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The British Architect

Detail of a plate 50 from Swan's "The British Architect"
Detail of a plate 50 from Swan's "The British Architect"
I have endeavored all along to form such designs as are capable of receiving good Decorations Abraham Swan, London, 1757

Swan continued by comparing bad "Decorations with Superadded Ornaments" to a "clown in a laced Waistcoat." That was written on the second page of his preface to his two volume publication, A Collection of Designsi in Architecture. Swan made it clear that by hiring him, he would be able to "accommodate the Great and Noble with Designs that may be suitable to their taste and fortune."

 

Rearranging Rooms

Plans of the first and second stories of the main house at Mount Pleasant drawn in 1932.
Plans of the first and second stories of the main house at Mount Pleasant drawn in 1932
Go down, into the parlour that my arms hang and bring me up a pistol. Captain John Macpherson

Researching the historical record pertaining to Mount Pleasant can sometimes cause confusion when specific rooms are being discussed. In earlier posts I have used names for spaces in the main house as they are currently interpreted by the staff of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Several years ago, after a close reading of Thomas Nevell's account book and John Macpherson's publication, A Pennsylvania Sailor's Letters, the names used to describe rooms in the house were revised to more accurately reflect their eighteenth century designations.

The names in use in 1926 when the house opened to the public were codified by scale drawings produced in 1932 that are now part of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).

 

The Drawing Room

Cover of Thompson Westcott's "The Historic Mansions of Philadelphia", 1877
Cover of Thompson Westcott's "The Historic Mansions of Philadelphia", 1877
This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. Virginia Woolf

What do we know about the drawing room at Mount Pleasant and how do we know it? What changes to the space have occurred over time? If there have been changes, how might they hamper our ability to understand the maker's intent and the original owner's desires?

Mount Pleasant has been celebrated as an historic site for more than a century. On the heels of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, Thompson Westcott presented the outline of Captain John Macpherson and his family's lives in his monumental The Historic Mansions and Buildings of Philadelphia with Some Notice of Their Owners and Occupants, Porter and Coates, Philadelphia, 1877. The contemporary importance of Mount Pleasant is suggested by the use of a detail of the engraving illustrating the chapter on the Macpherson's and their country seat, as part of the design of the elaborate Aesthetic Movement cover.

 

Mount Pleasant in Plan

Mount Pleasant<br/>Photo by Christopher Storb<br/>November, 2010
Mount Pleasant
Photo by Christopher Storb
November, 2010
There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. Henry James, "The Portrait of a Lady"

If your social status were such that you were likely to receive an invitation to visit and take tea with Margaret Macpherson in her drawing room at Mount Pleasant, your journey in the 1760′s would have been much different than one made today.

 

Sculpting Spaces

East facade of Mount Pleasant<br/>Photo by Christopher Storb<br/>January, 2010
East facade of Mount Pleasant
Photo by Christopher Storb
January, 2010
The architect models in space as a sculptor in clay. Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism

Approaching the main house on her way to the drawing room, a visitor in the 1760's would be struck by the disciplined symmetry of the façade and skillful use of the classical orders. Perhaps the similarity to several buildings in town, whether recently completed or existing only as engraved prints, would be noted.

Paul Goldberger says "we talk about facades in terms of how they look; we talk about spaces in terms of how they feel." The combined depth of the columns and rusticated door frame, the heavily moulded arch and large keystone above and the low height of the door create the sensation of moving through a short, low tunnel. This feeling of compression makes moving from the great expanse of the exterior landscape to the hall beyond the door more dramatic than it would be if you entered through the type of tall door commonly seen in town houses, where a vestibule often served as a transitional space.

 

Taking the Measure of Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant, main house, east facade<br/>Photo by Christopher Storb<br/>August, 2009.
Mount Pleasant, main house, east facade
Photo by Christopher Storb
August, 2009.
Another Chimney-piece, with a very rich frame over it, adorned with a Pediment. Abraham Swan, The British Architect.

With an ashlar base beneath thick rubble stone walls covered in stucco, brick quoins on the corners, and cut stone jack arches above the sash windows, the facades of the main house at Mount Pleasant were predominantly the concern of the masons.

But it is the woodwork that describes the interior spaces, creates their variations of hierarchy and provides a language of ornament that could be read by the owners of the house and their visitors.

 

Lost Voices, Lost Meaning

View from the second story of the south pavilion towards the main house <br/>Photo by Christopher Storb
View from the second story of the south pavilion towards the main house
Photo by Christopher Storb
I now inform you that I do not imagine I can do with less than the Negro wench Nell, a convenient house, of two rooms on a floor, besides the kitchen, four feather beds, and other necessary furniture, and the sum of One hundred and fifty pounds. Margaret Macpherson to Captain John Macpherson
April 25th, 1770
In May, 1769, an electrifying incident took place at Mount Pleasant. Captain John Macpherson’s subsequently published his version of the story of his restraint and imprisonment at Mount Pleasant in A Pennsylvania Sailor’s Letters, Alias the Farmer’s Fall, Philadelphia 1771. This book, along with advertisements relating to Mount Pleasant in the Pennsylvania Gazette, allows several individuals, otherwise undocumented, to attain their place in the historical record.

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The history of Mount Pleasant has most often been told through the lives of the Macphersons. But how closely do the majority of visitors to historic house museums relate to the elegant eighteenth-century lifestyle of the “wealthy colonial elite,” with their vast purchasing power and taste for sumptuous country estates. The building and use of Mount Pleasant is characterized by the complex social relations of the diverse group of people who lived and worked there. What is lost if the full pattern of social interactions of these great estates is left unexplored? Are there stories of other lives through which museum houses of the affluent can resonate with today’s visitor, through which a more nuanced explanation of the desires and intentions of the original families can be examined?

Recently the roles of the craftsmen who designed and constructed Mount Pleasant have begun to be woven into the interpretation of the site. The discovery of Thomas Nevell’s account book containing descriptive charges for Nevell and his crew’s work at Mount Pleasant provide information about the site previously unavailable for study. Nevell’s account of his working relationships with his upper and lower apprentices and journeymen carpenters concerning their wages, diet, tools and the particular elements they crafted at Mount Pleasant illuminates the lives of individuals often left out of the discussion at historic house museums. Even less likely to be included in the conversation are the indentured and enslaved servants who were, by necessity, a part of large, complex estates like Mount Pleasant. Five months before the incident in May 1769, during which John Macpherson was confined for 100 days in a shepherd’s cottage on the property, he first advertised Mount Pleasant for sale. On January 12, 1769, along with descriptions of the buildings and grounds, Macpherson announced the sale of two male and one female enslaved Africans that he termed “stout healthy negroes.” One man was described as a coachman, carter and ploughman, the other a gardener. The woman is described as a dairy maid. In the Provincial Tax Assessment for 1769, Macpherson owed 70 pounds on his 105 acres and dwelling and 42 pounds on “4 Negroes.” In June 1769, Macpherson again advertised the sale of the two men recommending them for their “honesty, sobriety, and obedience” and claimed they had had the smallpox.

The Macphersons worked their estate with a combination of enslaved Africans, paid employees, and tenant farmers. In April 17, 1766, John Macpherson advertised for a gardener, requiring him to be a “single Man, of proper Resolution, Discretion, and Humanity, to command several other Servants under him.” The gardener could “enter into Pay on the 15th of May next”. By June 1766, the position was filled by Roger Craig. One of the servants he would be entrusted to supervise was likely the enslaved African gardener Macpherson later advertised for sale. On December 24, 1767 Macpherson was advertising for a family to care for his flock of sheep. They were to have use of “a good house, part of an orchard, pasture for one cow, and a garden rent free.” On October 6, 1778, the last time the Macphersons offered Mount Pleasant for sale by advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette and a year before the estate was sold to fulfill a debt obligation, a tenant dwelling house and spring house, were described as being “at a distance from the other improvements.”

It is difficult today to discover much about the enslaved and indentured servants, the gardeners and shepherds, and the apprentice carpenters, whose lives are interwoven in the creation and functioning of Mount Pleasant. Often the only record of their existence is the recording of a name in a surviving document. Thomas Nevell, in his accounts, has left us with the names of every carpenter who worked on the construction of Mount Pleasant. John Macpherson’s propensity to publicize his grievances has left us with the names of two of the Macpherson’s servants, at least one of whom was an enslaved African. At one point during his capture, initial imprisonment and escape into the main building of Mount Pleasant in May 1769, John Macpherson “called for some of my servants; my Negro woman Nell came.” When Macpherson eventually gained his freedom he in turn banished his wife Margaret and son John, Jr. to Mount Pleasant for the winter of 1769/70. As a consequence of his belief that his wife Margaret was involved in his imprisonment and his being labeled a madman, he demanded from her all the keys to Mount Pleasant and their separation as man and wife. Letters written in April 1770 between John and Margaret, through which they negotiated their separation, were delivered by Bernard, who traveled back and forth between Mount Pleasant and the city almost daily for weeks. Bernard was also charged with the movement of horses and carriages between Mount Pleasant and the city for the Macphersons. It is possible Bernard was the enslaved African coachman, carter, and ploughman John Macpherson several times advertised for sale.

In those letters, Margaret Macpherson requested “the Negro wench Nell” to attend her. By April 1770, now locked out of Mount Pleasant, suffering from “my disorder” which “every day increases” so that “my present situation is such as renders it impossible to do anything effectual for me,” and just two months before her death at age 38, Margaret Macpherson was directed by John to “fix on a house” for herself, her youngest daughter and her servant, Nell.

 

The Drawing Room, An Overview

Mount Pleasant, plan of second story of the main house <br/>Historic American Building Survey (Library of Congress)
Mount Pleasant, plan of second story of the main house
Historic American Building Survey (Library of Congress)
If a mirror looks into a mirror what does it see? Andy Warhol
The drawing room at Mount Pleasant is the “best room” of the house, reached only after a procession through two splendid halls and a grand staircase. Examination of the drawing room conducted prior to the restoration of the chimneypiece carving confirms that the woodwork survives virtually intact excluding the loss of the applied appliqué of the frieze above the fireplace opening. The replacement of the frieze appliqué was the main focus of the chimneypiece carving restoration project that has recently been completed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The presentation provides an introduction to what is the most brilliant mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia domestic space to have survived in-situ.

 

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