History

Uncovering Compassion and Community in the Ruins of Buttercup Cottage

July 11, 2023 | by Jacob Downs

The ruins of the barn at Buttercup Cottage along Cresheim Valley Drive in Northwest Philadelphia. | Photo: Jacob Downs

Hidden within the overgrown foliage of Wissahickon Valley Park at the intersection of Emlen Street and Cresheim Road lies the stone remnants of Buttercup Cottage. From the late 1800s through the early 20th century it was used as a retreat for working class women of Philadelphia who could not afford more extravagant vacation destinations, but still desired respite from the overcrowded and polluted existence of the industrial inner city.

The origins of the structure that would later become known as Buttercup Cottage largely remain unknown. The six-bedroom farmhouse was built around 1812. It was a three-story stone structure with a large wrap around porch extending along the southern and eastern walls and a second small wooden porch on its western wall. The building was topped with a mansard shingle roof and it sloped on all sides becoming steeper about halfway down. Adjacent to the house, along modern day Emlen Street, sat a two-story stone barn with a single wooden walkway along the north-eastern section. It was topped with a simple shingle roof. The ruins of the barn is all that remains of Buttercup Cottage today.

To understand more about the cottage it is important to understand the story of one of its most prominent owners, Henry Houston. Born in York County, Pennsylvania into an affluent family, Houston began his professional career as a teenager. He began work as a clerk at John S. Futhey’s mercantile house, a construction material supplier. In his early 20s Houston took a position with D. Leech and Company, a railroad transportation firm. At the age of 27, Houston’s accomplishments caught the attention of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR), which hired him to help establish and operate its freight business. In 1847, Houston relocated to the Philadelphia region. Through his work with the freight business, Houston was able to move his way into better positions at the company with increased responsibilities. By 1851, he had become the general freight manager for the PRR

A postcard showing Buttercup Cottage in 1905. | Photo courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Houston’s wealth had grown during the Civil War, as the PRR played a vital role in the transport supplies and soldiers for the Union Army. Following the end of the Civil War, he was instrumental in creating a transcontinental freight line. By the late 1860s, Houston took a step back from the freight business and instead focused on the development of the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Chestnut Hill Railroad–a rail line that would connect downtown Philadelphia with the northwest.

Despite Houston’s distinguished work with the PRR, the vast majority of his wealth was acquired from his early investments in the oil industry. By the late 1880s, he had become one of the wealthiest people in Philadelphia and was able to purchase extensive tracts of the Wissahickon Valley. In addition to his land acquisitions, Houston developed a community along the eastern border of the Wissahickon Creek which included the construction of Chestnut Hill Academy and St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church. It was around this same time that Houston purchased Buttercup Cottage.

During Houston’s real estate acquisitions, Philadelphia was undergoing rapid urban expansion and industrialization. The city was becoming overcrowded and polluted. Miserable working conditions were common, with laborers expected to work 12-hour workdays six days a week. Houston’s vision for Buttercup Cottage was to provide a summer retreat for working class women in the city. For a price of one dollar a week, these women could rent one of the 16 rooms available and escape their difficult lives. Making the retreat even more accessible to working class women, St. Martin’s sponsored many women to stay there.

Gertrude Houston Woodward in front of Buttercup Cottage. Date unknown. | Photo: Public Domain

Houston’s daughter, Gertrude Houston Woodward, was the president of Buttercup Cottage. She was a devout presbyterian and a member of the St. Martin’s. Leveraging her strong connection to the church, Gertrude appointed a staff and management team composed exclusively of women from within the church community. Sister Ruth, a founding member of the retreat and a member of the church, played a pivotal role in overseeing the program for 18 years. Her contributions were instrumental in successfully launching and sustaining the retreat during its early stages.

Buttercup Cottage opened to working women in the summer of 1889. In its inaugural season, which stretched between June and October, the program housed around 150 women. Due to the overwhelming demand many women were turned away. As a result of its popularity, a number of renovations were made to the original structure to help accommodate even more women at once. The ground floor was transformed to include a large living room and dining room. The kitchen was upgraded, and a pantry was added to help provide enough food for visitors. On the second and third floors, the bedrooms were divided into eight rooms per floor, and each room was named after the flower that matched its decorative motif. In subsequent seasons, the number of women that could be accommodated in a season doubled.

Most women stayed anywhere from three to five days, and a considerable number of women became regular visitors across multiple seasons. Life at the cottage was quiet and calm. The women staying there were mostly free to explore the surrounding cow pastures, apple orchards, water features such as pools and streams, a small tennis court, and an open field for playing croquet and other games. While the women enjoyed these freedoms to explore the world outside of industrial Philadelphia, it was expected that all residents attend Sunday mass, since the retreat was so closely associated with St. Martin’s.

Details of the ruins of the barn at Buttercup Cottage. | Photos: Jacob Downs

The program at Buttercup Cottage lasted until 1942, after which the retreat remained unused for many years. In 1964, the Woodward estate gifted the property to the Fairmount Park Commission. By then the main building had fallen into disrepair and was demolished not long thereafter. The barn that sat behind the house along the road remained standing and was used for various events and programs, including a stint by the Girl Scouts. On the north side of the barn was a bathroom, which was likely installed after it was given to the Fairmount Park Commission.

In 1982, the barn suffered a devastating fire resulting in the complete destruction of the wooden doors and roof. The stone structure, however, managed to survive the blaze and represent all that remains of Buttercup Cottage. As of today, there are no current plans to stabilize or restore the property. In recent years, St. Martin’s has led cleanup efforts for removing overgrowth and debris from the area, and there are occasional gatherings of people in and around the ruins.



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About the Author

Jacob Downs is a Philadelphia native who was born and raised in the city's far Northeast. As an undergraduate, he studied American history and political science. He continued his history education with a master’s degree focusing on perceptions of gender during Philadelphia’s industrial past.

11 Comments:

  1. Charles DiSanto says:

    Hi Jacob

    Thank you for providing some insight into the history of this interesting barn. I’d love to learn more about it, if you are not opposed to a further conversation, or email correspondence.

  2. Marilyn Hilliard says:

    Outstanding article!

  3. Francine Gejer says:

    Great article summoning a vision of the past from present day ruins.

  4. Ali Tahvildaran says:

    Mr. Dawn,

    I found your article very informative. Thank you!

    Regards

    -Ali Tahvildaran

  5. Karen Russo says:

    Fascinating – thx

  6. Ruth Daly Arnold says:

    Thank you so much for doing this research – and publishing the results. I was at Buttercup Cottage many times when I was in the Girl Scouts in the ’50’s and 60’s but I had no idea of its history.

  7. Melissa Torpie says:

    I grew up on Huron Lane right off of Allen’s between Lincoln and Emlen. I could cut through a neighbors yard right to the ruins. As children we had so much fun playing there and all of the park. I never knew the entire history.

  8. Jay says:

    Growing up in Erdenheim in the 70s, we passed the barn all the time. I remember when it burned down. Back then, the land around the barn was well manicured and was a cool spot for a picnic. Even after the fire, the stone walls that remained were always so intriguing. It saddened me that Fairmount Park let the land go back to it’s natural state because it filled in with nothing but Ailanthus and litter. I haven’t been by in years so maybe it’s been cleaned up, but it doesn’t look like it in the pictures. Thanks so much for this great article!

  9. Jason says:

    Just found this article. Loved this.

  10. K Barto says:

    Great article!

  11. Judy Seideman Filipkowski says:

    I discuss the area often and did not know this story. Great Job. To Jacob and all his siblings from your fourth grade teacher at Comly…Love to know what you all are doing and where you are working.

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