Just finished the Rittenhouse part of the tour! It’s totally worth it.
Rittenhouse Square, one of William Penn’s original five, was known as the southwest square until 1825 when it was named for the astronomer-clockmaker, David Rittenhouse (1732-96). This amazing man of universal talents — one of many in 18th century Philadelphia — was a descendant of William Rittenhouse, who built the first paper mill in America in Germantown. He was at various times a member of the General Assembly and the State Constitutional Convention, and president of the Council of Safety. His survey of the Maryland-Pennsylvania boundary in 1763-64, to settle a dispute between the Penns and Lord Baltimore, was so accurate it was accepted and followed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon when they surveyed the “line” for which they are still remembered. Professor of Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania and inventor of the collimating telescope, he was also president of the American Philosophical Society and the first director of the United States Mint.
Rittenhouse Square has always denoted quality. The first house facing the Square was erected in 1840. During its next century the Square kept its residential quality. In 1913, the architect Paul Cret, who was one of the men responsible for Benjamin Franklin Parkway and many of its buildings, designed the Square’s entrances, central plaza with the stone railings, pool and fountain. To have lived near or on the Square was a mark of prestige. Today, private homes are gone, but it still counts for something to live on the Square. There are several houses still standing, but they have been converted into apartments. With cooperative apartments and condominiums displacing private dwellings in the last three decades, some of the Old Guard still live on here — in these homes in the sky rather than family mansions.
Around the Square itself, there are few old buildings left, but the Church of the Holy Trinity on the northwest corner is another of John Notman’s, this one dating from 1857-59. One of the city’s most fashionable congregations, it had for rector the Reverend Phillips Brooks (1835-93), best remembered today for writing the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Facing the Square on the northeast corner is the former home of Alexander Van Rensselaer, a financier and supporter of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. One of the few splendid old mansions to survive, it once housed the Pennsylvania Athletic Club.
The Alison Building next door contains the offices of the Presbyterian Ministers’ Fund, the oldest life insurance company in the world (1717). Adjacent to it, at 1811 Walnut Street and also facing the Square, is the Rittenhouse Club, another of the city’s old and exclusive clubs. The author Henry James used to sit at a window and view this Square, too, with his worldly eye.
Rittenhouse Square itself is enduring. Children still climb on the Albert Laessle goat as well as sculptures of a lion and a frog. Young lovers sit along the edge of the pool, with the statue of the girl and the duck watching them. No one tells time by the handsome sundial, but everyone admires it, especially the older bench-sitters basking in the sun.
On the southeast side of the Square is the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Founded by Christine Wetherill Stevenson in 1915, it is housed in the former Samuel Price Wetherill mansion — he was a descendant of Samuel Wetherill, who along with Betsy Ross was a member of the Free Quaker Meeting House. One of the most active organizations of its kind, the Art Alliance sponsors art exhibits, dramatic and poetry readings, dance and musical events (the Alliance hosts a party for new principals in the Philadelphia Orchestra), architectural displays and lectures of all kinds. To wander through the galleries or attend one of the musicals or lectures, which are open to the public and usually free, is a delight.
Across the street is the Barclay Hotel, one of the most fashionable and elegantly run hostelries in America. It was owned by John McShain, the millionaire Philadelphia builder who also owned the Lakes of Killarney in Ireland. The scene of some of society’s most glittering private parties, it has also housed almost every distinguished celebrity who has traveled to Philadelphia.
At the corner of 18th and Locust Street is The Curtis Institute of Music. Founded in 1924 by Mrs. Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist, it is a unique conservatory of music for it is entirely a scholarship school. Some of the noted musicians who have attended Curtis are Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Anna Moffo, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. The building was the home of George Childs Drexel, the banker, and in addition to the lecture rooms, practice studios and administration offices, it has a charming small music hall for concerts over which is a fully equipped operatic rehearsal hall.
Continuing east, cross Mozart Place and come to a smaller building, also belonging to Curtis, known as Knapp Hall. Originally it was the home of Theodore F. Cramp, the shipbuilding magnate, and later the salon of Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetician. A copy of a French townhouse, as is the one adjoining it, Knapp Hall strikes a note of elegance along the quiet street.
Just below the corner of 17th Street is St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, founded in 1848. The church building was begun that year, dedicated in 1850, and finished in 1851 when the tower was completed. The architect was John Notman, also responsible for the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square, and the Athenaeum which we visited on our Washington Square Walk. The church, an example of Gothic Revival, has long been one of Philadelphia’s most fashionable. A strikingly lovely chapel within has a silver altar. The parish buildings and the garden create an effect not unlike that of an English church.
Locust Street window
Across the street are a group of brownstones that date from the Civil War period and later. 1622 Locust, which once housed the Women’s City Club, has been handsomely restored by a firm of lawyers. The Rosenbach brothers conducted their rare book business from number 1618 (an 1850 Italianate home attributed to John Notman, with alterations by Wilson Eyre in 1888). This elegant structure has a small projecting bay window, where a rare book or an illuminated manuscript used to be displayed. There is an unusual stained glass fanlight over the bay and an unusual, very wide door as well.
“Mardi Gras” beads
George W. Childs (1829-94), the publisher of the Philadelphia Public Ledger and one of the most influential men in America made his home at 1606 Locust from 1855 to 1872. The Magnolia Cafe, a Louisiana Cajun restaurant, occupied the former Sinkler mansion at 1602 Locust. Restaurant patrons were given a set of colorful plastic beads like those thrown at Mardi Gras, which often wound up festooned among the branches of a tree in front of the restaurant and added gaily to the atmosphere of the street. Today, the mansion is occupied by Tequila’s Restaurant, which has a magnificent, colorful, satiric mural in its lobby.
The Print Center
Next we journey in and out and around the corners of a series of small streets in pursuit of the charm of this part of the city. Proceed south on 16th to Latimer Street — itself a backwater, true, but a street of quaint private gardens. Although one wouldn’t expect to find a distinguished art gallery here, 1614 Latimer is the home of the Print Center, a Philadelphia institution since 1915. This famous organization has more than a 1000 members from all over the world, composed of artists, collectors and others whose interest in prints has brought them together. There are shows continually throughout the year and it is extremely pleasant to stop by and browse.
The Cosmopolitan Club, a women’s club with a long history of interest in the arts, politics and the humanities, has its clubrooms at 1616. Art exhibits and lectures — for members and their guests only — are held periodically.
The last garden on Latimer Street, and in many ways the most spectacular, is that of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Walkers in Philadelphia often find themselves peering into gardens, formal ones, old-fashioned ones, neglected ones, and marveling that so many green places are to be found in the heart of the city. Few are more inviting than this garden.
Down the street on the southwest corner of 17th and Spruce Street is the Tenth Presbyterian Church, one of the handsomest to be found in this part of the city. Built between 1850 and 1875, it is beautifully maintained; note the ironwork in the gates before the front entrance and in the fixtures for the lanterns.
At 1710 Spruce, next to the church, is the mansion in which Harry K. Thaw — remember his love triangle with Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White ending with a shooting atop Madison Square Garden? — once lived. Today home to a law firm, it has been lovingly restored, and inside are beautiful woodwork, pediments and fine fireplaces — all the accoutrements of a gracious age.
On we go to Smedley Street, a favorite with out-of-towers. Smedley Street runs throughout the city, but not continuously. Sometimes it disappears and is picked up again many blocks away. This particular block has long been the home of artists, writers and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. This street is architecturally varied and a treat for fire-mark enthusiasts.
Chadwick Street has several intriguing houses. 303, a white house with three black horse’s-head hitching posts in front, is one of the most elegant of townhouses. Next to it, at 305 one comes to a curiosity, it looks like a beehive — or even a dovecote, a little reminiscent of the eccentric Barcelona architect Antonio Gaudi. Walk to the corner of Cypress — we have to turn, there is no other way to go — and we are now facing the side of the Tenth Presbyterian again.
The 1700 block of Delancey Place has several pleasant townhouses to show and the home of Plays and Players, the city’s oldest little theater group. When you visit, take notice of the terra-cotta frieze above the marquee and the ancient carriage house next door at 1718. Across the street at 1711, in what was the stable of the Thaw House, there is a marvelous little bay window on the second floor with a protruding sculpture of a horse’s head beneath. Farther along on the same side of the street are stables which have become architect’s offices.
The Victorian house on the northwest corner attracts every walker. It is a series of cupolas, bays, towers, balconies and even has a small secluded garden within the outer garden. At night small lights a glow in one of the trees, and from time to time bits of Victoriana are displayed in the small bay on 18th Street.
There are a myriad of things to see in this block of Delancey Place: the caryatids (female statues) as mullions (vertical window separators) on the window of 1810, perhaps the only ones in the city; the acanthus leaves and grape design on the ironwork fence at 1823; the leaded and stained glass windows at 1821; or the small garden with the iron fence at 1835. From the vantage point of the garden we can have a fine view of 1900 Delancey Place, now the offices of the law firm. Designed by Frank Furness, it is generally considered one of the finest examples of his townhouses. The ornate decoration, the oval window above the entrance door give it a distinctive appearance in this age of austerity in architectural decoration. Be sure to observe the cherubim and seraphim on the pediments.
One of the glories of Philadelphia is the Rosenbach Museum & Library. Attractively housed in an 1860s townhouse, it contains treasures acquired by the Rosenbach Brothers, antique dealers. The furniture is mainly 18th century English — Chippendale, Adam, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. One of its most valuable objects is an olive wood box with silver gilt mounts made for Charles II. The silver by Paul Storr, Hester Bateman and others is masterly. There are more than a 1000 portrait miniatures, including one of James I of England. You’ll see the only known portrait of Cervantes as a young man and a self-portrait of Major Andre done shortly before his execution. It is impossible to see all 30,000 rare books and nearly 100,00 pieces of manuscript material, but there are always special exhibits. Some highlights include letters of Cortez, Pizarro and De Soto, copies of the first three extant books printed in the Western hemisphere, the Bay Psalm Book, the first U.S. book (printed 1640); and the only known copy of the first issue (for 1733) of Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack.”
Return to Locust Street, turn right and right again on 22nd Street. Three blocks down to the Church for the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgian). Its crenelated towers and turrets and soot-stained granite give it a highly romantic Gothic appearance. The red sandstone exterior of 32 South 22nd Street opposite has cut into it the legend “Anno Domini MDCCCLXXXVIII,” a childlike mermaid and the heads of angels.
The world-famous Mutter Museum is run by the College of Physicians, founded in 1787. It was named for Dr. Thomas Mutter and is a fantastic collection of medical curiosities — there is no other description for it. Some of it is not for the faint-hearted. Among the rarities exhibited are part of President Grover Cleveland’s jawbone. There are bones shattered by bullets, others showing wounds, breaks, etc., and skulls bearing the personal data and medical history of their owners. Particularly fascinating is a cast of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, who were sixty-three at the time of their death in 1874. The chair they used is here, a pathetic small wooden one, and their liver has been preserved in a jar. An entire drawer is devoted to buttons, coins, and other objects that have been retrieved from human stomachs.
The second-to-last stop on this tour is Frank Furness’ First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (founded 1769). The Parish House was finished in 1884; the cornerstone for the church was laid in 1885 and it was dedicated in 1886.
The last stop is a particular job for lovers of opera and old barber shops. At 221 S. 21st, peek into the Tivoli Barber Shop. It is an homage to straight razors and the tonsorial trade. The windows are adorned with operatic scenes and musical memorabilia, which always bring smiles to the faces of passers-by.