Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Colonial Philadelphia's Powel House

Colonial Philadelphia's Powel House

A few weeks ago we ventured across the Delaware River to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to visit two beautifully restored historic homes maintained by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks. Within walking distance of one another, each tells the story of upper class colonial Philadelphia but from a very different perspective. Dr. Philip Syng Physick's house tells of the medical innovations developed in Philadelphia while the Powel House, the subject of this week's article, tells the story of its political side prior to and after the American Revolution.


The Powel House was built in 1765 by Charles Stedman, a shipmaster and merchant. It was built in the Georgian style of architecture, which was popular during this period. The townhouse rises three and one-half stories and is three bays wide. A servants wing extends from the rear and is approximately half the width of the main block of the main house. The other half of the rear property is a colonial revival garden, but originally the property to the rear of the house would have extended to 4th Street and more than sixty feet to the south (left side when facing from the front). The property would have had a stable, and possibly an underground ice house and kitchen building. Unfortunately, money troubles forced Stedman to sell the house almost immediately after its completion.

The house was purchased from Stedman on August 2, 1769 in 1769 by Samuel Powel for he and his wife-to-be, Elizabeth Willing, for the sum of ₤3,150. Samuel and Elizabeth were married August 7, 1769. Samuel Powel served as the last mayor of Philadelphia under British rule and as the first mayor of the city following independence. A Quaker who converted to Anglicanism, he supported the American Revolution and was dubbed the "Patriot Mayor."

The interior of the second floor ballroom at the Powel House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Powel was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1738 and graduated in 1759 from the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). He served as mayor of the city from 1775 - 1776 and 1789 - 1790. Between 1776 and 1789, the office of mayor was vacated. He also served as a member of the Pennsylvania State Senate from 1790 to 1793.

Upon purchasing the house, Powel set about renovating it and redecorating it to suit his tastes. He hired Robert Smith, a well-known carpenter-architect in the Colonies to complete the interior of the house. Smith used intricate wood carvings, dentils, and ornate plaster-work throughout the public rooms of the house. The Rococo plastered ceilings are attributed to James Clow, and the architectural woodwork is attributed to carvers Hercules Courtnay and Martin Jugiez. Notable guests to the house included George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, and John Adams. The house, with its fine craftsmanship, was referred to as a "splendid seat."

The dining room at the Powel House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Powel died in the Yellow fever epidemic of 1793 on September 29, 1793, in Philadelphia and is interred at Christ Church Burial Ground. Elizabeth Willing Powel lived in the house until her death in 1830, when it was inherited by her nephew, John Hare Powel.

Prior to 1799, a three-story half-turret addition was added to the house. It may have been added prior to Powel's death in 1793. The half-turret addition is visible in a 1799 print by William Birch and an 1817 print attributed to William Strickland. Some time in the mid-nineteenth century, the half-turret addition was demolished and the south wall of the house became a shared with a new building built over the former gardens.

A view of Third Street from Spruce, painted by William Birch in 1799. This painting shows the half-turret addition on the house, which is the building in the background.
In the early 1900s, the house served as a warehouse, mattress factory, and office. Much of the original architectural woodwork and plaster was sold as salvage. The second floor rear parlor's woodwork was sold in 1921 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the ballroom's plaster ceiling and architectural woodwork was sold to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1925. The building was slated for demolition by 1930 and was to become a parking lot for taxicabs. Upon learning of this, Miss Frances Wister formed the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks and raised the funding to purchase the property and adjoining property in 1931. The house was painstakingly restored under the guidance of architect Louis Duhring. Replicas of the removed plaster and woodwork were created from the originals. After a period of about ten years, the site reopened as a house museum, reminding the residents of Philadelphia that a paved lot or modern edifice could be standing where this pre-Revolutionary house has stood for the past 251 years.


Additional photos of my trip to Powel House on Pinterest


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