Coleman Sellers, Powelton Village, and The Gilded Age” (Part I)

Coleman Sellers II (1827-1907). Source; Wikipedia.com

While ‘The Gilded Age’ touches on many themes as it shifts uncomfortably between melodrama and satire, occasionally verging into burlesque, it always projects a powerful message about the futility and self-destructiveness of chasing after riches.

-R. Kent Rasmussen

Now divided into apartments, 3301 Baring Street is an imposing Italianate style mansion completed in 1857 for John McIlvain, a prominent lumber merchant, and his wife Sarah.  When it was built, the Powelton district of the newly annexed West Philadelphia was a fashionable suburban retreat for the city’s gentry, its street-lined streets worlds away from the smoke and noise of the burgeoning industrial metropolis.  The district was accessible only by horse-drawn streetcar, and its houses boasted spectacular views of the Schuylkill River and the Fairmount Waterworks.

At the end of the Civil War, the McIlvains sold the house to industrialist and inventor Coleman Sellers II and his wife Cornelia. Coleman Sellers was one of the kingpins of Philadelphia’s Quaker establishment. He also had the arts in his blood, as his mother was the daughter of Philadelphia’s famous painter Charles Wilson Peale. Born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania in 1827, Coleman was trained as an engineer and spent his formative years in Cincinnati, Ohio as the superintendent of a rolling mill operated by his brothers George Escol and Charles.  Yet what really made Sellers’ career was locomotives — by the early 1850s, he had become a master engineer of these new machines that could transport the riches of the heartland to the East Coast at over 30 miles per hour.  Flush with cash, Sellers returned to his native city and built a thriving machinery works in the Spring Garden neighborhood.  As the 19th century continued and blossomed (or devolved) into what satirist Mark Twain called the “Gilded Age,” Sellers expanded his investments into other concerns, such as Midvale Steel in East Falls and the Millbourne Mills in his native Upper Darby.

Socially, Coleman Sellers enjoyed great success as well, joining the ranks of the Saturday Club and the Union League.  Yet his work ethic never flagged.  He designed and built locomotives for William Henry Aspinwall’s Panama-Pacific Railroad (a 50 mile rail line that cut down the travel time between New York and the new state of California from months to weeks), oversaw the construction of the Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant, served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, and patented an early motion picture camera that he christened the kinematoscope. His firm also built the shafting to the Corliss engine that powered the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  His true pet project was the Franklin Institute, the scientific powerhouse which he served as vice president and president.

He was also a firm believer that machinery needed no applied ornamentation, as its innate aesthetic beauty lay in its function. Foreshadowing the architecture of functionality later espoused by Louis Sullivan and LeCorbusier, Sellers declared that “we find that a new order of shapes, founded on the uses to which they are to be applied and the nature of the material of which they are made, have been adopted and the flaunting colors the gaudy stripes and glittering gilding has been replaced by this one tint, the color of the iron upon which it is painted.”

The Coleman Sellers II mansion at 3301 Baring Street, December 14, 1962.

Yet Sellers also somehow found the time to live graciously (and in colorful Victorian style) at his home at 33rd and Baring, which he and his wife expanded and lavishly redecorated over their four decades in residence.  According to his grandson Harold Colton in his 1961 book North of Market, Coleman “extended the west side adding a second room for his extensive library and enlarged the dining room making it quite long. The walls he hung with many portraits of the family by his grandfather Charles Wilson Peale. On the second floor the master bedroom over the dining room was lengthened and over the new library a sunny glass-enclosed conservatory was built, where his wife Cora could keep her flowers in the wintertime. Besides the improvements to the west wing he built between the kitchen and dining room a pantry over which were private baths on each floor. On the third floor over the kitchen wing he built an office for himself and a laboratory or shop reached by new back stairs. After the improvements were complete Jessie [Sellers, his daughter] was given the large bedroom on the third floor not only with a private hath but also with a fireplace.”

In fact, the 3300 block of Baring became something of a Sellers family compound.  Siblings and cousins pooled $23,000 to purchase it for their own homes.  In the early 1880s, the patriarch built Queen Anne twin houses at 410 and 412 North 33rd Street for his son Coleman Jr. and daughter Jessie, respectively.

Yet as Coleman Sellers’ star rose, the one of his younger brother and former business partner George Escol Sellers plummeted, in no small part due to a certain fictional character created by authors Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their collaborative 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today: Colonel Mulberry Sellers.

As Twain wrote: “Many persons regarded ‘Colonel Sellers’ as a fiction, an invention, an extravagant impossibility, and did me the honor to call him a “creation”; but they were mistaken. I merely put him on paper as he was; he was not a person who could be exaggerated.”

Sources: 

“3301 Baring Street,” PoweltonVillage.org. http://www.poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/files/3301baring.htm

“Coleman Sellers (1827-1907), FrankFurness.org, n.d. http://frankfurness.org/profile/biography/influences/design/sellers/

Barbara Schmidt, “We Will Confiscate His Name: The Unfortunate Case of George Escol Sellers,” TwainQuotes.com, n.d., http://www.twainquotes.com/ColonelSellers.html

Dominic Vitiello, Engineering Philadelphia: The Sellers Family and the Industrial Metropolis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), p.177.

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