Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.

In its attempt during the 1930s to re-create William Penn’s 1683 manor house in Bucks County, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in­advertently unleashed a storm of con­troversy over the way in which the site, its archeological evidence and its ar­chitecture should be interpreted. Long before reconstruction of the manor house was completed in 1938 (landscap­ing and furnishing occurred later), critical murmurings from architects and historians gave warning signals that the expensive project might not receive the unqualified support its promoters would have liked. In spite of this, the State of Pennsylvania enthusiastically carried out its designs for a project that was to rival Williamsburg in Virginia. The results were viewed as a catastrophe by the most outspoken critics, and the project’s prin­cipal architect, R. Brognard Okie, found himself at the very eye of the storm.

In Part I of this article (PH, Fall 1982, pp. 22-26), the evolution of the Pennsbury project and its major figures are discussed and brought up to the year 1940, when Okie’s position as project ar­chitect became increasingly difficult. In response to criticism from within the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, as well as from professional architectural circles, Commission Chairman Frank W. Melvin asked Okie to prepare a report explaining what he had done at Pennsbury and why. A draft of the original report, found among the Okie papers (Manuscript Group 303) in the Pennsylvania State Archives, comprises about eighteen typed pages, much too long to be reproduced here in its entire­ty. However, major sections of the report have been carefully edited and now appear in print for the first time. Okie called his report ”The Recreation of Penn’s Manor.”

In his prefatory remarks, the ar­chitect acknowledged the three major promoters of the project: The Penn­sylvania Historical Commission, as it was then called, “with the aid of the State of Pennsylvania”; the Welcome Society (for descendants of early Quaker settlers); and the Society of Friends. In addition, he also listed the private and public libraries and specialists consulted for the project, making special reference to his friend and long-time associate Charles B. Montgomery and his brother John M. Okie, both of whom carried out some of the research Okie needed to verify his architectural schemes. Their research included a trip to England, visits to the British Museum, to Lady Constance Milnes Gaskill (the Gaskills are Penn descendants) and to a number of other places where Penn papers might be found. Okie also thanked his associate in the project, Dr. Warren Powers Laird of the University of Penn­sylvania. Dr. Laird studied the architec­tural references garnered from the Penn papers, helped interpret them for Okie and criticized the working drawings as they were prepared.

Most of the major criticisms of the manor house reconstruction centered on its shape, internal organization (layout of the rooms) and external appearance. This is what Okie had to say about that:

“The main building was reputed to have been 60′ long and 40′ deep. Dr. Cadzow, [State Archeologist, eds.] in his excavations, found cellar foundation walls 60′ – length of front parallel with the River, and a central wing 14′-0″ wide extending to the North or rear 19′-2″, making a T-shaped cellar 60′-0″ long x 40′-0” deep over all.

“The excavations also revealed very definite evidence of a foundation or pier at the outer angle formed by the con­tinuation of the west cellar wall and the north cellar wall, but all traces of a cor­responding pier at the other outer angle had been obliterated by the erection of a later house [the Crozier House, which was moved to another site at Pennsbury; eds.] over the northeastern portion of the Manor House site. In other words, although a T-shaped cellar was found, a rectangular building evidently had been erected, but without a cellar upon the site of the northeast and northwest rooms of the original structure.

“Further evidence that this was the case was found in the fact that the outer walls of the cellar foundations were toothed to receive additional masonry.

“The cellar walls of the rear portion of the building or the stem of the T were lighter or thinner than the main cellar walls, indicating a lower building at the rear or one of different construction.

“From careful study of all data, let­ters from William Penn, his contem­poraries and others of subsequent date, we are convinced a rectangular building was erected over a T-shaped plan. There is on file at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania a survey of Pennsbury, ordered by Thomas Penn in 1736, from the Surveyor General, who at that time was Benjamin Eastburn. The portion of Thomas Penn’s letter, dated November 25, 1736, that refers to the survey is … :

I have ordered our surveyor general to draw a draft of the Mannor from a large one I employed Isac Pennington and the Surveyor of Bucks County to make from an actual Survey for your satisfaction, which was finished lately tho tis several years since I directed them to do it.

The survey plan or map [reproduced in Part I of this article, eds.] shows the front or River elevation of a building which we have assumed to be the Manor House, and we have followed the same as to number of windows, type of roof, location of main entrance door, etc.

“By Dr. Cadzow’s excavations and careful sifting of all earth as it was removed, a quantity of articles were found, some in fragments, some in their original state, except for rust, etc. [Sur­viving film footage of the archeological dig shows that much of the sifting was done using wire screening which may have permitted objects smaller than half a dollar to be dumped in the river with the remaining soil. Eds.]

“In the portion of the cellar under the West Parlor, the excavations disclosed a carefully laid stone floor still in excellent condition, covering at least a third of the area of this portion of the cellar. Other pieces of the same kind of stone were found under the main hall and under the stair hall. All of these paving stones were carefully saved and sufficient of them were found to entirely repave the floor of the portion of the cellar under the West Parlor. The finding of these stones in an undisturbed condition definitely fixed the level of the original cellar floor. This level also agreed with the level of the footings under the original founda­tion walls.

“A portion of the original brick cellar foundation wall was found to be in ex­cellent condition at the north side of the southwest cellar. This wall has been re­tained relaying the old brick exactly as they were found. It is arched over to relieve it of weight, and it is from this original wall that the size and character of the brick that has been used throughout was established. The width of joint, manner of laying, which is so­-called ‘English Bond,’ alternates header and stretcher courses.”

Okie then goes on to discuss how, with the help of archeology, he was able to determine the location of chimneys, the kitchen wing and the age of the bakeoven and fireplace in the pre­sent kitchen, which he assumed to be original. He continued:

“The old cellar walls under the main part of the house indicated quite clearly foundations for a chimney on the south side of the Great Hall, with probably fireplaces in the Great Hall, in the South Parlor, and the Withdrawing Room, also making it possible to have fireplaces in the two south bed rooms on the sec­ond floor and the two servants’ bedrooms on the third floor.

“No evidence of a corresponding chimney was found on the east of the Great Hall between the Great Room or the Dining Room and the East Parlor, due to the fact, we believe, that the erec­tion of the [Crozier] house over this por­tion of the original cellar necessitated the removal of the foundation of the similarly located chimneys.

“The fact that fireplaces originally ex­isted on the east side of the hall was established by Dr. Cadzow’s finding a quantity of the yellow-brown facing tile and also of the square hearth tile (also of sooty brick) to the east of the Great Hall, where they would have fallen from such a chimney.

“The blue-green fireplace facing tile that have been reused in the Great Hall, in the West Parlor, and in the Withdrawing Room, were all found in excavating to the South of the Great Hall. Sufficient of these blue-green tile were recovered to complete the facings of the three first floor fireplaces without the use of any new facing tile. The hearth tile of these first floor fireplaces were found some in the ruins and some were procured from an old house on the river, to the East of Penn’s Manor.

“The existence of a chimney and fireplace to the East of the Great Hall was further established from a quote in the Penn Papers, dated 19th of 3rd month 1685 [Third Month was May, Old Style. Eds.]:

The partition between ye best parlor and ye great room ye ser­vants used to eat in, should be wainscoted up & even with ye chimneys at least double leavid doors, one next one & tother next tother room, wich makes a kind of dark closet between no matter for wainscoat. The doors have best be large between ye other parlor & ye withdrawing room.

“Justification for constructing the northeast and northwest portions of the building, together with the central con­necting portion with frame outside walls is had [as follows from a quote in a letter from Thomas Penn dated November 25, 1736]:

… no person has lived in the big house for near twenty years so you must conceive it is much weatherbeaten and one-half which is brick built with oyster shell is in many places cracked.

When I came here I found the house at Pennsbury was very near falling, the Roof open as well as windows, and the woodwork almost rotten ….

“Further justification for the adop­tion of the rectangular plan and the plac­ing of the rooms at the northeast and northwest of the rectangle is had from the following letter [in the Logan Papers, dated 28th of 4th month 1707], which shows there was a room that was not reached from the hall and that a door was requested to this room from the foot of the stairs – the main stair location and the side of the house on which they occur being definitely fixed by a gravel walk leading from the barn directly to the center of the rear hall door under the second stair landing:

We have positively agreed with Coll. Quarry for Pennsbury, he takes it for 7 years unless thou comes over sooner & then must have 6 moths warning, the rent is 40 lbs. per ann.; he to stand all repairs after ye first wch upon ye house itself is only to make it light repair ye windows & make one new door to ye Lower Chamber at ye foot of ye stairs and to lay ye upper floor of ye Outhouse & run one partition to repair ye garden fences & build up ye wall before ye front of ye descending steps, all wch was absolutely to be done if any of ye family come into it, for the old wall in that place being quite gone; the rains washed away the upper ground web has lost so much to raise other things, etc.

“The interior and exterior door sizes of the Manor House are determined from a letter Penn writes giving instruc­tions regarding a proposed house for a friend, [dated 24th of 2nd month, 1686]:

Let ye doors be three foot – half broad & right high at entrance at Least, ye rest within two foot ten inches and seven foot high as myn are.

Regarding the windows, Penn [wrote in the same letter]:

Robert Ripsy, J. Bradberry, Thomas Russell are pretty fellows, middlemost a rare Joyner, he will make sash windows and I would have my middle floor sasht, if thou could sell or use elsewhere the windows yt are in, for they are at best a hindrance.

[This reference indicated that the house was originally furnished with casement windows, but that Penn did not like them, so had them changed. Eds.]

“In another letter [undated], he gives instructions from which window sizes are determined as follows:

The rooms below nine foot high above ye garretts, seven and one half .. .lights .. .let the lower lights be five foot one half deep, ye up­per story lights, seven foot deep or near it like mine, if ye rooms above be but nine foot and one half to ye plastering it will doe.

“In addition to the tile for fireplace facings, roofing tile stone evidently from a roof and the stone floor in the cellar, there were many pieces of hardware found in the ruins, some sufficiently in­tact to verify the window widths as above mentioned in the Penn letter. The reinforcing iron found with the case­ment fast attached agreeing exactly with the Penn letter as to width. Other casement fasts found did not have the brace iron or reinforcing rods. Each type has been copied for the casements in the several buildings.

“Leads for windows and pans of leaded glass sash gave the size and shape of the panes of glass in the upper sash of the Manor House second floor windows.

“While none of the leaded glass sash were intact, parts were found which when pieced together agreed with the sash size requiring the brace iron above referred to. The width and thickness of the old leads has also been followed as nearly as possible.

“An iron latch plate in very good state of preservation was found and has been reproduced for the first and second floor doors of the Manor House where a more elaborate latch would have been used. The plainer latch parts have been copied for the third floor.”

Concerning other interior details, Okie pointed out that for the reconstruc­tion handmade nails were used throughout, split oak lath was made for the plaster interiors, and the plaster was made with sand, lime and cattle hair. The stairway was copied from the Biles House (built 1726 and demolished after 1940) up the river from Pennsbury. Okie reasoned in his report that since Biles was a prominent person, he may have copied the great staircase at Pennsbury. Whether or not Okie was correct about this, the Biles staircase is still one of the most convincing features of the interior carpentry work at Pennsbury, in fact, far more accurate in its execution than Okie’s wainscoting.

As for the number of rooms and their organization in the Manor House, Okie made use of an inventory taken in 10th month (December, Old Style) of 1701. It enumerated Penn’s possessions in the house at the time on a room-by-room basis. The rooms in this inventory agree in number with the present rooms at Pennsbury.

It was still customary in the seventeenth century for English manors to possess their own bake and brew houses. This traditional pattern was a survival from the Middle Ages, so its appearance at Pennsbury is all the more interesting from the standpoint of Pennsylvania’s social and culinary history. Further­more, this building was the last of the original Pennsbury structures to disap­pear. Several views of it survive in nineteenth-century iconographic sources, most of which are detailed enough to suggest original proportions and architectural features. This is what Okie had to say about the reconstruction of this important manor building:

“The excavations at the Bake & Brew House, under Dr. Cadzow’s supervi­sion, resulted in finding very definitely the brick foundations of the outer walls of the building, also the foundations of two large chimneys. In addition, indica­tions of the ripening vat [for ale] in the malt room and one of the iron hoops that evidently had been on tile cedar vat. Near the southwest corner of the malt room they also found a brick-formed floor drain with an outlet leading toward the outside of the building.

“Also, in the northeast corner of the wash room, a portion of the floor was of brick on edge, with the top surface of the brick above the apparent level of the balance of tile floor. The same construc­tion occurs in “The Sisters’ House” at the Ephrata Cloister, and it is said was used to pile the fireplace wood on. [This function is purely Okie’s speculation. Eds.]

“There are in existence steel or wood­cuts of the west wing of the Bake and Brew House showing the appearance of this portion of the building, and it is from these existing pictures that the pre­sent elevations have been worked out.

“The position of the iron vat hoop, when found in excavating, gave the depth of the vat in the brew room, and this depth has been followed in the restoration. For the balance of the in­terior arrangement of the malt room and the brew room, an old employee was found in the Adam Scheidt brewery, in Norristown, who knew exactly how such a brewery should be arranged. By con­sulting this master brewer, it has been possible to build an entirely workable brewery and to retain in their exact original locations the chimney, vat, ground floor level, floor drain, etc., as well as the apparent dimensions of each of the two rooms.”

Suffice it to say, English and German brewing techniques differed con­siderably in the seventeenth century, and still do, so the accuracy of Okie’s brewery is certainly open to question, at least in terms of what may have been there originally. On the other band, it is of great interpretive value, for there is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the United States.

Other details about the Bake and Brew House, the barn, several lesser dependencies, landscaping, and the layout of the fields and orchards were garnered from Penn’s correspondence, much of which Olde cited in his report. Of particular interest were the architect’s remarks concerning the paint colors used at Pennsbury, for they throw some light on the interpretive aspects of all reconstructions and restorations:

“The colors used for the interior painting of the Manor House were decided upon after consultation with Mr. Horace Lippincott and Mr. John P.B. Sinkler. Mr. Sinkler had made a careful study of many of the old buildings in Fairmount Park as to col­ors, etc., and he is also familiar with the interiors of the earlier buildings in Philadelphia. He made two trips to Pennsbury spending several hours with the contractor’s painter supervising the mixing of the several colors and con­sidering the relation of each room to the other in order to get a pleasing effect that would not jar in any way.”

Perhaps the last line reveals more ac­curately than any what often happens when important data are missing and decoration becomes a matter of guesswork. What resulted at Pennsbury was a 1930s version of “Williamsburg” pastels. Without destroying these colors (they are preserved under a layer of new paint), the interior of the Manor House bas recently undergone reinterpretation to bring the paint colors, furnishings and materials more in line with seventeenth-century taste as we now un­derstand it.

In any event, the lessons of Pennsbury are clear: restorations and reconstruc­tions are invariably keyed to the moods and shortcomings of the times. The very selection of those buildings that are “saved” and those that are not may speak more eloquently than the specific accuracies or inaccuracies of any given project. Pennsbury offers ample instruc­tion on this point, quite aside from the artistic statement it makes. In effect, it is an open classroom on historic preserva­tion. Its story should be a primer for everyone who takes restorations or reconstructions seriously, for if we lose the ability to see ourselves and our ac­tions for what they are, then we will in­deed commit the error of rewriting history closer to our hearts’ desire. A history built upon anything other than Truth, will not survive the test of time. That is still William Penn’s greatest message.


William Woys Weaver is a writer and historian living in Devon. He holds a graduate degree in architectural history from the School of Architecture of the University of Virginia and has studied Renaissance architecture at the Interna­tional Center for Palladian Studies, Vicenza, Italy. Currently, he is in­vestigating the architecture of R. Brognard Okie.


Nancy D. Kolb recently began her duties as assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Prior to her appointment, she served as historic site administrator of Pennsbury Manor and support curator at Graeme Park, posts she held since 1979.