Q: What does this house have to do with William Penn?

By the 1880s Philadelphia was maturing into its industrial self, its new mills and factories sprouting like sooty mushrooms amid its rows of traditional redbrick rowhomes. It was a city whose workplaces sat cheek by jowl next to the places where Philadelphians called home. For some, the industrial growth of the city signaled the arrival of Philadelphia as the nation’s premier workshop. Still others appreciated the short distance to work. Yet for others with a regressive gaze, the obliteration of the city of Penn, Franklin, Rush, and Rittenhouse was cause for alarm. The new and seemingly inexorable economic momentum of the city was destroying the sacred places, the streets, and places once inhabited by Philadelphia’s legendary First Men. In this time of uncertainty, Philadelphia’s elites’ rebelled against an increasingly incomprehensible present by connecting to a mythologized past.

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One of the era’s great romanticizers of the past, Rudyard Kipling caught the age’s nostalgia for the city’s supposed golden age. Searching in vain for a vanished social geography, Kipling’s Philadelphia (1910) begrudgingly commits the lost Philadelphia of “Adam Goos” and “Pastor Meder” to immortality:

               If you’re off to Philadelphia in the morning,


You must telegraph for rooms at some Hotel.


You needn’t try your luck at Epply’s or the “Buck,”


Though the Father of his Country liked them well.


It is not the slightest use to inquire for Adam Goos,


Or to ask where Pastor Meder has removed—so


You must treat as out of date the story I relate,


Of the Church in Philadelphia he loved so.

Yet some were not prepared to simply pine for the lost physical backdrop of Philadelphia—nor did they accept capitalism’s unthinking desecration of the city’s holy ground. As early as 1824, just as the mists of time were beginning to shroud the stories and places of the city’s origins, Philadelphians—swelled by the return of French patriot Lafayette—rallied around a tiny two story dwelling on Letitia St. to commemorate 142nd anniversary of the city’s founding. Why assemble at Letita House? As Kenneth Finkel pointed out in his text to Philadelphia: Then and Now, the 19th century historian John Fanning Watson, through painstaking research, identified the unprepossessing abode as a probable residence of William Penn. Two years after the anti-Catholic riots of 1844, Granville John Penn visited the home and presented the putative belt of wampum given to his ancestor by Indians as a sign of friendship. In the shadow of immigrant violence, true Philadelphia gathered to give homage to the pacific legacy of the Founder.

By the early 1880s, the area around Letitia Street between Front and Second near Market was a jumble of small shops, boarding houses, and rum holes catering to the rough-and-tumble denizens of the waterfront: hardly the environment for one of the city’s most sacred sites. In a highly politicized act of historic preservation, Philadelphia’s elite took up a subscription to move the house to more auspicious environs. The move, they hoped, would correspond to the 200th anniversary of the founding of the city in 1883. They chose a picturesque bluff overlooking the Schuylkill once home to Robert Egglesfield Griffith’s stately villa, “Egglesfield” now opposite the Zoo north of W. Girard Ave. There in a bucolic vacuum emptied of history, context, and offensive neighbors the best of the city proudly (and wrongly) proclaimed the “first brick building erected in Philadelphia” William Penn’s.

By the 1960s, historians had proven the lie to Watson’s fanciful interpretation of the house and its noble resident. The house, once believed to be a present from the Founder to his daughter in 1701, was, in fact built between 1713-1715 for Thomas Chalkley. William Penn never set foot in the Letitia Street House. Stripped of its story, the house was closed in 1965 according to Finkel. What then can you say about a historyless house? Established so that nostalgic Philadelphians could go off and touch something more tangible than memory, the enduring story of the house—and its movement—is one of a city’s search for order in a placid past. For the first time in their history Philadelphians sensed that progress came with a price and sought to sequester sacred history from the maw of modernity.

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2 thoughts on “Q: What does this house have to do with William Penn?

  1. Actually, that house does have something to do with Penn, if you count the mythology of the 19th c. surrounding him as having “to do” with him. One could say that the famous painting of Penn at Shackamaxon has as much to do with the founder, since it is also the product of romanticizing him. Or, “Welcome Park” and Venturi’s postmodern viewpoint. Or, Calder’s sculpture for that matter (morning wood included, thank you). All after the fact and all not really actually about Penn, but more about what he means to us then and now. Anyway, my two cents.

    –Cornplanter.

  2. I used to see this house from the Amtrak over the years and couldn’t help but think how forlorn it looked. I’m shocked to see its walls now covered with graffiti. Its present isolated and totally inappropriate location is now far worse than the area surrounding its original site. How things change! The house is very important architecturally as one of the earliest, if not the earliest, surviving urban brick houses in Philadelphia. But it is so out of context it has lost all meaning except to specialists. To tell you the truth, I would like to see it moved back to its original site or a location in the general vicinity. That would put it back into the proper context. Within walking distance of the major historic sites, it would be sure to attract visitors. William Penn may never have set foot in this house, but it was built during his lifetime. How many other buildings in Philadelphia can make that claim?

    -BliP

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