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Glen Foerd Mansion
By Lynn Whitney
A leisurely sail on the Delaware River just 12 miles north of Philadelphia, will take you past a stately Edwardian style riverfront mansion. The estate was originally built by Philadelphia merchant, Charles Macalester. Born in 1798, he was a prominent businessman, lawyer, philanthropist and financial advisor to numerous presidents. In 1850, he acquired 1000 acres of land along the Delaware River. The land was divided and sub-plotted, creating what is now known as Torresdale. Macalester kept one plot of land on which he built a grand Italianate home for his summer residence. He named it Glengarry after his family’s Scottish ancestral home. Here, Macalester and his daughter Lily, hosted many gala affairs, to which heads of state and other dignitaries were invited. Guests could wander amid 18 acres of rare trees, flowering shrubs and formal gardens. Macalester’s faithful Newfoundland dog, “Little Ugly,” would greet him at the top of the river steps each day as he arrived home. Today, a cast iron statue of the dog can be found at that spot. Little Ugly is buried under an old oak tree along a gravel path leading to the riverfront door. The headstone reads, “Little Ugly – A Loved and Faithful Friend, Dec’d July 28th, 1871, ‘In Life a Devoted Friend, the first to welcome, the foremost to defend.’” After Macalester’s death in 1873, Lily continued to reside at Glengarry, until her death in 1891.
In 1893, the estate was purchased by Robert H. Foerderer and his wife Caroline. Foerderer was born in Prussia, Germany in 1896 and moved to the United States with his parents as a young boy. His family had been in the leather working industry for generations, and Foerderer followed in their footsteps. At that time, the tanning process was a very unpleasant procedure. Foerderer spent years experimenting with different techniques to improve the treatment and quality of the leather. He eventually discovered the Chrome Tanning process which produced the softest and most supple leather available, in much less time than previous methods. His product was especially well suited for shoes, handbags and gloves. Foederer named his product Vici Kid, Latin for ‘I conquered,” and Kid for the goat hide used to produce the leather.
To produce his trademark “Vici Kid,” Foederer built a large plant in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, in 1892. Many of his employees were German immigrants themselves and lived on the blocks of two story homes surrounding the plant. One street near the factory was named Vici Street. Vici Kid was so successful that Foederer entered it in a competition at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where it won the grand prize and gold metal. The event created a world market for Vici Kid.
With the success of his business, Foerderer began renovations of Glengarry, which he renamed Glen Foerd. The house was nearly doubled in size and recreated into an Edwardian style. A large dining room, art gallery, kitchen and servant’s quarters were added, along with a grand staircase, self-playing Haskell organ, and leaded glass skylights. During this time, Foerderer also served as a United States Congressman and President of Keystone Telephone Company. Unfortunately, he died in 1902, before the renovations of Glen Foerd were completed. His son, Percival became president of Robert H. Foerderer, Inc. and moved to Bryn Mawr, PA. Caroline and daughter, Florence continued renovations at Glen Foerd and remained there until their respective deaths in 1934 and 1972. Caroline and Florence worked with landscape architects, Thomas Sears and James Bush-Brown to redesign the grounds with terraces, fountains and garden sculpture.
Caroline remarried to Enos Artman and became a devoted philanthropist, establishing the Artman Lutheran Home and working with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Son, Percival, continued as president of his father’s company, and became closely involved with Jefferson Hospital. The Foerderer Pavilion on its campus is named for the family. A portion of Percival’s estate was sold to nearby Villanova University after his death. Daughter, Florence, married William Tonner, proprietor of a hosiery mill in Lansdowne. Florence became an avid art collector and amassed one of the most extensive print collections in the country. Upon her death, she donated a world-class collection of William Blake works to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Florence died in 1972 and Glen Foerd passed to the Lutheran Church of America. In 1988 it reverted to the City of Philadelphia and is now possessed by the Glen Foerd Consevation Corp. and open to the public.
Enjoy your sail on the Delaware and marvel at the natural beauty that drew some of the most important figures in our nation’s history to its banks.