A Cursed Mansion in Belmont: The Rise and Fall of the Rorkes (Part 2)

Franklin Rorke mansion, December 1872. Courtesy of H.R. Haas.

During the hot summer of July 1900, Franklin Rorke was faced with mounting bills and a failing construction business. His new mansion at 41st and Ogden, an extravagant gift from his late father, had every modern convenience, and boasted mosaics, hardwood floors, marble trim, and onyx fireplaces, as well as a fully equipped stable in the rear. Yet Rorke couldn’t afford to maintain or staff it. The $300 he had received from his late father’s estate almost certainly had run out.

Rorke’s wife Helen was terrified of the man once heralded as the scion of an “exceedingly clever” clan. “He had hallucinations of hearing and sight,” she alleged, “and thought persons were secreted about the house, and that detectives were following him in an effort to kill him.” Rorke then started making threats on his wife’s life, and drove her from the house in one of his rages.  Then, Rorke turned his fury on his own mother, attacking her with a razor blade.

The Rorke mansion, built as a glittering testament to the Rorke family’s wealth, had become a 7,000 square foot house of horrors.

Helen Rorke finally had her husband committed to a new West Philadelphia home: the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital at 49th and Market Street.

A year later, the Republican politician and former Philadelphia District Attorney George S. Graham successfully petitioned the Quarter Sessions Court to release Franklin Rorke from the insane asylum. Judge Stevenson signed off on the release. According to the Philadelphia Times, “Rorke had only been in the institution temporarily and was in his proper mind, and it would be manifestly wrong to keep him there any longer.” What Rorke’s mother and wife thought of Franklin’s release in unclear, but it may have been one last political favor by Graham for his late friend and fellow Union League member Allen B. Rorke.

In 1906, Barber, Hartman & Company listed the former Franklin Rorke mansion for sale.  “This property was built and owned by the famous Philadelphia contractor,” the advertisement stated, “and no expense was spared to erect one of the handsomest properties in West Philadelphia. The premises are in a first-class condition, and will be sold at a great sacrifice.”  That same year, Franklin Rorke was thrown in jail for “creat[ing] a scene with a pistol in a West Philadelphia Saloon.” He and his wife long-suffering wife Helen, who stated he had been “drinking excessively and abusing her,” were now residing in a modest dwelling at 4043 Baring Street.  An unnamed family friend bailed out the miscreant former construction heir for $1,000, or about $20,000 today. This was approximately the same amount Allen Rorke had left his children seven years earlier.

4000 block of Baring Street, looking west, March 27, 1961.

Franklin Rorke died in 1915, working as a bailiff for the Philadelphia Court of Common Please, a position that was almost certainly another favor from one his father’s friends. His brother Allen B. Rorke Jr. led a much quieter life, carrying on what was left of the family business and last appearing in the Philadelphia City Directory in 1926.

 

November 25, 1906 “West Philadelphia” real estate section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Franklin Rorke mansion still stands at the corner of 41st and Ogden Street, a boarded-up, vandalized shell.  It is a sad home of “might-have-beens.” The mansion never fulfilled its builder’s desire as a happy home for future generations of Rorkes, or as a glittering backdrop for balls and parties.  The cast-iron oriel window at the center of its main facade is gone, as are the elaborate railings. The lawn is completely overgrown. Yet the mansion’s stone walls and turrets are still sturdy, and the roof is still on, a testament to the care and attention Allen B. Rorke, once lauded as “the nation’s greatest builder,” put into this gift for his son 120 years ago.

Franklin Rorke mansion, 41st and Ogden, August 14, 2018. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa

One can fault would-be patriarch Allen B. Rorke for his spendthrift ways and the dynastic ambitions he placed on his very troubled son Franklin.  The once-lauded Rorkes have been long forgotten. Yet the house survives, and it could be argued that Rorke indeed lived up his reputation of doing “more rather than less than his specifications called for.”

 

Sources: 

“Allen B. Rorke,” Findagrave.com

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/60364125/allen-b.-rorke

“Builder Allen B. Rorke Is Dead, But His Work Will Live On,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27, 1899

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/20696094/allen_b_rorke_obit_phila_inq_27_dec/

Sandra Tatman, “Rorke, Allen B,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings 

https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/1274

Sandra Tatman, “Rorke, Allen B. Jr.,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings

https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/65344

“Says He is not Insane,” The Philadelphia Times, May 4, 1901, p. 3.

“Released from Asylum,” The Philadelphia Times, May 5, 1901.

H.R. Haas, “862-72 N. 41st Street,” Nomination for Historic Building, Structure, Site or Object, Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Philadelphia Historical Commission, March 7, 2017

https://www.phila.gov/historical/Documents/862-72-N-41st-nomination.pdf

“Three Deaths from Burns,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 22, 1906, p. 7.

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One Comment

  1. Scoats
    Posted October 29, 2018 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    Amazing story. Thanks for writing about it! Got any more forgotten history you’re planning to share?

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