By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Construction delays and a dispute with contractors over a $1.5-million addition to Belmont Mansion, in Fairmount Park, has left the historic landmark in dire financial straits: the nonprofit group that administers the historic site needs to raise a quarter of a million dollars, fast.
“We’re the only group of African-American women that maintain a historic house in the park,” says Audrey Johnson-Thornton, president of the American Women’s Heritage Society, which has run the 18th-century Belmont Mansion for 28 years.
The iconic estate has a history going back to the Revolutionary War, and was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among others, stayed at the estate, which was owned by English lawyer William Peters.
Peters’ son Richard was a member of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.
“There is so much history here,” Thornton (right) says. “There was a 400-acre tract across this estate. A train would cross the grounds, and they would help the slaves jump the boxcars to get free and go up to Canada.”
These days, Belmont Mansion houses a museum and hosts weddings, in addition to serving as a meeting place for more than 30 groups.
A planned, state-of-the-art, 250-seat reception area will expand capacity. Thornton says it was supposed to be done last September.
“We’ve lost a lot of money from people and we’ve had to give back money,” says Thornton, who estimates the loss at well over $100,000. “It’s really affected our finances, and I’m very disturbed over our reputation, because we’ve made such a good name for ourselves.”
Thornton says people had booked the location for events but down payments had to be returned. She says the society has retained an attorney and plans to sue the contractor.
In the meantime, they need the public to support programming as they wait for the expansion to be completed — by later this summer, they hope.
Thornton says the new addition will be named the Cornelia Wells Conference Center and Banquet Hall, after the freed girl slave who worked at the mansion.
“I just want people to bring their families, bring their children, and learn about the history here,” she says. “It one of the most beautiful sites in this city.”
This summer the mansion is also hosting a jazz series, and will have a summer camp to teach kids how to serve as docents, or historical tour guides. For a full list of programs go to BelmontMansion.org.