The name of Benjamin Bartis Comegys (1819-1900) lives on in a West Philadelphia elementary school that bears his name. However, a cursory Google search of the man reveals very little information aside from his obituary and funeral notice. His father Cornelius P. Comegys served as governor of Delaware between 1837 and 1841. His son Benjamin moved to Philadelphia at the age of 18 after receiving a “common school education” and was “attracted to a mercantile pursuit.” In the days before an undergraduate business degree, that meant starting off as a clerk in a bank, in which the young man learned the basics of accounting and bookkeeping on the job. After eleven years at the counting house of Thomas Rockhill & Company, Comegys was hired by the Philadelphia National Bank, eventually rising to the position to its presidency. In 1887, he reached the pinnacle of the Philadelphia business establishment by joining the board of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
When he died after a brief illness in 1900, the funeral at the Second Presbyterian Church at 22nd and Walnut attracted a delegation of mourners from Girard College, Jefferson Medical College, as well as heavy hitters from the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Philadelphia National Bank. Among the pallbearers were Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt and shipping tycoon Clement Griscom. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“The church service was one prepared by Mr. Comegys himself. Beethoven’s Funeral March from the Twelfth Sonata, the anthem ‘Happy and Blest Are They Who Have Endured,’ from Mendelssohn’s St. Paul, and the recessional, ‘I know That My Redeemer Liveth.'”
The Comegys family mansion at 4205 Walnut was a free-standing Italianate villa, is featured prominently in a series of City Archives photos dating from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Fifty years after Comegys death, West Philadelphia was no longer the affluent stomping grounds of the Clarks, Drexels, and their ilk. The house was at the time was still occupied, although it appears to have been divided into apartments and was listed as two addresses: 4203-05 A photograph shows a family gathered for a meal in one of the rooms, still furnished in the Victorian style but with metal filing cabinets shoved into a corner and children’s art on the walls. Who they are remains a mystery, although the tag “E.T. Comegys House, 4203 Walnut Street” gives a clue. (Benjamin Comegys had two daughters and a son who died young, and an Lieutenant Edward Theodore Comegys of Baltimore was killed in action during World War I).
Another photos is the one of the library of 4903-05 Walnut which is remarkable condition considering the house’s shabby condition. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“A valuable library was among Mr. Comegy’s most loved possessions. Next to his relatives and friends his books held his affections. He insisted that there were few lives so busy that they could not find time for the cultivation of a taste for art, science and literature. Though he never pretended to be a great scholar, his selection of books, next to the choice of friends, would probably be the highest proof of his sterling character. His library represents the work of his whole life.”
Sadly, by the time the photo was taken, Benjamin Comegy’s library at 4205 Walnut Street was devoid of books.
The Comegys mansion at 4205 Walnut Street, like so many other West Philadelphia houses of its size, eventually met the wrecker’s ball. It is now the site of a Seven Eleven and International Food & Spices Indian grocery store.
“Career of B.B. Comegys Ends at Ripe Old Age,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1900, as quoted in “Find A Grave,” https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/102563143/benjamin-bartis-comegys, accessed March 19, 2020.
“B.B. Comegys is Buried,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 1, 1900, as quoted in “Find A Grave,” https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/102563143/benjamin-bartis-comegys, accessed March 19, 2020.
Michael Robert Patterson, “Lieutenant Edward Theodore Comegys, First Lieutenant U.S. Army Air Service,” Arlington National CemetEry Website, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/etcomegys.htm, accessed March 19, 2020.