Anthony J. Drexel was one of the wizards of late 19th century finance. He also had big shoes to fill. His Austrian-born father Francis Martin Drexel emigrated to America at the dawn of the 19th century to seek his fortune as a portrait painter. The elder Drexel found that he was more skilled at bond trading than portraiture–although talented, he was no Thomas Eakins. Like many immigrant fathers, Francis put his three sons (Francis Jr., Joseph, and Anthony) to work at the family business, running errands and sweeping floors in their office at 2nd and Chestnut. He also went on more than his share of adventures: at the age of 13, he guarded a gold shipment as it traveled by stagecoach from Philadelphia to New Orleans. In this pre-Federal Reserve era, paper money was untrustworthy. Gold was king.
Although Anthony (born in 1826) would eventually inherit one of the nation’s great banking fortunes, the lack of a formal education plagued him all of his life. Despite his wealth, he felt awkward in Philadelphia society, and preferred the privacy and love of family life. Although he and his wife Ellen lived there briefly, he had little interest in the gaiety of the Rittenhouse Square set. The titans of Wall Street didn’t know him that well, either. As The New York Times wrote of him: “For a man of such financial importance, Mr. Drexel did not have a wide personal acquaintance here in this city.”
Soon after this father’s death in 1863, Anthony Drexel purchased a large plot of land centered at the intersection of 39th and Walnut streets, far out in West Philadelphia. He then commissioned an unknown architect (possibly Samuel Sloan, designer of nearby Woodland Terrace) to design a sprawling Italianate villa, where he, his wife Ellen, and their nine children could live away from the noise and dirt of Center City. He was also generous to his extended family, frequently looking after his niece Katharine Drexel, whose father Francis Jr. raised his children as strict Roman Catholics. His brother Anthony however crossed the Reformation aisle, raising his family as Episcopalians. As an adult, Katharine renounced her privileged upbringing altogether and became a nun, donating her time and vast inheritance to Native American and African-American civil rights causes.
The A.J. Drexel compound in West Philadelphia took up the entire 3900 block of Walnut Street, and was separated from the street by a hedges and a high iron fence. Not that there was much traffic in those days: the horse-drawn street car ran as far west as 41st and Chestnut. West of 42nd Street, the city melted away into a pastoral landscape of rolling fields and babbling creeks.
Drexel has a few other high-profile neighbors, namely the Clarks–who lived at Chestnutwold, 42nd and Locust–and the Pottses–who lived in a Ruskinian Gothic pile at 3905 Spruce Street. To the east and north were several less idyllic neighbors, most notably the Blockley Almshouse, Presbyterian Hospital, and the Pennsylvania Home for Blind Women.
The area was pretty but not exactly fashionable. Promoters wrote of West Philadelphia that “the ground in general is elevated, and remarkably healthy; the streets are wide, and many of them bordered with rows of handsome shade trees.” For their part, the denizens of Rittenhouse Square claimed that residents of West Philadelphia spoke with a distinctly unpleasant accent. Drexel didn’t particularly care. Nonetheless, he spent much the next three decades of his life investing in and improving the blocks around his home, especially after the University of Pennsylvania’s move to the site of the Blockley Almshouse in 1873.
To be continued…
“Anthony Drexel is Dead,” The New York Times, July 1, 1893.
“The Founder’s Vision,” Drexel University, http://drexel.edu/about/history/founder-vision/, accessed January 24, 2016.
Alissa Falcone, “The Story of the World’s Wealthiest Nun,” DrexelNow, December, 2, 2014. http://www.drexel.edu/now/archive/2014/December/Katharine-Drexel-Book/
Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930 (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2011), pp.39, 70, 74, 77.
Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p.13.