Perhaps more than anyone among Glen Foerd’s exclusive lineage of former residents, Florence Foerderer Tonner made the greatest personal impression on the 18-acre riverfront estate.
Prominent Scottish-American financier Charles Macalester built the original house on the site in about 1850, but he lived there less than a quarter-century before his 1873 death. Macalester’s daughter, Lily, then took over the estate, but she passed away in 1891.
Two years after that, German-American tanner Robert H. Foerderer and his wife, Caroline, bought the property and began to enlarge the main house. But he died in 1902 and never saw the renovations in their completed glory. Her death followed in 1934.
Their daughter, Florence, on the other hand, spent much of her youth and her entire adult life as resident of Glen Foerd. She lived with her husband, William Thomas Tonner, in an outlying cottage until her mother’s death, then she moved into the main house, where she remained until her own 1972 passing.
During those 70-plus years, Florence turned the estate into a beacon and a sanctuary for a full array of creative arts, ranging from the musical to the visual to the literary.
Last Wednesday, the estate’s current caretakers partnered with Northeast Philadelphia’s public arts academy to rekindle Mrs. Tonner’s cultural legacy with the inaugural Young Artist Showcase.
Dozens of students from the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush performed music, displayed their original paintings, drawings and photographs, and recited their own poetry to an enthusiastic audience of family, friends and advocates for the historical Glen Foerd site.
“It’s really the story behind Glen Foerd and Florence Foerderer. She really supported young, emerging artists in the Philadelphia area,” said Meg Sharp Walton, executive director of the Glen Foerd Conservation Corporation. “We carry on that legacy.”
The partnership has been several years in the making, as is one that Walton hopes to replicate with other cultural organizations in the community.
The Rush Arts Academy is at 11081 Knights Road in the former Benjamin Rush Middle School. The middle school closed in 2006. The Arts Academy accepted its first freshman class in 2008 and has added an additional grade each year since.
There are now 503 students in the school, grades nine through 12, according to founding principal Jessica Brown. This year’s senior class will be the first to graduate from the academy.
Meanwhile, Walton arrived at Glen Foerd in January and has been trying to forge more local partnerships ever since.
“We wanted to make contacts in the community and (found that) only a few miles away is an arts academy,” Walton recalled.
“Meg reached out to us in the summer,” Brown said. “The family that lived here were art collectors, so she really wanted to focus on arts in the community. We’ve talked about not only exhibitions, but doing workshops with professional artists in the area — some kind of arts exchange.
“This is the first time we’ve combined student writing, music and art (in one setting) and the first time we’ve collaborated with Glen Foerd.”
The organizers built the event around an exhibition of about two-dozen student artworks, all in the portrait format. The pieces included drawings, paintings, photographs and mixed-media works featuring the artists’ classmates, relatives and selected celebrities, like Apple founder Steve Jobs and musician Travis Barker.
All were created this school year as the school’s visual arts majors completed a unit on portraiture.
Event organizers then decided to employ Rush’s talented Jazz Ensemble for a musical introduction. The 12-piece group performed famous compositions by B.B. King, Duke Ellington, Lee Morgan and Sonny Rollins. The set lasted about a half-hour.
“It was great. I like performing, but I never performed outside of school with the jazz band,” said junior pianist La’kee Powell of Holmesburg.
Typically, students host winter and spring concerts with their various ensembles at school, along with an annual stage musical production. Similarly, the visual art students generally exhibit only within their own domain.
The teens appreciated the elaborate and historical Glen Foerd setting, with its grandiose gold and silver seasonal décor. The 15-foot illuminated Christmas tree in the house’s main parlor offered a spectacular backdrop for the jazz performance.
“When I first walked in, I could feel this presence, the history,” said senior William Smith from Bridesburg, who was a featured saxophonist on several of the numbers. “It’s like I was back in the 1800s. It was like a giant melting pot of art and history.”
The evening culminated in poetry readings by six Rush students, who displayed precocious literary technique, amusing imagination and courageous introspection in their writings.
Literary art is not considered a major course of study at Rush, but it is taught liberally and thoroughly in the school’s English classes.
Freshman Danielle Berntsen is primarily a visual artist, but last summer she took part in a writing workshop with Rush English teacher Lorraine Ustaris and penned a poem, The Wire.
“It’s a giant metaphor for what I was scared of happening, like if I get older and fail as an artist,” said Berntsen, a Northeast resident. “But it could relate to anyone who has a big goal in life.”
“Oftentimes, our students write wonderful pieces and it’s nice to share them publicly,” Brown said. “Writing is another form of art, really. It’s emphasized throughout the curriculum.”
Public collaboration and performance may become more emphasized, too, considering last week’s response.
“The principal, I don’t think she was expecting such a big crowd,” Walton said. “It was great to see the kids in their fancy outfits, and the (Glen Foerd) board was very proud.”
Florence Foerderer Tonner would’ve been very pleased too.
“I was speaking with her granddaughter and she felt that her grandmother would have approved. So the house is happy,” Walton said. ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or email@example.com
Glen Foerd tree lighting
Glen Foerd on the Delaware invites holiday revelers young and old to visit the Gilded Age mansion on Wednesday, Dec. 14, from 4 to 7:30 p.m., for a grand Christmas tree lighting, caroling, tours, live holiday music, ballet performances, parlor games, fresh-baked cookies and pastries, and fun activities for children.
Glen Foerd is at 5001 Grant Ave. in Torresdale. Visitors should enter the estate via Milnor Street. Admission is $5 for the general public or $4 for Glen Foerd members and children 3 to 17. The outdoor tree lighting and caroling begin at 7 p.m. and are free to attend.
Call 215-632-5330 or visit www.glenfoerd.org for information. ••