Although born a Roman Catholic, Drexel migrated to the Episcopal church and helped fund the construction of the Church of the Savior at 38th and Ludlow, today’s Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. To honor his patronage, a stained glass window was installed in his honor. He purchased and developed vacant land with homes as the streetcar lines spread ever westward.
Finally, he built up his father’s bank to be one of the leading investment firms in the nation. In London, he worked closely with older leading financiers, most notably the Rothschilds and the Vanderbilts, to replace the standard 5-20 call bonds with 4 per cents. He also made successful deals with the Philadelphia & Reading and New York Central railroads. Among Drexel’s proteges was a brilliant but temperamental young man from Connectict named John Pierpont Morgan, who would go on to found the firm Drexel, Morgan & Company in New York, the ancestor of today’s J.P. Morgan Chase. J.P. Morgan himself did not share Drexel’s retiring, gentle demeanor: one observer said that Morgan’s eyes were like the headlights of an onrushing train.
Drexel himself didn’t take the street car to work, even after electrification allowed it to reach the-then dizzying speed of 15 miles per hour. Nor did he take a coach. Rather, he walked to his office at 16th and Walnut Street every day, almost always with his good friend, the Philadelphia Public Ledger publisher George William Childs. “Year in and year out,” noted historian Robert Morris Skaler, “they walked the same round, making themselves well-known personalities in their day.”
In 1891, shortly before his death, he bequeathed $2 million of his fortune (equivalent to over $40 million today) to establish the Drexel Institute of Technology. Located in a terra cotta-encrusted structure at 32nd and Chestnut Street, the Institute’s goal was provide affordable and practical education to the children of families of modest means. It may have been Drexel’s retort to the Gilded Age elitism at his longtime neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania.
Anthony Drexel died on June 30, 1893 while on a European vacation, aged 66. When asked to comment on the death of his friend, George William Childs could barely stop from choking up: “It is a great shock and a great blow to me and us all. We were so far from expecting anything of this kind. I would rather it have been myself that had died–much better I had died than Mr. Drexel.”
Although Anthony had built two other houses on “the Drexel Block” for his son George William Childs Drexel and daughter Frances Katherine Drexel Paul, his descendants rapidly abandoned West Philadelphia for Rittenhouse Square, the Main Line, and Chestnut Hill.
The Drexel mansion itself is long gone, replaced by Penn dormitories. The Wharton School, which has trained generations of Drexel and later Morgan bankers, is located just across 38th Street. Drexel University, his greatest and most long-lasting legacy, continues to thrive north of Market Street.
“Anthony Drexel is Dead,” The New York Times, July 1, 1893.
Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930 (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2011), pp.39, 70, 74, 77.
Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p.13.