The original Rittenhouse Hotel was opened in 1893 on the 2200 block of Chestnut Street. Its designer was the now-forgotten Angus S. Wade. Wade was a Yankee transplant, born in Montpelier, Vermont in 1868. As a young man, he moved to Philadelphia to train in the studio of the highflying Willis Hale, the favorite architect of trolley tycoon Peter A. B. Widener. Like his mentor, Wade was more of a theatrical set designer than an architectural artist. He skillfully layered ornamentation onto rather formulaic structures. His buildings, although beguiling and playful on the surface, lacked the lively silhouettes and bold massings that characterized the oeuvre of Frank Furness. As commercial structures, Angus’s buildings were meant to charm and entice, rather than impress or trascend, the passerby.
The Rittenhouse Hotel fulfilled its theatrical role admirably, serving as a fashionable lodging house during its namesake square’s Gilded Age heyday. An advertisement for the Hotel Rittenhouse in a 1904 edition of The Apothecary advertised that the establishment was only half a block from the College of Physicians, and that it “gave special attention to ladies traveling alone.” The hotel offered both so-called “European” and “American” plans. The former meant that patrons could pay $1.50 (about $43 today) and up per night for rooms only, and the latter $4.00 (about $115 today) and up per night for rooms and all meals in the dining room.
By the end of World War I, however, Victorian hostelries like the Rittenhouse Hotel were looking dated, even chintzy. A photo taken in the autumn of 1920 shows that the entrance marquee adorned with theater style lights that advertised the hotel’s night club (“The Box”) rather than the hotel’s name. The featured band at “The Box” was the “Tierney Five” ensemble, which probably played a mixture of ragtime and early hot jazz. The advertisement is oddly suggestive: a dancing girl superimposed on the profile of an old man.
“Have you dined and danced in The Box?” the advertisement queried.
Since Prohibition had gone into effect only ten months earlier, it is probable that “The Box” was also a speakeasy. If so, it probably earned more money for the owners than the hotel rooms. The sign certainly is a clue!
The dowdy “grande dame” came crashing down in the 1940s, and was replaced by Louis Magaziner’s modernist Sidney Hillman Medical Center. The current Rittenhouse Hotel arose on the site of the old Alexander Cassatt mansion in the 1980s.
“Angus S. Wade,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 24, 1932.
Robert Morris Skaler and Thomas Keels, Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square (Mount Pleasant: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), p.33.
The Evening Public Ledger, October 15, 1920, p.4.
The Apothecary, Volume 21, MCP Publications, 1909, p.27.