November 2022 Historical Society of Riverton vol. LII, no. 4 (#193)
History of Riverton, Part 1 Presentation by Roger Prichard at the Porch Club, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 7 pm
“History of Riverton, Part I” comprises many images you may not have seen. The program explores who our founders were, their accomplishments and sorrows, and why they may have chosen to reside here.
You can also order copies online from the publisher, where you can peek inside.
John Fraser & Son, Architects
by Patricia Smith Solin
In 1851, the founders of Riverton engaged the services of architect Samuel Sloan to devise a plan for their new village. He also designed many of its first homes, especially along Bank Avenue. John Fraser, another architect who lived in Riverton and a contemporary of Sloan, not only created some of the most beautiful structures in the country, he offered his talent here in Riverton. John Fraser’s life was one of professional triumph and personal tragedy.
Born in Scotland on 18 October 1825, John Fraser emigrated to the United States, but sources do not agree when. He likely arrived in Philadelphia in 1848, wed Sophie Dorethea Niemann in April 1855, and resided in the imposing Italianate home at 101 Main Street from 1866-1902.
Samuel Sloan had initially designed 101 Main Street for James Clothier, but instead, his brother Caleb Clothier lived there in 1853. The 1860 US Census has Fraser, his mother Agnes, his wife, a baby daughter, and a housekeeper residing at that address. He installed one of the earliest burglar alarm systems known in this home.
Fraser’s architectural practice flourished during these years. In 1857, Fraser briefly partnered in Philadelphia with civil engineer Andrew Palles. In 1867 he formed a new partnership with a former student, Frank Furness, age 28, and George W. Hewitt, age 26, after creating one of his most spectacular buildings, Philadelphia’s Second Empire High Victorian on Broad Street — The Union League of Philadelphia (1864-1865).
In 1871, he left the firm after securing contracts in Washington, DC, and established an office there. Notable buildings include:
- Joseph Bates House, 18th & Delancey Streets, Philadelphia, PA –1867-1868
- The Mercantile Library, South 10th Street, Philadelphia, PA – 1867
- German Hebrew Synagogue, Congregation Rodelph Shalome at Broad and Mt. Vernon Street, Philadelphia, PA – 1877.
- Manufactures’ National Bank, 27 North 3rd St., Philadelphia, PA –1870
- British Legation, Washington, DC – 1872
- Residences and store buildings in Washington, DC included 914-926 French Street, NW, 1433-1439 Q Street, 1313 R Street, 1500 Rhode Island Avenue, and 1407 15th Street, all from 1877 until 1881, and Kann’s Department Store at Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street built in 1884
- Library of Congress -1873 & 1874
- Contributed to Philadelphia’s Frankford Arsenal
- General Plan for the Extension of the US Capitol Grounds, Washington, DC: As acting supervisory architect for the US Treasury, he created a master plan for the US Capitol grounds and served on the committee to complete the Washington Monument – 1874.
- Residence of L. Clephane, Esq. Washington, DC – 1878
- The John T. Broadhead-Bell-Morton Mansion in Washington, DC – 1879
- The James G. Blaine Mansion in Washington, DC – 1881
- Trinity Presbyterian Church, Berwyn, 1892.
The Philadelphia Inquirer listed his Philadelphia office at 410 Walnut Street in 1899. Fraser was a founding member of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a member of the T-Square Club, the Franklin Institute, and St. Andrew’s Society.
In 1878, John Fraser donated his talent, gratis, to design the Gothic Carpenter Calvary Presbyterian Church at 300 Fourth Street in Riverton. An accomplished organist, he played at the dedication ceremony in June 1879. (Calvary Church underwent extensive alteration and expansion in 1926, including new stone cladding.)
Fraser turned to work on his family’s place of worship, the High Victorian Gothic Christ Episcopal Church in Riverton at 307 Main Street, built in 1883 and consecrated in 1884. Before working on the church, he had completed work on the rectory, a Second Empire with a Mansard roof, in 1868.
In a town full of successful people, the Frasers stood out as one of the most fortunate families. With an accomplished architectural career with offices in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, he seemed to be in an enviable position.
By the 1860 US Census, he, along with his wife, daughter, and mother, had taken up residence somewhere in Riverton. A deed search records his purchase in 1866 of 101 Main Street. The family made that Italian villa their home for more than 40 years.
Active in civic affairs, he served on the Riverton School Board. Fraser socialized with others in his field as well as with Riverton locals. Newspapers reported him taking business trips to New York City, entertaining at home, and commuting to Washington, DC.
Despite this outward success, he faced multiple tragedies, including the stunning loss of five out of six of his children during his lifetime.
- Sophie Cecelia Fraser, born 21 Jun 1858, died at age six on 25 April 1865
- Agnes Bruce Fraser, born about December 1858, died at the age of twenty months on 6 Aug 1860
- Anna Augusta Fraser, born 9 April 1865, died at age 11 in Riverton of diphtheria on 3 Jan 1876.
- Marie Elizabeth Fraser, born 1 June 1873, died in Riverton at age two on 13 Jan 1876, just ten days after her sister Anna died, perhaps also from diphtheria.
In their grief, the Frasers donated a set of magnificent stained-glass windows to Calvary Presbyterian Church in memory of his daughters. The panels face Lippincott Avenue and oddly bear the names of only three of the four daughters.
John and Sophie had two more children. Archibald Alexander Fraser was born 11 October 1861, and another daughter, Julie Antionette, was born 5 April 1868. She is called Nellie in her baptismal record.
Archibald, or Archie, became a beloved choir director at the Calvary Presbyterian Church and “an accomplished organist.” By 1888, he entered a partnership with his father – John Fraser & Son, Architects in Philadelphia at 1413 Walnut. Archie married Julia Adeline Ward in Essex, NJ on 17 November 1892, and they had a son, Archibald Eliot Fraser, born in Riverton on 21 Mar 1894.
On 12 July 1895, at 33, Archibald Fraser, “a distinguished young architect, died suddenly of pleurisy.” Young Fraser’s work on Grace Episcopal Church’s Parish House, started in 1894, was completed after his death in 1895.
After his death, his wife, Julia, returned to her home in East Orange with their young son.
The crushing loss of so many of John and Sophie’s children undoubtedly seriously impacted their lives. The number and size of his commissions declined, and the loss of his partner and son, Archibald, “. . . sank (Fraser) into a financial and mental depression” and would later die in reduced circumstances.
Perhaps, as a sign of diminishing prospects, Fraser sold off some of his land on Main Street to Philadelphia merchant John Boyer in 1880.
The 1885 NJ Census shows only John, his wife, and daughter Julia inhabiting the Main Street house without a housekeeper. The couple lost their home in a sheriff’s sale in 1897, but the 1900 US Census shows them living there in 1900 along with a 15-year-old housekeeper, perhaps as renters.
The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1897 announced that “Architect John Fraser is preparing plans for the addition of a large boiler house to the Hotel Chamberlain at Old Point Comfort, Va.” Even though the Chamberlain was considered “one of the grandest resort hotels in America” when it opened in 1896, Fraser was asked to complete only the boiler house. Occasional projects continued to come to him through 1899, but nothing like the former work he enjoyed.
By the 1900 US Census, there was a mortgage on his home in Riverton. In 1902, unable to afford to stay in his Riverton mansion, he, Sophie, and Julie moved to 729 North 43rd Street in Philadelphia.
According to death certificates, on 7 December 1906, at the age of 75, Sophie died of cirrhosis of the liver complicated by senility. John, age 81, followed 19 days later, dying of chronic alcoholic diarrhea and contributing factors on 26 Dec 1906. Many Fraser family members are interred in Woodlands Cemetery — without headstones — except for the cross for Archibald Alexander Fraser.
No Known Family Images
You may wonder why no portraits of the Fraser family are displayed here.
While preparing for a book on Fraser Furness & Hewitt, Michael Lewis from Williams College in Massachusetts reached out to former Town Historian Betty B. Hahle in the 1990s. Lewis hoped that Betty might have a photo of John Fraser as he had heard that Fraser appeared to be a particular quest for Betty.
But there was none.
After Lewis’ discussion with Hahle, he happened to be discussing his project with friends of his, who had been great friends of Archibald Fraser and were executors of his estate – they called him, affectionately, “Uncle Archie.” Still seeking a photo of John Fraser, Lewis asked the couple what became of Archie’s belongings. The couple responded that, at his request, other than donating a communion dress to the Presbyterian church, the rest was burned.
What an extraordinarily sad ending to such an exemplary architect and his family!
by Roger Prichard
On September 22, Keith presented a program introducing us to how he and his volunteer assistants have worked to organize and preserve the many historical photos and documents amassed over our 52 years of existence. Riverton Free Library was the program’s generous host, and we appreciate their hospitality.
Storing these treasures so they are preserved for the future AND organizing and indexing them so that researchers can use them to learn about people, homes, and buildings are both considerable challenges. HSR Board member Keith Betten is uniquely qualified to run this vital function for us. He is a retired Deputy Executive Director of the New Jersey State Archives. We are incredibly fortunate to have him living here AND volunteering his time and expertise to see that this is accomplished to professional standards.
Keith’s exploration held the attention of a room full of Riverton history aficionados, showing us how documents need to be stored to ensure they don’t deteriorate and how they are organized. Using an elegant hierarchy, then sub-groupings within that provide that items can be found with a relatively simple search. More detailed “finding aids” are prepared for each group, serving as indexes to individual items.
Keith also mentioned the firm rules that items do not leave the premises and are used here only under the supervision of HSR Archives Committee members.
After questions and answers, many attendees visited the HSR archives room in the RFL basement to admire the new shelving, professional acid-free archival boxes, and other materials that are now being used exclusively.
Many of the expenses to purchase these professional materials resulted from a generous donation by Carlos Rogers from the Historic Riverton Criterium bicycle event several years ago, for which we are very grateful.
Riverton Peace Pole Re-dedication in observance of the Sept. 18, 2022 International Day of Peace
Anne Creter, MSW, a retired Licensed Social Worker and long-time “peace advocate” who has served the U.S. Peace Alliance in many capacities, presided over a re-dedication ceremony of Riverton’s Peace Pole on September 18.
The ceremony included unveiling a plaque to mark the 15th anniversary of the installation of the Peace Pole at 8th & Cedar Sts.
The non-denominational, non-partisan event intended to show that while we have diverse opinions and cultural differences, we support peace for all people everywhere.
Among the speakers were Dennis Creter of the Riverton Peace Pole Coalition, Riverton Mayor Suzanne Cairns-Wells, Palmyra Mayor Gina Ragomo Tait, Councilmen Edgar Wilburn, and Jim Quinn, UN Rep Katie Karr, Rev. Leslie Harrison of Mt. Zion Church, police officer Lt. Andrew Beushchell, and HSR Board Member Bill McDermott. Read Bill’s remarks here.
Now a global movement, the Peace Pole Project seeks to spread the universal message, “May Peace Prevail On Earth.” Riverton’s is one of an estimated 250,000 Peace Poles planted in every country. See more on Riverton Peace Pole’s Facebook page and learn about the global movement at worldpeace.org.
Thank you to Wanda Swanson for the use of screenshots from her Peace Pole 22 YouTube video.
This just in…
HSR Board Member and Town Historian Roger Prichard has just completed the design layout for a new historical marker for the former Ezra and Anna Lippincott House at 303 Bank Avenue, now part of Riverview Estates.
While we wait for our volunteer Sub-Committee on Excavations to erect the illustrated sign, Roger suggests that Fall is a great time to explore your neighborhood and look for these signs:
- Porch Club 213 Howard St.
- Mt. Zion AME Church 300 Penn St.
- Robert and Anna Biddle 309 Bank Ave.
- Parrish – James House 311 Bank Ave.
- Riverton Steamboat Landing/RYC 312 Bank Ave.
- Wharton – Fitler House 407 Bank Ave.
- Caleb Clothier House 503 Bank Ave.
- Riverton Free Library 306 Main St.
- Joseph Campbell House 308 Main St.
- Riverton Public School 600 5th St.
- Others not under HSR auspices: Town of Riverton (cast iron) Gazebo Plaza, Broad & Main Sts., Riverton Bicycle Track (cast iron), Little Broad St. and Lippincott Ave., Christ Episcopal Church, 500 4th St.
Save the Date – Christmas Village Saturday, 2 pm – 8 pm, Dec. 3
We plan to set up a table like we did last year, with membership brochures, copies of Riverton Walking Tours, and assorted merch for sale.
Show your hometown pride by buying one of our exclusive new history-themed mugs and score a copy of our Arcadia Images of America Book for yourself or for a Riverton expatriate across the miles.
In the September 2022 Gaslight News, we thanked Adele Baker for her generous contribution to the HSR of a miniature Welsbach Boulevard gas streetlight.
She contacted us again to add more information about the diminutive lamp.
Now living in Georgia, Adele passed on to us the tiny replica gaslamp that her father, Glen Baker, an accountant for Welsbach, once kept in his home.
Also, good advice for today, whatever your affiliation.
In 2010, Jeff Cole, a grandson of Riverton resident Robinet Cole who served as the president of the Welsbach Corp. during the 1960s, and I collaborated on a presentation about gas street lamps. Learn more here about the history of Welsbach gaslamps and Riverton’s battle with the NJ Board of Public Utilities during the 1970s to retain gaslight street illumination. -JMc
What are you waiting for?