Trolley Barns and Grand Hotels: A Brief Look at the Widener Empire (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of “Trolley Barns and Grand Hotels.”
Part I can be viewed here.

Market Street, looking east from 10th Street, 1907. Note the Widener streetcars running along Market Street.

Market Street, looking east from 10th Street, 1907. Note the Widener streetcars running along Market Street.

The Philadelphia Traction Company, founded by Widener and his business partner William Lukens Elkins (1832-1903), held an iron-grip on the city’s horse drawn and electric trolleys.  As a monopolist, Widener not only sold transportation, but he also sold dreams to the city’s upwardly mobile.  Members of this aspiring, confident middle class were eager to purchase the ornate, modern houses developed by Widener in North or West Philadelphia. By capturing the nickels and dimes of Philadelphia’s Victorian commuters, Widener had harnessed a mighty river of cash.  This cash flow gave him strong leverage to invest in other business enterprises: U.S. Steel, American Tobacco, International Mercantile Marine. Widener also created other companies connected with real estate development, most notably the United Gas Improvement Company (UGI), which supplied utilities to his new streetcar residential developments.

As the city spread outward along Widener’s trolley lines, even the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad felt threatened.  In 1876, the year of the Centennial Exposition, the PRR bought up the trolley rights on Lancaster Avenue from 52nd Street all the way to Paoli.  Lancaster Avenue ran parallel to its “Main Line” right-of-way. It was a smart move, as it prevented Widener and his cronies from building more middle-class rowhouse neighborhoods that would compete with the Pennsy’s decidedly upscale, exclusive plans for the Main Line suburbs.  With the exception of Overbrook Farms, these communities would be located outside of the city limits, away from Widener’s political power base.

The Peter Arrell Brown Widener mansion (left) and the William Lukens Elkins mansion (right), at the intersection of North Broad Street and Girard Avenue, c.1900. Both structures have long since been demolished.

The Peter Arrell Brown Widener mansion (left) and the William Lukens Elkins mansion (right), at the intersection of North Broad Street and Girard Avenue, c.1900. Both structures have long since been demolished.

By 1900, Peter Arrell Brown Widener was worth over $100 million, making him the richest man in Philadelphia and putting him in the same class of plutocrats as New York’s Astors and Vanderbilts. His son George Dunton Widener, who had married Eleanor Elkins (daughter of William Lukens Elkins) shifted the family’s real estate focus to the heart of downtown Philadelphia.  His three grandest commissions were all the work of architect Horace Trumbauer: the Widener Building at 12th and Chestnut, the Racquet Club at 16th and Locust, and finally the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Walnut and South Broad Streets.

In the spring of 1912, as the Ritz was in under construction, George, Eleanor, and their book collecting son Harry (a close friend and protege of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach) left town for a European vacation.  They booked their return passage on the RMS Titanic.  Only Eleanor returned to Philadelphia. She promptly commissioned the family’s favorite architect Horace Trumbauer to build a new library at Harvard, dedicated to her son’s memory.  Peter Widener, who had been an investor in the White Star Line’s parent company, died rich but heartbroken three years later in his cavernous Elkins Park mansion.

The city’s growth proved unsustainable, indeed. In the years that followed Widener’s death, the city’s population contracted and its economy de-industrialized. The trolleys could not compete with buses and automobiles.  Many of the comfortable neighborhoods surrounding the old trolley routes succumbed to decay and abandonment, in part because they were ill-suited to the demands of the automobile.  Today, much of the former Widener trolley empire has been absorbed by SEPTA.  The former Ritz-Carlton Hotel serves as classroom space for the University of the Arts.  Further to the west, the one surviving West Philadelphia trolley shed is the studio of artist Jordan Griska, creator of the “Grumman Greenhouse” sculpture on Lenfest Plaza at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Construction an addition to the Widener family's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, December 18, 1913.

Construction an addition to the Widener family’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, December 18, 1913.

Sources: 

Brian Butko. The Lincoln Highway: Pennsylvania Traveler’s Guide (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2013). pp. 50–51

Andrew Heath, “Consolidation Act of 1854,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia,  http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/consolidation-act-of-1854, accessed February 21, 2014.

Stephen Salisbury, “Sculptor Turns Bomber into a Greenhouse,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 2011.

http://articles.philly.com/2011-09-27/news/30208695_1_bomber-panel-of-academy-faculty-david-brigham

Philip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986), p.5.

Ron Soodalter, The Union’s Shoddy Aristocracy, The New York Times, May 9, 2011.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/09/the-unions-shoddy-aristocracy/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Preston Thayer and Jed Porter, “Philadelphia Traction Company Barn & Stable,” Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990). http://www.workshopoftheworld.com/west_phila/phila_traction.html

David Whitmire, “The Wideners: An American Family,” Encyclopedia Titanica, January 11, 2008. http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/widener-family.html 

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