2010 Delancey Place loomed as large on the map as my free time was small. How quickly could my feet take me to this Philadelphia destination revered by special collections librarians?
After all, it was almost Bloomsday — the celebration of the life of James Joyce that takes place every June 16, the date when the celebrated Irish writer had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle — and I wanted to see the place where Joyce’s original manuscript of his epic novel, Ulysses, was. Maybe I could even squeeze in the “James Joyce & Irish Authors” hands-on tour, during which a handful of visitors carefully handle, read and discuss the influences of works by Joyce, Bram Stoker of Dracula fame, and other notable Irish writers.
What is this legendary place, you ask? Allow me to introduce you to the Rosenbach Museum and Library.
I scurried past Rittenhouse Square, one of the five original greenspaces William Penn planned for central Philadelphia, and entered an exclusive neighborhood marked by luxury high-rise apartments, popular restaurants, high-end stores and five-star hotels. Spotting the street sign for Delancey Place, between 20th and 21st Streets, I hung a left and beheld an elegant, attractive street reminiscent of Mount Vernon Street on Boston’s Beacon Hill.
Lining either side of the street were Civil War-era brick row houses trimmed with marble, keystones and semicircular fanlights. Their four-bay facades, with two windows to the right of the front door and one window to the left, were virtually identical, save for one numbered 2010, which was embellished with a Georgian revival window and a leaded glass fanlight. I had arrived at the former home of renowned rare-book dealer Abraham Rosenbach (1876-1952) and his antique-dealer brother, Philip (1863-1953).
The Rosenbachs picked up their love of rare books and antiques from their uncle, who owned an antiquarian bookstore at 1320 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. When their uncle died, they inherited his stock, selling everything from top-notch British decorative art to kitschy Christmas cards.
In 1926, the bachelors and their two spinster sisters moved to 2006 Delancey Place; after the sisters suddenly died in the late 1940s, the brothers moved to 2010 Delancey Place. Master blacksmith Samuel Yellin made the front door and other decorative items for the Rosenbachs in his Philadelphia studio.
Philip furnished their home with a spectacular array of tasteful items that either hadn’t sold in their store, or with which they couldn’t bear to part company. For example, after a document box that once belonged to King Charles II sat unsold in the shop for 15 years, Abraham had a table made for it and put it between two Shakespearean-era chairs in the center hallway.
The Rosenbachs’ guests dined on a Philadelphia-made table opposite a marble sideboard from their New York City home. A malachite calling card holder, a clock made from a marble urn decorated with figures of serpents that was fashioned by Marie Antoinette’s clockmaker, and a view of the Venetian quay painted by the Canaletto school complete the scene.
The parlor is decorated with a needlepoint card table, a Chinoiserie mirror, export porcelain and a circa-1750 mahogany highboy with flame finials and shell cutouts, signifying that it was made in Philadelphia. Lining the walls are several portraits of the Gratz family by noted American painter Thomas Sully, including one of Rebecca Gratz, who is said to have been the model of Rebecca, the heroine of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe.
Abraham’s great bibliographic treasures are the highlight of the upstairs library. As the leading American antiquarian book and manuscripts dealer of the first half of the 20th century, Abraham was a scholarly, savvy businessman who bought and sold Shakespeare first folios, Gutenberg Bibles and Bay Psalm books, those first volumes published in the colonies. He also acquired the original manuscripts of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; the only surviving copy of Benjamin Franklin’s ﬁrst Poor Richard Almanac; a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress that John Bunyan inscribed to his cellmate; the first American edition of Pride and Prejudice; a lock of Charles Dickens’ hair; rings belonging to Robert Louis Stevenson; Lord Byron’s calling card case and Robert Burns’ powderhorn.
Why is the Ulysses manuscript in Philadelphia? In January 1924, Abraham bought it at auction for his own collection. Later that year, Rosenbach asked Joyce if he wanted to sell the page proofs for Ulysses, but Joyce told a friend that “When he [Rosenbach] receives a reply from me all the rosy brooks will have run dry.” He also wrote this limerick: “Rosy Brook he bought a book/Though he didn’t know how to spell it/Such is the lure of literature/To the lad who can buy it and sell it.”
After the brothers died, the house and its contents became a museum and library, but it still feels more like a private home.
For more on the Rosenbach Museum and Library, see Rosenbach Abroad: In Pursuit of Books in Private Collections and Rosenbach Redux: Further Adventures in England and Ireland, both by Leslie A. Morris; and Historic Houses of Philadelphia: A Tour of the Region’s Museum Homes, by Roger W. Moss.