History

Inside Northeast Philly’s Temple Of Ryerss

September 19, 2017 | by Harry Kyriakodis

 

The Ryerss mansion in Burholme Park, once the summer home of Joseph Waln Ryerss and family, is now a unique house museum and community library run by year round staff and the Department of Parks and Recreation. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Ryerss Mansion, located in the Great Northeast’s Burholme Park, is an extraordinary house museum that you’ve likely never heard of. The property, a 158-year-old family summer home left to the City by the Ryerss family, is a genuine, hidden gem, and not merely for its ornate, Victorian architecture. The house displays an astounding, eclectic collection of paintings, sculpture, family heirlooms, and a vast array of Asian art and artifacts. The attached community library, unconnected to the Free Library of Philadelphia, has a wide variety of current best sellers, children’s books, and non-fiction works. Owned and operated by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the eccentric museum’s mascot is a stuffed American alligator calling card holder they call “Snapper” that stands at attention in mansion’s dining room.

Collecting a Legacy, a Gift to the City

Joseph Waln Ryerss was a descendant of Nicholas Waln, one of the original Pennsylvania Quakers to settle in Philadelphia with William Penn in 1682. Joseph was in the import/export trade business, dealing primarily with the Middle East and China. He also served as president of the Tioga Railroad and president of the Philadelphia Exchange. He married his second cousin, Susan Waln, but she died a year after their son Robert was born in 1831. Joseph then married Susan’s sister, Anne. He lived with his first and second wives in a downtown mansion that once stood at 922 Walnut Street.

Philadelphia Museum of Art? Nope, just an old Victorian home nestled in a small public park in the Northeast. The Ryerss’ Asian art gallery looks stunning and otherworldly. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Joseph established his summer retreat on 85 acres of secluded land in 1859. He built an Italianate-style mansion, named Burholme, on top of the highest hill in what was then the northeastern reaches of Philadelphia County. High vantage points like this were desirable places on which to build one’s summer estates in the 18th and 19th centuries. From the dwelling’s cupola, one can clearly see Center City in the distance on a clear day.

The Ryerss estate surrounding the mansion is now called Burholme Park. “Burholme” means “home in a wooded setting” according to Ryerss family tradition. The park is in the Fox Chase section of Northeast Philadelphia, near the corner of Cottman and Central Avenues. The site is directly south of Jeanes Hospital, which makes sense, as Joseph Ryerss bought much of the property from the Jeanes family.

Upon Joseph’s death, Anne and her stepson moved to Burholme and made it their year-round residence. Robert, who had obtained a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, never practiced law, but preferred instead to travel and collect treasures for the manor house at Burholme. Eight months before Robert died in 1896 at age 65, he shocked his family and Philadelphia’s high society by marrying his housekeeper of 27 years, Mary Ann Reed. Childless and in poor health, Robert bequeathed Burholme to Mary Ann, along with a comfortable annuity.

Mary Ann married Dr. John Bawn, a local Episcopalian minister, three years after Robert’s death. Robert’s will stipulated that upon Mary Ann’s death, the estate was to be turned over to the City of Philadelphia to be used as a public park, museum, and lending library—”Free to the people forever.” This is the mission of the historic mansion today. The Friends of Ryerss, founded in 1974, is a community group that assists Fairmount Park in caring for the mansion and furthering the museum’s mission.

Snapper the stuffed calling card holder says, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” | Photo: Michael Bixler

Mary Ann turned the 48-acre Burholme estate over to the City of Philadelphia in 1905. The mansion was placed in the charge of the Commissioners of Fairmount Park by an ordinance approved on July 27, 1905, and was placed on the City plan by confirmation by the Board of Surveyors on November 11, 1905. Mary Ann moved with her second husband to a smaller house on the property at the intersection of Oxford Avenue and Verree Road. The Ryerss Museum and Library opened to the public in on May 14, 1910.

Mary Ann and her second husband continued the Ryerss tradition of traveling around the world, buying art and curios from China, Japan, India, Syria, and other countries. Upon Mary Ann’s death in China while on a collecting trip in 1916, Revered Bawn returned to Philadelphia and saw to carrying out his predecessor’s (i.e., Robert’s) plans. The walls of the mansion’s second floor bedrooms were removed the create an open area for the library. Realizing that the Burholme mansion could not possibly contain all of the objects the Ryerss family collected from all corners of the world, Bawn petitioned the City to build an extension to the mansion. By 1923, the museum’s large, two-story gallery space was completed.

Pampered Pets and Four-legged Fellowship

An abiding love for animals ran in the Ryerss family. Anne Waln-Ryerss’ father, US Congressman Robert Waln, donated $10,000 toward the establishment of the Pennsylvania SPCA in the 1860s. His daughter Anne was an advocate for the welfare of animals, especially horses, and left $30,000 in her will to found the Ryerss Farm for Aged Equines and endowed $40,000 for its maintenance. She was known to have stopped at least one tired horse in the middle of the street to persuade its owner to bring it to the Ryerss mansion. Anne’s son Robert was instrumental in helping create the Pennsylvania SPCA and was the organization’s first president. Robert Ryerss was also involved with establishing the Morris Animal Refuge. 

Fido forever. The Ryerss family loved animals. Marble and granite grave markers ring a tree in the mansion’s front yard. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Ryerss Farm was originally located on an 80-acre farm at Meeting House and Krewstown Roads in the Bustleton section. It is now on 383 acres in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Ryerss Farm is the oldest non-profit retirement community for horses in America, established in the days when horses provided much of the power for transportation in the city. Ryerss Infirmary for Dumb Animals, as it was originally named, was incorporated as a charitable institution whose objective was, according to their mission statement, “to provide a permanent home for old favorites whose owners, instead of destroying or selling them, desire to place them under good treatment for the remainder of their days.” 

There is plenty of evidence of the family’s love of animals at the mansion, not the least of which is a small dog cemetery with poignant headstones. Some of the Ryerss’ favorite dogs are also depicted in oil paintings that the family commissioned of their beloved animal companions. These works are hung around the library along with a portrait of Old Grey, the family’s favorite horse. Old Grey is also buried on the grounds of the estate, but the gravesite has since been lost to history.

A portrait of the family’s beloved horse, Old Grey, hangs in the community library. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Within the mansion’s cupola, a group of double-hung full stained glass windows and two half-round stained glass windows are now in the process of being restored, as the elements, up so high on the hill at Burholme Park, have been cruel. The Friends of Ryerss are fundraising money for the expensive work, which is being carried out by conservators of the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Beyer Studio, Inc. of Germantown. The museum is currently accepting donations for the work and occasionally offers cupola tours to visitors for $5.

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The Ryerss Museum and Library, at 7370 Central Avenue is open only three days a week– Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10AM-4PM. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. For more information, check out their website HERE.

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About the Author

Harry Kyriakodis Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012) and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

6 Comments:

  1. Wayne says:

    Thanks for sharing this gem with us Harry, I will be sure to visit.

  2. Joe Brett says:

    Nice article! The Ryerss house is one of my childhood haunts, and as I recall the gravestone of Old Grey was still visible as late as the mid-1960’s.

  3. Terry Q says:

    Growing up across the street, we frequently went here. I thought I remembered that the horses grave was down my where the bathrooms are (were), not sure if they are still there.

  4. Barb says:

    Very interesting and informative article. I live in Rhawnhurst and never knew the Ryers history. Thanks.

  5. Robert E. Ash says:

    I worked on a renovation job to install AC about 1976.
    Found a small carved demon in the attic floor ,while installing duct work.I think it was part of the underground RR. Owner was a quaker?

  6. JOHN McCABE says:

    REVIEW: TRACKS THROUGH OUR LIVES Stories Told on the Philly El TrainsProfessorEmerita Carol Breslin PhD. Gwynedd Mercy University, 2019John McCabe’s latest work entitled Tracks Through OurLives: Stories told on Philly El Trains is a superb, very readablecollection containing twenty sharp, sensitive, lyrical renderings of moments incity life in the 1950s and ‘60s.  Ondisplay are the experiences and characters drawn together by the settings atvarious stops along the Frankford Elevated Train Line that runs from North toCentral Philadelphia.  Most of thestories are attributed to Danny Fisher, a journalist and longtime friend of theauthor, although the voices of other friends are sometimes heard.  As Danny and the author ride the trains fromchildhood days in parochial school into adulthood, they build memories thateach stop will evoke as the little boys grow into thoughtful, caring,insightful, story-telling men.Though the setting for these stories is very specific intime and place, it does not impinge on the universality of experiences foundhere.  Humor, suffering, dysfunctionalfamilies, racism, compassion, cruelty and abuse, neglect, poverty, mentalillness, spiritual insight, great generosity, indifference —truly, “God’splenty”—are represented and given dimension. In an effective opening story “Under Mellow YellowStreetlights,” the author introduces the reader to his North Phillyneighborhood and several friends who will figure rather prominently in laterstories, allowing the well-known electric streetlights of the period to shinebriefly on each one.  This is followedimmediately by “The Cleansing:  CatholicSchool Days,” one of the most disturbing, yet poignant, stories in thecollection, in which a regularly scheduled visit of the parish assistant,Father Connelly, interrupts what has been an explosive morning in in theclassroom.  The young priest’s question:“Is there any part of your education and the time you spend in class causingyou to love God?” leads to an unintended and intimate revelation on the part of the priest himself that elevatesthis piece of writing to a very special realm.Several coming-of-age stories appear, including “TheLemonwood Bow,, in which a young boy’s dream of becoming a skilled archer isdashed when he gazes upon the mangled body of a dead rabbit killed by his hand,and   “The Red Scarf,” which tells of  the generosity of neighbors to a neglectedDanny and his disappointing experience at Boy Scout Camp. One very funny, sweetstory, “The Painters,” depicts a young boy’s crush on an older woman, a drunkenattempt to repaint her car by his father and his father’s cronies, and her long-termdevotion and generosity to the boy.   Race figuresprominently in “Among Day Laborers,” in which one character’s doctoral researchon the importance of slaves to the pre-Civil War economy is juxtaposed to asenseless killing of a young man of mixed-race by a young black man as fourmen—two older and white, and the two young men of color– work to fill adefunct swimming pool on a very hot day. Race also serves as the central theme in “Sidewalk Sanctification” whena young mummer encounters deep and hurtful prejudice among his fellowmusicians.The collection pays serious attention to atomic testingconducted by the government in the Nevada desert in stories like “The WeddingGuests,” “Sweeping Enrichment” and  “Anyday at the VA”, and mental illness receives extraordinarily insightful andsensitive treatment in “The Mission in South Bronx.”  But there is plenty of comic reliefthroughout the book, especially in stories like “The Painters and “The Cabin Fixer.”   This delightful book closes with a story in the author’s ownvoice, “The Day of the Dance:  an IrishAmerican,” a beautiful story of father/son bonding, achieved in part by acouple of cheese sandwiches.  In it, theauthor tells of a fishing trip taken by himself as a 12-year-old, his fatherand several of his father’s friends.  Theday ends successfully–fish caught, a long drive home– done mostly by the boy,the men being drunk– and a celebratory dinner and dance. You, too, will feel like celebrating as you read this richcollection of carefully constructed and truly thoughtful stories.

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