Uncovering a Gilded Past on a Philadelphia Architecture Tour

In 1876, John Wanamaker opened his famous department store on Market Street, the first of its kind in the U.S. Among other innovations he created both the price tag and the concept of returning items. Jay Gould was an important railroad developer and owned a controlling interest in some of the country’s most important industries. Anthony Drexel was a banker and financier. The Van Rensselaer’s were an old and important family, one of the wealthiest in the city. The Cassatt family made their millions from the railroads and later became famous patrons of the arts. These are just some of the many robber barons that came to prominence after the Civil War and whose greed and ambition would forever leave their marks not only on Philadelphia, but on the entire country – effects that can still be felt and even seen today. Maybe that’s why I love America’s Gilded Age so much, for the reverberations that still thunder through our daily lives even in the 21st century. Gilded for only a select few, the years between 1870-1900 witnessed some of the most incredible technological advances the world has ever seen, and forever changed the fortunes of the U.S. transforming it into the superpower it remains today. That was the focus of a Philadelphia Architecture Tour with walking tour company Context Travel, to go back in time and learn about these crucial decades but in a unique way, through the architectural evidence that survives today; buildings that millions walk by every year never realizing their long and colorful histories.

This year I’m working with Context Travel to highlight some of their tours around the world, but I’m certainly no stranger to their walking tour experiences. I’ve been patronizing them for years because, unlike so many other companies, they offer walks that are completely different from anything else offered. As one of their Deep Travelers, I’m proud to say that Context and I both agree that travel is an education, one born from a natural cultural curiosity. My latest experience delving deeper into both history and culture took me to nearby Philadelphia, an easy 2-½ hour drive from Washington and a city overflowing with stories to tell.

Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Robber Barons and the Gilded Age

Appropriately enough, it was Mark Twain who originally gave this time period its name, but the Gilded Age was also well described by many other writers and the artists of the time, especially Edith Wharton in her work “Age of Innocence.” The world was undergoing one of the most dramatic changes it’s ever witnessed, all in the span of a few decades. The world entered the Industrial Age and across the US and Europe, centuries old norms and ways of life were being shattered literally every day. Technology led the way, as it has so many times, and in the process made a few individuals not just wealthy, but almost unimaginably wealthy. The disparity between rich and poor may have never been as extreme as it was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In modern dollars, at his height Rockefeller had four times as much money as the richest person in 2017. At the same time, the average wage was less than $400 a year. In terms of property, the wealthiest 1% owned 51%, while the bottom 44% claimed 1.1%. On a perpetual hunt to find new ways to spend their money, these robber barons created some of the country’s most iconic architectural wonders, many of which are still famous today. The Breakers in Newport, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina and more are perhaps the most recognizable, but there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of other buildings and monuments to wealth that still exist today, side by side with their modern day counterparts. The slightly dulled brownstone, the exquisitely detailed facades and their prime locations offer hints to their storied histories, but for a deeper look into how the Gilded Age changed both Philadelphia and the United States, I joined the Context docent for an in-depth look into the era.

Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Architectural Wanderings

One reason why I always love taking Context tours is because they use real experts to lead their walks. Instead of all-purpose guides who profess an expertise in everything, Context invites professionals to lead walks that align with their interests. In Beijing this meant a history tour with a university professor, in Bangkok the food tour I enjoyed was led by a local food writer and on the Philadelphia Architecture Tour, the detailed look into the city’s history was guided by a trained architect with a penchant for history. There’s nothing like having a true expert share their knowledge, and in Philadelphia it made all the difference. I’m not entirely sure why I love the Gilded Age as much as I do, why I have an admiration for the men who, put most diplomatically, left behind mixed records. Yes, I understand that they created harsh working conditions for laborers, manipulated politics and the stock market and, in many cases, were ruthless in their constant need to accumulate power and wealth. But, in so doing, they also pioneered new technologies that are still changing the world and placed the country on a pedestal where it sits still today. Simultaneously, the high Victorian Era in the UK and the Belle Époque in France came together to create three of the most exciting decades the world has ever seen and in turn inspired changes in art, design, politics and social movements that had an almost immediate effect on Western culture. We wouldn’t have labor unions or social reforms had it not been for the backlash against the Robber Barons.

Philadelphia remains one of the best cities to see this history of the country, somewhat hidden in plain sight. Even though locals walk by these grand edifices every day on the way to work, they may not understand their histories or why they’re so important. After the Civil War, Philadelphia saw yet another evolution in its long history. The massive City Hall was the first step in this process, still the world’s largest municipal building, its presence in a new part of the city meant that those looking to influence politicians and gain some power for themselves also moved, creating new neighborhoods and opportunities for the social climbers. What most Robber Barons all had in common was that they were, for the most part, self-made. They didn’t all come from wealth, they were the Nouveau Riche and because of that, were usually scorned by traditional high society whether it be in Boston, New York or Philadelphia. Their insane level of wealth didn’t matter, to the established elite they were not true blue bloods, they were obnoxious upstarts and that drove the Robber Barons crazy. So they decided to create their own version of high society, buildings mansions, museums and other institutions in new parts of the city, creating their own spheres of influence away from the traditional elite. That’s where the tour took me on a pleasant three-hour walk, exploring in detail the area of Philadelphia Broad Street and Rittenhouse Square.

Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Discovering the Familiar

Cities don’t exist as a single homogenous entity, instead they are slowly created over the generations through a constant process of creation and destruction. Some things are left to stand, others torn down and the result is an amalgam of history, different eras poking through and cohabitating in a forced harmony. That’s one reason of many why I enjoy urban exploration so very much, because it’s more than just visiting famous places, it’s a meticulous process of unraveling this history and learning the lessons it has to share. It’s a sort of tourist archeology and in Philadelphia that meant admiring the imposing shadow of City Hall, but also noticing smaller details like the Union League Building on a street teeming with more modern shops like Dunkin’ Donuts and Wawa. It meant walking through the old Van Rensselaer’s mansion, which today is home to the Anthropologie store. It meant walking along stately Spruce Street, a neighborhood that has always been popular, and it meant sitting on a quiet bench in Rittenhouse Square, wondering what it was like for the hoi polloi more than a century ago. It’s a different way to explore a city, no doubt there, but I think it’s an intensely more satisfying one. Instead of admiring the veneer, it’s a way to go back through the generations and learn more about the city’s evolution, which, in the process, helps us as visitors appreciate it as it is today. Philadelphia is one of the country’s oldest and most revered cities, it’s gone through many metamorphoses in its life, but those last three decades of the 19th century may have been its most impactful, its most enduring and certainly one of its most interesting. Travel is about a lot of things, but it’s largely about exploration and discovery. This can happen in any number of ways but one of the most interesting isn’t to follow the masses to the top sights but, instead, look around at what’s hidden in plain sight. To discover the importance of what may seem familiar or even prosaic and to understand how they contribute to the life and history of the city, a living creature that continues to grow, change and evolve every single day.

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

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