After accepting the directorship of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts Fiske Kimball moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 1925. He was tasked with overseeing the completion of the Museum’s new building that would open to the public in less than three years, moving the Museum’s collection of objects across the river from Memorial Hall, and defining a new vision for the future of the institution.
Kimball brought with him a record that few directors of art institutions have ever possessed; both a passion for, and a professional degree in architecture. He had already published important works on early American architecture including Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and the Early Republic in 1922 where, for the first time neither Captain Macpherson nor Benedict Arnold were mentioned in connection with Mount Pleasant. Kimball positioned the site standing on its own as Architecture in the context of mid-eighteenth century design and craft.
Kimball was familiar with the “Colonial Chain of Houses” just north of where the new Museum was being constructed. In spite of the other tasks and deadlines in front of him, Kimball made plans for the Museum to create a “Branch Museum of American Art” at Mount Pleasant which seems to have been abandoned since 1921 when the license for the Dairy was not renewed by the Park. When he arrived in Philadelphia, Kimball and his wife Marie moved into the main house at Mount Pleasant, only vacating in June 1926 after overseeing restorations to the main house, pavilions, and garden on the river side. Loans of eighteenth century objects were secured that, along with several objects from the Museum’s collection, were used to furnish the first and second stories of the main house. Mount Pleasant opened to the public in July 1926, in time for the city’s Sesquicentennial celebrations.
Stirred by the colonial revival fervor of the day, Dorothy Grafly opened her July 4, 1926 article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger with the following – “It seems a long time ago that Peggy Shippen gathered posies in the beautiful and quaint terrace garden of Mount Pleasant overlooking the Schuylkill. The posies faded and died: the terraces yielded gradually to the pressure of the years, drooped their shoulders and became the mere indication of their one-time vigor, like old men awaiting burial.” Though Grafly’s grasp of history, as well as her metaphors, are questionable she made a vital point several paragraphs later that is as important today as it was then. She contrasted New York City’s collection of interiors recently installed in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Philadelphia’s colonial and early Republic architecture “still gracing their original sites and awaiting popular acclaim.” It is no less true today that because Mount Pleasant survived and remains open to visitors year round, we all have the chance, as Paul Goldberger writes, to “come to grips with how things feel to us when we stand before them, with how architecture affects us emotionally as well as intellectually.”
An acknowledgment In 1999 Martha Crary Halpern, Assistant Curator for Fairmount Park Houses, Department of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, created the in-house document Mount Pleasant, An Annotated Time Line. It was the culmination of her many years of research on Mount Pleasant and is a compilation of citations from primary source material along with interpretive comments and historical background pertaining to the site. She intended it to “be useful to those who wish to conduct a study of the structural features of Mount Pleasant and aspects of the grounds.” We are indebted to Martha for her perseverance in collecting and organizing this material. It is the starting point for any investigation into the history of the site and will continue to inform these posts.