Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Glen Foerd, Torresdale, and the Feudal Industrial Style

{Meg Sharp Walton}
Meg Sharp Walton

The director of Glen Foerd on the Delaware, Meg Sharp Walton, once told the Right Angle Club all about the mansion, the industrial titans who owned it, and the surrounding community which keeps it going. Glen Foerd Mansion sits on the small bluff where the Poquessing Creek enters the Delaware River. More recently the Union League bought the golf course and fixed it up. It's on the south bank of the creek, so it is just inside the Philadelphia boundary. Charles Macalester, who built the original mansion was a financier who sat on the board of the Second National Bank after Andrew Jackson closed the first one. So it is not surprising that he built a summer place just downriver from Nicholas Biddle's "Andalusia", which is on the north side of the creek. The Philadelphia consolidation of city and county government left one mansion in Philadelphia, and the other one in Bucks County. The region is perhaps better known for the little company town of Torresdale, and even better known for the Torresdale water inlet, where much of Philadelphia's water comes from Delaware, but perhaps that isn't the full story. (the newThe Torresdale stop on SEPTA makes it an easy commute from Philadelphia, as does I-95, some of the time. The creek's inlet into the Delaware is swampy, as most such confluences are, an a directord is a favorite place for bird watchers and nature lovers. The tidal nature of the Delaware at that point is quite apparent; at some times of the day, much of the bank of the inlet is bare ground. There might have been slightly more to it than that, since Macalester became a director of the new Biddle Bank, by dint of appointment by Andrew Jackson who destroyed the first one. It seems incredible that the two neighbors, across the creek from Andalusia, didn't at least know each other.

{Charles Macalester}

Charles Macalester may well have been the "right sort", but he sold the property and left his estate to Macalester College in Minnesota, so Philadelphia doesn't find much to remember him by. After all, the early Quakers wouldn't even consent to put their names on tombstones, let alone name colleges after themselves. Robert Foerderer bought the property around 1850 and embarked on an elaborate renovation project. He had made his pile of money by purchasing the French patent for making kid leather and eventually had 5000 employees in Frankford making the material for kid gloves. The mansion on the river could be said to be the apex of an industrial empire, quite typical of how Philadelphia, particularly Northeast Philadelphia, did things. He was said to have been quite a benevolent emperor of this kid glove empire, including the little company town of Torresdale, until there was an industrial uproar of the 19th Century variety. Whereupon, he abruptly shut the whole business down, just as John Roebling did when his company town across the river wanted to run its own town. There's a sort of European flavor to this sort of story, sort of an opera about a principality on the Rhine River. This area of northeast Philadelphia and Bucks County has a number of principalities with this sort of town cohesiveness, where families who work there are clustered around their factory center, and children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren tend to stay in one place to live a life which ignores the rest of the world. Someone has to be the boss of such communities, tends to regard the position as hereditary, and definitely resents the idea that anyone else has much to say. Central to the concept is the Horatio Alger story of the hard-working youngster who gets to the top by merit, leading to the conviction that if someone else wants to be at the top of a heap, let him first build his own heap. Somehow, the Foerderer story seems to add realistic color to what was true about this social system.

{Robert H.Foerderer}
Robert H. Foerderer

Robert Foerderer died fairly young, possibly from chromium poisoning called Bright's disease, having married Caroline Fischer, and producing a daughter, Florence Foerderer Tonner who married a New York hosiery tycoon named Tonner. The ornate decorations of Glen Foerd, the idiosyncratic taste in art, the parties and the ostentatious social circle, all add up to the sniffy description of "new" money, the so-called nouveau riche. The hundred older families of the Philadelphia establishment were very cautious about mixing socially with such newcomers and their often unexpected behavior, although there were notable exceptions. In all this uproar you can see the origins of the two present political parties, with the "old money" rich people displaying a quite surprising preference for redistributionist economics and environmental protectionism. It's easy to exaggerate, but a good part of this enduring split is due to social resistance of the older settler families to new ways of doing things, particularly when new ways have not demonstrated unequivocal value.

{Glen Foerd Manison}
Glen Foerd Mansion

But returning to Glen Foerd, the name is a composite of the original Glengarry and the newer Foerderer. Florence Tonner got one of the first television sets to be produced and put it in the middle of her gallery of fine art. She sat there watching her favorite TV shows, why not. In her will, she left the estate to the Lutheran Church, but during the Depression, the church had trouble keeping it up. Someone discovered a clause in her will which provided, that in the event the Church could not support the estate, it was to be given to the residents of Torresdale. Since Torresdale only consisted of two streets, not including East Torresdale, West Torresdale, and any other splinter communities, the ownership of the estate was pretty closely held. This small group of true believers took up the burden and tried to make the estate survive. The house was opened to visitors, and available for weddings and events. Adult education courses, small-scale Chautauquas, bird-watching and nature walks were established. Slowly, the residents have been succeeding in making a go of it, but the original residents are getting older and dying off. It's going to be a hard struggle to make the place self-sustaining on every necessary level. But we wish them well, and certainly, admire their spirit.

Macalester, allegedly the richest man in the world at the time, ordered most of the building, including the Italianate Style with the cupula. One of the questioners suggested that cupulas were very popular during the Italianate period, providing a form of air conditioning, and you can be sure donors will be consulted to restore this effect. The icehouse -- the originator of the term "icehouse gang" -- is now used for rentals, and the pier (which once housed a Macalester yacht) was recently given a half-million dollar grant to make a children's boating pier. It seems that the Foerderer brother Percival constructed the Italianate mansion in Bryn Mawr, which was recently torn down, the Foerderer city house was on Broad Street near the Wideners.

The Foundation believes the neighbors hired a lawyer who discovered a clause in the will which provided that if the Lutherans couldn't keep it up it reverted to the community. He sued and won, and then found the neighbors couldn't handle it, so he sold it to the Union League. Believe any story you please.

Originally published: Friday, June 21, 2013; most-recently modified: Friday, September 25, 2020

 

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