Powel House

3811 244 S 3rd St

VAMONDE Philadelphia
Written By VAMONDE Philadelphia

Powel House

Want to explore how people lived during the time of the American Revolution? The Powel House is a historic house museum located in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. Built in 1765 in the Georgian style, and embellished by second owner Samuel Powel, it has been called "the finest Georgian row house in the city."


This elegant brick city house was built for Charles Stedman, a merchant, and shipmaster based in Philadelphia. Before he had the chance to live in it, Stedman fell into financial trouble and was thrown into debtors' prison. The house was purchased for £3,150 (a large sum at that time) on 1769 by Samuel Powel, who was the last mayor of Philadelphia under British rule and the city's first mayor following independence. A Quaker who converted to Anglicanism, he supported the American Revolution and was dubbed the "Patriot Mayor."

The building is attributed to architect/builder Robert Smith. Powel and his wife Elizabeth (née Willing) lavishly redecorated, creating some of the most ornate interiors in the Colonies. The Rococo plastered ceilings are attributed to James Clow, and the architectural woodwork is attributed to carvers Hercules Courtnay and Martin Jugiez.

The Powels entertained quite a bit and were the center of Philadelphia society. Notable guests at their home include Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Following the 1781 victory at Yorktown, George and Martha Washington occupied the confiscated home of the British governor next door for several months, and became close friends with the Powels.

Philadelphia served as the temporary national capital from 1790 to 1800, and President Washington occupied a house on Market Street that served as a residence of the President. His remodeling may have inspired the Powels to build the three-story half-turret addition to their home. In the mid-1800s, the half-turret addition was demolished and the south wall of the Powel House became a party wall shared with a new building.

Samuel Powel died in 1793 of a yellow fever epidemic. After President-Elect John Adams passed on buying them, Mrs. Powel bought a number of items from soon-to-be-ex-President Washington in early 1797. These included his presidential coach and horses (the coach is now at Mount Vernon), his presidential desk (now at the Philadelphia History Museum), and a pair of girandole mirrors (now at Mount Vernon). Elizabeth Willing Powel sold this house in November of 1798, to William Bingham, the husband of her niece Ann Willing Bingham.

The Marquis de Lafayette gave the Powels a set of china that is currently on display in the Powel House!

Saved from demolition

Early in the 20th century, the house served as a warehouse for an import-export company that dealt with Russian and Siberian horsehair and bristles. In 1918, the owners sold the second floor rear parlor's architectural woodwork to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it is now a period room in the American Wing. The ballroom's plaster ceiling and architectural woodwork were sold to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1925. By 1930, the Powel House was slated for demolition, with the property to be converted into a parking lot.

Frances Wister saved the house, forming the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks and raised the funds to purchase the property in 1931. Over the next decade, an architect, H. Louis Duhring, Jr., was hired to restore the house to its appearance during Powel's residency and re-create its lost interiors. The Society opened the restored house as a museum interpreting the daily lives of wealthy Philadelphians at the time of the American Revolution.

Today, the rich history of the Powel House can be witnessed through its decorative art, its portraits of the Powel family, and its formal, walled garden so typical of Colonial Philadelphia. Its beautiful entryway, ballroom with bas-relief plasterwork, and mahogany wainscoting give the house its reputation as a great example of a Georgian Colonial townhouse.

Information sourced from Wikipedia. Cover photo courtesy of Beyond My Ken and sourced from Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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