Thursday, October 21, 2010

On the south side of Fountain Green was The Cliffs, an unbelievably sad story of a once stately country villa!

“Fountain Green, the seat next beyond the Cliffs, originally belonged to Samuel Mifflin.... The grounds ran over to what was called Mifflin’s Lane. Mr. Mifflin died in 1781, and Samuel Meeker became the owner” (... from History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 by T Scharf, T Westcott pub L.H. Everts & Co. Philadelphia 1884). ...this was the first ever info I found that my guy, Samuel Meeker merchant of Philadelphia and my ancestor, owned a country estate near Philadelphia. Wowsie! According to this (amazing) description, for a long time I thought Fountain Green was located high on some cliffs overlooking the Schuylkill River (I thought these cliffs provided the caves for Engel & Wolf lager beer brewery, all very logical!). Later I was astounded, and totally exhilarated, to find Samuel’s house Fountain Green illustrated by William Birch! But one thing, it seemed so close, level to the water, and not on some cliffs. Most likely an artist’s twist on the reality.... hmmmm. A few years later, and I discovered that the Cliffs was actually a house!

In the last entry I established that on the north side of Fountain Green was the neighboring estate called Mount Pleasant built by sea captain John Macpherson in 1763. On the other side of where Fountain Green used to be, is the house called the Cliffs. The Cliffs was built in 1753 by Philadelphia merchant Joshua Fisher, a Quaker (1707-1783). Like Mount Pleasant and Fountain Green, the estate surrounding the house included a farm, although in general, life in this region was not an agrarian economy. Many farmed and sold their crops, but capital stemmed mainly from trade, shipping, law, banking and real estate (Meeker excelled at a number of these!)

Joshua Fisher was the grandson of John Fisher who came to America on board the "Welcome" with William Penn. He married Sarah Rowland, and as a young man started a hat-making business using the locally plentiful animal skins (click here for the portrait of Mr. Sturgis who became rich from the hat (& opium!) business). The trade in animal pelts flourished and eventually Joshua started a business with his sons called "Joshua Fisher & Sons". Customers were able to order items from a catalogue such as porcelain, silverware, brass pulls for dressers, and every other imaginable type of merchandise. The business prospered because customers could receive reasonably priced goods within weeks. Joshua became wealthy, and started the first packet line of ships to sail regularly between Philadelphia andLondon.
Moving his family to downtown Philadelphia in 1746, Joshua built the Cliffs as a country getaway for the summers (for fun and to get away from the fever epidemics which would sweep through the city). It signaled his socioeconomic “arrival” and showcased his newfound wealth.
The house remained in the Fisher family for more than 100 years until the Fairmount Park Commission purchased it (and all the other villas in the confines of the ‘new’ park, an early example of eminent domain?) in 1868. The house was rented and maintained until the 1960s when it became vacant. The house had a substantial amount of woodwork and paneling. It was taken over and repaired in the 1960s by the Shackamaxon Society, a local civic group.
Incredibly, the Cliffs was vandalized in the 1970s & 80s, possibly due to publicity that the Fairmount Park Commission allowed city officials to live in the park's 45 historic houses rent-free. As a result of the news stories, the Park Commission decided to charge rent, but renters could not be found for some of the houses. Those that were occupied were thereby protected and maintained. The Cliffs was unoccupied from 1970, and due to a lack of funds, neither the Park Commission nor the Shackamaxon Society could maintain it.
The Cliffs burned on February 22, 1986, due to vandalism and arson. Firefighters were unable to extinguish the fire because their heavy trucks sank in the clay earth surrounding the house. The clay had been trucked into the site in order to cover an area near the house used as a dump for refuse from various municipal construction projects. (info courtesy of wiki, as is the photo of the ruin)
What a terribly sad fate! Fountain Green burned too, to the ground.

Satellite image of The Cliffs by googleearth, this is how it is today!

I knew I only had 3 days in Philadelphia, to explore and to research, but one of the things I really wanted to do was find this burnt out shell, so close to Fountain Green, which would have meant slashing my way through brush and bramble! In the satellite image, the road is below the railroad tracks, and the tracks are set up high. With limited time and no one to join me in such an excursion, I did the less adventurous route, and took an appropriate tour of Mount Pleasant. In the next entry, I will show the satellite view of all three properties.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mount Pleasant, the neighboring country estate to Fountain Green, on the Schuylkill River

Mount Pleasant, splendid villa about a 10 min walk from where Fountain Green used to be.


In August I visited Philadelphia and was able to further my sleuthing of Meeker, and in particular I found out more about his country estate Fountain Green on the Schuylkill River, which he was able to purchase from the Mifflin family through a bank auction in 1799. There seems to be some confusion about the location of Fountain Green because with time, Governor Mifflin is alleged to have live there (more on this topic later.) The location of Fountain Green is now pinned down. If one looks at the map of Fairmount Park along the banks of the Schuylkill River, running through the center of Philly, Fountain Green was between Mount Pleasant (pictured above) and a country home called the Cliffs, both of which still exist; however the Cliffs is in ruins and can not be seen. But at least I was able to visit Mount Pleasant, just slightly past where Fountain Green was once located, and up a small hill. The road running up this hill leading to Mount Pleasant is now called Fountain Green Drive.

The home was closed, but was graciously opened up for me and my friend Susan (see Susan's blog on Philly beauty Rebecca Gratz). In 1761 this land was aquired by a sea captain named Capt. John Macpherson who made a fortune in a short amount of time in the French and Indian War. When the war ended in 1763 Macpherson was ready to make an appropriate display of his wealth and social prestige, and built Mount Pleasant which was described by John Adams as “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania.” He developed his estate with fields for sheep and cows, orchards, and a large, Scottish-style walled garden in which he grew such luxuries as asparagus, strawberries, and artichokes. Here he lived with wife and children for a while (becoming estranged from his wife, a son died in the Am Rev), renting it during periods of financial difficulty, and finally sold it in 1779. After changing hands several times, in 1791 it was sold to General Jonathan Williams (1751-1815). He was a great nephew of Benjamin Franklin, was chief of the Corps of Engineers, United States Army, and first superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He directed the fortification of New York Harbor, and was active in the defense of the Delaware in the War of 1812. In his absence, his wife Mariamne was left in charge of Mount Pleasant and the farm. The Williams family lived there until the City of Philadelphia bought the property in 1869 and it became part of Fairmount Park.

As Meeker bought Fountain Green in 1799, eight years after Mount Pleasant was bought by Gen Williams, these two families would have been neighbors. Fountain Green at this time comprised 2 parcels; a smaller part along the river, and a much larger part which neighbored the Williams estate, extending away from the river.

This statue is in the garden of Mount Pleasant. I noticed it right away.
The reason why.........stay tuned!


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