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.

William Tecumseh Sherman Statue, New York City (2)

The statue William Tecumseh Sherman, in Grand Army Plaza at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in New York, in September 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection.

The statue in 2019:

As discussed in an earlier post, this statue was designed by prominent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and dedicated in 1903, in honor of General William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the most successful Union generals of the Civil War. The statue features Sherman seated on his horse, Ontario, while being led by the goddess Victory. She wears a laurel crown and is holding a palm frond in her left hand, both of which are classical symbols of victory. The statue stands atop a pink granite base, which was designed by architect Charles Follen McKim.

The first photo in the earlier post was taken only a few years after the statue was dedicated, but the first photo here was taken much later, in September 1942. In the interim, the statue had been moved 15 feet to the west in 1913, and then later in the 1910s it was temporarily removed from the site entirely, in order to make room for subway excavations. It was subsequently returned here by the early 1920s, and it has remained here ever since.

By the time the first photo was taken, America had been involved in World War II for less than a year. The photographer was Marjory Collins, a noted photojournalist and New York native who documented life on the home front as part of the United States Office of War Information. The only obvious clue about the war is the sailor seated on the base of the statue, but Collins likely included the photo as a way of connecting the war to past conflicts in the nation’s history.

In the nearly 80 years since the first photo was taken, the statue has undergone several restorations, including re-gilding the surface, and today it looks essentially the same as it did back then. Much of the background has also remained unchanged during this time. There are newer high-rises on the left side, but the two buildings on the right side of the first photo are still standing. On the far right side is the Metropolitan Club, built in 1893, and just to the left of it is The Pierre, a 41-story luxury hotel that opened in 1930.

William Tecumseh Sherman Statue, New York City

The statue William Tecumseh Sherman at the present-day Grand Army Plaza in New York, around 1903-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The first photo was taken sometime soon after the 1903 dedication of William Tecumseh Sherman, an equestrian statue honoring the famous Civil War general. Although a native of Ohio, Sherman spent his later years in New York City, and after his death in 1891 the New York Chamber of Commerce commissioned prominent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design a memorial in his honor.

It took Saint-Gaudens more than a decade to complete the statue, and it was installed here at the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 59th Street, at the southeast corner of Central Park. This area is now known as Grand Army Plaza, although it did not receive this name until 1923. The statue features Sherman astride his horse Ontario, and they are being led by the winged goddess Victory, who wears a laurel crown and carries a palm frond in her left hand. The figures stand atop a pink granite base, which was designed by Charles Follen McKim, one of the leading American architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1913, the statue was moved 15 feet to the west of its original location, in order to place it in line with the newly-installed Pulitzer Fountain on the south side of the plaza. Then, a few years later, it was temporarily removed from this site and placed in storage, in order to make room for the construction of a new subway line. It was eventually returned here by the early 1920s, and over the years it has been re-gilded several times, most recently in 2013. At some point the statue also lost its palm frond and sword, but these were replaced during a late 1980s restoration, and today the statue looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken more than a century ago.

Fifth Avenue from 59th Street, New York City

The view looking south on Fifth Avenue from the corner of West 59th Street, at the southeast corner of Central Park in New York, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

These photos show the view looking down Fifth Avenue from what is now Grand Army Plaza, at the southeast corner of Central Park. The first one was taken around 1904, at a time when this section of Fifth Avenue was undergoing a transition from an affluent residential neighborhood to a busy commercial center. As a result, the photo shows a mix of both private homes and turn-of-the-century skyscrapers along this part of the street.

The most dominant feature in the foreground of this scene is the statue William Tecumseh Sherman, which was installed in 1903. It was designed by prominent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and it commemorates the famous Civil War general who spent his later years in New York City. Beyond the monument, on the far left side of the photo, is the Hotel Netherland, which was built in 1893 at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and East 59th Street. To the right of it is the Hotel Savoy, which was built in 1892, and further to the right, in the center of the scene, is the much smaller Bolkenhayn apartment building. This was also built around the same time, and one of its early guests was a young Winston Churchill, who stayed here in the apartment of Congressman William Bourke Cockran during a visit to New York in 1895.

To the right of the Bolkenhayn, on the block between East 57th and East 58th Streets, is Marble Row. This block of eight marble townhouses was built in 1869, and over the years it was home to a number of wealthy residents. Mary Mason Jones, daughter of the noted early 19th century businessman John Mason, originally owned all eight homes, and she lived in the southernmost one, at the corner of East 57th Street on the right side of the building. This house was later the home of businessman Hermann Oelrichs and his wife Theresa, who also owned the famous Rosecliff mansion in Newport. Other wealthy residents of the townhouses included merchant William E. Iselin and businessman Solomon R. Guggenheim, the founder of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Many of these homes were still private residences when the first photo was taken, but at least one—the one on the left side of the building at the corner of East 58th Street—had been converted to commercial use, having been occupied by the Plaza Bank since the early 1890s.

Beyond Marble Row are more upscale 19th century homes. On the other side of East 57th Street is the home of Collis P. Huntington, a railroad executive who was involved in the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad as part of the Central Pacific Railroad. He built this granite house in the early 1890s, and he died in 1900, although his widow Arabella was still living here when the first photo was taken. There are more homes further in the distance past this house, but they are dwarfed by the 20-story St. Regis Hotel, which was completed in 1904 at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 55th Street.

On the far right side of the first photo is the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The original portion of this house was built in 1883, at the corner of West 57th Street, but a decade later it was expanded along the entire length of the block to West 58th Street, making it the largest private home ever built in New York City. Vanderbilt was the grandson of family patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt, and he was also the largest beneficiary of the family fortune upon the death of his father in 1885, receiving nearly $70 million. He spent a good portion of his wealth on lavish homes, including this one in New York and The Breakers in Newport. He died in 1899, but his widow Alice continued to live in these houses for several more decades.

Today, more than a century later, there is almost nothing left here from the first photo, aside from the Sherman statue in the foreground. The Hotel Netherland was demolished in 1926, and a year later it was replaced by the Sherry-Netherland, which still stands on the site. Also during the mid-1920s, the neighboring Hotel Savoy and the Bolkenhayn were demolished, after having been acquired by the owner of the nearby Plaza Hotel. The site was rebuilt with a new hotel, the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, which opened in 1927. This building was, in turn, demolished in 1965 to build the 50-story General Motors Building, visible just to the left of the statue in the present-day photo.

Further in the distance, the townhouses of Marble Row were demolished piecemeal during the early 20th century. The last surviving remnant, the corner house on the right side, stood here until around 1930, and today the majority of this block is occupied by the Art Deco-style Squibb Building, built in 1930 at 745 Fifth Avenue. Both the Huntington and Vanderbilt mansions were similarly demolished in the late 1920s, and their lost are now home to the flagship stores of Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman, respectively. Further down Fifth Avenue, the other 19th century mansions from the first photo are also long gone, and much of this land is now the site of the 58-story Trump Tower, visible in the center-right of the present-day photo. Overall, the only surviving building from the first photo is the St. Regis. However, while it was very prominent in that photo, it is now hidden from view in this scene by the modern skyscrapers that surround it.

Forest Park Lily Ponds, Springfield, Mass

The lily ponds in Forest Park in Springfield, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

Forest Park is the largest public park in Springfield, encompassing 735 acres of land in the southwestern corner of the city. The origins of the park date back to 1884, and over the years it has been steadily expanded through various donations and land purchases. One of the most significant of these donors was Everett H. Barney, a local ice skate manufacturer who owned much of what is now the western section of the park. He built his house, Pecousic Villa, on the property in 1883, and he subsequently landscaped the grounds with ponds, fountains, a waterfall, bridges, and a network of paths.

Barney had intended to construct a house here for his only child, George. However, George died in 1889, and Barney instead built a mausoleum for his son on the site of what would have been his house. With no other heirs, Barney donated his entire estate to the city, including the house and the meticulously-maintained grounds. His only stipulation was that he and his wife Eliza would be able to reside in the house for the rest of their lives, and they went on to live here until her death in 1905 and his in 1916.

The first photo was taken sometime around 1907, showing the lily ponds that Barney had constructed. It was taken from the path between the lily ponds and the Pecousic Brook, and the view faces north, with Pecousic Villa just out of view on the far left side, on the other side of the hill. Unlike the other sections of Forest Park, which were left in more or less a natural state, this scene was mostly artificial, and the plan was not necessarily admired by all. For example, in 1901 the Springfield Republican published a lengthy commentary on the park, in which it lamented that “Not all the changes of recent years have been for the better.” The article went on to explain:

Everyone must admire the enthusiasm with which Mr. Barney has cultivated the extensive grounds which he has generously added to the park, and criticism of the results would be a most ungrateful task, yet it must be clear from the principles which have been indicated, that a somewhat difficult problem is raised by the conflicting ideals which have been pursued. The rare beauty of the lotus and lily ponds is undeniable, but the general scheme of the park and that of Mr. Barney’s very valuable addition are incongruous. In the park the effort has been to keep as much of nature as is possible in a city park. Mr. Barney’s plan, carried out with diligent personal attention through many years, has involved a design which, though not conventional, is at least artificial.

This criticism notwithstanding, Forest Park proved to be a popular recreation area, with most visitors evidently remaining unfazed by the inconsistencies between the more natural eastern half of the park and the carefully-manicured areas here in the western half. One of the city’s other newspapers, the Springfield Union, praised Barney for his landscaping work in his obituary in 1916, writing:

Forest Park is Springfield’s great breathing ground, and a trip there always includes a visit to “Barney’s front yard.” There he showed his passionate love for nature and that he was an expert horticulturalist. He planted there rare shrubs and trees from Europe, Egypt, China, Japan and India, and there he planned and maintained lily ponds containing nearly all varieties of lilies. There, too, he maintained a lotus pond. Mr. Barney’s nature was a restless, untiring one, and he changed his lawns and flower gardens frequently. His taste ran strongly to mathematical arrangement of flower beds and shrubs, and one is constantly startled by coming suddenly on a stone deer or other piece of statuary.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, Forest Park has undergone some significant changes, including the demolition of the Barney house in the late 1950s to make way for Interstate 91. However, many other scenes in the park, including this one, have remained largely the same. Forest Park is actually much more forested now than it was when it acquired its name, and there are far more trees in the present-day photo, including in the foreground and on the distant hillside. Overall, though, Barney’s lily ponds still look as they did when he first laid them out in the late 19th century, and much of his other landscaping work remains intact after having been enjoyed by many generations of Springfield residents.

 

Willey House, Hart’s Location, New Hampshire (3)

The view looking north in Crawford Notch in the White Mountains, with the Willey House in the distance on the left, around the 1860s or 1870s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2018:

These photos show the view looking north in Crawford Notch, a long, narrow valley through the heart of the White Mountains. For many years, it was the only east-west route through the mountain range, and since the late 18th century it has been a vital transportation corridor. As explained in more detail in an earlier post, the first road through the notch was opened in 1774, and over the years it was steadily improved, eventually becoming part of the Tenth New Hampshire Turnpike in 1806.

To serve these travelers in the midst of the northern New Hampshire wilderness, a series of inns were opened in and around the notch. The first building within the notch itself was a house that was constructed in 1793. Later known as the Willey House, it stood in the left-center of the first photo, where the peak of its gabled roof is barely visible beyond a much larger three-story hotel that was constructed in 1845.

The house served as both a residence and a small inn, and it had several different owners in the early 19th century before being acquired by Samuel Willey in 1825. It was an isolated location in the middle of the notch, several miles away from the nearest neighbor, but Willey moved here in the fall of 1825, along with his wife Polly and their five young children. He spent much of the fall improving the property and preparing it for the long, cold northern New England winter, and the result was a modest but comfortable place for travelers to stop for food, drink, or shelter.

As the Willeys would soon discover, though, the house’s location at the base of a steep cliff made it susceptible to landslides. One occurred in June 1826, and it narrowly missed the house. Then, two months later, another one occurred during a heavy rainstorm on the night of August 28. This time, the house was completely encircled by the debris, although the house itself survived unscathed thanks to a low ledge just above it, which split the flow into two channels.

Unfortunately, though, the Willey family attempted to flee the house in the midst of the storm, evidently fearing that the house would be destroyed. However, in the darkness they unknowingly ran directly into the path of the slide, and all seven were killed, along with two hired hands who lived here with them. Searchers subsequently found six of the bodies, some of them badly mangled, but three of the Willey children were never recovered.

The sudden deaths of nine people, more than half of whom were children under the age of 13, quickly gained national attention. This helped to spur tourism to the White Mountains, and over the next few years many curious visitors came to Crawford Notch to see the Willey House, the aftermath of the landslide, and the surrounding wilderness. The story also became the subject of a now-lost painting by noted artist Thomas Cole, and a short story, “The Ambitious Guest,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

By the mid-19th century, the area was a popular destination thanks in large part to the publicity generated by the Willey disaster, and there were many hotels in the vicinity of Crawford Notch. These included the Willey House itself, which had been purchased by Horace Fabyan in 1845. He constructed a new, much larger hotel building adjacent to the old house, and it can be seen on the left side of the first photo. Both buildings stood here until nearly the end of the 19th century, but they were ultimately destroyed by a fire in September 1899.

Today, the site of the house and hotel is now the visitor center and park headquarters for the Crawford Notch State Park. There is little evidence of the buildings that once stood here, although the location of the Willey House is now marked by a small stone monument. The road has also changed significantly since the first photo was taken some 150 years ago, and the narrow dirt path is now U.S. Route 302. Overall, the only thing from the first photo that has not changed is the surrounding landscape, which has been preserved as part of the state park. This includes the most prominent feature in both photos, the 2,804-foot Mount Willard, which dominates the background of the scene and marks the northern end of Crawford Notch.