A Salute to Rodman Wanamaker
Let us take out of the plans the elaborate decorations that will cost over a million dollars and build up there over that gallery the finest organ in the world!
Mere size is not what I want. What I desire is beauty of tone and quality of workmanship, in short the finest organ in the world.
As long as I live we will continue to enlarge, improve and beutify it until it combines the grandeur of a great organ with the tone colors and beauty of a great symphony orchestra.
(For a biography of father John Wanamaker, please click HERE.)
Much has been written about merchant prince John Wanamaker, the public-spirited, self-made man who became Philadelphia’s second Benjamin Franklin. Scant attention has been paid to his son Rodman, despite his major contributions. Obscurity, however, would have suited, even pleased this quiet man. During much of his lifetime Rodman Wanamaker scrupulously avoided the press and gave strict orders for biographers to keep him out of the limelight.
In many ways Rodman Wanamaker is equally as intriguing as his father, perhaps more so. While the senior Wanamaker focused his boundless vitality on making sure that his ever-expanding business empire ran like a well-oiled machine, the younger Wanamaker was committed to bringing art and beauty into the stores. His influence extended not just to finest merchandise, including pioneering imports of French fashions, but also in the richness of Store architecture, decor and music. This merchandising legacy, which continues to the present in the artwork that adorns Macy’s and in the holiday Light and Fountain Show and daily Organ presentations, became the hallmark of the Wanamaker empire and molded the Store into a distinctly Philadelphia institution of national reputation.
Rodman Wanamaker was the guiding force behind the enlargement of the Wanamaker Organ into the great monument of orchestral organ-building it is today. As in so many projects he undertook—the medieval-style Lady Chapel at Philadelphia’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, with its breathtaking silver altar; similar decorations for the chapel of the English royal family at Sandringham; the beautiful processional cross he gave to Westminster Abbey; and the great bell he cast in memory of his father—Rodman’s vision, his desire to create something truly grand and lasting, resulted in the creation of things of wondrous beauty.
Unlike his father, Rodman was well acquainted with tragedy. He suffered the early death of his first wife, leaving him a widower with three children. The death of his older brother Thomas in 1908 thrust him into the position of being his father’s right-hand man, a role for which he had hardly received the same preparation. His second marriage ended unhappily with a Paris divorce, and Rodman suffered from debilitating kidney disease during the last eight years of his life.
Among the many tributes at the time of Rodman Wanamaker’s death were ones from a man who knew the Wanamaker family well—the writer Herbert Adams Gibbons. Gibbons was retained by Rodman Wanamaker in the 1920s to write an authorized two-volume biography of John Wanamaker.
A Man Who Made Realities Of His Dreams and Fancies
From obituaries written
by Herbert Adams Gibbons
Rodman Wanamaker was born on February 13, 1863, and entered Princeton University in the autumn of 1881. But he did not graduate until 1886. In college he entered into many activities. . . . He sang in the choir and was a member and business manager of the Glee Club.
Shortly after graduation he entered his father’s business, and was married to Miss Fernanda Henry of Philadelphia. He went to Paris as resident manager in 1889, and lived abroad for more than ten years. Courage and vision, as well as shrewd business sense in buying, enabled him to take advantage of a unique opportunity during the period of rapid development and change in the conditions of retail merchandising in the United States. He believed that Americans could be educated to buy
in a general store the finest goods that Europe had to offer. He kept sending over the best that France had to offer in women’s modes, hangings, decorative articles and furniture. The results justified this belief, and when his father purchased the A.T. Stewart business in New York in 1896, the possibilities of the field in which he had become a pioneer suddenly increased. His belief that Americans would buy the beautiful and the unusual for the home as well as for their own personal adornment revolutionized department store merchandising. He would buy nothing that was cheap or gaudy, or that appealed simply as a good purchase. He strove for quality; and his taste was exquisite and unerring.
When he returned to be in closer association with his father and older brother in 1899, he retained Paris residence and the contacts he had formed during the years abroad. After the death of his brother Thomas  and the retirement of Robert C. Ogden, Rodman Wanamaker became his father’s chief lieutenant. Before John Wanamaker died he turned over to the son all his holdings in the common stock of the two stores. As John Wanamaker had been the sole owner of the business, with his death in 1922 the complete control and management passed from father to son. No other retail merchandising business on so large a scale in the whole world was in the hands of a single man.
Unlike Father, Unlike Son
Like his father, Rodman Wanamaker always had many outside interests, but they were of a different kind. John Wanamaker devoted himself to the church throughout his life, and was an active factor in municipal, state, and national politics for a long time. Rodman Wanamaker, naturally of a retiring disposition, was not a churchman. Nor was he a good mixer. He did not care for politics. He never made speeches. Except for a brief period in New York when he acted as Chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on the Reception of Distinguished Guests, Rodman Wanamaker was never seen taking a prominent place, as his father had done, in public gatherings and social functions.
The life he lived outside his business was almost that of a recluse. His great conceptions he worked out through others. His passion was the cult of the beautiful. He made his stores artistic centers. In his homes he surrounded himself with beautiful furniture and priceless tapestries. He loved to buy jewelry. He spent much of his time in the midst of books. He collected rare musical instruments, and having brought them together, was delighted to have them used, and give the public the pleasure of hearing concerts on the instruments of the masters.
Business he never thought of as a means of accumulating wealth. To him, as to his father, retail merchandising was a fascinating adventure. Through loyalty to his father he never let any credit be given to him for the increasing success and expansion of the business.
Quality and good taste in merchandise, accuracy and attractiveness in advertising, elegance and harmony in display he would have at any cost of endless labor to himself and his associates. In his own quiet way, he went to infinite pains to care for the physical and moral well-being of the thousands who worked for him. He was intimately acquainted with their activities. . . . He loved music and pictures and flags and uniforms, and this love he instilled into and shared at all times with those who worked for him. In both his great stores he shared this love also as far as it was possible to do so with the general public.
From the time that Rodman Wanamaker was a Princeton undergraduate until his death he was able to make realities of his dreams and fancies. Once he had an idea he would mull over it for years and something wonderful would always come of it. This is because he believed in the things that he was doing. Despite frequent disappointments, largely due to the indifference or unimaginativeness of others, he carried many amazing things through to completion.
To illustrate, his faith in the possibilities of aviation led him to start to lay plans for the conquest of the Atlantic back in the days before the World War, when other pioneers in aviation were not ready to see so far ahead. Orville Wright, to cite one name, called Rodman Wanamaker’s idea of a trans-Atlantic flight “impracticable and foolhardy.” But Wanamaker persisted. His first “America,” which was wrecked in a storm, was the largest airplane ever built in the United States. His second “America” was purchased by the British Admiralty when the outbreak of the World War made an attempt at flight impossible. His third “America,” in 1927, met with an accident, just as it was ready to take off before Lindbergh and Chamberlain started their flights. For all that, the “America” made a new page in the history of aviation when Commander [Richard Evelyn] Byrd piloted it, with three companions, from New York to France in the early summer of 1927. . . .[Details are HERE].
His knowledge of international affairs was vast, and few Americans possessed his broad comprehensive vision and his keen sense of reality in the study of international relationship. His thirty years of effort on behalf of the American Indians stands beside his achievements in aviation and the promotion of international good-will. . . How great a hold he had upon the imagination and affection of the people of Philadelphia and New York was shown by the newspaper comment at the time of his death, and by the sincere mourning of all who had known him and worked with him.
Rodman Wanamaker Artistic Projects
- 1895 Donates the painting The Seven Joys of Mary to Princeton University (anonymous, North Italian or Austrian (?) c. 1700)
- 1897 Impressed with African-American artist Henry OssawaTanner’s painting of The Resurrection of Lazarus, Wanamaker sends him on the first of several trips the artist (1859-1937) made to the Holy Land.
- 1900 Erects Lady Chapel at St. Mark’s Church, Locust St., Philadelphia as a memorial to his first wife, Fernanda, who is buried there. The chapel is reportedly the first structure in the US with a true stone-groined roof.
- 1901 Purchases antique Sicilian processional cross for the church.
- 1901 Commissions three Tiffany windows in memory of Fernanda Wanamaker found in the American Church in Paris.
- 1902 Commissions Screen and Choir organs for the Lady Chapel, and polychrome decorations.
- 1903 Commissions Altar Frontal richly worked in silver. Begins silk flag collection at the Wanamaker Store.
- 1904 Additional Lady Chapel adornments, include richly worked vestments, banners and metalwork for Eucharistic celebrations. For details, see S. Mark’s Church Philadelphia & Its Lady Chapel, by Alfred G. Mortimer, privately printed, 1909.
- 1906 Commissions Frederick Carl Frieseke mural for the dining room of the Shelburne Hotel in Atlantic City.
- 1907 Acts as architectural adviser for the family suburban home Lindenhurst, after the old Lindenhurst is destroyed in a fire.
- 1908 Erects the Wanamaker Memorial Towerand Carillon at Philadelphia’s church of St. James the Less upon the death of his brother Thomas B. Wanamaker. Suggests that the new Philadelphia store feature “the largest and finest organ in the world” in the new Grand Court of Honor at the center of the store.
- 1908-14 Sends photographic expeditionsWest to photograph Indian tribes. A special railroad car called Signet was fitted for this expedition. This project was fictionalized in the novel “Shadow Catcher” by Charles Fergus, 1991
- 1909 Plans to erect on Staten Island at the entrance to New York harbor a colossus to the American Indian. Ground broken by President Taft in 1913; project not completed.
- 1911 Donates silver altar frontal to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Sandringham, on the estate of the Royal Family, marking the first anniversary of the death of Edward VII; it is known as The Altar of Peace. Orders the enlargement of the Grand Court Organ, until by 1917 it possesses 17,222 pipes. Although it was the largest instrument in the world, the Grand Court Organ was judged insufficient in size for the Grand Court, hence the additions.
- 1915 Presents a jeweled Bible to Sandringham Church.
- 1916 Founds Professional Golf Association and donates its championship trophy.
- 1916 Donates a stone altar andreredos to Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, Pa. “The Altar is one block ofIndiana limestone weighing ten tons. In the face is set the plate from Washington’soverbox. This fell on the floor of the vault and was overlooked when the sarcophagus was sealed.”
- 1918 Heads up a drive in New York City for erection of a temporary massive Victory Arch on Fifth Avenue; later plans to erect a permanent version did not meet with success.
- 1919 Holds first “Musicians’ Assembly” in the Philadelphia store with Charles M. Courboin as soloist and Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. After-hours concerts for both organ solo and organ/orchestra soon became frequent in the Wanamaker stores in Philadelphia and New York. Complimentary tickets were issued, and some of the finest European organists, including Marcel Dupré, Louis Vierne, Fernando Germani, Marco Enrico Bossi and Nadia Boulanger were invited to make Wanamaker appearances.
- NOTE: Upon hearing the ultra-orchestral Wanamaker Organ and the “indescribable grandeur” of Courboin’s rendition of the Bach Passacaglia at the first Wanamaker Musicians’ Assembly, Leopold Stokowski was inspired to produce his celebrated orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s major organ works.
- 1920 Gives silver processional cross to Sandringham Church.
- 1921 Donates choir stalls to Valley Forge Chapel in honor of President and Mrs. Harding. Other Wanamaker chapel gifts include a set of the flags of France made in Paris and a set of the American flags of the Revolutionary War.
- 1922 Presents gem-studded Cross of Westminster to Westminster Abbey.
- 1923 Adds silver reredos to Lady Chapel (an addition he had been planning as early as 1909). New sterling-silver ornaments for the Lady Chapel include chandeliers, rood beam, statuary and altar-rail figures. Presents antiphonal String division to St. Mark’s as part of the church’s pipe organ. Commissions theWanamaker Organ Shop to include a set of Deagan Chimes in the belfry of the Family Mausoleum (year approximate; donated after John Wanamaker’s death in 1922. Directs architect Addison Mizner to build “La Guerida,” his Palm Beach (Fla.) estate, later purchased by the Kennedys of Massachusetts after his death.
- 1924 Orders huge enlargements to the Grand Court pipe organ. Erects an Eternal Light War Monument atMadison Square in New York City. Adds oaken and silver pulpit to Sandringham Church.
- 1925 Commissions a 15-ton Founder’s Bell, inhonor of his father, John Wanamaker, which is installed on the store roof. Begins a collection of rare Italian string instruments from luthiers that include Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri; the collection totaled more than 60 instrument at the time of his death (1928). Donates pipe-organ divisions to Bethany Presbyterian Church.
- 1926 Commissions Belgian composer Joseph Jongen to write his “Symphony Concertante,” originally intended for the dedication of the enlarged Wanamaker Organ. Composes the hymn “Peace.” Gives a Wanamaker pane to Christ Reformed Church, 16th and Green Streets, Philadelphia, from the D’Ascenzo studios.
- 1927 Makes additional gifts to Sandringham Church,including gold communion vessels.
- Adds a new String division to the New York Store pipe Organ. Builds an organ to go on tours with the stringed instruments collection. They were featured at a Christmas concert at the White House that year.
- Envisions a Houses of Parliament-type clock tower for the Founder’s Bell after its siting on the roof of the Philadelphia store proves to be a disappointment. Wanamaker’s managers were said to have turned this scheme into a new skyscraper men’s store and office tower that now is the PNB-First Union building (and which was constructed two years after Rodman Wanamaker’s death (1928)).
- 1928 Holds a gala featuring 150 string instruments at the Metropolitan Opera; commissions painterAndresen to make an exact copy of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (now at Drexel Hill (Pa.) United Methodist Church). Donates the Greek Hall Austin organ to Philadelphia’s Baptist Home (now called Deer Meadows Retirement Community(, and gives funds for a chapel there to house it.
1/4 scale-model of clock of the Cathedral of Strassbourg, now on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
In 1908 Rodman Wanamaker initiated the Wanamaker-Millrose games, which became widely known as perhaps the most prestigious indoor track-and-field event in the world. They are now held at the Armory in Upper Manhattan. (Millrose was Mr. Wanamaker’s country estate near Jenkintown, Pa.) He also inaugurated the Wanamaker Mile, and reportedly began the tradition of playing The Star Spangled Banner at a sporting event.
He purchased more World War I bonds than anyone else in the United States, and generously allowed the use of his residences for the war effort, “virtually putting his enormous wealth at the disposal of the United States.”