August 26, 2010

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Blockbuster exhibit at Phila. Art Museum
Renoir paintings have ties to huge Mt. Airy estate

Famed artist Andy Warhol claimed that Henry McIlhenny, seen here in his Germantown/Mt. Airy mansion around 1960, was “the only person in Philadelphia with glamour,” a sentiment echoed by the Philadelphia Art Alliance, which dubbed him the “first gentleman of Philadelphia.” McIlhenny left his entire estate to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has been compared to the bequests by the Mellon family to the National Gallery and by Nelson A. Rockefeller to the Museum of Modern Art. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

While you can get an eyeful of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s (1841-1919) work (from the last two decades of his life) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) in their “Late Renoir” exhibit running through Sept. 6, very few Northwest Philadelphia residents are probably aware that several of Renoir’s paintings were originally housed at the Park Gate estate, owned by the McIlhenny family on the border between Germantown and Mt. Airy.  

In exploring the Renoir connection to Northwest Philadelphia, it was discovered that efforts are now underway to have the once stately — but now dilapidated — mansion preserved. The house, located next to the Anna Lane Lingelbach Elementary School, at 6340 Wayne Ave. originally stood on a five-acre, impeccably landscaped site one block above the intersection of Lincoln Drive and Johnson Street.

The stone gates, which remain standing, marked the entrance to the Wissahickon Valley section of Fairmount Park, leading to the name of the estate.  (In early references, Park Gate was written as one word, Parkgate, and in later years it was written as both one and two words; but more often the latter was used.)

According to PMA Curator Joseph J. Rishel and Germantown Historical Society preservationist J. Patrick Moran, members of the McIlhenny family were catalysts for shaping the PMA in many ways. Henry McIlhenny even helped put on an exhibit of works by Renoir at PMA in 1938. McIlhenny, a world-renowned art collector, helped bring the works to Philadelphia for safekeeping because of the impending war all over Europe. (Henry also owned Glenveagh Castle in County Donegal, Ireland, where he would throw lavish summer parties entertaining the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Rosemary Clooney and Greta Garbo. He bought the castle in 1938 and placed it in an estate of over 40,000 acres.)

“The Judgment of Paris,” by Renoir, which is part of the current “Late Renoir” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was once owned by Wayne Avenue resident Henry McIlhenny, who sold it to a museum in Japan. It is now on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Sept. 6.

According to an application that Moran submitted to have Park Gate placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places: “A visit to Park Gate in the ‘30s and ‘40s was an opportunity to experience world-renowned art in a domestic setting. David, Renoir, Lautrec and Degas were just four artists among the dozens of important artists whose works were incorporated into one of the great American collections of decorative arts including antique furniture, silver, porcelain and rugs. After the house was sold, these collections followed Henry McIlhenny to the McIlhenny Mansion on Rittenhouse Square in the 1950s, where he began a second phase of collecting. But the collecting instincts and the collections themselves that have contributed core objects to almost all the departments of the Philadelphia Museum of Art were originally assembled at Park Gate.”

PMA collections include 1,634 objects given to the Museum or purchased with funds donated by John D., Frances P., and Henry P. McIlhenny. Henry’s sister, Bernice “Bonnie” Wintersteen, and the Wintersteen family donated another 114 objects.

The two Renoir paintings from Henry McIlhenny’s collection that are part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection, “Portrait of Mme. Legrand” and “Les Grandes Boulevards,” are not part of the current exhibit because they were painted in 1875, and the PMA exhibition is devoted to Renoir’s work from 1890 to 1919. A Renoir work that is in the current exhibit, “The Judgment of Paris,” was once owned by McIlhenny but is now owned by collectors in Japan and is on loan for the “Late Renoir” exhibit. Also appearing in “Late Renoir” is a red chalk drawing by Aristide Maillol, which was purchased in 1941 with funds contributed by Henry’s father, John D. McIlhenny.

Henry’s grandfather, John, who was also mayor of Columbus, Georgia, for two years, invented a leather contraption called the McIlhenny Gas Meter, which made him a very wealthy man. (Another relative became rich after creating Tabasco sauce.) In 1877, he moved from Georgia to Philadelphia where his son, John D., continued the business and started collecting art. John D. McIlhenny married Frances Plumer and settled at Park Gate in Germantown. The couple had three children, Jack, born in 1900; daughter Bernice “Bonnie,” born in 1903, and Henry, born in 1910, who became a world-renowned art collector. 

In a letter describing his father, Henry wrote about his early start at collecting art:

“My father bought the public utilities company in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Three Counties Gas and Electric; and one of the leading families there was the Lees, of the carpet firm that Joe Eastwick now runs. A rich Miss Lees had married a clergyman, Charles F. Williams, but he gave up the calling, it was said, because of epilepsy, and so he became an ardent art collector, chiefly of Oriental carpets, so suitable for the family carpet business.

“The Williamses had become figures in the art world, so when my father went to pay his respects he saw a pile of Oriental carpets in the hall, waiting to be returned to a dealer in New York. In 1908 my parents were building a new house in Germantown (Parkgate) and needed more rugs, so my father bought the pile rejected by Williams. With that act, he was hooked. He became a passionate collector of Oriental carpets.  He really loved them, despite the fact that he was color blind!

“My parents naturally became known as collectors, and my father soon became a member of the board of this museum (Philadelphia Museum of Art), then housed in dear old Memorial Hall. In 1918 he was elected president, a post he held until his death in 1925 at the age of 59.” John D. McIlhenny died of a heart attack before the art museum’s relocation to its current venue in 1928. Mrs. McIlhenny continued to serve on the PMA Board of Directors until her death in 1943. 

Jack died at the age of 35. Bonnie married and became Bonnie Wintersteen, moving from Park Gate to Chestnut Hill, and then to Villanova. Bonnie was also on the Board of PMA, serving as its first female President from 1964 until1968.  She also served on the Board of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Bonnie and Henry lived full lives and were active in shaping the Philadelphia art collecting community until their deaths. She died of heart failure, two-and-a-half weeks prior to Henry’s death. He passed away at Hahnemann University Hospital due to complications from heart surgery on Mother’s Day, 1986. Four sons survived Bonnie. Henry never married.

Katharine Norris, who served as Henry’s secretary during his final half dozen years on Rittenhouse Square, remembered going back and forth between two Philadelphia hospitals to visit the McIlhenny siblings. One of the last things Henry said to her was, “It’s all in the details.” She explained how he was extremely diligent in placing the right paintings near each other and the right dinner guests next to each other.

Henry P. McIlhenny studied Fine Arts at Harvard University and toured Europe in the summers, starting his own art collection during his college years. He was appointed Curator of Decorative Arts at PMA in 1933 and served in a number of roles until 1964, when he made his way onto the Board. He later served as Chairman of the Board from 1976 until his death. According to Rishel, by the summer of 1937, while working for PMA McIlhenny was back in Europe seeking collections, and he cabled Director Fiske Kimball from London conveying his concerns about the political events there:


Kimball agreed, and the large group of pictures formed the core of the exhibition of Renoir’s late period that McIlhenny organized at PMA in April, 1938. In 1939 Henry purchased Renoir’s “The Judgment of Paris” and displayed it, along with a host of European paintings, statues and rugs at Park Gate. He sold “The Judgment of Paris” in 1974 to the Hiroshima Museum of Art in Japan.

Next week: A detailed firsthand account of the exquisite dinner parties and the ‘end of an era’ with Henry P. McIlhenny’s death. 

Barbara Sherf is a personal historian in Flourtown specializing in capturing life stories. She can be reached at or 215-233-8022.

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