Was Fairmount Park once the Hamptons of Philadelphia?
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, some of the city’s wealthiest residents made their way here during the summer. They came by horse or boat to its rolling hills, scattered with cottages, farmhouses, and more than a dozen of the city’s largest estates.
These Georgian- and Federal-style mansions, built by prominent Philadelphians, were appointed to offer prime views of the Schuylkill. Over time, the city bought up land (and the homes with it) to protect the drinking-water supply, creating what eventually became Fairmount Park.
Six mansions, known as the Charms of Fairmount Park, remain, offering windows into the past. They tell stories of Philadelphia through the ages — one was briefly owned by Benedict Arnold, one was the summer home of Dr. Phillip Syng Physick, and one was moved, stone by stone, from Frankford to Fairmount Park.
The museums are open to tour during select times, but this Saturday, you can see them all in one shot — bubbly beverage in hand — at CiderFest, a history-rich hybrid of open-house hunting and a beer festival. All ciders offered will be Pennsylvania-made, with different offerings at each museum. Transportation from house to house will be provided.
Here, we offer a photographic preview of the houses and the histories of those who lived there.
The first owner of “The Hills” was Founding Father Robert Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, and a major financier of the American Revolution. He built not a mansion, but a greenhouse, used to grow various tropical plants. Following the burst of a land-speculation bubble in 1797, Morris lost his fortune, becoming one of the wealthiest Americans to enter debtors’ prison. He was forced to sell 43 acres of his property.
Merchant and real estate developer Henry Pratt bought the land at a sheriff’s sale and renamed it Lemon Hill, after the lemon trees in the greenhouse. The mansion as it stands today was built in 1800, featuring three stacked oval rooms that predate those found in the White House. Pratt, also a plant lover, renovated the greenhouse and expanded the gardens, which he opened to the public. After his death in 1838, Lemon Hill became the first Schuylkill-side private property acquired by the city and the first piece of land that would eventually create Fairmount Park. In the mid- to late 1800s, the house played host to a beer garden, restaurants, and an ice cream parlor.
In 1926, Fiske Kimball, the first director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, restored the house to its original appearance and lived there until his death in 1955. He placed his bed in the center of the second-floor oval room so he could see the Art Museum from the window. He left behind the towering sycamore trees in the front yard.
The Quaker family that inhabited this farmhouse never lived in Fairmount Park. The home was originally erected in Philadelphia’s Frankford neighborhood, built as a rural retreat for wealthy widow Elizabeth Coates Paschall. Constructed with Wissahickon schist, it grew to 14 rooms over 140 years, passed down through five generations of Paschalls, which eventually became the Morris family.
By 1888, industrialization edged the family out of Frankford. They moved to Chestnut Hill and developed what’s now known as the Morris Arboretum, leaving Cedar Grove behind. They donated the farmhouse-turned-mansion to the city in 1926 (the furniture went to the Art Museum). It was moved stone by stone to Fairmount Park, where the Art Museum has maintained it ever since.
Legend has it that William Coleman, a successful merchant and confidant of Benjamin Franklin’s, named this summer home after the surrounding woods and nearby ford in the Schuylkill. Coleman was a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and helped found University of Pennsylvania and the American Philosophical Society. He lived on the 12-acre property, complete with a servant’s house and stable, with his wife and their orphaned nephew, George Clymer, who would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
David Franks, a steadfast loyalist, purchased Woodford in 1771. He added the second story and a rear addition. Franks was arrested for treason in 1778 and sold the house to Thomas Paschall, who subsequently sold it to Isaac Wharton. The home served as a summer villa for two generations of Whartons for the next 75 years.
In 1868, the city purchased it to add to Fairmount Park, making it the residence for the park’s superintendent. Its life as a private residence ended in 1887, when it became the East Park headquarters for the Fairmount Park Guards (once the third-largest police force in Pennsylvania). Forty years later, the house was chosen to display antiques from the late Philadelphia collector Naomi Wood. The Naomi Wood Trust continues to operate Woodford.
Some might call Mount Pleasant’s first owner, Scottish sea captain John Macpherson, a pirate. He made his fortune as a privateer, capturing enemy ships during wartime. His original plantation featured a working farm, 150 acres of hay fields, pastures for sheep and cattle, orchards, and a large kitchen garden.
The home passed through a series of owners until 1792, when Jonathan Williams, a grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin’s, purchased the property. He lived there for two decades until his death in 1815; his children sold the estate to Fairmount Park in 1868. The house and its outbuildings were used over the years as a beer garden, a restaurant, and “The Dairy,” a snack bar.
History is murky on the originator of Laurel Hill, which by some accounts was built by Joseph Shute (in 1748), or Francis and Rebecca Rawle in the 1760s, or just Rebecca after Francis died in a hunting accident, or by Rebecca and her second husband, loyalist and former mayor of Philadelphia Samuel Shoemaker.
What is definite is that the home was seized and sold at auction during the Revolutionary War. Rawle spent six years trying to reclaim the house, while Shoemaker fled to London in order to escape imprisonment. By 1791, the home had returned to Rawle’s possession. After her death, it passed to her son William.
In 1828, William sold the summer home to family friend, physician, and “father of American surgery” Philip Syng Physick. Physick’s daughter inherited it after his death in 1837 (during which time it was known as Randolph House). The city purchased it in the late 1860s, using it for employee housing. In 1901, the Colonial Dames of America, Chapter II, leased the building and restored it to its Georgian-style glory, opening it to the public (and restoring its original name) in 1976.
The largest of the historic Fairmount Park houses, Strawberry Mansion, formerly known as Summerville, was built by prominent Philadelphia lawyer and state legislator Judge William Lewis, best known for drafting the first law to abolish slavery in the United States. It was later bought by Pennsylvania politician Joseph Hemphill, whose eldest son reportedly added the wings to the mansion so that it could fit a ballroom.
In the early 1800s, strawberry fields surrounded the area. The site became known as “Strawberry Hill,” then “Strawberry Mansion.” By the turn of the century, the nearby North Philadelphia neighborhood took on the name, too.