gated greenspace as “the perfect square.”
The contrast could not be starker.
Daniel Baugh, president of Baugh & Sons, was typical of the residents of Rittenhouse Square during its late 19th century glory. The author of King’s Views of Philadelphia wrote of his residence in 1900: ”Extremely and internally one of the finest of Philadelphia residences is that of Daniel Baugh, manufacturer of chemicals and fertilizers, director of many financial and philanthropic institutions, ex-president of the Art Club, ex-president of the Girard National Bank, director Commercial Museum, etc.” For men like Baugh, their social, civic, and business energies were solidly focused in Center City.
Yet as Rittenhouse Square peaked in the 1890s, forces were already underway that ultimately would gut it. Baugh’s house was one of the finest in the city, but he had also established a country residence in the Main Line suburb of Merion around the same time. Baugh was simply following the lead of Pennsylvania Railroad executives, ordered by their employer to build homes there. The Pennsylvania Railroad, at the time the largest corporation in the city, profited handsomely from this exodus, as they were the primary developers of the Main Line suburbs. By 1921, when Baugh died of a heart at attack while wintering at The Breakers in Palm Beach, the leafy, secluded suburbs had triumphed over the grandiose, visible Rittenhouse Square. Private schools and other social institutions had followed suit. A few years after Baugh’s death, his enormous mansion came tumbling down and was replaced by the high-rise University Club. His house, which must have given the wreckers a hard time, lasted for a mere quarter-of-a-century.
In one respect, Philadelphia was ahead of its time: with the help of the railroad, the upper-classes had largely vacated Center City before the Great Depression. Detroit, which embraced the automobile with gusto around the same time, experienced a similar exodus of the affluent. In New York, by contrast, saw an residential explosion on the Upper West Side and Park Avenue. With the rise of the expressway and the suburban office park in the 1950s, that trend only accelerated not just in Philadelphia, but was put into rapid motion in older cities across the nation. The city’s post-World War II tax structure exacerbated the problem. Many of the Philadelphia’s traditional social, business, and cultural institutions suffered as a result.
The stubborn city-suburb divide continues to plague Philadelphia to this day, although in recent years the city’s cultural resurgence has steadily drawn suburban residents back into Center City in general and Rittenhouse Square in particular. Although most of the large mansions like Baugh’s have disappeared, the area is still blessed with a treasure-trove of brownstones and brick townhouses on Spruce, Pine, and Delancey. These houses survive because most of them have remained viable as rental apartments rather than single family homes.
The Baugh & Sons Company plant on the Delaware River, like the mansion it paid for, is a distant memory. So too is the iron fence that once shielded Henry James’s “perfect square” from the general public who now enjoys it today.
King’s Views of Philadelphia, 1900.
Obituary: Tuesday, 1 March 1921, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, PA, Volume 184, Issue 60, Page 13,1, Column 1.
List of Fertilizer Manufacturers and Importers and Brands of Their Fertilizers for Which License to Sell in Pennsylvania During 1915 was Taken Out Prior to February 26, 1915, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1915, p.11