Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lost Building of the Week-- May 16th

Joseph Harrison Jr. Mansion

221 South 18th Street

This is one guy's house. Image from the PAB.
                        This is it. This was the house that made Rittenhouse Square out of Shittenhouse Square. Without this mansion and associated properties,  no one would give two shits about Rittenhouse today. On top of all that, its pretty fucking awesome-looing.
                        Joseph Harrison, Jr. had tritanium balls and a dilithium dick. This self-made gazillionaire made his fortune by building Russia's entire railway stock for the Czar Nicholas II, spending five years getting the job done, two years trying to get paid for it, and another two years tooling around Europe. He made a triumphant return to Philadelphia in 1852, at this point rich and famous.
                       Once back in Philafuckingdelphia, Harrison went straight to work. He purchased the entire 18th Street side of Rittenhouse Square, which was essentially a No Man's Land, and the 1701 block of Locust Street. Then Harrison went to Giga-architect of doom Samuel Sloan and commissioned an entire row of houses for upper class folks for the Locust Street block and a gigantic super-mega mansion for himself facing Rittenhouse Square. Behind the properties would be an enclosed private park for all the residents of these houses.
.... because there's no other park near Rittenhouse Square?
                    When construction was complete in 1857, the most badass go-getters in town moved right in. Other super-rich motherfuckers followed along and built their mansions on and around the Square, cementing the neighborhood in as the Place to Be for people with way too much money for the next 150+ years.
                     Harrison's mansion was based on a fancy mansion he saw in St. Petersberg. It was a mega-gigantic superhouse fit for a goddamn king. That garden in the back was like the Pilot Episode of Rittenhouse Park as we know it today. It was one of the finest homes Center City would ever see.

The rear of the mansion with private park.
                     In 1860, the business climate in the city and the country sucked. Harrison wanted nothing to do with the North-South conflict (especially because he sympathized with the Confederates), so he bitched the fuck out and stayed in England until the war was over. There, he improved on his own steam engine-related technologies. Once Harrison returned to Philadelphia in late 1863, he practically took over the place. He joined the Union League despite hating the Union and was instrumental in organizing the Great Central Fair of 1864 (which was a HUGE deal at the time), especially in promoting the fair's art exhibit.
                     Harrison was a huge art collector. You know all that good shit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts? The portraits of the Founding Fathers that you see in every history book? That Peale Museum painting? Those were his. An entire wing of the Harrison Mansion was a massive exhibit of his 400 art pieces in his attempt to create a permanent collection for the city. He was even commissioning art from American artists while hiding in Europe during the war.
                   After Harrison's death in 1872, his widow continued to stay the house until she died in 1912. That's when Edward T. Stotesbury, another rich motherfucker, bought the gigantic home and loaned it to the Emergency Aid Committee of Philadelphia. By the mid-1920's, the super-mega-rich had moved away from Rittenhouse, leaving only the moderately mega-rich behind. It was that generation who saw way too many dollar signs in demolishing the old mansion and Harrison Row (the houses on the property) in order to build the Penn Athletic Club and Warwick Hotel. Oh well.
                       That courtyard in the back was probably pretty fucking awesome, but the buildings it was replaced with are pretty cool too. The next time you're enjoying Rittenhouse Square, remember that none of that shit would be any good if Joseph Harrison Junior hadn't moved in.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that, not known to some, piece of Philly history.