The mansions
of Fairmount Park
COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
The Federal-style Lemon Hill was built in 1800 so merchant Henry Pratt could hold summer parties.
Historic houses have rich pasts and new uses.
Emily Babay / Philly.com Staff Writer ebabay@phillynews.com, 215-854-2153
Monday, October 19, 2015

One of Philadelphia's grandest homes was built by a privateer whose arm was shot off and who later sold the estate to Benedict Arnold. John Adams once marveled at the house, calling it, "the most elegant seal of Pennsylvania."

The city's Fairmount Park doesn't just have one of these mansions - it has a surplus.

Over the centuries, they've beaten the odds to become a prized collection of 18th- and 19th-century homes, surviving development, fires, and disrepair.

Some are historic-house museums. One is a hostel. One houses a cancer support organization; another an Underground Railroad museum. Many are rented for weddings, showers, retirement parties and other gatherings.

And they're distinctive to Philadelphia.

While other cities tore down colonial structures, Philadelphia purchased Fairmount Park and its mansions in the mid-1800s to help preserve the quality of the city's water supply. Since then, their uses and conditions have varied. They have been dining establishments and park offices. The 1926 Sesquicentennial and 1976 Bicentennial spurred spruce-ups. Outcry after a 1977 newspaper series about park employees living in them rent-free prompted vacancies and deteriorating conditions.

The mansions "have had more lives than a cat," Tyson Gardner, a guide at Strawberry Mansion, noted during a recent tour there.

Now, the city, nonprofits that maintain the houses, and organizations that lease them are working to preserve the mansions and their rich histories, while boosting visits, rental business and the houses' roles in the community.

The groups sometimes seem surprised they're still at work. There's a long pause when Phyllis Fox, president of the organization that maintains Ormiston Mansion, ponders her favorite feature of the redbrick Georgian estate.

"I love the fact that it still exists."

Take a virtual tour of Fairmount Park's mansions (story continues below map).

Mansions in Fairmount Park
Primary use: Historic house museum

West Park

Belmont (1745)

Underground Railroad museum; $7 adults, $5 children, students and seniors

One of Belmont Mansion's prominent features is its stunning view of the Philadelphia skyline from West Fairmount Park, overlooking the city above the vast grass and trails of the Belmont Plateau.

One thing not seen, however, is the role those lands, and the mansion above them, played in the Underground Railroad.

Belmont Mansion in West Fairmount Park serves as an Underground Railroad museum. (STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer)

Belmont now tells that story through its Underground Railroad museum, which opened in 2007 after extensive renovations at the mansion and adjacent cottage.

Through audio clips and small displays, visitors learn about William Peters, the lawyer who built the estate; son Richard Peters, the first non-Quaker member of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery; and grandson Richard Peters Jr., an Underground Railroad worker.

Escaped slaves would slip out of their bunk-car hiding spots at a nearby railroad stop and make their way up to Belmont.

Among those learning - and telling - that story today are students from two West Philadelphia charter schools and a mansion summer camp. When attendees at this summer's NAACP convention in Philadelphia went to Belmont, the student docents, dressed in colonial garb, gave tours.

"We're teaching our young people to embrace their story, but also to learn that whites and blacks can work together for a common goal," said Naomi Nelson, director of the American Women's Heritage Society. The group has maintained Belmont since 1986, when it raised $3 million to save the site from demolition.

STEPHANIE AARONSON/Philly.com
The Cornelia Wells Conference and Banquet Room at Belmont Mansion.

Tour-goers learn history as they absorb the splendor of the estate. The bright first-floor parlor is the house's central focus, with an ornate ceiling that depicts a family crest and shield, musical instruments and other symbols of its first residents' high class.

Nelson educates about the past but also focuses on the present. The Underground Railroad themes of social justice and equal rights are issues "still percolating today," she says.

She wants to bring more people to Belmont on all fronts: museum visitors, school partners, summer campers and rentals.

The new Cornelia Wells Conference and Banquet Room, named for a slave bought and freed by Richard Peters, opened last October after three years of construction. The spacious hall, brightly lit by two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows and four chandeliers, is Philadelphia's only facility named after a former female slave and has boosted rentals.

Bulldozers and dirt piles no longer sit outside the otherwise-photogenic mansion. This summer, Belmont hosted a wedding every weekend.

"No one wanted to rent at a construction site," Nelson said.

Cedar Grove (1748)

Open for tours, $5

Cedar Grove was moved, stone by stone, board by board, from Frankford to its home overlooking the Schuylkill Expressway in the late 1920s.

The 1748 house, built by Elizabeth Coates Paschall, a widow who managed her late husband's dry-goods store and practiced herbal medicine, was a summer home for five generations of the elite Philadelphia family. One descendant, Isaac Paschall Morris, became one of Philadelphia's richest men as an ironmaster. Another, Lydia Thompson Morris, gave Cedar Grove to the city after the move. Included were furniture and other items from its previous owners.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Cedar Grove was moved from its original site in Frankford to Fairmount Park.

"These people saved everything," said Justina Barrett, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's site manager for Cedar Grove and Mount Pleasant, both maintained by the PMA.

On the first floor, engraved plaques on dining room chairs state their provenance: "This chair belonged to Susan Morris …" In the living room, a reproduction of an 1809 receipt lists items purchased after a wedding: card tables, beds, chairs, a sofa.

"What is really cool is we have some of these actual objects in this room," Barrett said. "It's not conjecture."

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
The kitchen at Cedar Grove.

As mansions go, Cedar Grove is modest and practical: Its owners invested in wall-to-wall kitchen cabinets and massive second-floor closets instead of ornate decorations. Up the creaky, windy staircase, a cozy bedroom holds a small table with leaves that can be folded to compress it further. Like IKEA items, Barrett says, the furniture was designed "to be moved around in a small space."

Recent work at Cedar Grove includes a 2012-13 restoration that closed the mansion for a year and half for a new roof, waterproofing, and wiring and window frame fixes.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
The three-story Chamounix Mansion is now a hostel.

Chamounix (1802)

Hostel

Merchant George Plumsted built Chamounix Mansion to escape the heat, disease and crowds of Philadelphia.

Chamounix is still a refuge for those getting away. Today, though, it's a hostel that sees up to 15,000 travelers a year.

In many ways, the Federal-style house at the northwestern tip of the park, near the Montgomery County line, could be any other hostel: Its 80 beds cost $22 to $25 a night. Travelers sleep in bunk beds and use shared bathrooms. A basement common room holds a foosball table, couch and stocked bookcases. The kitchen has three refrigerators, an oven, microwave and cabinets filled with tableware. A green-carpeted TV lounge on the first floor has two couches, chairs and magazines - but also a shadow box of bird nests collected from the mansion's lush grounds.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Travelers have to "work a little harder" to get Chamounix, its manager says.

The house was nearly demolished after a fire, but a committee pushing for a Philadelphia hostel petitioned to save the site, and the lodge opened in 1965. It had previously been a boarding house and restaurant before falling into disrepair.

Chamounix's serene setting - it's surrounded by trees that largely obscure the city skyline - makes it special, general manager Andrew Victor said. Chamounix tends to attract more hardcore travelers, not vacationers just looking for a weekend getaway.

Only one SEPTA bus route runs near the hostel, dropping riders off about a mile away from the mansion, which sits at the end of a dead-end road six miles outside Center City.

"You have to work a little harder to get here," Victor said.

STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer
Ridgeland offers a serene setting for the Cancer Support Community of Greater Philadelphia.

Ridgeland (1718)

Cancer Support Community of Greater Philadelphia

Joy Cohn's neuropathy lecture couldn't have been happening much further from a sterile medical building.

Inside the rustic barn outside Ridgeland Mansion in West Park, a half-dozen men and women affected by cancer sat around a table, pizza boxes and iced tea set aside, as Cohn discussed working with a podiatrist or physical therapist to deal with losing sensation in the hands and feet.

STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer
Cancer patients and loved ones can take peaceful walks in Ridgeland's backyard.

The barn is a short stroll through Ridgeland's sloping backyard, on the brick and stone paths that make up the Cancer Support Community of Greater Philadelphia's tree-lined meditation walk. A hospital, imaging center or physician's office - any building at all - seems far away.

That's why the cancer center picked Ridgeland for its home when it outgrew an earlier office. For nearly two decades now, patients and families have come to the mansion, built by farmer William Couch, for free services that include support and bereavement groups, meditation, lectures and yoga.

As a leukemia patient, Kelly Harris tried to go to a support group at a hospital, but the medical odor was too overpowering. Then she found the Cancer Support Community.

STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer
A group listens to a neuropathy lecture at Ridgeland.

"When I first came here, my first thought was, 'Oh my gosh, it doesn't smell in here,'" said Harris, now the executive director and a cancer survivor.

The center faces two big challenges operating at Ridgeland: maintaining the nearly 300-year-old building and raising money.

Some fixes are small, like repairing cracks. Others are much larger, like a new paint job last year or burst pipes that caused $170,000 in damages.

The constant tasks keep the center perpetually on the hunt for volunteers, construction experts and funds. Scout troops, clubs, and other groups have helped with work like cleaning the basement. A caretaker also assists.

In the past two years, annual income from rentals, a growing source of revenue, has surged from $8,000 to $88,000.

"It really helps us to be sustainable," Harris said.

STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer
Sweetbriar is undergoing repairs after a burst water pipe.

Sweetbriar (1787)

Closed for renovations

Changes are on the horizon for Sweetbriar.

A water pipe burst at the neoclassical-style mansion last year, forcing officials to end public access to the West Park villa, where politician and merchant Samuel Breck entertained dignitaries that included the Marquis de Lafayette.

Theresa Schulman, the parks department's preservation and development administrator, said the mansion's entire water system needs to be replaced. The city is also seeking a new group to take over daily maintenance; the Modern Club did so from 1939 until 2014.

Other relatively recent work there includes a roof replacement, exterior shutter repairs, and heating and cooling system improvements, which all were completed in 2005.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Laurel Hill overlooks the Schuylkill River in East Fairmount Park.

East Park

Laurel Hill (1767)

Open for tours; $5 adults, $3 students/seniors

Karen Phinney, director of Women for Greater Philadelphia, thinks the mansion her group maintains has the best view - and she wants more people to see it.

She says Laurel Hill, open to the public since it was restored for the Bicentennial, holds events like concerts and flower shows to attract new visitors. The Georgian brick home overlooking the Schuylkill drew only about 2,000 last year.

"We are growing, getting more exposure," Phinney said. "But we need to get new people."

Phinney wants them to experience the "great history" of the two-story yellow house, to learn about Francis Rawle, who died in a hunting accident shortly after buying the land, and his widow, Rebecca, who built the house but had to buy it back after the Revolutionary War.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Laurel Hill's octagonal room was added to the house to show off its owners' increasing wealth.

A 10-drawer highboy given as a wedding gift to William Rawle, Rebecca's son and founder of the Philadelphia Bar Association, stands in what was the original first floor (two side wings were added later). An octagon-shaped room has six large windows with views of playing fields from the front and a yard, gazebo and the Schuylkill from the back.

"You would have felt that you would have been isolated" there in the 1700s, tour guide Harry Kyriakodis says. "And you would have been."

Laurel Hill is set far into East Park. Grass and trees block signs of city life. But from the back porch, glimpses of cars on the Schuylkill Expressway and Martin Luther King Drive across the river show much has changed since it was built.

The mansion, too, needs some development. The estate "almost looked like a haunted house" due to peeling paint until recent fixes, Phinney said. It needs a new roof, but a lack of time and resources have caused delays.

"It's a cedar roof," Phinney said. "It's not like you can hire Lowes or Home Depot."

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Lemon Hill has three oval rooms, one on each floor.

Lemon Hill (1800)

Open for tours; $5 adults, $3 students/seniors

More people go to Lemon Hill for activities - it has prime views of fireworks, a steep incline for runners and cyclists, and peaceful picnic spots - than for its eponymous mansion.

The Federal-style estate was also meant to be a happening spot. Henry Pratt, a merchant who traded goods like flour, molasses, coffee, alcohol and porcelain, built the mansion above Boathouse Row, used it as a summer home for parties, and sold tickets to his gardens and greenhouses there. Lemon Hill later housed a beer garden and restaurant, hosted German singing festivals, and fell into disrepair before Fiske Kimball, the PMA's first director, restored it and lived there from 1926 to 1955.

"This house was built for entertaining," said Joyce Jones, who spent 15 years as the live-in caretaker and now gives tours and oversees care through the Colonial Dames of America, the mansion's steward group.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Lemon Hill's porches have sweeping views, including a glimpse of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The PMA's first director lived in and restored the historic mansion.

Jones, who is 80 but rises quickly from her stool inside the front door to greet visitors, points out Lemon Hill's distinct features. The three oval rooms, one on each floor, complete with curved doors, fireplaces and windows. The high ceilings, with 26 steps on the winding staircase between the second and third floors. The floor-to-ceiling Palladian window, where her children had their prom photos taken when the family lived in the first-floor caretaker quarters. The fireplaces in nearly every room that were barely used in the summer home. The painted wood floors, a sign of wealth in colonial times.

In the last decade, work has been done on the staircase, ceilings, tiles and windows. Overgrown trees, shrubs and invasive vegetation were removed, making the mansion more visible from Kelly Drive.

At the top of Jones' wish list is improvements to the porches, to hold more events on the verandas with their sweeping views of the skyline, Art Museum and Schuylkill. Events now largely take place on the grounds outside, not on the historic property itself.

"We understand there's a lot more to do, but that's kind of natural," Jones said. "I think she's still quite a beauty."

Mount Pleasant (1765)

Open for tours, $5

Mount Pleasant, the 250-year-old plantation estate between grassy fields of East Fairmount Park and wooded trails overlooking the Schuylkill, owes its elegance to its first owner's pirating exploits.

The colonial masterpiece was "built with the booty" of John MacPherson's privateering, says Barrett, the PMA's bubbly site manager.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Mount Pleasant was built by John MacPherson, Scottish ship captain and privateer. Benedict Arnold was a later owner, but never lived there.

A showy first-floor dining room depicts the scene of a 1775 dinner where MacPherson, a Scottish ship captain and privateer (a private sailor licensed to attack enemy ships) who lost an arm in battle, hosted John Adams. The room's two hingeless, white faux doors exist only to provide symmetry to the functioning doors across the room. Up a wide stairhall, visitors can smell wood shingles from the airy second floor, where another fake door opposes a hallway closet.

After his visit, Adams called Mount Pleasant, which has a white stucco exterior, brick corner quoins, and an outbuilding on each side, "the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania." The Founding Father's diary entry is a rare account of an event at the mansion, whose later owners included Benedict Arnold and a grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin.

Recent research focuses on the structure itself and its early inhabitants. Doctors, with MacPherson's loved ones complicit, locked him in a no-longer-standing cottage on a madness charge in 1769, four years after he built the mansion. Within years, he escaped, apparently recovered and was entertaining Adams.

"Nobody has a one-armed privateer that got locked up by his wife but us," Barrett said of the wild Philadelphia tale she's researching.

Others studied the carved wood above a second-floor fireplace, which fell off decades, perhaps centuries, ago and was painted plain. A redone carving - installed in 2011, after paint analysis and study of the carver's other works - shows how the original might have looked.

Other work that year, an analysis of 20 layers of paint added to the first-floor staircase over the centuries, revealed wood graining - a decorative painting technique that makes wood look like another, usually more expensive, type of wood.

Ormiston (1778)

Royal Heritage Society of the Delaware Valley

Maj. Edward Burd honored his family's history when he built Ormiston. The Revolutionary War officer and chief clerk of the state Supreme Court wrote to his sister: "I have built myself a good house at Schuylkill which I expect to raise in a few days, and call it Ormiston," after his grandfather's Scottish estate.

Preserving legacy is also important to the mansion's current stewards, the Royal Heritage Society of the Delaware Valley. The group combines fundraising with its mission of holding British-heritage-related events, which have included holiday-themed dinners, fashion shows, teas and festivals.

STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer
Ormiston Mansion sits in a secluded area of East Fairmount Park.

Some recent jobs have improved the house's physical condition, such as a new roof four years ago and a current project to restore 23 windows. Others have been cosmetic, like painting second-floor reception rooms.

While the roof was crucial, donors don't see that, said Fox, the Heritage Society president. "You have to show people that you're doing something with the money that they're giving you."

The city bought Ormiston from Burd's heirs in 1869. It has also been a holding cell, employee residence, and home of a park art association.

Rockland (1810)

Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia

Two decades ago, Rockland Mansion was uninhabitable.

"When I moved in here in October 1995, there was no heat, the boiler was shot … there was no hot water," John Carr, a caretaker who worked for the Fairmount Park Preservation Trust (which merged with the conservancy earlier this year), told the Inquirer in February 1997. The city, which purchased the square, three-story building in 1870, was fixing heating, plumbing and roofing in order to find a stable tenant.

STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer
Rockland Mansion now houses a psychoanalytic center.

That tenant turned out to be the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia, which signed its lease in 2002 and raised more than $600,000 for repairs to the woodwork, floors, walls, marble fireplaces and stucco exterior.

George Thomson, a Philadelphia dry-goods merchant, built the Federal-style villa in 1810 and sold it to another merchant five years later. It's housed a food and wine society, rowing historical society, city employees, caretakers and been vacant.

Rockland has never had a high-profile owner or tenant, or been part of park tours. But the estate, with its elegant neoclassical front portico and the bulk of the original structure unchanged, still stands in the middle of East Park.

"The Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia has taken great pride in restoring this historic mansion for the City of Philadelphia," the center's website says. "The Center maintains its administrative offices and carries on its educational and community-related activities at Rockland."

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Strawberry Mansion tour guide Tyson Gardner is dressed as the Marquis de Lafayette, who was entertained there.

Strawberry Mansion (1789)

Open for tours; $5 adults, $3 seniors, $2 children

The basement of Strawberry Mansion - where in the 1800s servants scuttled underground, shepherding food and plates between the kitchen and a grand ballroom, to avoid disrupting guests being entertained upstairs - holds one of the park's latest technological innovations.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Strawberry Mansion has an innovative new geothermal system in its basement.

A geothermal system was installed there as part of a restoration that closed the spacious pale pink mansion to the public for five years. The $2 million renovation, funded by the city and the Committee of 1926, which maintains the mansion, also included a new roof, electrical system, painting and chimney work.

"We're marrying very progressive technology when it comes to sustainability" with historic properties," said Mark Focht, Philadelphia's first deputy commissioner for Parks and Recreation. The geothermal system has curbed heating and cooling costs in the 1789 stone house, which was poorly insulated.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
The ballroom at Strawberry Mansion.

Since reopening in 2013, Strawberry Mansion has tried to rebuild visitors through programming like holiday events, themed tours, author lectures and harvests, said Emily Afflitto, the executive director. Last year, about 3,100 visitors came to the mansion, which sits at the end of a cul-du-sac just off the city section that shares its name.

"It's great for us to have that name recognition, but we'd like people to know there is actually a Strawberry Mansion attached to the neighborhood," Afflitto said.

Originally called Summerville, it was built by William Lewis, a Quaker, lawyer and abolitionist who wrote the colonies' first anti-slavery law. Its second owner, Joseph Hemphill, added the two Greek Revival-style wings and entertained guests including Marquis de Lafayette and statesman Daniel Webster.

The rooms today function as mini-museums, showing off French furniture and the United States' inventory of state dolls from the 1926 World's Fair. Under development is a new exhibit focusing on Lewis' legal writings.

"We have a little something for everyone in this house," says Gardner, the tour guide.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Woodford Mansion in East Park was nearly destroyed by a 2003 fire.

Woodford (1756)

Open for tours; $5 adults, $3 seniors, $2 children

Woodford has learned from its second chances.

A fire that could have destroyed the brick Georgian home in 2003 instead offered an opportunity for analysis. Trees planted too close to the gated estate, built by William Coleman, a Philadelphia merchant who traded a variety of goods like spices and fabrics and was a confidant of Benjamin Franklin's, in the 1920s provided instruction of what not to do when an extensive orchard was replanted in 2008.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer
Woodford houses a collection of colonial furniture and household items.

The blaze, which burned on the second and third floors for nearly an hour, caused about $1 million in damages. Somehow, none of the valuable antiques - Woodford has housed a collection of colonial furniture and household items since 1926 - were damaged.

Focht said the blaze let experts correct incorrect paint work from past restorations.

"The Woodford of today is much more accurate," he said. When visitors today stand in the ground-floor hallway, painted white with peach trim, or adjacent parlor, also white, with mint green trim, they see "1756 paint colors," guide Christine Mifsud noted to a small group on a recent tour.

215-854-2153, ebabay@phillynews.com, @emilybabay

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