The Rittenhouse Club: Henry James’ Favorite Perch

Rittenhouse Club 10.8.1924

The Rittenhouse Club, as shown in 1924. 1811 Walnut Street.

Only the discreet letters “RC” on the brass doorplates identify 1811 Walnut Street as the former home of one of Philadelphia’s most prestigious clubs. The Beaux-Arts facade remains, but the building behind it is gone. Paneling from the club still survives in the bar of Rex 1516 restaurant on South Street. The remaining furniture — much of it designed by member Frank Furness — as well as the extensive collection of artwork — was scattered to the winds following the club’s sale of the building in the early 1990s. The lower two floors now house a Barney’s. The upper three floors, with their commanding views of Rittenhouse Square, are part of the 10 Rittenhouse condominium complex. They are vacant, but have most recently been listed at $15 million.

For nearly a century, the view from those bow windows was considered the finest in the city.

At least in the eyes of one famous author.

The Rittenhouse Club was founded in 1874 by a group of Philadelphia gentleman who originally named it the “Social Art Club.”  According to Philadelphia social chronicler Nathaniel Burt, its membership had “more literary and less sporting tastes” than the membership of the older Philadelphia Club.  This trend continued well into the club’s existence. According to one still-living member: “At the Rittenhouse Club, one would find Latin commentary scribbled in the margins of the library’s books. At the Philadelphia Club, the members would be most concerned with the latest racing news from Saratoga.”

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Greek-revival houses at 1815-1819 Walnut Street, demolished in the 1960s and replaced by a high-rise. The Rittenhouse Club is on the far right.

 

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia was big and rich enough to support two major men’s clubs, plus the distinctly political Union League. The Main Line and Chestnut Hill were still largely weekend and summer retreats — most wealthy families still lived and worked in town. The Rittenhouse Club’s membership eventually purchased the home of Congressman James Harper on the north side of Rittenhouse Square, which by the 1880s was arguably the most fashionable address in Philadelphia.  By 1900, the club raised funds to purchase an adjoining townhouse to create an even larger structure fronting the square.

If the Philadelphia Club was an annex for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Rittenhouse Club served a similar function for faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and the gentlemen architects of the T-Square Club. Here, members of the business elite mixed with architects, clergymen, and professors.  Among the members during the club’s Gilded Age heyday were steamship magnate Clement Griscom, architect Frank Furness, his Shakespeare scholar brother Horace Furness, University of Pennsylvania provost Dr. William Pepper, his nephew Senator George Wharton Pepper, and financier E.T. Stotesbury.

Perhaps the club’s most famous admirer — if not member — was the novelist Henry James, who although born in New York, had moved to London and became a British subject.  In The American Scene, James described his view from a soft leather chair of the Rittenhouse Club as that of “the perfect square.”  His host was the pistol-wielding Dr. J William White, chief surgeon of the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry and director of athletics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Rittenhouse Square on April 18, 1913.

James was an inveterate snob, but he wasn’t the only one content with the view. As Nathaniel Burt quipped, “there do not seem to be many stories of hearts being broken because of a failure to get into the Rittenhouse Club; nonetheless, those that are in it are sufficiently pleased.” To be a member, one had to have the means and the time for leisurely wet lunches.  The cuisine was Edwardian in its richness, the wine list extensive. Membership depended heavily on family, college, and private school connections. Talking business was strictly prohibited.  And like other urban clubs of its type, its membership committee generally excluded those who did not come from the “right” background.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3l56MXHwXQ&w=480&h=360]

The opening number to the Disney musical film “The Happiest Millionaire,” set at Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr.’s townhouse at 2014 Walnut Street in the 1910s. “Fortuosity” is sung by an Irish immigrant (played by Tommy Steele) who had just been hired to work as the Biddle family’s butler. Elated, he struts through Rittenhouse Square on his way to meet his new employers. Ultimately, “The Happiest Millionaire” proved less enduring than Walt Disney and the Sherman brothers’ previous collaboration: “Mary Poppins.”

Following World War II, the Rittenhouse Club suffered a long decline, in which the building slid from elegance into genteel decay. Funds ran low, and the membership roster dwindled.  Businesses moved out of town, and the three martini lunch became a relic of the past.  In addition, the federal tax code no longer allowed individuals to write off their club dues on tax returns.  As a result, many of the city’s clubs disbanded. Those that did survive opened up their membership rolls to previously excluded religious and ethnic groups. In the early 1990s, the Rittenhouse Club sold its building and found new quarters in the city.

The building sat vacant for a decade. Finally, the developers of 10 Rittenhouse purchased the structure and demolished everything except the limestone facade, which was restored to its full glory.  Today, anyone can go up to the second story of Barney’s and look through the same bowed windows that Henry James did a century ago.

Portrait_of_Henry_James_1913

Portrait of Henry James (1843-1916) by John Singer Sargent. James was the author of classics such as “The Portrait of a Lady” (1881) and “The Ambassadors” (1903).

The comfy leather chairs are gone, as is the rich wood paneling on the library walls, but the view is still the same, and the square is still as close to perfect as an urban space can be.

To see a menu from a March 1903 luncheon at the Rittenhouse Club, click here

Sources: 

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999),, p.264.

Nancy Heinzen, Perfect Square: A History of Rittenhouse Square (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009)p.95.

Liz Spikol, “Comcast CEO Brian Roberts Buys at 10 Rittenhouse,” CurbedPhilly, October 19, 2012.  http://philly.curbed.com/archives/2012/10/19/comcast-ceo-brian-roberts-buys-part-of-10-rittenhouse.php

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