stotesbury builds the versailles of america -- 8/17/20

Today's selection -- from The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment by Dan Rottenberg. Edward Stotesbury's 1921 Philadelphia home, called the "Versailles of America," consisted of six levels -- three above ground -- whose 100,000 square feet included 147 rooms, 28 bathrooms, and 24 fireplaces:

"[Edward] Stotesbury, the city's leading banker and the man who epitomized Philadelphia's ruling class to those outside of it, was himself regarded as a parvenu and social climber to those within it. Edward Townsend Stotesbury -- known as Ned to his friends -- was the eldest son of Thomas Stotesbury, a Philadelphia dry goods merchant who launched his business with money inherited from his father, a sea captain who had amassed (but later lost) a fortune in the molasses trade between Philadelphia, Jamaica, and Europe.

Whitemarsh Hall

"During the Civil War, Thomas prospered as a sugar broker, probably by provisioning the U.S. Army. Ned's mother came from a well-known Philadelphia Quaker family, and Ned attended the private Friends Central School. In his teens he worked as a clerk at a wholesale grocer and then at his father's dry goods store. But he was bored in his father's business and uninterested in attending university.

"In 1866, when Ned was seventeen, his father secured him a place as an office boy at Drexel & Co., at a starting salary of $200 a year. ... According to Stotesbury's biographer: He began by cleaning out inkwells, sweeping the office and doing errands or any job that needed to be done. He was always ready to offer his services; and before leaving in the afternoon, invariably asked Mr. Drexel if there were not something more he could do for him. ...

"Stotesbury learned the intricacies of commercial paper by studying the balance sheets of Drexel's clients. He rose swiftly through the ranks, but the death in childbirth of his wife, Frances Butcher Stotesbury, in 1881, when he was only thirty-two, so devastated Ned that he withdrew from Philadelphia society to immerse himself in his work and occasional travel abroad.

"In 1883 he was made a partner at Drexel & Co., and by the mid-1890s he was second in the Drexel-Morgan partnership only to Pierpont Morgan himself, with a 14 percent share of what had become America's greatest investment bank. As Drexel's resident senior partner in Philadelphia, Stotesbury became the main financing conduit for dozens of companies large and small, in Philadelphia and points west, and he served on the boards of major Philadelphia corporations like United Gas, the Baldwin Locomotive Works, the Reading Company, and five major banks. In the process Stotesbury accumulated a fortune estimated at $200 million by the time of the crash of 1929.

"Yet the esteem in which he was held by Philadelphia's business leaders could not be transferred to Philadelphia society, in part because of Stotesbury's reclusive lifestyle. Without a wife by his side, Stotesbury developed into a man of supreme confidence in financial situations but awkward naivete about social situations.

"That condition changed abruptly in 1912 when, after thirty-one years as a widower, Stotesbury married Lucretia Roberts Cromwell, a Washington socialite fifteen years his junior. Eva, as she was known, was determined to teach her new husband how to spend his money to overcome social obstacles. Their wedding was attended by President William Howard Taft, among many other dignitaries, and Ned's ultimate wedding present to his bride was Whitemarsh Hall, an enormous faux-Georgian chateau and estate that he built on three hundred acres just beyond Philadelphia's city limits north of Chestnut Hill.

"This 'Versailles of America,' as it was called, consisted of six levels -- three above ground -- whose 100,000 square feet included 147 rooms, 28 bathrooms, and 24 fireplaces. The mansion, designed by Horace Trumbauer, took five years to construct and cost $3 million, as well as $3 to $5 million more for interior decorations. The grounds and English park-style atmosphere, including a mile-long drive to a statue-filled forecourt north of the main building, were designed by the famous landscape artist Jacques Greber. In addition to the main house, the grounds housed twenty-two other buildings, including twelve dwellings, garages, greenhouses, stables, and gatehouses. The estate's annual maintenance alone was said to cost $1 million.

"The grand opening of Whitemarsh Hall in 1921 was attended by eight hundred members of Philadelphia's high society, and the Stotesburys continued to entertain there for the rest of Ned's life, often hosting as many as six hundred guests at a time, among them U.S. presidents, European royalty, and iconic business figures like Henry Ford, who reportedly remarked after a visit, 'It's a great experience to see how the rich live.'

"Yet the Stotesburys occupied Whitemarsh Hall only in spring and fall. El Mirasol, their winter residence in Palm Beach, was designed (at least externally) as a reproduction of an old convent near Burgos, Spain. Its rooms, built around a patio with a fountain in its center, had ceilings twenty-five feet high, and its amenities included a complete motion-picture theater. Wingwood House, their summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine, was a magnificent English colonial-style mansion overlooking Frenchman's Bay. In all, Ned Stotesbury was said to have spent more than $50 million on Eva.

"Nevertheless, the Stotesburys' aggressive social-climbing tactics inevitably backfired in Philadelphia: They became the butt of jokes among the very people they hoped to impress, and Ned was never admitted to the Philadelphia Club -- blackballed, it was rumored, by his own embarrassed son-in-law, Sidney Emlen Hutchinson. In Palm Beach, with its more flamboyant social scene, the Stotesburys were said to cut a social swathe that they never quite managed in Philadelphia. But at Bar Harbor in Maine, the Stotesburys' heavy-handed attempt to take over as social leaders drove most Old Philadelphians to Northeast Harbor, where they continued to summer into the twenty-first century.

"Ned Stotesbury's sudden and largely unsuccessful exposure to Philadelphia society seems to have engendered in him a prickly sensitivity that caused him to perceive personal slights where none existed. As a result of a misunderstanding in 1915 with George W. Norris, the city's director of wharves (and later governor of Philadelphia's Federal Reserve Bank), 'we were not upon speaking terms for fifteen years afterwards,' Norris later recalled, 'until a reconciliation was effected through the good offices of his partner, Mr. Hopkinson.'

"When Stotesbury was finally invited to the Assembly, it was said, he had the invitation framed under glass and enshrined, floodlit, in the front hall of Whitemarsh Hall."



Dan Rottenberg


The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment


Temple University Press


Copyright 2014 by Dan Rottenberg


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