In the 1890s, the self-made construction magnate Allen B. Rorke appeared to be living the Gilded Age dream. Fame, fortune, social standing, and grand houses were all his. He belonged to the Union League, the Masonic Order of the Odd Fellows, the Legion of Honor, and the Clover Club. Among his construction clients were the Poth Brewing Company, the Philadelphia Traction Company, and Jacob Reed & Sons. He resided with his family in a townhouse at 131 S.18th Street, just off fashionable Rittenhouse Square.
As a loyal member of Philadelphia’s Republican Party machine, Rorke was considered by his friends to be an ideal candidate for mayor.
Yet in the laissez-faire circus of late 19th century Philadelphia, the pressure to maintain appearances was crushing. And appearances could be deceiving. One observer noted that, “His contracts were always carried out with a disposition to do more rather than less than his specifications called for.”
The son of a master carpenter, Rorke, like so many tradesmen’s children, left school at 14 to apprentice himself in his father’s trade. At 21, he struck on his own. One of his earliest construction projects was the Horticultural Hall at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, a colossal cast-iron and glass pile designed by Hermann Schwarzmann. By his 30s, Rorke had a healthy portfolio of building projects in the Philadelphia area. His City Directory listing advertised for “estimates and Plan furnished upon application, for Banks, Warehouses, Mills, Churches, Dwellings and Buildings of every description” (Philadelphia City directory, 1884, p. 1369). Like many other prominent builders, he maintained an office in the Philadelphia Bourse Building, near Independence Hall.
Rorke’s most high profile project was the construction of the new Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Designed by architect Henry Ives Cobb, the structure was a replacement for a neoclassical structure that burned in a spectacular fire in 1897. Yet many in the Pennsylvania state government were unhappy with the Rorke/Cobb collaboration. One observer derided it as an “unadorned, unfinished, several-story brown brick structure that looked like a factory.” The legislature decided that, rather than upgrade the structure, they would spend the money on on a more grandiose home.
As a way of solidifying his dynastic ambitions, Rorke purchased a big lot at the corner of 41st and Odgen Street in West Philadelphia as the site of his son Franklin’s new suburban home. It was an odd location for a socially-ambitious businessman: the Belmont neighborhood at the time was comfortable but hardly fashionable. Yet the Franklin Rorke mansion rivaled the big homes under construction a few miles to the west in Overbrook Farms. Unlike the nearby twins and rowhouses, Franklin’s turreted Queen Anne mansion at 862-872 North 41st Street was a freestanding structure, surrounded by a garden and stone fence.
That summer, as the new family mansion rose on 41st Street, the Rorkes vacationed at the Seaside Hotel in Atlantic City. The nation had fully recovered from the Panic of 1893, and the luxury hotels of the Jersey Shore were booked to capacity from June to September. The Philadelphia Times described the children as an “exceedingly clever lot.” That fall, a laudatory article appeared in the Philadelphia Times, praising Rorke as “the nation’s greatest builder.”
On Christmas Eve of 1899, Allen Rorke spent the day with his son Franklin in West Philadelphia. The mansion at 41st and Ogden was nearing completion. The following day, at his townhouse on Rittenhouse Square, Rorke complained that he wasn’t feeling well. He then collapsed to the floor, felled by a stroke. A second stroke rendered him unconscious. He died on December 26, his wife and sons Franklin and Allen Jr. at his side.
His funeral which took place at his Rittenhouse Square home. Governor William Stone and Mayor Samuel Ashbridge served as honorary pallbearers. Soon after the doors of the Rorke family’s grand West Laurel Hill family mausoleum were locked, his grieving wife and sons received another jolt. High society pundits speculated that Rorke had left a legacy north of $1 million, a princely sum in fin-de-siecle Philadelphia and enough for the three heirs to continue on in high style. Instead, “the nation’s greatest builder” had left his family a mere $952.56, or about $20,000 in today’s money.
Franklin and Allen Jr. were also left their father’s construction firm. The question was whether or not they could salvage it, and their family’s fortunes.
Allen B. Rorke, Findagrave.com
“Builder Allen B. Rorke Is Dead, But His Work Will Live On,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27, 1899
Sandra Tatman, “Rorke, Allen B,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
H.R. Haas, “862-72 N. 41st Street,” Nomination for Historic Building, Structure, Site or Object, Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Philadelphia Historical Commission, March 7, 2017
“Big Season is on in Atlantic City,” The Philadelphia Times, June 27, 1899.