One September afternoon in 1898 an Inquirer reporter, accompanied by an artist, “walked over the entire route” of the Reading subway, a massive project stretching from 12th Street to 30th Street.
When completed, this now-defunct subway would accommodate locomotives hauling raw materials and freight through one of the city’s most industrialized neighborhoods. Yet one wouldn’t know it – or even see it – at street level. The entire project would be topped by a landscaped boulevard leading from Hamilton Street and 22nd to the entrances to Fairmount Park at Spring Garden and Green Streets. One might say this project foreshadowed the much more famous Parkway, which was also originally slated to have its own subway.
Beneath the diagonal of Pennsylvania Avenue, this Reading subway would have “a series of thirteen air shafts in the roof of the tunnel” distributed over its entire length at an average distance apart of 75 feet. Each one would be “beautified” with “plots of grass and shrubbery…enclosed by an ornamental iron railing and a granite curb.”
Beneath were massive arches, many of which appeared to the reporter to be “capable of sustaining hundreds of tons more weight than they will ever be called on to sustain.”
A few months later, the Inquirer reporter witnessed the completion of one of the 2,710-foot tunnel’s 52-foot arches. “A five-ton keystone was placed in position yesterday by chief (George S.) Webster, of the bureau of surveys, in the arch of the subway tunnel, at 22nd and Hamilton Streets.” A city photographer was there to document the dedication ceremony, which included the entire project team: politicians, contractors, stone masons and laborers, tools in hand.
Sources: “Hard at Work on the Subway,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 19, 1898; “The Subway Keystone,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 18, 1898.
The date is Wednesday, April 22, 1914. On that day, George Herman “Babe” Ruth played his first professional baseball game, pitching for the (then minor league) Baltimore Orioles, in an exhibition game against the major league Philadelphia Phillies. To the amazement of the spectators, Babe Ruth proved to be one of those rare pitchers who could also hit! He left the game with a six hit, 6-0 win. Incidently, Baltimore’s Major League Team at the time was the quaintly-named “Terrapins,” the main ingredient in the city’s famous turtle soup. The terrapins went the way of the dodo the following year, and the Orioles replaced them as Baltimore’s MLB team.
The residents of the Philadelphia neighborhood of Belmont, like so many other Americans, were bewitched by baseball. However, sports radio broadcasts were still a decade away. Like telegraphs, wireless radio receivers of the time could only pick up Morse code dots and dashes. Those unable to attend a baseball game at Shibe Park due to work or family obligations had to be content with detailed newspaper accounts published in the evening papers.
Belmont at the time was a solidly middle class neighborhood, largely a mixture of German, Italian, and Eastern European Jewish families. Although residents of Belmont enjoyed more leisure time than the factory workers of neighborhoods like Kensington, they still toiled long hours in the shops, groceries, law offices, and other small enterprises that lined Lancaster Avenue. At 1:06pm at this day, the streets, were relatively empty, aside from a lone pedestrian and a couple of electric trolleys whooshing by. According to architect Robert Morris Skaler, whose family owned L. Skaler & Sons kosher butcher shop, the owners usually lived above the store and all children were expected to help out with the chores. After hours, the adults would retire to the local pubs such as Trench’s Saloon to scan the Evening Bulletin and discuss the merits of various players, the rising star Babe Ruth among them. After leaving classes at E. Spencer Miller School, the kids would have the same debates while hanging out at Furey’s ice cream parlor. Or they would reeanct the game in games of half-ball on Belmont’s side streets, which at the time were almost car-free. On warmer spring nights, the sounds of upright pianos and Camden-made phonographs (popularly known as Victrolas) emanated from rowhouse windows. Those who could spare a few dollars for a vaudeville show flocked to the William Penn Theater at 4063 Lancaster Avenue, completed two years earlier and able to seat 3,200 people at a time.
The clock that stood outside 4255 Lancaster Avenue, located outside of the Walter M. Engle jewelry store, proudly noted that it kept railroad time. Inside the ornate little Engle store, another wall clock reminded the customers that it kept “True Time.” Until the fall 1883, almost all cities and towns in the United States kept their own local time, based on when the sun reached its highest point in the sky. Yet railroads such as the Pennsylvania, Union Pacific, and the Chicago Burlington & Quincy had greatly reduced the time it took to transport freight and passengers across the country. Morever, railroad managers needed uniform time schedules to keep hundreds of trains on schedule and from crashing into each other. Finding local time too burdensome (and it was), the railroads divided the country into four time zones, very close to the ones we know today. Despite a fair amount of local grumbling, most Americans adapted their lives around this executive fiat.
In 1914, a clock marked”Railroad Time” in front of a store on Lancaster Avenue signified modernity and predictability, essential traits in industrial powerhouse city such as Philadelphia. So did the dangling electric streetlight and the telephone wires overhead. On Sundays, the bells of Belmont’s many churches chimed in sych with the subtle thunk of the Engle clock’s minute hand.
The city of Philadelphia on April 22, 1914 had its share of poverty and labor unrest, but by and large, was prosperous and secure. Yet within a few months, the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary would plunge the world into the bloodiest war in history. American joined the fight on the side of Britain, France, and Russia in April 1917. Scores of the young men of Belmont would leave their jobs, families, education (and their old time zone) behind to fight in the trenches, patrol the seas, and soar in the skies. Industrial production ramped up, the pace of life quickened, and time became even more precious.
At war’s end, Congress made the five zones of “railroad time” synonymous with national time.
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 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.
At 5:00am on the evening of February 11, 1941, the residents of the 1100 block of Greenwich Street were all sound asleep in their snug two story row homes. The surrounding neighborhood (today known as East Passyunk — a popular shopping and dining district) was a tight-knit, mostly Italian-American community, in which daily life revolved around the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Beneath Greenwich Street. However, over the past couple of years, clay erosion had been causing the street’s ‘s six inch gas main to slowly settle. Residents had been complaining about the smell of gas to the Philadelphia Gas Company, but to no avail. That night, one of the feedpipes tore away from the sinking main, causing a cloud of live gas to seep into the basement of 1112 Greenwich Street.
An open flame heater in the basement set the gas alight. The house blew up as if hit by an aerial bomb.
“The first explosion, which blew both front and rear out of 1112 Greenwich Street,” John McCullough of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “leaving only the sagging roof and the debris-littered second floor, sent swords of flame through adjoining walls as though they had been made of papier-mache.”
“The window glass shattered over the floor and we got out of bed, frightened, “17-year old Tina Pellicano recalled. “I saw a man in the street with his clothing on fire. Flames were shooting out of the front of houses. My mother fainted. It was a terrible ordeal. We were all terrified. People were running from their homes and the commotion was just like an earthquake.”
A second explosion followed 15 minutes later. Firefighters arrived within minutes, but the entire block was “canopied” in flames.
“Mighty sheets of flame roared east as far as 1106 and west to 1122 Greenwich Street,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “In the lurid glare, a man with blazing nightshirt stumbled blindly amid the crumpled bricks of his home, as his son slapped at his burning clothing.”
By 6:10am, a crew from the gas company got to work plugging the gas main, shooting grease through the service pipe to block it. Crowds of curious spectators and anxious relatives of Greenwich Street residents gawked at the conflagation from behind police lines.
But even with the gas main plugged, the worst was yet to come. At 8:20am, an ember ignited 1600 cubic feet of accumulated gas trapped underneath the streetbed. The massive explosion blew the entire street to pieces, sending paving stones and bricks hurling through the air.
By daybreak, Greenwich Street looked like it had come right out of the newseels that showed London on fire after a Luftwaffe raid, only in living color.
In all, five people died in the Greenwich Street gas explosion, including one police officer and one fireman.
Patrolman James Clark, 56
Fireman Frank M. Ruhl, 56
Angelina Treretola, 41
Michilena Treretola, 21
Marie Treretola, 14
30 were injured, and were treated either at St. Agnes Hospital, Methodist Hospital, or on the scene by medical personnel.
The residents of South Greenwich Street had complained about the smell of gas for months, but the Philadelphia Gas Works had ignored the problem. On January 4, 1943, after a two month trial, Justice Maxey of the Pennsylvania State Surpreme Court ruled in favor of the widow of Frank Ruhl, who had sued the Philadelphia Gas Company and the City of Philadelphia for negligence. In his opinion, Maxey noted that, “The gas company was in exclusive possession and control of its gas and gas mains. For two years the neighbors had smelled escaping gas and had notified the gas company. The last notification was three days before the explosions. The gas company did not try to locate the leak. It did not repair its leaking main or shut off the gas.”
The court awarded Alice Ruhl $17,892.65 in damages for the death of her husband.
“List of Victims in S. Phila Blast,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 1941.
Ralph Crocker, “Terror-Stricken Victims Thought It Was a Quake As Their Houses Toppled,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 1941.
John M. McCullough, “4 Houses Are Wrecked as Fire Adds to Terror Caused by 3 Explosions,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 1941.
Entrepreneurs George and Robert Callaghan built the Angora Mills complex in 1864, at the height of Civil War-fueled demand for army uniforms. Named after the Turkish city of Ankara (not the cat breed), it stood at the intersection of 60th Street and Baltimore Avenue (in today’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood) and sprawled over 52 acres. Angora Mills include not just a steam-powered brick textile mill, but also 54 residences for 300 workers and their families, a stable, springhouse, coal yard, and an on-site Baptist church. A Hexamer survey conducted in 1888 also indicated that Angora Mills had 4 self-acting “mules” with 4,200 spindles, 36 spinning frames 180 spindles on each, a sprinkler system and cutting edge incandescent lighting. The Angora Mills “village,”although still within the city limits of Philadelphia, was set in an idyllic landscape of farms and groves of old growth trees. There was also a private club nearby, the Sherwood Cricket Club, a rustic venue that catered to the mill’s employees during their precious leisure time.
All that changed in 1903, when Reverend Bernard MacMackin quietly took possession of Angora Mills at a sheriff’s sale. MacMackin paid $206,000.00 for the property, fronting $76,000 in cash and taking out mortgages to cover the balance. ThePhiladelphia Inquirer scratched its head at the deal: Reverend MacMackin was a prominent Baptist minister who had no real business experience, but he also happened to be an in-law of the Callaghans. When questioned about the deal, MacMackin “refused to discuss this phase of the purchase, saying it was a personal matter.” Although connected to Center City by an electric trolley line since the 1890s, the Market Street Elevated was under construction a few blocks north of Angora Mills, making Angora Mills ripe for subdivision. Within a few years of the sale, the site was cleared, sold, and developed into blocks of rowhouses. The mill’s name lives on in the “Angora Terrace” neighborhood. The site of the adjoining Sherwood Cricket Club is the modern-day Sherwood Park.
Reverend MacMackin apparently profited from the deal: at his death in 1916, he left an estate worth over $200,000 (the modern-day equivalent to almost $3 million) to his family.
“A Minister Buys Nearly All of Angora,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 5, 1903.
All our municipal governments are more or less bad. Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.”
-Lincoln Steffens, 1903
The firehouse at intersection of Baltimore Avenue and 50th Street is a redbrick Flemish revival structure dating from the early 1900s. In the days of coal-fired kitchen ranges and unreliable electrical wiring, a modern fire station was a big draw to potential residents of Cedar Park and Spruce Hill, which by the early 1900s had become a desirable and expensive streetcar suburb. The fire engines at the station at 701 S.50th Street were horse-drawn until at least the mid-1910s, when internal combustion engines finally became powerful enough to haul heavy ladders and pumping machinery through the streets at high speed.
Although dripping in fin-de-siècle charm, the Cedar Park firehouse was the result of a no-bid, lifetime city contract that remained inviolate for 30 years and netted architect Philip H. Johnson a small fortune. Johnson owed his good luck thanks to a familial connection to one of Philadelphia’s most powerful political bosses. In 1903, when journalist Lincoln Steffens described Philadelphia as “corrupt and contented” (and the same year Johnson’s drafted the firehouse plans), the city’s 7th Ward was under the iron-fisted rule of the Republican boss Israel M. Durham. A longtime party operative who had served in the Pennsylvania State Senate and as State Insurance Commissioner, he lavished generous salaries on himself and his loyal associates. He also traveled widely to Europe and the American West, all while receiving a handsome $20,000 a year salary as State Insurance Commissioner. During his final years, he became majority owner and president of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. Although poor health prevented Durham from watching from the stands, he kept a telephone by his hospital bed so he could manage the team and follow the games in real time.
One of Durham’s most controversial acts was the awarding of a lifetime contract to his brother-in-law Philip Johnson for City Health Department projects. No relation to the famed modernist architect of the same name, Johnson was a competent (if not particularly imaginative) architect who had previously worked at the City’s Bureau of Engineering and Surveys. After starting his own firm in 1903, thanks to the contract granted by his brother-in-law, Johnson churned out dozens of public buildings during his tenure. Among them were the City Hall Annex (now the Notary Hotel), the Philadelphia General Hospital, the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases at Byberry. and the old Philadelphia Convention Center on Civic Center Boulevard. After Durham’s demise in 1909, several Philadelphia mayors tried to get Johnson’s lifetime contract overturned. The courts consistently sided with Johnson, and as a result more than $2 million worth of projects flowed into the architect’s office until his death in 1933. Protected from competitive bids, Johnson made few efforts to hide the wealth garnered from the city coffers, belonging to the Philadelphia City Yacht Club and the Larchmont Yacht Club in the suburbs of New York City.
After closing in the 1980s, the Cedar Park firehouse became the home of a popular indoor farmer’s market. Today, the former firehouse now houses a quartet of Cedar Park businesses: Dock Street Brewery, Satellite Cafe, Firehouse Bicycles, and The Fireworks Co-Working Space.
Sandra Tatman, Johnson, Philip H. (1868-1933), Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, 2019.
Howard Gillette, Corrupt and Contented, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.
“Israel Durham Quits: Abandons Claims to Leadership of Party Machine,” The New York Times, January 10, 1906.
“Israel Wilson Durham: Politician and Owner/President of the Philadelphia Phillies,” Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery.
In 1970, University of Pennsylvania’s new president Martin Meyerson hired arguably the most famous architect in America at the time, Penn’s own Louis Kahn, to renovate a double-wide brownstone mansion at 2016 Spruce Street into a new presidential residence. Meyerson was a unusual university president, in that his background was not in academia, but in city planning. Accordiing to the New York Times: “He oversaw the conversion of what had been a collection of buildings on Philadelphia streets into a true campus. Streets were closed, landscaped walkways were built, and a large park was created in the middle of the campus.”
Traditionally, the Penn president lived in leafy Chestnut Hill, the favorite enclave of Philadelphia’s upper crust and the neigborhood of many of the university’s biggest donors. A native New Yorker, Meyerson decided to change that precendent by moving the president’s home into Center City. 2016 Spruce had been built in the 1860s by the prominent architect Samuel Sloan. Sloan’s most notable surviving commissions include the Woodland Terrace development (longtime neighborhood of Penn architecture professor Paul-Philippe Cret) and the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital at 50thand Market. Sloan’s specialized in the picturesque Italianate style. By the early 1970s, Philadelphia’s real estate market was in a deep funk. Rittenhouse Square had fallen a long way since its Gilded Age heyday, when the author Henry James described it as “the perfect square.” Yet the once-fashionable streets around Rittenhouse still remained popular with Penn faculty, including physician Dr. Isidor Ravdin, city planner Edmund Bacon, and sociologist E. Digby Baltzell Jr.
The student protests and strikes of the late 60s also may have had something to do with Meyerson’s decision to not live on the West Philadelphia campus. In 1972, Harvard’s president Derek Bok (an heir to the Philadelphia-based Curtis publishing fortune) decamped from Harvard Yard to the 18th century Elmwood mansion, still in Cambridge but a comfortable mile or so from campus.
Louis Kahn, who balanced private practice and teaching duties, was busy with prestigious commissions in the late 60s, most notably the National Assembly at Dhaka in Bangladesh. Yet Kahn must have felt sense of obligation to his former boss at Penn’s architecture school to undertake this relatively small project. Trained in the traditional Beaux Arts method, Kahn was extremely respectful of the mansion’s Victorian aesthetic. Unlike other modernist architects, who would gutted the house, Kahn used a light touch, keeping all of the intricate paneling, marble fireplaces, and ornamental plaster intact. He added bookshelves in one of the double parlors to house Meyerson’s library, and then created a new kitchen addition at the rear of the house. The kitchen, despite its modest size, is pure Kahn, with plenty of light and large, unornamented surfaces of wood and brick.
The end result was a house that retained its “Old Philadelphia” Victorian gravitas, but was well-suited to the modern urban family life of Martin and Margi Meyerson.
In 1980, with the memories of campus unrest fading, the University of Pennsylvania decided to move the president’s residence back to West Philadelphia. The building chosen for the honor was the former mansion of the cigar manufacturer Otto Eisenlohr, located at 3808-3810 Walnut Street. Built in 1907, it was the work of Horace Trumbauer and his partner Julian Abele, the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture program.
2016 Spruce Street is once again a private residence, and has recently been listed for sale at nearly $3 million.
Judith Rodin, The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), p.25.
Sandy Smith, “A President’s House in Rittenhouse for $2.895M,” Philadelphia Magazine, April 30, 2018.
There are few interior shots available on PhillyHistory.org. The insides of the grand mansions of Rittenhouse Square and their modest West Philadelphia rowhouses have been largely lost history, their contents dispersed to family members, sold at auction during the Great Depression, or buried in landfills.
Among the few surviving images of these every day stagesets are of the townhouse of Joseph Moore Jr., a wealthy bachelor businessman and the namesake of the Moore College of Art and Design. Born on July 19, 1849 to Joseph and Cecilia Moore, Joseph spent his twenties in the family dry goods and carriage making business. Yet like his contemporary Owen Wister, who had a nervous breakdown after his practical physician father barred him from a career as a concert pianist, Moore was bored by the monotonous routine of sales and double-entry bookkeeping. The well-educated Moore and Wister were of a type of Philadelphian that was, in the (somewhat unflattering) words of social historian Nathaniel Burt, “born retired.”
Adrift in commercial Philadelphia, Owen Wister went west to the austere wilds of Wyoming, where he found new literary inspiration in the persona of the cowboy.
Moore looked the other way, across the Atlantic. In 1876, Moore left the business world and spent the next twelve years as a dilettante antiquarian, roaming Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. He authored the books The Queen’s Empire eand Outlying Europe and the near Orient, penned magazine articles, participated in archaeological digs, and immersed himself in the art museums of Paris and other European capitals. According to Rittenhouse Square, Past and Present, published in 1922, a year after his death, “he devoted years to travel and study, covering Europe, Asia, Africa and America, studying French at Blois, German at Hanover, and international law under the late Dr. Francis Wharton.”
After a dozen years abroad, Moore returned to Philadelphia and, ever the polymath, became something of a jack-of-all trades, dabbling in banking and manufacturing and apparently doing fairly well in the business sphere. He also racked up board seats and club memberships, including the Union League, Drexel Institute, and the Fairmount Park Commission. Perpetually one of Philadelphia’s most eligible bachelors (“a man of attractive personality and fine attainments”) he enjoyed hosting groups of debutantes in his Rittenhouse Square townhouse at 1821 Walnut Street, on the north side of the park, which he had inherited from his parents. But despite his wealth and popularity, he lived alone in his enormous house.
One of these images shows Moore, as an old man, sitting in the gloomy grandeur of his library. By the time this photo was taken, the Square’s Gilded Age grandeur was fading, as wealthy families moved out to the sylvan suburbs of the Main Line and Chestnut Hill. With the rising costs of domestic help and ever-increasing taxes, townhouses had become a financial anachronism in Philadelphia area. In this image, Moore appears to be like the character Horace Havistock from Louis Auchincloss’s The Rector of Justin:
“He is very bent and brown, with thick snowy hair, and he leaned heavily on Dr. Prescott’s arm has he hobbled in and out of the dining room. Yet taken as a remnant of the mauve decade he is rather superb. He was wearing a high wing collar, striped trousers, a morning coat and black button boots of lustered polish.”
It appears that until his death, Moore was perfectly content to live in the past, vanished world of the “Mauve Decade.” So did Owen Wister, who preferred to take comfort in the past ideal of the Western cowboy rather than a cosmopolitan, urban future. “The cowboy has now gone to worlds invisible,” he wrote in his 1902 bestseller The Virginian, “the wind has blown away the white ashes of his campfires; but the empty sardine box lies rusting over the face of the Western earth.”
Joseph Moore Jr. died at his Rittenhouse Square mansion of a heart attack in 1921, at the dawn of the raucous Jazz Age. His house did not last long after his passing. Like all of the townhouses on north side of Rittenhouse Square, it was demolished after World War II and replaced by modern high rises. Moore’s name lives on in the Moore College of Art and Design, of which is family was the main benefactor.
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.
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.