I bang on the huge, oak door with it’s heavy, iron door knocker. I am five minutes late for the tour and filled with urgency. Immediately someone responds on the other side…the house is alive.
What makes this place special? The Powell House is located in Center City Philadelphia (244 South 3rd), making it a rarity being one of the only house museums of it’s kind in the area. Visitors are allowed to wander through the house at will, opening and closing the large oak doors with tiny brass knobs.
I had the pleasure of being here before on a tour led by the then associate, now director of the museum, Jonathan Burton. My original tour was predictable, historical information on the people who lived in the house just after it’s construction and a few subsequent generations beyond. The house was built in 1765 and the Powell family, a prominent political and banking family of colonial Philadelphia, moved in shortly thereafter.
The tour was traditional of a house museum, and we learned that very little of the facade inside of the rooms remained original, as it was all sold by a previous owner to The Met in New York and the Art museum of Philadelphia. All that is left that is original to the home, though some important trim work and plaster work had been recreated, were the wooden floors and the floor marble of the fireplaces.
I tried to imagine the rooms transpotted into the museum scene with it’s climate-controlled environment where onlookers might stand, roped off, peering into the colonial past. I was touched with a spell of sadness as I imagined this new sterility. Here I was being spoiled by the houses location, the sun streaming through the broad windows in a timeless way. The high ceilings and large rooms boast social prominence. The dull, unvarnished wooden floors became far more relevant than a floor should be, and I suddenly found myself sweeping my foot across the boards trying to allow it to infuse me with George and Martha Washington colonial magic…
Jonathan explained that the dismantling and selling off of actual pieces of the house was crucial in the preservation of the house itself, and brought him to question the actual meaning of historical preservation.
From the onset, I could see that this this tour would be different. At almost the beginning, Jonathan revealed to us that a trunk of letters and ledgers had been recently discovered and they were being compiled and shipped to the house. These new findings were letters penned by the wife of the owner of the original home, Elizabeth Powell, and reflected her role as the owner of the home and business woman in her later years after the passing of her husband, Samuel Powell. This put the history of this 250+ year old house into the present, and my imagination sieved through the possibilities of the discovery. The house was still alive, after all this time.
The Powell House had also been taking on far more new and imaginative endeavors, such as an interractive Philly-Fringe opera performance which incorporated “characters” from various time-periods throughout the complete history of the home, not just the colonial period. This was the first time I had heard of residents who had lived at the home between the colonial time and the the 1930’s, when the house was acquired by Frances Wister for historical preservation. In addition to Jonathan a former Temple student (who I shared a class with) assisted with the tour and gave us good backgrounds on many of the female influences of the house over time. The journey of the home was brought full circle. The name that Landmark uses for the house is The Samuel Powell house. As you see, I have changed the name in light of the recent emphasis of the woman’s side of the story. Elizabeth Willing Powell, who’s portrait hangs in watch over almost every room, is now in the spotlight along with all the in-betweens of the house’s life.