Sad reflections on Rittenhouse Square

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I found myself in Anthropologie, in center city Philadelphia. The store is on a corner of Rittenhouse Square, the pretty little green, designed by William Penn in the centre of Philadelphia. I was actually going to Barnes and Noble next door, but something enticed me into to the famous clothing store, which was odd, as I really wasn’t in the mood for shopping, but it looked like an interesting building. And i cant resist an interesting building! If you know me, I like classical architecture much more than shopping.

Almost as soon as I’d run up the stone steps and was through the door, I realized that this was no ordinary store. Not because of the clothing-line, though I am sure it was an amazing line, but because of the building itself. I was a little shocked, on two accounts; firstly, it was quite obvious that it had once been a rather grand, private home,  a very beautiful one, and much love, money and architectural thought had gone into it’s creation. But something terrible had happened to it. The walls had been intentionally defaced and butchered, to create a shabby-chic looking retail space.

As I walked around the grand old home, I became more and more depressed. The clothes on the racks and the tables of girly accessories were almost invisible to me, and those that weren’t, I only really noticed because they were in the way, blocking my view. All I could do was stare at the defaced walls, the blatantly hacked- off moldings around the doorways. It seems they wanted to expose the lathe, the dilapidated entrails. All around the window frames, too, the plaster had been brutally hacked away to make the shop rustic-looking and dilapidated, which was the Anthropologie theme. Perhaps Anthropologie had inherited it already damaged, I didn’t know, they may not be totally to blame, but it didn’t really matter, the carnage was done, and the company was relishing in it.

I felt sad for this building, but more so for America. It seems that there is so little respect and love for it’s own, short history. Old homes were allowed to be torn down, left to rot, or intentionally defaced like this one under our very noses, and no one seems to care. I saw customers walk in , not even noticing the beautiful building or what had been done to it. In my mind’s eye I put back the entire missing floors that had been removed, and ceilings, and I imagined the architectural details from the sparse remnants that were left. This was was once an important Philadelphia home, one could tell. There was a vast, ornate white stone or marble plaque, with carved frolicking children playing instruments, surrounded by flowers and fruit on the wall half way up the stairs. It greeted shoppers, if they only bothered to look up to the landing to see it.
Luckily the plaque hadn’t been damaged or defaced.

And half blocked by the new, to the left of the ugly cement industrial-style staircase, was a stained glass window on the wall, in need of repair and a good clean. In the roof above the stairs was a colourful, vast glass dome, which must have cost a fortune in its day, which the store had thankfully kept.

To the right of the horrendous concrete staircase, past the display tables and racks, was a room with an enormous, white ornate, stone fireplace on the back wall. I looked at it,  and almost cried for it! I imagined the parties and dinners it had witnessed, the gentlemen who must have stood with their backs to it on a cold winter’s night with a brandy in one hand and a cigar in the other. It looked majestic, if you ignored it’s sad surroundings, now almost forgotten, half obstructed by clothing, as if it was in the way. This room must have been a very grand room, for when I looked up at the ceiling I nearly died. A fantastic display of oblong shaped portraits of all the Popes through the centuries were incased in an ornate, honeycomb plaster circle. It was incredible, and covered the ceiling. It was clearly a replica of an important ceiling somewhere in Italy, and I will have to look it up. Who would have thought that one would come across dozens of old portraits of the Popes on a ceiling of a store in downtown Philadelphia?

This building was a true diamond, a piece of American history.

And I wish I had the money to put it back together again. I bet there was a story to this house, I thought. And I was right.

I have since found out that the house was built by Sarah Drexel, daughter to the Philadelphia banker. Name sound familiar? It should! How disturbing it is that such a prominent family home, and part of the core history of Philadelphia is allowed to be defaced and ruined without an ounce of remorse or repercussion. If you love history, architecture, Philadelphia, pay a visit to Anthropologie. But take a tissue, for it is a very sad building.

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http://www.library.drexel.edu/blogs/drexelarchives/2011/11/18/the-van-rensselaer-family/

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