Destination profiles museums and historic sites in Pennsylvania.

Three hundred and twenty-five years ago this autumn, on October 28, 1682, to be precise, William Penn (1644–1718) arrived at Upland, now Chester in Delaware County, to begin laying the foundations of his “Holy Experiment,” his beloved province of Pennsylvania. Nearly eighteen months earlier, in March 1681, he had received the charter for land that is now Pennsylvania from England’s King Charles II in repayment by the crown for a debt owed his father, Admiral William Penn (1621–1670). In 1681, he entrusted his cousin, William Markham (1635–1704), whom he had appointed deputy governor, with helping to organize the colony, in addition to selecting the location of his residence in America.

Penn enjoyed the solace of the country, far from the noise and bustle of cities, and he hoped he and his first wife, Gulielma Maria Springett Penn (1644–1694) would enjoy the bucolic countryside. “The Country Life is to be preferr’d,” he wrote in Some Fruits of Solitude, published in 1693, “for there we see the works of God; but in Cities little else but the Works of Men: And the one makes a better Subject for our Contemplation than the other.” Two years after Penn directed him to identify a location for his residence, Markham informed the proprietor he had located a tract of eighty-four hundred acres in Bucks County that included forests, a suitable building site for a manor befitting his stature, and, most important, frontage on the Delaware River. Gulielma Penn died at the age of fifty without ever having set foot in Pennsylvania.

In the midst of establishing the provincial government, Penn also assembled workers to begin construction of his country estate, to whom he issued a specific set of orders on the way it should be developed. Before he returned to England in August 1684, he instructed gardener Ralph Smyth about the planting of vegetables and fruit trees, construction of walkways and steps, and the building of a gate. Before he could attend to Penn’s orders, though, Smyth died and his successor, James Reed, assumed the duties. Penn relied on skilled servants — paid, indentured, and enslaved — to construct the house. Bricklayers, blacksmiths, and glassmakers were summoned from England or recruited locally. In spite of the loving care and painstaking attention he lavished on his expansive country estate, Penn lived at Pennsbury only twice: once during its construction, from 1683 to 1684, while on his first visit to Pennsylvania, and then again after his return, in December 1699, when he — accompanied by his second wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn (1671–1726), two of his children, and a retinue of servants — took up residence with a grand plan of governing his colony directly.

After arriving at Pennsbury Manor in 1700, the Penns worked diligently to develop and manage their remote estate. To James Logan (1674–1751), his secretary in Philadelphia, Penn dispatched numerous requests for workers, provisions, and materials to keep the estate running smoothly. He ordered “3000 bricks,” “150 foot of bords,” “30 Bushels of lime,” as well as comestibles including bacon and chocolate. Penn’s frequent absences from Pennsbury to attend to governmental affairs required Hannah to supervise the servants and slaves, and welcome Native American visitors.

Worried he might lose control of his colony, Penn cut short his second (and final) visit to Pennsylvania, and the family sailed for England in early November 1701. Before departing, Penn entrusted the care of Pennsbury to his housekeeper and steward, Mary and John Sotcher. Penn reduced the staff at Pennsbury and the couple could do little to maintain it.

I hope Pennsbury is upon a good bottom & at least 150 if not more acres are cleared,” he wrote in 1709. William Penn was destined — doomed, some historians contend — to never return to Pennsylvania and Pennsbury Manor. Several years later he suffered a series of debilitating strokes. From England on July 24, 1712, he wrote to Logan, “Let not poor Pensberry be forgotten, or neglected, and employ Wm. Watson . . . to keep up the Housen, the farme & Gardens till we come.” Penn died in 1718, after which the great estate began to crumble. Neglected for years, the original buildings and structures of William Penn’s beloved manor collapsed and eventually disappeared; by 1929, no visible remains survived above ground and nineteenth-century buildings obscured the original foundations. In 1932, to mark the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Penn’s landing in America, a company that owned
the property donated a ten-acre parcel, including the site of the house, to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Historical Commission, predecessor of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), was given responsibility for the site.

The PHMC engaged Donald A. Cadzow (1894–1960), archaeologist and anthropologist, to locate foundations and fragments of Penn’s American home. Cadzow’s findings proved to be rich: bricks, nails, hinges, window glass, and Dutch tiles. Based on Cadzow’s discoveries, the PHMC began planning the reconstruction of the plantation, including the manor house, the out-buildings, and the landscape. For the ambitious project, the PHMC hired Philadelphia
architect R. Brognard Okie (1875–1945), who based his design on Penn’s original instructions and on the intensive archaeological investigations. Workers laid the manor house’s cornerstone in April 1938 and completed the building in the summer of the following year. The PHMC acquired an additional thirty acres and the grounds were laid out by Thomas W. Sears (1880–1966), noted American landscape designer who settled in Philadelphia in 1917.

Today, Pennsbury Manor, one of the popular attractions along the PHMC’s Pennsylvania Trails of History, welcomes visitors from around the world. The stately manor house, which served as the governor’s residence and Penn’s personal retreat, is the only house the proprietor designed and had built for himself. The front of the house faces the Delaware River because most visitors arrived by boat. In addition to the main residence, the grounds contain a small cemetery holding the remains of the Pemberton family, Quaker friends and neighbors of the Penns at Pennsbury; a stable, housing live animals similar to those raised at the manor by Penn; a bake and brew house, which contains a brew room, kitchen, and workroom; a replica of a seventeenth-century barge; various outbuildings; a kitchen garden; and a dwelling built in the nineteenth century by the Robert Crozier family, owners of the property for three generations, from 1803 to 1886.

Throughout its history, Pennsbury Manor witnessed a number of changes, and the most recent is a new visitor center that replaces an outmoded facility dedicated in 1964. As long ago as the early 1980s, there had been discussions for the need of an expanded orientation center and by the close of the decade a capital allocation had been added to the state budget. In 1999, Lieutenant Governor Mark Schweiker presented a check symbolizing the release of state funds for the project and the following year the Pennsbury Society, an organization that supports the historic site, mounted a capital campaign that realized more than one million dollars for the center and strengthened an existing endowment fund. CICADA Architecture/Planning, Inc., of Philadelphia, completed the design of the building in 2004 and construction began the following year. Architects borrowed inspiration from the reconstructed buildings for rooflines and facades. Because Pennsbury Manor relies on well water, the project required development of a state-of-the-art fire protection system.

The visitor center offers a welcome area, an exhibit gallery of 2,400 square feet (with technologically advanced climate control), an auditorium with seating for 180, a classroom equipped with video conferencing, library, collections storage area, museum shop, and offices.

“We hope this new facility will help us welcome friends — both old and new — to Pennsbury Manor,” says Douglas A. Miller, site administrator. “Pennsbury is among the most significant sites in this country — it was home to an idealist who established a safe haven for individuals of all nations seeking a new life of religious freedom and tolerance. Penn sacrificed both health and wealth making Pennsylvania a reality for generations of immigrants.”

Miller says the new facility will enable the site’s staff to thoroughly orient visitors to the 43-acre complex. “Our orientation film enables us to give visitors an insightful and intelligent look at Penn and the world in which he lived. We work hard to make our programs as meaningful as possible, and the new center gives us even greater opportunity and flexibility. Our visitors will enjoy learning about Penn, his family, and his government in comfortable surroundings.” Barbara Franco, PHMC executive director, who took part in the groundbreaking ceremonies on October 19, 2005, emphasizes the importance of the $3.5 million building. “We show visitors how William Penn lived and worked in Pennsylvania, but we can now expand their appreciation with multi-media presentations, special exhibits, and interpretive displays in our new center. The center triples the size of the previous building and enables us to provide world-class visitor services for individuals of all ages. It’s fitting that we’re hosting grand opening ceremonies this autumn because Pennsylvanians are also celebrating the three hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of William Penn’s arrival in Pennsylvania on October 28, 1682.”

The official grand opening of the visitor center will be held on Saturday, September 29, from 10 a.m. to noon. Special activities will be conducted on Saturday and Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m. As part of the celebration, the PHMC is offering free admission to Pennsbury Manor during that weekend. Although the construction phase is completed, exhibits in the new gallery space have not yet been installed. The site will unveil the gallery in March 2008 in observance of Charter Day, the 327th anniversary of the granting of the charter to Penn for Pennsylvania by King Charles II.