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Centennial City

June 2024
15min read

The simple, affectionate water colors of an unassuming Scots immigrant, David J. Kennedy, bring back the Philadelphia of 1876 and our first great world’s fair

President Ulysses S. Grant opened the United States Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia on May 10, 1876. When the closing ceremonies were held on November i o, in a cold drenching rain, 9,910,966 people (paid and free) had passed through the entrance gates. This was more than fourteen times the population of Philadelphia, the second largest city of the United States, and more than had attended any of the great world’s fairs held in the preceding quarter century. World’s fairs—and in fact any kind of mass spectacle—were then a novelty attracting great interest; but the Centennial of 1876 was a phenomenon. For six months crowds filled to capacity every railroad station, ticket office, steamboat, horsecar, hotel, boarding house, and eating place in the city and on all the roads to it. During its six months of existence the Centennial proved to be the most overwhelming, absorbing, entertaining public exhibition that had ever to that time been seen in the United States. The millions who came thought the Centennial the most wonderful thing they had ever encountered and never forgot it; and every historian who has studied its role and influence in American life finds it a landmark in our history.

Characteristically, no one in Philadelphia today could tell you the names of the men, or the women (and don’t think the women were not important), responsible for this extraordinary success; nor the names of those who created the vast and beautiful park that housed the Centennial and is still one of the major pleasures and ornaments of the city. If you should frame the pictures of the chiefs of the Centennial—the wise, modest John Welsh, president of its board; the formidable Mrs. E. G. Gillespie, who headed the Women’s Centennial Executive Committee; or Alfred T. Goshorn, the director general—in any public place in Philadelphia, they would not be recognized. This is the oddly self-deprecating nature of our fourth-largest city, whose people can remember William Penn and Benjamin Franklin but are remarkably vague about everyone else in their city’s history.

We know, however, a rather surprising amount about the city of Philadelphia that the visitors saw, as well as about how gay and bright the pavilions of the Great Fair were to the eyes of 1876. It is strange that we should know so much about things so ephemeral. I remember that near the close of the Second World War, when the news came of the destruction in Florence caused by the retreating German army, an art-historian friend remarked that the irreparable losses would not be the great monuments. These, he said, had all been carefully photographed and, if need be, could be exactly reconstructed. But the ordinary streets and houses of the old city, which preserve the ambiance and atmosphere of the past, neither would nor could ever be rebuilt. They were gone forever.

We owe much of our knowledge of the appearance of the fair and the Philadelphia of that time to one man. He was a Scottish immigrant named David J. Kennedy, who arrived in the city in 1836 and for sixty years made it his avocation to paint careful, affectionate water colors of the city’s houses and streets. Attracted by the past of the city, he also painted from old prints and pictures of an earlier time (some otherwise unknown), so that his subjects represent a period from 1797 to 1893. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania acquired many of his water colors in 1900 and another lot in the 1930’s when Julian P. Boyd (now the editor of the papers of Thomas Jefferson) was librarian of the society. Altogether there are something like 750 Kennedy water colors in the society’s collection, from which these illustrations are drawn. They form a cumulative portrait of an American city that is, in my experience, unique.

Kennedy was not an artist in the nineteenth-century use of the word. He took no part in the artistic life of the city, only once exhibiting two Scottish water colors in a show of a benevolent society of artists. Indeed, the only time he seems to have appeared in the Philadelphia newspapers, he was referred to as an oldtime railroad man. His career as a graphic historian of his city was carried on con amore in the intervals of daily work. His preparation for it was curious and so characteristic in many ways of nineteenth-century America as to be worth telling.

David J. Kennedy was the son of a Scottish stonemason. He was born about the year 1816 in a one-story thatched stone house on the west coast of Scotland, in a tiny hamlet known as Port Mullin. Opposite the house stood Ailsa Craig and to the left the black ragged rocks of Corsewall Point, where his father was at work on the building of the lighthouse that guides shipping through the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland. The boy walked three miles to the nearest village school but at twelve was taken out by his father to drive a cart hauling gravel for a road to the lighthouse. Then for a time he worked in a haberdasher’s shop in the nearest town, Stranraer, and gained some more schooling (which he always remembered with gratitude) at an academy three miles from Stranraer. When the boy was fourteen or fifteen, his father moved across the North Channel to a job on the harbor works at Donaghadee, Ireland; and David was employed at hewing the large blocks of stone brought from Wales for the pier. He had formed the wish to be an artist, but his father, as he said, “hooted the idea.”

The father seems to have been a harsh man but ambitious and of some education, for he kept an evening school for the stonecutters. He taught David enough architectural drawing so that the boy, in his teens, could teach grown men in the school. When work on the pier at Donaghadee stopped for lack of funds, the father determined to emigrate to Canada. While the family waited for transportation, David was allowed to go up to Belfast to take some lessons in water color from an artist, Robert McMeiken. The Kennedys sailed for Quebec on April 14, 1833, in the brig Earl of Aberdeen . We know all this from a brief memoir of his life that David wrote in old age.

There was work in Canada for Scottish stonecutters. The father and son found jobs in Kingston, Ontario, but the elder Kennedy was land hungry. In 1834 he bought land six miles outside Guelph, Ontario. The boy David found himself engaged in the exhausting work of a pioneer farm under a driving father, “working so hard that I could not sleep at night many times and for all this no thanks.” A sister had married another young Scotsman who had gone to Philadelphia, and sent David the money to join them there. In 1836, by way of the Erie Canal and the Hudson, he journeyed to Philadelphia, where he again found work as a stonecutter. He hated the trade; and as soon as he had earned enough money to pay his debts, he left the mason’s trade behind him forever. By January, 1838, he had settled permanently in Philadelphia.

This was Kennedy’s preparation for becoming a graphic historian. He was an architectural draftsman with an attractive sense of color; people were rather beyond his powers and are no more than Staffage when they appear, strolling in the foregrounds of his water colors. Sometimes he gives us a comprehensive view, such asthat reproduced on pages 20-21, of a tree-shaded Broad Street looking north from what is now the site of City Hall, or of the Classic Revival portico of the old Jefferson Medical College, page 24. But for the most part he seems to have rambled about the red-brick city or along the old highroads leading out into the countryside, making precise, affectionate drawings of houses or street corners that pleased his eye. He was a simple man and at his best with simple, rather unpretentious things. His favorite themes were a home of some person of prominence or historical interest—such as Mrs. James Rush, reputed to be the richest woman in America, or one of his heroes, Thomas Say, the naturalist, uncle of David Kennedy’s wife—or a view across a street intersection.


There were two great Kennedy subjects, however, that were neither simple nor unpretentious, nor touched with the softening flavor of times past that attracted him. These were the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the Centennial. They were examples of the new technology of steam and iron that was transforming the world: and with each he had a personal association.

Kennedy worked for the Reading Railroad for twenty-three years, for most of that time as its passenger and freight agent in the terminal on North Broad Street. He saw the first passenger train leave the terminal at Broad and Cherry streets in 1839. Among his water colors is the First Passenger train to Reading , consisting of two wooden cars, on two trucks of four wheels each, painted yellow. Number 1 was for first-class passengers, Number 2 for second-class, baggage being carried on an open flatcar under a tarpaulin. Beneath, Kennedy pasted two of the circular white tickets, first and second class, for the first passenger train to go to Pottsville, countersigned on the reverse D. J. Kennedy in his careful handwriting, and a ticket for the connecting stagecoach that would take the traveller to and from WilkesBarre.


In 1861 Kennedy’s eyesight failed, and he spent seven years at home. When able to work again, he became a draftsman in the office of the city engineer, preparing a street map of the city; then, in 1869, a draftsman for the engineer in charge of creating Fairmount Park. In that office he met an alert young man in his twenties named Hermann J. Schwarzmann, who had recently come to Philadelphia from Bavaria. In 1873 the Fairmount Park Commission sent Schwarzmann to the Vienna International Exposition. On his return “Hermann J. Schwarzmann drew up the Landscape & Architectural plans & Elevation of the permanent Building [Memorial Hall],” Kennedy says in his reminiscences, “and I assisted him, we two working for weeks on the top of a large drawing table 12 feet long by 6 wide. I colored them all up; and his plans with others were accepted.” Schwarzmann was to design not only Memorial Hall (which still stands) but the other permanent building, Horticultural Hall (which stood until our own neglectful times allowed it to decay), and many other buildings of the fair. The Centennial was part of Kennedy’s own life.

Several great currents of architecture and taste met and mingled in the buildings of the Great Fair. One was the novel technological invention of construction in metal and glass, so much beloved by modern critics as the ancestor of the metaland-glass monsters of our own day. The vast, transparent, weatherproof open spaces of the Main Building, Machinery Hall, and Horticultural Hall announced a new architecture, whose day was, however, still in the future. Of more immediate effect perhaps was the British Pavilion, built in the contemporary manner of Norman Shaw and Charles Eastlake. The Turkish Pavilion also had a spectacular but, happily, brief impact upon American interiors. The Japanese Pavilion launched the earliest of the recurring waves of Orientalism in America.

But around the great official structures and the pavilions of foreign governments stood a crowd of other buildings. There were 190 of them within the three-mile fence that encircled the grounds, and some of the most popular concessions were outside it. No one paid attention to these private commercial buildings at the time, because they were too familiar; and no one has paid attention since, because our wooden vernacular architecture of the 1870*8 is still a lost cause in American taste. It is nameless—unless “carpenter’s Gothic,” “gingerbread,” or (Heaven help us) “Victorian” can be called names- and anonymous. This was a time when the ingenuity and inventiveness that one school of historians proudly claims for us as a people in technology, and another school grimly denies us in the arts, found a breach in the levee and poured tumultuously through in a flood of towers, pinnacles, verandas, and scrollsaw ornament. How gay, picturesque, and delightful those wooden vernacular buildings of the Centennial were we can see in Kennedy’s water colors. The Great White City of the Chicago fair of 1893 is enshrined in folk memory —we have forgotten that in 1876 the Centennial had a polychrome architecture. We must thank Mr. Kennedy for everything he tells us about Frank Leslie’s Pavilion, about the American Fusee Building (fusees were safety matches), the Turkish Café and Bazaar, the Sheet Metal Building, and other enchantments, forever lost.

In the Vienna Bakery Building Messrs. Goff, Fleishman & Company introduced Vienna bread to America, serving coffee, ices, chocolate, and bread at little marble-topped tables to enthusiastic crowds. “It may effect a permanent improvement in American bread making,” said a writer in Frank Leslie’s Historical Register of the fair. “The Viennese, who are said to be the best bread makers in the world, will then deserve the hearty thanks of the future generations of Americans.” (Another lost cause.)


In the World’s Ticket Office “the well known firm of Cook, Son, & Jenkins” (What became of Mr. Jenkins?) not only sold tickets and guidebooks to all parts of the civilized world but displayed the mummy of “an Egyptian princess or priestess, and its case which though 3000 years old, is in an excellent state of preservation. . . . The mummy and case are the property of the Rev. Dr. J. L. M. Curry, President of the Richmond (Virginia) College, who obtained them at Luxor while making a trip up the Nile under the escort of a member of this firm.” And for those contemplating a trip to the Holy Land, behind the building was set up an encampment such as Cook, Son, & Jenkins provided for travellers journeying through Palestine un-, der their charge, complete with the tent in which you would live, the twin iron beds in which you would sleep, a cookstove, and “a real Syrian dragoman and cook.”

This was the stuff to give the troops. The great American rush to travel abroad was about to start.

The transparent delight that breathes from Kennedy’s water colors of the Centennial buildings gives us some notion of what the unsophisticated Americans, his contemporaries, felt. One cannot learn this from faded photographs or woodcut illustrations in Harper’s Weekly and Leslie’s Weekly and still less from the somewhat captious articles about the Centennial in the monthly magazines. The Atlantic Monthly, Scnbner’s Monthly , and the like commissioned descriptions of the fair from urbane, travelled writers who had seen much of the world and really did not care for crowds. Kennedy’s reactions were those of the gentle, untravelled people who were unused to spectacles and crowds, fountains and fireworks, great shining machines, foreign uniforms, and the faces of notables. For these, it was all glorious excitement.


It was characteristic of Kennedy to have lavished such affectionate study upon the Centennial’s less pretentious buildings. The same is true of his water colors of the city itself. We must turn to other artists for views of the monuments of Philadelphia -Independence Hall, the great hotels and business blocks, Girard College, the Waterworks at Fairmount. The best shopping street in the city, Chestnut Street, was being rapidly rebuilt. Its merchants’ pride in their fine new establishments had created, in Kennedy’s lifetime, a school of lithographers who supplied views of shops to serve as broadsides advertising these businesses. There were so many of these lithographers that Nicholas B. Wainwright has devoted a delightful book to them, Philadelphia in the Romantic Age of Lithography .


This was not Kennedy’s vein. He did views of Chestnut Street showing that the charms of fine streets and fine shops were not beyond him; but he preferred other associations. He did not paint Mr. George W. Childs’s new white-marble mansion, where President Grant stayed as a guest when he opened the exposition. Neither did he paint the magnificent new building Mr. Childs erected on Sixth Street to house his newspaper, the Public Ledger . Instead he gives us a water color of the West Side of 6th Street looking across Independence Square (the trees left out in order to show the buildings), of the row of once-fine old houses that were to be torn down to make room for Mr. Childs’s building.

Another water color (below) shows the South West corner of Eighth & Chestnut Streets in 1876. At the other end of this block was the fine façade of the Continental Hotel, the best in the city. Kennedy painted, however, a view of what had been built as fine houses of the end of the eighteenth century and had gradually been converted to shops as the city grew westward. The second house from the corner, Number 802, had once been the home of Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of the Treasury, William J. Duane. The gilt eagles and the spectacle sign on the façade had been put up by the firm of Lewis Ladomus & Company, watchmakers and jewellers, when it occupied the building. Casper Souder, Jr., the old historian of Chestnut Street, considered these signs a sad desecration of the former dignity of the house. When Kennedy painted them, this and all the houses of that row were about to come down to make room for a new building of the Philadelphia Times . Philadelphia was changing in 1876 as cities are changing today—but then it was the eighteenth-century city that was vanishing.

That Philadelphia was a city of rows of red-brick houses with whitemarble doorframes and doorsteps. They were links in a tradition of city living stretching backward to London, beyond London to seventeenthcentury Holland, and to still more distant origins. They were town houses, the product of the experience and good sense of generations of master builders, passed down by the apprentice system. Each man had refined the experience of his predecessor to create a form of street, and home, in which human families could live closely together in comfort and privacy. Architects, it is true, had begun to ornament the principal streets with more ambitious structures of marble or granite and to push the height of their buildings up beyond the prevailing three or four stories. But although Mr. Otis exhibited his elevator at the Centennial, he could not persuade anyone to purchase it. People walked upstairs, as they had always done.

In the next quarter century great fortunes were to be made from horsecar and trolley lines within the city and from the development of suburban real estate outside it. But in 1876 most people, rich and poor alike, still lived in the compact city of their ancestors.

In the year before the Centennial the British consul had described its features in a report to his government. Philadelphia had, he said, over 1,000 miles of streets, more than 500 of them paved. It was lighted by nearly 10,000 gas lamps. It had 134 miles of sewers, 600 miles of gas mains, 546 miles of water pipes, more than 212 miles of street railways. It had 400 schools, 1,600 teachers, 80,000 pupils. There were “over 34,000 bathrooms, most of which are supplied with hot water,” and 400 places of public worship. All this was maintained by nine million dollars collected in taxes. It is easy to be ironic about the number of bathrooms, the unpaved streets, or the taxes. Yet the city of 1876 was an organism that worked. And as Kennedy’s water colors tell us, people were fond of it and enjoyed their lives there.

By 1876 a network of railroads spread out toward nearby cities and towns; but the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers were much used. Philadelphia was a great port and shipbuilding center, although trade with southern ports and the Gulf of Mexico now had taken the place of the old European and China trades. Passenger steamers served the little ports up and down the bay and river: Trenton, Bristol, Burlington, Chester, Wilmington, New Castle, Salem, Cape May. On the long pool in the Schuylkill above the dam at Fairmount, the May Queen and the Star would take those on pleasure bound from the pier at the foot of Coates Street up the river to the zoo, the Centennial, the Falls, and the Wissahickon for twenty-five cents. There were famous riverside restaurants, like Belmont Cottage, and the river was a great center for oarsmen, as it is today.

It would be a delusion to suppose from the peace and charm of Kennedy’s water colors that the people of the Centennial city lived in a golden age, free from the troubles that human beings, frail and foolish, inflict upon themselves. On September 18, 1873, the great financial house of Jay Cooke & Company closed its doors, and the resulting financial panic brought great distress to the country. OnJuIy i, 1874, the kidnapping of a Philadelphia child named Charley Ross added a new name to the dark legends of America and a new horror to haunt the minds of parents. Scandals and corruption in Washington during the Grant regime were matched in Philadelphia, where, in 1873, Joseph P. Mercer, the city treasurer, was arrested for conspiracy, convicted, and sentenced to the penitentiary.


Yet in spite of panics, crime, and corruption, all was certainly not gloom. The Franklin Institute celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1874 with a great exhibition in the Depot Building at Thirteenth and Market, memorable for having introduced the ice-cream soda to the American public.∗

∗At least, such is the Philadelphia tradition. Other cities dispute for the honor.

The institutions of the city were thriving. The Academy of Natural Sciences, in the midst of one of its greatest periods and having already outgrown three buildings, opened its fourth building on Logan Square in January, 1876. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the April following opened one of the great buildings of the age, designed by the Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. The huge granite pile of the city hall, designed by another remarkable architect, John McArthur, Jr., had been begun in 1872 and was only slowly rising at the time of the Centennial. The Philadelphia Zoological Society had opened America’s first zoo in 1874.

This was the city that Kennedy loved and painted for sixty years. This simple, affectionate man’s portrait of his city is also a portrait of himself. His life revolved about his work, his home, his church, and his city. One day, when he had not been in Philadelphia very long, he saw a girl across the street. Let him tell it in his own way: George Young & I who boarded with my sister Mrs. Glendenning in Bonsall St., left one morning to go down to the City and in crossing gth Street from Bonsall I happened to look across gth St. (we were then on the east side) & there on the doorstep of No. 5/0 stood a most genteel & ladylike young lady with a doormat in her hand, which she hung on the iron railing. I called to George, George, look at that young lady on the doorstep on the other side, is she not elegant & ladylike see what large pretty black eyes she has. I tell you what, George, I cannot but admire her & must find out who she is, (she caught us looking at her & wondered what impudent fellows we were)

He did meet and marry her, in the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church (reproduced on page 17). A thrifty, hard-working Scottish pair, they ultimately bought their own red-brick row house at 131 North Sixteenth Street and raised four children. After the Centennial, Kennedy tells us in his notes on his life, “I have been in no business, but have employed my time in finishing up the sketches I have taken in and around the City since 1836 & putting them in my sketch book, which now comprises 6 volumes each 3 inches thick.” A title page of one of these volumes, Lights & Shades of Other Days , is the best description of their contents.


He had one business investment, in his later years, in a company producing the “Philadelphia busybody,” an arrangement of mirrors in a tin frame that, fixed outside a secondstory window, enabled the housewife within to see who stood on the doorstep or walked in the street. In times past there was hardly a block of row houses in Philadelphia without several busy-bodies projecting, as now air conditioners do, from upper windows.

Kennedy closed his brief memoir of his life in 1879: My dear darling wife Morgiana took sick on Feby 21 st 1879 and died on the 20th of Pneumonia & heart disease, only 5 days sick. She was the bright & shining light of my married life. No one ever enjoyed a happier married life than we, and to her good judgement, care and prudence I owe all my success in life. She was a good, thoughtful, kind, selfsacrificing creature as ever lived, always readv to help others regardless of self. She now lies in Laurel Hill where I !shall] shortly join her.

His life went on quietly thereafter. His last dated water color was done in 1893. He died at Philadelphia in 1898.

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