Frances Anne Wister: Philadelphia’s Patron Saint of Historic Preservation

 

Frances Ann Wister, Philadelphia’s first historic preservation activist. | Photo: PhilaLandmarks

Unless you are an extreme Philadelphia history geek or historic preservationist, chances are you have never heard of Frances Anne Wister. Yet she is a woman every Philadelphian should know. Many of our iconic historic buildings still stand because of her. Before Edmund Bacon, Charles Peterson, and the many men credited with transforming Philadelphia’s built environment in the 1950s, there was Frances Anne Wister, a veritable one-woman restoration crusader.

When you are the namesake of a famous preeminent Shakespearean actress (Frances Anne Kemble), the great-granddaughter of the foremost Unitarian preacher (William Ellery Channing), a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence (William B. Ellery of RI), and of a chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (James Logan), you might find it difficult to make a name for yourself. It does not appear that Frances Anne Wister felt at all intimidated by her forefathers, but rather she was quite inspired.

Born in 1874 to William Rotch Wister and Mary Rebecca Eustis in a house still standing on La Salle University’s campus, Frances Anne was surrounded by both legacy and pioneering achievements from the beginning. While her mother’s Eustis and Channing roots were of the mind (theology, social justice reform, and abolition work), her father’s Wister roots were a bit more grounded in the earth, sometimes literally. Frances Anne’s great-great-great-grandfather, Johannes Wüster (aka John Wister), built a family summer home in 1744. Now called Grumblethorpe, it was constructed of stone from John’s own quarry and wood from his “Wister Woods” property. John’s grandson Charles Jones Wister, along with his sons William Wynn and CJ Jr., would turn the family refuge into a veritable 19th century science lab, experimenting with botany, astronomy, photography and more.

Grumblethorpe, as it looked in 1927. Later is would be restored back to the original 18th-C design. | Image courtesy of PhilaLandmarks

Frances Anne had family connections to many of the significant houses in Philadelphia, especially in the Germantown section. Along with Grumblethorpe, there is Stenton (home to James Logan), Wakefield (home to her great-grandparents Thomas and Sarah Logan Fisher), Vernon (home to great-grandfather John Wister), and Belfield (home and 104-acre farm of her paternal grandparents William and Sarah Logan Fisher Wister). France Anne’s uncles and father built additional dwellings on Belfield land, establishing a family compound. Frances Anne’s sister, Ella Wister Haines, noted the frequency with which she saw her grandparents and cousins at Belfield in her book Reminiscences of a Victorian Child. “I was twelve when [Grandmother Wister] died, at the age of 85, and up to that day I had eaten noon dinner with her seven days a week, except during our vacations away from home.” She noted further that her grandparents sat at dinner with as many grandchildren as they could assemble, with upwards of 10 cousins arriving for Sunday dinners.

France’s Anne’s interest in the built history of Philadelphia was always wedded with her philanthropic endeavors, specifically those promoting the general well-being of the city’s residents. Throughout her life she was an outspoken leader, serving as president or vice-president of countless civic and cultural organizations. One of her first leadership roles was as the vice-president of the Women’s Civic Club, an organization founded by her elder sister Mary Channing Wister. This organization is credited with bringing electric street-lighting to Philadelphia as well as replacing some of the horse-drawn carriages with trolley cars. She was an early supporter of the Octavia Hill Association that worked to create better living conditions for the city’s poor, including improving the water supply. She was one of 14 members of the Permanent Relief Committee that pressured the mayor in 1915 to aid the distressed poor population. She held a position on the Philadelphia Board of Education and served as a director of the PA Parks Association Board. Her love of music (she played violin from an early age) led her to become a director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and to organize and chair the Women’s Committee of the Orchestra.

The women of Belfield 1888. Frances Anne stands behind her grandmother Sarah Logan Fisher Wister on the porch. | Image courtesy of PhilaLandmarks

One of Frances Anne’s first historic preservation victories occurred while serving the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was 1920 and conductor Leopold Stokowski wanted to abandon the Academy of Music on Broad Street for a building to be constructed on the new Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Frances Anne made a case for what today is considered one of the most legendary theaters in the world—and was successful. What would have happened if Stokowski had won? It is possible that saving the Academy of Music building forced Frances Anne to take notice of what was going on all around her. The historic sites and quaint streets of Old Philadelphia (today’s Old City and Society Hill) had been overtaken by 19th century industrialization and mass immigration. Horace Wells Sellers, architect and great-grandson of Charles Willson Peale, said it best: “While many people deplored the constant destruction and mutilation of our old buildings, little beyond an expression of regret took place until Miss Frances A. Wister, President of the Civic Club, having become thoroughly aroused, decided to act.”

 Surveying Old Philadelphia

The concept of historic preservation took root in Philadelphia beginning in the 1890s when women’s patriotic organizations took an interest in saving historic sites associated with America’s founding events and heroes. They viewed preservation as both patriotic and civic duty, especially as means to “Americanize” the great influx of immigrants. It was also a way to reaffirm their family’s place in history. A good example is the National Society of Colonial Dames of America who took on the preservation of Stenton in 1899. This was the culture into which Frances Anne was indoctrinated. Through her family connections, she was a member of the Colonial Dames and she served as third vice president–general of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. France Anne however, took her advocacy work further by entering the realm of men. Architects, zoning boards, and city planners were all well acquainted with her.

Left: Powel House in 1903, then owned by Wolf Klebanksy who built his horse hair manufactory directly behind. Right: Powel House 1932, members of PhilaLandmarks celebrate Flag Day. | Images courtesy of PhilaLandmarks

By the spring of 1929, Frances Anne concluded that any scheme for the acquisition of individual properties or a general rehabilitation of Old Philadelphia should be based upon facts pertaining to the entire district. Undertaking such a task—compiling reliable data—could not be accomplished by one individual. She attended a Zoning Commission meeting where the idea of “reconstruction” of the Old City section was discussed. It was during this meeting that she outlined to architect and commission member D. Knickerbacker Boyd her thoughts regarding rehabilitation in harmony with the city’s traditional architecture and her idea of undertaking an architectural survey. Afterward, she kept after Boyd until it was finally decided that the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects would take on this work. While Boyd outlined the work to be done, including taking photographs and creating measured drawings, Frances Anne solicited $5,000 from Mrs. Cyrus H. K. Curtis, wife of the pioneering publisher, to fund the project. The Great Depression meant that unemployed draftsmen could be hired at a low wage to take on this work. The first official meeting of the permanent committee was held on December 30, 1930. The survey as originally outlined was completed by the end of 1931 and included 125 photographs. In the forward of the finalized Philadelphia Survey Horace Wells Sellers conveyed: “…from every angle for which we have viewed the problem, patriotic, financial or esthetic, there appears to be but one answer, namely to preserve all that is worthy of preservation and to recreate, in harmony with the old, such structures as will adequately meet the requirement of modern living.” Frances Anne found great satisfaction in this conclusion as she shared in a thank you letter she sent Sellers in 1932 from “the person who started all the trouble.” This Philadelphia Survey predated the work of Charles Peterson and his 1933 proposal to the Library of Congress to document the built environment of the United States through the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), which became the basis for the nation’s first federal preservation program.

Brochure for tours of historic Philadelphia in 1932. Sightseers could choose from three tours, which came with detailed instructions and a map along with photos and a history of each stop. Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Frances Anne would officially take on the mantle of historic preservationist as the survey progressed. During the second meeting of the official committee, on January 5, 1931, the group learned of the possible demolition of the Powel House on South Third Street. Frances Anne was immediately contacted with the news. The Powel House had been an ongoing topic of conversation in several local newspaper articles starting as early as 1905. The building’s owner, Wolf Klebansky, had continually attempted to develop this property to better support his manufacturing needs. The house’s reputation as the “place George Washington danced” kept the building from suffering any major alteration or the wrecking ball. But throughout the years Klebansky had systematically sold off many of the significant architectural features to major art museums and left the rest to decay. By 1931, Klebanksy was ill, the house was in complete disrepair, and his nephew had taken over the business and wanted to sell the property to a neighboring taxi company looking to expand their parking lot.

With the fate of the Powel House unclear, France Anne took charge and called together a group of concerned citizens, who met on February 27, 1931, at the Society of Colonial Dames on Latimer Street. It was at this meeting that a new group was formed, The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks (PhilaLandmarks). Their overall mission was to identify and preserve the important structures of the Colonial and Early National periods still standing in Philadelphia. But their first task was to purchase the Powel House. Under France Anne’s leadership—and before their first official board meeting less than two months later—much progress had been made. Men and women from Philadelphia’s most esteemed families had signed on as founding members, including Biddle, Cadwalader, Lippincott, Curtis, Barnes, Drexel, McIlhenny, and Patterson, with 58 founders in total. A board of directors was nominated. In addition, a $5,000 deposit had been made towards the $30,000 purchase price of the Powel House, including the property immediately to the south. By the second meeting in May, a $12,000 mortgage from the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society was taken out by Mildred E. Thiele on behalf of PhilaLandmarks. The remaining funds needed for closing were raised through 75 separate donations and dues from 84 members, which included funds raised through the Civic Club and the Colonial Dames of America, along with a $10,000 gift from Mr.& Mrs. Cyrus H. K. Curtis.

Frances Anne was immediately elected the first president of PhilaLandmarks, a position she maintained for the remaining 25 years of her life. She organized several ladies fundraising committees which held annual tea, bridge, and garden parties and several needlepoint exhibitions. Through the depths of the Great Depression, these women raised enough funds to pay off the mortgage, secure the house, install a caretaker, and start restoration and furnishing of the main rooms as they worked towards opening the Powel House as a house museum. In 1932, in association with the Committee of 1926 (the group that oversees Historic Strawberry Mansion) Frances Anne helped devise three intricate historic tours that brought sightseers from Philadelphia through Fairmount Park, out to the Main Line, and over to Germantown to visit every significant extant historic house and building. In 1938, Frances Anne contacted her friend A. Atwater Kent, who had purchased the Betsy Ross House the year prior, to convince him to purchase the original 1825 John Haviland-designed Franklin Institute building on 7th Street, as it was being threatened with demolition after the Institute moved to a new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Kent did as Frances Anne asked, and then gifted both structures to the city for use as public institutions. Today the former Franklin Institute is home to the Philadelphia History Museum. In 1940, Frances Anne took title of the Germantown summer refuge built by her great-great-great-grandfather from a group of 35 Wister heirs called the Grumblethorpe Association. She repeated the same formula of setting up fundraising committees to pay for restoration work and donated the house to PhilaLandmarks as its second official house museum. Other sites she worked to save were the Second Bank of the United States, the Deshler-Morris House, the Blue Bell Inn in Cobbs Creek, Upsala, and Elfreth’s Alley.

The Philadelphia Pilgrimage Tours: Frances Ann Wister leading sightseers into Independence Hall (1940) and showing off her vision of Elfreth’s Alley in 1941. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

No matter where her focus, Frances Anne never lost sight of what was going on in the Powel House neighborhood and its nearby neighbor Independence Hall. To increase public awareness of the history of the area, she devised new tours called the Philadelphia Pilgrimage, which brought visitors to the sites around Independence Hall. She became a founding member and vice-president of the Independence Hall Association in 1942, the entity which helped establish Independence National Historic Park. Frances Anne had a vision for the area and she even had an idea for a new name. Back in 1931, a young architect named Sydney E. Martin had been tasked with writing a history that would accompany the published Philadelphia Survey. Martin received a letter from Frances Anne in 1932, questioning why, in his written history, he hadn’t utilized the name she had suggested. The name was Society Hill, which had been inspired by the Free Society of Traders, a group of English Quakers, who had purchased the original land from William Penn.

Of course, we know the outcome of this discussion. The neighborhood was rechristened Society Hill and its green spaces, historic sites and high-end housing is the result of a specific urban renewal project under the Federal Housing Act of 1954 and many competing visions. While other major cities tore down entire neighborhoods, this project was unique in its targeted rehabilitation to preserve historical character. Independence National Historical Park was established in 1951, and the National Park Service preservationist, Charles Peterson, was back in town to inject an Early Republic ambience into City Planning Commissioner Edmund Bacon’s vision of a very modern city featuring Brutalist architecture along with open greenways. But let’s be honest, the work of Charles Peterson might not have been possible without Frances Anne Wister’s tireless advocacy and her vision of Society Hill throughout the 1930s and 1940s. She set the stage for everything that came after.

In PhilaLandmarks’ 10th Annual Report from 1941, Frances Anne lamented historic houses lost when time or money had run out. She wrote, “You will see from this list that places of interest and importance are to be found in every section of Philadelphia, but how long they will be found is another question. How many years will it take to educate the public to preserve landmarks?” To this important question I would add one more. How long will it take for Frances Anne Wister to be recognized as a leading figure in historic preservation?

About the author

Mickey Herr lived in many places until her heart settled in Philadelphia. She has led the development and communications efforts for several significant non-profit cultural institutions in Philadelphia. Current interests involve elevating the hidden-histories of women. She is at work on a novel, and gives tours for Hidden City Philadelphia, both of which are allowing her to research incredible untold stories of women. She believes in ghosts, synchronicity, and taking chances. Read her writing on Philadelphia, history and geneology at mickeyherr.com.



14 Comments


  1. What an excellent piece. I knew of her fine work but this certainly expands my knowledge of this wonderful woman and the great projects that ensued.

  2. Do you have any more information about FAW’s role in founding the Octavia Hill Association, which is still providing affordable housing in Philadelphia?

  3. What a great article about an amazing woman.

  4. Kathryn Pannepacker

    GREAT piece!
    Love Frances Anne!

  5. Very informative and enjoyable. Thanks for the research!

  6. Thank you Lois!

  7. Congratulations, Mickey. This is absolutely first-rate research and writing, fully worthy of your subject.

    David

  8. Hi Mickey – this is a great article. I have to admit that I was looking at all the pictures to see if Jane Eiman were in them….! Hope you are well. Oliver

    • Hey Oliver! We need to get you on the Hidden City tour of Society Hill… we feature Jane’s house and a bit of her story. Let me know when you are next in town. Send our love to the family…and thanks for reading!!

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