Ury House Demo In The 1970s Erased Oldest Home In PA

 

A watercolor sketch of Ury House by Benjamin Henry Latrobe painted in the late 1800s. | Image: Print and Photograph Division, Library of Congress

The story of the Ury House is a familiar one that mirrors the current wave of citywide demolition for new residential construction. The colonial mansion, located at 8403 Pine Road in lower Northeast Philadelphia, was believed to be the oldest historic dwelling in both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Originally a fort, the building, constructed around 1640-1645, was situated near what became the village of Fox Chase on a steep hill southwest of the Pennypack Creek. The mansion and adjoining estate were sold in 1973 to a real estate developer who demolished the historic home for a large tract of duplex apartments. 

Ury House was built of stone quarried nearby by Swedish refugees who had sailed up the Delaware River and then the Pennypack in the early 1640s. It was said that the settlers arrived there by accident because they were sailing on the Delaware River during the evening and mistook the Pennypack Creek for their intended landing at Christiana, Delaware.

The Swedes quickly constructed a building of stone to protect themselves from the Lenni-Lenape, although they generally maintained friendly relations with local Native Americans. The stronghold also provided refuge when interloping Dutchmen from the Hudson Valley came down to the region to cause trouble. The Swedes used the structure as a fort, trading-post, and government house, since the settlers were scattered in huts and log cabins all around the dense forest that became Northeast Philadelphia.

The tree-lined approach to Ury House. | From The York Road, Old and New, (1892)

The blockhouse was the core of what eventually became the Ury House mansion. The approach from Pine Road was by a 400-foot long winding driveway with old-growth pine trees on both sides. A large peach orchard surrounded the concrete shelter, with cows and other livestock grazing about the grounds. Visitors entered through a monumental pillared porch and broad room, called Swedes Hall, with low rafters and a large fireplace. The mansion contained a square stone tower, under which was a cellar supported by stone supports. Swedes living in the surrounding woodlands would use a forge in the fort’s cellar to weld farm tools, mold lead bullets, and shoe horses. Ury House was so solidly built that when changes were made in 1899, dynamite had to be used to make even a dent in the masonry.

English colonists later took over the settlement and its blockhouse. Jacob Taylor, the surveyor general of Pennsylvania from 1725 to 1737, bought the estate in 1728 and added another wing to the house. He later sold the dwelling to Miers Fisher, a Quaker lawyer. It was Fisher who gave Ury (or Urie) House its name from the Scotch country seat of Robert Barclay, the Quaker theologian and author. Around 1795, Fisher made subsequent additions to the house, building parlors on the west side with new bedrooms above them. Ury House eventually had 23 rooms, making the former fort a genuine mansion in the woods. 

A list of guests who arrived on horseback and were entertained by Miers Fisher and his wife included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. On the front lawn, Fisher planted a pecan tree given to him by Jefferson, which lasted until 1928 when it was felled by a storm. George Washington was another guest of the young couple. He slept in the mansion shortly after the evacuation of Valley Forge. One maid was so flustered by Washington’s presence that she accidentally sprinkled salt instead of sugar on a bowl of strawberries. The general ate them without saying a word. Benjamin Henry Latrobe also visited Ury House, as did painter Charles Willson Peale, who sketched the estate. Even John Audubon spent time at Ury in the early 1800s, beginning his famous artistic career by painting birds of the Pennypack Valley.

The box labyrinth garden at Ury House more than a century ago, now the center of a 1960s housing development. | From The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and Its Neighborhood (1912)

The Ury House had a succession of owners in the 1800s. A Mr. Miller purchased the country seat in 1800. Captain James West later became the owner. Dr. Thompson Holmes bought the estate in 1835 for $14,000. Seven years later, it was purchased by Stephen Rowan Crawford for $15,500. He and his wife made further changes and additions to the residence, and their Scottish gardener laid out a labyrinth in the garden that was bordered by boxwood hedges. A great stone barn was on the property, and a tunnel linked Ury House to the Pennypack Creek. It was said that the tunnel facilitated the escape of runaway slaves, as the estate was also a station on the Underground Railroad.

Just before the Civil War, Stephen Crawford found himself in financial difficulties. His wife, Jane Crawford, began a money-raising venture at Ury House. In 1860, she opened a boy’s boarding school with the initial purpose of educating her six sons. But Ury House School soon became an elite educational facility for boys from elite Philadelphia families and others from across the nation and globe. Mrs. Crawford, who was regarded as a highly refined English lady, employed the finest headmasters and teachers in the Philadelphia region.

When Mrs. Crawford retired in 1881, the nationally-acclaimed Ury House School moved to Bustleton and became St. Luke’s Academy. The school next relocated to Wayne to become the Valley Forge Military Academy.

Following Mrs. Crawford’s death, Ury House was inherited by her son, Joseph U. Crawford, who had been born there in 1842. He served as a Union captain in the Civil War and became an officer for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Crawford was also a renowned engineer who oversaw the construction of the first railroad in northern Japan in 1878 on the island of Hokkaido. Emperor Kōmei was so grateful that he gave Crawford a medal and a ceremonial sword in appreciation for his work. Today, the site of Mikasa Station of Horonai Railway is now Joseph U. Crawford Memorial Park. Joseph Crawford returned to America and occupied Ury House as a private residence along with his four sisters and four brothers. He died there in 1924.

The Crawford siblings lived at the mansion until the property became too difficult for the remaining family to maintain. More than 100 tons of coal were needed annually to keep both furnaces going, and only five rooms were adequately heated. Plus, taxes on the estate were onerous. 

The Ury House in 1970, three years before demolition. | Image courtesy of Phillyhistory.org

After being in the family for over 100 hundred years, the last remaining Crawfords, all former Philadelphia Assembly debutantes, sold the 63-acre manor to the Medical Mission Sisters for $69,505 in 1945. They then moved to Coconut Grove, Florida, where they opened a hotel named “Ury Lodge.” 

The Medical Mission Sisters was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1925 by a young Austrian doctor who had seen in India the sickness and death of Muslim women and children whose customs isolated them from medical care administered by men. Dr. Anna Dengel formed a group of female health care professionals who dedicated their lives to God and provide women with health care.

In the late 1930s, Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia, invited the Medical Mission Sisters to move their headquarters to Philadelphia. The Catholic organization purchased a large estate (the Ellingsworth Estate) on the west side of Pine Road, opposite the Ury grounds. In 1946, they expanded to the Ury property, converting the historic mansion into the St. Theresa Novitiate and Training Center, a school for nuns that served as medical missionaries around the world.

The land around Ury House was still forest and farmland at that time. In addition to tending to their ministerial duties, the nuns grew corn and strawberries and raised pigs and chickens. The Medical Mission Sisters are still located on their original plot of land on the west side of Pine Road, a property that remains the organization’s North American headquarters. From there, the nuns operate the Medical Mission Sisters Thrift Shop, which offers new and used clothing and household items.

By the 1960s, the Medical Mission Sisters could no longer pay to maintain Ury House or the surrounding estate. The old mansion needed constant repairs. The nuns sold off the eastern 40 acres of the property facing Verree Road. Some 400 twin homes were constructed there in the mid-1960s. This was around the peak of Northeast Philadelphia’s development, which was a prime example of post-WWII growth. In 1970, the remaining 24.8 acres of the Ury estate were vacated and put up for sale. Despite modest efforts to protect the mansion, it suffered vandalism and was ultimately torn down in 1973 for a large residential community, the Montclair Duplex Apartments.

The Ury House could have been converted back into an immersive educational facility set deep in the woods of Northeast Philadelphia. Alas, the prominent hill upon which mansion stood is the only thing left of the Ury estate. While an original wall still might still peek up here and there within the Montclair development, not even a historical marker denotes this once-storied mansion that was known by so many important, influential Americans and underwent so many noteworthy uses.

About the author

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.

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12 Comments


  1. Great story. Cannonball House next?

  2. Joseph J. Menkevich

    Harry,

    In light of city-wide demolitions (approved by the PHC), I do appreciate your efforts in bringing awareness to what might have been preserved.

    However, unless you attempt to file a proposal to the Philadelphia Historical Commission for Historic Designation on an existing property, only then will you see a more accurate picture of preservation vs demolition by overcoming several impediments – like accuracy.

    What I am saying is this: if the Ury House was still in existence and intact, your narrative is folklore, not history.

    I have researched this estate and those of the surrounding area for several years and I must say, your narrative is rife with errors and it would never pass muster with the PHC to support a nomination to designate.

    Beginning with your interpretation of the deed between Jacob Taylor and Miers Fisher, you are wrong.

    You state that “Jacob Taylor, the surveyor general of Pennsylvania from 1725 to 1737, bought the estate in 1728.” That is wrong, as one Peter Taylor owned this estate and sold it to his son John Taylor, who in turn sold it to his son Jacob Taylor.

    The deed executed 17th August 1795, “…between Jacob Taylor of the Township of Lower Dublin in the County of Philadelphia, Blacksmith and Sarah his Wife of one Part and Miers Fisher of the City of Philadelphia, Merchant of the other Part …

    Whereas Peter Taylor heretofore of the said Township and County aforesaid deceased in his life: Was seised in his Demesne as of Fee of and in a Certain Plantation and Tract of Land … from the great Length of Possession in his Family beyond the memory of Men now living, it is unnecessary to recite and so being seised the said Peter Taylor together with Sarah his Wife by indenture dated the second Day of April 1728 did give, grant and convey unto their son John Taylor and his Heirs and assigns forever forever a certain Messuage Plantation and Tract of Land … containing 150 acres…”

    1st July 1750, A deed was made and between John Taylor, Blacksmith (then an aged widower) of one part and his Son Jacob Taylor, Yeoman. Apparently after his father’s death, Jacob Taylor became a Blacksmith. He was not the surveyor.

    The rest of this is total nonsense is unsustainable folklore:

    “Originally a fort, the building, constructed around 1640-1645, was situated near what became the village of Fox Chase on a steep hill southwest of the Pennypack Creek.” PROVE IT!

    “Ury House was built of stone quarried nearby by Swedish refugees who had sailed up the Delaware River and then the Pennypack in the early 1640s. It was said that the settlers arrived there by accident because they were sailing on the Delaware River during the evening and mistook the Pennypack Creek for their intended landing at Christiana, Delaware…” PROVE IT!

    “The Swedes quickly constructed a building of stone to protect themselves from the Lenni-Lenape, although they generally maintained friendly relations with local Native Americans…” PROVE IT!

    “The stronghold also provided refuge when interloping Dutchmen from the Hudson Valley came down to the region to cause trouble. The Swedes used the structure as a fort, trading-post, and government house, since the settlers were scattered in huts and log cabins all around the dense forest that became Northeast Philadelphia…” PROVE IT!

    “The blockhouse was the core of what eventually became the Ury House mansion…” PROVE IT!

    “English colonists later took over the settlement and its blockhouse. Jacob Taylor, the surveyor general of Pennsylvania from 1725 to 1737, bought the estate in 1728 and added another wing to the house. He later sold the dwelling to Miers Fisher, a Quaker lawyer…” PROVE IT!

    If you pick it up from the Miers Fisher ownership going foward, then you have a fairly good narative, but before that, I challenge you or anyone else to prove it.

    I am willing to make a wager: my oldest book against your oldest book. Winner keeps both.

    I give you one day to take this bet: you have 90 days to prove the historical accuracy in your narrative or surrender the oldest book in your collection, additionally should you lose, make the necessary retractions of the fictional sections.

    J.M.

    • Wow. Is this a joke? If not, you may be right and you may be wrong but what a tawdry way to respond. Do you react like this wherever you go when you disagree with someone, making such a public scene?

    • Dear Mr. Menkevich,
      Trying to discern what exactly your point is here. Are you saying that
      Ury House is not historically significant and Philadelphians are better served with less open space and more apartment buildings and less history remembered. I am not a professional researcher just an ordinary person who likes history and has a penchant for old houses that dates back to my childhood. It seems a fair bit of the information in this piece can be found in The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia by Eberlain and Lippincott. Is this book just some nice folklore? Along with the author of this piece, I mourn Philadelphia history obliterated. I had the privilege to grow up across the street from colonial Fairfield in Logan and Woodfield to the north. Fairfield being the summer home of Henry/Elizabeth Drinker and the birthplace of Edward Drinker Cope one of our nations earliest paleontologist. All lost to development.

      • Took the words right out of my mouth Beasiex. Take care.

      • Joseph J. Menkevich

        To All, I apologize for the late response, but I did post this 26 October 2017 – about 9 days ago. It was not approved by Hidden City to be viewed – and so I just forgot about it. I just happened to look today.

        When I first posted, I kind of expected my response might be received as ”tawdry.” But I am a grumpy old man and so …

        But as a researcher, a preservationist and someone who petitions the City to nominate property for historic designation, when I read this Ury-House story back in October at 5:02 am,I blew my top.

        It is a wonderfully written romantic piece of work, but too erroneous to be considered as a foot-note in a scholarly journal or quoted as a source in a Nomination for Historic Designation.

        I am not attacking the author. I am attacking his poorly researched article.

        My point here is: that since the Ury House is gone – it is easy to make all these several “historical” assertions and to do so unchallenged.

        I am challenging Harry’s assertions, as it is a disservice to the academic community to publish such rubbish.

        As a researcher, I pulled the deeds, found several area surveys.

        Additionally, Surveyor Jacob Taylor had died in 1746:
        .
        (This source says 1736: ), I go with the former.

        The deed executed 17th August 1795, “…between Jacob Taylor of the Township of Lower Dublin in the County of Philadelphia, Blacksmith and Sarah his Wife of one Part and Miers Fisher of the City of Philadelphia,” was 49 years after the death of Surveyor, Jacob Taylor.

        If Hidden Cty offered the ability to post images, I would have posted the deeds and surveys, but it does not give me that option.

        While Harry has stated: “The Ury House could have been converted back into an immersive educational facility set deep in the woods of Northeast Philadelphia. Alas, the prominent hill upon which mansion stood is the only thing left of the Ury estate. While an original wall still might still peek up here and there within the Montclair development, not even a historical marker denotes this once-storied mansion that was known by so many important, influential Americans and underwent so many noteworthy uses.”

        I conclude that is only a hypothetical and a cowardly way out, as anyone can apply for an Historic State Marker or nominate a property.

        According to Philadelphia Code & Home Rule Charter: current through November 1, 2017, , anyone can nominate a Building: §14-203(43)(a)(b), Objects: §14-203(195), Site: §14-203(298) Streetscape: §14-203(320).

        So may point is if Mr. Kyriakodis enjoys writing about the Ury House, I would urge him to write a nomination and file it with the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

        Perhaps he will try his hand at applying for a Pennsylvania State Marker:
        .

        But I think he would need to add a lot of foot-notes to prove his assertions.

        This was my only joke: “… a wager: my oldest book against your oldest book. Winner keeps both.”

        I thought it was funny.

        J.M.

      • Thank you Beasiex. Mt Menkevich has by now responded, but I must say the angry (not grumpy) tone is surprising.

        Clearly the city and region is poorer for the loss of such a lovely residence and property, but there was little interest in historic buildings in Philadelphia aside from obviously colonial structures and then largely only in Society Hill, in 1973.

  3. Any time I read to the bottom of a story, it signifies good writing and an interesting subject. I had heard of Ury House years ago. Now, thanks to this excellent piece,I actually know more than just the name.

  4. To respond to such criticism is a useless endeavor, but I will note that this posting has produced a lot of interest in the Ury House that it may never had received otherwise. Many who have never heard of the place at least now know that it existed–which was the whole point of the piece, not writing any nomination for this or that (especially since the house was demolished in the 1970s. As for PROVING things, nothing in history can be proved 100%, as nobody is living who can attest to anything that happened long ago. Even if they were alive, their memories can be faulty. The same goes for if what they remember or know has been written down, either by themselves or by others. The basics of the story, though, is the important thing. I have, by the way, applied successfully for a Pennsylvania State Marker. It was erected at another side of town, and, I must say that the alleged experts at the PA Historical Commission got several facts wrong that appear written (in embossed lettering, no less) on the marker. These were facts that I “PROVED” in my book, Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront. It is thus clear that nobody can ever win in any type of historical analysis, whether academic or not…

  5. Menkevich rather mean spirited. Should have been private message. Agree little interest in saving historic preservation property. I 95 took out some amazing stuff. Still a struggle against developers decimating historic inventory. Money trumps history.

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