Gentlemen and Wise Guys in Girard Estates

 

Stephen Girard, in a posthumous portrait by B. Otis.  Source: Wikipedia.

Stephen Girard, in a posthumous portrait by B. Otis. Note his missing eye.  Source: Wikipedia.

Stephen Girard, the French-born Philadelphia shipping tycoon, was famous for his hard driving work ethic.  He came to America as a teenager, an orphaned cabin boy from the city of Bordeaux, and quickly established himself as a merchant who sent his ships to China and the Caribbean.  Along with John Jacob Astor of New York and Thomas Handasyd Perkins of Boston, he was active in the China trade, speculating in tea and opium. During the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1794, he personally took care of the sick and dying at a private estate that he had transformed into a hospital. Proud of his adopted country, he named his sailing ships after French Enlightenment figures and ideals: Liberty, Montesquieu, Voltaire. He took over the First Bank of the United States after its charter expired. He immodestly named it the Bank of Stephen Girard, and as sole proprietor made millions lending funds to start up new businesses and to fund public improvements such as turnpikes and canals.

He could also avaricious and cruel. When his wife developed mental health problems in the 1780s, he committed her to the insane ward of the Pennsylvania Hospital and took up with a mistress.

He died in 1831, aged 81, with a fortune of $7.5 million (the modern equivalent of $105 billion) making him according to one calculation the fourth richest American in history, adjusted for percentage of national GDP.  This places him behind only John D. Rockefeller (adjusted wealth $336 billion), Cornelius Vanderbilt ($185 billion), and John Jacob Astor ($100 billion).

Yet Girard left no direct or legitimate heirs.  He gave virtually all of his massive fortune to the city of Philadelphia.  His hotly-contested will’s most famous provision was the establishment of a charity school for “white, male orphans” that would become Girard College.  The estate also controlled vast swaths of land in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Among them was a place very dear to Girard’s heart: Gentilhommiere (“A Gentleman’s Home”), a summer retreat he built in the village of Passyunk.

Gentilhommiere, the Stephen Girard Mansion at 22nd and Shunk Streets, 1972.

Gentilhommiere, the Stephen Girard Mansion at 22nd and Shunk Streets, 1972.

Unlike Germantown, where wealthy Philadelphians such as the Chews built grand summer retreats, Passyunk never became a fashionable summer retreat for the city’s elite.  The land was flat and marshy. The Schuylkill River snaked lazily southward in the distance.   Although similar in style to Benjamin Chew’s Cliveden, Gentilhommiere is hardly baronial in scale. It is low-slung and sparsely ornamented, more a predecessor to the Adirondack camps than the chateaux of Newport.  Girard could have easily afforded a grander place — the Hare’s Powelton mansion in West Philadelphia and Biddle’s Andalusia on the Delaware rivaled the finest English country homes — but he set an early example of reverse snobbery.  Never much of a social animal, the one-eyed old salt enjoyed time away from the cares of commerce, in the company of his mistress and a few close friends.

Girard’s will stipulated that his beloved Gentilhommiere be maintained in perpetuity by the city of Philadelphia as a public park.  It would be as if Bill Gates left his 64,000 square foot Xanadu 2.0 estate outside of Seattle as a house museum, with an endowment left to run it.

By the 1910s, nearly a century after the tycoon’s death, the Girard Estate office decided to develop the former farmland around the mansion with upper-middle class housing, which would then be rented out for additional income.  Architect John Windrim, designer of the titanic Delaware Electric Generating Station and and son of Frank Furness’s most hated rival, laid out plans for blocks of row houses and twins in a variety of period styles: Spanish mission, Tudor, Georgian, and Craftsman Bungalow.  Compared to the squat, plain row houses springing up all over South Philadelphia, the homes of “Girard Estates” were palatial, and their association with the famed financier’s gentlemen’s farm gave added prestige.

Starting in the 1950s, the Girard Estate office began selling off the 481 rental properties to individual homebuyers. The people who lived in these homes were doctors, lawyers, and successful small business owners.  The land immediately around the old Girard mansion remained open as parkland, however.

One mafia don known as “The Chicken Man” made Girard Estates his home, but he never made it out of his home at 2211 W. Porter Street alive. He was Phil Testa, head of  Philadelphia’s Scarfi crime family.  The de facto head of the Philadelphia Mafia fancied himself the Julius Caesar of the Mob.   And like Caesar, this don met his end on the Ides of March, when a nail bomb planted in his home blew the “Chicken Man” to smithereens.  Phil Testa’s death on March 15, 1981 was the opening salvo to the so-called Philadelphia Mafia Wars, which raged for several years afterward.  “Bodies were falling all the time,” said one law enforcement official at the time. “You would be afraid to lay your head down at night for fear the phone would start ringing, calling you out to another one.” Testa’s son Salvatore followed in his father’s footsteps, serving as the Scarfi’s main hit man, until he too was killed — in the back of the Too Sweet candy store in South Philadelphia.

The former Testa house, a Craftsman bungalow located right across from Girard’s Gentilhommiere, was restored and is once again a private home.

Testa Mugshot 1968

Mugshot of Phil “Chicken Man” Testa. Source: Wikipedia.

2117_W._Porter_St,_Philadelphia,_PA

2117 W. Porter Street, where Phil Testa met his end in 1981. Source: “2117 W. Porter St, Philadelphia, PA” by Centpacrr at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources:

Tom Nickels, “Where Stephen Girard Called Home,” The Philadelphia Weekly Press, June 3, 2009. http://weeklypress.com/where-stephen-girard-called-home-p1340-1.htm

“The Top Ten Richest of All Time,” New York Daily News, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/top-10-richest-people-time-gallery-1.1186737

Toni Locy, “The Mob Shoots It Out,” The Philadelphia Daily News, April 27, 1989.  http://articles.philly.com/1989-04-27/news/26145174_1_mob-boss-philadelphia-south-jersey-nicodemo-little-nicky-scarfo

Brian Warner, “The 30 Richest Americans of All Time,” Celebrity Net Worth, March 21, 2014. http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/entertainment-articles/30-richest-americans-time-inflation-adjusted/#!/6-stephen-girard-net-worth-105-billion_751/

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