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Lansdowne House

Blockley Township, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania

Completed in 1777, for John Penn (1729-1795) and his second wife Anne Allen (1746-1840). Also sometimes misspelt "Lansdown" or "Landsdown" this Palladian mansion was widely regarded to be one of America's finest country houses. Its notable residents included one of the first American millionaires, William Bingham (1752-1804); Governor Edmund Jennings Randolph (1753-1813); and, Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte (1768-1844), Comte de Survilliers, who lived here before Point Breeze...
John Penn was the last Governor of Colonial Pennsylvania and a grandson of the state's founder. Anne, his second wife, had grown up at nearby Mount Airy. In 1773, work began on the house and transforming its 142 surrounding acres into parkland. The house took inspiration - and from 1784 was named for - Lansdowne House on Berkeley Square in London. It sat a mile and half from Belmont; and, across the river from Mount Pleasant, once owned by the infamous General Benedict Arnold (1741-1801).

Penn's estate was entered via a pair of carriage gates. The winding drive was shaded by magnificent Catalpa trees yet interspersed with panoramic vistas and marble statues. For a quarter of a mile it wound its way through the park before terminating in a horse-shoe before the front of the mansion. The mansion was entered on the left and stood on a bank 114-feet above - and overlooking - the river. Second President John Adams (1735-1826) later remarked Lansdowne to be, "a splendid house (with) gravel walks, shrubberies and clumps of trees in the English style on the banks of the Schuylkill".

The Mansion & Parkland

Built in the Palladian style, the front of Lansdowne was dominated by a two-story pedimented portico supported by two separate sets of Ionic columns on each floor, with it's second floor providing a terrace fronted by a balustrade. Octagonal bays with uninterrupted views over the river protruded from either side of the house. At the rear stood a heavily pilastered and arched one story portico while the hipped roof with iron railings acted as an observation platform from which the grounds could be enjoyed and surveyed from all sides.

Typically for its time, the mansion's interior was designed around a center hall plan. Each of the spacious reception rooms led onto another, thereby allowing guests to circulate freely. In 1902, an interesting account of some of the finer details of the house emerged in a Denver newspaper from a Mr Bailey, who was one of the three boys who accidentally set the house on fire in 1854:
It was the queerest building you could imagine on the inside. There were secret passageways all through it. By pressing what seemed to be a knot in the wooden furnishings, a door would open right out of the wall and admit you to another room that seemed to have no doors. But pressure on another knot showed another open door. All the rooms were arranged in this manner. There was also an underground passage from the cellar, which came to the surface a quarter of a mile away. Just why all this precaution was taken in the construction of this mansion, I do not know, and I was so young then that I did not realize what a grand old place it was.
The estate's parkland was laid out in winding walks, "diversified with open spaces of clean, green sward (lawn), and magnificent groves of majestic trees".. "Ravines and valleys, romantic dells and sylvan glades enhanced the beauty of the spot". Behind the house were boxwood gardens, "a large green-house, filled with rare flowers and tropical fruits.. a stable of grand proportions (which during Bingham's tenure housed imported thoroughbreds)," and an elegant bath-house.

The Penns

In 1789, Penn left for England to seek compensation for his lands confiscated during the American Revolution. That year, he leased the house to William Bingham (1752-1804), the young millionaire who had only recently finished building Bingham Mansion. Bingham and his wife, Ann Willing (1764-1801), were the undisputed leaders of the Republican Court and Lansdowne fulfilled their needs as a summer/weekend home from which they could continue to entertain on a grand scale.

Bingham wrote approvingly of Lansdowne to his old friend General Henry Knox (1750-1806), of Montpelier (Maine): "The buildings are excellent, the land good and the local situation of the place, very agreeable and commanding". But, on hearing that Penn was expected to return to Philadelphia in the spring of 1792 and wished to re-occupy Lansdowne, Bingham wrote,
It is natural to believe that you would be desirous of repossessing yourself of a country seat to which Mrs Penn and yourself must be particularly attached... I never viewed myself as a tenant on any other conditions, than in entire subserviency to your interests & convenience - the moderate terms on which the lease was granted, could imply no other species of arrangement. I therefore cheerfully resign the same, with my best wishes for your long enjoyment of Lansdowne.
Penn enjoyed his country seat for just three more years, dying in 1795. Just weeks later, his widow sold Lansdowne for $37,000 to James Greenleaf (1765-1843) - who five years later would marry her niece, Ann Penn Allen (1768-1851). A business associate of Robert Morris (1734-1806), he held lavish parties there until his fortunes took a nosedive and Lansdowne was seized by the Sheriff.

The Binghams

In 1797, Lansdowne was purchased at auction for $55,100 by none other than the Penn's old tenant, William Bingham (1752-1804). Despite the economic Panic of 1797, Bingham paid $31,050 upfront and took on the $24,050 mortgage. He considered the price over the odds (and as the owner of more than 3 million acres in Maine and Pennsylvania he was a man who understood the value of property!) but it was a present for his beautiful wife, Ann, upon whom he doted. 

Bingham made several improvements to the mansion, most notably erecting the handsome gate lodges set 100-feet apart on either side of the estate's entrance. These were designed by Henry Ashley Keeble, who was also thought to have designed the gate lodges at The Woodlands. In summer 1797, Robert Gilmor Jr. (1774-1848) accompanied the Vicomte de Noailles to Lansdowne,
It is a most superb place, & supposed to be the best country house in America. It commands a noble view of the Schuylkill & the seats in the neighborhood, & at a distance, the steeples of some of the churches of Philad'a. I had the pleasure of seeing at Lansdown the two eldest daughters of the celebrated Count de Grasse.. George Clymer (1739-1813) drove Mr Bingham & myself out in his Phaeton. The three princes (the Duke of Orleans & his brothers) dined with us, & in the evening the usual sports on the lawn were resumed, & the party was a very pleasant and agreable one among people whom we should never have expected such perfect freedom and ease.
In 1798, the Bingham's eldest daughter, Ann Louisa Bingham (1782-1848), married Alexander Baring (1774-1848), 1st Baron Ashburton. The marriage had been scheduled to take place at Lansdowne, but an outbreak of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia necessitated a change of plan and instead they were married at the Bingham's seaside estate, Bingham Hill, at Rumson, New Jersey.

Her father had apparently intended to build them a house near Lansdowne, but for the first summer of their marriage they lived in a small house erected by him on the estate that they called "The Hut". This house later became the caretakers home.

After the death of Mrs Bingham in 1801, her distraught husband left America forever and died in England just three years later, apparently of a broken heart. Bingham Mansion, was sold along with the majority of its contents in "the most opulent auction the nation had seen". But, Lansdowne was held in trust by the Baring family for his only son, William Bingham (1800-1852), who was then merely an infant. It was first leased to Edmund Jennings Randolph (1753-1813), the Governor of Virginia who was the first U.S. Attorney General. He and his wife, Elizabeth Nicholas (1753–1810), spent their summers there until 1813.

Napoleon's Brother, the Former King of Spain & Naples

On April 20, 1816, Samuel Breck (1771-1862) recalled that "Farmer Bones" who held the keys for the house, had met the new tenant who had taken the house for a year and, "had been in his company in the morning and found him a very plain, agreeable man". The new tenant was the former King of Spain, Joseph-Napoleon Bonaparte (1768-1844), Napoleon's favorite brother who became better associated with Point Breeze.

When Bonaparte held a garden party at Lansdowne in 1817, Pennsylvanian high society was intrigued to observe that Bonaparte bore a closer resemblance to an English gentleman farmer at his villa, than a deposed king. Joseph would certainly have known the late Mr Bingham as it was Bingham who not only provided Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) with the gold to finance the Louisiana Purchase from Joseph's famous brother, but it was also Bingham who almost single-handedly forced Congress to call off an impending war with France.

Demise

Now an adult, Lansdowne's owner, William Bingham (1800-1852) was living at the Bingham Mansion in Montreal with his wife Marie-Charlotte Chartier de Lotbinière (1805-1866), Seigneuresse de Rigaud. They moved to Paris in 1834, where he sank into the depths of drunkenness and was scarcely sane while his wife led a scandalous life with many lovers. Their final move was to Broome Park in England where they both died. By the terms of the elder Bingham's will, Lansdowne reverted to William the Younger's two sisters, who were married to the Baring brothers and also resident in England.

Though rarely occupied since 1817, Lansdowne had been dutifully maintained by the caretaker who lived at "The Hut". On July 4, 1854, a group of boys playing with firecrackers accidentally set the house alight and despite the best efforts of the inebriated patrons of the nearby Blue Bell Tavern, the house was gutted and left in ruins until 1866.

In 1866, the Baring family put the estate up for sale with a caveat that the land must be put to public use. A consortium of Philadelphia businessmen immediately purchased it for $84,953 with the intention of creating a public park and ceded the property to the City of Philadelphia as an addition to Fairmount Park.

In 1876, Horticultural Hall at Philadelphia's Centennial International Exhibition was erected on the site and stood there until in 1954. For a while, the gates that were rebuilt by Bingham in 1798 remained at the corner of 48th and Parkside, until they too were demolished to make way for a brick kiln.

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Mark Meredith's relation, William Bingham, lived in Lansdowne House

References

Free Library of Philadelphia - https://libwww.freelibrary.org/digital/item/41195; Mr and Mrs William Bingham of Philadelphia, Rulers of the Republican Court (1937), by Margaret L. Brown; West Fairmont Park: It's Historical Sites, Buildings & Monuments (1903), from West Philadelphia Illustrated; Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979), by E. Digby Baltzell.