- Historic Sites
A Schoolgirl’s Album
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
Back in 1883, when girls were still considered young ladies, the Chestnut Street Female Seminary moved to a new home—a palatial mansion outside Philadelphia that was surrounded by 180 acres of tree-studded hills. The great house, above, was popularly known as Cooke’s Castle, after its owner, Jay Cooke. He, however, called it Ogontz, after a Wyandotte chieftain he had known when growing up in Sandusky, Ohio. The mansion, which had cost him a million dollars to build, contained fifty-two ornately decorated rooms; between its two wings was a conservatory that looked out upon an Italian garden, at the end of which was a wall designed to resemble the ruin of a castle. Cooke, the so-called financier of the Civil War, moved into Ogontz in time for Christmas in 1866. Over the next seven years innumerable parties were held there, and distinguished notables, domestic and foreign, were overnight guests. When Cooke’s banking company folded, precipitating the panic of 1873, he had to auction off the estate; but seven years later the wily manipulator was back with a new fortune—from a silver mine in the West—and he repurchased the house and a good part of the grounds. And then he decided to offer it, virtually rent free, to the two spinsters who ran the seminary, which they obligingly renamed the Ogontz School for Young Ladies. In its heyday Ogontz was a fashionable finishing school for the daughters of the well-to-do, among them Cooke’s own granddaughters, and Cooke himself often visited it, spoiling the students with gifts of marshmallows, apples, walnuts, and the like. The marvelous photographs of that bygone era on the following pages are from an album kept by Elizabeth Granger Rust, Ogontz, Class of 1900, who later married the son of the founder of the H. J. (“57 Varieties”) Heinz Company; we are indebted to her son, Henry J. Heinz 11, for their use. In 1917, twelve years after Cooke’s death, the property was sold and the house razed; on the site now are garden apartments and other modern encroachments. The school resettled in nearby Abington, until it, too, succumbed in 1950; on its site is the Ogontz campus of Pennsylvania State University—which, alas and alack, is coeducational.