The Railroad Tycoon of Rittenhouse Square

Thomas Alexander Scott Mansion, 1830 Rittenhouse Square from King’s Views of Philadelphia, 1902 (PhillyHistory.org)

“It is difficult for Americans today to imagine the grandeur of the elite life-style of a Rittenhouse Square at the end of the nineteenth century,” wrote historian Dennis Clark. “The class culture of such neighborhoods created what amounted to a fairyland of elegance and display protected by Victorian codes of civility and discrimination. These enclaves of privilege combined architectural eclecticism with passionate embellishment, lavish furnishings, and an adoration of English upper-class family etiquette. Flamboyant architects like Frank Furness and Theophilus Chandler designed edifices for an almost hysterical display of wealth.” Illustrations of these “wildly adorned shrines to aggressive vanity and the obsessive flaunting of riches” were published proudly in King’s Views of Philadelphia of 1902.

“At no other time in the city’s history, before or since,” wrote sociologist Digby Baltzell. “have so many wealthy and fashionable families lived so near one another.” Here was a neighborhood built by great industrial-era fortunes made in banking, investments, dental tools, pharmaceuticals, giant knitting mills, big sugar, and, of course, the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Perhaps the most opulent and most egregious of these houses, at the southeast corner of 19th and Rittenhouse, was Frank Furness’ 52-room design of 1875 for Thomas A. Scott. This “quintessential railroad man of his generation,” described by a New York newspaper editor as “the Pennsylvania Napoleon,” who came across as “ambitious to take possession of the republic under a nine hundred and ninety-nine-year lease.”

As great-great-granddaughter Janny Scott recently recounted, Thomas Scott transformed “what had merely been a Philadelphia-to-Pittsburgh carrier into a six-thousand-mile system of railroads stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.” The influence of his corporation “eventually extended as far as New Orleans, Colorado, Arizona and Mexico.” Scott and his predecessor, J. Edgar Thomson, controlled “not only the biggest freight carrier in the world but the most profitable corporation in North America.”

And, largely due to one infamous quotation, Scott would become “one of the most consistently and thoroughly vilified business executives in the 19th century.”

This notorious quotation, uttered during what is known as the great railroad strike of 1877, is considered “the beginning of the age of industrial and class warfare in the United States.” Janny Scott explains in her book The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father: “Four years into the longest recession in American history, and in response to new wage cuts and work rules, train crews in Maryland and West Virginia walked off the job. Then a strike broke out in Pittsburgh, where railroad workers blockaded the yards. People with other grievances against the railroad joined the protest. So did factory and mill workers and others whom the recession had left homeless and unemployed. After the National Guard troops were called in, members of the crowd attacked them. Troops fired back, killing at least ten people and wounding many more. Protesters looted gun shops, seizing weapons. Someone lit a freight car on fire, and the blaze spread; other cars, filled with coke and oil, burst into flames. Roundhouses, an engine house, a machine shop burned. Troops killed more rioters. After three days, one hundred twenty-six locomotives and sixteen hundred freight and passenger cars had been destroyed. The railroad estimated the damage to its property at two million dollars. Ever since that time, Thomas Scott, then in his third year as the railroad’s president, had been quoted as having suggested the rioters be given “a rifle diet for a few days, and see how they like that bread.”

Little did it seem to matter that at least one historian has found “the most thorough contemporaneous accounts of the riot . . . makes no mention of any such statement,” Thomas Scott’s reputation as a ruthless railroad tycoon had long been seared into public memory.

[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); Digby Baltzell,  Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class (The Free Press, 1958); Janny Scott, The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father (Riverhead Books, 2019).]

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“An Entirely Unsuitable Home” for the Free Library of Philadelphia

The Free Library of Philadelphia, 1217-1221 Chestnut Street, 1910.

It’s shocking to imagine this ramshackle structure was the home of the Free Library of Philadelphia between 1895 and 1910.  The Free Library came into existence in 1891 thanks to efforts of Dr. William Pepper, a celebrated physician and provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Pepper used $225,000 of his  family’s money to start Philadelphia’s library system, but that wasn’t enough to provide the main branch of the Free Library with a suitable building.  Other people of Pepper’s class opened their pockets to pay for the construction and maintenance for private libraries, most notably the University of Pennsylvania and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. Public institutions got the short end of the stick.

University of Pennsylvania Library, designed by Frank Furness and completed in 1891, the same year as the founding of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Photographed on March 17, 1961

In 1895, the Free Library moved from its cramped quarters in City Hall into an old concert hall on the 1200 block of Chestnut Street.  The Italianate-style building dated from the 1850s. It was supposed to be a temporary home. Unfortunately, the Free Library would remain in this decrepit structure for over a decade.  The library employees were outraged at this set-up, describing it “as an entirely unsuitable building, where its work is done in unsafe, unsanitary and overcrowded quarters, temporary make-shifts.” The ground floor of the building was occupied by Hanscom’s Cafeteria, which advertised potential readers: “Cafeteria in basement. Stop in and help yourselves. Lunch in basement.”  The library was flanked by two second-rate theaters, not exactly the best neighbors for readers seeking peace and quiet.

Owen Wister, who spent much of his leisure time (and some of his writing time) at the nearby Philadelphia Club, must have had the Free Library in mind when he wrote scathingly of his native city:

The city is a shame. They’re proud of it, yet take no care of it. . . . The bad gas, the bad water, the nasty street-cars that tinkle torpidly through streets paved with big cobble-stones all seem to them quite right. . . . Their school buildings are filthy. I heard a teacher who spoke ungrammatically and pronounced like a gutter-snipe teaching the children English. . . . Isn’t it strange that such nice people should tolerate such a nasty state of things?

Things were different in New York and Boston.  While the patrons of the Philadelphia Free Library read in rickety Victorian gloom, the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library rapidly raised funds to construct magnificent Beaux-Arts style structures by Carrere & Hastings and McKim Mead and White, respectively.

It wasn’t until the 1920 that the Free Library raised the funds for architect Horace Trumbauer to design a new structure on Logan Circle, modeled on the Hotel de Crillon in Paris. A bronze statute of Dr. Pepper graces the landing of the grand staircase.

Sources:

“History of the Library,” Free Library Company of Philadelphia,” https://libwww.freelibrary.org/about/history/. accessed December 11, 2019.

James M. O’Neill, “Owen Wister’s Lost Tale of Phila Published,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 4, 2001, http://articles.philly.com/2001-10-04/news/25305723_1_owen-wister-romney-philadelphia-area-locales, accessed December 1, 2015.

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When 23rd & Chestnut Streets had a There There

The Florentine Art Plaster Company, 2217-2219 Chestnut Street, October 17, 1911 (PhillyHistory.org) – 2nd

A handsome pair of facades at the northeast corner of 23rd and Chestnut Streets. Reading from the left: a cluster of bold, brick arches up, down and across an otherwise modest, two-story structure. Gilt letters and what must be a red cross on the glass doors announce the occupant. Here’s the Philadelphia School for Nurses, founded seventeen years earlier and formerly in rented space on Walnut Street, east of Broad. The nurses bought this site only five years before this 1911 view, bringing architect Clyde Smith Adams in to design a training school, dormitories and dispensary. A practical design, with a flourish in a first-floor window taken from a Florentine Renaissance palazzo.

Perhaps architect Adams meant this as a playful reference to the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale? Or a snappy rejoinder to “Florentine Art Plaster Co. Art Gallery” next door? Or possibly both?

Nearly falling off the edge of the image, a bit further to the right (east), we see a fragment of a one-story building offering up the barest of clues. “Stephen…Stone Carv…” it reads. A quick Google search turns up an issue of a journal titled Rock Products published in Louisville, Kentucky in 1906. We’re at the studio of Stephen Cazzulo, sculptor, who, we learn, “is busy getting out models for the large Lafayette Building” at Fifth and Chestnut Streets. Cazzulo “is an expert in his line and has done work on nearly all the skyscrapers and important structures erected during the last twenty years.”

A nice payoff for a minimum investment in keystrokes. We don’t always get so lucky.

Detail. The Florentine Art Plaster Company, 2217-2219 Chestnut Street, October 17, 1911 (PhillyHistory.org)

What might we learn about the Florentine Art Plaster Company? Once again, the web provides! The Smithsonian Libraries has in its vast collections a 140-page, illustrated catalogue. Even better, this publication was scanned and mounted online only a few years ago. We like to think that  Plaster Casts: Reproductions from Antique, Renaissance and Modern Sculpture has been residing in digital purgatory awaiting its fifteen minutes of social media attention. Now, reading the catalogue and perusing the illustrations of more than 2,700 items as we study the archival photograph, we feel an alignment of the research stars.

At left in the storefront window is a copy of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne on a fancy pedestal. The 4’9” pair is listed in the catalogue for $25, the equivalent of $630 today. On the right is Cupid and Psyche (not the erotic Antonio Canova version, which is tucked away inside, at the back of the shop) on an identical pedestal. Between the two, with dusky patina, is a bust of Christopher Columbus on a lion-head base. Connecting the dots, we realize the photograph was taken in mid-October, only a few days after Columbus Day. When did this become an official holiday? In Pennsylvania, only two years before.

The catalogue enables us to virtually transport ourselves through the plate glass of the storefront and into the main aisle of the showroom.

View of the main aisle of the showroom of the Florentine Art Plaster Co. Philadelphia, ca. 1914 (Smithsonian Libraries and Archive.org)

On the left we see a row of works starting with a life-size, kneeling Joan of Arc by Henri Chapu, listed for $60. Way back in the rear, there’s the unmistakable Nike, or Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the largest items in the showroom. It’s a copy of an original in the Louvre, in a place of honor atop the main stairs. This one is 5’ 3” and is listed for $100, $2,500 in today’s dollars. But you can take home a 3’ version for $15, or a 2’4” version for $9, or even a modest priced and sized (7 inch) Victory of Samothrace for $1, which amounts to $25 today.

How about a 20” by 30” copy of Andrea Della Robbia’s terracotta bas-relief of the Madonna and Child? That’ll be $5. Or Michelangelo’s Moses? You can choose a 3’ version for $25 or something half that size for a fifth as much.  Among other Michelangelo items are his Slave, 3’ 9” at $12 and a 2′ 6″ David for $8.

Interested in Alexander the Great? Bertel Thorvaldsen’s 22-panel opus, The Triumph of Alexander into Babylon made in honor of Napoleon’s visit to Rome in 1812 is a whopping $190.

The array of European Who’s Who, from Byron to Hayden, Chopin to Hugo, Galileo to Faust, Savonarola to Shakespeare, Voltaire to Marie Antoinette—was impressive. That’s not to say a constellation of Americans weren’t represented. One could choose from a half dozen versions of Washington, Franklin or Lincoln ranging from $.25 to $20. Or Stephen Girard, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And on a local level there was Thomas Eakins’ Anatomy of Horse, 23” by 30” for $5 and his more modest Skeleton of a Horse for $2.50.

From its start in 1900, the Florentine Art Plaster Company assured customers “faithful reproductions of classic subjects.” The “connoisseur of art” or the student or the teachers would not see any “cheap tawdry ornaments.”

Detail. The Florentine Art Plaster Company, 2217-2219 Chestnut Street, October 17, 1911 (PhillyHistory.org)

The talent behind the operation? Joseph Mazzoni, who, according to his obituary in 1948, “first came here from Italy as an advance agent for the Royal Italian Marine Band and settled here in 1900” to open a studio of sculptural reproductions.

And now, more than a century later, pausing to look even closer at the storefront, we see a man—whycould it be the proprietor himself? He’s looking at us from over Christopher Columbus’ left shoulder. (What a pleasant surprise.)

Here’s looking [back] at you, Mr.Mazzoni.

[Sources: “From Our Own Correspondents, Philadelphia,” Rock Products, vol. 5, no. 1;  Plaster Casts reproduced from Antique, Renaissance and Modern Sculpture … made and sold by The Florentine Art Plaster Co., Philadelphia, Pa. (The Company, 1914.); “The Latest News in Real Estate,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1906; [Obituary] Joseph Mazzoni, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 30, 1948.]

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The Greenwich Street Gas Explosion of 1941

Greenwich Street after the gas explosion of February 11, 1941.

At 5:00am on the evening of February 11, 1941, the residents of the 1100 block of Greenwich Street were all sound asleep in their snug two story row homes.  The surrounding neighborhood (today known as East Passyunk — a popular shopping and dining district) was a tight-knit, mostly Italian-American community, in which daily life revolved around the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.   Beneath Greenwich Street. However, over the past couple of years, clay erosion had been causing the street’s ‘s six inch gas main to slowly settle. Residents had been complaining about the smell of gas to the Philadelphia Gas Company, but to no avail.  That night, one of the feedpipes tore away from the sinking main, causing a cloud of live gas to seep into the basement of 1112  Greenwich Street.

An open flame heater in the basement set the gas alight.  The house blew up as if hit by an aerial bomb.

“The first explosion, which blew both front and rear out of 1112 Greenwich Street,” John McCullough of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “leaving only the sagging roof and the debris-littered second floor, sent swords of flame through adjoining walls as though they had been made of papier-mache.”

“The window glass shattered over the floor and we got out of bed, frightened, “17-year old Tina Pellicano recalled. “I saw a man in the street with his clothing on fire. Flames were shooting out of the front of houses. My mother fainted.  It was a terrible ordeal. We were all terrified. People were running from their homes and the commotion was just like an earthquake.”

A second explosion followed 15 minutes later.  Firefighters arrived within minutes, but the entire block was “canopied” in flames.

“Mighty sheets of flame roared east as far as 1106 and west to 1122 Greenwich Street,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “In the lurid glare, a man with blazing nightshirt stumbled blindly amid the crumpled bricks of his home, as his son slapped at his burning clothing.”

By 6:10am, a crew from the gas company got to work plugging the gas main, shooting grease through the service pipe to block it.  Crowds of curious spectators and anxious relatives of Greenwich Street residents gawked at the conflagation from behind police lines.

But even with the gas main plugged, the worst was yet to come.   At 8:20am, an ember ignited 1600 cubic feet of accumulated gas trapped underneath the streetbed.  The massive explosion blew the entire street to pieces, sending paving stones and bricks hurling through the air.

By daybreak, Greenwich Street looked like it had come right out of the newseels that showed London on fire after a Luftwaffe raid, only in living color.

In all, five people died in the Greenwich Street gas explosion, including one police officer and one fireman.

  • Patrolman James Clark, 56
  • Fireman Frank M. Ruhl, 56
  • Angelina Treretola, 41
  • Michilena Treretola, 21
  • Marie Treretola, 14

30 were injured, and were treated either at St. Agnes Hospital, Methodist Hospital, or on the scene by medical personnel.

The residents of South Greenwich Street had complained about the smell of gas for months, but the Philadelphia Gas Works had ignored the problem. On January 4, 1943, after a two month trial, Justice Maxey of the Pennsylvania State Surpreme Court ruled in favor of the widow of Frank Ruhl, who had sued the Philadelphia Gas Company and the City of Philadelphia for negligence.  In his opinion,  Maxey noted that, “The gas company was in exclusive possession and control of its gas and gas mains. For two years the neighbors had smelled escaping gas and had notified the gas company. The last notification was three days before the explosions. The gas company did not try to locate the leak. It did not repair its leaking main or shut off the gas.”

The court awarded Alice Ruhl $17,892.65 in damages for the death of her husband.

Sources:

“List of Victims in S. Phila Blast,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 1941.

Ralph Crocker, “Terror-Stricken Victims Thought It Was a Quake As Their Houses Toppled,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 1941.

John M. McCullough, “4 Houses Are Wrecked as Fire Adds to Terror Caused by 3 Explosions,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 1941.

Ruhl v. Philadelphia, 346 Pa. 214, 215 (Pa. 1943), https://casetext.com/case/ruhl-v-philadelphia-et-al, accessed December 5, 2019.

 

 

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The Model T with the “Mother-in-Law” Seat

A Ford Model T roadster with a “mother-in-law” seat parked in front of townhouses at 216 and 218 North 19th Street, August 8, 1912.

In the early 1900s, the government was not in the business of regulating car design and safety.  The only real government requirements when it came to owning one were license plates and registration.  Luxury cars of that era, especially European imports such as Mercedes and Napier, were so complicated to drive and service that most owners had live-in chauffeurs who doubled as mechanics.

In 1908, the Ford Motor Company rolled out its $850 Model T.  Powered by a twenty-horsepower in-line four cylinder engine, the car had a top speed of about 43 miles per hour.  It was also mechanically simple, had interchangeable parts, and was easy for self-trained owners to fix. Thanks to Henry Ford’s pioneering use of the assembly line, Model T’s dropped steeply in price over the next decade, to a low of $250 by the early 1920s.  When the Highland Park plant outside of Detroit was operating at top speed, a Model T Ford could be assembled in only 93 minutes, from start to finish.  Yet the Tin Lizzie’s reign over the American auto market could not last forever. By the early 1920s, General Motors’ Chevrolet marque was beating Ford on price, style, and amenities, especially color choices. Due to dropping sales and its outdated technology, the Model T was phased out in 1927 and replaced by the more modern and stylish Model A.  Over the course of its 19-year production run, Ford had built a staggering 10 million Model Ts.

After-market “isenglass” side curtains on a Ford Model T touring car, in a c.1915 advertisement.  The song “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top” from the musical Oklahoma! references the use of isenglass in bad weather. Source: The Old Motor.

The most popular and practical body style for the Model T was the four door “touring car.”  The roof was a collapsible leather top. In very bad weather, the owner could roll down transparent “isenglass” (made from fish air bladders) side curtains to keep the rain and wind out.   Few Ford Model T’s were enclosed — a closed body added significant weight and reduced the top speed to around 35 miles per hour.  A closed body also raised price beyond the reach of the typical Ford customer.  Enclosed sedan and limousine bodies needed much more powerful engines, and as a result were the domain of much more prestigious automakers such as Packard and Pierce-Arrow.

Driving a Model T is very different from today’s modern cars. See how to drive one here. 

For Ford Model T customers who preferred something sportier, Ford also offered the two-seat “roadster” body style.  It was a great car for young couples. However, what if the proverbial “third wheel” wanted to come along for the ride?  Ford solved this problem by adding a single spare seat between the rear fenders.  Given its isolation from the passenger and driver, as well as being entirely exposed to the elements, this seat became the butt of jokes.  Wags would call it the “mother-in-law” seat.  It also made the already frumpy looking roadster look even more awkward.

Often situated atop the gas tank, the mother-in-law seat was also the most dangerous in the car!

Ford and other automakers got the message. By the 1920s, this extra rear seat would be merged into the body of the car and get a more charming name: the rumble seat.

Sources:

“Turn Your Tin Lizzie Into a Limousine,” The Old Motor, December 14, 2014, http://theoldmotor.com/?p=134906, accessed November 21, 2019.

“Celebrating the Model T: Only 100 Years Young,” Auto Atlantic,  http://www.autoatlantic.com/Sept08/Sept08_Ford-Model-T-is-100.html, accessed November 21, 2019.

“Model T Club of America,” https://www.mtfca.com/, accessed November 21, 2019.

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The Elite Clubs and their “Crusty Coagulate Mass of Traditions”

Union League – Southwest corner of Broad and Sansom Streets. July 26, 1927 (PhillyHistory.org)

While plumbing the breadth of the city’s clubs and their very different cultures, Nathaniel Burt acknowledged the Mummers (“one of Philadelphia’s oldest and proudest traditions, but not at all Old Philadelphian”) before landing squarely at the threshold of the city’s most venerable and “crusty coagulate mass of traditions.”

Where would this be headquartered? At Broad and Sansom and the Union League, perhaps? Not quite. “In Old Philadelphia circles,” Burt informs us in his classic book Perennial Philadelphians: Anatomy of an American Aristocracy, “it is understood that though the Union League is very honorable and important, it is not really socially flawless. A great many Old Philadelphians belong to it; for some it is their only club. It is grandly affluent and crusty, full of a rich Civil War fug, long portraits, gilt ceilings, marble floors, paneled banquet halls, thick carpets and curtains; but there is an undoubted tinge of boodle and smoke filled room about it. One seems to sense the absence of spittoons. It is a distinctly political club; once only those who had voted straight Republican could be members, and a good many figures, important politically but not very proper morally or socially, have in the past lounged in the corridors and dozed in the wide chairs. The aroma of Philadelphia’s old ‘corrupt and contented’ is very pervasive.”

Venerable and crusty? Definitely. But not “socially flawless,” and hardly “beyond reproach.”

For the elite destination at the pinnacle of Philadelphia club life, Burt directs us to 13th and Walnut Streets, where, in its architecturally inconspicuous way, the Philadelphia Club has silently stood for the better part of two centuries. Here, “at the edge of the Gayborhood,” as the Philadelphia Magazine points out, is “the oldest and most guarded of the city’s old-guard clubs.” The scale of its plain, red brick building “is so great and its condition so pristine,” noted architectural historian Richard J. Webster, “that many casual observers mistake it for a twentieth-century example of the Georgian Revival.”

Casual observers would be wrong.

Philadelphia Club, North side of Walnut Street, 13th to Broad. June 14, 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

“The Philadelphia Club can’t claim to be the oldest such club in the world,” Burt explains, “but it can and does claim to be the oldest in America.” The feel is “definitely stately, not to say austere, with high ceilings, white woodwork, dark portraits and discreet soft-footed servitors.” The interior “reflects a kind of ‘Philadelphia taste’ that takes many generations to lay down,” observes Roger Moss, “an effect that is well beyond simulation by the most skilled decorator.” Domestic leanings make sense when we consider that the building was originally intended as a city mansion for Thomas Butler, “kin of the Pierce Butler who married and divorced the actress Fanny Kemble” the grandmother of Owen Wister. In 1934, Wister served as club president and composed its centennial history.

Yet, in spite of its homey origins, the club has never been accused of being warm or inviting. “It is a very handsome affair, and full of handsome members,” says Burt, “but it rather lacks the Gemütlichkeit associated with most Philadelphia enterprises.”

“Blue bloods hang out to play an archaic domino game called sniff,” a home-grown variant of dominoes. The rules of this game are known only to members and explained in an otherwise unattainable pamphlet by member Benjamin Chew, entitled Chew on Sniff.

Admission to the Philadelphia Club has been equally unattainable.

“Metaphorically, at least,” Burt informs us, “bits of broken hearts litter of the pavement in front of the chaste fanlit door on Walnut Street, memorial to those who tried to get in and couldn’t. More than any other single institution except the Dancing Assembly the Philadelphia Club has stood and still stands is the Gibraltar of social order, defending the purity of Philadelphia bloodlines against the nouveau riches, and keeping up the tone of things.”

In the 1930s, Wister reminded his readers (all of whom were members, since the history was privately printed) that the club had very specific “requisites for admission.” These included “courtesy, self-restraint, a nice regard to the rules of etiquette, a command of speech, an elegance of dress, a familiarity with the habits of the leisure class, a respect for appearance, for the outside of things, a desire to make the passing moment pleasurable.” Subjective enough to deny entry to many a New Philadelphian and, as dictated by the “crusty coagulate” of traditions, all women.

Wister barely blinked as he imagined the club’s second century: “We carry on the tradition, patriotic, social, and civilized, of an honorable and happy past; and . . . we look forward to carrying our tradition on into a happy future.”

[Sources: Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Originally published in 1963); Richard J. Webster, Philadelphia Preserved: Catalog of the Historic American Buildings Survey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976); Benjamin Wallace, “Members Only,” The Philadelphia Magazine (May 18, 2005); Roger W. Moss and Tom Crane, Historic Landmarks of Philadelphia (Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Owen Wister, The Philadelphia Club, 1834-1934 (Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Club, 1934)].

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Cigars with Frank Furness at 711 Locust Street

The former Frank Furness house (left, 711 Locust Street), June 12, 1958.

Reverend William Henry Furness (1802-1896), the minister of Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church, complained that Philadelphia’s architects should liberate themselves from the demure and boring “Quaker style…marble steps, and wooden shutters.”   Yet exuberant ornamentation was not only anathema to Philadelphia taste, but it was also expensive, even in the Victorian era of cheap labor.  Reverend Furness raised his own family in a plain but substantial “Quaker style” rowhouse at 1426 Pine Street. It was well-situated and within the bounds of the Furness family’s middle class budget.

His son Frank Furness broke the mold of Philadelphia’s sober and conservative architectural language, designing buildings in an aggressive, flamboyant style that still captures our imagination.  A fine Frank Furness building, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Library and the First Unitarian Church (built for his father’s congregation), shouted “look at me” in defiance of all Quaker modesty.

However, when it came to his own house, the architect Frank Furness found himself in the same budgetary dilemma as his minister father.  Although he rubbed elbows with some of Philadelphia’s richest families, he and his wife Fannie could not afford to build a showcase house for himself, of his own design.  His architecture practice, although financially successful for the last quarter of the 19th century, simply did not bring in enough money for him to travel in the Rittenhouse Square set. So, he and his wife did the next best thing: purchasing a proper four story townhouse in the Washington Square neighborhood, which was still respectable but had fallen in status somewhat in since the Civil War. It was still safely between the “acceptable” boundaries of Market and Pine streets, a calling card detail to which Furness’s client base would have paid attention.

Dining room of the Theodore and Martha Roosevelt townhouse, 6 West 57th Street, New York. This was also the home of future president Theodore Roosevelt when he was a young man. The interior of the Roosevelt home was designed by Frank Furness. Source: Wikipedia.

If Furness’s house at 711 Locust Street was Quaker plain on the outside, the architect made the interior a glittering showcase of his own design skill.  Yet it was the “smoking room” that really caught the attention of the visitors, if they were allowed into Furness’s inner-sanctum.  Or, in modern parlance, his “man cave.”

The “smoking room” at 711 Locust Street looked as if it had been plucked from a Rocky Mountain hunting cabin and dropped right in Center City Philadelphia.  It was filled with Native American art and textiles, pelts, unframed prints, antlers, and guns that Furness had purchased on his frequent journeys out west.  Like his fellow “proper Philadelphian” creative-type Owen Wister, he was fascinated with the ethos (and mythos) of the American West.  Here, in this rustic one story addition that he built with his own hands, he would entertain his comrades from his Civil War cavalry regiment, as well as John Foster Kirk of Lippincott’s Monthly and the poet Walt Whitman.

In the early 1880s, the publisher D. Appleton & Company released Artistic Houses, a lavish book that featured interior photographs of some of the grandest homes on the United States, including several in Philadelphia. They were built by tycoons such as William Henry Vanderbilt,  Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Marshall Field. Yet there was only featured photograph of the inside of an architect’s home: the smoking room at 711 Locust Street. The editors of Artistic Houses wrote of this space:

Frank Furness’s “smoking room” at 711 Locust Street. Originally published in Artistic Houses, 1883-84. Reproduced from HiddenCity.org.

What Mr. Furness has really achieved, from a chromatic point of view, can barely be surmised from our reproduction in black and white…but those who have seen the interior of this cozy little sanctum will agree that, in felicity of arrangement, both of lines and tones, it is artistic to a high degree, while its literary interest, if we must express ourselves–its absolutely unique. 

Frank Furness’s good fortune–an endless flow of commissions and long evenings with bohemian friends in the “smoking room”–did not last.  By the early 1900s, his vibrant, bold architecture of Furness & Evans was woefully out-of-fashion, and he fell on hard times.   He moved out to Media to be near his beloved brother Horace and other extended family. He died in 1912.  His Locust Street townhouse, with its famous smoking room, is now a distant memory.

Sources: 

Artistic Houses, Volume II (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1883-84), https://archive.org/stream/Artistichouses2A/Artistichouses2A_djvu.txt, accessed November 14, 2019.

Arnold Lews, James Turner, and Steven McQuillin, The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1987), p.101.

Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), pp.142-143.

James F. O’Gorman, The Architecture of Frank Furness (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973), p.15.

 

 

 

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Angora Mills and the Baptist Minister

 

West Philadelphia country road near Angora Mills, 58th and Baltimore Avenue, September 20, 1906.

Entrepreneurs George and Robert Callaghan built the Angora Mills complex in 1864, at the height of Civil War-fueled demand for army uniforms. Named after the Turkish city of Ankara (not the cat breed), it stood at the intersection of 60th Street and Baltimore Avenue (in today’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood) and sprawled over 52 acres.  Angora Mills include not just a steam-powered brick textile mill, but also 54 residences for 300 workers and their families, a stable, springhouse, coal yard, and an on-site Baptist church. A Hexamer survey conducted in 1888 also indicated that Angora Mills had 4 self-acting “mules” with 4,200 spindles, 36 spinning frames 180 spindles on each, a sprinkler system and cutting edge incandescent lighting. The Angora Mills “village,”although still within the city limits of Philadelphia, was set in an idyllic landscape of farms and groves of old growth trees.    There was also a private club nearby, the Sherwood Cricket Club, a rustic venue that catered to the mill’s employees during their precious leisure time.

All that changed in 1903, when Reverend Bernard MacMackin quietly took possession of Angora Mills at a sheriff’s sale. MacMackin paid $206,000.00 for the property, fronting $76,000 in cash and taking out mortgages to cover the balance.  The Philadelphia Inquirer scratched its head at the deal: Reverend MacMackin was a prominent Baptist minister who had no real business experience, but he also happened to be an in-law of the Callaghans.  When questioned about the deal, MacMackin “refused to discuss this phase of the purchase, saying it was a personal matter.” Although connected to Center City by an electric trolley line since the 1890s, the Market Street Elevated was under construction a few blocks north of Angora Mills, making Angora Mills ripe for subdivision. Within a few years of the sale, the site was cleared, sold, and developed into blocks of rowhouses.  The mill’s name lives on in the “Angora Terrace” neighborhood. The site of the adjoining Sherwood Cricket Club is the modern-day Sherwood Park.

Reverend MacMackin apparently profited from the deal: at his death in 1916, he left an estate worth over $200,000 (the modern-day equivalent to almost $3 million) to his family.

Sherwood Park, 58th and Baltimore, the former site of the Sherwood Cricket Club, November 11, 1939. Charles A. Lamb, photographer.

Sources:

“A Minister Buys Nearly All of Angora,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 5, 1903.

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/25990534/may_5_1903/

“Angora Mills, Callaghan and Brother,” Hexamer General Surveys, Volume 23, Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network.

http://www.philageohistory.org/rdic-images/view-image.cfm/HGSv23.2209-2210

Charles Alvin Jones, “MacMackin Estate, 51 A.2d 689 (Pa. 1947),” Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Court Listener, January 9, 1947.

https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/4089940/macmackin-estate/

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Philadelphia’s Cowboy Creation Story

The Philadelphia Club, 13th and Walnut Streets, 1913. (PhillyHistory.org)

In 1891, the fictional cowboy mounted his steed at 13th and Walnut Streets and never looked back. He galloped a circuitous route to the publishing houses of New York, then headed out to Hollywood and the American imagination.

What was the cowboy doing at such an unlikely urban crossroads? There, in the Philadelphia Club (as unlikely a place for a cowboy as anyone might ever imagine) Owen Wister, fresh back from his latest Western exploit, held forth in the club’s dining room with his drinking buddy Walter Furness.

Wister might just as well have been telling tall tales about a European Grand Tour, had he traveled eastward rather than westward. But in the Fall of 1885, Wister, a summa cum laude Harvard graduate set to begin law school, was plagued by headaches, vertigo, and the “occasional hallucination.” Fearing a nervous breakdown, Wister’s father sought out advice from family friend, the physician/author S. Weir Mitchell. “An extended visit to Europe for relaxation” would usually be Dr. Mitchell’s prescription. But in this case, he recommended that the anxious 25-year-old go West and live outdoors. “See more new people,” he told Wister, “learn to sympathize with your fellow man a little more than you are inclined to. … There are lots of humble folks in the fields you’d be the better for knowing.”

After a series of eye-opening trips to Wyoming and the Yellowstone from 1885 to 1891, Wister, now a full-fledged witness of the American West, returned to share glimpses of his newfound narrative riches. In time, he would come to advocate the idea that the American West, as opposed to the East, was the rightful center of the nation’s heart and soul. And the cowboy, its manifestation in flesh and blood, would be animated first in short stories, then, in 1902, in a best-selling novel, The Virginian.

The Virginian, first edition (1902)

Owen Wister at a campfire in 1891. The Owen Wister papers. (American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming)

But in order to make such a leap, Wister would require an epiphany. This blue-blooded Philadelphian needed to convince himself, his family and friends, that he was the one who could actually pull this off and become America’s Rudyard Kipling.

At the Philadelphia Club that Fall evening in 1891, Wister and Furness ate and drank (and drank) and as the evening wore on and the tales got taller, it occurred to Wister that he could write the stories that would bring the cowboy to life as the quintessential American.

Years later, he recalled the moment: “Fresh from Wyoming and its wild glories, I sat in the club dining room with a man as enam­oured of the West as I was. . . .  From oysters to coffee we compared experiences. Why wasn’t some Kipling saving the sage-brush for American literature, before the sage-brush and all that it signified went the way of California forty-niner, went the way of the Mississippi steam-boat, went the way of everything? . . . What was fiction doing, fiction, the only thing that has always outlived fact?”

Wister sipped his claret and staked out the plan. Then he blurted: “Walter, I’m going to try it myself! … I’m going to start this minute.” He headed “up to the library; and by midnight or so, a good slice of [the short story] “Hank’s Woman” was down in the rough.”

Success would require a bit more critical help from Dr. Mitchell. According to historian John Jennings, two of Wister’s manuscripts “gathered dust until Mitchell urged Wister to send them to Henry Mills Alden at Harper and Brothers, promising to provide a letter of introduction. Alden accepted the manuscripts and Wister was launched as a minor western author.”

Eleven years later, with The Virginian hot off the presses, Wister would become America’s major Western author. And the cowboy, originally “a rough, violent, one-dimensional drifter” would transition into a national hero.

[Sources: John Jennings, The Cowboy Legend Owen Wister’s Virginian and the Canadian-American Frontier (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2012); Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902); J. C. Furnas, “Transatlantic Twins: Rudyard Kipling and Owen Wister,” The American Scholar, Vol. 64, No. 4 (Autumn 1995), pp. 599-606; Neal Lambert, “Owen Wister’s “Hank’s Woman”: The Writer and His Comment,” Western American Literature, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 1969, pp. 39-50.]

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Philadelphia’s “Cow-Boy” Monument

“Cow-boys and Indians at the Unveiling of Remington’s ‘Cow-boy’ Statue on June 20, 1908.” (From the Fairmount Park Art Association, 1909. via Hathitrust)

The banks of the Schuylkill were packed with onlookers. On a craggy outcropping overlooking a clearing by the river stood Frederic Remington’s new, larger-than-life bronze statue wrapped in American flags. Soon enough, the cord would be ceremoniously pulled to reveal the city’s latest equestrian monument: “The Cow-Boy.”

Five thousand spectators turned out for the dedication. A band of cowboys (the musical variety) warmed up the crowd. Wyoming Jack, “a noted scout” and Chief He-Dog, in full regalia, did the honors. The popular cowgirls Mida and Lida Kemp were there. Mounted Sioux: Yellow Cloud, Cheering Horse and Driving Bear looked on as their families stood with VIP Philadelphia: leadership of the Fairmount Park Commission, the Fairmount Park Art Association (which had commissioned the piece) and others. A stand-in for Mayor John E. Reyburn apologized for His Honor’s absence. June 20, 1908 was a big day for dedications. The mayor had gone out to Valley Forge for the unveiling of another equestrian in bronze: Anthony Wayne.

The fictional “Cow-Boy” attracted a larger crowd than the real Revolutionary War hero.

One would have expected to see there that day the Philadelphian most responsible for the cowboy legend. More than anything else, Owen Wister’s best-selling novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, published six years earlier, had forged the cowboy in the popular imagination. Lauded as “one of the great triumphs of American literature,” The New York Times claimed Wister had “come pretty near to writing the American novel.” The Virginian was reprinted sixteen times; two million hardbound copies found their way into readers’ hands. There would be five film versions and, in the 1960s, a long-playing television series.

Statue – Remington’s “Cowboy” – Fairmount Park. April 12, 1910. (PhillyHistory.org)

“It is safe to say,” writes historian John Jennings, “that Wister launched the foremost popular mythology in American history.” And he did so by animating the cowboy with words as much as Remington did with images and figures. From the stormy evening in Yellowstone National Park where they first met in 1893, Wister and Remington together crafted and popularized this American character, the appeal of which, Jennings points out, “stood in stark contrast to the vulgar excesses of the Gilded Age.” But in 1899, Wister and Remington had a falling out. And so, that Saturday on the banks of the Schuylkill, Remington alone stood as the cowboy’s creator.

In fact, credit was due to the trio of Remington, Wister and Wister’s Harvard classmate and lifelong friend, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1888 Roosevelt admired the Dakota cowboy’s “quiet, uncomplaining fortitude.” He found the cowboy brave, “hospitable, hardy, adventurous” and “the grim pioneer of our race, [possessing] to a very high degree, the stern, manly qualities that are necessary to a nation.” This ready-made romantic figure was capable of reassuring some Americans “that the simple, honest virtues of Jeffersonian America were not lost.” With the cowboy, Remington, Wister and Roosevelt (now as the U.S. President who brought Remington’s Bronco Buster in the Oval Office) “manufactured a myth” of this, the “most popular American folk hero.”

The cowboy hadn’t always been the object of such unbridled admiration. Before Wister’s Virginian, this frontier type was more of “a rough, violent, one-dimensional drifter” familiar at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Remington identified something more, something special, in an article titled “The Texas Cowboy” published in 1892:

The cowboy is strongly unimaginative, absolutely unconventional, and his character is as tough as his life, made hard and narrow by combat with appalling dangers, great vicissitudes, and an absence of ideas at variance with his own. He shows in his method of verbal expression that he has succumbed to his environment, for he thinks horse, talks horse, and dreams horse, and awakens to find himself, with some meat and bread and a quart of coffee under his belt, sitting on a horse.  … The cowboy’s life is passed alone, with only his pony and the great stretch of solemn plains and the flat, blue sky. He has little use for his voice, though his thoughts may wander as far afield as any poet’s. . . .  You will find in his gaze a positive quality . . . for no English high-caste man ever regarded the rest of the world from so high a pinnacle as this tanned and dusty person who sleeps in a blanket and eats bacon three times a day.

Statue – Remington’s “Cowboy” – Fairmount Park. April 12, 1910. Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

Remington and Wister met the next year and soon elevated the cowboy a few notches higher, while revealing distinct biases along the way, in an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.  In the American West, wrote Wister, one could avoid the “hordes of encroaching alien vermin, that turn our cities to Babels and our citizenship to a hybrid farce.” He went on: “it won’t be a century before the West is simply the true America with thought, type, and life of its own kind. We Atlantic Coast people, all varnished with Europe, and some of us having a good lot of Europe in our marrow besides, will vanish from the face of the earth.” Accompanying this essay, titled the “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” were five illustrations by Remington, including, most notably, “The Last Cavalier,” depicting a cowboy on horseback “with a host of Anglo-Saxon knights, crusaders, cavaliers, frontiersmen, explorers, and soldiers of the Raj receding into the misty past.”

Why not introduce this larger-than-life American hero to the public in the form of a larger-than-life monument? “The fast disappearing Indians and western cowboy should be put in enduring bronze,” encouraged New York art editor Alexander W. Drake in a letter to Remington in 1899, “. . . this should be done by the only man in America who can do it,” he flattered. “What could be more appropriate for an American city?”

Statue – Remington’s “Cowboy” – Fairmount Park, October 13, 2019.

The Fairmount Park Art Association agreed. And so would The Philadelphia Inquirer, which described Remington as “the most truly American,” artist who “owed nothing of his craftsmanship to foreign study or to copying foreign ideas. He was a product of our own soil, educated in an American atmosphere.” Remington produced sculptures “with such fidelity to life that they will remain long after the last cow-puncher has gone to his grave.”

Many other cities wanted larger-than-life cowboys by Remington. Only Philadelphia would get one. A year and a half after the 1908 dedication, Remington died of complications from appendicitis. The Corcoran Gallery in Washington would be the first of many museums to purchase one of his bronzes (Off the Range, also known as Coming Through the Rye) but table-top sculptures, however spirited, just didn’t have the presence or the unexpected gravitas of this 12-foot “Cow-Boy” monument overlooking the Schuylkill.

[Sources: Frederic Remington, “The Texas Cowboy,” The Denver Republican, Sept 1892 (Published in Current Literature, Vol 11, September-December, 1892); Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (New York: The Macmillan Company,1902); “Cowboy Statue to be Unveiled,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 1908; “Picturesque Scenes Attend Unveiling of the Cowboy Monument in the Park,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 1908; Fairmount Park Art Association, Annual Report (Philadelphia: Fairmount Park Art Association, 1909);, “A Genuine American Artist, The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 1909; David Sellin, “Cowboy,” in Fairmount Park Art Association, Sculpture of a City: Philadelphia’s Treasures in Bronze and Stone,” (Walker Pub. Co, 1974); David A. Smith, “Owen Wister’s Paladin of the Plains: The Virginian as Cultural Hero,” South Dakota History, 2008, vol. 38, no. 1, pp 47-77; John Jennings, The Cowboy Legend Owen Wister’s Virginian and the Canadian-American Frontier (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2012).]

Disclosure: The writer is a member of The Association for Public Art (formerly The Fairmount Park Art Association) board of directors.

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