- Historic Sites
The simple, affectionate water colors of an unassuming Scots immigrant, David J. Kennedy, bring back the Philadelphia of 1876 and our first great world’s fair
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
The father seems to have been a harsh man but ambitious and of some education, for he kept an evening school for the stonecutters. He taught David enough architectural drawing so that the boy, in his teens, could teach grown men in the school. When work on the pier at Donaghadee stopped for lack of funds, the father determined to emigrate to Canada. While the family waited for transportation, David was allowed to go up to Belfast to take some lessons in water color from an artist, Robert McMeiken. The Kennedys sailed for Quebec on April 14, 1833, in the brig Earl of Aberdeen . We know all this from a brief memoir of his life that David wrote in old age.
There was work in Canada for Scottish stonecutters. The father and son found jobs in Kingston, Ontario, but the elder Kennedy was land hungry. In 1834 he bought land six miles outside Guelph, Ontario. The boy David found himself engaged in the exhausting work of a pioneer farm under a driving father, “working so hard that I could not sleep at night many times and for all this no thanks.” A sister had married another young Scotsman who had gone to Philadelphia, and sent David the money to join them there. In 1836, by way of the Erie Canal and the Hudson, he journeyed to Philadelphia, where he again found work as a stonecutter. He hated the trade; and as soon as he had earned enough money to pay his debts, he left the mason’s trade behind him forever. By January, 1838, he had settled permanently in Philadelphia.
This was Kennedy’s preparation for becoming a graphic historian. He was an architectural draftsman with an attractive sense of color; people were rather beyond his powers and are no more than Staffage when they appear, strolling in the foregrounds of his water colors. Sometimes he gives us a comprehensive view, such asthat reproduced on pages 20-21, of a tree-shaded Broad Street looking north from what is now the site of City Hall, or of the Classic Revival portico of the old Jefferson Medical College, page 24. But for the most part he seems to have rambled about the red-brick city or along the old highroads leading out into the countryside, making precise, affectionate drawings of houses or street corners that pleased his eye. He was a simple man and at his best with simple, rather unpretentious things. His favorite themes were a home of some person of prominence or historical interest—such as Mrs. James Rush, reputed to be the richest woman in America, or one of his heroes, Thomas Say, the naturalist, uncle of David Kennedy’s wife—or a view across a street intersection.
There were two great Kennedy subjects, however, that were neither simple nor unpretentious, nor touched with the softening flavor of times past that attracted him. These were the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the Centennial. They were examples of the new technology of steam and iron that was transforming the world: and with each he had a personal association.
Kennedy worked for the Reading Railroad for twenty-three years, for most of that time as its passenger and freight agent in the terminal on North Broad Street. He saw the first passenger train leave the terminal at Broad and Cherry streets in 1839. Among his water colors is the First Passenger train to Reading , consisting of two wooden cars, on two trucks of four wheels each, painted yellow. Number 1 was for first-class passengers, Number 2 for second-class, baggage being carried on an open flatcar under a tarpaulin. Beneath, Kennedy pasted two of the circular white tickets, first and second class, for the first passenger train to go to Pottsville, countersigned on the reverse D. J. Kennedy in his careful handwriting, and a ticket for the connecting stagecoach that would take the traveller to and from WilkesBarre.
In 1861 Kennedy’s eyesight failed, and he spent seven years at home. When able to work again, he became a draftsman in the office of the city engineer, preparing a street map of the city; then, in 1869, a draftsman for the engineer in charge of creating Fairmount Park. In that office he met an alert young man in his twenties named Hermann J. Schwarzmann, who had recently come to Philadelphia from Bavaria. In 1873 the Fairmount Park Commission sent Schwarzmann to the Vienna International Exposition. On his return “Hermann J. Schwarzmann drew up the Landscape & Architectural plans & Elevation of the permanent Building [Memorial Hall],” Kennedy says in his reminiscences, “and I assisted him, we two working for weeks on the top of a large drawing table 12 feet long by 6 wide. I colored them all up; and his plans with others were accepted.” Schwarzmann was to design not only Memorial Hall (which still stands) but the other permanent building, Horticultural Hall (which stood until our own neglectful times allowed it to decay), and many other buildings of the fair. The Centennial was part of Kennedy’s own life.