Rowers on the Schuylkill
Every city touts its own beauties, but few cities anywhere can lay claim to the sylvan beauty on the banks of the Schuylkill River that are known as Fairmount Park. The Park (4,180 acres) is the largest landscaped park in the U.S. We can walk, bicycle, rollerblade, or drive along Kelly and West River Drives today and feel ourselves deep in the country. In the depths of the Wissahickon Ravine and at other points in the park, the city's tall buildings are not visible over the treetops, and if it were not for the hum of traffic on the Drives, we could be in the pastoral world that Thomas Eakins painted. It was Eakins who immortalized the scullers on the Schuylkill — some of these paintings such as "The Biglen Brothers Practicing" are exhibited today at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The "Mount" for which the park was named is the rise on which the museum stands.
Fairmount Park was the site of the Centennial Exposition of 1876, and several buildings from that earlier fair still stand, notably Memorial Hall. One of the world's largest municipal parks, Fairmount contains several million trees; the oldest zoo in the U.S.; Boathouse Row; cherry blossoms to rival those along D.C.'s Potomac Basin; Robin Hood Dell, an outdoor venue for soul-filled summer singers; the Mann Music Center, the Philadelphia Orchestra's (and others') summer amphitheater; picnic areas; tennis courts; miles of bicycle paths; bridle paths; an azalea garden; hundreds of statues and monuments; and two dozen or so 18th- and 19th-century buildings, which comprise an unusual historical patrimony.
Joan of Arc
We will start on the Kelly Drive side of the river, on the east side of the Philadelphia Museum of art. Here is the first of many sculptures will encounter on our tour. It is Emmanuel Fremiet's dazzling, gilded bronze Joan of Arc. Bought by the Fairmount Park Art Association in 1890, the monument was at first placed at the east end of the Girard Avenue Bridge. Unappreciated at that location, it was moved to its present one in 1959, after being given its gilt coat in the basement of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
A haunting coincidence adds to the story of the statue. We know that in 1431, the 19-year-old Joan was burned at stake after being captured by the English during a battle in the Hundred Years War. Sculptor Fremiet chose a 15-year-old model, Valerie Laneau, for his sculpture of Joan. When Laneau was 77, she too was burned to death — while trying to light her evening lamp. Now walk behind the art museum.
Fountain of the Sea Horses
Fairmount Park along the river basin is one of the loveliest walks to be found in an American city. Proceed to the Azalea Garden, directly behind the museum. In the spring when the bushes are blooming, the garden is a blaze of color and a place of pilgrimage for flower lovers. The large fountain set in the center of the circular drive nearby is the Italian Fountain, or the "Fountain of the Sea Horses," a replica of the one in the Borghese Gardens in Rome.
John Paul Jones
Nearby is a formal approach to the museum which is flanked on both sides by handsome statues of six men who helped the American cause during the Revolution: Major-General Friedrich von Steuben; John Paul Jones; General Casimir Pulaski; General Richard Montgomery; General Nathanael Greene — the only native American in the group; and the Marquis de Lafayette. They are heroically cast revolutionaries, but are sometimes overlooked in this quiet spot. The prevalence of sculpture in the park is due to the vision of the Fairmount Park Art Association (1871), which sought to beautify the park.
At the river's edge is the Fairmount Water Works, designed by Frederick Graff. One of the most romantic collections of buildings in Philadelphia, it is an architectural achievement. Built between 1819 and 1822, the waterworks comprise a dam, pumphouse and reservoir. Classical in feeling, the grouping of the superintendent's house, the pavilions, and the balustrades along the river form an unforgettable picture.
Return to the Italian Fountain and take the road nearest the water. This leads back to the Kelly Drive and a large bronze statue of Lincoln the Emancipator by Randolph Rogers. Commissioned by the Lincoln Monument Association, the statue and base cost $33,000 when dedicated in 1871.
Proceed from the Lincoln Monument to Lemon Hill. The estate was known in 1770 as The Hills, and from that year until 1799 it was the home of Robert Morris, Declaration signer, and a major financier of the Revolution. Morris built a greenhouse on the property, one of the first such in the country. He later went bankrupt due to his land speculations, and Henry Pratt, a Philadelphia merchant, purchased the main part of the property at a sheriff's sale in 1799. The present house was built in that year and the next. Pratt planted lemon trees here and hence the estate became known as Lemon Hill. Pratt died in 1838 and the city purchased the estate in 1844, the first of the Fairmount Park houses to be acquired.
The house is rectangular, with a central bay on the river side that rises three stories. Oval rooms give the home a unique flavor. The lightly concave doors have superb proportions and are strikingly beautiful. The furnishings are as delightful as the rooms. The dining room, with its rose-colored draperies, Sully portraits, Empire sofa and chairs and its adjoining veranda, isn't too large, too grand or too overpowering. The oval parlor on the first floor has the same intimate quality, with its pianoforte, Portuguese crystal chandeliers and grandfather's clock which belonged to Ebenezer Hazard, first Postmaster General of the United States. Also of note is an unusual child's windsor chair signed by Henzey, the artisan responsible for many of the windsor chairs at Independence Hall.
The second floor is a duplicate of the first as to plan and here the Palladian window to the floor confirms the elegance of the hall. The bedroom featuring a Sheraton bed and bureau, blue chintz draperies, and has a veranda similar to the one off the dining room directly below. All of these porches have a view of the river. In the commode there is a unique handkerchief dating to the Centennial with a hand-sewn tableau of the Declaration signers. Each signer has a number sewn on his image and below there is a key revealing who's who. Of great interest is a backgammon set disguised as a large volume book entitled the "History of France." As gaming was frowned upon, players could quickly close the book and conceal their game.
If we descend the hill at the left as we leave, we'll be once more on Kelly Drive opposite Boathouse Row. Crossing over, walk by the boathouses, which provide a somewhat late Victorian aspect to the river front. They are simple, roomy and functional. The Undine Barge Club, erected 1882-83, was designed by Frank Furness whose buildings are encountered throughout the city. The clubs outline their boathouses with lights — always an enchanting sight for those driving the opposite side of the river by night.
At the Sedgeley Club is Icelandic sculptor Einar Jonsson's statue of the Viking, "Torfinn Karlsefni," who is believed to have come to America in 1004. It is the first of many pieces of sculpture we'll see along the embankment. The next, slightly upriver, is a statue of an Indian woman defending her children against attack can be seen. Called "Stone Age in America," it was commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association in 1887. John J. Boyle (1851-1917) was the sculptor.
Across the drive beneath the rock palisade is the bronze portrait bust of the martyred James A. Garfield by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, erected in 1896. It is strangely dated in concept when seen in juxtaposition to these groups of later sculpture.
Spirit of Enterprise
Further upriver we come to the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial of America's history. Mrs. Samuel, who died in 1913, left a sum of money for the memorial.
The South Plaza theme is the initial founding and settling of the nation: Birth of a Nation, The Puritan, the Quaker, the Revolutionary Soldier, Settling of the Seaboard, and the Statesman.
The Central Plaza theme is expansion, immigration, and hard work, with Spanning the Continent and Welcoming to Freedom on either end, Spirit of Enterprise in the center, and the Miner, the Ploughman, the Slave, and the Immigrant crouching at the corners of the side entrances.
The North Plaza theme is diversity and achievement of a mature nation, with standing figures of the Laborer, the Poet, the Preacher and the Scientist, and the J. Wallace Kelly relief, Hand and Eye, which shows a hand, an eye, and the tools of an artisan.
Leaving the Samuel Memorial, proceed a quarter of a mile upriver. Here the park becomes wider — meadowlike in its expanse — and offers two landmarks to guide us. Near the river's edge are three columns holding Carl Milles trio of "Playing Angels" aloft. They are piping, cavorting angels, dancing in time to their music.
The next landmark is a sculpture of Ulysses S. Grant, executed by Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial. Dedicated on the 77th anniversary of Grant's birth, President McKinley came for a military parade which preceded the unveiling. Thousands of Philadelphians turned out for the dedication of this statue.
Our next stop, Mount Pleasant, stands at the foot of an avenue lined with trees. This 18th-century Georgian home, symmetrical in every detail, is balanced, harmonious and elegant. It was built by Captain John Macpherson in 1761-62. Macpherson, a privateer who had had "an arm twice shot off" according to John Adams, lived well as did many privateers, noted for their taste in fine houses, excellent wines, superb furnishings and fine clothes. The pirate called the house "Clunie" after the seat of his family's ancient clan in Scotland.
In 1779 Benedict Arnold became the next owner, and gave Mount Pleasant to his bride, Peggy Shippen, as a wedding present. Because of the charge of treason against him they never lived at Mount Pleasant, and eventually fled to England. A later owner was Jonathan Williams, a great-nephew of Benjamin Franklin and first superintendent of West Point. Fairmount Park incorporated Mount Pleasant into its holdings in 1868.
The woodwork alone is worth a visit and intense scrutiny — for Macpherson employed the finest craftsmen available in Philadelphia at the time. The gray woodwork in the hallway is the same design as in the center hall of the State House and there are the acanthus and the Greek key designs in other rooms. Some of the furnishings are especially noteworthy: the Nanking china in the dining room; a portrait of Macpherson's son, Major John Macpherson, who was the first Philadelphian of note killed in the Revolution; a charming portrait by Benjamin West of Mary Keen holding an orange; a magnificent breakfront by John Folwell, the man who carved the "rising not a setting sun" chair in Independence Hall; a portrait of the second Mrs. Macpherson by Charles Willson Peale; and an embroidered terrestrial globe, a rarity not seen elsewhere in Philadelphia.
Just down the hill from Mount Pleasant, situated high against the rock is Frederic Remington's "Cowboy." It is the only large-scale work he did and, ironically, his last as well. Remington (1861-1909) selected the spot for "Cowboy" himself and it does indeed face West!
Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse opened in 1899 through the wills of Richard and Sarah Smith. This Philadelphia landmark has hosted over nine million children since its opening.
Today, children up to 10 years old can enjoy a trip down the famous Ann Newman Giant Wooden Slide, which is 12 feet wide, 40 feet long and 10 feet high. For children ages 5-10, the Play Pod offers a giant see-saw and spinning "jungle gyms." And there's so much more fun in this recently reopened children's paradise.
Tue-Sun, 10am-4pm, Ages 0-10 years old, Free
Call 215-765-4325 or visit their website at smithkidsplayplace.org.
Now we move on to Woodford which has been owned by a succession of prominent Philadelphians, notably jurist William Coleman, a member of Franklin's intellectual scholarly group, the Junto, and David Franks, a signer of the Non-Importation Agreement of 1765 (signers would not buy goods from Great Britain until the Stamp Act was repealed). His daughter Rebecca was one of the belles feted at the "Meschianza," and her letters are evocative recreations of the time. Rebecca, however, married General Sir Henry Johnson, spending her declining years in Bath, England. She often remarked how she missed Philadelphia and its ways. Her father's property was confiscated because of his Loyalist leanings.
Once the scene of Tory gaiety during the British occupation of Philadelphia, Woodford now stands as a living monument to the past. Its appeal today is greater for it displays to great advantage in its Georgian rooms the remarkable Naomi Wood collection of American antiques. The house was remodeled in 1756 by William Coleman from an earlier, smaller house built about 1735. Franks, George III's Controller of Customers, made further improvements including the addition of the second floor with its elegant Palladian window.
July 11, 2003, the mansion suffered fire losses, damaging some of the rare artifacts and extending to the upper floors of the building.
Just back of Woodford, closer to the river, situated in a small park all its own and approached by a graceful drive, is Strawberry Mansion. The largest of the houses in the park, Strawberry was originally called Somerton and the first house was erected at this location about 1750. Somerton was owned by Charles Thomson (1729-1824), secretary of the Continental Congress, and known as the "Sam Adams of Philadelphia." When the British controlled Philadelphia in 1777, Sir William Howe ordered or permitted Somerton to be sacked and burned.
In 1798 William Lewis, President-Judge of the United States District Court of Pennsylvania, built the center section as Summerville and the wings were added in the mid-1820's by a subsequent owner. The present name stems from the time — after 1842 — when a Mrs. Grimes lived here and sold strawberries and cream to visitors. The furnishings of Strawberry Mansion are Federal, Regency and Empire, and one of the most charming pieces is a circular "chatting couch," or causeuse. The 1790 Clementi spinet, the Tucker china manufactured in Philadelphia, the 18th century Philadelphia pianoforte and a splendid old kitchen can't fail to captivate the visitor.
Strawberry's entrance hall is unusual in that four doors, with identical fanlights, open from it, two to the outside, two to other rooms. One bedroom is Empire — almost right out of one of Napoleon's palaces — with a rich canopied bed, ornate French over-valance at the window. Another has a "Beau Brummell" with handsome brasses, best described as the ultimate in a man's bureau for traveling, especially on a sea voyage. The attic is unbelievable. It is the attic dreamed of, but seldom seen, containing everything — a 1775 baby carriage, ice skates circa 1700 and 1800, metal hip tub, a doll house, an awesome array of doll, toys, kitchen utensils — everything but the kitchen sink.
Abutting Fairmount Park at this point, and a geographical extension of it, is Laurel Hill Cemetery, whose tombstones, monuments and mausoleums can be seen from Kelly Drive. A walk along its paths will enable us to see a vanishing piece of America — the Gothic, cluttered cemetery which is fast disappearing.
Planned as early as 1835, and Laid out by John Notman, the site was once the country seat of Joseph Sims, called "Laurel."
Laurel Hill is truly a necropolis, a city of the dead, yet is situated in one of the most romantic spots in Philadelphia, overlooking Kelly Drive and the Schuylkill. There is a brooding air about it, probably caused by the crowded stones — it appears to be nearly filled — and its situation of almost hanging over the river. The monuments are distinctive at best, each one meant to outdo its neighbor in originality. In the last century Laurel Hill Cemetery was a place to promenade on a Sunday afternoon or a holiday. Strollers found it a favorite place for a ramble. Today strollers are the exception.
When the cemetery was opened, Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, had been resting quietly for 14 years in a cemetery at Harriton. The story is told that the promoters of Laurel Hill approached his heirs and asked to remove this distinguished American's body and his wife's to the new cemetery. The heirs, except for one nephew, refused. Soon after the refusal, grave robbers at Harriton were surprised at their task and threw the bodies they were robbing in a cart and beat a hasty retreat. These unfortunate bones were reinterred in Laurel Hill and a splendid monument to Thomson was erected over them. There is disagreement as to whether the bodies were those of Thomson and his wife, but the bones have remained undisturbed since under a handsome obelisk.
Laurel Hill is a treat for cemetery aficionados and history lovers alike. Here funeary art and history form a singular confluence. From the 18th century we find Thomas Godfrey, who invented the mariner's quadrant, Thomas McKean (1734-1817), Signer of the Declaration of Independence, and our old friend David Rittenhouse, for whom Rittenhouse Square is named.
In house-sized mausoleums lie the Philadelphians who made the 19th-century city the "workshop of America," such industrialists as saw magnate Henry Disston and locomotive powerhouse, Matthais Baldwin. Here, too, you will find John Francis Marion, inspiration and author of this much of this tour, at rest in a grave overlooking the Schuylkill River. His peripatitions done, Marion has kindly left a bench aside his tombstone for the foot-weary walker to rest on before continuing his own "historic walks".
There was an amusing remark making the rounds in 1956 when Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco that her father's domain (John B. Kelly, Sr., was president of the Fairmount Park Commission) was larger than her husband's. Indeed, the Principality of Monaco covers only .6 square miles, but the 4,077.59 acres of Fairmount Park extend over 6 square miles.
Starting on the other side of the Schuylkill River, we look for the Zoo Balloon in the sky and head to the Philadelphia zoo, the oldest in America. The entrance pavilions, the work of noted architects Frank Furness and George W. Hewitt were erected between 1873 and 1875 and form a Victorian entrance to a modern zoo. The Philadelphia Zoological Garden covers 42 acres and now houses more than 1,600 kinds of mammals, birds and reptiles. There is a special hummingbird house where the birds live in a lush tropical setting, a children's zoo and a monorail for aerial tours.
Situated in the Zoo grounds is The Solitude, home of John Penn (1760-1834), grandson of the Founder. Called "the poet," Penn left America in 1788, and after his death his brother Granville and nephew, who were the owners until Fairmount Park acquired it in 1867. It was the last holding in this country of the family that once "owned" the state, and even parts of Delaware. It is now used as offices for the Zoo.
Now we trek to Sweetbriar. Samuel Breck, who built Sweetbriar in 1797 on the west bank of the Schuylkill, was thus living two miles from the western end of the city. Today the Schuylkill Expressway is just below the east windows and the towers of the city can be seen in the distance. Breck (1771-1862) was Boston-born, educated there and in France. In 1792 his father, unhappy about Boston taxation, removed his family to Philadelphia. After Samuel's marriage to Jean Ross on Christmas Eve, 1795, he began to build Sweetbriar. The grounds and planting were beautiful and lawns stretched to the river. Breck even owned an island in the Schuylkill which he could see from his window.
A wealthy merchant, Breck was very public spirited and his benefactions included gifts to the Library Company and the Athenaeum. He was a member of the Pennsylvania legislature and sat in the State House from 1817-1821. He introduced a bill for the emancipation of slaves in Pennsylvania and was elected in 1823 to the 18th Congress. In 1824 he sat in the State Senate again. In 1838 Breck sold Sweetbriar and moved into town, where he lived until his death. In 1867 the house and grounds were incorporated into the park.
The elegant Federal-style house fortunately escaped any Victorian improvements and retains the sheer elegance of the late 18th century when it was one of the showplaces of the nation's capital. The south drawing room, whose windows look across the river toward the waterworks beneath the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a superb example of the French influence at its best. Breck was a friend of Lafayette, Louis Philippe, Talleyrand. The room is airy and light and vertical in feel. Long windows to the floor contribute to this feeling as do the delicate chairs and sofa, the long, graceful draperies and valances, the French clock and candelabra, and the opulent chandelier (bought from a palace owned by the Aga Khan).
Learn more: www.sweetbriarmansion.org
There is a sidewalk of sorts leading from Sweetbriar for part of the way to Cedar Grove, which is an easy ten-minute walk from here. Sweetbriar is the ultimate in sophistication, symmetry and classical feeling. Cedar Grove, on the other hand, began as a country house and it retains the style, charm, warmth and comfort of country living. A white fence, with roses climbing over it, encloses the garden and old trees embower the house. Cedar Grove sits peacefully and quietly in the park, but once it was the center of the life of a large, bustling family.
Since 1927 the house has been part of the park, but in 1748 Elizabeth Coates Paschall built the oldest part of it in Northern Liberties, outside the old boundaries of the city. The front of the house is of regular stone, the sides of irregular stone, the back of brick. There is a wide sloping roof on the front and one side which covers what could be called a flagstone porch. This gives it even more of a farmhouse look. In 1927 the house was dismantled stone by stone and re-erected at its present location.
The great kitchen is perhaps the house's most interesting room, as often happens in these old houses. In addition to the giant fireplace, replete with all the utensils — grill, stewpot, toaster and even the ancient counterpart of a rotisserie, there is a built-in oven and next to it a built-in unit for heating water. The large brass cauldron gives us an idea of how much water was heated at one time. And there are pegs on the walls for hanging chairs when the floors were scrubbed or the kitchen crowded.
Off now to Memorial Hall. The hall was one of the chief buildings of the Centennial Exposition of 1876 and was dedicated by President Grant. Memorializing the soldiers of the Revolution, the Hall cost $1.5 million dollars to complete. An innovation that added to its expense was that it was built without wood and fireproof. 729 sculptures from the U.S. and Europe were displayed for a year at Memorial Hall. The Hall, in fact, was the city's art gallery before the Philadelphia Museum of Art was opened. It is closed to the public today, but is used for dances and receptions from time to time. The basement holds a complete scale model of the entire Centennial Exposition.
The Smith Civil War Memorial was erected between 1897 and 1912 under a bequest of Richard Smith. Among the military and naval men immortalized here are Generals Hancock, McClellan, Meade, Reynolds, and Admirals Porter and Dahlgren. Surprisingly enough a statue of Richard Smith himself, in his typefounder's apron, is placed high on the memorial among the military and naval great!
We end at the Japanese House. This charming house, serenely situated, was first on display in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Later it was transferred to the park and given its proper setting. It is a reconstruction of a 17th century Japanese scholar's house, teahouse, and garden. The garden is enhanced by a pool and waterfall. The teahouse is a quiet spot in the park, ideal for reflection.