Restraint is not a word associated with the Philadelphia architect Willis Gaylord Hale (1848-1907). His most famous Philadelphia commission, the recently-rehabbed Divine Lorraine Hotel of 1894, is a yellow-brick wedding cake skyscraper. His other residential and commercial structures that have survived the wrecking ball, such as the Union Trust in Center City, are fanciful and exuberant, but hardly graceful.
Willis Hale achieved his (brief) professional success through a combination of hard work and strategic associations. A transplant from Seneca Falls, New York, he studied in the architectural offices of Samuel Sloan (designer of Woodland Terrace) and John McArthur (designer of City Hall) before opening his own firm. He had also married a niece of the chemical magnate William Weightman, one of the richest men in Philadelphia. Very much like his contemporary Peter Widener (whose North Broad Street mansion Hale designed), Weightman was also deeply involved in land speculation in North and West Philadelphia. Of course, Hale was Weightman’s architect of choice for several ornate developments pitched to upper-middle class buyers. Prosperous lawyers and physicians loved Hale’s homes, but the architectural establishment thought otherwise. “The building shall lack unity, shall lack harmony, shall lack repose and shall be a restless jumble,” sneered The Architectural Record in 1893. His commercial buildings on Chestnut Street were “monstrosities.”
Yet the 41 homes Willis Hale designed just off Clark Park, on Chester Avenue and Regent Street, are so uncharacteristic of his gaudy oeuvre. Devoid of almost all ornamentation, they are massive, brooding, fortress-like structures with thick walls and small windows. Their only touches of whimsy are their elaborately-carved wooden porches, Tudor half-timbered gables, and finial-topped roofs. The semi-circular turrets are Hale’s nod to the Boston architect H.H. Richardson’s Romanesque Revival style, which was popular in the New England, but rarely seen in the Philadelphia area.
The real showstopper in Hale’s development is the 10,000 square foot freestanding mansion at 46th and Chester. Completed in 1889, its first occupant was the wealthy physician Dr. Daniel Egan, whose family owned it until the 1930s, by which time the neighborhood had fallen out of fashion due to the ravages of the Great Depression. Dr. Egan’s widow donated the house to the Roman Catholic church, who converted it into a home for the elderly. Now restored to much of its former grandeur, the former Egan mansion is now the Gables Bed & Breakfast.
Like Frank Furness, Hale’s florid high Victorian style was out-of-fashion by the early twentieth century. Clients wanted the clean lines and cool French classicism of Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele. Once one of the city’s most prosperous architects, Willis Hale ended his days in straightened circumstances, surviving mostly on the largesse of his very wealthy uncle in-law.
Today, the University City Historic District has proposed that the 41 Willis Hale houses be designated as the Chester-Regent Historic District. If the Historic Commission approves the proposed district on April 17, it will be another step toward actively preserving more of West Philadelphia’s Victorian housing stock, which has come under increasing pressure from development and demolition in recent years.
During the hot summer of July 1900, Franklin Rorke was faced with mounting bills and a failing construction business. His new mansion at 41st and Ogden, an extravagant gift from his late father, had every modern convenience, and boasted mosaics, hardwood floors, marble trim, and onyx fireplaces, as well as a fully equipped stable in the rear. Yet Rorke couldn’t afford to maintain or staff it. The $300 he had received from his late father’s estate almost certainly had run out.
Rorke’s wife Helen was terrified of the man once heralded as the scion of an “exceedingly clever” clan. “He had hallucinations of hearing and sight,” she alleged, “and thought persons were secreted about the house, and that detectives were following him in an effort to kill him.” Rorke then started making threats on his wife’s life, and drove her from the house in one of his rages. Then, Rorke turned his fury on his own mother, attacking her with a razor blade.
The Rorke mansion, built as a glittering testament to the Rorke family’s wealth, had become a 7,000 square foot house of horrors.
Helen Rorke finally had her husband committed to a new West Philadelphia home: the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital at 49th and Market Street.
A year later, the Republican politician and former Philadelphia District Attorney George S. Graham successfully petitioned the Quarter Sessions Court to release Franklin Rorke from the insane asylum. Judge Stevenson signed off on the release. According to thePhiladelphia Times, “Rorke had only been in the institution temporarily and was in his proper mind, and it would be manifestly wrong to keep him there any longer.” What Rorke’s mother and wife thought of Franklin’s release in unclear, but it may have been one last political favor by Graham for his late friend and fellow Union League member Allen B. Rorke.
In 1906, Barber, Hartman & Company listed the former Franklin Rorke mansion for sale. “This property was built and owned by the famous Philadelphia contractor,” the advertisement stated, “and no expense was spared to erect one of the handsomest properties in West Philadelphia. The premises are in a first-class condition, and will be sold at a great sacrifice.” That same year, Franklin Rorke was thrown in jail for “creat[ing] a scene with a pistol in a West Philadelphia Saloon.” He and his wife long-suffering wife Helen, who stated he had been “drinking excessively and abusing her,” were now residing in a modest dwelling at 4043 Baring Street. An unnamed family friend bailed out the miscreant former construction heir for $1,000, or about $20,000 today. This was approximately the same amount Allen Rorke had left his children seven years earlier.
Franklin Rorke died in 1915, working as a bailiff for the Philadelphia Court of Common Please, a position that was almost certainly another favor from one his father’s friends. His brother Allen B. Rorke Jr. led a much quieter life, carrying on what was left of the family business and last appearing in thePhiladelphia City Directory in 1926.
The Franklin Rorke mansion still stands at the corner of 41st and Ogden Street, a boarded-up, vandalized shell. It is a sad home of “might-have-beens.” The mansion never fulfilled its builder’s desire as a happy home for future generations of Rorkes, or as a glittering backdrop for balls and parties. The cast-iron oriel window at the center of its main facade is gone, as are the elaborate railings. The lawn is completely overgrown. Yet the mansion’s stone walls and turrets are still sturdy, and the roof is still on, a testament to the care and attention Allen B. Rorke, once lauded as “the nation’s greatest builder,” put into this gift for his son 120 years ago.
One can fault would-be patriarch Allen B. Rorke for his spendthrift ways and the dynastic ambitions he placed on his very troubled son Franklin. The once-lauded Rorkes have been long forgotten. Yet the house survives, and it could be argued that Rorke indeed lived up his reputation of doing “more rather than less than his specifications called for.”
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.
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.”
In view of the interest and importance at the present time of everything which relates to the development of railroading, it is well to remember what has been done in America to lay the foundations of the locomotive industry, and, therefore, we feel that it is desirable to recall the extent to which the design of the modern locomotive is indebted to the work of Joseph Harrison, Jr., although it is now more than thirty years since he passed away.
–Cassier’s Magazine, November-April 1910
The son of a Philadelphia grocer, Joseph Harrison Jr. (1810-1874) received his early training the old fashioned way: learning-by-doing. After cutting his teeth as an apprentice machinist, at age 25 Harrison got a job with the locomotive builder Andrew McCalla Eastwick. While in Eastwick’s employ, Harrison came up with the solution to a problem that had long befuddled early locomotive designers. The first locomotives, such as George Stephens’ “Rocket” of 1829, were propelled by only a single pair of driving wheels. If engineers could add additional pairs of wheels, the locomotive’s pulling capacity, especially on steep grades, would be greatly increased. But no one seemed to be able to come up with a way to evenly distribute the energy from the steam pistons to more than two driving wheels.
In 1838, Harrison patented his so-called “equalizing lever,” which, according to Cassier’s Magazine, ensured “the equal division of the load upon the two axles.”
This invention made Harrison, and his now-partner Andrew McCalla Eastwick, very much in demand as locomotive designers. Thanks to Harrison’s equalizing lever, locomotives could now have 4 leading wheels and 4 driving wheels (4-4-0), a configuration known as the “American type.” By the end of the 19th century, locomotives with as many as ten driving wheels (known as “decapods”) wold be pulling heavily-loaded freight and passenger cars over the Allegheny Mountains and into the burgeoning interior of the United States. A large percentage of the freight carried by the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads was coal, which powered the factories and heated the homes of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other eastern cities.
In 1843, the thirty-three year old Joseph Harrison received a summons from the richest and most powerful man on earth: Czar Nicholas I of Russia (r.1825-1855). The czar’s mission for Harrison: to design locomotives suited to carry freight and passengers between St. Petersburg and Moscow, a distance of four hundred miles.
Czar Nicholas could not have had a more different upbringing than Harrison’s hardscrabble one. He had been raised in the splendor of the Winter Palace, surrounded by tutors and servants. Nicholas had been taught from a very young age that the Romanov family’s “Divine Right” to rule came directly from God. Because he was the third son of the erratic Czar Paul I, few thought that Nicholas a chance of becoming the ruler of the largest kingdom on earth. 8.6 million square miles, to be exact. As a result, he was trained as a military engineer and army officer. Yet when his eldest brother Alexander I died childless in 1825 and another brother, Constantine, refused the throne shortly after that, Nicholas had no choice but to accept the crown. After his mother Catherine the Great’s death in 1796, Czar Paul I forbade women from inheriting the throne. Many in Russia, especially reform-minded members of the gentry, feared Nicholas as a reactionary autocrat who sought to undo the liberal reforms of his predecessors.
Almost immediately after Nicholas became Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, a cadre of military officers refused to swear allegiance to the new monarch. On December 26, 1825, About 3,000 of them assembled in Senate Square, St. Petersburg. Their plea to the czar: the creation of a constitutional monarchy along the lines of Great Britain’s, complete with an elected, representative body that curbed the absolute power of the czar.
Nicholas I was incensed by this challenge to his authority. He ordered his loyal soldiers to open fire on the demonstrators. The leaders of the so-called Decembrists were captured and executed. Others were exiled to Siberia. During the next thirty years, Nicholas attempted to squash all liberal thought from his realm by promulgating a new educational curriculum based on the trinity of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” According to his educational minister Sergey Uvarov:
“It is our common obligation to ensure that the education of the people be conducted, according to Supreme intention of our August Monarch, in the joint spirit of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. I am convinced that every professor and teacher, being permeated by one and the same feeling of devotion to the throne and fatherland, will use all his resources to become a worthy tool for the government and to earn its complete confidence.”
In addition to stepping up censorship and the powers of the secret police, the czar embarked on a series of military adventures that alienated Russia’s allies, most notably Great Britain. He also had the 1,500 room Winter Palace rebuilt following its total destruction by fire in 1837. The czar demanded his official residence be restored to its former grandeur within a year. One observer of the project noted: “During the great frosts 6000 workmen were continually employed; of these a considerable number died daily, but the victims were instantly replaced by other champions brought forward to perish.”
Prospects for Russia’s millions of serfs–laboring peasants who were bought, sold and mortgaged by wealthy landowners–were bleak, as well.
Harrison may have heard about Czar Nicholas’s repressive governing tactics, but when presented with such a lucrative business opportunity as the Moscow to St. Petersburg railroad, he could not say no. In 1843, Harrison and his young family set sail for Russia. Shortly before doing so, he and Andrew Eastwick sold their firm’s “equalizing lever” patent to Matthias Baldwin, founder of Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive Company, for a tremendous sum of money.
In Russia, Harrison not only showed the czar how to run a railroad, but also would also dream up his own palace back in Philadelphia, one that would have fit right along side the shimmering pastel confections lining the canals of St. Petersburg.
There were some kids who were mixed. There was some kids who were Jewish, and there were some white kids, too. But it never dawned on me as a child. I never knew the difference. I went to an all-black school for the first three years of my life, which was a block away.
-Gwendolyn Bye, daughter of Powelton Co-op founders Jerry and Louis Bye.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, West Philadelphia’s “Powelton Co-op” was a haven for people seeking a tolerant, racially-integrated community. It was a mixture of Penn students, social activists, professionals, and musicians. They stood against war, nuclear proliferation, and segregation. Most leaned politically to the left. Some identified as Communists, a bold stance just before the rise of McCarthyism. There was also a strong Quaker influence, as many residents were involved with the American Friends Service Committee.
“There were Jews. There were WASPs. There were gay people. There were African-Americans. It was a real mixed bag,” remembered Gwendolyn Bye, whose parents Jerry and Lois Bye met at the Powelton Co-op in the late 1940s. Regarding the Powelton Co-op’s Marxist leanings, Bye explained: “It was a much more innocent form of community and social questioning: the rich being corrupt, everything’s for everyone, we work together for the common good. And the underlying message was a very innocent one, but it was one that was very strongly felt by my mother and father and the people who formed the Powelton Co-op.”
The co-op’s sphere of influence would eventually encompass a group of blocks that today is known as Powelton Village: bounded by Powelton Avenue to the south, Spring Garden Street to the north, Lancaster Avenue to the west, and the Schuylkill River to the east. There were plenty of big old houses that could be bought or rented for very little money, and the neighborhood was also within walking distance of the University of Pennsylvania.
Originally developed in the decades after the Civil War, Powelton Village had once been of Philadelphia’s premier streetcar suburbs. By the 1890s, it was home to German-American beer barons, Pennsylvania Railroad executives, and Quaker entrepreneurs who ignored the stigma of living “North of Market.” Yet fashion moved on, as did the descendants of the original wealthy families. As a result of New Deal housing policies, most of West Philadelphia north of Market Street was “redlined,” meaning that banks refused to give prospective homebuyer mortgages. Worse still, insurance companies refused to issue homeowner policies. Much of this was racially motivated: as soon as a black family moved into a neighborhood, the whole area was deemed “hazardous” and marked as red on the lending institution’s map. During the 1940s and 50s, brokers routinely engaged in a practice known as “blockbusting,” informing white families in a neighborhood that African-Americans were moving into the area. Afraid that their property values would decrease due to redlining, the white residents would then “panic sell.” The realtor would then sell the property to a black family, pocketing the commission. Entire neighborhoods would turn over within a decade or less. The idea of an integrated neighborhood was a foreign concept to both residents and policy makers. Until the passing of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which made it a federal crime to discriminate “in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” this practice was a major driver of white flight, not just in Philadelphia, but in cities throughout the United States.
Jerry and Lois Bye, who were among the founding members of the Powelton Co-op, happened to be in real estate, but they were realtors on a mission. Devout Quakers and pacifists, they believed they could be agents for the creation of an integrated neighborhood. Among the other founders were realtor George Funderburg (an African-American) and his wife Maggie (a German-American). In addition to the cheap housing, West Philadelphia was one of the few places where interracial couples such as the Funderburgs felt comfortable. Anti-miscegnation laws, which prohibited marriage between people of two difference races, were on the books in fourteen states. And even in states such as Pennsylvania that permitted interracial marriage, couples were often met with hostility or even violence by their neighbors.
Initially known as the “Friendship Co-op,” the group’s first home was set of buildings known as “The Court,” located at the intersection of 37th and Baring Street. As shareholders in the corporation, all members shared expenses, childcare, and the household chores. A communal meal was held every night. At the end of the year, the co-op members would get equity according to their contributions. After a few years at “The Court,” the Powelton Co-op moved to a large house at 35 North 34th Street, and then another one at 3709 Baring Street. There were plenty of hulking old homes for the taking. A Victorian mansion in this part of West Philadelphia could be purchased for as little as $12,000. Many had been turned into rooming or halfway houses, and were generally in poor repair.
The Powelton Co-op would be this group’s laboratory, and Powelton Village was the perfect location for it. They betted that the neighborhood would be a much better place in the long run as an integrated one, rather than one defined by a single ethnic group. The Funderburgs, Byes, Marshalls and other founding families intended to raise their children in a place where they would feel comfortable with people from all backgrounds.
It would be a difficult road, but in the end they would succeed in achieving their vision.
To be continued…
Interview of David and Anne Lodge, December 26, 2017.
While ‘The Gilded Age’ commercial obstacle course touches on many themes as it shifts uncomfortably between melodrama and satire, occasionally verging into burlesque, it always projects a powerful message about the futility and self-destructiveness of chasing after riches.
-R. Kent Rasmussen
Now divided into apartments, 3301 Baring Street is an imposing Italianate style mansion completed in 1857 for John McIlvain, a prominent lumber merchant, and his wife Sarah. When it was built, the Powelton district of the newly annexed West Philadelphia was a fashionable suburban retreat for the city’s gentry, its street-lined streets worlds away from the smoke and noise of the burgeoning industrial metropolis. The district was accessible only by horse-drawn streetcar, and its houses boasted spectacular views of the Schuylkill River and the Fairmount Waterworks.
At the end of the Civil War, the McIlvains sold the house to industrialist and inventor Coleman Sellers II and his wife Cornelia. Coleman Sellers was one of the kingpins of Philadelphia’s Quaker establishment. He also had the arts in his blood, as his mother was the daughter of Philadelphia’s famous painter Charles Wilson Peale. Born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania in 1827, Coleman was trained as an engineer and spent his formative years in Cincinnati, Ohio as the superintendent of a rolling mill operated by his brothers George Escol and Charles. Yet what really made Sellers’ career was locomotives — by the early 1850s, he had become a master engineer of these new machines that could transport the riches of the heartland to the East Coast at over 30 miles per hour. Flush with cash, Sellers returned to his native city and built a thriving machinery works in the Spring Garden neighborhood. As the 19th century continued and blossomed (or devolved) into what satirist Mark Twain called the “Gilded Age,” Sellers expanded his investments into other concerns, such as Midvale Steel in East Falls and the Millbourne Mills in his native Upper Darby.
Socially, Coleman Sellers enjoyed great success as well, joining the ranks of the Saturday Club and the Union League. Yet his work ethic never flagged. He designed and built locomotives for William Henry Aspinwall’s Panama-Pacific Railroad (a 50 mile rail line that cut down the travel time between New York and the new state of California from months to weeks), oversaw the construction of the Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant, served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, and patented an early motion picture camera that he christened the kinematoscope. His firm also built the shafting to the Corliss engine that powered the 1876 Centennial Exposition. His true pet project was the Franklin Institute, the scientific powerhouse which he served as vice president and president.
He was also a firm believer that machinery needed no applied ornamentation, as its innate aesthetic beauty lay in its function. Foreshadowing the architecture of functionality later espoused by Louis Sullivan and LeCorbusier, Sellers declared that “we find that a new order of shapes, founded on the uses to which they are to be applied and the nature of the material of which they are made, have been adopted and the flaunting colors the gaudy stripes and glittering gilding has been replaced by this one tint, the color of the iron upon which it is painted.”
Yet Sellers also somehow found the time to live graciously (and in colorful Victorian style) at his home at 33rd and Baring, which he and his wife expanded and lavishly redecorated over their four decades in residence. According to his grandson Harold Colton in his 1961 book North of Market, Coleman “extended the west side adding a second room for his extensive library and enlarged the dining room making it quite long. The walls he hung with many portraits of the family by his grandfather Charles Wilson Peale. On the second floor the master bedroom over the dining room was lengthened and over the new library a sunny glass-enclosed conservatory was built, where his wife Cora could keep her flowers in the wintertime. Besides the improvements to the west wing he built between the kitchen and dining room a pantry over which were private baths on each floor. On the third floor over the kitchen wing he built an office for himself and a laboratory or shop reached by new back stairs. After the improvements were complete Jessie [Sellers, his daughter] was given the large bedroom on the third floor not only with a private hath but also with a fireplace.”
In fact, the 3300 block of Baring became something of a Sellers family compound. Siblings and cousins pooled $23,000 to purchase it for their own homes. In the early 1880s, the patriarch built Queen Anne twin houses at 410 and 412 North 33rd Street for his son Coleman Jr. and daughter Jessie, respectively.
Yet as Coleman Sellers’ star rose, the one of his younger brother and former business partner George Escol Sellers plummeted, in no small part due to a certain fictional character created by authors Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their collaborative 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today: Colonel Mulberry Sellers.
As Twain wrote: “Many persons regarded ‘Colonel Sellers’ as a fiction, an invention, an extravagant impossibility, and did me the honor to call him a “creation”; but they were mistaken. I merely put him on paper as he was; he was not a person who could be exaggerated.”
When the Penn AC Olympians came back to Depression-era Philadelphia, they got jobs as builders and beer salesmen. Beer gave them their wages and also their strength. “These were Depression era guys,” Joe Sweeney said of the men who would become his coaches and had grown up hauling kegs around. “They used to take the trolley from West Philadelphia, bring a lunch bag, row, eat lunch, and then go home. All were beer salesmen and worked for beer manufacturers. They’d go around to bars, take orders for beer, had to buy a round for everyone in the bar. I got to like them because I was from their old neighborhood. I got that whole culture thing.”
After he graduated from La Salle University in 1964, Joe Sweeney joined the Penn AC Rowing Association, the rowing club most associated with the “Irish mafia” godfather John B. “Jack” Kelly. As an up-and-coming rower and building contractor, Kelly had spent his formative years at the venerable Vesper Boat Club. In the 1920s, he and a group of his Irish-American friends founded the Pennsylvania Athletic Club and built a magnificent clubhouse just off Rittenhouse Square. Sadly, the club was completed just after the stock market crashed in 1929, and Penn AC had to move to more modest quarters. Still personally flush with cash thanks to New Deal building contracts, the Democratic Party powerbroker and head of “Kelly for Brickwork” approached Vesper with a proposition: in exchange for a name change, Penn AC would give financial support to Vesper’s rowing programs.
Vesper turned Kelly down.
Undaunted, Kelly then set his sights on West Philadelphia Boat Club, which had fallen on hard times and only had about 4 active rowing members. West Philadelphia happily agreed, and it changed its name to the Penn AC Rowing Association. Over the years, Penn AC became a hub of Catholic high school rowing. From this club, Curran and Dougherty coached generations of students from West Catholic High School, LaSalle High School, Cardinal O’Hara, and St. Joseph’s University.
Patriarch Kelly took a liking to Joe Sweeney, the up-and-coming novice Lasalle rower and Navy vet. Sweeney, although he had never rowed before coming to college, quickly proved to be a skilled and powerful oarsman. Shortly before his death in 1960, Kelly gave Sweeney a job with the Parks Commission. Kelly’s son John B. Kelly Jr. (known as Kel) carried on his family legacy, both as a rower and coxswain for Penn AC. Kel had honed his athletic prowess under his father’s tutelage and as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1947, Kel won the Diamond Sculls Regatta at Henley, the same aristocratic contest that his father could not enter because, supposedly, he had worked with his hands as a bricklayer.
“I got to know the family and I was of the age where young Jack was competing and I was in some races he was in,” Joe remembered.
He also got to know Jack’s beautiful sister Grace, who occasionally came back to Philadelphia from Hollywood. When Grace was a girl, Kelly had used his position as president of the Parks Commission to get a playhouse built for her behind Belmont Mansion. “Grace Kelly used to study her lines and performances in a bar on City Avenue called The Wynnewood,” Joe remembered. “We would stop there while on the rounds with the rowers and coaches who worked as beer salesmen.”
When Kelly came back to Philadelphia after it was announced she would be marrying Prince Rainer II of Monaco, she of course paid a visit to Boathouse Row. As the star of the 1956 film High Society made the rounds with the Philadelphia rowing community, Joe Sweeney served as her chaperone. By the 1980s, Joe Sweeney was Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, and traveled with Kel to Hong Kong to be the first Westerners to compete in the Crown Colony’s dragonboat races.
On the way to Hong Kong, the twenty men from Philadelphia had a layover in San Francisco. They used their downtime to train, running up and down the city’s hills. “At the top of one hill, we stopped and rested,” Joe recalled, “and there was a residential brick building being built. Young Jack started to describe how a brick building was like a strong family.
“You have to have strong family connections,” Joe recalled Kel saying. “Each course was a family, each individual brick was a person. Great Irish malarkey.”
The men of Philadelphia won the silver in the Hong Kong dragon boat regatta, the first Western team to win a medal in the race’s history.
When Jack Kelly Jr. died in 1985, Joe served as the usher for the Monaco side of the family at the memorial service.
After that rough introduction the to LaSalle rowing program, Joe Sweeney did come back to Crescent, again and again. He discovered that coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom “Bear” Curran were not just founts of rowing wisdom, but also had some remarkable rowing stories from their younger days.
One of Joe Sweeney’s favorites was the story of the Reich Chancellery theft.
The American “Big Eight” that won the gold at Liege, Belgium in 1930 consisted of Charles McIlvaine in bow; Tom Curran, 2; Jack Bratten, 3; John McNichol, 4; Myrlin Janes, 5; Joe Doughert, 6; Dan Barrows, 7; Chet Turner, stroke; and Tom Mack, coxswain. In the final, the Penn AC “Big Eight” beat Italy by two lengths, and Denmark by six lengths. During their trial runs, the Philadelphia Irish “Big Eight” made 2,000 meters in an astounding 5 minutes and 18 seconds. According to Joe Sweeney, “there was considerable speculation that this might be the fastest eight ever seen.”
The Philadelphians of Penn AC teammates tried to repeat their time to enter the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, but they sadly lost to crews from the University of California and the University of Washington crews, respectively. In 1936, the men of the Penn AC eight went to Berlin to participate in the controversial, high profile Olympic games of that year. Although they didn’t make the US eight, the Penn AC men rowed in various smaller boats.
There, they faced a few challenges. The first had to with equipment. The University of Washington crew (of The Boys in the Boat fame) brought their own boat with them: a magnificent cedar-and-mahogany eight handbuilt by the British-born master boatbuilder George Pocock. Yet the other American rowers, including the Penn AC boys, had to make do with quads and pairs loaned to them by the Germans.
The Nazis had their own agenda: proving the athletic superiority of the Aryan race. at the expense of the foreign teams.
“The rowers swear they were sabotaged,” Sweeney said. Tom Curran and Joe Dougherty, who rowed in the Penn AC pair, didn’t even make it to the finals.
The second problem was that their coach, Frank Mueller of Vesper, was a German national who was terrified of being detained in his native land and being conscripted. He stayed behind.
The young men of Washington won the gold at the 1936 Olympics in their American boat, running the Langer See course in a mere 6:25.4, beating out Italy at 6:26, and Germany at 6:26.4. Bringing their own boat across the Atlantic probably made that .4 second difference.
After the games were over, Dougherty, Curran, and the Penn AC boys stayed in Berlin for a week to take in the sights of the Germany capital, which on the surface seemed radiant and prosperous, a shining symbol of a renewed Germany. Little did they know of the concentration camps, the incarceration of political dissidents, and the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of their rights as citizens. The highlight of their week in Berlin was a tour of the Reich Chancellery, recently renovated and expanded by architects Paul Troost and Leonhard Gall in a sleek, somewhat sinister Art Deco style.
While touring Adolf Hitler’s private office, the story went, Tom Curran spied an elegant pen set on the Fuhrer’s desk. While no one was looking, he swiped it, and took it back to his room at the Olympic village. That night, a group of men wearing black jackets, swastika armbands, and high jackboots showed up at the Penn AC dormitory, waking the men up.
It was the Gestapo.
“The pen set is missing,” the lead Gestapo officer snapped at the Americans. “We want it back.”
Joe Dougherty, who was the captain, took a guess that it was the “bad boy” of the group who committed the crime. He turned to Tom Curran and ordered him to hand the pen set over to the Gestapo. Curran went back to his bunk and gave it to Dougherty. The stern, starchy Philadelphia Penn AC captain then solemnly handed Hitler’s pens back to the Gestapo officer.
He turned to Curran and punched him square in the jaw. Curran fell to the floor, groaning in agony.
Dougherty then said to the Gestapo officer, “Are you satisfied or are you next?”
“I’ve heard that story from two or three other people,” Joe Sweeney said of the coaches he got to know twenty years later when he towed at LaSalle. “They were gentlemen. They had their own ethics. Really good guys.”
After spending several years in the Navy, Joe Sweeney came back commercial obstacle course to Philadelphia in the late 1950s to go to college on the GI Bill. His widowed mother continued to work as a nurse, rising to become the head of Student Health Services at the University of Pennsylvania.
The day he started his freshman year at LaSalle University, Joe swung by Boathouse Row, across the Schuylkill River from his old Powelton Village neighborhood. He had shown up on campus dressed in his Navy uniform. The Christian Brothers gave him a suit to change into on that first day of school. Dressed in his new outfit, he was on the way to pick up his mother at Penn, but had an hour or two to kill on the way home. He knew that LaSalle’s rowing program was based out of the Crescent Boat Club, a Tudor-revival structure on the eastern end of the row. He walked into the boathouse and saw a group of young men (he was a decade older than the other Lasalle freshmen) gathered around coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom Curran, both “Boathouse Row gods.” Dougherty, a “straight-laced Irish Catholic” as Sweeney remembered him, had rowed in the American “Big Eight” that set the 2,000 meter record at the 1930 Olympics at Liège, Belgium. They were also part of the “Irish Mafia” that hung out at the neighboring Penn Athletic Club (“Penn AC”) over cards and whiskey: the Kellys, the McIlvaines, and other Irish-American patriarchs were prosperous but couldn’t join any of the elite downtown clubs. Tom Curran, the “bad boy of the group,” had also rowed with Dougherty at Liège.Inflatable Irish pub
John B. “Jack” Kelly, powerful contractor and prominent Democratic kingmaker, was the godfather of the group. He had famously been denied entry at the Henley Regatta’s “Diamond Sculls” because the rules stipulated that which excluded anyone “who is or ever has been … by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer”. The rejection kindled a competitive fire in Kelly to not only push himself harder as an athlete (he was also an excellent boxer), but also his son Jack Jr, a Penn graduate who won the Henley “Diamond Sculls Challenge” in 1947 and 1949. Using his enormous bricklaying fortune, Kelly Sr. built up the rowing program at the Pennsylvania Athletic Club. He also mentored many aspiring young, working class Catholic rowers so they could compete toe-to-toe with the scions of Philadelphia’s Protestant gentry.
When Joe Sweeney entered Crescent that day, he had stumbled into the heart of Boathouse Row’s Catholic community. It was gritty, no-holds-barred competitive.
“Hey kid,” Dougherty shouted at Sweeney as he walked in the Crescent door, “would you like to row?”
One of the LaSalle eights was missing a man. Sweeney had never rowed in his life. He didn’t have a change of clothes, so he jumped into the eight in his Christian Brothers suit.
Sweeney not only had no idea how to row sweep, but he also learned to his horror that Coach Dougherty had his kids row at only one speed. “Full power upriver. Full power down river. No pieces.”
Yet Sweeney didn’t shirk. “In the Navy, I did what I was told,” he said. “I was so sore, my legs were cut up, Grease all over my pants. I looked up at Tom Curran and I said, ‘you son of a b***h.”
Curran smiled back at Sweeney. “You’ll be back!” the old Irishman said.
Source: interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.