Mt. Airy – yesterday and today: Inside the Phil-Ellena mansion

    Had you been a friend of the family of George Carpenter visiting his grand Greek Revival mansion, Phil-Ellena, as a guest, what would you have seen as you passed through thesix great fluted Ionic columns of the east portico and entered the front door? Carpenter’s own plan of the first floor of Phil-Ellena gives us some idea. The interior is clearly symmetrical, reflecting the Greek Revival exterior, and mirrors the formality of its temple front and back.

    The central hall opens onto two drawing rooms on the left and two parlors on the right. Each room is about 20 by 20 feet. The drawing rooms and parlors each make up rooms about 50 by 20 feet. Behind the central hall (11 by 20 feet) is a salon and a grand oval staircase. The back door leads through the six-column back portico to extensive lawns and kitchen gardens.

    The library wing lies on the left beyond the drawing rooms, and beyond that is the plant conservatory. On the north side of the house, beyond the parlors, is the breakfast room wing, and then the kitchen wing.

    Here it is necessary to list the three chief sources that are available to comprehend Phil-Ellena during this period,1844-1894. There is George Carpenter’s 36 page pamphlet, A Brief Description of Phil-Ellena, dated 1844, in which he describes his house and grounds. There is also the collection of photographs of the house and grounds taken in 1887 by George Bacon Wood, Jr. (1832-1910), genre and landscape painter, photographer and Quaker. And, third, there is the auction catalogue for the 1894 sale of the household furniture.

    Together, 118 years after its demolition in 1894, these items and writings give us a rich view of Phil-Ellena. In her University of Pennsylvania masters thesis, A Decorative Analysis of Phil-Ellena, a Greek Revival, Philadelphia Mansion, Sheryl Mikelberg draws upon these sources.

    Let us return to our visit to Phil-Ellena. The ceilings of the central hall and salon, and of the drawing rooms and parlors are each supported by four tall scagliola columns with Ionic capitals, to match the outside portico columns.These columns support classical entablatures and the ceilings are decorated with panels painted with colorful frescoes of mythological themes matched to the activity of each room.

    By “scagliola,” we are speaking of the treatment of the twelve first floor columns to resemble marble. The wood core of the column is clad with imitation marble made of gypsum plaster, an adhesive, and colored stone dust set in the plaster. The result is a hard, multicolored surface that mimics marble and takes a polish.

    Other surfaces in the central hall are decorated to emulate marble. Carpenter describes how the floor is covered with oilcloth designed to match the columns. The walls are paneled “in blocks of variegated marble.” Floors of other rooms are carpeted.

    Carpenter says that the second floor has a central hallway and fifteen rooms, including four large family bedrooms and a picture gallery. A nursery and servant chambers occupy the north end. The third floor is devoted to a water cistern and storage.

    I would like to invite readers of this Yesterday and Today column to help shape the content of future essays about the history of West Mt. Airy. What historical people, places, periods and issues would you like this column to talk about? Please send me your thoughts. I will respond to your e-mails to Thank you, Burt.

    Burt Froom is a Parish Associate at Summit Presbyterian Church, 6757 Greene St. in Mt. Airy. This essay was originally published on the website of West. Mt. Airy Neighbors (WMAN).

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