When One Door Opens, Another One Closes: The Untimely Death of Founder A.J. Drexel

A memorial dedicated to Anthony "Tony" J. Drexel's life and accomplishments can be found in Main Building.
A memorial dedicated to Anthony "Tony" J. Drexel's life and accomplishments can be found in Main Building.

This article is part of the DrexelNow "Faces of Drexel" series honoring Drexel's history as part of the Universitywide celebration of the 125th anniversary of Drexel's founding in 1891.

Drexel University has experienced a lot of ups and downs in its 125 years, but one of its first challenges occurred just 18 months into the school’s existence. The Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, as it was known then, suffered a huge blow in its early existence when its founder Anthony “Tony” J. Drexel died of a heart attack on June 30, 1893.

The death of the 67-year-old banker and philanthropist shocked not only the Drexel community, but also the entire world. His unexpected death made front-page news in international newspapers. The New York Times devoted two out of seven columns on its front page for his obituary.

The month before he died, Tony had been in ill health and traveled to Carlsbad, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), to recover. He had been staying at the city’s spa resorts for years to help with his health. Doctors had diagnosed Tony with pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs that make breathing difficult and painful. On the day that he died, Tony had been feeling better; he ate a full breakfast, received guests and wrote letters.

By that time, Drexel had experienced many losses in his life. Ellen Rosét Drexel, his beloved wife of more than 40 years, died three weeks before the Drexel Institute officially opened. He had buried five of his nine children, including a daughter who had died in the same Carlsbad resort a year prior. Tony also outlived all but one of his five siblings, including his two brothers and business partners Francis Anthony and Joseph William.

The highlight of Tony’s last years, however, was the creation of his most enduring accomplishment: the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry. Tony was the founder as well as president of its board of trustees.

"Portrait of Anthony J. Drexel (1826-1893)" was painted by Josef Bergenthal in 1860, when Tony was 34 years old. Photo courtesy The Drexel Collection.

Even before Drexel opened, Tony was a regular on campus. He frequently checked the construction of Main Building on his daily walk from his house on the 3900 block of Walnut Street to the Drexel bank in Old City. Once the school was open, he often met with President James MacAlister, students, faculty and staff for updates on the Institute.

“Alas! There are no more pleasant morning greetings; the kind words of counsel and approval have ceased forever; but his influence remains to encourage and gladden all who come to learn or to teach within these walls,” eulogized MacAlister at Drexel’s funeral.

Tony’s involvement and interest in the school during its first two academic years made his untimely death all the more tragic. Before he left for his trip, Tony authorized the last expenditure to complete the Drexel Institute.

As part of his will, Tony left Drexel $1 million — about $26 million today. Previously, he had donated $1 million to construct, furnish and equip the Institute and $2 million for expenses and an endowment. He also bequeathed his many pieces of art to build and maintain the Drexel Museum, now known as The Drexel Collection.

After Tony’s death, The Drexel Collection could finally hang his portrait, which he had stipulated could only happen once he died. He had been hesitant to even have his portrait painted until he was persuaded by his lifelong friend George W. Childs, publisher and co-owner of the Public Ledger newspaper with Tony. As a compromise, they both got their portraits painted by famed French artist Benjamin Constant. Currently, Tony’s portrait hangs next to Childs' portrait in the boardroom of Drexel’s Paul Peck Alumni Center.

Benjamin Constant's 1894 paintings of George W. Childs, left, and Tony Drexel, courtesy The Drexel Collection.

Childs, the godfather and namesake of Tony’s youngest son, succeeded Tony as president of Drexel’s board of trustees. He told The New York Times, “I would rather it had been myself that had died — much better I had died than Mr. Drexel.” As it turns out, Childs died of illness (or what some said was a broken heart) seven months later, bequeathing Drexel his collection of autographs and manuscripts.

Banker J.P. Morgan, Tony’s mentee and business partner for over 20 years at Drexel, Morgan & Co., was also in deep mourning. “He was the best friend I have ever had in every way,” he wrote to Tony’s daughter Sallie Fell.

Morgan was present at Tony’s funeral service, which was held in Drexel’s Main Auditorium on Jan. 20, 1894. Over 2,000 guests attended, including leading politicians, businessmen and academics. An elected delegation of 275 students and 70 teachers represented Drexel.

“It was Mr. Drexel’s good fortune to witness the growth and development of the Institute from its first conception up to that point in its history when its success was assured,” said MacAlister at the event.

Tony was buried alongside his wife, father and other family members in the Drexel Mausoleum at West Philadelphia’s Woodlands Cemetery. His 190th birthday will be celebrated on Sept. 13 in 2016, which coincides with the 125th birthday year of Drexel University.