Foerderer fortunes the zoo

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

A name familiar to fund-raisers in Philadelphia recently gave the Philadelphia Zoo and the Academy of Natural Sciences approximately $7 million each, and that’s the largest contribution the zoo’s ever received.

The bequests came from the estate of Florence Foerderer, who grew up on the Main Line. The Foerderer family has a long history of civic involvement and philanthropy in the Philadelphia area.

One of the biggest recipients of the Foerderer’s largess has been Thomas Jefferson University. Florence Foerderer’s father, Percival was on the board there for nearly four decades, and served 12 of them as its chairman.

The Foerderer Foundation donated money mainly to graduate studies to help pay cost of tuition for those entering to become Ph D candidates. Now all the money goes to Thomas Jefferson University, said Frederick V. Wagner, Jr. M.D., who’s been Jefferson’s historian for 15 years. In addition he was a general surgeon at Jefferson Hospital for 40 years. He served on the institution’s board and actually treated Percival and his daughters.

In 1997 Wagner produced a pamphlet — Percival E. Foederer: a Mr. Jefferson. “The history starts with Percival’s father, Robert, and concludes with the three daughters,” he said. “We really wrote on behalf of the Jefferson Medical College. We were interested at Jefferson to get a contribution because her father was the chairman of the Jefferson Hospital and Medical Studies for 11 years,” Wagner said.

“I never was able to meet her, but we talked on the phone,” he said. Always hoped she’d invite me up, but she never did. When I was writing I would call the sisters and then tape them and in the history there would be stories directly from their own lips.

But it was to no avail. “She had a mind of her own and she decided she wasn’t going to have me up there and complicate her decision. She felt that her family had done enough,” he said.

“Florence lived in upstate Pennsylvania for much of her adult life,” he said. “Florence was a wealthy lady, but that didn’t mean anything to her. She loved and raised dogs, and loved animals,” he said.

But there was something else about Florence. She was what was then called a dwarf. “Florence’s arms and legs were very short, although she had a normal torso. Because of that, her parents were embarrassed about her and she grew up in isolation until she went to college. In fact, her sisters were also home-schooled and not allowed to have playmates to their house,” he said.

Luckily they could afford it. Percival’s father, Robert had become wealthy by developing a more efficient method of tanning goat skins, creating “Vidi” kid leather, which became famous for gloves and shoes.

Robert was the son of a German immigrant who brought to this country a knowledge of processing goat skins, and he developed a very large “Morocco” leather shop in Philadelphia. Robert left school early to begin in the family business.

The high fashion in leather in those late Victorian days was for a butter-soft kidskin, and the process for this was known only to the French, who monopolized the trade. Robert suggested that his family try to discover this new process, but his father reprimanded him sternly for being an immature dreamer, who would eventually find that what had been good enough for his grandfather and his father, would most certainly suffice for him.

Shortly after this exchange, Robert left his family’s firm, he and his new bride Caroline started out living modestly while Robert experimented with various processes to match the French method’s results. Company legend had that when he developed the successful process, he ran triumphantly shouting, “Vici!” (I have conquered!)

That became his trademark, and rapid rise in his fortune. “Vici” kid made Robert a millionaire. In less than fifteen years after Foerderer had struck out on his own, his business had grown to employ 5,000 men and handled 900,000 skins a year.

His company, now a major Philadelphia tanning plant, was known as “Vici Kid”. He also was director of the Keystone Telephone Company, and was on the board of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit.

He attracted the attention of local Republicans, who finally succeeded in persuading him to run for Congressman-at-large. Before the next term, there was a re-districting, and he was elected to represent the fourth congressional district.

Another legend attached to the family was that of the mansion Glen Foerd, located along the Delaware River in Torresdale. In 1893, the mansion was purchased by Robert and Caroline Foerderer, who, some years earlier, (he had been nineteen and she had been eighteen years old) were rowing on the river.

They were attracted by the steep banks which looked like bluffs from down in the boat. Upon seeing the dog, they became curious, and decided to mount the steps to investigate what lay beyond their view. They fell in love with the site, and young Robert promised Caroline that one day they would own it. True to his word, in 1893 Robert Foerderer returned to the dream house, Glengarry, which was fortunately available, and purchased the estate.

Because of the elaborate renovation design and labor delays, the Foerderers had not yet moved back into the mansion when Robert died at age 43 in 1902. According to Wagner, there is a good chance that Robert, who used chromium in the process of tanning his leather, died from chromate poisoning, which can be fatal if, in certain chemical states, chromium comes into contact with skin or its fumes are inhaled.

“Rubber gloves were not commercially available until the late 1980s. Having spent years experimenting with the element, it’s likely that this was what killed him, although the diagnosis was Bright’s disease, in fatalities from acute poisoning, hemorrhagic nephritis is found and it’s a form of Bright’s disease,” he said.

The Foerderers had two grown children at the time of his death, Percy and Florence. At age 23 Florence married William Tonner, and they joined their mother at the estate. Florence wanted to remember her father and suggested that the name be changed to include the existing name, Glengarry and the family name, thus creating Glen Foerd. She is well known for creating a masterpiece of a mansion, including an extensive art collection.

By 1907 Percival was a vice president of the company, and succeeded his uncle Edward the next year as president. He was 26 years old and president of the largest leather manufacturing business in the U.S., or perhaps the world.

He had purchased 6.79 acres of land in Merion, between Merion and Bowman Aves. and built a house the called Pemfoerd-Patio. No one knows for sure today, but perhaps the “pem” stood for Percival, Ethel and Mignon, their first daughter.

The Mediterranean style house was probably built by Addison Mixner, who only built two Mediterranean-style homes on the Main Line. He was a friend of Foerderers from Palm Beach, Fla., where he’d made his reputation as an architect. This house, and the Foerderer’s next home, La Ronda.

“Daughter Mignon was 15 years older than the other two children, which were only separated by13 months. Shirley was youngest, Florence was the middle,” Wagner said. They were born at Pemfoerd-Patio and shortly after their birth the family’s huge mansion, La Ronda, located in Bryn Mawr was finished.

The family lived there for 39 years until the house was sold in 1968. It was set on a plot of 233 acres bordered by Conshohocken State, Lafayette and Spring Mill roads. The house still stands. It contains 51 rooms, 21 of which were bedrooms. Unusually for that time, it has a steel frame instead of the more common concrete. It also employee 27 people, although all of them didn’t ‘live in’.

With that large an estate, it was possible for the family to keep Florence hidden. “Originally they had a race track, swimming pools, tennis courts and the three daughters were raised there and kept secluded from the world,” Wagner said.

“The family was ashamed of Florence,” he said. “I once asked her what it was like, when even other children couldn’t play with her. She said that’s the reason why she lived alone in a log cabin for 30 years.,” he said.

As would be expected, Shirley and Florence were closer to each other than their older sister Mignon. All were schooled at home in early life. Shirley and Florence were both educated by a governess until the age of ten. Each of the girls had her own room where their toys were kept. “One large toy that they shared was a child’s Pullman car in which they acted out imaginary trips,” said Wagner.

But all wasn’t pleasure, they endured strict discipline according to Wagner they got up at seven, had orange juice at 7:10, breakfast at 7:30, made their own beds and polished their own shoes.

“They were required to speak in German and French on alternate days for a certain period of time. Their religious education was received at the age of eight in a catechism class of the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church under the Rev. Doctor Mutch. At the end of the course they were given a Bible,” he said.

Florence was interested in horses and especially dogs. She sold them, trained them and won ribbons at dog shows. Shirley hunted the fox on horse with her father- and won trophies. There was a stable with six horses at La Ronda staffed by a stable boy and a groom. All of the family enjoyed riding at one time or another. The girls enjoyed sledding and other winter fun on their own property. La Ronda had everything.

With the coming of the Depression, Percival closed the leather factory in the face of labor problems and a shrinking market and retired. Having always been interested in medicine, he concentrated on work with Thomas Jefferson Hospital and eventually become its board’s chairman. As a part of his social and charitable activities, he and his wife set up the Foerderer Foundation, which has given much to the organization.

His activities after his “retirement” were as busy as during work. Extremely wealthy, he maintained an office with a staff of five in the city. As you would expect of anyone whose house has 21 bedrooms, the Foerderers were extremely social and involved. This can be seen in a list of the positions Percival held in addition his relationship with Jefferson: director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, vice president and member of the Board of Directors of the Associated Hospital Service of Philadelphia (Blue Cross), director of the Institute for Cancer Research, trustee of Drexel Institute of Technology, trustee of Magee Memorial Hospital, member of the Hospital Planning Agency, and Citizens Conference on Hospital Capital Requirements. He was a member of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society, Newcomen Society, Military Order of Foreign Wars and the Pennsylvania Commandery. He enjoyed membership and activities of the Union League, Gulph Mills Golf, Philadelphia Country, Poor Richard, Merion Cricket, Radnor Hunt, Racquet, and Rittenhouse clubs, as well as the Bucks Club, Bath and Tennis Club, Palm Beach Gulf Stream Golf, and Everglades Clubs of Florida.

Unlike his father, Percival lived to be 84 years old, dying of cancer of the bladder in 1969. He spend the last 17 months of his life in the Jefferson Hospital. “Mrs Foerderer, seeing he inevitable, sold La Ronda in 1968 and moved to a much smaller home on Grey’s Lane in Haverford,” he said. Florence left and took up residence near LePort, Penn.

In adulthood, she would become well know for dog breeding. “She was even offered a position from Disney World to head up their animal division. She didn’t take it because she didn’t need to work to make money,” Wagner said. She bred boxers, beagles and German shepherds.

“She was very bright and intelligent, studied in a university in Malmo Norway, I talked with all three daughters on the phone, and she was by far the brightest,” he said. I don’t think giving money to the zoo would have been a strange thing on her part, she had a great love of animals,” he said.