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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know when this blog was posted, or if you're still looking for the Cliffs, but you can access the house through the nearby disc golf course, Sedgley Woods. Enter at Oxford St, right off 33rd St. If you go most days, there are tons of locals playing disc. They're very nice, and would probably offer to show you to the house (it's a little tricky following the course's path on your own). Its current condition tells an interesting story of the building's history. It's a shame it was burned and vandalised, but the remnants are of the like you'll only find in Philadelphia. In any other city, it would have been torn down and the land developed years ago. (Friends of Sedgley Woods website is being updated as of 8/18/11, btw.)

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