By Pat Loeb
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Grande Dame of Philadelphia’s historic houses has had a facelift and is ready once again to receive visitors.
Strawberry Mansion, the home that gave an entire neighborhood its name, has a scheduled grand reopening this evening, following a four-year renovation project.
“The house right now is in the best shape it’s been in since probably 1926,” says Ann Elizabeth Kowalchick, president of the Committee of 1926, which administers the home.
Among the improvements undertaken were repairs to all 72 windows and sashes, exterior stucco and interior plaster, replacement of all roofing and internal roof beams, and an upgrade of the mansion’s electrical system, replacing the 1930 knob-and-tube wiring.
There were cosmetic touches as well, including a new mural by artists Dot Bunn and Patrick Connors, celebrating the city with scenes from the port, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the mansion’s neighbors in Fairmount Park.
“We wanted to include all of the historic houses because they’re jewels,” says Kowalchick (below). “There’s nothing like it in any (other) part of the country.”
Perhaps the most ambitious improvement was replacing the aged, expensive oil heater with a geothermal HVAC system that provides central air conditioning for the first time, relieving the Committee of 1926 of a longstanding worry about the mansion’s collection of art and antiques being ruined by heat and humidity.
Even with the updates, the house remains a remarkable window into the past. Built in 1789 as a summer home for Judge William Lewis — a pal of George Washington — it got its nickname later from its location on Strawberry Hill, in the East Park. Its second owner, Judge Joseph Hemphill, added two Greek Revival wings in the 1820s.
The Fairmount Park Commission acquired the house in 1871, after the city bought it for $102,000. It had various uses over the next sixty years, until the Committee of 1926 took it over.
The Committee was a group of women who had come together to create a “Women’s Exhibit” for Philadelphia’s sesquicentennial celebration. Their exhibit on Market Street in center city (then known as High Street) was meant to bring alive the female experience of Colonial America and included a collection of dolls sent from every state.
Exhilarated by the success of the exhibit — it was considered the most popular at the fair — they looked around for a new project and found the mansion.
With a $36,000 grant from Joseph Horn (of Horn & Hardart, the once-ubiquitous restaurant chain), they turned the home into a museum. When it opened to the public in 1931, it held period furniture in each room and artifacts that included a collection of porcelains from Tucker and Hemphill, a side project of the mansion’s second owner.
The collection has been added to over the years, and a new feature is an exhibit of historic letters and artifacts telling the story of a young girl rescued from slavery by Judge Lewis, the home’s original owner who was a prominent abolitionist.
“The committee’s goal and mission is to keep the house open, accepting visitors, doing outreach programs… for the future,” says Kowalchick. “When I’m no longer here, a hundred years from now, hopefully, this will still be open.”