You’ve probably passed these stairs on Kelly Drive, just past the art museum. While appearing to lead nowhere, they actually go to Lemon Hill, one of the many historic houses located in Fairmount Park. In fact, the park contains 19 of these historic mansions – one of the highest concentrations of preserved 18th and early 19th century American architecture in the country.
It was here along the river that wealthy Philadelphians built summer retreats and developed estates which were located just far enough from Philadelphia to be an ideal refuge from epidemics during the summer months. Many of the mansions were left in place when the land was acquired by the city in the mid-1800’s with the goal of protecting the city’s water supply.
In addition to Lemon Hill (c. 1800) (Steps to Nowhere? Lemon Hill – A Hidden Neoclassical Gem), several of these houses are open to the public (others are leased to private businesses). The houses are maintained and run by different organizations, so each has its own operating schedule.
Mount Pleasant (c. 1762): Built by privateer, Captain John Macpherson, John Adams called it “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania.” It was briefly owned by Benedict Arnold and later leased by Baron Von Steuben. Managed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the house is filled with amazing woodwork.
Woodford (c. 1756) Of similar age and design is Woodford. The house has many of its original features, including coved ceilings, original dowel floors, 1770’s kitchen, and woodwork, including this gorgeous carved mantle in the front parlor. On display is an impressive collection of early American antiques donated by Naomi Wood, a Philadelphia-born collector. The house is run by the Naomi Wood Trust.
Strawberry Mansion (c. 1789) This is the largest of the park houses, with a 1789 central portion and two c. 1828 wings. The house was renovated and is run by the Committee of 1926, an organization founded after Philly’s sesquicentennial to preserve the city’s heritage. Originally called Summerville, Strawberry Mansion got its current name during the mid-1800’s, when farmers renting the mansion served strawberries and cream to the public. The house has a large collection of American and European antiques, including a Empire-style ballroom with original (reupholstered) furniture.
Laurel Hill (c. 1767) Built by a Philadelphia widow, who later married a British-loyalist mayor of Philadelphia, the home was confiscated after the revolution. It was later sold to Philadelphia physician Philip Syng Physick (The Father of American Surgery, Dr. Philip Physick), who added a Federal style octagonal music room on to the original house. The house was restored for the bicentennial celebrations in 1976 by the Women for Greater Philadelphia, who still run it today.
Ormiston (c. 1798) The house still contains early features such as the original King of Prussia granite mantles and a (rare for the time period) indoor Scottish bake oven. Today, it is run by the Royal Heritage Society of the Delaware Valley with the mission to preserve Pennsylvania’s British Heritage. Unlike the other houses mentioned here, it is only open to the public occasionally, often around Christmas.
Cedar Grove (c. 1746) Built earlier then the other homes, Cedar Grove once stood in the Frankfort section of Philadelphia. After it fell out of use, the family (the Morris family of Morris Arboretum Philly Gardens: A Rare Reminder of the Victorian Fern Craze (Morris Arboretum)) donated it to the city, and it was moved here in 1927 to join the rest of the houses in Fairmount Park. Built of Wissahickon schist in a less formal style, it still contains many of the family’s heirlooms. It is run by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Information about many of the houses can be found https://www.parkcharms.org/ A selection of the homes are usually decorated for Christmas each year. Trolly tours are sometimes offered by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.