Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Alexander Johnston Cassatt and his Influence on Philadelphia & New York City

Contributed by Mike Gaines

The concept of historic preservation has been around for a long time, though not always to the degree that it is today. One of the first public acts of preservation was when a group of women got together in the 1850’s and formed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in an effort to save and restore George Washington’s Virginia estate.

Over the years, numerous other cases of preservation issues have been highlighted and pushed the movement into the public’s conscious, including the 1963 demolition of New York City’s famed Pennsylvania Railroad Station. As rail travel succumbed to the advancing air travel phenomenon, Pennsylvania Railroad found itself with a colossal, under-utilized station in the heart of New York City. By optioning the “air rights” to the station to developers, Pennsylvania Railroad would get a brand new, air conditioned station at no cost to them, as well as a 25% stake in the new Madison Square Garden Complex, to be built on the site of the demolished station.

Waiting Room at New York's Penn Station

The public around the world was in absolute shock that such a structure could even be considered up for demolition. Contrary to their own designs, modernist architects rushed to save the structure, often chanting “Don’t Amputate – Renovate” at rallies to save the building. Unfortunately no one’s efforts could stop the movement and the pink granite, block-sized mammoth came crumbling down.

Some of the sculptures, fortunately, were saved: a sculpted clock surround modeled after Audrey Munson survives as part of a fountain in Missouri; a caryatid stands in the sculpture garden of the Brooklyn Museum; and 14 of the 22 eagles still exist, including five in Philadelphia – one at the Philadelphia Zoo and four that were donated to the city by the Pennsylvania Railroad and positioned on the east and west approaches of the Market Street Bridge (opposite 30th Street Station, formerly owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad).

Eagle and lamp from Penn Station on Philadelphia's Market Street bridge, approaching 30th Street Station.

All of this would not have come about had it not been for Alexander Johnston Cassatt. Often called “A.J.” by his friends and associates, Cassatt was born in 1839 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His familiar connections were filled with many famous people, including his sister, renowned painter Mary Cassatt, and his wife, Lois Buchanan, niece of President James Buchanan and songwriter Stephen Foster.

From 1899 until his death in 1906, Cassatt was employed as the 7th president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was under his direction that the railroad doubled its assets ($276 million to $594 million); made improvements in every possible category; initiated an electrification program that would ultimately lead to the PRR being the nation’s most electrified railroad system; and was finally able to get a station in New York City – Pennsylvania Station.

He employed McKim, Mead and White as architects and they created a station that was not only striking in its shear size and appearance, but through its design being influenced on historic structures such as Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and the Roman Baths of Caracalla. Unfortunately Cassatt would die before this project was be completed. In tribute of the man who invested so much into the company, a statue was erected in Pennsylvania Station in his honor (it has since been moved to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania).

The statue of Alexander Johnston Cassatt at Penn Station now resides at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

His legacy did not stop with Penn Station, though. Cassatt had numerous residences including a house on Rittenhouse Square designed by Frank Furness, a country home in Haverford he called Cheswold , and a farm in Berwyn he named Chesterbrook Farm. It is from here that his other lasting legacy emerged.

Cassat's Rittenhouse home, designed by Frank Furness, seen in 1969.

Cassatt was an avid horse enthusiast and fox hunter, and it was on his Chesterbrook Farm that he raised thoroughbred racehorses. His farm produced the 1886 Preakness winner The Bard, the 1889 Belmont Stakes winner Eric, and winners of the 1875, ’76, ’78, and ’80 Preakness Stakes. Cassatt also helped establish the National Steeplechase Association, introducing the Hackney pony to America (ideal for carriage driving), and founding the American Hackney Horse Society.

After all of that, it makes one wonder what else this man might have accomplished had he lived any longer than his 67 years. Unfortunately, there is very little physical evidence left of Cassatt’s life and influences. As noted before, Penn Station was demolished in 1963, his Rittenhouse Square townhouse was demolished in 1972 to make way for the Rittenhouse Hotel, and his country home Cheswold burned in 1935 and was demolished shortly thereafter.

Cheswold in Haverford

Today the 600-acre Chesterbrook Farm is the site of a subdivision and office park which still retains the ‘Chesterbrook Farm’ name. And though all of the buildings are long since gone, the main barn of the farm, designed by Frank Furness, has been maintained and restored.

In an act of sheer coincidence (or someone doing some very thorough research), a high tea parlor opened in the lobby of the Rittenhouse Hotel in 1988 – the Mary Cassatt Tea Room & Garden – and is still in business today.

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