The Gilded Age was when Philadelphia smoked from fires of industry and shimmered in the glow of the electric light. The newfangled incandescent bulb became an object of near-mystic veneration. Located in Northeast Philadelphia, the Rohrbacher & Horrmann Jefferson Flint Glass Company specialized in making high-quality “art glass” shades for electrical and gas lighting.
A German immigrant, Ferdinand Horrmann was one of a cadre of self-made industrialists who owned and operated large businesses in Northeast Philadelphia. These included the Disstons, who ran the nation’s largest saw manufacturers, and the Harbisons, among the region’s most successful dairy operators. These were family businesses, which in their heyday demanded architectural commissions for factories, warehouses, and mansions. Fancy “art glass” shades made by company’s such as Ferdinand Horrmann’s in Philadelphia, as well as Quezal and Tiffany in New York, served a practical purpose — to make the bright glare of electric lights more tolerable to those used to flickering gas light. Some shades were iridescent, while others mimicked bird plumage. Regardless, glass was a booming business in late 19th century America.
In the early 1890s, architect Horace Castor married Ferdinand’s daughter Elizabeth. Castor, a master of the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles, partnered with engineer George Stearns to build structures for the North Philadelphia industrial elite, among them the Scottish Rite Temple, a mansion for cowboy-hat maker John Stetson, and various other buildings for the Mary Disston, Thomas Harbison, He also built a grand twin house for himself at 7345 and 7347 Oxford Avenue. Although prosperous, the Stearns & Castor firm did not break into the insular world of residential design for the Rittenhouse Square elite, a market cornered by the better-connected Frank Furness and Hewitt brothers.
The most impressive and “artistic” of Stearns & Castor’s commissions was an addition to the Columbia Club, built in 1899 at the corner of North Broad and Oxford Streets in North Philadelphia. The original clubhouse, a Queen Anne-style structure designed by the Scottish-born architect John Ord, was erected in 1899, at the height of North Broad Street’s glory years as an upscale residential boulevard. In 1906, the Columbia Club had enough cash on hand to commission Stearns & Castor to build a large addition to the rear of the structure. The Philadelphia Inquirerreported that “the building to be erected will be two stories high, covering an area 50×99 feet, and conforming in outward appearance with the present building. The building will contain, beside game rooms, recreation, and reading rooms, a large swimming pool and banquet hall. The addition, when completed, will cost about $30,000.”
Sadly, no photographs survive of the interior of the now-demolished Columbia Club, but it can be guessed that it had the same Arts & Crafts richness as nearby establishments on North Broad Street. No roster of its membership can be found, either, but it can safely be assumed that Ferdinand Horrmann was on the roster. Among its members was leather manufacturer Alfred E. Burk, who lived in a Beaux-Arts mansion at 1500 N. Broad Street that cost $256,000 to build in 1907, or about $4 million in today’s money.
Shortly before the completion of the Columbia Club addition, Stearns and Foster published a monograph that highlighted the firm’s most successful projects. However, the American Institute of Architects took great exception to what they saw as flagrant self-promotion. According to Philadelphia Architects and Buildings:
“From 1905 to 1907 the Minute Books of the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA report[ed] difficulties with Stearns & Castor regarding the right to advertise. This issue was brought to Chapter attention by the publication of a monograph of the office’s works, no doubt intended indeed to advertise by demonstrating the designs, which they had already successfully completed. Following the stern admonition of the Chapter’s committee on ethics, Stearns & Castor withdrew the publication from circulation, and the matter was thus ended.”
Stearns & Castor withdrew their monograph from circulation, but in 1916 got in hot water again with the AIA for entry in an unauthorized design competition for a Masonic home in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Its reputation battered, the Stearns & Castor dissolved in 1917.
The grandeur that was the Columbia Club, and much of the wealth that made it and the work of Stearns & Castor possible, proved to have a fleeting impact in North Philadelphia. A drab commercial block on the Temple University campus now occupies the site of the Columbia Club. Most of its industrial and residential buildings have either been demolished or abandoned. The Castor family home still stands, and a nearby avenue still bears his name.
“The Latest News in Real Estate,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 30, 1906, p.9.
The Staff of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, “Nomination Form: 7345 and 7347 Oxford Ave,” Philadelphia Historical Commission, March 14, 2015.
Jessica R. Markey Locklear, “Statement of Significance for 1500 N. Broad,” Temple University Public History, accessed February 19, 2019.
Sandra Tatman, “Philadelphia Architects and Buildings (fl. 1895-1917),” The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2019.