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In 1813, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) recalled that in the late 18th century, the Presidency, the Capital and the Country had been governed by Bingham and his family connections. Nancy Bingham had already dazzled the courts of London and Paris before returning to Philadelphia as the city's undisputed society hostess. In 1858, Samuel Breck (1771-1862) paid her high praise: "Mrs. Bingham stood above competition in her day; nor has anyone of equal refinement in address or social stateliness & graceful superintendence of a splendid establishment, been produced since in any circle of our city".
In 1782, the Binghams departed for a four year tour of Europe and it was early on during this time that they started to consider the type of home they would build for themselves on their return to America. From England in December 1783, Bingham informed his father-in-law, Thomas Willing (1731-1821), of the developments:
I have sketched out the plan of a house & have employed an architect to execute it properly... The stile of building at present exhibits a remarkable show of simplicity united with elegance & is exceedingly well-calculated for the meridian of our country.
The Binghams returned from Europe in the spring of 1786 ladened not only with exquisite furnishings, paintings and marble statues; but, with materials including glass, brassware, paint and notably Coade stone for the external medallions, entablatures, key stones and mouldings. They purchased a lot of land measuring 262-feet on Third Street; 396-feet on Spruce Street, and 292-feet on Fourth Street - occupying an entire city block. It sat either between or along from the mansions belonging to Mrs Bingham's father and her uncle, Samuel Powel (1738-1793), whose house is seen in the background of the main image.
Among the more distinctive details of the Mansion House facade are the narrative plaques with reclining female figures positioned above the second story windows... The facade of Mansion House is defined by the interplay of varying shapes: rectangular and square windows along the outer bays contrast with the semi-circular windows progressing from the traceried fanlight gracing the front door to the balconied Venetian and delicate lunette windows above.
Perhaps the main difference between the fenestration in Mansion House and Manchester House is that the Binghams enclosed their Venetian window whereas the Duke of Manchester may have left his as an open logia. Further in accordance with their London model, the Binghams built single-story wings on either side of the main block of the house, giving the facade it's great breadth.
To the rear of the house, 3-acres of landscaped gardens were laid out in the English style, designed for Bingham by his close friend, William Petty (1737-1805), 2nd Earl of Shelburne. The gardens extended south to Spruce Street and west to 4th Street and were said to contain perhaps the most extensive array of fruit trees of any in Philadelphia.
The perimeter of the gardens were surrounded by a high iron fence and lined with Lombardy Poplars imported from England. Two fawn deers were gifted to the Binghams by Jacob Read (1752-1816) and they grazed within the gardens on a variety of shrubs, citrus and rare specimen trees. Outbuildings included an ice house, milk house, stables and a greenhouse containing more than 500 varieties of exotic plants that supplied them with flowers throughout the year.
The Ground Floor
Mrs Bingham had sold off all her American furniture and decorated the house entirely with European furnishings. In 1794, an English antiquary came to dine and described the Bingham residence as,
A magnificent house and gardens in the best English style, with elegant and even superb furniture: the chairs of the drawing-room were from Seddons's in London, of the newest taste; the back in the form of a lyre, adorned with festoons of crimson and yellow silk, the curtains of the room a festoon of the same: the carpet one of Moore's most expensive patterns: the room was papered in the French taste, after the style of the Vatican at Rome...
Robert Gilmor Jr. (1774-1848) of Baltimore noted that, "all the most distinguished men of the day were his (Bingham's) intimate friends" including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) who borrowed styles from the Bingham house for Hamilton Grange. Thomas Pinckney (1750-1828) sent any businessmen from London up to Bingham's and similarly Bingham's close friend the Marquis of Lansdowne sent the most prominent of the French emigres to him: It was at the Bingham house that King Louis-Philippe I (1773-1850) of France, accompanied by his two brothers, fell in love with Mrs Bingham's youngest sister, Abby Willing.
The Center of High Society
The Bingham's guest list featured anyone who was anyone in the pro tempore capital and no expense was spared to dazzle those lucky enough to be invited: Dinner parties featured as many as 30 different courses - delivered by a profusion of liveried servants - with on at least one occasion ripe orange trees beckoning to be plucked as they made up the centerpiece of the long dining room table.
Nancy Bingham's charismatic and politically astute aunt, Mrs Elizabeth Powel, was the first to introduce Philadelphia at Powel House to the French fashion of holding Grand Salons; lavishly entertaining her guests while facilitating alliances between the political and social elite of the 1770s and 80s. Having learnt much from her aunt, in the 1790s it was the turn of the beautiful and popular Mrs Bingham to hold court from her new mansion, at which she was the star attraction: Abigail Smith (1744-1818), the wife of John Adams (1735-1826), 2nd President of the United States, declared that, "Mrs Bingham taken altogether is the finest woman I ever saw. The intelligence of her countenance, the elegance of her form, and the affability of her manners, converts you into admiration.."
The Binghams also gave the first Masquerade Ball to be held in the city, encouraging what soon became a mania among wealthy Americans. In their own words, George Washington (1732-1799) dined "in great splendor" at the mansion on several occasions while Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) wondered in awe at the "utmost magnificence of the decorations".
The European fashion in which the house was built, furnished and lived in found many critics among Americans who were brought up with the strict conservative values of old Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In 1799, Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848) wrote to his wife, Sally Foster (1770-1838), that he had seen Mrs Bingham's second daughter, Maria Matilda Bingham (1783-1849),
... in a dress you will hardly believe it is possible for a lady to wear, at least at this season (winter). A muslin robe and her chemise and no other article of cloathing upon her body. I have been regaled with the sight of her whole leg for five minutes together, and do not know 'to what height' the fashion will be carried. The particulars of her dress I have from Mrs. F—, who assures me that her chemise is fringed to look like a petticoat.
(Mr Bingham) was a millionaire who lived in the most showy style of any American. The forms at his house were not suited to our (American) manners. I was often at his parties at which each guest was called aloud and taken up by a servant on the stairs, who passed it on to the man-in-waiting at the drawing room door. In this drawing room the furniture was superb Gobelin and the folding doors were covered with mirrors, which reflected the figures of the company, so as to deceive an untraveled countryman, who, having been paraded up the marble stairway amid echos of his name - oftimes made very ridiculous by the queer manner in which the servants pronounced it - would enter the brilliant apartment and salute the looking glasses instead of the master and mistress of the house and their guests!
Despite their critics, the Binghams enjoyed a charmed life between Philadelphia and their country mansion, Lansdowne House, but neither were destined for long lives.
In 1801, a matter of months after giving birth to their third child, the wife that Bingham doted upon was dead. Instead of resting after the birth of her son, the vivacious though still frail Nancy - against the advice of all those close to her - could not resist turning down an invitation and set off on a sleighing party - "possibly an all-night party with a fiddler beside the coachman, warm bricks for the feet, frequent stops at taverns for hot punch and oyster stew, and travel over the snow with incredible speed and smoothness".
Mark Meredith's relation, William Bingham, owned Bingham Mansion