Both Samuel and Elizabeth Powel came from very wealthy, political Philadelphia families. Elizabeth’s grandfather, father, and brother all served as mayors of Philadelphia, and Samuel would go on the become both Philadelphia’s last colonial mayor and its first mayor under the new republic.
Their house, which still stands on 3rd Street, was originally built in 1766. Samuel purchased and renovated it just prior to his marriage, and Samuel and Elizabeth moved in in 1769. They stayed in the city during British occupation, walking the fine line between pro-American and pro-British sympathies. British officer Frederick Howard was stationed with them in the house during the time British officers occupied the homes of many prominent Philadelphians. After the war, when Philadelphia became capital of the new nation, their home was the premier social spot. They hosted elaborate parties for everyone from Benjamin Rush to Benjamin Franklin to the Marquess de Lafayette to John Adams, who wrote to Abigail of his enjoyment of one of Elizabeth’s “most sinful feast(s)” consisting of “everything which could delight the eye or allure the taste, curds & creams, jellies, sweetmeats of various sorts, twenty sorts of trifles, tarts… .”
The Powels were friendly with George and Martha Washington, not only visiting them at Mt. Vernon, but hosting their 20th wedding anniversary party in their ballroom.
Although the ballroom in the home is a reproduction (the original is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), most of the other interiors, including flooring, mahogany bannister, and front door are original. Yes, as you go upstairs, you can use the same banister used by the founding fathers!
The house also contains many items belonging to Samuel and Elizabeth, including dishes gifted to them by the Washingtons’ and Marquess de Lafayette:
A Rittenhouse clock:
A knife holder and tea caddy (that is an impressively large amount of tea!):
Artwork collected by Samuel on his pre-marriage European Grand tour:
A lock of Elizabeth’s hair:
And these amazing silhouettes of Washington and Franklin, cut by Samuel himself:
Despite a lack of formal education, Elizabeth was known for her intelligence and political savvy. Well read in politics, education, and medicine, Benjamin Rush dedicated his book “Thoughts Upon Female Education” to her. It was Elizabeth who asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had come up with and was told “A republic, if you can keep it.” She is also credited with convincing George Washington that the fate of the new nation depended on his running for a second presidential term.
After Samuel’s death during the yellow fever outbreak of 1783 (Epidemic! The 1793 Yellow Fever Outbreak in Philadelphia), Elizabeth was his sole heir and inheritor of his fortune. Her adopted nephew inherited the estate upon her death, which was later purchased by a Victorian horsehair manufacturer. It was during his ownership that pieces of the architecture were sold to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art. The home was purchased in 1931 by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, who run it today as a house museum – offering hourly tours March-December.
There are rumors that the house is haunted by the ghost of Elizabeth’s second cousin, Peggy Shippen, a frequent guest and wife of Benedict Arnold, who was run out of Philadelphia after her husband’s treason charge.