In the 19th century, A. J. Drexel lived in a mansion at the southeast corner of 39th and Walnut, and as with any estate of the time, it had a garden and was landscaped (Alexander MacElwee worked there in the 1880s).
As the 20th century rolled in, the property was purchased by Samuel S. Fels, who “made his money in the manufacture of Fels Naptha, a popular household soap“, and the institute that now bears his surname is currently there, in the building that Fels had built in 1907.
Are there plants there now that date to when this site was an estate? Yes, there is a copper beech just to the east of the Fels Institute building, right near the street, on just the other side of the fence, that from its size looks to date to the late 19th century, and so would have been there when Drexel was, and when Fels was, and on to the current time.(note: copper beeches were often estate plantings in the mid to late 19th century and can outlast the estate itself, like the magnificent copper beech currently standing in Overington Park, in Frankford)
And if we go down the street a little bit, to the next door down, towards 38th Street, in front of the building that now houses the offices of the President of the University of Pennsylvania, the former Eisenlohr Hall, there is a large rose, that was blooming with yellow flowers this past week:
I’m not sure how old that rose plant is, but its girth seemed to indicate a substantial age –
And so I wondered if perhaps it might have been there when that block was occupied by Drexel and was landscaped by Alexander MacElwee, and/or if perhaps it dated to the time of Fels, when he was living here.
And so I looked at some old pictures –
The first building, on the left, in the foreground, is no longer there – but the second set back is; it’s directly to the east of the house with the yellow rose.
And if we look even closer, between the third and fourth trees back, on the left side of the street, we see the post behind which that yellow rose is currently growing. And if we then look even a bit closer, we see what looks to be a row of three shrubs, perpendicular to the street and running south, that look to have pretty dense foliage, unlike what this rose most likely would have looked like as a younger plant.
And so this rose most likely was not there in Drexel’s time.
If we look at another photo of this block, this time from the opposite direction (i.e., looking east), and from 1931, we see this:
The first house on the right is the house with the yellow rose, and we can see that it is quite densely landscaped in 1931 – and by 1970 at least the front part of that landscape was changed to a much more open aspect:
And so we see that there was extensive removal of shrubbery from the front of the building by that time (1970, that is). This suggests that what was there prior to the early 1930s (i.e., the time of Samuel Fels) was removed by 1970, and therefore would imply that this rose does not date to his time, either.
But we can’t see to the side where the rose is now, and so we don’t know for sure it was there or not, and so our question goes unanswered, as to whether this yellow rose was there in the time of Fels, based on old photographs.
But there is a quick work around to this question, one that answers it clearly and concisely: this rose cultivar wasn’t introduced until 1956, and so we know that it post dates the time of Drexel, and the time of Fels (who passed away in 1950).
And so, the yellow rose of West Philadelphia, while beautiful, is not ancient.