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Foto Friday

November 20, 2009

The National Historic Landmark site The Woodlands in Philadelphia

From the NHL database

A 1788 remodeling of an older Georgian house transformed The Woodlands into one of the earliest and most advanced examples of Adamesque style domestic architecture in America.

In 1840 the land surrounding the mansion was converted into a Rural Cemetery and the Woodlands is “home” to many prominent Philadelphians.

The Woodlands received a 2004 Federal Save America’s Treasures matching grant in the amount of $200,000 to replace the deteriorated roof and to address structural problems.

The Historic Structures Report includes excerpts from correspondence that would bring a nod of recognition to any old house owner, as the gentlemen share recommendations for plasterers and other skilled craftsmen (along with a warning about schedules to prevent the other from poaching labor) as well as laments about leaky roofs and mounting costs. Some things never change.

This is one of those behind-the-scenes views of old historic mansions that one doesn’t usually get to see on a tour.  And yet, this is always the part I want to see most.  The dusty, lived in aspect of a building is much more appealing to my imagination than the often artificial-feeling public showrooms.  When I toured the Biltmore, up the stairs, down the stairs, from the dining hall, to the bowling alley, through the kitchen and on, the places the piqued my curiosity were the unseen behind closed doors.  Oh, we all know what closed doors can do to fire an imagination.  Just ask Pandora or Bluebeard’s wife.

Have any struggling and highly evocative sites experimented with doing away with historical interpretation altogether and attempted a “let’s imagine the story as we tour” tour?  It could be a variation on the murder mystery parties that were popular a few decades ago.  Could be an interesting supplemental income targeted to adults looking for a creative party idea or corporate groups looking to exercise their brainstorming expertise in an offbeat way.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2009 12:16 pm

    I love that window.

    The floor looks much like the floor of our attic.

    What did Bluebeard’s wife find? I don’t know that story.

  2. Sabra Smith permalink*
    November 21, 2009 4:02 pm

    How is it possible you don’t know the story of Bluebeard? (I learned it at — of all places — a historic site. Fonthill (see Halloween post where I altered a photograph of the giant house and all its windows to make a spooky mansion) was built by Henry Mercer who collected and made tile. One guest bedroom features (in tile) the story of Bluebeard and his wife. Not sure who’d want to sleep there since it’s a rather gruesome story — Bluebeard has had many wives and they have all disappeared. His newest wife comes to live with him and before he goes away on a trip, he gives her all the keys but warns her of one room she must not enter. Of course, curiosity gets the better of her and she can’t stand the suspense any longer. When she opens the door to the room, she discovers all his dead wives, or their heads, or something appropriately gory and horrific. She can’t undo what she’s done and….cue dramatic music … Bluebeard arrives home and…. well, go look it up to find out the rest.

    [Pssst. Let’s talk literary agents. I may know someone you should have on your list.]

  3. November 21, 2009 7:51 pm

    Scary story….

    Woo-hoo! So let’s talk literary agents! Who? And what do you (and/or they) need from me? First 50 pages? First 5000 words? A one paragraph synopsis? (insert me trying not to appear overly eager here)

  4. Reagan permalink
    November 23, 2009 3:01 pm

    I recognized that window before I even scrolled down to confirm it was from the Woodlands. Have they made any headway on that project? What a fabulous house. I just loved following John Milner around and listening to him talk about moldings and building chronology and finding clues.

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      November 23, 2009 4:42 pm

      It’s such an amazing house — and so evocative in its current “in progress” state. I’d love to see it used as a study house or place where people could understand the craftsmanship of old houses — and how they are restored. Some houses and sites just don’t lend themselves to use as historic house museums, yet their essence is such that it would be a travesty to turn them into office space or a bed & breakfast. This site just has so much to convey about building styles, the development of Philadelphia, the transition of the property over time and all the individuals connected with its history.

      Would love to hear more about your experience there with Milner. (That class was so popular, I never got off the waiting list.) Maybe you’d like to do a guest blog post? Hmmm? After you get settled in your new digs, of course.

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