On a Hillside by the Wissahickon
In an urban metropolis like Philadelphia, it is hard to believe that one can still find an undeveloped hillside from which the stars can be viewed, and in seemingly intentional amalgamation their central viewing point. A two-hundred and eighty-year-old structure which is now referred to as “the Colonial Monastery” fulfills just that purpose, and so much more for the people who allow it to touch their heart and tap into their sense of mystique.
The Monastery itself is located deep within Fairmount Park’s “Wissahickon Woods” and who’s wayward hikers and bikers have often come across rather inadvertently. They can be seen looking around as they try to orient themselves back onto the Wissahickon’s broad, gravelly trails while unknowingly absorbing a moment upon the grounds which hold three centuries of livelihoods to seekers of religious freedom and yearners for a free utopia; and then still before, received spiritual attention from the ancient ancestors of the land who revered the land as sacred and considered this place as undefiled and worthy of performing important ceremonies.
Referred to commonly as “The Colonial Inn and Monastery”, the grounds include a large structure which is the “Inn and Monastery” part of it, as well as an active stable where people can board their horses and riding lessons are offered to the youth for a fee. The horse stables can be found under the term “Monastery Stables” and are a separate entity from the Monastery itself.
A little out of the Way.
Though located within the city of Philadelphia, to get to the Monastery at 1000 Kitchens Lane, one has to make a hard and sudden left off of Wissahickon Ave onto a steep, ill-repaired road only to be confused by the multitude of options for turning onto the wrong road to finally arrive at its well-wooded home at the scoop of the hill and presence of it’s sacred ridge. As I pull up the hill, the only traffic sign, once obviously showing 10mph, has a large, bold decal superimposed over the 10….a big, fat number 7. So I slow down to a crawl remembering the large, elegant, gentle creatures locked in their stalls who will receive me as I mount the hill to park nose-up on the edge of the grass on the eastern ridge.
The Monastery was officially completed in 1757 in a Germanic style with its additional quarters on the side, but newer sources put the completion of the original main construction at 1737. There were several modifications made over time, such as chimney’s being sealed off and fireplaces closed off, but not that much has changed since the mid 19th century, besides the addition of a heating furnace and removable air conditioners seasonally.
At its inception, the Monastery was built as such, A monastery for the generational followers of the Johannes Kelpius who arrived in 1673 under the most difficult of circumstances with 40 of his spiritual brethren. The Kelpius society lived in dwellings nearby and used some of the caves of the Wissahickon as meeting places to meditate on their ultimate mission, which was filtered in through the secret meetings throughout caves in Europe….Sir. Francis Bacon (a.k.a. William Shakespeare and his “The New Atlantis” writings) who led many of them. The mission: the framing of the free world as we would come to know it. The patent for the land was issued to Frances Trenchard in 1691. After this, the Zionitic Brotherhood are credited with the construction of the original Monastery on the land. They were considered the spiritual offspring of the Kelpius society, who had weathered a difficult life in the Wissahickon in their far more rudimentary dwellings previously which did not survive, but the brethren did with farming help from the Lenape natives who proliferated the area. The land around the Monastery was considered sacred up until recently. They held naming ceremonies and other rituals up on the eastern ridge for as long as anyone can remember until a few years ago. The Monastery and its grounds survived, mostly unscathed, over the many years until it’s re-discovery.
Sold several times over, the eventual value of the land became entangled with the Wissahickon’s powerful milling influence, which reached its highest count with 15 mills in the 1830’s. Joshua Garsed purchased the building and would make many changes to it between 1831-1842, when he and his family enjoyed tremendous success as millers (often in paper) in the Wissahickon as “Garsed Raines & Company Manufacturers”. The other two families who benefited from the milling industry and possibly lived in the Monastery consecutively were at first the Gorgas (prominent milling family and owners), then the Kitchens (for whom the street leading to the door owes its respect) and finally, in the prominent mill era, the Livezey family. It is speculated that the millers, seasonal workers, and their families took up residence in the home during those prosperous years. Milling was a hugely important industry for the Wissahickon during this time, but the mills would eventually be shut down and many dismantled for concerns regarding their possible detrimental impact on the environment and on Philadelphia’s waterways in the late 19th century. The Monastery was then acquired by the Fairmount Park Commission in 1897.
20th C.E. Monastery “Ye Old Golf Club”
By 1900, the Monastery was rented from the Parks Commission as the “Old Monastery Golf Club”. Lockers were installed and the Monastery had found its purpose of housing the local Golf Club. The Monastery would maintain this prestige until 1914. After this time, the Monastery would become housing for the park rangers of Fairmount Park and their families until roughly 1956. After the golf craze, and all the way up until the 1980’s, rooms were said to be rented out for as little as a dollar a year and much of the Monastery was utilized for storage, firewood and other things by the park commission.
A Modern Day Monastery
Somehow the monastery would remain unscathed, but a study from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996 captured this image of the stark state inside the monastery:
Though not in disrepair, the Monastery was covered in dust and stuffed with supplies, and possibly in some level of disrepair.
Now we perceive a different Monastery. Now called “The President’s Room” by Jan Graber, the current proprietor of the Monastery, Jan has few complaints about the continued condition of the Monastery, stating that “The Monastery has been taken care of.”, yet below is a current photo of the same room in the Monastery after Jan had decorated it in 2017.
2006 A Special Year for the Monastery
After the Monastery had been seemingly abandoned since the late 1980’s, a woman named Susan Gram collaborated with her designer friend Jan Graber in 2006 to take on this isolated, yet significant piece of Philadelphia’s history. One of the most important of hundreds of historical sights to the Fairmount park commission, these ladies agreed to set up the Monastery to reflect its original purpose. Susan rolled up her sleeves and cleaned/repaired many needed items while Jan, an official designer, sought to identify the rooms and officially designated spaces, all unique within the building, lifting it out of its monochromatic state. The president’s room is just one example.
Now modernized and privately rented, the Monastery represents an opportunity for gatherings, meetings, and bed and breakfast guests who may wish to relate to the purpose of the Monastery in its original essence. The songs and teachings of the Kelpius brotherhood, the love perpetuated by the members of the Kelpius society, and of those who brought the first telescope to the United States, as they help us relate to the etherial and to the stars.
As I walked out the front door of the Monastery on Sunday night after sharing Presidents day dinner with my son and his friend there, along with plenty of kind people, historians, and family friends, we were struck by a bright star blinking proudly and directly over the garden path to the Monastery. There is some firm speculation that these celestial bodies were cornerstones around which the Monastery was built. These celestial bodies remain as important as the foundation on which the monastery itself was built.
Today, the vision, as Jan explains, is the Monastery calling people to it. Though the property is, in essence, private, it attracts certain people who need it or who seek to it. One example of this is the patronage of the crew of the replicated French ship Le’Hermoine completed in 2015, which is an exact replica ship of General Lafayette’s ship from 1779 which brought supplies for the colonies that helped us win the revolutionary war. It took one full year to train its crew. Not only did they FIND Jan upon Jan’s visit to the ship and stayed at the Monastery, they ended up planting a lilac tree on the grounds of the Monastery to commemorate General Lafayette’s contribution to winning the war, adding the crew as a woven fiber within the landscape of the land just outside of the building. I myself had the honor of planting a memorial garden, not too far from the lilac tree, using strict celestial codes that may have been important to the Kelpius. So we are not just guests, we are part of the garden in a meaningful way that takes us from being outsiders to insiders. Somehow we are committed to our presence there to the sense of brotherhood which has, Jan believes, has always been present there.
Some events held there today are; women’s gatherings, retreats, historical luncheons, dinners, spiritual gatherings, vegetarian cooking classes. All events can be “bed and breakfast” style excursions, where many patrons have claimed to “absorb” the special energy the monastery emits. The sound of the nearby Wissahickon Waterfall lulls guests to sleep (I can attest, as I have been one) and there is a fire pit surrounded by chairs alongside the building which is always set up to build a small bonfire at the request of the guests.
By day, remnants of a cave which has since been walled off are easily accessible through a hole in the stone wall surrounding the property. There is some speculation among local historians that this opening was once an entryway for a cave utilized in the underground railroad.
Jan currently manages the site with volunteers who frequent the Monastery and who sometimes stay there. She is the sole proprietor, paying a rent of 2,500 dollars per month to the Fairmount Park commission, who as she explains, make the necessary repairs to the Monastery with the rent money. The commission has told her that her rent money is the sole source of funding for the Monastery. With the rooms beautifully furnished, themed and livable now (and quite a bit beyond that), Jan utilizes the Monastery as a bed and breakfast for interested parties. She also rents out the building and grounds for retreats, conferences, educational venues and is open minded to other sorts of events and ideas for the Monastery’s use.
Jan hopes to connect the present to the past for onlookers and participants in the Monastery’s various events and people interested in it. She hopes to induce a sense of brotherhood and connection to one another, as well as the divine as the Kelpius brotherhood had once done so long ago. She feels the magnetism of the land and the Monastery will attract the right people at the right time, and at about 100 visitors per year, perhaps she is right. She says the Monastery still functions the way it always has, as a safe haven or a place of spiritual refreshment for weary souls. The next project for Jan is building a garden that would be similar to a garden that may have existed when the Monastery was built by the brotherhood. She wishes to include anyone interested in the project which is to start this spring.
The Legend of the Wissahickon tells the tale of when General Washington possibly stumbled upon the Monastery and sought shelter with the small family who resided there at the time. Washington was supposedly lost in the Wissahickon woods in the snowy winter and it was said that he was overcome with his vision of the new republic within the Monastery blockhouse’s very walls. The blockhouse no longer stands although local historians have an idea of where it was. Whether or not George Washington held his high vision on the land near the Monastery or not, it is a visionary place. It is set beautifully by a waterfall and amalgamated perfectly to capture the light of the sun, moon, and stars at different times. It is worth some your time and interest to pursue a visit, or perhaps an overnight retreat in one of its themed, well-decorated rooms.
The Legend of the Wissahickon, George Washington’s vision
Jan Graber, personal interview, 2/20 and 2/22, 2017
Graduate Study, Historic Preservation: University of Pennsylvania, 1996