Editor’s Note: The staff at Stenton, the lower Germantown mansion of James Logan–colonial secretary to William Penn, mentor to Benjamin Franklin, and insatiable bibliophile–are in the final stages of the hiring a new resident site manager. Caretakers there have used an 18th century Quaker log cabin for living quarters since 1969. The cabin was relocated to Stenton from its original location 16th and Race Streets. Historians believe the cabin dates to the 1790s and was used as a home for the caretaker of a Quaker cemetery. The Friends Select School moved to the Race Street site in 1885 and the cabin became part of campus property. Almost a century later, it was gifted to the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, custodians of Stenton since 1899, who agreed to relocate the cabin to Germantown. On a cold January morning in 1969 it was hoisted onto a flatbed truck and driven over seven miles up Broad Street to where it sits today.
Contributor Karen Chernick spoke with Stenton’s recent site managers, Laureen Griffin and Martina Plag, a former printmaker and puppet designer who have been caretakers of the colonial grounds for the last decade. They share the idiosyncrasies of living in a log cabin with six foot ceilings and uncapped chimneys, and their experiences while caring for the 285-year-old historic site.
Karen Chernick:How did you become a site manager at Stenton, and how long were you there?
Laureen Griffin: We were there for ten years and one month. I was a professional artist when we applied for the job, and one of my artist friends and her husband were the caretakers at Powel House. They found out about Stenton and put out an email blast, so we applied for the job.
Martina Plag: At the time we felt funny about it being two women, so I called and said, “Look, we’re applying for this, we’re two women, is that going to be a problem?” And the executive director at the time, Steven Hague, was quite delighted and said that was no problem at all.
Laureen Griffin: We didn’t know that the whole place is run by a women’s organization, the National Society of Colonial Dames, so it actually was a really good match.
Moving the log cabin to Germantown in 1969. Photos courtesy of Stenton.
KC: Did you know the area before you moved to Stenton?
LG: We had no idea Stenton existed. We were living in Center City near Rittenhouse Square.
MP: I had studied architecture at Temple University so I had lived in North Philadelphia, but I’d never really gone further north than Erie. That part of north Philadelphia was completely new to me.
LG: And now we’re still in Germantown! We moved to another historic house, not to take care of but to rent. We just love it here.
KC: Was it an easy adjustment to the neighborhood?
LG: In the beginning, there were a couple things that were weird. One thing was living in a fenced in space. I had never been fenced off away from my neighbors and that took me a while to get used to. Having conversations with people through a fence was weird.
MP: I had never lived in a neighborhood where I was the only white person living there. The neighborhood kids would say, “Hello, white lady!” I was an anomaly to them. When we first moved to Stenton I had a fellowship at a puppet theater in Old City, so I would walk to Wayne Junction every morning through the neighborhood. I was kind of glad that I needed to commute on foot through the neighborhood, because I started making friends with some of the people who would walk their dogs, and things like that. Or the people who would see us picking up trash around the perimeter of the site.
KC: What was it like moving into a historic Quaker log house? Did you feel comfortable using it as your own or was that also an adjustment?
MP: I think it was more of an adjustment for Laureen because of her height. I’m only five foot three, so it wasn’t hard for me. But our second floor was only six feet tall so it was much more of an issue for Laureen.
LG: I would bump my head on the doorways of the second floor, and I had my studio up on the top floor. I had to get special shoes that were paper thin so that I could work up there.
KC: Is the interior totally modernized?
LG: I wouldn’t say totally modernized, but they put up drywall when they moved it and fairly new electricity. There are spaceboard heaters everywhere that you have to manually adjust. So, it’s nice and warm in the winter.
MP: The kitchen hasn’t really been updated since 1969. The whole notion of the log house being moved there in the 1960s has brought up an interesting issue for the house itself because it is in need of repairs. The nature of how funds are raised for a property like this in terms of maintenance is tricky. It doesn’t technically fall within the same historic timeframe as Stenton. How do you raise money to keep the log house up? There’s really nothing in the Stenton facility’s budget that allows for that.
LG: A specialist came in and gave an estimate of $100,000 just to repair the logs. The house is a living organism at this point. In the walls are carpenter bees, spiders, and most insects that are in old houses, but I think the quantity there is greater because they’re inside the logs.
KC: What were your specific responsibilities as site manager?
LG: We had to feed and take the two guard dogs to the vet, take out the trash, keep all the walkways clean, mow the lawn, and shovel snow in the winter. Initially when we moved in there were a lot of tall, dense weeds, which caused infestations of mosquitos and rodents. Dame Lilian Chance, who is basically the boss of landscaping there, rolled up her sleeves and brought in her niece to help with the clearing. Little by little we started to clean it up so we could feel comfortable living there and get it looking much better. That led to working in the garden. They’re building a revival garden so I started working on that. The position morphed into something that was more holistic, in terms of the whole garden and landscaping.
KC: What was daily life like at Stenton?
LG: The spring is really intense for the person responsible for mowing the lawn, because the grass grows really fast. The ground is covered in this special brand of water-dense Star of Bethlehem that’s at some of the older houses. So, it’s sort of like water skiing as you’re mowing the lawn. Like an extreme sport. The winters are beautiful. When the snow falls on Stenton and nobody’s there it’s gorgeous.
MP: Living at Stenton really put me in touch with the landscape more than I had ever been before, anywhere that I’d lived. The way that we set up our caretaking was that Laureen took care of the landscape until it got to be too much and I would come help. I was in charge of the trash and the dogs. When you do that, when you walk one property every day with a dog and do a perimeter walk, you start noticing the oddest things.
LG: Just caring for one property for ten years, you get in touch with every square inch of that place and realize how many different little eco systems there are all over. You’re really stewards of the landscape, you start to get really intimate with the way that a property works.
KC: What kind of person do you think would make an ideal site manager at Stenton?
LG: I think that the best kind of people would be a couple who can share responsibilities. At least one of those people should be available on a regular basis. It was much easier for us when I had my studio there or right around the corner and didn’t have to be responsible for another place. One of the couple has to have a flexible schedule. They have to be animal lovers, be lovers of the landscape, and want to go out and keep the place looking nice. It’s a lot of work. It’s supposed to be 10 hours a week, but you have to be well organized so it’s not more.
MP: You have to be a self-starter and make yourself be accountable. Step back, see what needs to be done.
LG: You have to really take pride in it.
KC: Are there any unusual, memorable incidents that come to mind?
LG: The chimney is not capped, and so every spring a single robin would come into the living room through the fireplace. Because the ceiling was only seven feet tall, the robin was like an eagle!
One of Logan’s ancestors came to visit from Scotland, and while she and her husband were here this little black dog got onto the property and was running around. Then these two women with a chicken came onto the property. The woman who was visiting from Scotland was almost like royalty to me, because she was a descendant of the Logans and knew all of these inside stories about the family that I didn’t know. She was very well regarded amongst everyone who met her while she was there. So, these people came on site trying to get their little black dog with a chicken on their shoulders. All of us, even the woman from Scotland, were running around trying to catch the dog.
Some of the people in the neighborhood were such a contrast to the people who are associated with Stenton, especially if they’re descendants of some of the more famous founding fathers. So, these people come together in interesting scenarios. I think that everyone who appreciates Stenton appreciates it for all of its parts, including the neighborhood that it’s in. They appreciate that the context has changed throughout the centuries, and that is part of its loveliness.
LG: It was the experience of a lifetime.
MP: It gave us the opportunity to explore our artistic lives and the freedom that comes with it. At the same time it gave me an appreciation for history, especially in Philadelphia, and a personal connection to this area and Stenton. It was an opportunity that not everyone gets.