By Patricia L. Hudson
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XX, Number 4 - Fall 1994
Pennsbury Manor, William Penn's reconstructed country estate north of Philadelphia, is a profoundly peaceful place. The Delaware River glides by the manor house's front door, stately trees shade the site, and sheep dot the pastures. Rescued from an encroaching gravel quarry in the 1930s, the forty-three acre farm is a pastoral remnant of the founder's original eight-thousand-acre estate. Located in Bucks County, only twenty-six miles from metropolitan Philadelphia, Pennsbury Manor is three centuries removed in spirit.
Construction at Pennsbury was begun soon after William Penn's arrival in the colony in 1682. Penn's plan was to establish the sort of gentleman's country estate that had been his home in England. In addition to a spacious house, there were to be separate buildings for baking and brewing, a large stable, a boathouse, and numerous farm buildings.
Although governmental business (and inclement winter weather) kept him in Philadelphia much of the year, Penn really thought of himself as a country gentleman. "The country life," he wrote, "is to be preferred; for there we see the works of God; but in cities little else but the works of men: and the one makes a better subject for our contemplation than the other."
Penn's English residence, Worminghurst, was a three-hundred-acre estate which possessed such upper-class amenities as a water mill and a deer park. In constructing Pennsbury, Penn's concern was to create a comfortable home for his wife and three young children who planned to join him in America. To his wife Gulielma, Penn wrote, "A country life and estate I like best for my children."
Two years after his arrival in America, pressing business forced Penn's return to England. Although much of his time was spent meeting with British government officials on matters pertaining to the colony, Penn still managed to supervise the ongoing construction at Pennsbury through letters to James Harrison, the estate's steward. "I would have a kitchen, two larders, a wash house and room to iron in, a brewhouse and in it an oven for baking…what you can do with bricks, do; what you can't, do it with good timbers, and case them with clapboard about five foot…and we can brick it afterwards." No detail was too small to escape Penn's notice. He wrote that the back door of the manor house should be a Dutch door, and that the front door should be replaced, "for it is most ugly and low, out of all proportion."
England's changing political scene kept Penn from returning to America for fifteen years. During that time, his wife and first-born son died of tuberculosis, and a younger son married and settled at Worminghurst. When Penn returned to America in 1699, he was accompanied by his second wife, Hannah, whom he had married three years earlier, and his daughter Letitia. Shortly after the family's arrival a son was born. Known as John the American, the child spent his first two summers at Pennsbury.
In 1701, business once again called Penn back to England. He left the estate in the care of a steward, packed up his family, and never returned. In all, William Penn's time in the colony totaled less than five years.
Gradually Pennsbury Manor fell into disrepair. By 1736, when one of Penn's sons visited, the house "was very near falling, the Roof open as well as the windows and the woodwork almost rotten." The estate passed out of the Penn family's hands in 1792. From time to time in the years that followed someone would suggest that the site should be preserved, but nothing was done until the 1930s when Pennsylvania preservationists, inspired by the work being undertaken at Colonial Williamsburg, decided to rebuild Penn's home.
By this time, nothing of the manor house remained above ground, so the reconstruction was guided largely by Penn's letters to James Harrison. Indeed, there was little else to go on, except for the buried foundations and a crude drawing that was discovered on an eighteenth century survey map by historian Albert Cook Myers in 1934. Although such sketchy documentation seems woefully inadequate by today's standards, historic preservation was still in its infancy in the 1930s, and reconstructions that captured the essence, although not necessarily the details of a historic period, were widely accepted and quite popular.
Prior to the reconstruction, the manor house's seventeenth-century foundations were exposed, and excavations revealed the size of the structure. No floor plan of Pennsbury had survived, and there were few clues regarding the appearance of the house's interior, but the project architect, R. Brognard Okie (1875–1945) of Philadelphia, was undeterred; his solution was to study other colonial period houses in the vicinity, and use them as the basis for his interior design (see "Okie Speaks for Pennsbury" by William Woys Weaver and Nancy D. Kolb in the Fall 1982 and Winter 1983 issues of Pennsylvania Heritage).
As reconstructed, Pennsbury Manor is a prime example of Colonial Revival architecture. The style represents the early twentieth century's vision of colonial life, and is epitomized by Colonial Williamsburg. "The Colonial Revival period was primarily concerned with depicting the upper class," says Alice Hemenway, Pennsbury's administrator. "It represents a highly romanticized view of colonial life."
Two trademark features of the Colonial Revival style are picket fences and decorative brick walkways. In reality, these elements were never a part of the seventeenth century landscape. In Penn's day, fences were tall and constructed with privacy in mind, so Pennsbury's 1930s picket fences have gradually been replaced by more appropriate, paling fences.
Pennsbury's original "restorers" also constructed plenty of brick walkways, an aestheticism that defies historical logic. Bricks were a precious commodity in seventeenth century America. As Penn's letters to Harrison indicate, the manor house itself was only partially bricked; the remainder was clapboard.
The Pennsbury staff is refreshingly realistic about the historic site's weaknesses as well as its strengths. "There's no doubt that a reconstruction like this wouldn't be attempted today," says Hemenway. "The current idea would be to build some sort of museum on the grounds and leave the original site undeveloped so it could continue to be studied."
As new discoveries about seventeenth century life are made, Pennsbury staff members quietly incorporate them into the estate, but every change is carefully documented so that future generations will know exactly how Pennsbury looked immediately after its 1938 reconstruction. "We concentrate on making changes that are reversible," says Hemenway. "We're one of the country's most thoroughly documented Colonial Revival sites. We have a real obligation to preserve that aspect of Pennsbury because it's an extremely important story in the evolution of historic preservation in this country."
As a result, major structural renovations are avoided; instead, the focus is on an increasingly accurate depiction of domestic life in William Penn's time through interpretive programs and such decorative elements as wall colors, textiles, and furniture arrangements.
Visitors to Pennsbury who expect to see the house decorated solely in "Quaker gray" are in for a surprise. The Best Bedchamber, for example, sports crimson and yellow bed linens that are anything but plain. Pennsbury's interpreters are quick to point out that it wasn't until the eighteenth century that Quakers adopted the subdued form of dress and decoration that became their hallmark. In Penn's day, members of the Society of Friends simply chose textiles that were "plainer" than the heavily laced and beribboned items that were then in fashion.
Pennsbury Manor is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.; and Sunday, Noon to 5:00 P.M. The historic site is closed Mondays and holidays, except Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day; hours and days of operation may vary seasonally, so it is best to call ahead. For additional information and traveling directions, write: Pennsbury Manor, 400 Pennsbury Memorial Road, Morrisville, Pennsylvania 19067; or telephone (215) 946-0400.
Visitors to Pennsbury Manor may also enjoy several nearby historic sites and attractions, all of which are located in picturesque Bucks County.
Washington Crossing Historic Park covers five hundred acres. The park commemorates Washington 's 1776 crossing of the Delaware River, and subsequent capture of Trenton, New Jersey. Located in the park is the one hundred acre Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, part of a natural memorial to soldiers who died during the American Revolution, which features a botanical garden and collection of seven hundred and fifty species, all of which are native to Pennsylvania.
In Doylestown, the Mercer Museum traces America's pre-industrial age history from the colonial period to the Civil War, while the nearby Fonthill Museum, an unusual medieval-style concrete castle, was once the home of creative genius Henry Chapman Mercer. The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works is a living history museum that still produces decorative titles and mosaics in a manner similar to that employed by Mercer, its founder. Doylestown also claims the James A. Michener Art Museum, which boasts a nationally acclaimed collection of paintings by members of the Pennsylvania School of Landscape Painting, including Rae Sloan Bredin, Morgan Colt, Edward Willis Redfield, Walter Emerson Baum, Daniel Garber, Fern I. Coppedge, William Langston Lathrop, Charles Rosen, Walter Elmer Schofield, Robert Spencer, John Fulton Folinsbee, M. Elizabeth Price, and George Sotter (see "You Can Go Home Again: An Interview with James A. Michener" by Michael J. O'Malley III in the winter 1993 edition).
A three-hundred-year-old village, Historic Fallsington represents an enduring Quaker community and an architectural heritage that is uniquely American.
The Pearl S. Buck House, located in Dublin, was home to the famous author and winner of the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize. Guided tours of the circa 1835 farmhouse are offered.
Built in 1784 by Benjamin Parry, New Hope's Parry Mansion is a museum showcasing decorative arts and furnishings dating from 1775 to 1990.
Summerseat in Morrisville served as headquarters for George Washington before his Christmas Day 1776 crossing of the Delaware River and for the American forces throughout the Revolutionary War. The stately mansion was home to two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Morris and George Clymer.
Additional information regarding these and other visitor attractions, as well as lodging and accommodations in the area, is available by writing: Bucks County Conference and Visitors Bureau, 3207 Street Road, Bensalem, PA 19020; or telephone (215) 639-0300.
For Further Reading
Axelrod, Alan. The Greek Revival in America. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985.
Cavicchi, Clare Lise, and Paula B. Young. Pennsbury Manor: Furnishing Plan. Morrisville, Pa.: Pennsbury Manor, 1988.
Girouard, Mark. A Country House Companion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
Hosmer, Charles B., Jr., Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1981.
Meseroll, Marie C. A Pennsbury Manor Cookbook. Morrisville, Pa.: The Pennsbury Society, 1990.
Peare, Catherine Owens. William Penn: A Biography. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1956.
Thornton, Peter. Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.