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Museum is a hidden gem in Northeast Philly

Meredith Rumer and daughter Bianca, 4, examine holiday decorations at the Ryerss Museum and Library in Philadelphia's Burholme Park. The house and its residents have played a role in local history.
Meredith Rumer and daughter Bianca, 4, examine holiday decorations at the Ryerss Museum and Library in Philadelphia's Burholme Park. The house and its residents have played a role in local history.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

High on top of the sledding hill in Burholme Park, the Ryerss Museum and Library contains an entire world within its historic walls.

The museum has an Asian Gallery with a three-foot-tall gold-colored Buddha made

out of gilded
-wood that gazes out over
presides over a section of the first-floor gallery that includes a re-creation of a Buddhist temple.
This, the largest of several Buddhas in the gallery, is believed to be from the 11th or 12th century, said Martha Moffat, site manager at the museum.

The house was built in Italianate style in 1859 by Joseph Waln Ryerss, who started out in his family's import and trade business

, but later became president of the Tioga Railroad in 1852.
But many longtime Fox Chase residents say the museum is a one-of-a-kind treasure that's been kept virtually secret from most Philadelphians.

"We call it the hidden gem of the Northeast," said George Wylesol, president of the Friends of Ryerss, a group that raises money to support the museum.

The mansion certainly has a long

huge and interesting history
Nicholas Waln, an ancestor of Joseph Waln Ryerss', came to the American colonies in 1682 after he bought another parcel of land from William Penn, said Joan Wagner, a former Ryerss librarian who wrote the book The Burholme Park Story.

Another ancestor was a merchant whose activism against the British played a critical role in the American Revolution.

The mansion was fortified in preparation for battle during the Civil War -

-- but Gen. Robert E. Lee's troops went to Gettysburg, instead. And the house had been a stop
was a site on the Underground Railroad, where African Americans escaping enslavement hid on their way to freedom.
Robert W. Ryerss left a will giving the mansion and his Burholme farmland to Philadelphia for a public park, library and museum, to be "free to the people forever."

"There's a lot of people who know Burholme Park because of the sledding, but they don't know about the museum on the hill," said Sharon Doyle, vice president of the Friends group.

Inside there are collections of ivory pieces from India, porcelain dishes and vases from China, a samurai sword from Japan, a model of the Taj Mahal, a suit of armor, and a host of other items, of which Wylesol said: "Some of it is very fine and some of it almost kitsch."

Wylesol, 56, grew up about a block from the mansion, and said he started going to the museum when he was 5 or 6 years old.

"It was one of my first experiences of the cultural world," said Wylesol. "There were paintings, suits of armor. It opened up the world to us."

He gives talks about the Friends' efforts

work to fund the museum to neighborhood groups, such as a recent talk to the Fox Chase Homeowners Association. During those
talkssessions, he said, he usually
s asks for a show of hands of people who have visited Ryerss.
Only about half of the people in the group will hold

held their hands up.
"These are people who drive past it on a daily basis and they don't know they have a library and a nice little museum here," Wylesol said. "It's a great place to take young children on a rainy day."

Some say people don't know about the Ryerss Museum because it's opened only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

"I think it should be open seven days a week, but it's only open on the weekends," said Jean Gavin, who got involved with museum supporters

the Friends of the museum a few years ago after learning that the Fox Chase Cancer Center wanted to build an expansion on nearly 20 acres of park land. She helped to fight a lease arrangement in court.
Jennifer Crandall, a spokeswoman for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, said that because the staff and security for the museum are funded by the interest generated by the Ryerss Trust Fund, and not from city resources, "unfortunately, the fund just can't support more staffing at this time."

Currently, the Friends of Ryerss, is raising money to restore and preserve the stained-glass windows in the building's cupola

on the house.
The main area for the museum, which opened to the public in 1910, is a two-story addition at the back of the house.

"It's a wonderful mansion with a beautiful history," said Marlene Sellers, a member of Friends of Ryerss. "It could be a marvelous lesson in history, art, and the culture at the beginning of our country."

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