The Inconvenient Truths of Rittenhouse Square

Detail of Mansions on Rittenhouse Square between 18th and 19th Streets, November 3, 1921 (PhillyHistory.org)

In the last third of the 19th century, fueled by wealth from the industrial revolution, Philadelphia’s Victorian aristocracy established itself on Rittenhouse Square. In rows of mansions, versions of the city’s classic rowhouses on steroids, lived the alpha families, the one percent, who controlled at least half of the city’s wealth.

“The lower 80 percent,” according to Dennis Clark, might have controlled only 3 percent of the city’s wealth, but they were indispensable “to prepare and serve the meals, shop, clean the household[s], do the laundry, and care for all the details of the privileged establishments…”

In fact, “it was impossible to pursue the extravagant lifestyle of mannered elegance and luxury without servants,” wrote Clark, even if “those most readily available were from a group alien in outlook, habits, and background.” Rittenhouse Square became a “scene of an interdependent relationship” between rich on the square and poor from nearby immigrant communities of Schuylkill, Devil’s Pocket, Ramcat and other nearby South Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Differences between the communities, created a “social dilemma” for both “the great households of Rittenhouse Square” and the overcrowded rowhouse neighborhoods where most of the Irish servants lived.

Detail of Mansions on Rittenhouse Square west of 19th Streets, November 3, 1921 (PhillyHistory.org)

In 1870, noted Clark, “there were 24,108 domestic servants in the city of whom 10,044 were born in Ireland. Among the remainder a large portion or of Irish parentage.” In late-19th century Philadelphia, “Irish” and “servant” became “virtually synonymous.”

And for many White Anglo-Saxon Protestant families, this presented a problem that couldn’t be overcome. Diarist Sydney George Fisher wasn’t alone in his bias that the Irish occupied “the position of an inferior race in the business of life, because by nature and education [they were] fitted for it.” Housekeeping expert and author Eunice White Beecher warned “not one Irish woman in one hundred” could “be transformed into a neat, energetic, truth-telling servant.” Plus, Clark added, “these servants were seen as threats to the religious integrity of the family and the peril to the Protestant purity of its children.”

For the Irish, “a similar ambiguity characterized their connection with Rittenhouse Square. It was demeaning for them to be forced to serve families whose wealth was founded upon notoriously exploitive mills, factories, and railroads.  … Many a railroad pick-and-shovel man looked with deeply mixed feelings upon his daughters’ employment in the great houses of men whose railroads had meant for him a lifetime of miserable toil.”

Life on Rittenhouse Square was a mutually inconvenient, if essential, compromise until the early 20th century, when demographic and economic changes, in addition to a new appetite for life in the railroad suburbs, undid the old order. “As those whose families had reigned resplendent on Rittenhouse Square in the 1880s declined or decamped, the square became drab and unkempt. The great houses were shuttered, demolished, or converted to apartments. The flocks of servants to tend them we’re no longer affordable or fashionable. The girls from ‘Ramcat’ were becoming secretaries or nurses; some were even going to high school and college.”

1830 Rittenhouse Square, southeast corner of 19th Street, November 3, 1921, detail  (PhillyHistory.org)

Apartment – Southwest Corner – 19th and Rittenhouse Square. October 26, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

The square also took on a new look.

“Like tall chimneys, apartment hotels are circling around Rittenhouse Square” fretted the Inquirer in the Spring of 1924. Sale signs “tend to change completely the serenity which long dwelt in that abode of the socially elect.”

The 52-room mansion at the southeast corner of 19th Street and Rittenhouse Square where the Scott family hosted scores of soirées, receptions and teas only a decade before, was among the first to go. “Tearing Down Scott’s Mansion” bluntly stated an advertisement for scrap building materials in February 1913. The place was reduced to so much “lumber, doors, windows, [and] good hard brick,” all sold “cheap.”

Soon after, on the same site, rose the square’s first Beaux-Arts apartment building, designed by architect Frederick Webber. The next mansion to fall was that of the Drexel family, directly across 19th Street.  And in its place rose another 18-story apartment house, this one designed by Sugarman, Hess & Berger.

“Construction Boom Strikes Rittenhouse Square Section,” read one headline in 1924. “Landmarks are Razed for Fashionable Apartment Structures,” read another. And so, demolition of mansions and construction of high rises continued until a time when even apartment dwellers protested that such buildings would “shut off sunlight from the square.”

Nevertheless, development persisted.

[Sources: Dennis Clark, “Ramcat and Rittenhouse Square,” in William W. Cutler, III and Howard Gillette, Jr. The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975 (Westport: Greenwood Press); “Tearing Down Scott’s Mansion,” [advertisement] The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 22, 1913; “Girard’s Talk of the Day,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 1924;  “Construction Boom Strikes Rittenhouse Square Section,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 1924; “Seminary Moves to Green Hill Hotel,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 3, 1940.]

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5 Comments

  1. Bill Siemering
    Posted December 23, 2019 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    So then did the rich move to the Main Line? Is this the same Scott family as Robert Montgomery Scott?

    • Ken Finkel
      Posted December 24, 2019 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      Exactly! The Main Line was the region’s premier railroad suburb. And, yes, it is the same legendary Scott family.

  2. nancy heinzen
    Posted December 24, 2019 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Why is the Truth inconvenient?

  3. William Faust
    Posted January 24, 2020 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, the wealthy gained their wealth by employing savings and people to make sundry goods and services that people wanted to buy, they created further jobs by building opulent homes for themselves and they employed people in them. I don’t see “inconvenience” except through a Bernie Bro capitalism-is-bad lens.

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