Skip to main content

Roughing It in Philadelphia

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

For many years it has been my good fortune to live in houses of historic importance. There have been three of them, all told, but the story of one is the story of the others. Daily I have hurled at me the remark: “How lucky you are to be living in such a beautiful house! Don’t you just love it?”—and I have come to reply with a weak and simple “Yes.” How can I, in a few words, adequately describe the magnificent discomfort involved in living in such a mansion, or the responsibility of being mistress of a house with a past? How can I make real to others the life we lead, in the very heart of the city, in which we duplicate the rigours as well as the amenities of the eighteenth century? How demand of them: “Have you ever met a ghost face to face in your upstairs hall? Have you ever had two men in red fezzes walk in on you as you were in your bath and then, in the manner of the Duke of York, walk right out again?” No, my interlocutor sees only the perfection of the architecture, the satisfying beauty of the old furniture. The ghost’s in the attic, there’s a cook in the kitchen—all’s well with the world.

The most spectacular of our old houses, in which we were destined to live an adventurous and somewhat colourful life, was Mount Pleasant, famous not only for the singular beauty of its architecture, but even more so, in the eyes of the public, for having at one time belonged to that charming rascal, Benedict Arnold. That the gentleman merely charged it, as the saying goes, when he presented it to his bride, Peggy Shippen, has in no way diminished his connection with it. Indeed, I quickly learned that his was the ghost residing in our third floor.

Mount Pleasant is situated in Fairmont Park, Philadelphia, on a broad point of land jutting out into the Schuylkill River. It stands well off the main highway and is reached by a long avenue lined with trees. The approach is terminated by a group of five buildings: the mansion house itself with two small outbuildings, at left and right, in the style of the main house, enclosing a forecourt hedged with box; and at each side of the approach, two stables, simple in character and harmonious in colour. The whole makes an effect of feudal grandeur seldom equaled in the colonies. The grandness of our “estate,” however, suffered somewhat from the fact that one of the outbuildings had been dedicated to the necessities of the public, while the other housed a park guard and his mother, not unwelcome neighbors in so lonely a spot. The horses of the park’s mounted police were lodged in the barns, but they cheerfully doubled up to make room for our cars.

To most people Mount Pleasant would seem a mansion of insurmountable difficulties. There was no bathroom, let alone several—one of the bedrooms had to be used for this purpose—and no sign of a kitchen. There was no furnace and no electricity, and of course no gas. We used candles, and our Sandwich glass lamps, which had been so carefully converted for electricity, went back to their original use. There was plumbing; we at least did not have to pump and carry our own water. We were to learn that most modern necessities are necessities in no sense of the word, and the majority of conveniences might just as well be called inconveniences.

Our first night was destined to be an exciting one. We arrived from a summer holiday about nine o’clock in the evening. The bags were brought in, the house locked, and everything seemed set for a good night’s sleep. We had, alas, failed to realize how many doors and windows an unfamiliar house can have. Shortly after one o’clock I was sharply awakened. I sat up and looked through the open door into the large hall. To my utter horror there were three men with caps pulled low; one of them held a flashlight smothered in a handkerchief. One always wonders what one would do under such circumstances. I had a healthy respect for burglars and for years had dutifully looked under every bed in the house. It would be useless to deny that I was terrified, that my heart actually seemed to stop beating, but I managed to demand: “What do you want?” A chorus—it seemed quite as frightened as I—intoned: “Don’t shoot, please. It’s the boys.” It was indeed the park police, who had found the basement door open and who for half an hour had been cautiously making their way from room to room trying to waylay the marauder.

We had hardly moved into Mount Pleasant before we began to learn the consequences of living in a house that has been abandoned as a habitation for half a century or more. The postman regarded it as a personal insult that the laws of the United States obliged him to deliver our mail. Hitherto he had made an annual trip to Mount Pleasant on the occasion of delivering a single Christmas card to the high priestess of the public comfort station. Now, every morning, he grudgingly and grumblingly trudged a mile each way off his beaten track to bring us our letters. During that very cold winter, knowing there was no furnace in the house, he would arrive daily with an expectant and malicious gleam in his eye, hoping, I am sure, to find us dead—but we managed to outwit him. When it came to the afternoon delivery, he frankly revolted. Not even the government could make him walk four extra miles a day for two people. We compromised on his leaving the afternoon mail at what we called the village store—Mr. Hegemann’s emporium.

Although acres and miles of city surrounded Fairmount Park, although we were not five minutes drive from City Hall, and although delivery trucks would daily pass within less than a mile of Mount Pleasant, there was not a tradesman in Philadelphia who would deliver to us. No pleading, no cajoling, no orders however large, would induce them to do so. It proved to be a simpler matter to buy a spool of thread in New York than a pound of butter in the City of Brotherly Love.

After some judicious scouting in the vast hinterland of humble trade that skirts the park, Mr. Hegemann’s emporium was located. It occupied what had once been the parlor of Mr. Hegemann’s house and was tended by the gentleman himself—a proud member of the Turnverein and, apparently, of every Bierverein in the city—by his wife, somewhat superior, by a feeble-minded gentleman of fifty who told a joke for every pound of sugar or tea he weighed, and by a coloured boy of fourteen who did all the work, and whose favorite pastime was measuring pretzels or potato chips with hands that had just been sorting potatoes or stroking the cat. However, Mr. Hegemann had fresh vegetables at least three times a week. He carried a good grade of meat—in winter one did not have to worry about the flies —and he agreed to deliver. Mr. Hegemann’s delivery system proved to be unique. In good weather it consisted of a little boy, sometimes five, sometimes eight years of age, on roller skates; in winter a sled replaced the skates. As there seemed to be a different little boy almost every day, I presently learned that Mr. Hegemann employed whoever happened by, and that the reward for skating a mile and half to our place was a lollipop or a Hershey bar. Delivery by skates seemed to be more certain than delivery by sled. In winter it was no unusual thing for a frantic hostess, after repeated telephone calls, to dash out and find her leg of lamb, her oranges, her cauliflower, and all the rest, being retrieved by a park guard as he dodged volley after volley of snowballs.

The iceman and the milkman took no more kindly to us than did the butcher or the grocer. If we wanted ice or milk we had to fetch them. Even the telegraph company, although boasting it reaches the ends of the earth, balked at us.

The messenger on his bicycle would ride to the edge of the park, but no farther. There he would deliver his yellow envelope to a park guard, who in turn would give it to a mounted policeman. Eventually it was handed in our front door in great style. As for a newspaper at breakfast, or any other time, that was a luxury we had immediately and forever to abandon.

The difficulties of living in a house with no central heat, with open fires that devour logs, with no means of cooking except an oil stove, with lamps and candles that need filling or replenishing each day, are difficulties that are not, as a rule, encountered in the heart of a great city. In the last analysis it comes down to having capable and willing servants, and there are not many who will survive such a course of treatment. Not knowing where to turn, on our arrival, I imported a cook from New York. She came in the late afternoon, and as we drove through the park to Mount Pleasant, she seemed to feel she was entering upon the isolation of the North Pole. Once inside the mansion she knew that she had returned to the cold and uncertain comforts of the Old World. Lamps! And a coal stove in her room! And a kitchen that was nothing more than a cavern in the basement! During her first night with us we returned from a dinner party to find Selma in the lower hall, petrified, distracted, her head wrapped in a sheet. When I could finally get her to talk, she told me there was a ghost in her room; furthermore, she knew whose it was. It was the ghost of a man named Benny Arnold who had lived in the mansion four hundred years ago. The guard’s mother had told her so. I went to her room to find the ghost, and succeeded in dislodging an obliging bat, on whom all the blame was laid. The next morning, however, Selma took the eight-o’clock train to New York. After losing three more servants by the same swift and certain means it seemed as though the guard’s old mother deserved ten dollars to help her forget poor Benny Arnold’s ghost.

The parlor maids seemed, at first, to succeed one another as rapidly as the cooks. At last one of them told me she had answered the door thirty-eight times in one afternoon for people who wanted to see the famous old mansion, and she did not think she ought to stay in a place like that. Atna had another reason for leaving, likewise connected with the front door. A great hall extends through the lower floor of Mount Pleasant, opening at one end toward the driveway, at the other toward the river. Both doors are secured by the bolts that were placed there in 1761. No one, luckily, has had the temerity to add a Yale lock. As Atna closed the door one afternoon I heard her grumbling about a house with barn-door bolts. That was no kind of place for her. She believed in going forward, not backward, even if her face was black.

These same bolts led to a spirited skirmish one summer afternoon in the year of the Sesquicentennial Exposition, when the city was the meeting place for every sort of organization and the park a likely place for an outing. One evening, shortly before dinner, I had set out to take the usual bath. Mount Pleasant had been built long before the era of bathrooms; we had put a tub and fixtures in the river bedroom. It was as luxurious a bath as anyone could wish, with its high ceilings, its fireplace, its superb woodwork, and damask curtains framing the picture of the river and the gardens at the window. In winter, to be sure, the wind from the river would blow your hair while you bathed, but in summer it was extremely pleasant.

Suddenly, in the quiet of the house, I heard footsteps that were unmistakably masculine, then men’s voices all too obviously coming up the stairs. There were no bells to the kitchen, there were no keys to the doors, there was no door between the bathroom and my bedroom, there was no escape. The mistress of Mount Pleasant was too frightened to utter a sound. She prayed that some higher power would cover her with a mantle of invisibility. She heard the men exclaim at the beauty of the library as it slumbered in the summer sun, she heard them cross the hall, and then they stood in the doorway, two stalwarts in red fezzes and the other insignia of their order. A smile stole over their faces and they advanced a step. “We thought this was a deserted house,” said one. At that moment Jeff, the watch dog of Mount Pleasant, who had been lying by his mistress’s tub, growled and flew at the intruders. With the grip known only to Boston terriers he fastened his teeth in the proper region of one pair of trousers and the two adventurers beat a howling retreat.

The serving of meals was at best a complicated problem at Mount Pleasant. At the time the house was built, the kitchen had doubtless been in the outbuilding which had now become the residence of the park guard and his mother. In the eighteenth century the carrying of food about presented no problem; there were always enough servants to form “the batter-cake express,” as it is called in the South. To induce servants of the twentieth century to cook in the basement, let alone carry everything upstairs through the great hall and into the dining room, was a feat. This, added to the uncertainly of an oil stove, made me look forward with mixed feelings to our first dinner party. As we were living in so undiluted a Colonial setting, and as I had concerned myself for some time with Colonial cookery, it seemed amusing enough to offer our guests a sample of the fare of their forefathers. As I recall, the menu was something like this:


Bouillon a la maniere anglaise
Benjamin Franklin


Lamb—Martha Washington
Tart of spinage—William Penn


Ice—Thomas Jefferson
Seed cake—Dolly Madison
Naples biscuit—Thomas Jefferson


Dinner was set for the nineteenth of February, at eight o’clock in the evening. In the early afternoon a heavy snow began falling. As I looked out at the acres of lonely, snow-covered park I began to feel we were living as far away from civilization as everyone thought we did! Yet it seemed silly to cancel the dinner. Who, living in Rittenhouse Square, would think of such a thing? The only sensible procedure was to go right ahead. At seven o’clock, as I was laying the place cards, there was a loud knocking on the front door. The first of our guests had arrived. They were full of apologies. They had not been to Mount Pleasant in over sixty years and had thought the distance from town greater than it actually was. During the next hour and a half the remaining fourteen guests continued to appear at uncertain intervals. I trembled for the fate of Benjamin Franklin’s bouillon and Thomas Jefferson’s ice.

We had reached the salad, however, before the major catastrophe of the evening broke. The dinner had been good. Neither the cook’s temper nor the oil stove had failed. There was that feeling of satisfaction and contentment abroad which spells success to the hostess. The salad had just been passed when a mighty gust of wind swept in from the river and down the dining room chimney, sending clouds and showers of ashes from the blazing fireplace over the immaculate shirt bosoms of the gentlemen and the ermine scarfs and capes with which the ladies had been wise enough to fortify themselves. The lace of the tablecloth was as completely hidden as though a heavy snow had fallen. The catastrophe was so patently an act of God, so manifestly beyond all human control, that the most dignified could but unbend. There was nothing to do but retire to the drawing room to toast the Colonial life in another round of champagne, while the servants swept up the ashes and laid the table once again.

More than a little responsibility is incurred in living in a historic house. It is a bit like living in the “big house” on a plantation. You have to be something of a guardian angel to the waifs that stray about the park. You are called upon to telephone for gas for stalled cars, and for wrecking crews when snowdrifts prove disastrous. You have to explain that your house is not open to the public and furnish maps of those that are, and you have to assure a hungry and thirsty public that you do not run a tea room, nor do you run a bar. We have lived through several “Colonial Days,” when the house has been open to the public for charity and when we have seen human nature let its hair down, so to say. On the first of these occasions I was to learn a great deal. Some instinct told me to remove every small object, ash trays, match boxes, small vases, and to have all the silver taken from the sideboard and stored in the kitchen. The first arrivals on the first morning were two nice little old ladies in black silk. When they reached the dining room they edged toward the sideboard and one was muttering to the other, “Let’s get a souvenir,” when a maid stepped up and asked them not to touch the furniture.

All day long the throng poured into the house. Everyone had an umbrella and everyone seemed to ooze water. Pretty soon the hall floor was a sea of mire. We rolled up the rug, but the mire went its way onto the carpets of the other rooms. Individuals in dripping mackintoshes started to sit on the pale blue and gold damask chairs. Cords were immediately stretched. They opened the bookcases and took out the books, for no better reason than to turn the pages. Every other person wanted either a drink of water, to use the lavatory, or to telephone, and there were eight hundred of them on that day. A pitched battle was almost staged because the top floor was not shown—two floors were not enough. The climax, it seemed to me, was reached when a visitor said to one of the maids: “I don’t care about all this architecture and antique furniture. What I want to know is this: are Mr. and Mrs. Kimball happily married?”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading