Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Colonial Mansion, Lancaster, Lancaster County

Last time, I said that I thought I'd be able to make an announcement in my next blog post. Those of you who follow the blog's Facebook page may have already seen it, but I've published my first history book! I'm altogether pleased with the results and I look forward to hearing what my readers think of it. You can read all about it on this page

In an effort to keep myself organized (my friends can tell you how very good at that I am not), I made a list of the subjects I was going to cover for the remainder of the year. I kind of chuckled when I checked the list and realized that I would be heading back to Lancaster County for this week's entry, because I was thinking about it recently. The Allentown Farmer's Market has an Amish bakery, where I got some pies last week for Thanksgiving, and their sign proudly mentions that their goods come from Lancaster County. 

Anyway, I collected the pictures for this post when my best friend Andrea and I were in the city earlier this year, so with December being as dismal as it is currently, it's good to go back to that sunny day in June. (All social distancing cautions were observed, I assure you.) We had smoothies and saw a lot of dogs.

Colonial Mansion. This house, of true Georgian style, was built about 1750. The ground was purchased by Thomas Poultney, merchant, in 1749, John Passmore, first mayor of Lancaster, occupied the house at one time.
The marker is situated in front of the house,
at 247 East Orange Street, Lancaster

As old as Lancaster is, I found it surprising - and a little amusing - that it has one house which is explicitly identified as the Colonial Mansion. But there aren't as many buildings dating from that time period as one might expect. Many which might claim the distinction are actually of the "Colonial revival" style - it became popular at one time during the Victorian era to design houses using older architectural styles, and the Colonial, or Georgian, was one of these. Since "Georgian" refers to the years in which Queen Victoria's grandfather, George III, was on the throne of Great Britain, it follows that there might have been some nostalgia for the Queen's youth.

The home in today's post, however, is the real deal. It was built in about the year 1760 by Thomas Poultney, who first purchased the land on which it sits in 1749. Poultney was a Quaker, a prominent and widely respected craftsman, and he moved to Lancaster in the 1740s. He was a saddle maker and an ironmaster; he also helped to build the Lancaster County courthouse. But being a Quaker, he was also a pacifist, and had a tendency to shy away from anything related to the American Revolution, including victory celebrations. According to historian Ken Miller, this was a dangerous attitude to have, as Lancaster residents "who failed to honor festive occasions reaped violent reprisals from their furious neighbors." Following the surrender of British general John Burgoyne in the autumn of 1777, Poultney found his home besieged by militants celebrating the victory. The whole thing was a little too much for the quiet Poultney, and in 1780 he and his large family left their beautiful mansion and moved to the relatively friendlier streets of Philadelphia.

Poultney sold the house to someone else, although I can't seem to find any indication of who. In 1818, the community of Lancaster was formally incorporated as a city, and by that time it was the home of John Passmore, a prothonotary (chief clerk in the courts). The governor of Pennsylvania was Lancaster native Simon Snyder, a three-term governor for whom Snyder County was later named, and he decided that Passmore should be the first mayor of the new city. Passmore was an extremely respected official, re-elected twice to the position of mayor, and the people of the city fondly nicknamed him "Hizzoner" ("His Honor," but run together).

"Hizzoner" was a colorful character, and as he doesn't have his own marker I'll give him a little bit of space here. He was married twice, first to Elizabeth Gilpin, the mother of his sons George and John; both children died young, George in 1812 and John in 1813, and their mother followed in 1814. Passmore later remarried Grace Cooke, with whom he had no children as far as I can tell. He served as a city alderman and the treasurer of St. James' Episcopal Church. Smoking on the streets of Lancaster was illegal, and he once fined himself for breaking that very law. It didn't stop him from doing it again, but the anecdote is comical. Passmore weighed close to 500 pounds, which was extremely unusual for the time - even more than it is now. When he died in the Colonial Mansion in 1827, they had a hard time finding a carriage or wagon that was strong enough to bear his body to the church, and a special coffin had to be constructed for him. He's buried at St. James, along with both of his wives and his young sons.

The Colonial Mansion today

Poultney and Passmore's home has always been and still remains a private residence. Visiting the inside and taking pictures, therefore, is not generally possible, although the home has been opened occasionally for special historical events. The beautiful red brick home consists of ten rooms, with six fireplaces throughout the house; one of the original hitching posts is still in front of the building, along with a stone designed to assist someone stepping down from a carriage.

The mansion has, over time, become a little bit of a Frankenstein's monster. Some of the mantels over the six fireplaces are original to the house; however, others were taken from houses from the same period which have since been destroyed. The "lacy" iron railings on the porch just barely visible on the left came from the Shippen mansion, a contemporary home which had been located very close to the Colonial Mansion; it was torn down in the early 20th century, but the wrought iron was salvaged and relocated to its new place of pride. (Shippen House has its own marker, so I won't go into a whole lot of detail about that just yet.)

My favorite thing about it, though, is the "busybody mirror." If you click on my photo of the mansion, you'll observe a small boxy item on the upper right window. This is an ingenious contraption designed by Benjamin Franklin, and is original to the house. Three mirrors and an iron rod are arranged within the wall so that an observer in one of the upstairs rooms can see outside. Two of the mirrors can be adjusted with the rod, allowing the viewer to look up and down the street and get an idea of who might be coming and going - hence the "busybody" part of the name. The third mirror offers a view of the front door, so when someone knocks, the viewer can see who it is without letting the (possibly unwelcome) visitor know that anyone is home.

(Edited 12/4/2020: Thank you to reader John Robinson for correcting my error in the preceding paragraph! I originally thought the busybody mirror was the round white thing above the door, but John took a closer look and realized that was a sundial. I always appreciate my readers helping me to be more accurate!)

Now I'm wondering if the current resident was watching me through this gadget when I was taking my pictures of the house and marker. I suppose I'll never know, unless they see this post and decide to comment, but I doubt I was an unusual sight at their very singular home.

Sources and Further Reading:

Miller, Ken. Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities During the War for Independence. Cornell University Press, 2014.

Author unknown. "Georgian Gem: Handsome Home in the Heart of the City's Historic District." The Lancaster Sunday News, October 8, 1967.

LDub. "The Lancaster's Jolly Old Mayor Story." Extraordinary Stories From an Ordinary Guy, April 9, 2020.

Except where indicated, all writing and photography on this blog is the intellectual property of Laura Klotz. This blog is written with permission of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. I am not employed by the PHMC. All rights reserved.

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