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There Once Were Finger Bowls: The McIlhenny

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Sitting across from the Dorchester on Rittenhouse Square (extending onto Rittenhouse Street, aka, Winter Wind Tunnel Ave.), what's familiarly known as the McIlhenney is for sale for $4.75 million. While that may seem a bargain, of sorts, for a 10-bedroom, 8,600 square-foot mansion with a two-car garage on the toniest green in the city, the McIlhenney needs more than a little TLC. Named for its former owner, art collector Henry Plumer McIlhenny, the house hasn't had a resident since his death in 1986 and is in need of numerous repairs. When the property first went on the market in 2006, the Inquirer's architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote about it on her blog Skyline Online. At the time, it was priced at $11,740,000. Saffron wrote: "While the $12 million tag might suggest the Philadelphia housing market has reached a whole new level, it's pretty much what developers expect to pay today for a prime Rittenhouse Square high-rise site." How times have changed.

McIlhenny was utterly dedicated to connoisseurship and collecting, and he was well known in his lifetime not only for his patronage but for his wealth and breeding. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has his collected papers, including articles that were written about him. The summary of the articles makes you understand the place he held in the world of swells:

In many, the [article] titles alone underscore McIlhenny's reputation as patron of the arts and the epitome of elegance. ... Patrick Gallagher, McIlhenny's butler of almost 25 years, summarized his employer's character with an anecdote published in a 1988 article in Gentlemen's Quarterly. When a guest mistakenly drank from his finger bowl, McIlhenny picked up his own bowl and did the same. To Gallagher, such was the response of "a true gentleman." (It should be noted that the gentleman might have gotten the idea from Queen Victoria, who was famously rumored to have done the same thing.)

The collected papers also give us a window into how the 35-room mansion evolved into the property it is today. To start with, what we see as one building was originally three. According to the museum's content summary, the renovations were supervised by "Philadelphia architect and personal friend George Roberts" and cost $100,000 in total.

As for interiors, McIlhenny used both the local design firm George Doan Inc. and New York's Denning & Fourcade for a 1970s overhaul, including "mirror frames based on illustrations from The Palaces of Leningrad" and "an antique, cane-back chaise percée to be fitted over the modern lavatory."

A chaise percée is a chair that disguises the toilet, and is certainly better than the sad little rug hats people put on their toilet seats these days. In case you're curious, we have a gallery for you:

And here's a gallery of McIlhenny's interiors from the April 1986 House and Garden, which a reader scanned and sent to the blog The Blue Remembered Hills.

Though the listing claims Henry Plumer McIllhenny was the property's only resident, the mansion does in fact have another owner: Tylenol heir Hank McNeil, who lives around the corner. And if random blog posts can be believed (of course!) he sounds like quite a colorful personality. John Bruce Schmitt, a frequent contributor to a blog about historic Germantown, posted about McIlhenny and McNeil last year. Here's what he said:

Henry McIlhenney moved to a magnificent house on the 1900 block of Rittenhouse Square where his extraordianry art-collection resided. Many of the great Renoirs at PAM belonged to Henry Mc. The world is so small and this mansion was sold to Henry (Hank) McNeil who frequented The Jarrettown Hotel which was owned by my family. Hank McNeil was also a great art-collector and Gallery-owner in Philly and NYC. Hank had pedigree-dogs and we liked to wager on horses. McNeil is also an art collector and owns a large tract of land called the Winslow Farms Conservancy in Hammonton, NJ, which was designed by landscape architect Martha Schwartz. McNeil apparently rescued the land from tract development plans and turned it into a sort of wildlife paradise and place for AKC field trials. We have a message in to him to talk about the Conservancy and the McIlhenny. We'll keep you posted.
· Listing: 1914-16 Rittenhouse [Mike McCann Team]