This year we’ve lost both Suit and Shirt Corner and the original Independence National Historical Park visitors center, all on 3rd Street in Old City–and all vestiges of the Bicentennial city of 1976. But one legacy of the Bicentennial–the restoration of the historic mansions and villas of Fairmount Park–has endured. One of them, the Laurel Hill Mansion, high above Kelly Drive, whose grounds and gardens were a seed of Fairmount Park, has for nearly 40 years hosted a unique music series called Concerts by Candlelight. This Sunday, August 10, noted classical guitarist Alan Krantz performs in the house’s original 1830 music room, at 6:30PM. (For information on the concert and half-price tickets, which go on sale today, click HERE).
The music series at Laurel Hill began in the 1970s, a product of planning for the Bicentennial. Along with interest in restoring “Olde City,” the Bicentennial would also result in the restoration of the villas of Fairmount Park. Alma Jacobs, the first female director of public affairs at Bell of Pennsylvania, and Marion Carson, a Philadelphia historian, collaborated with other socially active women to form Women for the Bicentennial, which they incorporated in 1973 (the group changed its name to Women for Greater Philadelphia in 1976). The members of this all-volunteer organization chose the restoration of Laurel Hill as their focus. According to newspaper reports from 1976, the group’s members researched the mansion’s long history, funded restoration, and trained tour guides to be dressed in period costumes. The City put up $175,000 toward restoration, allowing Laurel Hill to open to the public for the first time, and since then the Women of Greater Philadelphia have funded the continued maintenance of the 1767-era house.
One of the members of the organization, the newly widowed Esther Kahn, whose husband the acclaimed architect Louis Kahn had died suddenly in 1974, suggested using the mansion’s octagonal salon for concerts, as it was originally conceived, in 1830. Thus began the music series, which Kahn helped organize until her death in 1996 (Alice Nugent and Barbara Frankl now chair the music series).
The house’s interesting history began in 1760, when Francis Rawle purchased the land on the east side of the Schuylkill River for his “summer villa.” But Rawle, a Quaker, whose son William would go on to help found both the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, was killed in a hunting accident the next year, before the house could be built. Rawle’s widow, Rebecca, proceeded with the plans for the mansion. “We don’t know that much detail about how she went ahead with it,” says Alma Jacobs, “but the mere fact that she owned it was very significant in those days. Women did not normally own property.” (Rebecca Rawle later married Samuel Shoemaker, Mayor of Philadelphia.)
The original house had only one large room downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. The “kitchen wing” was added in 1801, and the “octagonal room” two decades later. With a beautiful view of the Schuylkill River, the house was designed to maximize cross-ventilation (it is air-conditioned now). During restoration in the 1970s, the City employed an expert in historic paint colors to make sure that the original wall colors were used. Also, the “jib window” in the music room, which opens at the bottom to become a door, was put into working condition. Interestingly, this window is of the same design as the one at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home.
Another notable piece is the “warming closet” behind one fireplace, used to keep linens and other household items warm during the winter months. William Rawle’s “highboy” chest of drawers, a gift on the occasion of his wedding in 1782, remains in the house today. One of the fireplaces still features original Delft tiles from Holland.
But the octagonal room’s marvelous acoustics has helped to bring, as Frankl says, “top drawer” chamber music talent to the Concerts by Candlelight series. On the evening that my husband and I attended, for instance, the critically acclaimed Wister Quartet–Nancy Bean, Davyd Booth, Pamela Fay, and Lloyd Smith–put on a superb performance including works by Rachmaninov, Hadyn, and Glazunov. This quartet, whose members have all belonged to the Philadelphia Orchestra, has played Laurel Hill during many summer seasons. It’s “such an intimate setting,” says violinist Bean. “We’re so close to the audience. The audience is so close to us. It creates a wonderful, exciting atmosphere.”
“Musicians don’t get as much chance to socialize as some people,” says Smith. “This is really a chance for us to sit close to the people that we know and love and play for them in a beautiful room–a beautiful-sounding room.”
Nathaniel Popkin contributed reporting to this article.