Keene Mansion, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Keene Mansion at the northwest corner of Tenth and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, on March 5, 1860. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The three-story brick house in the first photo was completed around 1815 as the home of Major David Lenox, a Revolutionary War officer who became a prosperous merchant after the war. Lenox had also held several government positions during the late 18th century, including as U.S. Marshal for the District of Pennsylvania and as a diplomat to the United Kingdom. He lived here for a little over a decade, until his death in 1828, and after his wife Tacy’s death in 1834 the property went to her niece, Sallie Lukens Keene.

Keene was still living here when the first photo was taken in 1860, having carefully maintained the original appearance of the house, including its exterior architectural details and its interior furniture. However, by this point the city had begun to grow up around the elegant mansion, which was joined here by less fashionable buildings, including a billiards hall across the street on the far left side of the photo.

Sally Keene died in 1866, and her heirs subsequently sold the property, which had become valuable commercial real estate. The old house was demolished in 1872, and the site was redeveloped as the offices of the New York Mutual Life Insurance Company. This building was completed in 1873 and subsequently expanded in the early 1890s with the addition of the top three floors. It is still standing here today, and although it is much different than the Federal-style mansion that it replaced, the building has become an important landmark in its own right, having been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Zachariah Poulson House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The former home of Zechariah Poulson, at 310 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, in May 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The house in the center of the first photo was probably built sometime in the late 18th century, and for many years it was the home and office of publisher Zechariah Poulson. Born in Philadelphia in 1761, Poulson grew up during the turmoil of the American Revolution and learned the printer’s trade. He subsequently went into business for himself, and became a successful printer. By the late 1790s he was living here on Chestnut Street and publishing books and other materials, and then in 1800 he purchased the Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser newspaper, which he renamed Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser. He went on to publish it for nearly 40 years, before selling it in 1839, and he appears to have lived here until his death five years later.

The Poulson family still owned the house when the first photo was taken in 1859, but by this point the old house was surrounded by taller, modern commercial blocks. As indicated by the signs on the front of the house, it was occupied by several different commercial tenants. On the ground floor was A. Bachmann & Co. Confectionery, and the building also features signs for Meadows & Co. silverware manufacturers and the United States Journal.

The buildings on either side of the former Poulson house also have a variety of signage in the first photo, including a printing office, a jewelry manufacturer, a watch importer, and a commission merchant. However, the most interesting is the sign above the storefront just to the left of the Poulson house, at 308 Chestnut Street. This was the home of Goodyear’s Rubber Packing & Belting Company, which was operated by Charles Goodyear, the developer of vulcanized rubber. Goodyear died a year after this photo was taken, and his business was unrelated to the more famous Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, which was named after him in 1898.

Today, more than 160 years after the first photo was taken, there are no surviving remnants from the photo in this scene. The Poulson house was probably demolished at some point in the 1860s, because by the early 1870s it was occupied by the new Union Banking Company building. This building, along with the others in the first photo, have also since been demolished, perhaps as late as the mid-20th century, when nearly the entire block was cleared in order to open up space for the Independence National Historical Park. Only a handful of 18th century buildings survived, including the First Bank of the United States building, which is visible in the distance on the far right side of the present-day scene.

Interior of The Cliffs, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The living room inside The Cliffs in Philadelphia, in March 1932. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The previous post shows the exterior view of The Cliffs, before and after it was destroyed by a fire in 1986, and these two photos here show the interior of the now-gutted building. As explained in more detail in that post, The Cliffs was built in 1753 as the summer home of merchant Joshua Fisher. At the time, the present-day site of Fairmount Park was still sparsely settled, and several miles distant from the city center, making it an ideal place for Philadelphia’s wealthy families to escape to during the summer months. The Cliffs was one of many such homes built here during this time, although it was comparatively modest, with only two rooms on each floor and a simple design with minimal ornamentation on the interior and exterior.

The first floor of The Cliffs had a hall-and-parlor layout, which was typical for homes of this period. The hall, shown here in the first photo, was the largest room in the house, and it was where guests would be greeted, as both the front and back doors opened into it. It occupied slightly more than half of the space on the first floor, and it was located on the north side of the house. The adjoining room, the parlor, occupied the south side of the first floor. Like the hall, it had a fireplace, and it also had stairs connecting it to the kitchen in the basement and to the bedrooms on the second floor. By the time the first photo was taken in the 1930s, the hall and parlor had taken on more modern roles, as the living room and dining room, respectively.

The Cliffs was owned by the Fisher family for more than a century, although during part of the American Revolution it was rented to Benjamin Franklin’s daughter, Sarah “Sally” Franklin Bache. She was part of a women’s sewing group that would occasionally meet in the house—perhaps even here in this room—to sew clothes and bandages for Continental soldiers. Her time here may have coincided with the two years that Joshua Fisher’s son Samuel was imprisoned by colonial authorities because of suspected Loyalist beliefs.

Joshua Fisher died in 1783, the same year that the war ended, and after the war Samuel carried on the family business. He and his family continued to spend summers here at The Cliffs, including his daughter Deborah Fisher Wharton, who achieved prominence as a Quaker minister. She was active in the abolitionist movement, in addition to advocating for Native American rights and women’s suffrage. One of her children was Joseph Wharton, a wealthy 19th century industrialist and philanthropist who spent some of his childhood here at The Cliffs. He was one of the founders of Bethlehem Steel, and in 1881 he donated $100,000 to establish a school of business at the University of Pennsylvania, which became known as the Wharton School in his honor.

Starting in the mid-1800s, the city of Philadelphia began purchasing the old estates here along the Schuylkill River, in order to protect the drinking water supply from the encroaching development of the growing city. The city purchased The Cliffs in 1868, and it became part of Fairmount Park, which would eventually grow to encompass over two thousand acres on both sides of the river. The historic homes were generally preserved, and some, including The Cliffs, became housing for park employees.

The house was still occupied by park employees when the first photo was taken in 1932, and it remained in use until 1970. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places two years later, and photos from the nomination form show the house boarded up and tagged with graffiti. It would remain vacant for the next 14 years, before eventually being destroyed by an arsonist on February 22, 1986. The fire destroyed the entire house, leaving only the exterior masonry walls and chimneys still standing.

More than 30 years after the fire, the present-day photo is a haunting contrast to the first photo. The house was never rebuilt, and the ruins remain here, partially hidden by trees and weeds in a remote section of Fairmount Park. The interior and exterior walls are now covered in graffiti, with empty cans of spray paint littering the basement. Here on the north wall of what used to be the largest room in the house, the empty windows and damaged chimney give the north wall of the house an almost skull-like appearance, providing only a hint of what the house once looked like.

The Cliffs, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Cliffs in Fairmount Park, in March 1931. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post, the present-day site of Fairmount Park was once a fashionable place for affluent Philadelphia residents to have country estates. These homes stood atop the banks overlooking the Schuylkill River, and they served as summer residences, enabling their owners to escape the heat, crowds, and disease of central Philadelphia. Most of these homes were built in the 18th or early 19th centuries, and many are still standing today, having been incorporated into Fairmount Park. However, this house, known as The Cliffs, is one of the exceptions, surviving only as a masonry shell after being gutted by a fire in 1986.

The Cliffs was built in 1753 by Joshua Fisher, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. Perhaps because of his Quaker beliefs, the house was fairly modest, especially when compared its much larger, more elaborate neighbors. Its walls were made of rubble masonry, with very little exterior ornamentation. The interior was similarly plain, and featured just two rooms on each floor. On the first floor, the front door opened into the hall, the largest room in the house. It occupied slightly more than half of the first floor, and it was located on the right side of the house from this perspective. On the other side of the house was the parlor, which had a staircase connecting it to the kitchen in the basement and the bedrooms on the second floor.

The Revolutionary War was a difficult time for the Fisher family, as the war hurt their shipping business while also challenging their nonviolent Quaker beliefs. Joshua Fisher’s son Samuel was imprisoned for two years during the war because of suspected Loyalists beliefs, and for part of this time The Cliffs was rented to Sarah “Sally” Franklin Bache, the daughter of Benjamin Franklin. While here, she was involved in a sewing group consisting of other local women who made clothes and bandages for soldiers in the Continental Army.

After the war, Samuel Fisher continued to use The Cliffs as a summer residence. His father died in 1783, but Samuel carried on the family mercantile business, which thrived in the late 18th century. He remained a bachelor for much of his life, but he ultimately married in 1793 at the age of 48, to 29-year-old Hannah Rodman of Newport, Rhode Island. They had three children who survived infancy, and probably the most notable was Deborah Fisher, who became a Quaker minister and civil rights activist, supporting causes such as abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and Native American rights. She married William Wharton, and among their children was Joseph Wharton, who was born in 1826. As a child he spent time here at The Cliffs, and he subsequently went on to become a successful industrialist. He was one of the founders of Bethlehem Steel, and he was also the founder and namesake of the Wharton School, the business school at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, the Cliffs was owned by the Fisher family until 1868, when the property was purchased by the city and incorporated into Fairmount Park. By this point, Philadelphia had grown considerably since the 18th century, and this area along the Schuylkill River was no longer as remote as it had once been. No longer as desirable of a location for summer retreats, the riverbanks instead attracted the attention of the city, which wanted to protect its public water supply. This had the side effect of creating a large, scenic urban park, and by the late 19th century the city had acquired many historic homes here.

For the next century, The Cliffs served as a residence for park employees. The first photo was taken during this time, in 1931, showing the east side of the house. Just beyond the house is the river, and in the distance is the west side of Fairmount Park, including the Letitia Street House, which is barely visible to the left of the tree on the left side of the scene. Although not as grand as many of the other historic homes in Fairmount Park, it was nonetheless a good example of Georgian architecture, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, two years after it was vacated by the city.

The house sat empty for many years, and it suffered from vandalism. It was ultimately destroyed by arson on February 22, 1986, leaving only the empty stone shell still standing. It was never rebuilt, and the ruins are still standing here today. Now overgrown with weeds and trees and covered in graffiti, the house bears little resemblance to its appearance in the first photo. As such, it provides a significant contrast to the other historic homes in Fairmount Park, which have been much better preserved over the years.

Mount Pleasant, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Mount Pleasant mansion in Fairmount Park, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2019:

Fairmount Park is located along the banks of the Schuylkill River, several miles to the northwest of downtown Philadelphia. During the colonial era, this area of the city was still sparsely-settled, and the bluffs overlooking the river were desirable locations for the country estates of some of Philadelphia’s affluent families. These mansions were generally used as summer homes, allowing these families to escape the heat and diseases of the densely-populated city center. Most of the homes were built in the 18th or early 19th centuries, and 16 are still standing today as part of Fairmount Park, the largest park in Philadelphia. Of these, perhaps the finest mansion is Mount Pleasant, which was built here in the early 1760s on the east bank of the Schuylkill River.

Mount Pleasant was designed by Thomas Nevell, and it is an excellent example of colonial Georgian-style architecture. As was typical for Georgian houses of the period, its design is symmetrical, and it makes use of decorative elements such as quoins on the corners, a pedimented doorway, a Palladian window, and a hip roof with dormers. The main house is flanked by two smaller buildings with matching exteriors. The one on the north side—which is just out of view on the right side of this scene—was the office, and the one on the south side, in the foreground of these photos, was the summer kitchen.

The original owner of this house was John MacPherson, a sea captain who became wealthy as a privateer during the French and Indian War. In command of the 20-gun ship Britannia, MacPherson captured several dozen French vessels throughout the war, in the process hurting the French war effort while simultaneously enriching himself. His exploits cost him his right arm, which he lost to a French cannonball in the midst of a battle, but upon returning to Philadelphia he used his new wealth to build his country estate here in Philadelphia. He originally named it Clunie, after his family’s ancestral home in Scotland, but subsequently changed it to Mount Pleasant. The size of the property also changed during MacPherson’s ownership; he started with about 31 acres, but the estate eventually grew to 120 acres.

MacPherson was a patriot during the American Revolution, and he even made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to become commander of the newly-established Continental Navy. His two sons, William and John, served in the Continental Army during the war. William resigned his commission as a British lieutenant in order to join the Continental Army, and he eventually became a brevet major and served on the staff of the Marquis de Lafayette. His brother John was also a staff officer during the war, serving as aide-de-camp to General Richard Montgomery, but both he and Montgomery were killed in the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775.

In the meantime, the elder John MacPherson interacted with high-ranking members of the Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall throughout the war. On at least one occasion, on September 25, 1775, Massachusetts delegate John Adams visited him here at Mount Pleasant for dinner. The future president subsequently wrote about it in his diary, commenting on the house, his family, and MacPherson’s naval ambitions:

Rode out of town, and dined with Mr. McPherson. He has the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania, a clever Scotch wife, and two pretty daughters. His seat is on the banks of the Schuylkill. He has been nine times wounded in battle; an old sea commander; made a fortune by privateering; an arm twice shot off, shot through the leg, &c. He renews his proposals of taking or burning ships.

Despite living in “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania,” MacPherson eventually decided to move out of the house and offer it for sale. He had no immediate buyers, but in the meantime he leased the house to Juan de Miralles, Spain’s unofficial envoy to the United States. Although Spain was officially neutral at this point in the war, Miralles established connections with many American leaders in Philadelphia, including by hosting lavish balls here at Mount Pleasant.

Then, in 1779 General Benedict Arnold purchased Mount Pleasant from John MacPherson. At the time, Arnold was still an ostensibly loyal officer in the Continental Army. He had been a hero at the Battle of Saratoga, but in the process he suffered a leg injury. During his recovery he was unable to fight on the front lines, so Washington appointed him military governor of Philadelphia in 1778. However, Arnold’s volatile personality made him ill-suited for a position that required tact and subtlety in dealing with local leaders, and he also faced accusations that he was using his position to enrich himself. It was also during his time in Philadelphia that Arnold met and fell in love with 18-year-old Peggy Shippen, whose wealthy family had Loyalist sympathies. Despite being twice her age and from a very different social background, Arnold began courting her later in 1778, and they were married on April 8, 1779.

At the time, Arnold’s financial situation was somewhat strained, and he was under suspicion for misusing his authority for personal gain. However, he purchased Mount Pleasant as a wedding gift for Peggy, giving the impression that he was wealthier than he really was. In reality, he was hampered by debt, which would only worsen after he and Peggy moved in here and began living a lavish lifestyle. This, combined with Arnold’s belief that patriot leaders were not grateful for his actions and sacrifices that he made on the battlefield, ultimately helped lead him to famously betray the Continental Army in 1780. Peggy likely played a role in this decision as well, as she had Loyalist connections and may have helped initiate contact between Arnold and his British handler, Major John André.

As it turned out, the Arnolds’ stay here at Mount Pleasant was short. His treason was discovered after André was captured on September 23, 1780, and Arnold himself only narrowly escaped capture. Mount Pleasant was subsequently confiscated, and it changed hands several times before being purchased by Peggy’s father, Edward Shippen, in 1784. Despite his Loyalist connections during the war, and the infamy of his son-in-law, Shippen remained a respected member of Philadelphia society, eventually becoming chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. He owned Mount Pleasant until 1792, when he sold it to Jonathan Williams.

Originally from Boston, Williams spent much of the Revolutionary period in France, first as a secretary to his great uncle, Benjamin Franklin, and then as a commercial agent of the United States. He later became an Army officer upon returning to the United States, and he held the position of Chief of Engineers for the Army Corps of Engineers from 1802 to 1803, and 1805 to 1812. During this time, he also became the first superintendent of West Point, serving from 1801 to 1803, and 1805 to 1812. In 1814 Williams was elected to the House of Representatives, but he died just two months into his term in 1815, without ever having attended a session of Congress.

After his death, his son Henry J. Williams inherited Mount Pleasant, and the house remained in the Williams family until 1853. By this point, the banks of the Schuylkill River were no longer as desirable a location for country estates as they had been a century earlier, in part because the city’s growth was encroaching on the area. Starting in the mid-19th century, the city of Philadelphia began purchasing estates along the river, in order to better protect the public water supply. These acquisitions became Fairmount Park, and in 1868 the city purchased Mount Pleasant and added it to the parkland.

The first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, and it shows the exterior in a somewhat deteriorated condition, with plenty of peeling paint on both the main house and the kitchen building. However, in 1927 Mount Pleasant was restored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has administered the house ever since. It underwent another major restoration in the early 2000s, and today its exterior looks far better than it did when the first photo was taken 120 years ago. Adams’s description of it as being “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania” is as true now as it was in 1775, and in 1974 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its historic and architectural significance.

Maclean House, Princeton, New Jersey

Maclean House on the campus of Princeton University, around 1894. Image from Views of Princeton University (1894).

The house in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post on Nassau Hall, Princeton University was established in 1746 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, as the College of New Jersey. The school moved to Newark a year later, and then to Princeton in 1756, upon completion of Nassau Hall. At the time, Nassau Hall encompassed all of the school’s amenities under one roof, including classrooms, dormitory rooms, offices, a dining room, and a meeting hall. However, the school did have a separate building for the college president, who lived here in this brick two-story house, located immediately to the northwest of Nassau Hall, fronting Nassau Street. Like its neighbor, the house was completed in 1756, and it was likewise designed by Philadelphia architect Robert Smith. Its first occupant was Aaron Burr Sr., who had served as Princeton’s president since 1748.

Burr died only a year after moving into this house, in the fall of 1757, leaving his widow Esther with two young children, including future vice president Aaron Burr, who was just a year and a half old at the time. Burr’s replacement as president was Esther’s father, Jonathan Edwards, the famous pastor and theologian. Edwards had begun his ministry career in Northampton, Massachusetts, where his preaching had helped to spark the Great Awakening. However, after many years in Northampton he was dismissed by the congregation in 1750, and he subsequently moved to the remote western Massachusetts town of Stockbridge. There, he served as a missionary to Native Americans until the College of New Jersey invited him to be its next president.

Edwards arrived here in Princeton in the midst of a smallpox epidemic, and one of his first priorities was to encourage students to receive a smallpox inoculation. Leading by example, he was inoculated on February 23, 1758. However, what was supposed to be just a mild case of smallpox progressively worsened over the next few weeks, and he died here at this house in Princeton on March 22, barely a month after becoming president of the college. He was buried in nearby Princeton Cemetery, alongside his predecessor and son-in-law, in a plot that later became known as Presidents’ Row because of the many college presidents interred there.

After Edwards’s death, this house was subsequently occupied by the next eight college presidents: Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, John Witherspoon, Samuel Stanhope Smith, Ashbel Green, James Carnahan, John Maclean, and James McCosh. Of these, Witherspoon was probably the most notable. In addition to serving as president for more than 25 years, Witherspoon was also involved in politics during the Revolutionary War era. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress, and in that capacity he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, becoming the only active clergyman to sign the document.

Aside from being the residence of many Princeton presidents, this house was also home to a number of slaves over the years. Most of the early presidents were slaveowners, and New Jersey was among the last of the northern states to abolish slavery. The state enacted a gradual emancipation plan starting in 1804, but slavery in New Jersey was not fully eliminated until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. The last Princeton president to have slaves here in the house was Ashbel Green, who was president from 1812 to 1822. He had at least three slaves here during this time, including Betsey Stockton, whom he freed in 1817 when she was about 19 years old. She remained here as a paid servant for the next five years, and during this time she also received an education. Then, in 1822 she traveled to Hawaii as a Christian missionary, and upon returning to America she became an educator, eventually teaching for many years at an African-American school here in Princeton.

The last college president to occupy this house was James McCosh, who moved into the newly-acquired Prospect House in 1878. The house was then used as the residence of the dean of faculty, and seven different deans lived here between 1883 and 1967. The first photo was taken during this period, no later than 1894, and it shows the northern side of the house, from Nassau Street. This photo also shows two large sycamore trees standing in front of the house. These trees had been planted in 1765, less than a decade after the house was built, and by the time the photo was taken they were already nearly 130 years old.

Today, more than 125 years after the first photo was taken, very little has changed here in this scene. The house is now occupied by the Alumni Association of Princeton University, and it is named the Maclean House in honor of John Maclean, who lived here during his presidency and served as honorary president of the Alumni Association. Despite these changes in use, though, its exterior has remained well-preserved, and along with Nassau Hall it stands as the oldest building on the Princeton campus. Perhaps even more remarkable, though, is that the two sycamore trees are also still standing. Now more than 250 years old, they are nearly twice as old as they were in the first photo, and in the summer their leaves partially hide the view of the house from the street, as shown in the present-day photo.