In the 18th and early 19th centuries, many wealthy Philadelphians built retreat homes along the elevated, picturesque banks of the Schuylkill River in Fairmount Park. They offered a quick escape from the ills of urban life, including summer heat and epidemics like typhoid and yellow fever. A number of these historic houses have been preserved and are open to the public. The homes offer a glimpse into the lives of early Philadelphians, while showcasing early architectural styles and period furnishings. Cedar Grove, Sweetbriar, and Belmont are on the west side of the river, while the rest are on the east side. The houses are operated by various civic organizations and have various hours and admission costs. To see a particular house, contact that house directly, or for information about seasonal guided trolley tours of multiple homes in summer and during the winter holiday, call Fairmount Park Council for Historic Sites (215/297-0125).
Built in the late 18th century, Belmont Mansion (2000 Belmont Mansion Dr., 215/878-8844; Tues.-Fri. 11am-5pm, Sat.-Sun noon-5pm by appointment only; $7 adult, $5 student, senior, and child, free under 6) is one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in the United States standing today. The land was purchased in 1742 by William Peters, an English lawyer and land agent for William Penn’s family. He designed the mansion and formal gardens, and later passed it on to his son, Richard. In the turbulent times of the Revolution, Richard served as Secretary of the Board of War for the Revolutionary Army and Pennsylvania Delegate to Congress under the Articles of Confederation. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all stayed here at various times. After the Revolution, Richard became Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Pennsylvania State Senator, Judge of the United States District Court, and an environmental scientist and prominent abolitionist. In 2007, after a long restoration project, the American Women’s Heritage Society opened the house as an interpretive and educational center and Underground Railroad Museum. On a tour, you’ll learn about the role of the home and its owners and slaves in history and in the abolitionist movement.
In 1746, wealthy widow Elizabeth Coates Paschall acquired land in the Frankford section of the city, where she built a large house for herself and her three children. Over subsequent generations, Cedar Grove (1 Cedar Grove Dr., 215/763-8100; Tues.-Sun. 10am-5pm; $5 adult, $3 senior, $2 child (6-12)) grew with multiple additions and renovations, most notably when Elizabeth’s granddaughter Sarah and her husband, Isaac Wistar Morris, doubled its size around 1800. They added a formal parlor, new kitchen, and a 3rd floor. The house was in Frankford until the 1920s, when it was moved brick by brick to Fairmount Park. Today, tourists and history buffs can stroll through the mansion and take in the fine mix of Federal, Baroque, and Rococo architectural styles, including notable features like the large kitchen with original utensils and a two-sided wall of closets on the 2nd floor.
Laurel Hill Mansion
Laurel Hill Mansion (7201 N. Randolph Dr., 215/235-1776; July-mid-Dec. Wed.-Sun. 10am-4pm, Apr.-June Sat.-Sun. 10am-4pm; $5 adult, $3 senior, $2 child (6-12)) was built by Rebecca Rawle around 1767, after she lost her first husband. During the Revolutionary War the house was seized from her and her second husband, Philadelphia mayor Samuel Shoemaker, because they were considered British sympathizers. It was later returned to the family and occupied by Rebecca’s son William Rawle, who became a noted lawyer and founded the Philadelphia Bar Association. The elegant Georgian structure was augmented with wings on the southern and northern sides. Its position on a bluff overlooking the Schuylkill River makes it particularly notable.
Before John Adams became president, he declared Mount Pleasant (3800 Mount Pleasant Dr., 215/763-8100; Tues.-Sun. 10am-5pm; $5 adult, $3 senior, $2 child (6-12)) to be “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania,” validating its owners’ high ambitions. Built in 1762-1765 by Scottish ship captain John Macphearson and his wife, Margaret, the house was intended to make a grand statement with its exquisite architecture high above the Schuylkill River. Architect Thomas Neville, a protégé of Independence Hall architect Edmund Woolley, designed his own interesting Scottish interpretation of the Georgian style. Among many noteworthy owners were national traitor Benedict Arnold and Jonathan Williams, a great-nephew of Benjamin Franklin and first superintendent of West Point. It is currently unfurnished, so visitors have to imagine what it would look like with all the finest furnishings.
Although Strawberry Mansion (2450 Strawberry Mansion Bridge Dr., 215/228-8364; July-mid-Dec. Wed.-Fri. 10am-4pm; $5 adult, $3 senior, $2 child (6-12)) shares a name with a nearby section of the city that has been long distressed by poverty and crime, the largest of Fairmount Park’s historic houses knew nothing of urban decay in its heyday in a then-rural setting. Dating to around 1790, it was built for renowned lawyer Judge William Lewis, now best remembered for drafting the United States’ first law abolishing slavery. Lewis built the middle section of the house, and the Greek Revival-styled wings were added by the next owner, Judge Joseph Hemphill. With two floors of furniture and decorative arts from the Federal, Regency, and Empire styles, the home offers a glimpse into another time. The name Strawberry Mansion comes from Mrs. Grimes, a resident who sold strawberries and cream from the house in the mid-19th century.
Boston-born merchant Samuel Breck built his country estate overlooking the Schuylkill in 1797 to escape the yellow fever ravaging Philadelphia. He chose the Neoclassical style, rather than the then-dominant Georgian, and installed an entryway colonnade, large Italianate windows, and a stairway with a balcony. Breck hosted fabulous salons and dinners here, and entertained many friends, including luminaries like Marquis de Lafayette. He kept thorough diaries detailing the life of Philadelphia in the post-Revolutionary period. Though Sweetbriar (1 Sweetbriar Dr., 215/222-1333; July-mid-Dec. Wed.-Sun. 10am-4pm, tours by appointment only; $3), along with other “country estates,” was built in part for its owners to escape the epidemics sweeping the city proper, Breck’s own daughter died of typhus, and the brokenhearted parents closed the house and sold it 10 years later. Today, the house holds arts and crafts, a significant library, and architectural and artistic details like the elegant Etruscan room.
Woodford (33rd and Dauphin Sts., 215/229-6115; Tues.-Sun. 10am-4pm; $5 adult, $3 senior, $2 child (6-12)) is a classic example of early Georgian architecture built for Philadelphia’s elite class. William Coleman, a local merchant and friend of Benjamin Franklin, bought this tract of land and built his home here in 1756-1758. David Franks purchased the home in 1771 and added the second story and back wing, but he only lived there until 1778, when he was sent to England and the house was confiscated because he was a British sympathizer. It was later acquired by Isaac Wharton, whose mother, Rebecca Rawle, built nearby Laurel Hill Mansion. The home stayed in that family until it was acquired by the city in 1868. Inside, you will see a large collection of 18th- and early 19th-century English, Continental, and American decorative arts.