The Richest Men in America
Charles Peterson developed the idea but was unsuccessful in popularizing it, that Spruce Street in central Philadelphia might be regarded as an architectural museum. It stretches from river to river, but has no bridge or ferry landing at either end, so traffic is less. The earliest house near the Delaware River was built in 1702, with successive houses just a little younger, or at least less old, as you progress toward Broad (14th) Street where houses were built around 1880, and then on into the early Twentieth Century as you cross Broad Street and go toward the Schuylkill. For a century or more Spruce Street was the place where doctors had their offices, much like Harley Street in London, which it somewhat resembles. A number of these houses are just plain too big to be attractive as single family houses these days, and Spruce Street West has lagged Society Hill and other sections in restoring its buildings. Perhaps in a few decades that will happen, and perhaps in the meantime the present relics will be preserved enough to revive some day the idea of a museum of house design.
So let's take a simpler idea. For about a century, the then-richest man in America lived in one of several houses located within seven blocks of each other, easy walking distance for a tour. The first was Robert Morris. Morris made his money in shipping, maybe even a little privateering, and then went into banking to keep his money at work. It is said that his personal fortune, adjusted for changes in the currency and economy, was once considerably larger than Bill Gates' would be today, adjusted for inflation. As most people know, he financed the American Revolution personally, went broke, ending up in debtor's prison. The house he lived in was opposite Independence Hall on Market Street, and was the place that Admiral Gates lived in while he was in charge of the British occupation, and the place where Washington lived during most of his presidency; the house burned down in 1832. This house is not to be confused with either the house built for Washington at 9th and Market but never occupied by him, or Morris's later mansions which he also never occupied because of his financial difficulties. One house was so ornate that some think it contributed heavily to his bankruptcy, and a second house still stands on Eighth Street at St. James Street. Other owners named Morris bought and occupied it for a number of years, so its history is a little mixed up. A duPont heiress later bought and fixed it up, but her husband once remarked that no one could sleep in that house because a subway had been built underneath it and rattled the timbers. Next door to the Morris house rises a fifty story apartment house , where as a precaution against the rattles, the first nine stories have nothing but parking spaces. Since the apartment building is owned by Arabians, it is likely they are pretty rich but not necessarily richer than Bill Gates.
On the Northeast corner of Third and Spruce Street, once lived William Bingham, a former partner of Morris and later himself the richest man in America. Although sadly the house burned down, it is displayed in one of the famous prints by William Birch in his notable Eighteenth Century collection , widely available in bookstores. The striking thing about Bingham was that he was only twenty-eight years old when he achieved richest-man status and built the house, patterned after one owned by a British Duke. He made his pile three times over. First, running a privateer operation in the Caribbean for his partner Robert Morris. On returning home, he bought up any worthless Continental currency he could stuff into barrels, and then either persuaded his friend Alexander Hamilton to redeem the currency at par or heard him plan to do so. And then, as if he didn't have enough money already, he invested enough gold bars to finance the Louisiana Purchase for Jefferson, since Napoleon wanted gold, please, no paper money. Among the various things he invested in was the area in upstate New York, now called Binghamton, and he lost a pile of money buying the land we now call the State of Maine, since post-revolutionary Westward migration turned toward Ohio rather than into his holdings once the British prohibition on colonizing past the Allegheny mountains was lifted. Bingham's sister-in-law wanted to become engaged to the heir of the Crown of France, who was living in temporary exile around the corner on Walnut Street. In a famous, possibly fictional, response, the Dauphin was told, No. If you do not become the King of France, you will be no match for her. If you do become the King, she will be no match for you. The fascinating story of Bingham, this comparatively unknown man, is detailed in a book called ""The Golden Voyage". Quite a good read, and of particular interest to Philadelphia lawyers to learn that Bingham died in 1804, but his estate was not settled until 1960.
Stephen Girard built several houses a few steps west on Spruce Street, identifiable by having marble facing on their lower few feet; Charles Peterson lived in one of them as the first pioneer resident of the Society Hill revival. Girard made his money in the China trade, as a ship's factor. Like Morris, he recognized America's crying need for banking in a story too complicated to repeat here and moved the Girard Bank into the First Bank of America, now a museum (Peale portraits, architectural fragments) of the Park Service on Third Street. His wife was insane, and spent most of her life at the Pennsylvania Hospital at Eight and Spruce, and was eventually buried there. Girard left thirty million dollars to found the Girard College for "poor, white, orphan boys". His1830 will withstood all legal attacks until the mid-Twentieth Century, but was eventually broken. The school now has many black girls, the definition of orphan has expanded to include any child whose parents are separated, and the definition of poor is several times greater than the national definition of the poverty level. In his will, Girard specified that the estate should purchase what is now Schuylkill County and hold it for a century. Shortly thereafter (or just possibly shortly before that), coal was discovered in the region and Girard College became far richer.
Nicholas Biddle had "old money", made in the traditional way of buying real estate, particularly in Ohio. He thus made a better guess than Bingham about the likely path of westward migration. But like Morris and Girard, he needed a bank to finance the real estate. Biddle also acted as the reserve bank for the myriads of currencies then issued by individual rural banks, and charged a transaction fee to translate Kentucky money into something useful in Philadelphia or abroad. Martin Van Buren, who was the political manipulator behind Andrew Jackson and who became his eventual successor, stirred up trouble about this reserve role, and Jackson "broke" Biddle's bank by withdrawing federal deposits. Ultimately, investment banking began to take its modern formwhen in 1838, the richest man, Anthony J. Drexel, moved over the Schuylkill River on Walnut Street, amidst what is now the University of Pennsylvania, but not far from Drexel University. He walked to work each day, however, at 4th and Chestnut Streets. Drexel was the first big banker to make his fortune in banking. The earlier big bankers started out with money they had made in shipping or land speculation, but Drexel somehow saw that banking was a way to get rich, deftly filling in the gap created by Andrew Jackson shuttering Nicholas Biddle's Second Bank. Part of the idea in Van Buren's mind was to shift the focus of American banking from Philadelphia's Chestnut Street to New York's Wall Street, and he was quickly quite successful. J.P. Morganwas invited by Drexel to start a Wall Street partnership with him in correspondence with his father, Junius Morgan, who ran an international bank in London. In the era just after the Civil War, there was a great deal of money in Europe anxious to invest in the railroads and other booming American industries. The Morgans provided a vehicle for transferring such investment capital between continents, but the Morgans were viewed as having excessively sharp practices. As it happened, Junius Morgan had been trained in this transoceanic concept by George Peabody , a former Baltimore resident who had moved to London, the banking capital of the world.
George Peabody earlier had also been involved with Anthony J. Drexel, and Drexel was the more successful of the two international bankers. The whole issue with European investors was whether you could trust those wild and wooly Americans, and Drexel consistently demonstrated he was entitled to be called a straight arrow. As related by a very good book by Dan Rottenberg Drexel decided that he needed the vigor of the Morgans and invited them to join him in a New York-Philadelphia partnership. From that point forward, JP Morgan was the shining star of honesty and straight dealing, a lesson he evidently learned from Drexel. Indeed, he and his biographers repeatedly stress this feature of him -- "I will never do business with a man I don't trust". He didn't mention women, but his behavior seems to show he probably did not include them in the concept. Drexel, on the other hand, led a quiet sober life in West Philadelphia, reading books , starting his university, and helping his neice, who was later made a Saint in the Catholic Church, start numerous charities. Although the Drexel children more or less drifted out of sight, Drexel's business successor Stotesbury led a wild and extravagant lifestyle that is the subject of many songs and stories. His wife, for example, never washed the sheets; she always had brand new ones put on the bed. Morgan, of course, spent lots of money in a conspicuous way. The term Metropolitan identifies most of his projects, The Metropolitan Art Museum, The Metropolitan Opera, The Metropolitan Club on Fifth Avenue, with membership originally limited to his partners. The name Corsair also was a trademark, the name of his yachts, and a quiet statement about his approach to things. Another difference between the Morgans and the Drexels was similarly in the New York-Philadelphia character. When Jack Morgan, the son of JP, died in the 1930's he left an estate of "only" three million dollars. It would be hard to say what the Drexel fortune was worth at that time, but it is safe to say it would dwarf that, considerably.