Dickensian Christmas – Maxwell Mansion does Victorian right

Diane Richardson, executive director of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion in Germantown, could not believe her bad luck last month, as she was shaping the place up for its annual Christmas events.

A carpenter was installing security cameras onto the enclosed back porch.  As he worked, the porch roof started leaking, and rainwater cascaded into the back office.

The exterminator came by later that day.  After a quick visit to the basement, he came back with his report.

“You have termites,’ he said.

The bill for one morning’s worth of repairs: $2,500.

Back in her office, Richardson emailed her board of directors about the disaster.  The subject line read: “Money Pit.”

“A house like this is definitely high maintenance,” she sighed.

Despite the constant repairs, Richardson is passionate about the 1859 Victorian house – the love affair started three years ago, while she was on a freelance architectural photography assignment that “was all about the curtains,” she remembered. Soon afterward, she was asked to be on the board, and then hired as full-time executive director.

Richardson was drawn to the house partially because of her academic background in historic preservation. Others get involved because of its prominent place in the community. Because of its Gothic tower, many call it the “Addams Family” house.

Gloria Wallace, a teacher at nearby Lingelbach Elementary School, frequently brought her students to the house on school trips.  After taking a tour with her daughter recently, Wallace decided to get involved, now that she was retired.

“How would you like to be a docent?” her guide, also a retired public school teacher, asked.

Wallace is today one of over sixty volunteers keeping the Maxwell House running as a cultural resource for the Germantown community. Partnering with local businesses and schools, the Maxwell Mansion’s staff has created a unique series of educational events that blend history, architecture, theater, and cuisine.

When it comes to historic house museums, Germantown has an embarrassment of riches.  The most famous of course is Cliveden, owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and site of the 1777 Battle of Germantown.  The Maxwell Mansion, hidden away on Tulpehocken Street, is the only authentically-restored Victorian house museum in Philadelphia.  The Maxwell Mansion is a reminder of Philadelphia’s industrial age, a period from 1850 to 1910 when the city reached the zenith of its prosperity.  For families like the Maxwells, who built suburban villas on Tulpehocken Street, it was an era of optimism, upward mobility, and technological innovation.

The house at 200 West Tulpehocken Street was built by Ebenezer Maxwell, a successful cloth merchant.  In the 1850s, the railroads made the summer colony of Germantown accessible to commuters, who were drawn to the area’s tree-lined streets, fresh country air, and green space.  In an era of relatively cheap labor, the Gothic revival stone house and lot cost the Maxwells about $10,000, or about $300,000 in today’s money.

The Maxwells lived there for only three years before selling it to the Hunter family, who also maintained homes in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island.  During their residency, the Hunter family had three live-in maids, who bunked up in the third floor attic, and a coachman   doubling as a handyman.  The house boasted cutting edge technology such as central steam heating, gas lighting, servant bells, and the latest kitchen appliances.  Much of the décor was inspired by displays at the 1876 Centennial Exposition: Egyptian-style wall and ceiling stenciling, Rococo revival furniture in the parlor, and faux-marble treatments on the mantelpieces.

The Hunter family owned the house for almost ninety years, and Tulpehocken Street remained fashionable until the Great Depression. By the 1950s, however, the crime and neglect began to affect the neighborhood, and many of the big houses were subdivided into apartments.  Augusta Rosalie “Gussie” Hunter Stevenson, the mansion’s last occupant, died alone in 1956, leaving the house in a dilapidated state, with no indoor plumbing and still lit by gas.

Rosalie Hunter willed her home to the American Red Cross, which immediately planned to replace it with a gas station.  This outraged the neighbors, and a group of them stood in front of the bulldozers to stop demolition.  Eventually, a small band of preservationists, led by prominent architect Henry J. Magaziner, formed a non-profit to take title to the house and raise funds to restore it to its original grandeur.

Today, the Maxwell Mansion is the cornerstone of the “Tulpehocken Historic District,” described as one of America’s first railroad suburbs, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Maxwell Mansion itself has suffered a few break-ins, but not into the historic core of the house. The gardens, restored to the “picturesque” style of Andrew Jackson Downing, maintained both by volunteers and by students from nearby Penn Charter.  The house does have a small endowment, but grants from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and the Eden Foundation supplement those funds.

For house museums, the busiest times of the year are in the fall and early winter.  On the last two weekends of October, the Maxwell Mansion stages a murder mystery written by local actor Josh Hitchens and based on the game “Clue.”

“You couldn’t build a better set,” he said. “The period restoration is remarkable.”

The event is also profitable.  According to Diane Richardson,  it raised $4,000 this year.

During the Christmas season, the house hosts the popular Dickens Christmas Party, which has become a Germantown tradition. This year, the Christmas celebration will take place on  Wednesday December 8.

Guests will arrive at 5:30 p.m. to a house fully-decorated for a Victorian holiday feast (cost $60). During wine and hors d’oeuvres, they will be entertained by Charles Dickens (played by Josh Hitchens) in a one-man performance of A Christmas Carol.  Afterwards, visitors will adjourn to Avenida, a new Latin American restaurant at 7402 Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy.

 

The Maxwell Mansion,  will also hold a Christmas party Dec. 15 from 2 to 5 p.m. featuring holiday readings, card making for children and refreshments. The cost is $13 for members, $16 for non members. For information call 215-438-1861

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