Walk too fast on Walnut Street and you could easily miss it. Tucked into the streetscape a block west of Rittenhouse Square, is an intricate marble entryway, surrounded by ironwork the small glint of “1923” — the street address — and an archaic bronzed buzzer.
It marks the location of the five-story Stotesbury Mansion, a nearly 150-year-old registered landmark.
The mansion is a relic of a more opulent Philadelphia’s past. It’s also the current headquarters for the Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute; a popular wedding venue, and the home base of Articulate, an Emmy-winning series that showcases art through a philosophical lens and is aired on 400 PBS stations plus on Voice of America around the world.
A tour of the multi-purpose facility revealed treasures like Venetian chandeliers that glimmer with operatic reverberation, a 92-year-old elevator, a Prohibition-era cellar and more.
Jim Cotter, host and managing editor of Articulate and Louis Ferrero, the unofficial historian of the CPLI, clued Billy Penn in on the Stotesbury Mansion of then and now:
The fireplace Jackie Kennedy coveted
Some U.S. history that most Americans may not know — but the Irish-born Cotter does — is that the White House was not originally white, but rather gray. It’s painted white to hide burn marks from when it was torched by the British in the War of 1812.
How is this slice of trivia relevant to the Stotesbury Mansion? Because, per Cotter, the burns are what led to a failed negotiation with former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis over a fireplace.
While the White House was being refurbished post-incineration, the story goes, President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison stayed at a hotel across the way. Dolley took the opportunity to sell off White House furniture she didn’t fancy. The fireplace in question ended up in the hands of notable British art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, who in 1890 sold it to on Edward T. Stotesbury and his wife.
Fast-forward half a century, when Jackie Kennedy was on a mission to restore the White House to its former, pre-1812 glory. She heard about the fireplace now situated in a mansion in Philadelphia. But when Kennedy tried to buy it, CPLI leaders supposedly balked. They weren’t going to let even the First Lady of the United States muddle the beauty of their clubhouse, in which they’d been ensconced since 1926.
The fireplace stayed — and Cotter believes that there now may be a replica of it in the White House.
The Prohibition-era maze of mirrors
During Prohibition, society clubs — of which the Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute was one — helped Philadelphia society fill in the missing booze.
(It should be noted that the CPLI did more than serve alcohol: it has, since its founding by Irish Catholics who had recently immigrated to Philadelphia in 1850, served the community by giving time and money to educational causes. There was still alcohol served at many of those charity events, however.)
One way that the CPLI kept the beer on tap and the whiskey pouring was by creating a “maze of mirrors.”
They built a dizzying, multi-mirrored wall and ceiling paneled with reflective surfaces, and stashed the liquor behind it. Only accessible through an inconspicuous and teeny Alice and Wonderland-esque door, the storage space was great for stowing away bottles for the CPLI’s next rendezvous.
Once used to fool G-Men, the mirror maze now stuns as a photo backdrop for brides and professional models.
There are a couple of possibly true stories that give the mansion its character and reputation — for better or worse.
One is that the building was used to hide precious German, British and French artwork from the Nazis leading up to and during World War II. There’s nothing written about that anywhere, online or otherwise, but Cotter has lots to spout about the tale, with a note that none of it has been fact-checked.
Another is that the “fiddler’s booth” installed above the two entrance doors to the grand Georgian ballroom — directly imported, piece by piece, from London at Stotesbury’s request in 1914— was used to hide African American band members from the elite white society Stotesbury would entertain at his $1.5-million colossus. The guests would then listen to the band through slots in the wall.
Cotter said he assumes the CPLI continued using the booth for that purpose for quite some time after taking over the space. If the institute did do such a thing, he noted, it would have been not only prejudiced but entirely hypocritical — since the institute was founded by a group of persons who were being persecuted for their ethnic origin and their religious beliefs.
A private club with a public space
In its day, Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute was considered the cool place to be.
According to Ferrero, it’s where young gentlemen would come after work for a scotch and a round of pool with fellow club members — the former billiards room is today one of the few indoor venues in Philly that sometimes allows smoking — and it was also used for all kids of events. There were fundraisers, lectures, exercise classes and dance parties. The mansion was thriving.
But in the latter half of the 20 century, it became uncool to be a member of a social club. Facing financial trouble, the CPLI in the 1990s made the decision to rent out Stotesbury for outside events. The idea was not only to rake in revenue from conferences, banquets and weddings, but also to entice more people to join as members.
In the 1980s, rules were expanded to allow any practicing Catholic to join — including, for the first time, women. Current board members are deliberating whether to expand membership even further and allow non-practicing Catholics in. The cost to join ranges from $25 to $1,500.
Squash court-turned-TV studio
Then there’s Articulate. The show’s 11-person team, which produces material consumed by 1.4 million international subscribers, has been able to structurally alter their section of the space in a way that simultaneously maintains the its historical integrity but also serves their 21st-century purpose.
Their area, which is located on the fourth and fifth floors of the mansion, is largely made up of an abandoned squash court given to Stotesbury’s son as a birthday gift in 1890.
Though the acoustics in the downstairs ballroom are optimal for musical guests, and while it also provide a gorgeous backdrop with sparkling Venetian chandeliers, the more technical aspects of a TV show are harder to handle in a room like that.
Solution? A DIY soundproofed foam cube dropped smack in the center of the squash court. Within the enclosure are four cameras, loads of wires and mics and bits of fabric — it looks like a legitimate recording studio, not a makeshift one inside a 19th-century mansion.
“When the doors close in this cube,” Cotter said, “you escape from the world and can’t hear the bustle from Rittenhouse Square.”
To book Stotesbury Mansion, fill out the contact form on the venue’s official site.