Powel House: Preservation Gone Right?

Powel House sits on 3rd Street in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood. Wandering the streets around the house, it’s hard not to feel non-linearity in history–even more so than our previous trip to Independence Mall. Each street is lined with historic homes, intermingled with new condo developments. Physick House, Caldwalder House, and John Penn House are within striking distance of the Powel House’s Georgian bricks. Like Powel House, Physick House is also a historically designated museum, protected by the same non-profit who runs Powel, but the other homes are still private residences (both currently for sale). Powel House got a second chance. After it’s long history of statesmen, lawyers, immigrants, and colonial dames, it now teaches  how preservation works. In that, it just doesn’t work sometimes. 

Powel House’s preservation is a contrived one. Standing outside it, it’s easy to think you’re standing in front of history: real and tangible. But, once you step deeper inside, you realize this isn’t the case. The house feels historic with its sparsely decorated rooms and creaky floors, which you then find out are the only original piece remaining in the home. Preservation for the Powel involved the gutting of the rooms to placed in other, more prestigious museums to display for their very own period rooms. Now, the past battles it out between the standing Georgian home and the PMA and American Wing in telling the story of colonial America. How each tells the story is yet to be seen as a trip to the PMA is ahead for me.

The preservation movement began, as William Murtagh points out, with women. Powel House is an excellent example of this with Francis Wister stepping in and saving the building from demolition. Murtagh’s second assertion is that the movement began thanks to a patriotic drive. Here again, Powel House fits the bill. It’s the house where George Washington danced! Finally, his last point is that the movement was characterized by “its reliance on private citizens, not on government, and especially not federal government.”

How the Powel moves forward interests me the most. Murtagh mentions that historic buildings and interior furnishings “were put on display in a conservative light which limited controversy and played down any unanswered questions about their authenticity.” As Jonathon Burton discussed with us, the Powel also grapples with this same conservative agenda today. Through covert social media posts, the group is able to push a slightly more liberal agenda, but it’s veiled and never mentioned forthright. This is because, as Murtagh asserted earlier, preservation is still very much in the hands of the private citizens. Mr. Burton mentioned the possible issue with being more forthright with their political leanings because of their wealthy, older, patrons would not take to it well. 

If anything, Powel House has taught me how little preservation has changed in Philadelphia since it began in earnest with Wister. Take a peak at PhilaLandmark’s website staff page and find that 10 of the 15 persons listed on the site are women. The original drive of patriotic preservation has fizzled to include movements beyond the great, white, male, America that was preserved before thankfully, but patriotism is still driving museum work in Philly (see the museum of the American Revolution for proof). Finally, as the exchange with Mr. Burton proves, the funding for preservation still sits firmly in the private hands of citizens concerned with saving parts of Philadelphia that are important to its memory.





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