- 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
It was characteristic of Kennedy to have lavished such affectionate study upon the Centennial’s less pretentious buildings. The same is true of his water colors of the city itself. We must turn to other artists for views of the monuments of Philadelphia -Independence Hall, the great hotels and business blocks, Girard College, the Waterworks at Fairmount. The best shopping street in the city, Chestnut Street, was being rapidly rebuilt. Its merchants’ pride in their fine new establishments had created, in Kennedy’s lifetime, a school of lithographers who supplied views of shops to serve as broadsides advertising these businesses. There were so many of these lithographers that Nicholas B. Wainwright has devoted a delightful book to them, Philadelphia in the Romantic Age of Lithography .
This was not Kennedy’s vein. He did views of Chestnut Street showing that the charms of fine streets and fine shops were not beyond him; but he preferred other associations. He did not paint Mr. George W. Childs’s new white-marble mansion, where President Grant stayed as a guest when he opened the exposition. Neither did he paint the magnificent new building Mr. Childs erected on Sixth Street to house his newspaper, the Public Ledger . Instead he gives us a water color of the West Side of 6th Street looking across Independence Square (the trees left out in order to show the buildings), of the row of once-fine old houses that were to be torn down to make room for Mr. Childs’s building.
Another water color (below) shows the South West corner of Eighth & Chestnut Streets in 1876. At the other end of this block was the fine façade of the Continental Hotel, the best in the city. Kennedy painted, however, a view of what had been built as fine houses of the end of the eighteenth century and had gradually been converted to shops as the city grew westward. The second house from the corner, Number 802, had once been the home of Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of the Treasury, William J. Duane. The gilt eagles and the spectacle sign on the façade had been put up by the firm of Lewis Ladomus & Company, watchmakers and jewellers, when it occupied the building. Casper Souder, Jr., the old historian of Chestnut Street, considered these signs a sad desecration of the former dignity of the house. When Kennedy painted them, this and all the houses of that row were about to come down to make room for a new building of the Philadelphia Times . Philadelphia was changing in 1876 as cities are changing today—but then it was the eighteenth-century city that was vanishing.
That Philadelphia was a city of rows of red-brick houses with whitemarble doorframes and doorsteps. They were links in a tradition of city living stretching backward to London, beyond London to seventeenthcentury Holland, and to still more distant origins. They were town houses, the product of the experience and good sense of generations of master builders, passed down by the apprentice system. Each man had refined the experience of his predecessor to create a form of street, and home, in which human families could live closely together in comfort and privacy. Architects, it is true, had begun to ornament the principal streets with more ambitious structures of marble or granite and to push the height of their buildings up beyond the prevailing three or four stories. But although Mr. Otis exhibited his elevator at the Centennial, he could not persuade anyone to purchase it. People walked upstairs, as they had always done.
In the next quarter century great fortunes were to be made from horsecar and trolley lines within the city and from the development of suburban real estate outside it. But in 1876 most people, rich and poor alike, still lived in the compact city of their ancestors.
In the year before the Centennial the British consul had described its features in a report to his government. Philadelphia had, he said, over 1,000 miles of streets, more than 500 of them paved. It was lighted by nearly 10,000 gas lamps. It had 134 miles of sewers, 600 miles of gas mains, 546 miles of water pipes, more than 212 miles of street railways. It had 400 schools, 1,600 teachers, 80,000 pupils. There were “over 34,000 bathrooms, most of which are supplied with hot water,” and 400 places of public worship. All this was maintained by nine million dollars collected in taxes. It is easy to be ironic about the number of bathrooms, the unpaved streets, or the taxes. Yet the city of 1876 was an organism that worked. And as Kennedy’s water colors tell us, people were fond of it and enjoyed their lives there.