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Blockley Township, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania
The park was entered via a pair of carriage gates. The drive was lined with marble statuary and wound its way up to the house for a quarter of a mile taking in panoramic vistas and shaded by magnificent Catalpa trees. It terminated in a horse-shoe in the front of the house that stood on a bank overlooking the river, 114-feet below. John Adams 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".
Built in the Palladian style, the facade was dominated by a two-story pedimented portico supported by two separate sets of Ionic columns on each floor and a second floor with a terrace fronted by a balustrade. Octagonal bays with uninterrupted views over the river protruded from either side of the house, and at the rear stood a heavily pilastered and arched one story portico. 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 the period, the interior was designed around a center hall plan and each of the spacious reception rooms led onto another, 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 Last Colonial Proprietor of Pennsylvania, and the Greenleafs
Despite having lost all his proprietary rights over the family's 24 million acres, John Penn had sworn an oath of loyalty to the new Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which allowed him to continue living at Lansdowne House. The Commonwealth paid him and his cousin, Colonel John Penn, compensation of £130,000, which was about a tenth of what the land was really worth. In 1789, John left for England to seek compensation from the British government and that year leased the Lansdowne to William Bingham (1752-1804), the young millionaire who had only recently finished building the Bingham Mansion.
Bingham and his wife, Nancy 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.
The Binghams, French Royalty, & Summer Home to the Governor of Virginia
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 agreeable one among people whom we should never have expected such perfect freedom and ease.
Bingham had apparently intended to build the newly weds a house near Lansdowne, but for the first summer of their marriage they lived in another small house erected by him on the estate that they called "The Hut". This house later became the caretakers home.
"The Plain, Agreeable" Former King of Spain & Naples
Joseph had then just arrived from France after his brother had been defeated at Waterloo. Napoleon had advised him to find a home between Philadelphia and New York, secluded enough to avoid unwarranted attention, but within easy reach of news. Bingham's house was an obvious choice not only because of its beauty, but also as the Binghams were well-known to the Bonapartes: It had been William Bingham who provided Thomas Jefferson with the gold to finance the Louisiana Purchase, and it was also William Bingham who almost single-handedly forced Congress to call off an impending war with France.
When Bonaparte held a garden party at Lansdowne in 1817, Pennsylvanian high society was intrigued to observe that he in fact bore a closer resemblance to an English gentleman farmer at his villa than he did to a deposed King. He remained here only until his new chateau in New Jersey, Point Breeze, was complete - which was anything but plain!
Up in Fireworks and Back to the Kiln
In 1876, Horticultural Hall at Philadelphia's Centennial International Exhibition was erected on the site and it stood there until it was demolished in 1954. For a while, the splendid gates that were rebuilt by Bingham in 1798 stood at the corner of 48th and Parkside, until they too were demolished to make way for a brick kiln.
Mark Meredith's relation, William Bingham, lived in Lansdowne House