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Physick House

physick

Madeira, which the British didn't tax, provided Hill the money to build it; The "Father of American Surgery," Philip Syng Physick, lived here. See how the wealthy lived in the early 1800's at this 32-room house.

Philadelphia since its founding has been a town that has liked to tipple. And a favorite spirit of drinkers in the 18th century proved to be Madeira, a fortified grape juice and brandy beverage. Importer Henry Hill made enough money as a Madeira merchant to build this elegant free-standing mansion in what was becoming one of the more fashionable neighborhoods of a post-Revolutionary city better known for rowhouses. Thirst for Madeira made Hill so wealthy that in addition to building this abode, he could also maintain a country estate called Carlton which overlooked the Schuylkill River, complete with a private racetrack. Though that manse is now covered by a reservoir, the Hill-Physick-Keith house endured — just barely though. Some years after Hill died of Yellow Fever, doctor Philip Syng Physick who built his reputation fighting that dread disease (by prescribing bleeding no less) moved in. Through medical innovation and invention, Dr. Physick, with a name that may as well have been sent from central casting, went on to be known as the "Father of American Surgery." Yet his legacy was not enough to maintain a mansion that became like a piece of tarnished silver in a neighborhood of mismatched cutlery. After a century-long habitation by several generations of a pedigreed Philadelphia family, the house ultimately was abandoned — prey for vandals heisting shreds of history with every theft. In the end though, it was America's thirst for TV, that eventually helped to save this magnificent mansion. In the late 1960's, Walter Annenberg (publisher of TV Guide) restored the stately Physick House and then donated the house to the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks.

This area of Society Hill was a changing neighborhood in the 1760s. Part of Hill's mansion was built on the site of the razed City Alms House, an institution which contained an infirmary for the needy ill, special apartments for the insane, and provided those healthy, but poor, the opportunity to work. Middle class speculators bought up the sub-divided alms-house land. By 1786, the year Hill built his house, a neighborhood of builders, artisans and some merchants was giving way to gentlemen (rich men of leisure), wealthy merchants, and clergy members. One block to the north, merchant William Bingham, wealthy as a Pharaoh, built a palatial manor. Bingham's gardens were populated with exotic citrus trees that backed onto Fourth Street. A little farther up the block lived the well-to-do Edward Shippen, whose daughter Peggy would unwittingly besmirch the good family name after marrying Benedict Arnold in 1779.

The popularity of Madeira, the key to Hill's wealth, was in part due to another ingenious ruse by the colonists in outfoxing the British. Liquor that passed through European ports was taxed by the British. The Madeira Islands, though belonging to Portugal, were considered a part of Africa, hence the wine went untaxed. The vino traveled well on the sea and aged during the long ocean voyage so by the time it reached the colonies it was ready for drinking. The successful Hill, in addition to being a tremendously successful merchant also made money in transportation, owned working farms, bred horses, and like many self-made men of the times became a politician.

Hill built an impressive home. One need only look at the intricate fanlight, imported from England, which crowns the double doors to know that the owner was a man of social standing. Inside, the 32 rooms included a ballroom, several large bedrooms, and mirrored fireplaces made with Valley Forge marble. Unfortunately, Hill did not have long to enjoy his home. In 1798, he succumbed to Yellow Fever, which was again terrorizing the Capital City.

The house remained in the family for some years until it was ultimately bought by a spinster, Abigail Physick in 1815. She then deeded it to her famous brother, the doctor Philip Syng Physick, who at the time was undergoing a messy and public divorce.

But before getting to the juicy details, a little background is in order. The Physicks were a well-to-do Philadelphia family. His mother's father, the renowned silversmith Philip Syng, designed the inkstand from which both the Declaration and Constitution were written, and which is still displayed at Independence Hall. Doctor Physick's father, Edmund, had the fraternal-sounding job of "Keeper of the Great Seal" for the Penn family. His duties included management of the Penn estates and interests in the colonies during the Revolutionary War. In fact, at one point during the hostilities Edmund Physick negotiated a treaty between the British General Howe and George Washington that halted fighting on one of Penn's properties outside of Philadelphia. Indirectly, this led to Washington spending a very cold and historic winter in Valley Forge.

Philip attended prep school and went on to receive a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He then studied under Dr. Kuhn at the Medical College of Philadelphia and received an M.A. It was here that cadavers, which were to be a recurring motif in Physick's life, first came to the fore. Physick had to boil a cadaver for anatomy class. The experience left him so shaky that he begged out of the medical profession. His father, perhaps believing in the providence of his Christian name, made his boy stay in school. After studying with Dr. Kuhn, off went young Physick to the Hunter School in London, the mecca for aspiring surgeons. Accompanied by his father to meet the famed Hunter Brothers, the senior Physick asked one of the siblings what books Philip would need during his matriculation. John Hunter brusquely took the solicitous father into a dissecting room filled with cadavers and said: "These are the books your son will learn from under my direction; the others are fit for very little."

bullet Physick's grandfather, the renowned silversmith Philip Syng, designed the inkstand from which both the Declaration and Constitution were written, and which is still displayed at Independence Hall.
bullet Built on the site of the Old City Alms House.
bullet John Nixon, who gave the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, lived on the site, in a modest home, before Hill built this mansion.
bullet Henry Hill was the executor of Benjamin Franklin's will.
bullet Location: 321 S. Fourth Street, between Spruce and Pine Streets (Map)
bullet Built: 1786
bullet Architect: Possibly Samuel Rhoades
bullet Style: Federal
bullet Commissioned by: Henry Hill
bullet Tourism information: Summer: noon-4pm Th-Su with tours on the hour; Winter: 11am-2pm Th-Sa. Guided tour of house on the hour costs $3 adults; $2 seniors, students, and children over 8. 215-925-7866
bullet Facilities: Garden next to the house with benches.
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