Mt. Airy: Yesterday and Today: Phil-Ellena – Greek Revival Palace

    Imagine yourselves walking north on Germantown Avenue some time between 1844 and 1894. As you glance left where Pelham Road now begins, you will note a stonewall 600 feet long, pierced by three large circular gateways. Behind green lawns planted with specimen trees lies the mansion, more than 200 feet from the Avenue.

    What you would see is a Greek Revival building with a central portico of six enormous fluted columns with Ionic capitals supporting an undecorated pediment about 45 feet high. Beyond the portico are two wings on each side, fronted with shorter Ionic columns. Including the back portico, there are 20 tall columns in all. The entire house is 165 feet long (extending north from about the present day intersection of Pelham and Mower Street) and the main building is about 70 feet deep. On the roof behind the pediment stands an octagonal belvedere observatory that offers views of Philadelphia and boats sailing in the Delaware River!

    In his expansive 1989 work, Greek Revival America, Roger Kennedy says that Phil-Ellena was “the largest of America’s Greek Revival palaces.” By 1845, George Carpenter was worth a million dollars, one of seven Philadelphians to reach that mark of success. His estate comprised over a hundred acres. The house he had just completed was an announcement of his wealth, status and artistic taste. He named it to honor his love for his young wife, Ellen.

    Who was the architect of Phil-Ellena? It is surprising to find that George Carpenter (in his pamphlet of 1844, A Brief Description of Phil-Ellena) proclaimed himself the architect of his residence. He was intensely involved in this project, as in all his endeavors. Only a carpenter/chief builder, Nathan Smedley, and a draftsman, William Johnston, are listed as Carpenter’s assistants.

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    William L. Johnston (1811-1849) was a carpenter-architect, who taught architectural drawing at the famed Carpenters’ Company of Philadelphia. He is credited with designing George Carpenter’s Greek Revival mansion (by 1844). In 1849-50, he also designed the Jayne Building at 242-44 Chestnut Street, which was completed by Thomas U. Walter (1804-1887), who designed the U.S. Capitol dome. Charles E. Peterson (1906-2004), who was the founding father of historic preservation in the U.S., argued that Johnston’s Jayne Building was a prototype of the skyscraper. It influenced Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, the “Father of Skyscrapers,” who worked directly across the street from the Jayne building in 1873, in the same office with Frank Furness. The Jayne Building was demolished in 1957.

    And what did contemporaries think about Phil-Ellena? Despite its obvious glories, the mansion and its builder did have detractors. Sydney Fisher was a contemporary of Carpenter, from an old respected Quaker family, and was the cousin of George Carpenter Jr’s wife. In his diary, Fisher was critical of the ostentation of Phil-Ellena: “It would not be easy to find anywhere ignorance, pretension, bad taste, and wealth more forcibly expressed…” Yet Fisher does admit that the Greek Revival style, though “unfit for a dwelling,” is “nevertheless in itself beautiful.” Here we see the inevitable clash of old family, money and taste with the new values.

    Fifty years after its building, its furnishings were sold in 1894 and the monumental and extravagant Phil-Ellena home of Ellen Carpenter was torn down to make way for the new houses of Pelham. More about that next month.

    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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