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Completed in 1766, for Charles Stedman (1713-1784), just months after the death of his first wife, Anne Graeme (1726-1766). The house is named for its second occupant, "The Patriot Mayor" Samuel Powel (1738-1793). Situated between Willing’s Alley and Spruce Street in Society Hill, Powel House is perhaps America’s finest existing Georgian Colonial townhouse. Today, it operates as a house museum - though it is also available to hire for events - run by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks. It has a typically colonial formal walled garden and the original 18th century interior is richly decorated and particularly exquisite...
In 1761, Stedman purchased the lot of land on Third Street that measured 75 feet deep, 45 feet long and 30 feet wide. He commissioned Scottish architect/builder Robert Smith (1722-1777) to design and build him a new three-story home. Work began on its construction in 1765. One year later it was completed and included ornamental gardens, a kitchen garden and several outbuildings to the rear.
The house was designed in the English style: The rear was for the kitchens and servants; the first floor contained the drawing and dining rooms; the third floor was for bedrooms; and, the second floor held a ballroom that ran across the full width of the house. Having a ballroom must have been particularly appealing to the Stedmans who were among the earliest subscribers to the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly. It was also scene to several Highland reels as Stedman co-founded the Saint Andrew’s Society while his father-in-law, Dr Thomas Graeme (1688-1772) of Carpenter’s Mansion and Graeme Park, was President.
Stedman lost his first wife just months before the house was completed, but one year later he married the “distinguished ornament of general society,” Margaret Bennett (1727-1803). By her first marriage, Margaret had a nine-year old son who joined his mother and stepfather in their new home: He grew up to be the Rev. James Abercrombie (1758-1841), D.D., best remembered for reprimanding George Washington (1732-1799) from the pulpit for not taking Holy Communion!
The Powels, Binghams & Barings (1769-1805)
A shipowner and merchant, Stedman ran into financial difficulties almost as soon as he had taken possession of his new home and was forced to put the house up for sale in 1769. It was promptly purchased for £3,150 by Philadelphia’s “Patriot Mayor” Samuel Powel (1738-1793). Five days later, Powel was married to the wealthy heiress Elizabeth Willing (1743-1830). He chose this house to be their marital home over all of the other ninety properties he owned across the city.
Powel is best remembered as the last Colonial Mayor of Philadelphia - and the first Mayor elected after the Revolution. The son of a wealthy carpenter-cum-property magnate, on graduating from university in 1759 he took himself off on a Grand Tour of Europe – for seven years! He was in London for the coronation of King George III and travelled to Italy with the brother of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” where he had an audience with Pope Clement XIII. In Paris, he conversed with Voltaire; in London, he had his portrait painted by Kauffmann; and, wherever he went, he collected antiques that he shipped back by the crate-load to Philadelphia
Elizabeth Powel grew up in Society Hill, the youngest of the four very capable children of Mayor Charles Willing (1710-1754). Her elder sister, Mary Willing (1740-1814), was the chatelaine of the beleaguered Westover Plantation and their eldest brother, Mayor Thomas Willing (1731-1821) was a politician and President of the First Bank of the United States. Elizabeth herself was both quick-witted and outspoken, “she will animate and give a brilliancy to the whole conversation”. From 1775, she became firm friends with the Washingtons and remained one of his closest, most trusted confidantes - politically and personally.
When Powel purchased the house from Stedman its interiors were unsurprisingly Scottish: dignified, but modest. Powel brought back the original architect and tasked him to bring it up to the standard to which Powel had become accustomed in the fashionable salons of Europe. No expense was spared: mahogany doors mounted by plaster pediments; a mahogany staircase; marble fireplaces; Rococo plasterwork; fluted pilasters; floor-to-ceiling wood panels etc. On completion, it was without question one of the most elegant townhouses in America.
The Powels enjoyed entertaining and they did so on a lavish scale. In 1779, they held a ball for George Washington (1732-1799) and his wife Martha Dandridge (1731-1802) in honor of their 20th wedding anniversary. Anyone who was anyone graced the Powel’s table at one time or another: Frequent and notable guests aside from the Washingtons included Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) for whom Powel was a pallbearer at his funeral. The china set on display in the dining room today was a gift from Gilbert du Motier (1757-1834), Marquis de Lafayette. In 1774, John Adams (1735-1826) recalled:
Dined at Mr Powel’s, with Jacob Duché (1737-1798), Dr John Morgan (1735-1789), Dr George Steptoe (1748-1782), Robert Goldsborough (1733-1788),Thomas Johnson (1732-1819), & many others; a most sinful feast again! Every thing which could delight the eye or allure the taste; curds and creams, jellies, sweetmeats of various sorts, twenty sorts of tarts, fools, trifles, floating islands, whipped sillabubs etc., etc., Parmasan cheese, punch, wine, porter, beer etc.
The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 claimed Powel as one of its many victims. His widow retained their home for a further five years before selling it in 1798 to her niece’s husband, Senator William Bingham (1752-1804), who lived just along the street at the stately Bingham Mansion. Bingham had purchased it as part of the wedding gift for his eldest daughter, Ann Louisa Bingham (1782-1848), who that same year had married Alexander Baring (1774-1848), 1st Baron Ashburton, at Bingham Hill, one of the Bingham family’s two country estates.
The Barings only occasionally used their townhouse in Philadelphia. One year after Ann’s father died in England of a broken heart, they sold the property in 1805 to a wealthy lawyer, William Rawle (1759-1836), and his wife Sarah Coates Burge (1761-1824). Her grandfather William Burge (d.1746), was the brother-in-law of William Trent (1653-1724) who founded Trenton, New Jersey, in 1719.
The Rawles (1805-1870)
In 1783, William Rawle established what is today the oldest law firm in the United States – Rawle & Henderson L.L.P. He was the well-educated and cultured U.S. Attorney for Pennsylvania, and an early philanthropist. A devoted Quaker, Rawle co-founded and served as President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Washington admired him and offered him the post of U.S. Attorney-General, but he declined, along with any attempt to involve him in politics.
Rawle outlived his wife by twelve years and died at their house in 1836. His eldest surviving son, Samuel Burge Rawle (1787-1858), was resident in Hong Kong and so the house passed to his next son, William Rawle Jr., (1788-1858), another talented lawyer. He lived there with his wife Mary Anna Tilghman (1795-1878) who grew up at Carpenter’s Mansion and was the maternal grand-daughter of Chief Justice Benjamin Chew (1722-1810), of Cliveden.
In 1850, the house acquired a literary association: That year, the Rawle’s grand-daughter, Mary Cadwalader Rawle (1850-1923), was born there. Known as “Minnie,” she was the elder daughter of William Henry Rawle (1823-1889) and his first wife, Mary Binney Cadwalader (1829-1861). In her childhood memoirs, Lantern Slides, Minnie recalled growing up on Society Hill: She told of her grandfather entertaining the deposed King of Naples, Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844), who afterwards lived at Lansdowne House and Point Breeze. She also recalled Prince Don Angel Maria de Iturbide y Huarte (1816-1872) - grandson of the Emperor of Mexico - and William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) as frequent dinner guests of her father, the latter during his time there in 1855-56.
Minnie grew up to become a published author herself, as well as being one of “the 400” - a leading socialite at New York during the Gilded Age. She went on to marry Frederic Rhinelander Jones (1846-1918), brother of the novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Age of Innocence.
Society Hill as recalled by Minnie in the 1850s and 1860s had then peaked as the charming, peaceful preserve of the city’s old monied elite. From that time on, they sought to build new, larger mansions far away from the city’s increasingly cosmopolitan centre. By the early 1870s, Minnie’s father appears to have sold the old family property to Samuel Wood Thackara (1803-1877), a Conveyancer for the City of Philadelphia, and his wife, Elizabeth Alexander (1811-1886).
Thackara & Klebansky (1870-1931)
It was likely Thackara’s children who sold the house in 1904 to Wolf Klebansky (1859-1932). By this time, Society Hill had long since lost it genteel charm and its location on the Delaware waterfront now leant itself more to trade and industry. Klebansky was a typical resident. Describing himself as an “Importer, Exporter and Jobber of All Kinds of Russian and Siberian Horse Hair & Bristles,” he kept his factory workshop at the rear of the house and used the rest as his warehouse.
In 1920, at a time when museums were looking to purchase original colonial rooms (rather than focusing on preserving the houses as a whole!) Klebansky was all too happy to sell the two finest rooms in the house – one to the Metropolitan Museum and the ballroom to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The other rooms remained intact, as did the original mahogany staircase. But, following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Klebansky’s business was in trouble and his nephew advocated the idea of tearing the old house down in favour of an open-air garage.
Frances Wister & The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks
It was at this point that the remarkable Frances Anne Wister (1874-1956) stepped in. She was the President of the Civic Club of Philadelphia and in response to the looming fate that hung over the Powel House, in 1931 she established the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks and raised the required $30,000 to purchase the house from the Klebansky family. It may have been saved from demolition, but then started the arduous journey to restore it from an unkempt hair-bristle warehouse back to its current 18th century splendor.
Powel House became the flagship property of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, that also manages Grumblethorpe, Hill-Physick House and Waynesborough. As a museum dedicated to Colonial Revivalism, the Powel House has also played a central role in restoring Society Hill into “one of the nation’s premier heritage neighbourhoods”. It is also available to hire for events and has been used for television on several different programs.
Stedman, Graeme & Bennett family
Period rooms in the metroploiltan museum of art by amelia pack, james parker, Metropolitan museum of art (New York)
Front Parlor from the Powel House, Philadelphia, 1769–70 by Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley; Winterthur Portfolio; Vol. 46, No. 2/3, Period Room Architecture in American Art Museums (Summer/Autumn 2012), pp. E12-E23. Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc.
Historic Houses of Philadelphia: A Tour of the Region's Museum Homes
By Roger W. Moss
Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1938), page 256
http://edithwhartonsnewyork.blogspot.com/2013/01/she-was-brilliant-with-them.html (Francs Morrone, 2013)
Frances Anne Wister (1998), by Bob Delp, of LaSalle University
Elizabeth Willing Powel