Maxwell Mansion savors Historical Society of Pa. award

 Jennifer Hallgren (left) and Joan Mount of the Upstairs Downstairs tour. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)

Jennifer Hallgren (left) and Joan Mount of the Upstairs Downstairs tour. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)

Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion’s first new docent-led tour since its opening as a museum in 1975 caught the notice of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which honored the Germantown historic site with its 2013 Public Program and Education Award.

Executive Director Diane Richardson said that the Mansion nabbed the award in the category of mid-sized museums, which have an annual budget between $100,000 and $1.5 million.

With a budget of just $110,000 a year, Maxwell Mansion barely made the pack. Its staff was thrilled by the state-wide recognition.

“This is big for us,” Richardson told NewsWorks of the award that was announced in June.

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Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion will be honored at the Historical Society’s Locust Street headquarters on Oct. 24.

Tour offers glimpse of real Victorian women

Last spring, Maxwell Mansion debuted the Upstairs Downstairs tour which tells the stories of real Victorian women from both high society and the servant class.

The tour was written by Philadelphia novelist Cordelia Frances Biddle, author of the Martha Beale mystery series, set in Philadelphia’s own Victorian age.

Richardson first invited Biddle to speak at the Mansion about her books in 2011.

“I found her so engaging and so knowledgeable about the Victorian era,” Richardson said.

A collaboration on the new tour soon followed.

Author explains

Biddle took a break from the endnotes on her forthcoming biography of St. Katherine Drexel to chat with NewsWorks about developing the tour.

“So many of these house museums talk about the house, and they don’t talk about the people,” she said. “I always want to know about the people. Architecture is one thing, furniture is one thing, but who bought them? Who lived there?”

The tour, which runs on the first Friday evening of every month, has been well received by what Richardson said are many first-time visitors.

“I was thrilled that they got the award,” Biddle added. “I’m thrilled that more people are coming to the mansion with an idea of who lived there.”

She said she’s particularly pleased that a program focusing on Victorian women has gotten so much attention.

Between the city’s Civil War history, medical firsts, Quaker influence and Industrial Revolution setting, Philadelphia women pioneered a lot of roles traditionally reserved for men, she said.

“It was impossible to put women back in the box again,” Biddle said.

“We’ve been fed too many Gothic tales of women fainting all the time,” she continued, noting that, in reality, the world was full of powerful female writers, philanthropists and activists who were not “kept under lock and key.”

The real housewives of Germantown

Richardson said she hopes visitors who enjoyed the Upstairs Downstairs tour might enjoy 19th-century fodder recently obtained from the archives of the University of Pennsylvania.

For the last few years, the museum has had a glimpse of life in the words of one of the Mansion’s original residents, Anna Maxwell, who left behind a diary of favorite poems, lyrics and recipes. A new find is giving modern neighbors the scoop on West Germantown in the form of diaries written by a Mr. Cornelius Nolan Weygandt between about 1878-1902.

The tales Weygandt preserved about his wife, her friends, his grown children and the servants are pretty juicy.

The Mansion’s website recently launched a series excerpting true-life neighborhood sagas that found their way to Weygandt’s pages; scandalous fraternizations abound.

What’s next?

Both Richardson and Biddle said that there may be future collaborations in store on topics as diverse as medical history, funeral customs or the legendary 19th-century Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine, published in Philadelphia for almost 50 years.

“It could’ve been just a regular little museum where you went and saw some artifacts,” Biddle said, “and to make it a living place, I think it’s wonderful.”

Visitors can catch the Upstairs Downstairs tour ($20) on Aug. 2, Sept. 6 or Oct. 4. Call (215) 438-1861 for reservations, or visit the Mansion’s website.

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