The Van Rensselaer Family
This is the second in an occasional series of stories from the collections of the University Archives. Today Brian Stewart tells a tale he uncovered while researching the former home of Sarah Drexel Van Rensselaer.
Every college student knows that residence halls are named after important people, but how many can say why that person was important? Sometimes, as is the case with Van Rensselaer Hall, the name seems to come from nowhere. Why name a building after a family who founded a different school? The fact is that there were Van Rensselaers in the Drexel family, and they were important not just to the University, but to the city of Philadelphia. The following is a brief history of those Drexel family members; their lives, times, homes, and contributions.
Sarah Drexel Van Rensselaer (1860-1929), called 'Sallie,' was the fourth Child of Anthony J. Drexel and Ellen Rozet. Considered by some to have been the most confident and forceful of Tony's children, Sarah would become an active philanthropist and one of Philadelphia’s premier socialites. In 1879 she married John Ruckman Fell, a director of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and later member of the Board of Managers of the Drexel Institute. The couple had five children; Amanda, Ellen, Mae, Francis, and John; and together purchased a significant track of land in Fort Washington.
John R. Fell died of a stroke on November 12, 1895, leaving Sarah in possession of their home, Camp Hill Hall, and the financial resources of both the Fell and Drexel families. In 1897, Sarah proposed the construction of a second home in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philadelphia, and announced her engagement to Alexander Van Rensselaer (1850-1933) following a cruise aboard the May, her yacht. Sarah Drexel Fell became Sarah Drexel Van Rensselaer on January 27, 1898.
Alex Van Rensselaer was both wealthy and well-known in the Philadelphia area, and was the latest in a Pennsylvania line descending from Kilian Van Rensselaer, who had helped to found the Dutch East India Company. Kilian had sent Stephen, Alex's grandfather, to purchase a large tract of land near Albany, in New York. Stephen would later found Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, shortly before Alexander’s birth. In his youth, Alexander was educated at Princeton, from which he graduated in 1871 after excelling in both athletics and academics.
Both Alex and Sarah were independently wealthy, and it was never necessary for them to work for gain. However, they both directed their wealth towards local causes and organizations, and also became important figures in Philadelphia Society. Sarah is known to have donated significantly to the Drexel Institute, contributing both funds and counsel to the school that was her father's legacy. Her contributions made possible the construction of Curtis Hall, and she worked closely with the school's Department of Physical Training to encourage classes for women and children in the Philadelphia area. In memory of her contribution and charity work, the Institute constructed the Sarah Drexel Van Rensselaer Dormitory for Women in 1935.
Alex was a consummate supporter of the arts, and was the President of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association from the time of its inception in 1901 until his retirement shortly before his death. Both he and Sarah were enthusiastic yachtsman, but converted the family yacht May into a hospital ship following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. The family received a commendation from President McKinley for that service. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Alex was appointed Chairman of the Pennsylvania division of the Navy League, and helped to found training camps for Navy reservists. He was also Commodore of the Corinthian Yacht Club, President of the Seaman's Institute and a life trustee of Princeton University, in addition to having severed as Director of the Drexel Institute in 1897, and the President of the Board of Directors in 1908. Upon his death, a portion of his wealth was left to Drexel .
The couple was also extremely active in Philadelphia high society, and hosted – and was hosted by – many influential persons. When they took a cruise around the world in 1901, the Van Rensselaers were guests of the Japanese imperial family, the Court of St. James, the Viceroy of India and the Rajah of Singapore. Events at home were no less exciting. During the height of the social season, Sarah would hold court at the couple's townhouse at 1801 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. The 1897 housewarming party for this well-known Philadelphia building attracted such a wealthy crowd that, according to a contemporary newspaper account, they wore upwards of $10 million in jewelry. The townhouse saw visits by dignitaries, including the Marquis and Marquise Don Carlos el Pedroso of Spain. During this visit, Sarah sought to please the Marquis with a gift – an artifact taken from a Spanish warship sunk during the Spanish-American War. Her offer had the opposite effect, angering the Spaniard so much that he nearly demanded a duel with her husband. The townhouse itself continued to be newsworthy, even after the couple’s death. In 1939, the Philadelphia Public Ledger ran a front-page story concerning local uproar, caused by rumors about the house's supposed sale to a 5-and-10 cent store chain. The property was eventually sold to the Penn Athletic Club in 1942, and was occupied by that organization until 1964. The building appears on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, and appears in the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey collection.
The interior of the townhouse was gutted and rebuilt in 1975, but you can visit it even now - while you shop! The building is currently the flagship location of Anthropologie, a designer clothing boutique.
This story is just one of the many tales of interest to be found amongst the historical materials in the Drexel University Archives! Experience or discover them for yourselves by investigating our collections, which cover 120 years of fascinating Drexel history! The sources of information used for this post include the Drexel family collection, 1826 -1991, volumes from our Drexel history print collection and books on the Drexel family.