Wednesday, August 11, 2010
My Favorite House in Philadelphia (1st post of 4)
Preservoids and Hysterical Society members - among whose numbers I count myself - refer to this building as the Fell-Van Rensselaer house. Completed in 1901 at the corner of 18th and Walnut, it is the work of the famous Boston architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns. In 1898, Alexander Van Rensselaer had the good sense, and apparently the pedigree, to marry the recently widowed daughter of Anthony Drexel. The former Sara Drexel Fell is said to have paid for the house herself, hence the appelation Fell-Van Rensselaer house. To my eye, it exemplifies everything that is right about "Beaux Arts" houses. It is a beautifully balanced composition, erudite in its detail, gracious in scale and proportion, and totally appropriate to the lives of the people who built it. Besides finance, Mr. Van Rensselaer was a founder and longtime President of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as a Board President of Drexel Institute. His wife died in 1929, he followed her in 1933, after which the house remained shut throughout the Depression. In 1942 the estate finally rented it to the Pennsylvania Athetic Club rowing association. No doubt overjoyed to at last get warm bodies in the place, they probably took whatever the club could pay for rent. Penn Athletic's tenancy wasn't long term, however, and the house was soon empty again.