By Lorett Treese
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXIII, Number 2 - Spring 1997
An avenue of overarching trees leads from the road to the house which stands on a slight rise. A little to the west is St. Thomas's Hill, thrice held by soldiers during the Revolutionary struggle. In front, to the north across the pike, the Wissahickon winds through peaceful meadows and beyond rises the long slope of wood-crowned Militia Hill-every rood of land full of historic memories. By the banks of the stream, with moss-grown dam and placid leat, is an ancient stone mill that once ground corn for all the Colonists far and near; even Sir William Keith used to send wain loads of grain hither all the way from Graeme Park at Horsham.
Harold Donaldson Eberlein and Horace Mather Lippincott waxed poetic in describing Hope Lodge in Whitemarsh, Montgomery County, in The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and its Neighbourhood, published in 1912. Little more than a quarter-century later Mary Scott, writing for the Philadelphia Record, declared that "Hope Lodge epitomizes the grace and dignity of the Colonial manor house," and lauded William and Alice Degn, the proud owners, who occasionally opened their beloved home to the public and who once welcomed seven hundred visitors in a single day.
Today, Hope Lodge is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). Visitors may examine one of the finest examples of the early Georgian style of architecture, admire the rich decorative arts and furniture collections assembled by the Degns, and contemplate life in two eras of American history: the colonial period of the eighteenth century and the Colonial Revival of this century. Dominating the era from 1700 to 1830, the colonial period's distinctive Georgian style of architecture reflects Renaissance ideals-symmetry, balance, and carefully determined mathematical relationships-popularized by English architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). Both the interior and exterior of Hope Lodge include Georgian architectural elements. Exterior features include a hipped roof, while inside pilasters and pediments adorn the main hall and elegant, grand doorways.
Unlike many historic properties, Hope Lodge was not preserved because it was home to anyone particularly famous. In fact, the life stories of its occupants have been researched and documented chiefly because they happened to reside in an eighteenth-century house that survived virtually intact. Taken together, these stories reflect two and a half centuries of fascinating domestic and social history.
"The history of a house, especially one like Hope Lodge which has undergone very little alteration, can be no more than the history of the people who lived in it and saw the world from its windows," observes Paul A.W. Wallace in a 1962 article in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, in which he chronicled the property's owners from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. "The documented history of the Hope Lodge begins on January 31, 1683/4," writes Wallace. "On that day, William Penn conveyed a tract of five thousand acres, the greater part of the present Whitemarsh Township, under the name of Farmerstown to 'Major Jasper ffarmer, and his two sons Richard and Jasper.'" It was, however, Samuel Morris (1708–1770), a prosperous Quaker, who erected the house known now as Hope Lodge.
Morris, a businessman and farmer active in his Quaker meeting and in the life of his community, purchased property on the east side of Bethlehem Pike in 1741. He was the son of Susanna, who traveled extensively to preach in the American colonies and in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Holland.
After Samuel Morris's death, his older brother Joshua sold the Whitemarsh estate to William West, a Philadelphia merchant who had emigrated from Ireland about 1750. The transaction took place in 1776, and it was to Hope Lodge that West, a supporter of the Continental Congress and the American Revolution, planned to retreat when the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777. Following the battle of Germantown, Washington's army camped at Whitemarsh before marching to Valley Forge. West's residence became the headquarters of John Cochran, surgeon General of the Continental Army, while Washington took up temporary residence about a mile away.
"A year and a half after the death of William West Sr. [in 1782]," according to Wallace, "the mansion and grounds at Whitemarsh were purchased from his estate by Henry Hope of [London and] Amsterdam, not for himself, but in trust 'to the Use and behoof of James Horatio Watmough a Relation by blood of the said Henry Hope [his nephew and ward] for and during the Term of the natural life of the said James Horatio Watmough.'" The property—very likely a wedding present—has since been known as Hope Lodge. A wealthy European banker of international reputation, Hope later deeded the property to Watmough in fee simple, and it remained in the Watmough family until it was purchased in 1832 by Jacob Wentz, a tenant farmer.
For the next ninety years, Hope Lodge served as a farmstead for the Wentz family. Thanks to circumstances that the Wentzes might not have considered so fortunate, the dwelling was never equipped with the technological advances of the nineteenth century, such as gas lighting and indoor plumbing, nor was its architecture significantly altered to make it stylishly Victorian. In 1921, Mary Wentz sold Hope Lodge to Keasbey and Mattison, an Ambler development company that planned to demolish the old house and extend a limestone quarry.
"I was the discoverer of Hope Lodge," claimed prominent Philadelphia publisher Horace Mather Lippincott in 1958. "When writing my book about the Colonial Houses of Philadelphia in 1912, I came across this precious house nestling in its grove of trees with old man Wentz sitting in a dilapidated room reading his Bible. The house had not been molested, just terribly run down and shabby." In The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and its Neighbourhood, Lippincott described Hope Lodge as "second to none in the neighbourhood of Philadelphia either in its broad dignity or in the purity of its Georgian architecture." The book's one interior photograph of Hope Lodge, a view of its entrance hall, illustrates just how sparsely and plainly the Wentz family had furnished it.
Although Lippincott boasted that he discovered Hope Lodge, neighbors and local residents had long been aware that it was an old and interesting place. Theodore Bean's 1884 History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, mentions the Farmar, Morris and Wentz families. The Ambler Gazette considered it newsworthy when Thomas J. Wentz replaced Hope Lodge's shingles in 1900, maintenance previously performed in 1817. In 1903, the newspaper discussed the mansion and its "old relics," and seven years later ran an extended article on the "Old Wentz Place," citing the importance of the various families associated with it.
Writing of his discovery of Hope Lodge, Lippincott continued, "The ruthless Dr. Mattison of Keasbey and Mattison bought the property and proposed to tear it up for its magnesia deposits. This of course would have destroyed the house. Alarmed at this, I pled and protested with him and his son to no avail. I stirred up architects and influential people about it, but they had never heard of it and did not understand its value." Apparently Keasbey and Mattison were not all that ruthless-Lippincott wrote the text for a sales brochure to find a buyer for the endangered property. In September 1922, the Degns purchased Hope Lodge.
William Degn (1864–1940) worked in the meat packing industry, capping a successful career as President of William Moland's Sons, Inc. He married Alice Maris (1869–1953) in 1894, and the couple lived in Germantown before purchasing Hope Lodge.
Between 1922 and 1924, the Degns repaired and adapted the house for twentieth-century living, but did so with relatively minimal alteration to the original structure. In her Philadelphia Record article, Mary Scott reported approvingly, "Not a line of the original house has been altered. Inside, electricity and modern plumbing, a little repainting and replastering constitute the sum of the changes made."
Lippincott maintained that he advised Degn to remove a portico built about 1850 at the front door of the house, a feature that would at that time have seemed outmoded and inappropriate. The Degns chose Paul Cret, an architect highly respected for his work in the Beaux Arts style, who is responsible for the present-day door hood. Lippincott was displeased with this reconstructed feature but a recent historic structures report prepared for Hope Lodge contends that Paul Cret's hood faithfully duplicates the original.
William and Alice Degn busily filled Hope Lodge with eighteenth and early nineteenth-century works of art and furnishings they had inherited and collected. According to Douglas A. Miller, until recently site administrator of Hope Lodge, the Degns adhered to the philosophies of Wallace Nutting (1861–1941), antiquarian, photographer, and collector. Miller notes that the Degns added a mantel above the fireplace of one room to display their collection of early pewter. This was an element of Nutting's colonial "look"; eighteenth-century owners of such a grand house would not have prominently displayed such common, utilitarian objects.
It was not long before Hope Lodge began appearing in publications along with famous Philadelphia area houses. William Degn read his own account of Hope Lodge before the Historical Society of Montgomery County in 1929, and it later appeared in the society's bulletin. Pennsylvania: A Guide to the Keystone State, published in 1940 and authored by members of the writers' program of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), devoted enthusiastic prose to Hope Lodge, as did E. Gordon Alderfer in The Montgomery County Story (1951).
William Degn died in 1940, and his wife retained title to Hope Lodge until her death thirteen years later. The couple was childless, and in her will Alice Degn provided for the creation of the Hope Lodge Foundation to maintain the property as a museum of colonial architecture and furnishing "for the enjoyment and education of the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and others." With permission of the Orphans Court of Montgomery County, the Foundation's trustees transferred Hope Lodge to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1957.
Like many historic sites, Hope Lodge has been the subject of conjecture and controversy. The date of its construction, for instance, has been resolved only recently. When the article entitled "Old Wentz Place" appeared in the Ambler Gazette in 1910, owner Thomas J. Wentz believed the house had been built in 1720. Lippincott contended that Hope Lodge had been built in 1723, a date repeated by Degn in his 1929 address, the WPA guide, and Mary Scott in her newspaper article. A revised date first appeared in Wallace's 1962 article, in which he cited recent research by Penelope Hartshorne, an architectural historian with the National Park Service, pointing to a mid-eighteenth-century construction date. Wallace noted Samuel Morris's 1708 date of birth and the simple fact that he did not own the land in Whitemarsh until the 1740s and concluded, "If the house was built in the 1720s, Samuel Morris cannot have been the builder." In researching his 1994 biography, I Remain Your Friend and Real Well Wisher, Samuel Morris, Heinz J. Heinemann studied his ledger books, discovering several entries that could only have been occasioned by the construction of the mansion during the years 1743 to 1748.
It's natural for both students and scholars to speculate about the architect of Hope Lodge. Many eighteenth-century gentlemen designed their own dwellings with the help of a carpenter-builder, so it is conceivable—if not probable—that Morris was intimately involved in the house's design. Heinemann's examination of Morris's ledger books turned up entries, beginning in 1743, extending merchandise credits to Edmund Woolley, the architect who designed Independence Hall. It is possible that Woolley was receiving such credits in exchange for something he was providing to Morris-perhaps plans for a country house.
As visitors enter Hope Lodge through its front door, they are surrounded by vibrant color, chosen as a result of a spectrographic paint and analysis undertaken by volunteers (for which they received a certificate of merit from the American Association for State and Local History). Turning the corner on the stairway, the visitor finds walls painted white, the color so admired and used by decorators during the early twentieth century. In an article entitled "But is it Really History? Interpreting the Colonial Revival at Your Historic House Museum," Brenda Reigle, eastern regional curator for the PHMC, explains the decision to make Hope Lodge a place to interpret both the eighteenth-century colonial and the twentieth-century Colonial Revival. Or, to put it another way, a place where visitors can compare what historians and curators now think is historically correct in the appearance of eighteenth-century buildings, with the style of decorating that was fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s when the Degns furnished Hope Lodge. "Interpreting the colonial revival at any historic site can be a challenge," Reigle observes, "but it has the reward of teaching visitors about our changing perceptions of the past."
Like many historic places, Hope Lodge is associated with a myth that seems to have taken on a life of its own. In his article, Paul A.W. Wallace quoted the work of an anonymous poet whose verses described a 1753 trip from Philadelphia to Bethlehem, a journey that would have taken him or her directly past Hope Lodge. The poet portrayed "the mansion of the Morris name" as a stately but somber place where the lonesome owner bemoaned a disappointment in love: "In rooms of State his cruel lot bemoans/And lofty chambers echo to his groans." By the twentieth century, the tale had been further embroidered with details and those who recounted it attributed Morris's lifelong bachelorhood to a careless remark that had been repeated to his fiancée. Lippincott related the story in his 1912 book, writing that Morris, while imbibing with friends at the housewarming for Hope Lodge, was heard to say, "I've got the pen; all I want now is the Sow." Visitors can decide for themselves if this is authentic eighteenth-century history or Colonial Revival romanticism.
The Hope Lodge property covers approximately forty acres, several of which are used for agriculture. A wing attached to the main house incorporates a late eighteenth-century kitchen that the Degns built to serve as their winter residence. Other twentieth-century buildings include a garage, greenhouse, and tenant house. A barn was built in several stages and some sections predate the mansion. Gardens re-create neither eighteenth-century landscaping nor the rose gardens tended by Alice Degn; they were established in the 1960s by landscape architects for the PHMC. Across Bethlehem Pike on the site of Samuel Morris's mill, the Farmer/Mather Mill, built in the early nineteenth-century, was given to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1966. Also administered by the PHMC, the mill has been rehabilitated to provide program and meeting space.
Regular events at Hope Lodge include the celebration of Charter Day in mid-March, a living history reenactment of the Whitemarsh encampment during the first Saturday in November, a children's summer history seminar in August, and “Hope Lodge Holidays” in early December.
Visiting hours vary seasonally, so it is best to visit the Web site or call ahead at (215) 646-1595. There is an admission charge. Additional information is available by writing: Hope Lodge, 533 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington, PA 19034. Persons with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone or write the historic site in advance of their visit to discuss their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the PA Relay Center at (800) 654-5984.
A visit to Hope Lodge can be combined with tours of other nearby eighteenth-century residences in Montgomery County, including Graeme Park in Horsham, the home of the Keith and Graeme families, administered by the PHMC, and Pottsgrove Manor, built in 1752 by John Potts, a Quaker ironmaster and the founder of Pottstown.
Individuals interested in both colonial history and Colonial Revival interpretations may tour Pennypacker Mills in Schwenksville, the home of Pennsylvania's former governor Samuel W. Pennypacker, and Pennsbury Manor in Morrisville, Bucks County, the country retreat of William Penn which was re-created in the 1930s (see “Pennsbury Manor: The Philosopher's Garden” by Patricia L. Hudson in the Fall 1994 issue). The eighteenth-century Peter Wentz Farmstead in Worcester is an interesting blend of Georgian and German architecture, and was home to the grandfather of Jacob Wentz of Hope Lodge.
Persons interested in the history of the American Revolution may want to visit Valley Forge National Historic Park, administered by the National Park Service, and the PHMC's Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County.
Naturalists and art enthusiasts will enjoy Mill Grove, the first home of John James Audubon in North America (see "John James Audubon, Squire of Mill grove and Genius of Art and Science" by Stephen May in the Summer 1996 edition). Completed in 1704, Harriton House in Bryn Mawr was the longtime home of Charles Thomson, Revolutionary War patriot and secretary of the Continental Congress. The museum of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, founded in 1881, is located in Norristown, the county seat.
For more information on historic sites, museums, and attractions in Montgomery County, write or visit Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1000 First Ave., Suite 101, King of Prussia, PA 19406; or telephone (610) 834-1550.
Lorett Treese of Paoli is archivist for Bryn Mawr College. She is the author of The Storm Gathering: The Penn Family and the American Revolution and Valley Forge: Making and remaking a national Symbol. In addition to two previous articles for Pennsylvania Heritage, her work has appeared Early American Life, Pennsylvania Folklife, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Magazine Antiques. She is currently a member of the commonwealth Speakers Program sponsored by Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
For Further Reading
Degn, William. "The History of Hope Lodge." Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. October 1936–April 1939, 324-326.
Eberlein, Harold Donaldson, and Horace Mather Lippincott. The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and its Neighbourhood. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1912.
Faris, John T. Old Roads out of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1917.
Heinemann, Heinz J. I Remain Your Friend and Well Wisher, Samuel Morris. Fort Washington: Hope Lodge, 1994.
Reigle, Brenda. "But Is It Really History? Interpreting the Colonial Revival at Your Historic House Museum." History News. 51, 2 (Spring, 1996), 14-17.
Van Trump, James D. "History in Houses: Hope Lodge, Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania." The Magazine Antiques. 89 (April 1966), 542-545.
Wallace, Paul A.W. "Historic Hope Lodge." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 86 (January 1962), 115-142.