The Ginkgo Tree of Chestnutwold

The present day Penn Alexander School was once the site of one of West Philadelphia’s great estates: Chestnutwold, built by Clarence H. Clark.

In its time, Clark’s banking concern was one of the most powerful in the nation. And like many businesses in Philadelphia, it was a family affair. Clarence Clark was the son of banker Enoch White Clark, founder of the firm. Enoch Clark was a New England transplant to Philadelphia, a native of Providence, Rhode Island who had made his first fortune underwriting and distributing government securities. In the absence of a national bank–the Second Bank of the United States imploded in 1836 after the machinations of President Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle– opportunists like Clark stepped in to fill the gap. The senior Clark was similar to the Austrian immigrant and former portrait painter Francis Martin Drexel, in that he established an American investment house on par with the mighty banks of Europe, such as Rothschild & Company and Baring Brothers. Clark, like Drexel, also put Philadelphia on the map as a center of American finance.

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Twin houses fronting Clark Park at 4337-4339 Baltimore Avenue, most likely built by the Clark Estate in the 1890s. Photo dated August 24, 1951.

The house of E.W. Clark & Company thrived in the mid-19th century, establishing branches in other American cities. After Enoch Clark’s death in 1854 due to complications from nicotine poisoning (heavy smoking was a stress relief for financiers then as now), his son Clarence took the reins of E.W. Clark & Company and expanded its financial activities into railroads and real estate.  He also was one of the principal backers of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  Naturally, he established the Centennial National Bank (in a handsome Frank Furness designed building) near the railroad station at 30th and Market Street, where millions of fairgoers arrived over the course of several months.   According to a January 22, 1876 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the bank’s purpose was to be the “financial agent of the board at the [Centennial] Exhibition, receiving and accounting for daily receipts, changing foreign moneys into current funds, etc.” In this era before ATMs and electronic bank transfers, it was the perfect place for tourists to deposit their cash during their stay in the Quaker City.  The building survives as the Paul Peck Student Center at Drexel University.

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Centennial National Bank, designed by Frank Furness and commissioned by Clarence H. Clark in 1876. 32nd and Market Street, May 17, 1931.

Like his fellow second generation banking heir Anthony Drexel, Clark eschewed Rittenhouse Square for pastoral but not especially fashionable West Philadelphia.  And like Drexel, Clark decided to shape the area around his house by investing in it.  He purchased tracts of empty farmland, filling with middle and upper-middle class row houses as the trolley lines expanded westward from Center City.  These developments included the distinctive “professors’  row”  on St. Mark’s Square and the flamboyant set of Queen Anne houses on the 4200 block of Spruce.

Chestnutwold, 4200 locust

“Chestnutwold,” the estate of Clarence H. Clark at 4200 Locust Street, Philadelphia, c.1900. Source: King’s Views of Philadelphia

In the 1860s, Clarence Clark built his dream house, Chestnutwold,  on a  walled lot bounded by 42nd, 43rd, Locust, and Spruce streets.   The  main house, a 34 room brownstone Italianate palace, cost a staggering $300,000, or between $5-7 million in today’s money.  Its interior boasted six foot high mahogany paneling in its principal rooms, stained glass windows, and hand-painted Japanese wall paper that was perhaps inspired by what Clark saw at the Japanese Bazaar at the 1876 Centennial.  A stained glass window in the 125 foot long library bore a quote by Goethe: “Like a star that maketh not haste, that taketh not rest; be each one fulfilling his God-given hest.”


Clarence H. Clark (1833-1906). Source: King’s Views of Philadelphia, 1902.

An inveterate collector, Clark imported the estate’s iron gates from France, and planted a rare Chinese ginkgo biloba tree on the grounds.  As an added bonus, Clark opened a portion of his estate to the public for strolling…and admiration. To provide additional green space for his neighbors, Clark donated the land formerly occupied by the Civil War era Satterlee Hospital to the City of Philadelphia as a public park, as well as a bronze statue of author Charles Dickens. A representation of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop sat by his knee.

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The Clarence H. Clark Jr. house at 4200 Spruce, c.1980.

Chestnutwold proved as fleeting as it was magnificent.  Clarence Clark died in 1906, leaving the huge house vacant.   Although his son Clarence Clark Jr. built a fine house at 4200 Spruce just outside the gates of the compound in the early 1880s, the Clark heirs  decamped from West Philadelphia to the more fashionable suburbs of Germantown and Chestnut Hill. Ten years later, wreckers tore the Chestnutwold mansion down.   The grounds, however, remained intact.  The neo-Gothic structures of the Philadelphia Divinity School, designed by Zantzinger, Borie and Medary, rose on the site in the mid-1920s.   After the divinity school closed in the 1970s, the old Clark estate sat mostly vacant until the completion of the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School in 2001. The school thrives to this day, educating a diverse group of children from the neighborhood Clarence Clark developed a over a century ago.

The Philadelphia Divinity School, constructed in the 1920s.  4201-4245 Spruce Street, 1978.

The Philadelphia Divinity School, constructed in the 1920s. 4201-4245 Spruce Street, 1978.

Of the original Chestnutwold, only the pair of French iron gates at the northeast corner of the four square block lot remain today.  It is unknown if the original ginkgo tree survives on the grounds of the Penn Alexander School, but this species of tree is now ubiquitous on Philadelphia’s streets, as are its stinky fruits.


Engraving of the ginkgo tree. Source:

Note: for more on the Clark Park/Spruce Hill neighborhood on Philadelphia, click here for “West Philadelphia: A Suburb in a City,” dated June 28, 2010. 


Arnold Lewis, James Turner, and Steven McQuillin, The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), p.46.

“Magnificent  Structure in West Philadelphia Undergoing Demolition by Wrecking Crew,” The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, April 7, 1916., accessed December 9, 2015.

“Centennial National Bank,”, accessed December 9, 2015.

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The Butler Family Feud (Part III)

"Grumblethorpe," the Wister family home at 5267 Germantown Avenue, built by Owen's ancestor John Wister in the 1740s.

“Grumblethorpe,” the Wister family home at 5267 Germantown Avenue, built by Owen’s ancestor John Wister in the 1740s.

Part I and Part II

The Virginian was a tremendous success, selling 1.5 million copies during Wister’s lifetime, and became a template for countless Western novels and movies to follow.

Despite his newfound fame, Wister found subsequent literary success elusive. Like most authors, he did not want to become a one-hit wonder. Once he was back in Philadelphia–a city that he personally despised but never left–he probably let his insecurities and melancholia get the better of him.

Especially when grappling with the ghosts of his Butler ancestors.

His next book, Lady Baltimore of 1906, was an novel about South Carolina, the family seat of Wister’s Butler ancestors.  Named after a type of cake featured in the book, Lady Baltimore was Wister’s attempt at social history, but many critics found that the narrative descended into social snobbery.  Unlike The Virginian, there was comparatively little adventure and action. While the unnamed Wyoming cowboy was stoic and chivalric in his quest to win the hand of school teacher Molly Wood, the protagonist in Lady Baltimore –a Yankee named Augustus–was a comparatively insipid character on a rather different mission: to find royal lineage in his family, at the request of his imperious Aunt Carola back in New York.  Along the way, Augustus was smitten by Eliza La Heu of Kings Port (a stand-in for Charleston). A member of the plantation gentry, the effervescently beautiful Eliza had been reduced to working at a store, but her aristocratic manners (and empty bank account) stood in stark contrast to Gilded Age nouveau riche New Yorkers, exemplified by the character Hortense Rieppe (the consummate vulgarian in Wister’s plot).

Owen Wister at Yellowstone Park, Wyoming in the 1890s.  Source:

Owen Wister at Yellowstone Park, Wyoming in the 1890s. Source:

Yet it was Wister’s treatment of race in Lady Baltimore that shocked many readers of the day, even in the pre-Civil Rights era.  In Wister’s plot, the ultimate insult was that the South Carolinian John Mayrant, described by a contemporary reviewer from The Terre Haute Saturday Spectator as a “fine type of a thoroughbred, high-minded, proud southern young fellow,” has to work under an African-American boss at the customs house.   Mayrant and his relatives are unable to bear this insult to their dignity, and as a result, the reviewer continues, Mayrant must resign from his post, “without raising a scene, if he is true to his instincts as a southerner and a gentleman.”

President Theodore Roosevelt read Lady Baltimore and was reluctant to criticize his friend in public.  As a progressive at home and an imperialist abroad, Roosevelt had Social Darwinist views of his own, quite common among men of his class. The early 1900s was also a nadir in American race relations. The Republicans were still the party of Lincoln and hence of most African-Americans, but in the years since Union troops withdrew from the former Confederacy in 1877, Southern politicians did everything in their power to disenfranchise black voters and restore the plantation system in all but name. After reading his friend’s latest literary effort, the president privately wrote Wister to express admiration for his portrayal of Southern womanhood (after all, Roosevelt’s mother was the Southern belle Martha “Mitty” Bulloch, who refused to let her husband Theodore Roosevelt Sr. fight in the Union Army) and also to scold him for the novel’s descriptions of Northerners (“swine devils”) and African-Americans (“some of the laziest and dirtiest monkeys where we live”).

One chapter in particular, “The Girl Behind the Counter II,” must have irked the publicity-conscious president. In it, Eliza La Heu rants to Augustus about how the President of the United States (unnamed, but Theodore Roosevelt in 1906) had invited a black man (in real life, Booker T. Washington) to the White House for a formal dinner.  The actual dinner, which took place in October 1901, was controversial among both blacks and whites at the time.  One white Southern newspaper editor vented that it was, “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” Senator Ben Tillman of Lady Baltimore’s South Carolina used even more violent language upon hearing of the dinner, threatening the deaths of a thousand blacks in the South…so that they would “learn their place again.”

Publication announcement for "Lady Baltimore," London 1906.

Publication announcement for “Lady Baltimore,” London 1906.

At the same time, many African-Americans activists felt that Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, was an accommodationist stooge. Harvard graduate William Monroe Trotter, who in a decade would famously confront another president (Woodrow Wilson) about his re-segregation of the US civil service, wrote of Washington:  “a hypocrite who supports social segregation between blacks and whites while he himself dines at the White House.”

The matter became a sore subject for President Roosevelt, who never spoke of the dinner publicly afterward. Yet he declared that, “I’ll not lose my self-respect by fearing to have a man like Booker T. Washington to dinner, even if it costs me every political friend I’ve got.”

Now, five years later, Owen Wister had brought up the whole affair again– from the Southern point-of-view–in a dialogue between Augustus and Eliza La Heu:

If you mean that a gentleman cannot invite any respectable member of any race he pleases to dine privately in his house–‘  

‘His house,’ she was glowing now with it. ‘I think he is—I think he is–to have one of them–and even if he likes it, not to remember–I cannot speak about him!’ she wound up; ‘I should say unbecoming things.’ She had walked out, during these words, form behind the counter, and as she stood there in the middle of the long room you might have thought she was about to lead a cavalry charge.  Then, admirably, she put it all under, and spoke on with perfect self-control. ‘Why, can’t somebody explain to him? If I knew him, I would go to him myself, and I would say, ‘Mr. President, we need not discuss our different tastes as to dinner company. Nor need we discuss how much you benefit the colored race by an act which makes every member of it immediately think that he is fit to dine with any kind in the world. But you are staying in a house which is partly our house, ours, the South’s, for we, too, pay taxes, you know. And since you also know our deep feeling– you may even call it a prejudice, if it so pleases you–do you not think that, so long as you are residing in that house, you should not gratuitously shock our deep feeling?’  She swept a magnificent low curtsy at the air.

All a besotted Augustus could do was gush admiringly: “By Jove, Miss La Heu, you put it so that it’s rather hard to answer!”

Booker T. Washington meets President Roosevelt. PBS documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”

Small wonder that the sitting President of the United States took the time to write a 5,000 word letter of “advice” to Wister regarding this book.

For the Butler-Wister clan, it was a historical irony indeed. Wister’s own grandmother Fanny Kemble–who had fearlessly excoriated the slave system half a century earlier in Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839–would probably have been horrified to read Lady Baltimore.  To her, no one could have been more of a “swine-devil” than her slaveholding, libertine husband Pierce Butler II, who lived high on the hog from the unpaid labor of others.

Lady Baltimore sold well, but no where close to the blockbuster figures of The Virginian. Owen Wister himself was never able to muster up the strength to write another major book.  He continued to churn out minor works and articles, often in the paneled cocoon of the Philadelphia Club’s library.  Among them was Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919.

Yet as the 1900s progressed, Theodore Roosevelt grew more progressive and outspoken–lobbying for women’s suffrage and a graduated income tax in his 1912 Bull Moose party presidential run–while his friend Wister– who lived off family money and the royalties from The Virginian–grew ever more gloomy and conservative. One historian speculates that Roosevelt’s criticism of Lady Baltimore, however private, deflated the perpetually insecure Wister’s fragile ego. He toiled away at the manuscript of a novel about Philadelphia that he called Romney, but was never able to finish it.

Perhaps because it was about a subject Owen Wister loved to loathe: his native city.

The city is a shame. They’re proud of it, yet take no care of it. . . . The bad gas, the bad water, the nasty street-cars that tinkle torpidly through streets paved with big cobble-stones all seem to them quite right. . . . Their school buildings are filthy. I heard a teacher who spoke ungrammatically and pronounced like a gutter-snipe teaching the children English. . . . Isn’t it strange that such nice people should tolerate such a nasty state of things?

Before he died in 1938, Wister severed his family’s last ties with the Old South by selling the final remnants of his ancestor Senator Pierce Butler’s Georgia land–for a paltry $25,000.


Stephen W. Berry, ‘The Butler Family,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, September 3, 2014,, accessed November 18, 2015.

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.385.

Malcolm Bell Jr. Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987),  p.541.

Clarence Lusane, The Black History of the White House.  San Francisco: City Lights Publishers (January 23, 2013), p. 255.

James M. O’Neill, “Owen Wister’s Lost Tale of Phila Published,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 4, 2001,, accessed December 1, 2015.

Owen Wister, Lady Baltimore (New York: Hurst and Company, 1906), pp.90-91.

The Terre Haute Saturday Spectator, August 26, 1906.  From, accessed December 1, 2015.



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Chant of the Coal Heavers: “From Six to Six”

Coal Yard. South Side Washington Avenue-East of 11th Street. March 16, 1915. (

Coal Yard. South Side Washington Avenue-East of 11th Street. March 16, 1915. (

Being a Schuylkill coal-heaver wasn’t much of a life. Bosses hired fresh arrivals from Ireland to unload canal boats at the coal yards. By the hundred, crews manned wheelbarrows on the riverbank for a dollar a day, dawn to dark, six days a week. As many as 14 backbreaking hours during the summer months. One hour break for breakfast, another for supper.

Philadelphia’s appetite for anthracite had mushroomed. More than 6,500 tons passed through the docks in 1825. Nine years later, the coal heavers moved 227,000 tons. As the days grew longer in the Spring of 1835, and the coal-laden canal boats lined up along the Schuylkill’s banks, the heavers appealed for shorter working hours. Laborers in Pittsburgh and Boston had tried, and failed, to get a ten-hour work day. But a few trades in New York City did win their bid.

Now, in the Spring of 1835, Philadelphia’s laborers seized their moment to organize, and to strike.

All 300 coal heavers walked off the job, abandoning 75 coal-laden vessels at the Schuylkill docks. Marching along the riverbank, strikers threatened anyone intent on replacing them. Mayor John Swift visited as many as four times, reported the Inquirer on May 29, and found the strikers “quiet but determined”—and absolutely unwilling to back down.

The “Working Men of Schuylkill” as they called themselves, had an evolving, two-pronged strategy. As they marched, especially at the start of their strike, their leader brandished a sword. When they spoke, their words were impassioned, yet reasonable. In an “Appeal to the Public,” they wished “for nothing but peace, quietness and good order.” But under the “present aristocratic system” that requires work “from daylight to dark,” the coal heavers claimed to be worse off than “galley slaves.” They asked not for more pay, only the guarantee of a twelve hour day—a ten-hour  workday—with a one-hour break for breakfast and dinner.

Pine and Taney Streets, June 11, 1954. (

Pine and Taney Streets, June 11, 1954. (

The coal merchants mulled over the strikers demand and presented their counter offer. The dawn-to-dark working hours would remain so would the pay. But laborers would be granted a third hour-long break.

More than a week into their strike, the coal heavers had the entire city’s attention and an increasing amount of sympathy. The humane logic of the “Six to Six” campaign had found a broader following. The coal heavers rejected their bosses counter offer, and on Saturday, June 6th, they marched from the Schuylkill into the very heart of the city—to Independence Square.

Led by fifes and drums, the coal heavers chanted “From Six to Six,” a slogan seen and heard in headlines, on broadsides in store windows, and “scrawled in chalk on fences.” They marched with it on banners, along with another proclaiming “Liberty, Equality and the Rights of Man.”

As the procession closed in on Independence Square, workers from other trades dropped their tools to join in. Still others carried tools as they marched. In the shadow of the State House, speeches called for a ten-hour day in all trades. Philadelphians heard a fiery reading of the “Ten-Hour Circular” from Boston, which argued “the odious, cruel, unjust, and tyrannical system” leaves workers unable to do anything “but to eat and sleep…” Work prevented them from performing “duties…as American Citizens and members of society.”

“We cannot, we will not,” stated the circular, “…be mere slaves to inhuman, insatiable and unpitying avarice.”

“The effect was electric,” wrote John Ferral, an organizer from Manayunk. And in the following days, coal heavers were joined by hod carriers, brick layers, plasterers, carpenters, smiths, sheet iron workers, lamp makers, plumbers, painters and leather dressers—20,000 workers from 20 trades. What started as a strike on the Schuylkill had grown into the first general strike in the city—the first in American history.

“The hum of business is hushed; the coal yards are deserted and shut; and every kind of business is completely at a stand,” reported Niles Register the day of the march. “The militia looks on, the sheriff stands with folded arms,” observed a visitor from France.  “The times,” worried editors at the Philadelphia Gazette, “are completely out of joint.”

But the public had aligned with the strikers. By June 8, the Inquirer reported “the opinion is almost universal that the term of ten hours per day during the summer season, is long enough for any industrious man, whether mechanic or otherwise…” Scharf and Westcott later wrote of the “strong feeling that the demand was just… that the concession ought to be made to toiling men.”

And one by one, the city’s largest employers, from the City of Philadelphia, to Eastern State Penitentiary, to the Commissioners of Southwark, to Cornelius and Son, Lamp and Chandelier Manufacturers, adopted “six-to-six” work days. The coal heavers, and thousands of other advocates of “Six-to-Six,” had won a quick and “bloodless revolution.”

[Sources: From The Inquirer: “The Strike,” May 30, 1835; “Councils,” and “From Six to Six,” June 6, 1835; “From Six to Six,” June 8, 1835; and “From Six to Six,” June 11, 1835. Leonard Bernstein, “The Working People of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the General Strike of 1835,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 74, No. 3 (July, 1950); John R. Commons et al, History of Labour in the United States. Vol. 1 (1921); Philip Yale Nicholson, Labor’s Story in the United States, (Temple University Press, 2004).] 

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The Butler Family Feud (Part II)

A daguerreotype of the unhappy couple: Pierce and Fanny Butler.

A daguerreotype of the unhappy couple: Pierce and Fanny Butler.

Pierce Butler II did not reform his ways after his wife left him. Rather, he drank, gambled, and philandered his way through his remaining $700,000 fortune. To pay his debts, he sold nearly 500 slaves at auction in 1859.  According to one observer:

On the faces of all [the slaves] was an expression of heavy grief; some appeared to be resigned . . . some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, . . . their bodies rocking to and fro with a restless motion that was never stilled.

Although the largest sale of human beings in the nation’s history netted Pierce Butler a handsome $300,000 (about $6 million today), he died forgotten and broke after the Civil War.

Fanny Kemble–who reclaimed her maiden name–ultimately got her revenge by publishing Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 in 1864, which became a literary sensation among supporters of the Union cause, especially in her native England. In it, the former master thespian spared nothing in her descriptions of slavery’s horrors, and what exactly the North was up against. Simply reading a Southern newspaper left nothing to the imagination as far as the realities of slavery were concerned, she claimed.  In response to an unnamed apologist for slavery, she wrote:

The Southern newspapers, with their advertisements of negro sales and personal descriptions of fugitive slaves, supply details of misery that it would be difficult for the imagination to exceed. Scorn, derision, insult, menace–the handcuff, the lash–the tearing away of children from parents, of husbands from wives–the wearing trudging in droves along the common highways, the labor of the body, the despair of the mind, the sickness of heart–thees are the realities which belong to the system, and form the rule, rather than the exception, in the slaves experience. And this system exists here in this country of yours, which boasts itself the asylum of the oppressed, the home of freedom, the one place in the world where all men may find enfranchisement from all the thraldoms of mind, soul, or body–the land elect of liberty. 

Such words would have driven her grandfather-in-law, the original Pierce Butler, to apoplexy.  They also rattled the many upper-class Philadelphians who held Southern sympathies.  The hard truth was that out of all the Western powers in 1864, republican America was the very last to outlaw slavery.  England had done so in 1833, France in 1848, and imperial Russia (that most autocratic of regimes) in 1862.

It took a Civil War and 700,000 Union and Confederate lives to rid America of its original sin.

The Philadelphia Club, 13th and Walnut Streets. Originally built in the 1830s as the home of Thomas Butler, relative of Pierce Butler and his son Pierce (Mease) Butler II.

The Philadelphia Club, 13th and Walnut Streets. Originally built in the 1830s as the home of Thomas Butler, relative of Pierce Butler and his son Pierce (Mease) Butler II.

Senator Pierce Butler’s house on Washington Square was torn down in 1859–the year of his grandson’s bankruptcy– but descendants of Pierce Butler remained Philadelphians after the Civil War.  One of the Butler family’s Philadelphia mansions survives to this day as the Philadelphia Club, although its builder Thomas Butler (the disinherited son of Pierce I) died before its completion. The club completed the shell of the hulking structure–which bore a strong resemblance to the Washington Square house–and took up residence in 1850.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Butlers in Philadelphia was left by Fanny’s grandson Owen Wister, who used his own gift with words to portray that most romanticized of American agricultural workers: the Western cowboy in The Virginian.

It’s most famous line: “When you call me that, smile.”

Owen Wister, great-grandson of Pierce Butler I and grandson of Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler II.  Wikipedia.

Owen Wister (1860-1938), author and president of the Philadelphia Club, great-great-grandson of Pierce Butler I and grandson of Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler II. Wikipedia.



The Virginian (1914 silent film)


Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.440.

Fanny Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1864), p.10.

Stephen W. Berry, ‘The Butler Family,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, September 3, 2014,, accessed November 18, 2015.

“Pierce Butler, South Carolina,” Constitution Day

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The Butler Family Feud (Part I)

The Pierce Butler mansion, 8th Street and Washington Square, c.1855.

The Pierce Butler mansion, 8th Street and Washington Square, c.1855.

Although outlawed after the Revolution, slavery continued to be a critical part of the Pennsylvania economy virtually up to the Civil War. In an era before joint stock corporations, businesses were family affairs. A successful merchant or landowner would pass along his enterprises directly to his descendants, not to trained professional executives. Many prominent Philadelphia families had significant assets in Southern states: plantations that produced lucrative crops such as wheat, indigo, cotton, and tobacco.

One Philadelphia clan fought hard to maintain their way of life–even while perched north of the Mason-Dixon Line–was the Butler family. Pierce Butler, an immigrant from County Carlow, Ireland (albeit the son of a baronet), was one of South Carolina’s largest landowners and slaveholders.  Scarred by the destruction of much of his property (real estate and human) during the Revolutionary War, Butler was determined to rebuild and maintain his family wealth at all costs. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Butler represented South Carolina in Philadelphia, and the man behind the drafting of the infamous “three-fifths clause,” which gave Southern states disproportionate representation in Congress while leveraging their non-voting, enslaved populations.

Pierce Butler I of South Carolina (1844-1822).

Pierce Butler I of South Carolina (1744-1822).

With almost unlimited resources at his disposal, Butler chose to build a northern “summer house” in the nation’s new capital, a rather odd choice considering that Philadelphia’s summers were just as unbearable than those in South Carolina, and as borne out in 1793, just as disease-ridden. Although his daughter Sarah was living there, the move was almost certainly political: Butler probably wanted to keep a close eye on Congress and fight any measures that would threaten his economic holdings and those of his peers. To announce his arrival in Philadelphia society, he build a large, freestanding house fronting then-fashionable Washington Square.  Built in the highest Federal style, it much a monument to the power of Southern money as it was a statement of Butler’s refined taste. Even after the capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800, Butler continued to spend much of his free time in Philadelphia.

Pierce Butler died in 1822, with an estate that included 1,000 slaves and 10,000 acres of agricultural land. In his will, he disinherited his son Thomas, and instead bequeathed his multi-million dollar fortune to his two grandsons Pierce and John, on condition that they change their last name from Mease to Butler.

No doubt infuriated at this rejection by the imperious and eccentric Butler patriarch, Thomas Butler planned a grand city house at the corner of 13th and Walnut Street to rival his father’s palace to the east, but he died before it was completed.

Fanny Kemble in a portrait by Thomas Sully, 1833. Wikiart.

Fanny Kemble in a portrait by Thomas Sully, 1833. Wikiart.

Like many young men who never had to truly work for a living, Pierce II was simultaneously a charmer and a ne’er-do-well. He successfully wooed the acclaimed British actress Fanny Kemble during her American tour. She proved to have more brains and feistiness than her high-living and empty-headed husband anticipated.  For Pierce II, having a good time (and looking good while doing it) was his raison d’être.

This attitude drove Fanny nuts. “You can form no idea, none, none, of the intellectual dearth and drought in which I am existing,” she wrote a friend about her life at Butler Place, her husband’s country estate (near the present site of LaSalle University).

In 1838, Pierce Butler II took his wife to South Carolina to see the source of the family’s wealth, and the “culture” in which he grew up.

Slave auction in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1861.

Slave auction in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1861.

Kemble was appalled not just at the treatment of the slaves, but also her husband’s utterly callous attitude towards such brutality.  What shocked her the most was how the overseer Roswell King Jr. fathered so many children with the enslaved women under his supervision. For Butler, however, this was the natural order of things. She returned to Philadelphia a committed abolitionist. Within a decade, Fanny and Pierce were divorced.  She took custody of their two children and raised them herself.

Butler Place, located near the intersection of Nedro and Old York Road. LaSalle University.

Butler Place, located near the intersection of Olney Avenue and Old York Road. LaSalle University.

Part II to follow


Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.440.

Fanny Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1864), p.10.

Stephen W. Berry, ‘The Butler Family,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, September 3, 2014,, accessed November 18, 2015.

“Pierce Butler, South Carolina,” Constitution Day,


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Gritty King Coal

Northwest Corner - 13th Street and Washington Avenue. B. F. Hill and Company-Coal Supplier, September 20, 1914. (

Northwest Corner – 13th Street and Washington Avenue. B. F. Hill and Company-Coal Supplier, September 20, 1914. (

In the 1820s, Philadelphia investors “awoke as if from a dream” to the “immensity of the riches concealed in the mountains and ravines of their native State.” As “news of fortunes accumulated by piercing the bowels of the earth, and bringing forth [coal] from the caverns of mountains,” wrote Edwin Freedley, the anthracite trade, which “appeared yesterday but a fly, now assumed the gigantic proportions of an elephant!”

In an optimistic rush, investors who “previously laughed at the infatuation of the daring pioneers of the coal trade” now cooked up their own “plans of towns…surveys of coal lands…railways, canals and…other improvements.” They poured five million dollars into the Schuylkill coals-fields to get black diamonds to the city, digging more than 800 miles of canals and building 1,600 miles of railroad. Investors made out. So did “laborers and mechanics of all kinds from all quarters and nations” who “flocked to the coal region,” wrote Freedley, and “found ready and constant employment…” Down on Philadelphia’s Schuykill docks, arrivals from Ireland found ready, backbreaking work as “coal heavers.”  Dawn-to-dark work for a dollar a day.

Philadelphia’s appetite for coal—a skimpy 365 tons in 1820—flourished at 867,000 tons by 1840. Less than a decade after that, 5,000,000 tons of anthracite poured into the city.


(Detail) Northwest Corner – 13th Street and Washington Avenue. B. F. Hill and Company-Coal Supplier, September 20, 1914. (

Cheap coal meant cheap heat. Affordable, high-quality anthracite also gave the city’s makers an edge. “Inexpensive and abundant coal,” relates The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, “helped drive population and industrial growth. Citizens used it “to heat homes, power factories, propel steamships, and smelt iron.” Anthracite “enabled Philadelphia to transform itself from a commercial city of merchants into an industrial powerhouse. … Canals, coal, and industrial Philadelphia grew together synergistically.”

By the last quarter of the 19th century, when manufacture was strategically chosen as the theme for the Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia could display its makeover to the world. By 1876, the question wasn’t what Philadelphia manufactured—but what it didn’t.

Expansion—and the fortunes made from it—seemed endless. In the middle of the 19th-century, the Reading Railroad built a facility in Port Richmond large enough to handle more than 1.2 million tons of coal every year with wharves capacious enough to handle 100 ships at a time. After the Civil War, the Pennsylvania Railroad developed its own Greenwich Point Holding Yard, along the Delaware in South Philadelphia. By the early 1890s, coal cars stretched as far as the eye could see. Greenwich car dumpers heaved 300 carloads of coal each and every day.

King Coal had rubbed his gritty elbows with Philadelphia. What could possibly go wrong?

[Sources include: John C. Van Horne, etc. Traveling the Pennsylvania Railroad: Photographs of William H. Rau (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002); Russell Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982)] 

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The Silent Film Era Was Anything But

Bellevue Theatre - Home of the Wonderful Echo Organ, 2210 North Front Street, March 14, 1916. (

Bellevue Theatre – Home of the Wonderful Echo Organ, 2210 North Front Street, March 14, 1916. (

In 1913, “seventy vaudeville and motion picture theatres were under construction” wrote Irvin Glazer. And “virtually all of them were open by the fall,” providing Philadelphia with about 350 venues theatres that excluded downtown “legitimate theatres.” Each and every one screened silent films.

Viewing options were everywhere. In addition to the Victoria at 913 Market (open since in 1909) was the Ruby Theatre at 618 Market, the Arcadia, at 1529 Chestnut, and the Palace Theatre at 1214 Market. The massive, new, 1400-seat Stanton had opened at 16th and Market, not far from the Regent, a block to the west. But movie goers didn’t have to come to town; they could stay in their own neighborhoods and enjoy films at The Tioga, near 17th Venango or The Apollo at 52nd and Girard, or many, many others theatres—and more were on the way.

By 1915, as one film trade publication put it, “in the district known as Kensington, the home of varied industries and a large, live population” film fans could visit the newly-opened, 830-seat Bellevue Theatre. Front and Susquehanna had become a happening place.

Beyond the Bellevue’s ticket booth “of marble and mahogany” and lobby lined with stone tiles, potted palms, and hung with wall-to-wall movie posters, the Bellevue accommodated nickel-and-dime-paying patrons from after noon to an hour before midnight. They filed past brass railings and opal fixtures, down crimson carpeted aisles to upholstered seats to hear the tones of the echo organ and a five-piece orchestra. They’d take in the latest films—advertised in circulars, the daily papers, on billboards and posters mounted on a wagon that paraded the streets.

With a boom in venues and production burgeoning, the screen was now the place to be and be seen. The “celebrated and pulchritudinous” Kitty Gordon held back as long as she could, but as 1915 came to a close, Gordon gave in to “the green glare of the lights of a motion picture studio.”

“I felt positively tremulous as I made my first scene,” confessed Gordon. “But that feeling soon wore off and by the time the camera man was ready to ‘grind’ I was perfectly cool again. I am quite in love with this wonderful new art that furnishes one with surprises no matter which way one turns.”

In the role of the beautiful, charming, conniving Lena Despard, in an updated version of F. C. Philips’ As in a Looking Glass, Gordon did manage to make “an especially striking and attention-compelling photo drama.” The bar had been set high by stars in the stage versions of the role. Sarah Bernhardt had owned it for a time in Paris, admitting to a reporter that the “frank and easy style” of the story “touched” her “dramatic fibre.” Philadelphia ticket holders had packed The Walnut to witness Lily Langtry as the “soulless adventuress” Despard displayed in one after another glamorous gown, just as Lillian Cleves would at the Girard Avenue Theatre.

Gordon delivered in her debut. “Quite frequently,” observed critic Lynde Denig, she turned “her back to the camera and it generally happened that her gown was pronouncedly—need it be added—becomingly décolleté.” The director “surely bore in mind the probable spirit of the public, how eagerly it would await a convincing display of Miss Gordon’s much advertised back,” and, Denig noted, “how little the story mattered by comparison.” If the script “lacked inspirational qualities” the production “was fortunate in having a star capable of carrying so much responsibility on undraped shoulders.” Denig gave a thumbs up: “nobody is going to be disappointed in Miss Gordon’s beauty from whatever angle it is viewed…”

Motography’s writer agreed, adding a bit of pre-Hollywood snark on Gordon’s gowns, which “began late and ended early.” As it turned out, the anticipated “brilliance” of the her “‘polished shoulders’… had caused widespread halation. . .on the film.” Makeup had to “dull the gleam of that famous back and those celebrated shoulders with whole shaker-fulls of powder” before the camera could refocus “its undazzled eye on the dulled surface.”

But audiences were dazzled by all they saw, which culminated in an updated suicide scene, “a final thrill” of the Thelma and Louise variety, as Gordon and her vehicle are “hurled over a precipice.”

Projectors at the Bellevue clicked on into the 1930s, when the place was brought back to a life, of sorts, as a car parts shop.

Today, the much-compromised building on Front Street barely survives.

[Sources: Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z: A Comprehensive, Descriptive Record of 813 Theatres Constructed Since 1724. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Lynde Denig, “As in a Looking Glass” Kitty Gordon Is Introduced to World Film Audience in Melodrama of Intrigue and Love,” The Moving Picture World, Vol. 27 (World Photographic Publishing Company, 1916); “Notes from all Over,” Motography, Volume 15, No. 1, p. 48, 1916; “Bellevue Theatre Opens in Philadelphia,” Accessory News, Vol. 10, No. 25, (October 1914-Jan 1915), p. 112; and from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Mrs. Langtry at the Walnut,” January 23, 1888; “Mrs. Langtry’s Second Week,” January 24, 1888; “At the Theatres Last Night – The Girard Avenue,” October 27, 1891; “Kitty Gordon is Filmed,”  December 26, 1915.]

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Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō Had Arrived

Detail of “City Hall – Decorated for Visit by Admiral Togo,” 1911. (

“With Secret Service men and city detectives following in a motor car and mounted policemen galloping ahead and behind, the Japanese commander was whirled around the west side of City Hall and South on Broad street. Those who caught a fleeting look at his immobile face gave him a noisy welcome. From the windows of the Bellevue-Stratford fluttered the flags of the United States,” that of Japan and the admiral’s, which the resourceful hotel staff had finished stitching together only minutes before.

Yes, Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō had arrived.

Down in the bowels of the Bellevue-Stratford “the pantryman of the culinary department” had readied his creation: a three-and-a-half-foot model of Tōgō’s famous battleship, the Mikasa. The model looked exactly right, down to “the number of guns pointing from turrets,” the chocolate sailors manning the small-fire guns and the surrounding waves of “billowy green bonbons.”

Tōgō’s eyes “twinkled when he saw the midget ship.” He “gravely drew himself to attention and saluted.”

Philadelphians fell all over themselves in August 1911, celebrating their 48-hours with Admiral Tōgō.  The samurai who studied naval warfare under British tutelage had put all of his finely honed skills to work against the Chinese and the Russians. Only five years before, Tōgō won what is often referred to as “the most decisive sea battle in history, the Battle of Tsushima.”

Now, this “Conqueror of Russia’s Fleet” who represented the Japanese government at the coronation of King George V in England was headed back home. But not before an American Grand Tour. Tōgō left Liverpool on the Lusitania. President Taft hosted him at the White House. Tōgō visited Mount Vernon, laying a wreath at Washington’s tomb. He’d see the Naval Academy in Annapolis; witness drills by Army cadets at West Point. And he would dine at Oyster Bay with former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had presided over the negotiations between the Japanese and the Russians that resulted in the Portsmouth Treaty. For that, Roosevelt had earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.

In his 48-hour, whirlwind tour of Philadelphia, Tōgō visited Independence Hall. He stood before the Liberty Bell and took a long, deep bow at the portrait of George Washington. Tōgō toured the Philadelphia Navy Yard and inspected a new style of “fighting mast” on the battleship Minnesota. He plied the Delaware port in a tugboat, and visited the yards of Camden’s New York Shipbuilding Corporation, which saluted Tōgō with large cannon booming a nineteen-gun salute. Back in Philadelphia, Tōgō visited Baldwin Locomotive Works (which he noted was “well known in our faraway country”). He marveled at the Mint and met the Mayor. But August heat crimped Tōgō stamina, and he passed on a scheduled visit to William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding Company, where the Kasagi, his battleship and original flagship in the Japanese-Russian War, first took to water.

On his final evening in Philadelphia, having dined casually in his fourth-floor suite at the Bellevue-Stratford, Tōgō requested a “motor ride” to escape the city’s stifling humidity. His driver navigated into the cool recesses of Fairmount Park, presumably allowing a glimpse of the ancient Japanese Temple Gate, recently purchased, installed and landscaped at the expense of two Baldwin executives.

In all of his comings and goings, Tōgō hardly had a chance to study the two large electric signs mounted in his honor over the north and south portals of City Hall. But in the quiet of this dark, steamy August night, Tōgō’s car returned down Broad Street. Tōgō read the words aloud “as the car approached the big, electric ‘Welcome to Togo’” sign. “The Admiral instructed the chauffeur to stop and for a few minutes” and “he studied the design carefully. The blending in lights of the American and Japanese flags pleased him, but he was greatly mystified at the significance of the blue and yellow flag.”

Tōgō didn’t recognize that flag. Neither did his aide, nor did his secretary, or the Secret Service agent, or the chauffeur. The entourage hailed a policeman to learn it was “the insignia of Philadelphia.”

The Admiral “seemed amused” and delighted at this “real, official municipal welcome,” the likes of which he had never seen before—and probably wouldn’t again.

[Sources: Jonathan Clements, Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, (Haus Publishing, 2010); Encyclopedia of World Biography; “Togo here next month,” The New York Times, July 16 1911; and the Newspaper collection at the Special Collections Research Center, Paley Library, Temple University, including “Admiral Togo, Japan’s Hero, Arrives Here. Conqueror of Russia’s Fleet is Given Great Ovation,”August 10, 1911; “Togo Leaves City After Day Spent Seeing Its Sights,” August 11, 1911, both in The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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PhillyHistory Turns 10!

Celebrate ten years of at a birthday event Wednesday, October 21, at City Hall!

City Hall Tower-Statue Penn's Head (

City Hall Tower-Statue Penn’s Head (

Back in 2005, the City of Philadelphia Department of Records launched the Photo Archives Website to provide access to historic photographs from the Philadelphia City Archives. A few months afterward, that site became and we launched the Blog to help tell the stories behind the photos. Ten years later, we’re excited to have over 130,000 historic photographs and maps from five organizations available that are viewed and searched by thousands of visitors each month.

We hope you’ll join us for a panel discussion on Wednesday, October 21, at 5pm at City Hall to celebrate ten years of We’ll explore PhillyHistory’s creation and development, lessons learned from ten years of maintaining a digital history project, and plans for future digitization initiatives. Please follow the RSVP directions at the event announcement if you’re interested in attending.

The “Celebrating PhillyHistory’s 10th Birthday” event is part of Archives Month Philly. Visit their website for a full list of events throughout the month of October!

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A Story of Stewardship


“Japanese Pagoda – Fairmount Park,” ca. 1910. (

The 1904 St. Louis’ Louisiana Purchase Exposition was a gigantic affair: nearly twice the size of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and quadruple Philadelphia’s Centennial in 1876.  For Japan, the increasing scale of America’s world’s fairs turned out to be just about the perfect platform to demonstrate its expanded ambitions for the world stage. The Japanese occupied seven acres in St. Louis, more than any other nation outside the United States.

Japan had emerged as the Far East’s imperial nation and its colonial power—“the protector of Chinese territory,” according to historian Carol Christ. (Just a few months before the fair opened, Japan had attacked Russia on Chinese soil and was on its way to a decisive victory, the first time an Asian country defeated a European power.)

Japan also expressed its dominance in the creative realm. As the heir of Asian culture and the “sole guardians of the art inheritance,” Japan positioned itself as keeper of the “museum of Asiatic civilization.” When Russia backed out of their commitment to exhibit in St. Louis, Japan the imperial power and cultural ambassador stepped in with purpose and commandeered the Russian space.

Japan’s exhibition buildings were “built entirely by native carpenters,” in styles perfected hundreds of years earlier, declared one guidebook. Set in landscapes with gardens, hills, waterfalls, lakes and bridges, accented with imported, centuries old, “beautifully trained dwarf trees…drooping wisteria…peony, scented lily and blushing maple”—it all added up to a “harmonized…artistic” whole. For visitors from around the world, Japan curated a one-of a kind experience that sent a powerful message: Asian power had arrived.

And there was more. By the fair’s main entrance, millions were lured onto the Pike, a mile-long, carnival-like collection of attractions open late into the evenings. “The Pike” offered up contortionists, dancing girls and a “Zoological Paradise” complete with an elephant water slide. Visitors went “deep sea” diving, scaled miniature replicas of the Tyrolean Alps, rode burros along constructed cliff dwellings and toured “Blarney Castle.” Especially popular were rides inspired by the biblical version of “Creation” and another ride with the “Hereafter” as its theme. The Pike also staged military reenactments: the Boer War, the Spanish-American War and, the Russo-Japanese War, still in progress.

No concession on the Pike stood out more than Japan’s. Entering through a massive, 150-foot  gateway –a “replica of the famous portal in Nekko, Japan” visitors strolled “a Street of Tokyo,” brought alive by 80 actors in traditional costume. Everything was new, though constructed to appear ancient and venerable, except for one artifact that didn’t need to feign authenticity, a 45-foot tall temple gate that, for the previous three centuries, had graced the Hitachi Provence, about 120 miles northeast of Tokyo.

Japanese Temple Gate, Fairmount Park. Autochrome by Emil Albrecht, ca. 1912.  (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

Japanese Temple Gate, Fairmount Park. Autochrome by Emil Albrecht, ca. 1912. (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

What would become of such a treasure when the crowds returned home? John H. Converse and Samuel Vauclain, who had made their fortunes at Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive Works, imagined the “Nio-Mon, or, Temple Gate” as a picturesque addition to Fairmount Park. They bought it, paid for its transportation, reconstruction and landscaping—completed with tons of boulders worn smooth in the nearby Darby Creek. Converse and Vauclain, with additional help from John T. Morris, transformed the grove between Memorial Hall and Horticultural Hall into a picturesque and peaceful destination.

But peaceful in a big city park can be vulnerable. From the start, the City and the Fairmount Park Art Association (where Converse and Morris served on the board) took protective measures.  Artifacts exhibited inside the temple gate’s second-story chamber were transferred to Memorial Hall and later to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (One still survives in the Asian Art gallery.) But without fences or a guard, Philadelphia’s new, hidden treasure became an easy target.

Architect Albert Kelsey had seen it coming: “I deplore the possibility of this beautiful temple becoming merely another scattered unit in a poorly planned park that has not, in many instances, been laid out to heighten the effect of the many valuable works of art it possesses.” Morris called for the installation of “wire guards” to prevent “acts of barbaric young American(s), who take pleasure in stoning these fine specimens of Japanese wood carvings.”

“If the building is not protected it will soon go to decay,” Morris fretted. “If visitors are permitted to do as they want in the interior it will soon be a disgrace…” Cycles of vandalism and repair followed one another from installation in 1906 into the 1930s, when, as part of the Works Progress Administration, the temple gate got a facelift. But to no avail. Within a few more years, Park Commissioner John B. Kelly was ready to throw up his hands. Kelly suggested the gate might just have to be “torn down.”

On the eve of the temple gate’s golden anniversary in Philadelphia, in May, 1955, the City installed scaffolding to carry out another cosmetic overhaul. But before the project got underway, the temple gate burned to the ground. The culprit, according to the Philadelphia Fire Department, wasn’t vandalism, but the “carelessly discarded cigarette” from the repair crew.

Who mourned the temple gate? Who had time to? Two years after the fire, Shofuso, another cultural treasure from Japan, found its way to Fairmount Park.

[Sources include: Christ, Carol. “The Sole Guardians of the Art Inheritance of Asia: Japan and China at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 8:3 (2000): 675-709; Historical Narrative of Shofuso. (.pdf); 1904: The World’s Fair. Missouri Historical Society; At The Fair: The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The Pike; Hoshi, Hajime, Handbook of Japan and Japanese exhibits at World’s fair, St. Louis, 1904; Tsen, Hsuan, Spectacles of Authenticity: The Emergence of Transnational Entertainments in Japan and America, 1880-1906. (Stanford University, 2011).]

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