On a recent trip to Philadelphia I went on a long bike ride with a friend. We rode through Fairmount Park, arguably one of the largest urban parks in the country. The park includes a collection of historic estates, many built during the eighteenth century as a country escape for wealthy city dwellers. I’d never been to any, and since I’d just watched a movie about Benedict Arnold, I decided to visit Mount Pleasant. Perched on a cliff above the Schuylkill River, the house was built in the 1760s by a Scottish sea captain and privateer, John Macpherson. It was purchased by Benedict Arnold for his loyalist bride Peggy Shippen in 1779, about a year and a half before he defected to the British side. Most sources agree that the couple never occupied the property.
I’ve visited a lot of historic homes and can be hard to impress… I was impressed with Mount Pleasant. Though a relatively small house, it is certainly one of the grandest homes along the Schuylkill and according to John Adams who visited in 1775, “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania.” Mount Pleasant is classic Georgian in style with symmetry and balance. The owner and his builder-architect (Thomas Nevell, apprentice to the man who built Independence Hall) wanted to make a bold statement and they succeeded. One wanted to cement his place in Philadelphia society, the other wanted to demonstrate his prowess at craftsmanship and building. The house is a showcase of Philadelphia craftsmanship, with ornately carved paneling. While sparsely furnished, the furniture on exhibit throughout the house is stunning and was carefully selected from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection. The Museum administers two of the Park’s mansions, which are owned by the City of Philadelphia. The house is flanked by two outbuildings, originally used as the estate office and the kitchen.
For the most part, the mansions in Fairmount Park were not owned by people whose names are recognized by the general public beyond Philadelphia. But they offer well-preserved examples of early American architecture and the opportunity to see the craftsmanship for which Philadelphia artisans were famous. After our tour of Mount Pleasant, my friend and I biked by two other mansions, one was Woodford, another fine example of Georgian architecture. Built in 1756 as a summer house, the owner’s nephew who spent much time there as a boy grew up to be signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. In 1771 the house was purchased by the crown agent for Philadelphia and during the British occupation of Philadelphia the house was most likely visited by the major British officers. When the Americans regained control of the city, the owners were forced to flee to England.
There are seven historic estates in Fairmount Park and all have interesting stories to tell.