As the capital of Imperial Russia, St. Petersburg was a city of many palaces. Some belonged to the Romanov family, such as Peterhof, the Winter Palace, the Pavlovsk Palace, the Anichkov Palace, and Tsarskoe Selo. Others belonged to wealthy Russian nobles, such as the Yusapov, Beloselskiy, and Stroganov clans. Many had been constructed in the 18th century, as part of Czar Nicholas I’s ancestor Peter the Great’s initiative to Westernize Russia and have its upper classes adopt the manners of the French and Italian aristocracies. By the mid-19th century, these pastel pink and green confections were filled with malachite tables, gilded candelabras, and Old Master paintings. During big parties, their windows glowed with candlelight, magnified many-fold by crystal chandeliers and mirrors.
The fount of their owners’ wealth were vast tracts of farmland and the unpaid labor of thousands of serfs.
Writer Ivan Goncharov satirized what he saw as a self-indulgent and indolent aristocracy in his 1859 novel Oblomov, in which the title character barely has the energy to rise from his bed. Why should he have motivation when money passively streamed in from his country estate?
“When you don’t know what you’re living for, you don’t care how you live from one day to the next,” Ilya Ilych Oblomov says in the novel. “You’re happy the day has passed and the night has come, and in your sleep you bury the tedious question of what you lived for that day and what you’re going to live for tomorrow.”
Oblomov ultimately dies of his own laziness.
To Philadelphian Joseph Harrison, the cosmopolitan opulence of St. Petersburg was a stunning contrast to the sober propriety of his native Philadelphia. Yet he remained immune to the malady of “Oblomovitis.” He worked hard (and no doubt played hard) during his many years in Russia. He successfully designed a series of new locomotives for the St. Petersburg to Moscow railroad, as well as new freight and passenger cars. He also constructed a locomotive repair facility on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. His crowning achievement was the replacement of an old pontoon rail bridge over the Neva River with the cast-iron Bridge of the Annunciation. According to Harrison’s biography in Cassier’s Magazine, Czar Nicholas I was amazed at the Philadelphian’s creativity and self-discipline, and as a result the monarch bestowed “numerous other tokens of the friendship and esteem” on the American engineer, the most prominent of which was the Order of St. Ann, awarded to those who had performed exceptional feats of civil and military service. Its motto was “Amantibus Justitiam, Pietatem, Fidem” (“To those who love justice, piety, and fidelity”).
Thanks to Czar Nicholas I’s patronage, Joseph Harrison came back to Philadelphia a very rich man. In 1855, during one of his periodic visits home, Harrison commissioned architect Samuel Sloan to build a new city house for his family, on a 75 feet by 198 feet lot fronting the-then mostly undeveloped Rittenhouse Square.
Sloan had made a name for himself as a designer of picturesque suburban villas and urban townhouses in the Italianate style. Harrison instructed his architect to build an adaptation of the Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg, an 18th century czarist residence he and his wife Sarah had admired during their time abroad. Built by Catherine the Great for his son Grand Duke Paul (Czar Nicholas I’s father), Pavlovsk was a jewel of neo-classical design.
Samuel Sloan set to work at his drafting table. His Harrison mansion was a symmetrical structure, composed of a three-bay wide center block, flanked by a pair of two story wings. It had not one, but two arched front doorways. No doubt influenced by the sight of all the Old Master paintings cluttering the walls of the Winter Palace, he filled his own home’s cavernous rooms with fashionable art, most notably twenty works from Charles Wilson Peale’s famous museum. His most notable acquisition was Benjamin West’s “Christ Rejected.” The rear windows of the house looked out on a large, enclosed garden. There was no pretense of Quaker austerity. This edifice was meant to dazzle and impress, inside and out.
When Joseph and Sarah Harrison took up residence in their home at 227 S.18th Street in 1857, they were the proud owners of one the largest and most flamboyant homes in the city of Philadelphia. Other members of Philadelphia’s ultra-wealthy, most notably members of the Drexel family, built similarly grand houses around the square in the years to come. Flush with cash from his Russian adventures and locomotive patents, Harrison took up intellectual, civic, and cultural pursuits with gusto. He served on the boards of the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, making a substantial donation toward PAFA’s new Frank Furness-designed home on North Broad Street. He died in 1874.
The giant house stood until the 1920s, when it was demolished to make way for the Pennsylvania Athletic Club.
Czar Nicholas I ruled until his death in 1855. His son Alexander II took a much more liberal course than his reactionary father, freeing Russia’s serfs in 1862, one year before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. The Romanov dynasty came to a violent end in 1918, when Bolshevik revolutionaries gunned down Czar Nicholas I’s great-grandson Nicholas II and his entire family in Siberia. The old Romanov trinity of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” had been replaced by Vladimir Lenin’s Communist rallying cry of “Peace, Land, and Bread.”
“Joseph Harrison Jr. A Biographical Sketch,” Cassier’s Magazine, An Engineering Monthly, Volume XXXVII, November 1909-April 1910, http://himedo.net/TheHopkinThomasProject/TimeLine/Philadelphia/LocomotiveWorks/CassierBioJosHarrison.htm, accessed April 17, 2018.
Karen Chernick, “The Lost Mansions of Rittenhouse Square,” Curbed Philadelphia, January 17, 2018, https://philly.curbed.com/2018/1/17/16896748/rittenhouse-square-philadelphia-historic-photos, accessed April 26, 2018.
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov: A Novel(New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011). https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1583229868, accessed April 26, 2018.
Kevin Klever, Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia, From 1847(Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2015). https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1503574806, accessed April 26, 2018.
Joseph Harrison Jr. Papers, MS.024, Hoang Tran, ed., Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, January 2016. https://www.pafa.org/sites/default/files/media-assets/MS.024_JosephHarrisonJr.pdf, accessed April 17, 2018.