If you’ve ever wondered about East Falls’ “castle” on Kelly Drive, Joseph Minardi’s got all the scoop on this Victorian riverside party spot.
Castle Ringstetten is the picturesque upriver clubhouse of the Undine Barge Club, founded in 1856 for “healthful exercise” and “relaxation from business.” Indeed, the club has the ambience of gentlemanly club-life from a bygone era.
Construction on the lovely edifice began in 1875.
The task of designing the clubhouse fell to the very talented local firm of Furness & Hewitt (1871-75). By contrast to the later works of Frank Furness (1839-1912), Castle Ringstetten is a relatively light and airy affair, perfect for the tranquil setting along the Schuylkill River.
The dedication ceremony was held on May 13, 1876, the twentieth anniversary of the club’s organization. The “Castle” predates the Undine Club’s more familiar house on Boathouse Row, which was built in 1882 (also by Furness). Prior to the erection of the Castle Ringstetten, the club would rent space from other rowing associations and even went dormant for a few years.
The Undine Barge Club was the first rowing society to build an upriver house, which served as a point when the team would row and as a place for dinners and other social events. At one time the property boasted two well-graded regulation size courts for archery and tennis. Along Ridge Avenue at the back of the property, were airy and convenient driving sheds and box stalls for the convenience of the driving and riding members.
A floating slip once existed at the riverfront in almost the same exact spot that East Falls will be building a public boat landing in the near future.
The main section of this one-and-a-half-story frame structure measures twenty feet by forty-five feet. Hemlock was used for the sills, corner pieces, and roof rafters. Carolina pine was used for the flooring, with oak and white and yellow pine used elsewhere in the house.
In 1877, a ladies’ room and lounge was added to the east side while to the west side was built a room known as the “Buttery Hatch.” This latter room measures ten feet by ten feet and has a gabled, pressed-tin ceiling, and a built-in icebox.A stained glass window was installed by Dr. Conrad Berens (a well-known opthalmalogist) and J.P. Townsend, Jr. in 1893.
A large, old-fashioned brick fireplace guarded by two andirons was the original heat source. Above the fireplace’s oak mantle is inscribed a motto taken from the Beefsteak Club of London, England:
Let no one bear beyond this threshold hence,
Words uttered here in friendly confidence.
Throughout the house are plaques, trophies, curious, paintings, and other bits of memorabilia related to sculling and the Undine Club’s history.
The Undine Barge Club was named for the home of Prince Hulbrand in the Legend of Undine by German romantic writer Friederich Baron de la Motte Fouqué (1777–1843). According to the club’s history, “Undine being the spirit of the babbling brooks that gave the club its original inspiration in 1856.”
The thirty-fifth anniversary of the Undine Barge Club was celebrated in 1891 with an elaborate dinner at the Union League, all participants in full dress suits and white cooking caps.
The centerpiece of the table was a model, representing a racecourse on the Schuylkill. It had a river of real water, with moss banks and ferns representing trees, while row boats and shells were scattered over the surface. The Judge’s little steamboat, was arranged to move up and down the course as if it where performing its duty at a race!
Today, Castle Ringstetten remains in its verdant setting near the Schuylkill’s bank, being used as a monthly meeting spot by the Undine Barge Club of Philadelphia and for special occasions like beer bashes held by the fine folks at East Falls Local.
In entering Castle Ringstetten, please observe the by-laws of those Victorian founding fathers, especially Article VII, number 8:
“The discussion of matters religious, political, or personal in character is strictly forbidden with the precincts of the club.”
You heard it, people: what happens at the Castle, stays at the Castle!
Joseph Minardi is a local photographer and author whose most recent book focuses on historic architecture in the East Falls area. Joe is also the vice president of the University City Historical Society and editor-in-chief of their bi-monthly newsletter, On The West Side.
Follow Joe on Facebook for great photos & info. Read his “History Matters” column ever month on East Falls Local.