Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Stephen G. Hague

Fairmount Park Houses

[caption id="attachment_24414" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Color photograph depicting the front facade of an eighteenth century, Georgian-style home with a dependency on either side. Architectural historians have generally agreed with John Adams, who called Mount Pleasant “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania.” (Courtesy of Fairmount Park Conservancy)[/caption]

From the mid-eighteenth century, prominent Philadelphians looking for a rural, healthy, scenic environment built small mansions, or villas, along the Schuylkill River, one of two major waterways that define Philadelphia's geography. In the early nineteenth century, the city began to acquire properties along the Schuylkill, including these villa houses. These purchases culminated in the 1855 creation of Fairmount Park, which stretches for five miles along both banks of the Schuylkill.

Most of the architecturally noteworthy houses, the “Fairmount Park houses,” existed within Fairmount Park on the east and west sides of the Schuylkill. Dating to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they make up a remarkable collection of historic landmarks in one of America’s largest urban parks. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Fairmount Park houses transitioned from private to public ownership, were adaptively reused, and often became historic house museums. These houses have served as a bellwether for how Philadelphians have conserved and used their historic architecture.

A rural environment close to their business concerns in the city attracted commercial elites who were key figures in the busy port city of eighteenth-century Philadelphia. Although there had long been dwellings of many types along the Schuylkill, by the 1740s, as the city grew more prosperous, patrons began to build a number of larger houses along the river. The construction of elegant houses along the Schuylkill, reminiscent of developments such as Richmond and Twickenham along the River Thames near London, occurred in Philadelphia especially in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

[caption id="attachment_24416" align="alignright" width="280"]Color photograph depicting the front facade of a two-story brick home. A complicated series of land transactions in the 1750s led to construction of several houses, including Woodford, originally a one-story home built for Philadelphia merchant William Coleman in 1756. (Courtesy of Fairmount Park Conservancy)[/caption]

Pre-Revolutionary observer Patrick M’Robert noted how the country around Philadelphia was “interspersed with genteel country seats.” Houses were not evenly distributed, and concentrated more densely on the east side than on the west. On the east side of the river, one of the first noteworthy houses was The Cliffs (prob. 1750s), built for merchant Joshua Fisher (1707–83). A complicated series of land transactions in the 1750s led to construction of several houses, including Woodford (1756, enlarged 1772) by Philadelphia merchant William Coleman (1704–69) and Laurel Hill (1767) for wealthy widow Rebecca Rawle (1730–1819). Architectural historians have generally agreed with John Adams (1735–1826), who called Mount Pleasant (1762–65) “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania”; it inspired other Georgian mansions built in the 1760s or later, such as Cliveden, Port Royal, Laurel Hill, or expanded, as at Woodford. On the west side of the river, the largest house built during the colonial period in the area that later became Fairmount Park was Lansdowne (1773, burned 1854), for John Penn (1729–95), the last colonial governor of Pennsylvania.

Building continued and even accelerated after the Revolution. By the 1790s, Philadelphians used the term “villa,” suggestive of a semirural retreat close to a city, to describe these houses. John Penn’s cousin John Penn Jr. (1760–1834) built a small villa inspired by a German hunting lodge in about 1785, called The Solitude, which later became part of the Philadelphia Zoo. Built in about 1789, Strawberry Mansion (originally Summerville) served as home to several prominent Philadelphia lawyers, jurists, and political leaders, including William Lewis (1752–1819) and Joseph Hemphill (1770–1842). Hemphill added the large Greek Revival wings to the original center section, creating the largest of the Fairmount Park houses. In 1797, merchant and politician Samuel Breck (1771–1862) constructed Sweetbriar, although it functioned for him as a permanent residence rather than a retreat from urban life. The final villa in what became Fairmount Park, Rockland, was completed between 1810 and 1815, bringing to a close about eighty years of building along the Schuylkill’s banks.

Owners built villas for various reasons. Health—especially to avoid frequent yellow fever and cholera epidemics—motivated some, while others sought to display wealth, taste, and status. Scant information exists about the designers of these houses, although most scholars agree that capable master builders who were likely members of the Carpenters’ Company drew on pattern books widely available in the American colonies especially after the 1750s. The houses reflected a cornucopia of architectural taste, including examples of Georgian, Palladian, and Federal styles, a veritable catalogue of colonial architecture when taken as a whole.

[caption id="attachment_24426" align="alignright" width="280"]Photograph of historic Rittenhouse bake house. The building is one story, with a stone facade and the doors and windows have been painted a bright yellow. Within Fairmount Park, several vernacular structures connected with the region’s early manufacturing also existed, including this bake house, restored by the Friends of Historic RittenhouseTown in the late twentieth century. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Over the course of the nineteenth century, industrialization and suburban expansion made river villas less attractive. Slowly from the 1820s, in an effort to preserve its drinking water supply, Philadelphia began purchasing the land that became Fairmount Park. Lemon Hill (1799–1801), an elegant neoclassical house built for merchant-trader Henry Pratt (1761–1838), was part of the first parcel acquired by the city. By the end of the 1860s, many of the original villas were under Fairmount Park ownership. Within Fairmount Park, less elaborate houses connected with the region’s early manufacturing also existed. Historic RittenhouseTown, established as a paper mill in the 1690s, included a number of vernacular structures, many destroyed by Fairmount Park authorities in the 1890s, and represented both industrial and domestic history in the park.

Although some property owners made efforts to retain control over villas—and this may have resulted in more effective public/private arrangements over time—for the most part houses along the Schuylkill became public property, sometimes to their detriment. Over the years, the city adapted many of the Fairmount Park houses to other uses, including restaurants, beer gardens, employee housing, and rental properties. Such active use served to protect the houses, as buildings generally underwent only minor, and mostly reversible, changes. At the same time, it demolished many outbuildings in the park that required extensive maintenance and upkeep.

The houses of Fairmount Park were situated in ornamental as well as practical landscapes. A drawing by Pierre du Simitiere (1736–84) shows the garden of William Peters (1702–86) at Belmont (built 1745), replete with cherry trees, gravel walk statuary, and a Chinese temple. Such landscapes were largely lost by the late nineteenth century, although the city made some effort in the early twenty-first century to restore view sheds and the relationship to the river, as at Lemon Hill. Also lost were many outbuildings that would have supported these villas and were a critical part of their aesthetic and functional landscapes.

[caption id="attachment_24418" align="alignright" width="280"]Color photograph of the front facade of Lemon Hill, a historic home in Fairmount Park. Lemon Hill is an elegant neoclassical house built for merchant-trader Henry Pratt in 1800. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876, which drew nearly ten million visitors to Philadelphia to celebrate the history and achievements of America, increased interest in colonial history and architecture and an awareness of the special character of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park houses, although it took time for these ideas to result in action. The Letitia Street House, initially believed to be the oldest house in Philadelphia and William Penn’s city residence—it was neither—was moved from Center City Philadelphia to Fairmount Park in 1883, the year following the bicentennial of Penn’s arrival. Lemon Hill, which in the late nineteenth century had functioned as a restaurant and ice cream parlor, became a striking example of restoration and reuse. While the Philadelphia Museum of Art was erected on Fairmount in the 1920s, the museum director, architectural historian Fiske Kimball (1888–1955), restored the house in 1926 and lived there until the 1950s. Indeed, Kimball was a pivotal figure in championing the historical and aesthetic importance of the Fairmount Park houses, which he referred to as the “Colonial Chain.”

Efforts like Kimball’s set the stage for renewed interest in the preservation of buildings, moving them toward museum status. As a result, during the twentieth century, citizens became increasingly concerned to see these material fragments of early America preserved and made available to the public. Although Philadelphians and tourists often thought of the villas along the Schuylkill River as the “Fairmount Park houses,” the term also included other structures, including some that had been relocated to the park. An early example, Cedar Grove (1748) was originally located in the Frankford section of the city along the Delaware River, but moved to Fairmount Park in 1926–28.

The Bicentennial resulted in enhanced efforts to repair and preserve the buildings in anticipation of millions of visitors. Controversy erupted in the late 1970s and 1980s about caretakers being allowed to live for free in some Fairmount Park houses. On one hand such arrangements provided security and maintenance, on the other it was seen as a corrupt practice providing free housing. Either way the demise of the caretaker system saw damage to some houses, such as The Cliffs.

[caption id="attachment_24419" align="alignright" width="280"]Color photograph depicting the front facade of Belmont, a historic home in Fairmount Park. In the foreground, a female interpreter is wearing an early eighteenth century costume. Originally maintained as the home of early Pennsylvania statesman William Peters, Belmont became better known in the late twentieth century for its connection to the Underground Railroad. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, a patchwork of organizations preserved and managed the Fairmount Park houses. Although owned by the city, differing management arrangements, many with patriotic women’s service organizations such as the Committee of 1926, the Colonial Dames of America, and the Women for Greater Philadelphia, resulted in a unique character for each house. By the early twenty-first century, arguments by some cultural leaders and government authorities that there were too many historic house museums in the city threatened the futures of the Fairmount Park houses. Some of the houses tried to adapt to these changed circumstances. The earliest villa in Fairmount Park, Belmont Mansion, for example, characterized a shift made in the stories told and the history interpreted by historic houses in Philadelphia. Originally maintained as the home of early Pennsylvania statesman William Peters (1701–86), it became better known in the late twentieth century as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Others remained open as more traditional house museums highlighting architecture and elite owners, while still others functioned as hostels, offices, or rental venues.

Since the mid-eighteenth century the banks of the Schuylkill River have been a scenic focal point for Philadelphians. The small mansions and villas that became a part of Fairmount Park retained a significant presence as cultural symbols of a period signifying Philadelphia’s role as a leading city and, later, as contributors to the environmental centerpiece that is Fairmount Park.

Stephen G. Hague teaches British and modern European history at Rowan University. His research interests center on social, cultural, and architectural history, and he is the author of The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World, 1680–1780.


Since the earliest European settlement in the seventeenth century, but especially from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, large houses constructed by elites in the Philadelphia region provided agreeable places to live that demonstrated social status. As architectural fashion and geographic distribution changed, mansions served as conspicuous symbols for elite Philadelphians and were a salient element of the city’s urban fabric, its surrounding countryside, and ultimately suburban estates. As prominent features of Philadelphia’s built landscape, in the late twentieth century mansions reflected the city’s relative decline. Preservation efforts directed at salvaging these buildings had the dual function of protecting the region’s material history while also, intentionally and unintentionally, reinforcing a version of history that emphasized its wealthy, white, elite, and patriarchal character. As a result, mansions, which have defined the Philadelphia area’s social, economic, political, and cultural life, became vital to the way the region thinks about its past, present, and future.

[caption id="attachment_23988" align="alignright" width="216"]A sepia tone map of Philadelphia with a large illustration of Independence Hall above it. Prominent places in the surrounding area are marked. Prominent mansions were marked on Nicholas Scull and George Heap's 1752 map of "Philadelphia and Parts Adjacent." (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Mansions have served as town and country housing for some of the region’s leading families for several centuries, helping to define architectural style, construct social life, and structure commercial and political practices. Pennsbury Manor, constructed for William Penn (1644–1718) along the Delaware River about twenty-five miles north of Philadelphia, provided the earliest effort to recreate English genteel life. Other well-to-do Philadelphians followed suit, building houses in the city and its surrounding countryside. The map by Nicholas Scull (1687–1761) and George Heap (1714–52), originally published in 1752, noted the location of “the most Remarkable Places” in and around Philadelphia, including many houses later termed mansions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these mansions clustered along the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers above the city of Philadelphia. Construction of mansions therefore took place in close proximity to Philadelphia, highlighting the importance of town-centered activities such as trade and commerce to many of the region’s colonial elites. At the same time, their rural location away from the built-up area of early Philadelphia provided what was thought to be a healthier setting.

Mansions have also always been a significant feature of Philadelphia’s urban fabric. From the origins of the city, leading citizens erected mansions. A noteworthy example was the Slate Roof house built for Samuel Carpenter (1649–1714) on Second Street (1687, demolished 1867), which William Penn lived in for a time. Before the American Revolution, figures such as Samuel Powel (1738–93), the last mayor of Philadelphia under British rule, constructed large brick townhouses that functioned as dwellings. Their plain exteriors often belied elaborate interiors. An important mansion built by financier Robert Morris (1734–1806) and lived in by Presidents George Washington (1732–99) and John Adams (1735–1826), was the President’s House (1767–69, demolished 1832), which became a focal point for battles about historical interpretation in the early twenty-first century because it was also the site of Washington’s slave quarters. After the Revolution, mansions like that built for merchant, banker, and senator William Bingham (1752–1804), depicted in a view by William Birch (1755–1834) (q.v., 1789, demolished about 1850), highlighted new taste in architecture as well as the wealth of the new nation. Some townhouses swiftly made a transition from mansion to institutional use, such as the house at Thirteenth and Walnut Street designed for Thomas Butler (1778–1838). Not quite completed by the time of his death, by 1850 it had been acquired by the Philadelphia Club, serving as a familiar “home away from home” for the region’s elites, many of whom were beginning to own countrified suburban houses.

The Mansion Boom

[caption id="attachment_23986" align="alignright" width="254"]A black and white photograph of a Georgian-style mansion with a large, bare tree in front of it. The oldest surviving home in the city is James Logan's Stenton mansion, competed in 1730. Logan came to Philadelphia in 1699 as William Penn's secretary. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Early country houses could be architecturally somewhat unrefined. Fountain Low (later Graeme Park), built for Sir William Keith (1669–1749) in the 1720s, for example, was noted more for its setting and landscape than its architecture. More distinguished and in keeping with transatlantic trends in building compact classical houses for professional and merchant elites was Stenton (1723–30), the country estate of James Logan (1674–1751) near Germantown. The Penn family remained influential in mansion building until the American Revolution: William Penn’s sons constructed their own houses and influenced others to build, as at Bush Hill (built 1740, demolished 1875) and Belmont (1742–50). A boom in mansion building occurred as Philadelphia became the largest and most important North American city before the Revolution, typified by the elegant Palladian mansion Mount Pleasant (1761–62) and the house of Pennsylvania Chief Justice Benjamin Chew (1722–1810) at Cliveden near Germantown (1763–67). The Chew mansion later served as a British fortress during the 1777 Battle of Germantown. Although large by colonial standards, in the wider British world before 1775 these mansions were considered modest in size, appealing particularly to upper-middle-class genteel families who comprised the colonial gentry.

[caption id="attachment_23985" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph showing a Greek Revival style entrance to a mansion with six front columns Some of the city's mansions have been held by the same family for generations. The Biddle family has owned Andalusia since Nicholas Biddle inherited it in 1814. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Noteworthy country estates built after the Revolution included The Woodlands (built c. 1770, renovated in neoclassical style 1786–89), redesigned by William Hamilton (1745–1813), and Lemon Hill (1799–1801), the estate of merchant Henry Pratt (1761–1838). Andalusia, built in 1795 and remodeled by owner Nicholas Biddle (1786–1844) and architect Thomas U. Walter (1804–87) in the mid-1830s, exemplified the popular Greek Revival style, while George Read II (1765–1836) in New Castle, Delaware, built his mansion (1797–1804) in the new Federal style. Architectural inspiration came from even further afield, as in the case of Point Breeze near Bordentown, New Jersey (1820s, demolished 1850), the mansion of Frenchman Joseph Bonaparte (1768–1844). At least one Philadelphian, diarist Sydney George Fisher, thought some mansions too ornate. Of Phil-Ellena in Mount Airy, called the “largest of America’s Greek Revival palaces,” Fisher wrote, “It would not be easy to find anywhere ignorance, pretension, bad taste, and wealth more forcibly expressed.”

As complex social organisms, mansions hosted numerous inhabitants. Houses and estates supported not only those who built and lived in them, but they also required labor to sustain them. Workforces at pre-Revolutionary mansions often comprised a mix of free labor, indentured servants, and enslaved Africans. Later, waves of immigrants provided much of the labor needed to run and maintain these large and complex houses. Mansions symbolized power and status in material ways; the hierarchical social structure of their inhabitants also reinforced these messages.

Urban Townhouse Mansions

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Philadelphia’s most noteworthy architects designed mansions for the city’s rising bourgeois and industrial elites, who coveted urban townhouse mansions located close to the services, clubs, and institutions they patronized as well as estates in the counties outside the city. The development of mansions on and around Rittenhouse Square began about 1840 and expanded westward for the rest of the century. Prominent among these was the Fell-Van Rensselaer House (built 1896–98), a Beaux-Arts masterpiece located at Eighteenth and Walnut Streets. Mansions were sometimes the work of a quirky collector or designer, as in the case of one of the region’s more unusual mansions, Fonthill, a concrete castle built between 1908 and 1912 by Henry Chapman Mercer (1856–1930) in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

[caption id="attachment_23987" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a Gothic Revival style mansion with a prominent central tower Ebenezer Maxwell's Germantown residence exemplified what historian John Fanning Watson called “fancy cottages for city business men.” (Library of Congress)[/caption]

For those somewhat lower on the social ladder, large houses sprang up in commuter communities such as Germantown and, later, Chestnut Hill, in the northwest part of Philadelphia. Although often referred to as mansions, these dwellings housed the prosperous middle classes. The Ebenezer Maxwell (1827–70) Mansion in Germantown (1859) typified what, in 1856, Philadelphia historian John Fanning Watson (1779–1860) called “fancy cottages for city business men.”

Following the development of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s Main Line became a center of estate development and mansion building unparalleled in the region. One of its most prominent mansions, Ardrossan (1909–11) by Horace Trumbauer (1868–1938), a forty-five-room Georgian-style mansion, famously inspired the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story and shaped the perception of Philadelphia’s mansions and the people who inhabited them within popular culture. Another suburban mansion that drew particular attention was the one-hundred-thousand-square-foot Whitemarsh Hall in Montgomery County (1916–21, demolished 1980), one of the largest houses constructed in America. Additional regional nodes of mansion development included houses like those for the DuPont family in Delaware, such as Winterthur (1837–39, additions 1902, and 1928–32) and Nemours (1909–10).

Preservation Efforts

[caption id="attachment_23981" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a Greek-Revival mansion with a columned portico Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer built Whitemarsh Hall in Springfield Township for Edward T. Stotesbury, a prominent investment banker. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Active building of the largest mansions slowed dramatically after the Second World War. Many older mansions remained privately owned, while others became the focus of preservation efforts as the region’s historic infrastructure came under threat. Philadelphia-area elites continued to commission occasional architect-designed large private residences. The $80 million, thirty-seven-thousand-square-foot Alter Mansion (Arbor Hill Estate) designed by Rafael Viñoly (b. 1944) in Whitemarsh Township (1990s), which necessitated destruction of an earlier 1929 Normanesque Revival house, stands as a modern testament to the possibilities and pitfalls of mixing finance and architecture. A more pervasive form of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century development was the “McMansion,” the large, suburban houses frequently built by real estate developers to provide housing to the region’s affluent professional and commercial classes that often have been considered lacking in architectural style and oversized.

Mansions remained visible physical symbols of the Philadelphia region’s past into the twenty-first century. They served as monumental examples of a version of history focused on wealth, social status, and hierarchy and symbolize the ebb and flow of development in a large American city and its region.

Stephen G. Hague teaches British and modern European history at Rowan University. His research interests center on social, cultural, and architectural history, and he is the author of The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World, 1680–1780.

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