The present day Penn Alexander School was once the site of one of West Philadelphia’s great estates: Chestnutwold, built by Clarence H. Clark.
In its time, Clark’s banking concern was one of the most powerful in the nation. And like many businesses in Philadelphia, it was a family affair. Clarence Clark was the son of banker Enoch White Clark, founder of the firm. Enoch Clark was a New England transplant to Philadelphia, a native of Providence, Rhode Island who had made his first fortune underwriting and distributing government securities. In the absence of a national bank–the Second Bank of the United States imploded in 1836 after the machinations of President Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle– opportunists like Clark stepped in to fill the gap. The senior Clark was similar to the Austrian immigrant and former portrait painter Francis Martin Drexel, in that he established an American investment house on par with the mighty banks of Europe, such as Rothschild & Company and Baring Brothers. Clark, like Drexel, also put Philadelphia on the map as a center of American finance.
The house of E.W. Clark & Company thrived in the mid-19th century, establishing branches in other American cities. After Enoch Clark’s death in 1854 due to complications from nicotine poisoning (heavy smoking was a stress relief for financiers then as now), his son Clarence took the reins of E.W. Clark & Company and expanded its financial activities into railroads and real estate. He also was one of the principal backers of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Naturally, he established the Centennial National Bank (in a handsome Frank Furness designed building) near the railroad station at 30th and Market Street, where millions of fairgoers arrived over the course of several months. According to a January 22, 1876 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the bank’s purpose was to be the “financial agent of the board at the [Centennial] Exhibition, receiving and accounting for daily receipts, changing foreign moneys into current funds, etc.” In this era before ATMs and electronic bank transfers, it was the perfect place for tourists to deposit their cash during their stay in the Quaker City. The building survives as the Paul Peck Student Center at Drexel University.
Like his fellow second generation banking heir Anthony Drexel, Clark eschewed Rittenhouse Square for pastoral but not especially fashionable West Philadelphia. And like Drexel, Clark decided to shape the area around his house by investing in it. He purchased tracts of empty farmland, filling with middle and upper-middle class row houses as the trolley lines expanded westward from Center City. These developments included the distinctive “professors’ row” on St. Mark’s Square and the flamboyant set of Queen Anne houses on the 4200 block of Spruce.
In the 1860s, Clarence Clark built his dream house, Chestnutwold, on a walled lot bounded by 42nd, 43rd, Locust, and Spruce streets. The main house, a 34 room brownstone Italianate palace, cost a staggering $300,000, or between $5-7 million in today’s money. Its interior boasted six foot high mahogany paneling in its principal rooms, stained glass windows, and hand-painted Japanese wall paper that was perhaps inspired by what Clark saw at the Japanese Bazaar at the 1876 Centennial. A stained glass window in the 125 foot long library bore a quote by Goethe: “Like a star that maketh not haste, that taketh not rest; be each one fulfilling his God-given hest.”
An inveterate collector, Clark imported the estate’s iron gates from France, and planted a rare Chinese ginkgo biloba tree on the grounds. As an added bonus, Clark opened a portion of his estate to the public for strolling…and admiration. To provide additional green space for his neighbors, Clark donated the land formerly occupied by the Civil War era Satterlee Hospital to the City of Philadelphia as a public park, as well as a bronze statue of author Charles Dickens. A representation of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop sat by his knee.
Chestnutwold proved as fleeting as it was magnificent. Clarence Clark died in 1906, leaving the huge house vacant. Although his son Clarence Clark Jr. built a fine house at 4200 Spruce just outside the gates of the compound in the early 1880s, the Clark heirs decamped from West Philadelphia to the more fashionable suburbs of Germantown and Chestnut Hill. Ten years later, wreckers tore the Chestnutwold mansion down. The grounds, however, remained intact. The neo-Gothic structures of the Philadelphia Divinity School, designed by Zantzinger, Borie and Medary, rose on the site in the mid-1920s. After the divinity school closed in the 1970s, the old Clark estate sat mostly vacant until the completion of the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School in 2001. The school thrives to this day, educating a diverse group of children from the neighborhood Clarence Clark developed a over a century ago.
Of the original Chestnutwold, only the pair of French iron gates at the northeast corner of the four square block lot remain today. It is unknown if the original ginkgo tree survives on the grounds of the Penn Alexander School, but this species of tree is now ubiquitous on Philadelphia’s streets, as are its stinky fruits.
Note: for more on the Clark Park/Spruce Hill neighborhood on Philadelphia, click here for “West Philadelphia: A Suburb in a City,” dated June 28, 2010.
Arnold Lewis, James Turner, and Steven McQuillin, The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), p.46.
“Magnificent Structure in West Philadelphia Undergoing Demolition by Wrecking Crew,” The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, April 7, 1916. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045211/1916-04-07/ed-1/seq-9/#date1=1836&index=19&rows=20&words=Clark+Park&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=Pennsylvania&date2=1922&proxtext=%22clark+park%22&y=-221&x=-932&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1, accessed December 9, 2015.
“Centennial National Bank,” http://www.brynmawr.edu/iconog/uphp/AABN/centbank/centbank.html, accessed December 9, 2015.