At 1548 Adams Avenue in Frankford there is a small, modest home with a big, important history. The two-story house is believed to have been built between 1712 and 1718 and is one of the oldest historical structures listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historical Places. The 18th century dwelling, where Thomas Jefferson recited the Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776 before it was read publicly, is currently vacant and in a decaying, fire-damaged state. The property has gone by various names in the past: the Worrell-Winter House, the Wilmerton House, and the Leech House. The home was recently sealed by the Department of Licenses and Inspection and will be auctioned off at a sheriff sale on May 15.
1548 Adams Avenue is thought to be the oldest building in Frankford and it predates existing properties on Elfreths Alley. It was built as a detached structure with stones from the bed of Frankford Creek, which is only a few steps away. The house was likely built by Paul Wilmerton and was occupied in 1718 by a maltster (malt brewer) named John Worrell, who had purchased the land on which the house was erected from Robert Adams (of Adams Road/Avenue). Worrell lived there with a yeoman, George Winter. In 1728, Wilmerton and his wife sold the property to Isaac Leech, a farmer, tanner, and judge. Leech left the house to his wife and his son, Isaac Leech, Jr., who was a cousin of Dr. Benjamin Rush.
Dr. Rush, of course, was a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, but the home’s association with the Declaration goes further than that, for it was allegedly a silent witness to Thomas Jefferson’s reading of the document on July 4, 1776 before it was read to the public at large.
The house is catty-corner from Womrath Park at the triangular intersection of Kensington, Adams, and Frankford Avenues. This green space was once part of the estate and summer home of prominent Philadelphia shipper Henry Drinker. Local historian and longtime Hidden City contributor Jack McCarthy wrote in 2012 that Thomas Jefferson was said to have read the completed Declaration of Independence out loud to the Founding Fathers when they visited Drinker and had a meal there on July 4, 1776. Whether or not this actually happened is up for dispute, but the notion that the Declaration of Independence could have resounded against the building’s walls in 1776 is rather compelling. Womrath Park, incidentally, was renovated in 2012 to convert it into an active stormwater basin as well as a recreational facility.
The story of the Founding Fathers in Frankford—in that epoch, a small village of a few hundred inhabitants outside of Philadelphia proper—has been part of local lore for years. The little old house at 1548 Adams Avenue had a front seat to the American Revolution from the time of the First Continental Congress until the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence. By looking through the house’s windows adoring this period, 8,000 men lugging pieces of artillery could have seen passing by the King’s Highway i.e. Frankford Road/Pike/Avenue and Adams Road/Avenue.
The house was purchased by the Diehl (or Diel) family in 1785. The Diehls were descendants of some of the first German immigrants in Pennsylvania. Deal Street, in the back of 1548 Adams Avenue to which the property extends, is named after the family. By the late 1890s, the modest structure was converted into an oyster house. It has had many owners since.
The building escaped demolition in the early 20th century when Adams Avenue was projected to be widened between Castor and Frankford Avenues. Seen on period maps as lines showing the expanded roadway, this widening was to have eased congestion in that fledgling area of Northeast Philadelphia. For one reason or another, the work was never completed, sparing the old stone home and many other properties along Adams Avenue that were to have been condemned to widen the street.
1548 Adams Avenue has been the focus of local preservation efforts in recent years. It was nominated for historic designation by the Frankford Historical Society and was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historical Places on June 14, 2013. Listing a property on the local register provides legal protection against unnecessary demolition and inappropriate alteration. It is the first step in preserving a landmark piece of architecture or a beloved neighborhood gem.
The style of the home is a “classic example of rural Southeastern Pennsylvania farmhouse architecture,” according to Kristin Hagar, the historical consultant who prepared the nomination for the Frankford Historical Society’s Preservation Committee. Hagar ‘s work was funded by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. 1548 Adams Avenue is distinct for both its architecture and its small size. The home is about 18 feet in width and is no wider than a typical Philadelphia row house.
The house is adjacent to the Frankford Creek Greenway, a plan to connect the Tacony Creek Trail to the Delaware River Trail via a creekside pathway. The development will fill a significant gap in Philadelphia’s current trail network. When completed, a trail will connect from Montgomery County all the way down to the Delaware River.
As a component of Philadelphia2035, the Planning Commission’s comprehensive growth and development plan for the city, the home is mentioned in the plan for Lower Northeast Philadelphia. 1548 Adams Avenue is listed as a historic site that should preserved and rehabilitated through local historic designation, adaptive reuse, and increased awareness.
The house has suffered a fire in recent years, and its entrance has been boarded with plywood. The place is set to go up for Sheriff’s Sale resulting from the non-payment of taxes. This delinquency began in 2014, just after the property’s listing on the local register. Why taxes have gone unpaid is unknown, although the busy and prominent intersection of Adams and Kensington Avenues may be the ultimate explanation. The house appears to be an investment property. Its owner is M. Holmes Investments LLC according to a Philadelphia Historical Commission document, which lists the sale price in 2012 at $1.
In the wrong hands, some fear that the building could be torn down by neglect or hardship and hope that an individual or organization steps up to preserve the storied home. Patricia Coyne of the Frankford Historical Society’s said that saving and the eventual restoration of 1548 Adams is a critical piece of a community development agenda that so far has been missing in the Frankford neighborhood. “The renovation of Womrath Park and early planning for the resurrection of Frankford Creek have neighbors here dreaming.”
According to Jim Young, president of the Historical Society of Frankford, the organization is currently pursuing the acquisition of the property with a goal of incorporating the historic home with Womrath Park and the Frankford Creek Greenway.
The Historical Commission has the legal power to save the home from future demolition, but the sheriff sale in May adds yet another layer of present uncertainty. Perhaps the National Trust, City agencies, and local preservation advocates can figure out a way to incorporate saving the home with the celebration of the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026. Early thoughts about the semiquincentennial commemoration call for a citywide affair that will include Frankford, Germantown, and other areas around Philadelphia that were instrumental in the nation’s birth.