How Philly runs its ‘real thing’ historic-house museums

The city operates seven homes, collectively dubbed the "Park Charms," that are historic-house museums. Each also has a steward organization, responsible for day-to-day upkeep. Several have live-in caretakers, a part-time job handling landscaping and handyman-type tasks.

The city leases the other homes to the centers or businesses that operate there.

Unknown to many, six of the city-run mansions are open for public tours.

Unlike at places such as Williamsburg, Virginia, where buildings were moved or re-created, visitors step on the same hardwood floors where John Adams stood when he visited Mount Pleasant. They bask in sunlight from the same floor-to-ceiling Palladian window as early Philadelphia merchants who partied at Lemon Hill. They take in the same spectacular view of the Schuylkill from Laurel Hill’s octagonal room that its 18th-century occupants enjoyed.

"We have the real thing, in the real place," said Mark Focht, the first deputy commissioner for Parks and Recreation. "It’s fascinating to think about the conversations that occurred in those rooms."

'A little confusing'

The main publicity push comes during the winter holidays, when the houses unite for events like musical performances, re-enactments, food and tours.

The one-day trolley offered then highlights a challenge for visitors: transportation. The mansions, scattered throughout 2,000-plus acres on both sides of the river, aren’t easily accessible by public transit. Drivers and cyclists can get lost on the park’s winding roads.

"The park layout can be a little confusing for Philadelphians who are used to the grid system," said Emily Afflitto, executive director at Strawberry Mansion.

People affiliated with the houses still lament the demise of a park trolley network that ran until 1946 and buses designed to resemble trolleys that were resurrected for the Bicentennial and operated until the late 1990s.

The homes “are all by ourselves with no way to get to us,” said Karen Phinney, head of the Women for Greater Philadelphia, which maintains Laurel Hill.

Officials have talked about reinstating transportation, but Focht says it’s a chicken-or-egg dilemma: The houses need more visitors to show a transportation agency trips would be worthwhile, but increasing visitation without easier transit is hard.

In 2014, the six open historic-house museums saw a combined total of 16,300 visitors -- about as many as Reading Terminal Market draws on an average day. Just a handful of people are viewing them at any given time.

"These are very personal tours," a woman remarked as her group of two was led into Mount Pleasant on a September day.

Some make money and boost exposure through rentals. Others don’t, because amenities like bathrooms aren’t accessible or events would cause too much wear and tear.

In the meantime, the city has relied on signage, bike tours and community events in its marketing, said Darren Fava, the parks department’s manager of historic house initiatives.

In East Park, particularly, the city is strengthening ties between the houses and the community. For instance, the Fairmount Park Conservancy combined its Boxer’s Trail 5K, which takes runners and walkers past Mount Pleasant, Laurel Hill and Rockland, with Strawberry Mansion Day festivities at Mander Recreation Center.

Outside Woodford, neighbors help harvest fruit from the "historically appropriate" garden, said Theresa Schulman, preservation and development administrator for the parks department.

'Always something'

There’s a phrase often used to describe mansion maintenance: “always something.”

The city pays for most major capital projects like roofing, electricity, and heating and cooling systems, while the steward groups manage the day-to-day care.

From broken locks to pests to rotting wood, the work is constant.

"There’s always something that needs fixing, as any old homeowner would tell you," Fava said. "We just own a lot of old homes."

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