“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” Virginia Woolf

What do we know about the drawing room at Mount Pleasant and how do we know it? What changes to the space have occurred over time? If there have been changes, how might they hamper our ability to understand the maker’s intent and the original owner’s desires?

Mount Pleasant has been celebrated as an historic site for more than a century. On the heels of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, Thompson Westcott presented the outline of Captain John Macpherson and his family’s lives in his monumental The Historic Mansions and Buildings of Philadelphia with Some Notice of Their Owners and Occupants, Porter and Coates, Philadelphia, 1877. The contemporary importance of Mount Pleasant is suggested by the use of a detail of the engraving illustrating the chapter on the Macpherson’s and their country seat, as part of the design of the elaborate Aesthetic Movement cover.

Cover of Thompson Westcott’s “The Historic Mansions of Philadelphia”, 1877

Notwithstanding the book’s title, the text primarily consists of biographies of the mansion’s inhabitants while only six sentences of the seventeen page Mount Pleasant chapter deal with the buildings on the site. Westcott is not particularly impressed with the fabric of the house, describing the “not very handsome” chimneypieces “with pretentious panels above”, and the woodwork “in the old fashion”. The entire effect is said to be “of the old times.”

Borrowing heavily from Westcott, Thomas Allen Glenn also provides family biographies with little mention of the house as artifact in Some Colonial Mansions and Those Who Lived in Them, Henry T. Coates & Company, Philadelphia, 1900. He does however illustrate his chapter on Mount Pleasant with the earliest known photographs of the interiors. There are no images of the drawing room, however the photograph of the dining room shows it being used as it was for much of the second half of the nineteenth century, as a refreshment hall.

“Some Colonial Mansions and Those Who Lived in Them”, by Thomas Allen Glenn, 1900

More weight and many more words, are given to the architecture of Mount Pleasant in Harold Donaldson Eberlein and Horace Mather Lippincott’s The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and Its Neighborhood, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London, 1912. Their descriptions of the exterior and interior spaces of Mount Pleasant are more detailed and nuanced and their chapter includes the earliest photographic image of the drawing room. A close study of this image suggests that there have been only minor changes to the chimneypiece wall since 1912.

“The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and Its Neighborhood”, Eberlein and Lippincott, 1912. This is believed to be the earliest image of the drawing room at Mount Pleasant.

Mount Pleasant drawing room, 2009

During the twentieth century, images of the drawing room at Mount Pleasant appear with increasing frequency. Changes occur primarily in the furnishing plans and color schemes of the woodwork and plaster walls. The photographic record tells us as much, if not more, about the varying interpretations of the room than about any physical changes that have occurred.

Mount Pleasant drawing room, c.1932

Mount Pleasant drawing room, c. 1960. Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)

Mount Pleasant drawing room, c. 1990. Philadelphia Museum of Art

4 thoughts on ““This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” Virginia Woolf

  1. Westcott’s criticism of the “not very handsome,” “pretentious” and dated nature of Mount Pleasant’s woodwork is in striking contrast to the broad popularity of Colonial Revival architecture. Do we know of any buildings constructed in his period which drew their inspiration directly from Mount Pleasant’s architecture?

    • I was also surprised by Westcott’s description. I wonder if a Colonial revival antiquarian nostalgia had taken hold across the board by 1876. Perhaps the sumptuousness rococo and display of wealth at Mount Pleasant was not universally admired and a plainer style along the lines of the Letitia Street House was more evocative of the original Western settlers for Westcott.

      Good question about late 19th century architecture that might have been influenced by Mount Pleasant, one that I have not thought about. I would be interested to hear others opinions about this.

  2. Thank you for publishing chronological images of the changing furnishing and color schemes for the Mount Pleasant drawing room.

    What is the earliest information we have as to how it was furnished? Any relevant probate inventories, insurance surveys, account books, diaries or correspondence?

    What has paint analysis revealed about its original colors?

    • The last century of furnishing plans for the drawing room is an interesting topic but information about how it was used before 1900 is scarce. Martha Halpern discovered a wealth of information about the maintenance of, and day to day life at Mount Pleasant in the Jonathan William manuscripts in the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. The William’s family owned and lived at Mount Pleasant from 1792 to 1816. William’s account book contains entries for furniture purchases but whether every item purchased was intended for Mount Pleasant, and if so what room it was destined for is still a topic for research. No room by room inventory from the first quarter of the nineteenth century has yet turned up. A tantalizing document in the Archives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art describes the late Marion Carson, in 1985, criticizing the installation of the drawing room, at that time called the “great chamber”, saying it never was a bedroom. It was suspected at the time that Carson, at one time married to a descendent of Captain Macpherson, was in possession of an inventory of the house taken in the 1770’s when Macpherson anticipated and ultimately did, rent the main house for the summer. Carson intimated that the “great chamber” may have been Margaret Macpherson’s morning room or sitting room. It was eerie reading this reference in 2010, four years after, without knowing of this reference, the Museum reached the same conclusion. Carson’s voluminous archives, although perhaps not her complete collection, are housed at the Library of Congress. Does the inventory actually exist? There’s another research topic that needs to be pursued!

      I look forward to address on-going paint analysis at Mount Pleasant in future posts, there is a long history of investigations into “original colors” going back to 1926. For now, Peggy Olley’s article “Stenton and Mount Pleasant: re-visiting the finish histories of two of Philadelphia’s most treasured 18th century house” in Architectural Finishes in the Built Enviorment”, Edited by Mary A. Jabolonski and Catherine R. Matsen, Archetype Publications, Ltd., 2009 is the best introduction to the subject.

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