Architecture

Ellis House, Remnant of North Broad’s Gilded Age, Headed for Auction

May 8, 2023 | by Kyle Bagenstose

The Charles T. Ellis House at 1430 N. Broad Street will be auctioned on May 11. The building’s facade is legally protected, but the fate of its incredible interior is unknown. | Photo: Kyle Bagenstose

At the end of the 19th century, the Charles T. Ellis House was just one more abode in a raucous lineup of residences belonging to the nouveau riche on North Broad Street. This is where Philadelphia’s industrialist class celebrated its newfound wealth by building ostentatious homes along the newly-burgeoning roadway.

But now, the Gilded Age mansion is one of the last guests at the party. This ghostly belle of the ball still commands attention even after many of its contemporaries departed over the past century, replaced by mostly low-rise commercial structures and straight-lined modernity.

The four-story Richardsonian Romanesque home at 1430 N. Broad Street is set to go to auction May 11, following a trio of open inspections last week. If successful, it will mark just the third changing of hands since originally constructed in 1890. First, of course, belonging to the Ellis family, of a streetcar fortune. Then, by the International Peace Mission Movement, a religious organization originally led by Father Divine.

Father and Mother Divine, 1942. | Photo courtesy of International Peace Mission Movement

The Peace Mission, whose heyday peaked in the 1930s, used its robust resources to purchase numerous real estate holdings during the mid-20th century, including the Ellis House in 1952, according to a history assembled by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Alan Le Coff, associate for auctioneer Barry S. Slosberg, Inc., says it is his understanding that the mansion has operated as a residence for the organization since that time, with a clergy member still occupying it as recently as earlier this year.

But as the Peace Mission’s membership diminished over the decades, the organization has divested various real estate holdings, the most recognizable among them the Divine Lorraine at Broad Street and Fairmount Avenue. Le Coff said his company has more recently auctioned other holdings for the organization, including the Lippincott Mansion at 507 S. Broad Street.

Just a few buildings in the Philadelphia area remain in the Peace Mission’s hands, including the crown jewel Woodmont Estate in Gladwyne, the Circle Mission Church Home and Training School at Broad and Catherine Streets, and the Disston Mansion at 1530 N. 16th Street. Le Coff believes the latter two will likely also go up for sale in the near future as well. “I suspect that if things progress the way they are, that they want to move all of their congregants up to Woodmont,” he said.

New Money, New Look

The P.A.B Widener Mansion at Broad Street and Girard Avenue was built in 1887 and designed by architect Willis Hale. It was converted into a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1899 with designs by Horace Trumbauer. The former home was demolished in 1980. | Photo courtesy of Prints and Pictures, Free Library of Philadelphia

As part of a successful application for the listing of Ellis House on the city’s historic register in 2018, staff at the Historical Commission collected a thorough history of the building and its historic context. According to the report, as the industrial revolution shifted the United States away from a primarily agrarian economy in the 19th century, its effects became evident in Philadelphia. A new era of physical and social mobility was ushered in. Foreign immigrants and freed slaves from the South moved to the city, and new economic opportunities opened up to the working class.

North Broad Street became the spot to be for those who newly found fortune. Rejected by the old money families of mostly early English descent who occupied the even-then-ritzy Rittenhouse Square, North Broad Street offered open land and open arms. It also provided a central location to burgeoning development and industry in neighborhoods like Brewerytown and Kensington. Various new money industrialists planted their increasingly flamboyant flags in the shape of mansions and social clubs.

The Elkins Mansion at 1201 N. Broad Street was built in 1900 and designed by architecture firm Washington Bleddyn Powell. It was demolished in 1972. | Photo: Philly & Stuff

Landmarks included a Germanic mansion built in 1887 by architect Willis Hale for streetcar Magnate Peter Arrell Brown Widener at Broad Street and Girard Avenue (demolished 1980 and now site of a Kentucky Fried Chicken), another mansion across the street designed by James H. Windrim for Widener’s business partner William L. Elkins (demolished 1971), the Mercantile Club at Broad and Jefferson Streets (demolished circa 1960), and the still-existent Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets.

Amongst the hubbub was the Ellis family. In the mid-1800s, patriarch Amos Ellis operated a lumber yard at 10th Street and what is now Cecil B. Moore Avenue. He then expanded into horse-drawn trolleys, investing in a company that carried customers along 10th and 11th Streets near his lumber yard, then later becoming its president and creating a fortune for his family.

When Amos died in 1888, his son Charles Ellis inherited much of his wealth and also his role as president of the Citizens Passenger Railway Company, expanding its operations as the city continued to develop–the trolley lines would later become the basis of SEPTA’s Route #23, once the largest streetcar route in the world. But to flash his wealth and keep up with the times, Charles Ellis needed a new home.

The Ellis Mansion

Inside the Ellis House. | Photo: Kyle Bagenstose

Ellis commissioned architect William Decker to design his new home and an adjacent carriage house, both constructed in 1890. Decker, described by architectural historian George Tatum as having “perhaps more feeling for bizarre design than any other architect” in Philadelphia, delivered the four-floor mansion that exists today. The most notable other Decker building still in existence today is the Swain Mansion (aka Ronald McDonald House) at 3925 Chestnut Street.

According to the Historical Commission, Decker designed the building in the Richardsonian Romanesque fashion, a style that takes from the buildings of ancient Rome, but with updates from American architect Henry Hobson Richardson in the latter half of the 19th century. Hallmarks of the style include pronounced round arches, semicircular windows, hipped or pointed roofs, rusticated stonework, round towers, and interlacing patterns.

The Ellis House has these in spades. A polygonal tower and hipped roof dominate its upper tier, with two, strange column-like terracotta chimneys rising toward the sky. Its exterior is assembled from alternating smooth and rough-faced stone, giving it a likeness akin to a woven basket. The Historical Commission notes that while currently painted brown, historical photos show the stones used to be painted in an alternating checkerboard fashion, further highlighting the contrast. Arched windows, small balconies, and large, Romanesque arches on short columns providing entrance to the front door also match the style.

During a recent walkthrough, the interior of the building appeared very well preserved. The first floor contains an office room, parlor, kitchen, and dining room, off the side of which sits a small, semi-circular conservatory with a bench seat and doors for privacy. A grand fireplace adorns a common area from which the stairs ascend. Much of the ceiling and many of the doorways throughout the house are decorated in rich, pristine woodwork.

Inside the Ellis House. | Photo: Kyle Bagenstose

The second and third floors contain a total of eight rooms which appear to have been used over time as a mix of living quarters, common areas, and office space. A finished, two-room fourth floor contains a storage area and a skylight located directly over a large, ornate stained glass piece flush with the floor. This stained glass in turn hovers above the open staircase and is visible from the first floor, backlit by the skylight. In the rear of the home is a modest-sized yard, across from which sits a two-story brick carriage house also built during the mansion’s original construction.

Despite its unique beauty, Ellis would ultimately meet a tragic end in the home after enjoying it for less than two decades. A 1909 New York Times snippet reported that Ellis had died in his bedroom, age 74, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His health was failing, and as the Historical Commission notes, there was alternating speculation about whether he had taken his own life or accidentally discharged the weapon.

Soon too would the fortunes of North Broad Street change. The Historical Commission notes that similarly-aging industrialists were leaving for suburban communities by the early 1900s. Along with the advent of the automobile and growth of institutions such as Temple University and the Free Library of Philadelphia system, the corridor shifted from a primarily residential corridor to mixed-use/commercial.

What’s Next for the North Broad Landmark

Inside the Ellis House. | Photo: Kyle Bagenstose

Le Coff said the Peace Mission had been approached by some private buyers interested in the Ellis House. He also remarked that some in the preservation community had expressed concerns about the potential outcome of an open auction. Le Coff reiterated that it was the Peace Mission’s definite intention to head to auction.

But, he pointed toward the Peace Mission’s stewardship of the home and other buildings thus far, along with the building’s listing on the local register, as factors likely to continue its preservation. Le Coff does anticipate the building is unlikely to continue as a private residence and thinks its heading for a more likely use as space for professional office or educational uses. “They are very aware of their surroundings and certainly want to maintain the physical structures,” Le Coff said of the Peace Mission. “The historical certification also requires that, certainly the exterior of the building, is kept intact.”


A look inside the Charles T. Ellis House on North Broad Street. Photographs by Kyle Bagenstose.



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About the Author

Kyle Bagenstose is an independent journalist based in East Mt. Airy. Previously with USA Today, he writes primarily about environmental and urban topics.

5 Comments:

  1. JBK says:

    Demolition of such a magnificent building would be criminal.
    What does it take for the Landmarks Commission in Phila. to grant protective status to a mansion like this – and not be subject to the whims of real estate moguls who could give a damn about architecture or history?

    1. Paul Steinke says:

      The Ellis Mansion was designated on the Philadelphia Register in 2018 and is thus protected from demolition.

  2. Paul Steinke says:

    The Preservation Alliance will be submitting a historic nomination for the Circle Mission property at S. Broad and Catharine before the end of the month.

  3. isabel melvin says:

    Thank you for this history and tour. Woodmont is in Gladwyn,PA not Wynnewood PA.

  4. madeleine Pierucci says:

    Will you say what was the outcome of the auction this past week?Any updating will be appreciated. M

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