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Thomas Nevell, a Carpenter’s Account

Thomas Nevell Account Book
Thomas Nevell Account Book
Van Pelt Library
University of Pennsylvania
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It is needless to mention the many genteel, regular and convenient buildings on it, as they are so well known; they at least equal, if not surpass anything of the kind in North America…

Slightly more than three years after its construction was completed, this is how Captain John Macpherson (1726-1792), a sea-faring immigrant from Scotland, described Mount Pleasant, in an advertisement for its sale or lease, in the Pennsylvania Gazette on January 12, 1769. Why sell his estate after living there for less time than the nearly four years it took to construct is open to speculation and will be a topic of a later post. The advertisement is long and detailed, containing descriptions of the 160 acres that included, besides the main house – two pavilions, stone carriage and horse barns, a large orchard, a kitchen garden, stone quarries, and fields in grass and clover among other improvements. Perhaps not surprising for a time when slavery was an accepted practice, but still striking when read today, three African-Americans described as "stout, healthy negroes" were listed with their occupations of coachman, carter, and ploughman; gardener; and dairy maid, for lease with the estate.

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This extensive advertisement along with the survival of Captain Macpherson's self-published letters and accounts of his life would alone provide more historical information regarding the construction and early years of a significant mid-eighteenth century dwelling than is usually obtainable 250 years on. But there is more. In 1983 Charles E. Peterson, was made aware that a remarkable unearthing had been made at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania. He subsequently announced in The Robert Smith Newsletter, the publication Peterson edited, that the account book of the carpenter Thomas Nevell (1721-1797) had been rediscovered. I can only imagine how he must have felt when he began to page through the account book, for there on the first pages are detailed charges to Captain John Macpherson for Nevell's and his crews work on the barns and pavilions of Mount Pleasant. Similarly detailed entries follow, covering the construction during the years 1762 to 1765 of the five remaining original buildings at the site. Whatever Peterson felt, what he wrote in his newsletter was true: "To assimilate this new source material, much of Philadelphia's history will have to be reworked."

The first reworking of history that occurred was that the design and construction of Mount Pleasant could now be attributed to Nevell. Before 1983, if a historian attributed Mount Pleasant to a carpenter working in Philadelphia it was inevitably Robert Smith. Smith's distinguished reputation and numerous successful commissions made attaching his name to one more grand statement of Philadelphia architecture too tempting to resist, even if there were no documents concerning Smith's connection to Mount Pleasant or Macpherson. Peterson himself thought Smith the likeliest candidate, believing as others did, that Macpherson and Smith's shared Scottish heritage may have fostered a friendship that might naturally transform into a business relationship. Not long before the discovery of Nevell's account book, this line of thought would contribute to Mount Pleasant being described as a "Scottish Anachronism".

Peterson transcribed several dozen of the account book entries in his newsletter and closed by saying "The whole milieu of Philadelphia building can now be more systematically studied." The "systematic study of the whole milieu of Philadelphia building" or "reworking much of Philadelphia's history" sounds overwhelming to say the least and Peterson was content to leave the task to future generations of historians. But a detailed study of the enormous amount of information the account book provides has yet to be undertaken. That's changing. While Peterson's plea in 1983 didn't create a stampede to a dusty ledger in a rare book room, students of eighteenth century architecture and craft practices have begun to examine the fragile survivor for what it can tell us about this extraordinary mid-eighteenth century commission in a booming Philadelphia as well as the craftsmen who accepted the challenge.

Macpherson did not find a buyer for Mount Pleasant in January 1769. He persisted to advertise it for sale or lease in the following years while continuing to live there during the summers with his family. On March 22, 1779 Macpherson defaulted on a loan payment of £1,600 plus interest to Phineas Bond. To settle the dept Macpherson made an indenture of mortgage with Benedict Arnold who on April 3rd conveyed the deed to his future father-in-law, Edward Shippen. Arnold promised to pay a total of £18,000 for the "full value of the mortgaged premises" including the "Messuage or Tenement commonly called and known by the Name of Mount Pleasant." That amount is probably the best indication of the value of the site as improved by Macpherson that we'll ever have. Things, as they say, got complicated for Arnold in the last years of the Revolution and the ownership and fate of Mount Pleasant were in flux during the 1780's. Ownership was resolved with the 1792 sale to the William's family who would retain possession of the property until it was purchased by the city in 1869 as Fairmount Park continued to expand its borders.

A Treasure in Fairmount

Fairmount Park to Center City, early 1920's
Fairmount Park to Center City, early 1920's
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Beauty and historical interest are united here to a degree very rare in America Fiske Kimball writing in The Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin, September, 1926

After accepting the directorship of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts Fiske Kimball moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 1925. He was tasked with overseeing the completion of the Museum's new building that would open to the public in less than three years, moving the Museum's collection of objects across the river from Memorial Hall, and defining a new vision for the future of the institution.

Kimball brought with him a record that few directors of art institutions have ever possessed; both a passion for, and a professional degree in architecture. He had already published important works on early American architecture including Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and the Early Republic in 1922 where, for the first time neither Captain Macpherson nor Benedict Arnold were mentioned in connection with Mount Pleasant. Kimball positioned the site standing on its own as Architecture in the context of mid-eighteenth century design and craft.

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Kimball was familiar with the "Colonial Chain of Houses" just north of where the new Museum was being constructed. In spite of the other tasks and deadlines in front of him, Kimball made plans for the Museum to create a "Branch Museum of American Art" at Mount Pleasant which seems to have been abandoned since 1921 when the license for the Dairy was not renewed by the Park. When he arrived in Philadelphia, Kimball and his wife Marie moved into the main house at Mount Pleasant, only vacating in June 1926 after overseeing restorations to the main house, pavilions, and garden on the river side.

Loans of eighteenth century objects were secured that, along with several objects from the Museum's collection, were used to furnish the first and second stories of the main house. Mount Pleasant opened to the public in July 1926, in time for the city's Sesquicentennial celebrations.

Stirred by the colonial revival fervor of the day, Dorothy Grafly opened her July 4, 1926 article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger with the following – "It seems a long time ago that Peggy Shippen gathered posies in the beautiful and quaint terrace garden of Mount Pleasant overlooking the Schuylkill. The posies faded and died: the terraces yielded gradually to the pressure of the years, drooped their shoulders and became the mere indication of their one-time vigor, like old men awaiting burial." Though Grafly's grasp of history, as well as her metaphors, are questionable she made a vital point several paragraphs later that is as important today as it was then. She contrasted New York City's collection of interiors recently installed in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Philadelphia's colonial and early Republic architecture "still gracing their original sites and awaiting popular acclaim." It is no less true today that because Mount Pleasant survived and remains open to visitors year round, we all have the chance, as Paul Goldberger writes, to "come to grips with how things feel to us when we stand before them, with how architecture affects us emotionally as well as intellectually."

An acknowledgment

In 1999 Martha Crary Halpern, Assistant Curator for Fairmount Park Houses, Department of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, created the in-house document Mount Pleasant, An Annotated Time Line. It was the culmination of her many years of research on Mount Pleasant and is a compilation of citations from primary source material along with interpretive comments and historical background pertaining to the site. She intended it to “be useful to those who wish to conduct a study of the structural features of Mount Pleasant and aspects of the grounds.” We are indebted to Martha for her perseverance in collecting and organizing this material. It is the starting point for any investigation into the history of the site and will continue to inform these posts.

A Dairy for the Park

Mount Pleasant, c. 1905.
"Colonial Architecture for Those About To Build"
Wise and Beidleman, J. B. Lippincott Company
Philadelphia and London, 1913
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Alone by the Schuylkill, a wanderer, I strayed.

Less than a year after the city of Philadelphia took possession of Mount Pleasant, the first directive from the Committee on Police and Superintendence, on November 29, 1870, authorized Park Keeper O'Donnell to move into one of the buildings at the site. Throughout the 1870's entrepreneurs petitioned the city for access to Mount Pleasant to establish various commercial activities that could profit the large number of visitors to the newly established section of East Fairmount Park. In June 1878, George Dallas Dixon was granted a license to establish a "Dairy" at Mount Pleasant. Under various owners, the "Dairy" would continue to provide refreshments until 1920.