Rittenhouse Square’s most maligned manse is off the market. After a number of near misses, the long vacant McIlhenny mansion has a new owner: Bart Blatstein. But he has no plans of turning it into a Tower Investments property—he plans on living there.
Blatstein, who two months ago sold 60 percent of his holdings at The Piazza and Liberties Walk, has focused his energy on bringing The Provence casino to the former Inquirer Building. Now he’s got a home within walking distance of his new energy.
With a closing price of $4.2 million negotiated by Howard Casper for U S Spaces, Inc., a real estate brokerage owned by Fred Glick, Blatstein might have gotten himself a bargain on the longtime home of art collector and Philadelphia bon vivant Henry McIlhenny. (Glick is a Hidden City Philadelphia board member.) Hank McNeil, who purchased the house on the southwest corner of the Square for $1.475 million in 1998, has listed it for as much as $11.7 million.
McNeil, an heir to the Tylenol fortune and a noted art collector in his own right, has never lived in the house. At the time of his purchase, McNeil wanted to demolish the one-story curved entrance and dome at 1916 Rittenhouse. He hired New York architect Richard Gluckman (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, 1998 Whitney Museum expansion, NYC) to design a four-story replacement on the same scale as 1914 Rittenhouse, with a roof deck and gallery space for his art. The Historical Commission Architectural Review Committee approved of the modification, but appeals by neighbors to the Licenses and Inspections Review Board ultimately stalled the plan, and McNeil never moved in. Instead, he bought and moved into a home around the corner on Delancey Street, leaving the Rittenhouse building empty.
Ed. note: The above paragraph has been updated with new info from the Historical Commission’s file on the property.
The 8,600 sq ft house, which is actually six combined properties (1914–16 Rittenhouse Square and 1915–21 Manning Street) with a large garden and patio, is known colloquially as the McIlhenny Mansion. The main property at 1914 Rittenhouse was built in 1858.
Henry Plumer McIlhenny was born into a family whose wealth grew out of his grandfather’s invention and development of gas meters. By all accounts a first rate gentleman, McIlhenny was a renowned art collector. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where his father was President in the 1920s and his mother was a trustee), he was Curator of Decorative Arts for 25 years, and Chairman of the Board from 1976 until his death in 1986. Andy Warhol called him “the only person in Philadelphia with glamour.”
McIlhenny was also known to throw glamorous society parties at his Rittenhouse home. He moved in to 1914 Rittenhouse Square in 1950, and ultimately bought the adjoining houses on either side, during which expansion he built a ballroom and courtyard. As the PMA describes it, “[h]is renown as a generous and congenial host would establish McIlhenny’s Philadelphia home as a center of social activity, drawing a diversity of high profile guests, including actors, artists and royalty. McIlhenny’s hospitality extended to visitors of his art collection. His paintings, which he selected in part because they were ‘more sympathetic in private houses,’ were intimately incorporated into his living space and complimented by Charles X furniture.”
Before moving to Rittenhouse Square, McIlhenny lived in his family’s ancestral home Park Gate, at Wayne Avenue and Lincoln Drive in Germantown. He sold that home to Fredric Mann (for whom the Mann Center is named), who in turn sold it to the School District of Philadelphia. The School District then built Lingelbach Elementary School on the grounds, and in the years since, the Park Gate house itself has, like 1914 Rittenhouse, gone unused. It remains boarded up.
Celebrated realtor Barbara L. Greenfield remembers McIlhenny fondly. “Henry was a great person and a true lover of the arts. But he was underappreciated,” she says before adding, “this is Philadelphia.” Greenfield represented the McIlhenny estate during its sale after he died. Her father-in-law, Albert M. Greenfield, parlayed his own real estate empire into powerful political influence in the Democratic Party, for example in the elections of Joseph Clark (the city’s first Democratic mayor in nearly 70 years) and Richardson Dilworth in the 1950s. During Greenfield’s brief tenure as head of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, urban renewal became a priority, and with that came the effort to revitalize the city’s core.
Of this time, Barbara Greenfield recalls, “nobody lived downtown back then; it was a slum.” Noting that she and her husband lived on a farm in Chester County before moving into the city, she says of her father-in-law’s drive, “he recognized that if Philadelphians were going to come back [into Center City], it had to be posh.” His friend Henry McIlhenny partook in the posh rebound of Rittenhouse Square, bringing his acclaimed art collection with him from Park Gate. The collection included numerous works by Degas, Toulouse-Latrec, Renoir, and others; Connoisseur Magazine named him one of America’s all time ten best art collectors. When he died in 1986, McIlhenny bequeathed it all to the PMA.
After nearly thirty years without a tenant, McIlhenny’s home will return to a high level of character when Bart Blatstein moves in. Hidden City was unable to reach him for comment.