Slightly more than three years after its construction was completed, this is how Captain John Macpherson (1726-1792), a sea-faring immigrant from Scotland, described Mount Pleasant, in an advertisement for its sale or lease, in the Pennsylvania Gazette on January 12, 1769. Why sell his estate after living there for less time than the nearly four years it took to construct is open to speculation and will be a topic of a later post. The advertisement is long and detailed, containing descriptions of the 160 acres that included, besides the main house – two pavilions, stone carriage and horse barns, a large orchard, a kitchen garden, stone quarries, and fields in grass and clover among other improvements. Perhaps not surprising for a time when slavery was an accepted practice, but still striking when read today, three African-Americans described as “stout, healthy negroes” were listed with their occupations of coachman, carter, and ploughman; gardener; and dairy maid, for lease with the estate.
This extensive advertisement along with the survival of Captain Macpherson’s self-published letters and accounts of his life would alone provide more historical information regarding the construction and early years of a significant mid-eighteenth century dwelling than is usually obtainable 250 years on. But there is more. In 1983 Charles E. Peterson, was made aware that a remarkable unearthing had been made at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania. He subsequently announced in The Robert Smith Newsletter, the publication Peterson edited, that the account book of the carpenter Thomas Nevell (1721-1797) had been rediscovered. I can only imagine how he must have felt when he began to page through the account book, for there on the first pages are detailed charges to Captain John Macpherson for Nevell’s and his crews work on the barns and pavilions of Mount Pleasant. Similarly detailed entries follow, covering the construction during the years 1762 to 1765 of the five remaining original buildings at the site. Whatever Peterson felt, what he wrote in his newsletter was true: “To assimilate this new source material, much of Philadelphia’s history will have to be reworked.”
The first reworking of history that occurred was that the design and construction of Mount Pleasant could now be attributed to Nevell. Before 1983, if a historian attributed Mount Pleasant to a carpenter working in Philadelphia it was inevitably Robert Smith. Smith’s distinguished reputation and numerous successful commissions made attaching his name to one more grand statement of Philadelphia architecture too tempting to resist, even if there were no documents concerning Smith’s connection to Mount Pleasant or Macpherson. Peterson himself thought Smith the likeliest candidate, believing as others did, that Macpherson and Smith’s shared Scottish heritage may have fostered a friendship that might naturally transform into a business relationship. Not long before the discovery of Nevell’s account book, this line of thought would contribute to Mount Pleasant being described as a “Scottish Anachronism”.
Peterson transcribed several dozen of the account book entries in his newsletter and closed by saying “The whole milieu of Philadelphia building can now be more systematically studied.” The “systematic study of the whole milieu of Philadelphia building” or “reworking much of Philadelphia’s history” sounds overwhelming to say the least and Peterson was content to leave the task to future generations of historians. But a detailed study of the enormous amount of information the account book provides has yet to be undertaken. That’s changing. While Peterson’s plea in 1983 didn’t create a stampede to a dusty ledger in a rare book room, students of eighteenth century architecture and craft practices have begun to examine the fragile survivor for what it can tell us about this extraordinary mid-eighteenth century commission in a booming Philadelphia as well as the craftsmen who accepted the challenge.
Macpherson did not find a buyer for Mount Pleasant in January 1769. He persisted to advertise it for sale or lease in the following years while continuing to live there during the summers with his family. On March 22, 1779 Macpherson defaulted on a loan payment of £1,600 plus interest to Phineas Bond. To settle the dept Macpherson made an indenture of mortgage with Benedict Arnold who on April 3rd conveyed the deed to his future father-in-law, Edward Shippen. Arnold promised to pay a total of £18,000 for the “full value of the mortgaged premises” including the “Messuage or Tenement commonly called and known by the Name of Mount Pleasant.” That amount is probably the best indication of the value of the site as improved by Macpherson that we’ll ever have. Things, as they say, got complicated for Arnold in the last years of the Revolution and the ownership and fate of Mount Pleasant were in flux during the 1780’s. Ownership was resolved with the 1792 sale to the William’s family who would retain possession of the property until it was purchased by the city in 1869 as Fairmount Park continued to expand its borders.