Historic Sites

An Iron Baron’s West Philadelphia Castle

Nathaniel Burt wrote of Philadelphia iron-making entrepreneurs such as the Whartons, Brookes, Rutters and Potts: “Along with the New York patroon and the New England shipowner, he does provide something of a landowning equivalent to offset the more purely trading wealth of the region’s old families.” 1 Thus the Whartons became the lords of Batsto, the Brookes’ of Birdsboro, and the Potts’ of Potttown and Pottsville.

The house at 3905 Spruce Street, built by the iron baron Joseph Potts in 1876, befits the residence of businessmen who helped make Pennsylvania a center of the American industrial revolution. As landowners and founders of the iron-mill towns of Pottstown and Pottsville, they also possessed something of a feudal mystique.

When Old Philadelphia families started crossing the Schuylkill into West Philadelphia in the years following the Civil War, the social rule of thumb of living between Market and Pine continued, with families clustering around the newly-moved University of Pennsylvania. 3905 Spruce sits comfortably within these prescribed boundaries, although in the 1870s West Philadelphia was still largely rural and undeveloped.

3905 Spruce is built in a Ruskinian Gothic style that mirrors Penn’s nearby College Hall. The mansion, designed by the Wilson brothers, on one hand possesses elements of a feudal castle with its pointed windows, chiseled chimneys, and slate roof. At the same time, the house was a showcase for the products of the workshop of the world, with its cast-iron roof decorations and conservatory and polychrome exterior brick walls. The interiors were a tour-de-force of the Philadelphia woodcarvers art, boasting a massive three-level carved oak central staircase, pocket doors of birds-eye maple, and fireplaces supported by snarling griffins and bordered with tiles.

Potts’ son William graduated from Penn in 1876 – the year his father’s house was completed, and subsequently became a very generous financial supporter of the school. By 1917, the neighborhood had become less fashionable, and Penn was swallowing up many surrounding properties around the Potts castle. That year, William Potts donated the family mansion to Penn and decamped, like many of his social compatriots, to the Main Line suburbs.2 The building was used subsequently housed Penn’s International House and later the WXPN radio. During those years, the house suffered rough treatment and deferred maintenance.

But at least the Potts mansion was left standing. Most of the compounds of the Philadelphia aristocracy belonging to the Drexels, Clarks, Swains, and Sinnotts have been replaced by denser row house development or razed by the University of Pennsylvania. Remnants of this enclave of industrial wealth, such as St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and two Drexel mansions currently used as fraternity houses, now sit high and dry in a desert of concrete high rises and brick plazas known as the “Superblock.”

Today, the weary Potts mansion stands stripped of its ornamental features such as the domed roof on the cost iron conservatory, the glass-enclosed porch facing Spruce Street, and its port-cochere. Its brick walls and slate walls are smeared with grime, and the chimneys lean precariously. Nonetheless, it was benevolent neglect that allowed much of the house’s extraordinary interior detailing to survive intact. The house built by Joseph Potts is one of the few survivors of the Golden Age of West Philadelphia. Its association with one of the regions most distinguished industrial families, and the high quality of construction and craftsmanship makes Potts mansion at 3905 Spruce makes one of the most significant and underappreciated historical and architectural jewels of University City.


1 Nathaniel, Burt The Perennial Philadelphians (University of Pennsylvania Press), 1999. 180.


    Historic Sites

    A City of Firsts


    Philadelphia is a city of firsts. One area where this is exemplary is in the list of accomplishments for its churches. Philadelphia is home to Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’ Church), which is located at 916 Swanson St (Columbus and Christian) in South Philadelphia. The original church was founded as part of the New Sweden settlement on Tinicum Island in 1646. Later, the church was moved to its present location, and was consecrated on July 2, 1700. This early lineage makes Gloria Dei, the oldest church in Pennsylvania.

    Gloria Dei would have the distinction to several other firsts. Dr. Carl Magnus Wrangel was a minister there from 1759-1768. During this time he baptized approximately 20 Africans, which distinguishes Gloria Dei as one of the earliest multiracial churches.

    Gloria Dei also lays claim to the first Lutheran ordination in the nation. Justus Falckner, a theology student from Germany was ordained in 1703. Furthermore, this may have been the first Christian ordination on the continent, because prior ordinations were confirmed in Europe.

    The church has gone through a number of renovations and additions over the years, but in one of its earliest, a marble baptismal font added in 1731 is one of the oldest still being used. This is all the more impressive considering that the church was without a pastor from 1733-1737. It is surprising the church has lasted.

    Like the heart of Philadelphia which continues to change and grow, Gloria Dei stands as an example par excellence of this spirit. Even today, the church remains active, and is open for visitors.


    • Williams, Dr. Kim-Eric, “The Eight Old Swedes’ Churches of New Sweden.” (1999) The Swedish Colonial Society. (accessed October 25, 2006).
    • Gloria Dei ‘Old Swedes’ Church. (accessed October 25, 2006).

    Historic Sites

    In League with Lincoln


    A striking building in a city of arresting architecture, the Union League of Philadelphia building stands at 140 South Broad Street in the heart of Center City. It was completed in 1865 and features a French Renaissance design.

    The story of the League began in December 1862 when two weeks after the crushing Federal defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, Dr. J. Forsythe Meigs held an organizational meeting for a “Union Club” at his Walnut Street home. Members dedicated themselves to upholding the Constitution and to supporting President Abraham Lincoln’s often unpopular policies. Lincoln’s vigorous measures to stifle disloyalty alienated many northerners already fatigued by a protracted war. Union Leagues (a.k.a. Loyal Leagues), including the Philadelphia chapter, lent their unwavering patriotism to a weary chief executive and to a grueling war effort. By the time of the Philadelphia Union Club’s founding, the pro-war enthusiasm of 1861 had dissipated. The peace wing of the Democratic Party enjoyed considerable strength in the city. Unconditional Unionists were disturbed. During the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in June-July 1863, lawyer and political essayist Sidney George Fisher wrote that in Philadelphia “the people looked careless & indifferent,” demoralized by popular rhetoric that portrayed the war as unwinnable (quoted in Weigley 408).

    The Union Club sought to reinvigorate Unionist fervor. Originally limited to fifty members of Philadelphia’s aristocracy, the organization rechristened itself the Union League and expanded its membership to several thousand by the end of the Civil War. The League functioned as a society for the burgeoning business class being ushered in by rapid industrialization. Members supported many efforts on the home front, including the United States Sanitary Commission’s commitment to improving health conditions in military camps and hospitals. At the USSC Fair in 1864, the Philadelphia League raised money for wounded and disabled soldiers. Its Committee on Employment located jobs for thousands of veterans and widows.

    Other Union Leagues sprouted up throughout the North and loyal areas of the South during the second half of the Civil War. During Reconstruction, ex-slaves and white Republicans in the former Confederate states formed leagues (although rarely together) in order to facilitate black voter registration and support for the Republican Party.

    Today the Philadelphia Union League retains its philanthropic mission. Its 3,000 members are leaders in the realms of business, education, religion, the arts, healthcare, and technology.


    • “History/Foundations: Timeline.” 2006. The Union League of Philadelphia. (accessed 10 July 2006).
    • Weigley, Russell F., Ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.

    Further Reading:

    • Lawson, Melinda. “The Civil War Union Leagues and the Construction of a New National Patriotism.” Civil War History. 48, no. 4 (2002): 338-364.

    Historic Sites

    Buy New & Used. . .


    Well, probably just new.

    Though not readily apparent from the darkness of the picture, the featured building is the Oakland Car Dealership on Broad St. Taken in 1926, this picture highlights an early example of the Art Deco style of architecture heavily favored by businessmen looking to sell cars. The smooth corner of the building, large windows punctuated by striking vertical columns, and an upper level of decorative windows convey a sense of luxury on the part of the automobile and its salesman. Shiny new vehicles, most likely 1926 Pontiacs, adorn each of the windows. The Pontiac sat on the second rung of GM’s price ladder, above the economic Chevrolet, but below the marquee Oldsmobile and Buick. Priced as a low-level luxury good, the Oakland Pontiac looked best in the decorative surroundings of an Art deco building like the one above.

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