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Extensive, 2-year restoration illuminates the mansion’s origins and history
Following a 24-month, $1.6 m restoration project, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is reopening Mount Pleasant, the Fairmount Park mansion that has been praised as one of the finest mid-eighteenth century American houses. To celebrate the completion of the project, which included restoring the roof, wood shingling, dormers, and balustrade of the main house and two pavilions, the Museum has also organized an exhibition that opens April 7, 2006, that illustrates the complex restoration process. Saving a Colonial Masterpiece: Restoring Mount Pleasant begins in the north pavilion and continues throughout the house, combining text, illustrations and original unused building materials that were discovered stowed in the roof rafters during the project. This National Historic Landmark building will also once again become a highlight of the Fairmount Park trolley tours led by the Museum-trained Park House Guides and departing from the Museum's West Entrance twice daily at 10:45 a.m. and 1:45 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday through December 10, 2006 (advance reservations not required).
Museum Director Anne d’Harnoncourt said: “The restoration of Mount Pleasant means that visitors can experience this architectural jewel as a journey back in time with extraordinary visual immediacy and attention to detail. It offers a remarkable window onto a particular moment in Philadelphia’s, and the nation’s, history.”
The multifaceted restoration project has been selected to receive a 2006 Preservation Achievement Award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia (to be awarded at a May 3rd ceremony at the Crystal Tea Room in the Wanamaker Building).
The Mount Pleasant restoration project has been overseen by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and was funded with primary support from the William B. Dietrich Foundation, with additional support from Elizabeth G. Woodward, ACE INA, the Otto Haas Charitable Trust #2, the City of Philadelphia, the James C. Hornor Trust, and the many gifts in memory of Martha Crary Halpern.
‘The Most Elegant Seat in Pennsylvania’
When the Scottish sea captain John Macpherson (1726-1792), who made his fortune as a privateer during the French and Indian War, decided to build a country estate on the banks of the Schuylkill River with his wife Margaret, he turned to the brilliant Philadelphia-born builder Thomas Nevell (1721-1797). Nevell was an apprentice of Edmund Woolley (1695-1771), who built Independence Hall (then called the Pennsylvania State house). Together, Macpherson and Nevell built a masterpiece that John Adams, in a visit to Mount Pleasant in 1775, called “ the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania.” With its hipped roof and balustrade, adherence to classical symmetry and balance, and carved details on the exterior and interior, this striking and distinctive edifice has been a landmark in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park since its completion in 1765.
A Work of Architecture, River Views
Mount Pleasant reopens without furnishings, allowing visitors to enjoy it first and foremost as a work of architecture. Guided tours will focus on the floor plan, and the architectural hierarchy of carved details such as carved base and cornice moldings, chimney breasts and window and door surrounds. Original views of the Schuylkill River from Mount Pleasant have also been restored through an ongoing view shed project initiated by the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, Inc., and the majestic house will soon be visible from Kelly Drive. Generous support for the view shed project was received from the Four Counties Garden Club, Mr. and Mrs. Gerry Lenfest and the McLean Contributionship.
Conservation Process and Analysis
The Museum’s Senior Conservator of Furniture and Woodwork, David deMuzio, has overseen the project that began in spring 2004 with a meticulous process of investigation. Preservation carpenters salvaged as much of the original material as possible and replaced damaged sections with historically and structurally appropriate materials.
“The entire process has given us a new understanding of the design and construction used to build Mount Pleasant,” deMuzio said. “From a craftsman’s standpoint, what Nevell achieved was sheer brilliance.”
DeMuzio and the preservation team were informed by physical evidence (board holes, nails and nail holes, original markings and measurements), comparisons with other existing contemporary houses, and such design books from the period as the 1786 Rules of Work of the Carpenters’ Company, for which Thomas Nevell drew the plate designs.
Tulip poplar trees, like those used in the original construction, were felled in Lancaster County, custom sawn and kiln-dried; an entire temporary grid work of steel was constructed to support the roof while the rotten ends of 250-year-old beams were removed and replaced; and new cedar shingles were split and dressed to the shape and finish of the originals. The team also investigated the third story dormer windows, determining that the originals had been very similar to those surviving at nearby Cliveden, completed in 1762.
‘Saving a Colonial Masterpiece’
The exhibition Saving a Colonial Masterpiece: Restoring Mount Pleasant (on view April 7, 2006 through April 2007) will begin in the north pavilion building, adjacent to the main house. It originally served as nucleus for farm operations at Mount Pleasant, and offers an ideal vantage to observe the restored dormers and roof shingles. Displays inside the main house will a compare modern shingles to early shingles found during archeology in the roof's eaves, and a video slide show of photographs taken during the restoration project will offer visitors a behind-the-scenes look at this complex and highly detailed project.
In conjunction with the structural restoration, members of the Museum’s Education Department were engaged in historical research to help guide their interpretation of Mount Pleasant’s original design and function. Captain Macpherson’s letters and diaries offered invaluable insight into how the house and its various rooms and outbuildings were used during his period of residence there.
“Mount Pleasant is a truly fascinating study in American architectural and social history,” said Justina Barrett, Museum Educator for American Art. “Through its architectural details, its rooms, and its surrounding landscape, the grand estate manifests the role of architecture in the lives of colonial Philadelphians. It weaves together the lives and aspirations of Captain Macpherson, his wife Margaret, their family, their workers, and builders like Nevell.” Barrett’s research and the additional interpretive programs at Mount Pleasant are supported by grants from the Getty Foundation and PKG Foundation.
Mount Pleasant Through the Years
Through the years Mount Pleasant’s other notable owners have included General Benedict Arnold (1741-1801), then military governor of Philadelphia, who took possession of the house briefly in 1780 before committing treason and fleeing to England; and General Jonathan Williams (1750-1815), grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin and the first superintendent of West Point Military Academy, who bought the house in 1792. For a period in the mid 19th century the house and grounds functioned as a popular German-style beer garden. In 1869 the City of Philadelphia purchased the property, adding it to the grounds set aside for the creation of Fairmount Park. Prior to its renovation by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mount Pleasant was used as a dairy that sold milk and refreshments to the Fairmount Park visitors, as a security office space for the Park, and as the headquarters for the first American women’s automobile club.
In the 1920s, under the auspices of then-Museum Director Fiske Kimball, a brilliant architectural historian devoted to Philadelphia’s history, the Museum assumed administration of Mount Pleasant and nearby Cedar Grove (built 1748).
Visiting Mount Pleasant
Mount Pleasant is located on Mount Pleasant Drive in Fairmount Park East, and is open to the public year round, Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission for self-guided tours to Mount Pleasant (or any of the park houses) is $3 per person and is payable at the door of each house. Maps are available at the information desk in the West Entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Trolley tours to the park houses are available Wednesday through Sunday April 1 through December 10th from the West Entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Tickets are $20 for the public; $13 for members, seniors and children ages 6–18. Tours not recommended for children under 6. Includes admission to houses visited).
For more information, call the Philadelphia Trolley Works at (215) 389-TOUR (8687). Group tours featuring slide lectures, theme tours, and lunch packages can also be arranged by contacting the Museum’s Group Sales Department at (215) 684-7863.