The Gilded Age in Philadelphia, roughly 1870 to 1900, was a time of vast industrial expansion and growth for the city. This was the era of the first Transcontinental Railway and the Titantic, and the uppermost echelons of society, the so-called Robber Barons and their wealthy peers, celebrated and promoted their financial success by building palatial residences for themselves, as well as city hospitals, museums, churches, libraries, and opera houses. On this three-hour walk we will explore and discuss the extravagant lifestyle of Philadelphia’s social elite during the late nineteenth century by visiting the interiors and exteriors of these magnificent social, residential, and commercial buildings between Broad Street and Rittenhouse Square.
Our walk will explore how the architectural forms of these buildings reflect the social and political atmosphere into which they were born. Beginning with the Pantheon-like facade of the Girard Bank, now the Ritz Carlton Hotel, and the opulent exterior of City Hall, we will see how American architects, including Frank Furness, George Hewitt, John Fraser, and Wilson Eyre, looked to the architectural style of both antiquity and the French Renaissance in order to emulate the ideas of grandeur, perfection, and idealism promoted during both of those time periods. Depending on the interests of the group, other buildings may include The Union League, Wetherill Mansion (now the Philadelphia Art Alliance), and the Van Rensselaer Mansion (now Anthropologie’s flagship store). Of course these buildings had to be appropriately decorated, and as such we will examine the rise of art collecting and auction houses as we visit a selection of interiors.
As we walk along we will also discuss how these buildings defined the urban framework of Philadelphia’s Center City, and how that development is reflected today. Given that many of these sites have been bought and sold over the years, we will also consider the evolution of each and the functional role it plays in contemporary Philadelphian life. By the end of our time together we will have a better understanding behind the commission of these extravagant buildings as well as their place within the city’s architectural history.