There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. Henry James, “The Portrait of a Lady”

The modern access road to Mount Pleasant created in the late 19th century. November, 2010

If your social status were such that you were likely to receive an invitation to visit and take tea with Margaret Macpherson in her drawing room at Mount Pleasant, your journey in the 1760’s would have been much different than one made today. After three miles on the Wissahickon Road heading northwest out of the city of Philadelphia, your carriage would turn off onto Forty-foot Lane, and  head towards the Schuylkill River.

This 1868 map shows the area of East Fairmount Park just prior to the city’s purchase of the Mount Pleasant site. At this time the Granite Land Co. owned one lot and Geo. W. Ford owned the second lot to the northeast that were originally part of the Macpherson’s holdings.A  lot of 26 acres to the north of what was now called Williams or Edgeley Point Lane was also original part of the Mount Pleasant site.

Before long you would be on the edge of the Macpherson’s large farm with fields in “good grass” and “red clover”.  Passing the “large frame Hay house”, the main house and pavilions would come into view.

Mount Pleasant plot plan, c. 1805. This plan defines the three lots that the Macpherson’s purchased to create their country seat. It locates Forty-foot Road running top to bottom, the seven buildings extant today, and the stone or frame barn on lot No. 2 that did not survive into the 20th century. Jonathan Williams MSS, Lilly Library Manuscript Collections, Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, Indiana.

Approaching from the northeast,  you would pass through orchards of the “best inoculated and grafted fruit trees” on either side of the road. Before your arrival at the main house you would have spied the large stone walled kitchen garden and an ice-house filled with tons of ice cut from the Schuylkill in late winter.

Plans of the stables and elevation of the ice-house at Mount Pleasant, marked on the back April 14, 1871. There is no indication as to the location of the ice-house on the site. Recording his impressions of Mount Pleasant in a letter to the “Philadelphia Record” on December, 2, 1900, John Mcllhenny wrote, “The old stone ice house – a marvel in its day, is succumbing to decay.” Archives, Fairmount Park Commission.

A left turn off Forty-foot Lane would situate your carriage between the stables and the pavilions. Here you are presented with a series of choices. Would there be cause to enter either of the two pavilions flanking the main house? Would these spaces be part of the experience of a guest who would ultimately be having tea in the drawing room or were they working spaces where clothes were washed and food prepared? Were they for the use of tenant farmers with offices and living quarters or were the pavilions exclusively used by the Macpherson’s extended family?

South pavilion. The close proximity of the secondary entry to the main house seen in the foreground, with its ease of access to the cellar, suggests the first story of this pavilion may have been used as a washroom and auxiliary kitchen. April, 2010.

Today, trees and brush have grown up to the sides of the pavilions, but in the eighteenth century might there have been paths directing you around the outside of the pavilions to the back of the main house to experience the terraced garden and the river prospect before entering the main house?

Looking up at the west or “back front” of the main house from the river side. It is possible the terraced landscape is an 18th century feature. January, 2010.

With two possible points of entry, or as Thomas Nevell termed them, the “Front frontish Piece Door” and the “Frontish Piece Door in the Back front towards Schoulkill”, here was another choice. Would all guests enter only through the front door? Would they also be welcome entering at the back or was that used primarily by the family? Would guests use it as a passage only after they had formally been admitted through the front door and had moved through the interior?

The same hierarchy of building materials and design vocabulary used on the front facade is repeated on the back of the main house of Mount Pleasant. October, 2009.

Your procession through the fecund scenery of the surrounding landscape, as described by John Macpherson – apple, peach, pear, cheery, plum and quince trees bearing fruit, 50 beds of strawberries and as many of asparagus, chestnut and shellbark trees – would have set the stage for what you were about to encounter upon  entering the main house.

Second story Ionic pilaster capital. A woodcarver with an uncanny ability to sculpt the plastic forms of nature created an interior landscape at Mount Pleasant. April, 2010.

7 thoughts on “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. Henry James, “The Portrait of a Lady”

  1. I am fascinated by the way in which approaches have changed over the years. I think the historic concept of variant entry ways has been lost ~ particularly with houses with a water face. I am thinking of Mount Vernon for example.

  2. And Carter’s Grove also has a terraced landscape on the river side. The changes in the landscape that were made when converting the Park’s landscape, which included building a large reservoir not far to the east of Mount Pleasant definitely changed the approach. However, if you click on the Phila. aerial photos at this site you can make out a feature running through the ball-fields that may be a faint witness of Forty-foot Road.

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