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

It is no secret that restoring an old house presents a number of headaches, not the least being the question of authenticity. But imagine what it is like to virtually re-create a structure that has been missing for over a century. Most architects would claim that it is impossible, even with good drawings and the best intentions. Never­theless, with a streak of optimism and the blessing of federal monies, the Com­monwealth of Pennsylvania did just that when it undertook to reconstruct William Penn’s 1683 manor house in the late 1930s. initially hailed as the state’s most ambitious preservation project, Pennsbury soon became the most con­troversial.

Located along the Delaware in Falls Township, Bucks County, the original manor house was neglected by Penn’s heirs. After the Revolution, clear title to the property was thrown in doubt and the house eventually sank into ruins. Ex­cept for the foundations and part of an outbuilding, Pennsbury completely disappeared by the 1830s. None of the original architectural drawings are known to have survived, and aside from a crude sketch on a survey map, no detailed drawings or visual descriptions of the house have ever come to light.

This difficulty did not dampen the en­thusiasm of several key members of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission who began pushing the reconstruction project almost as soon as the Common­wealth acquired the Pennsbury site in 1932. By 1936, the Philadelphia architect R. Brognard Okie (1875-1945) was com­missioned to rebuild not only the house but the rest of the manor as well. Op­position to the project, mostly on the grounds of authenticity, began to sur­face in professional architectural circles as early as 1934, and became more and more outspoken as the reconstruction of Pennsbury neared realization.

On the very day of the cornerstone laying in April 1938, several leading newspapers carried headlines denounc­ing the project. The Philadelphia Ledger called it an “historical lie.” One can im­agine the political embarrassment of Governor Earle who presented the groundbreaking address, but the person who was really caught at the center of the controversy was R. Brognard Okie himself. On him was heaped – directly or indirectly – much of the blame for what was thought wrong with the new Pennsbury.

In view of what actually happened, Okie’s role now seems almost secondary to that of Frank W. Melvin, the chair­man of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission who literally pushed the project through the state legislature. A Philadelphia lawyer, Melvin came into the Commission in 1936 and changed the Commission’s emphasis from arche­ology to historic attractions. Melvin wanted the public to participate in history, so he was naturally predisposed toward pageant architecture. As far as the Pennsbury reconstruction was con­cerned, for him it was authentic enough.

If Okie was responsible for anything, it was for projecting the vision of a William Penn who never existed. The “simple Quaker” of high school pageants, the Penn most useful to a politician’s view of history, was essen­tialized in the new Pennsbury. Okie gave shape to the sort of Founder the state wanted Penn to be. But Okie was only an instrument, not the guiding hand, even though without realizing it perhaps, he had turned, in an architectural sense, into state propagandist. It is this aspect of his work at Pennsbury, more even than the unmistakable im­print of his creativity, that lies at the heart of the Pennsbury controversy. It involves the basic issue of how we go about interpreting history and why.

In his book, Preservation Comes of Age, Charles Hosmer has devoted considerable space to the subject of Pennsbury and its larger role in the history of the American preservation movement. Hosmer has pointed out that Pennsbury marked a turning point, for after Pennsbury, the federal government disassociated itself from funding ar­chitectural reconstructions. This was a major shift in policy because until then, reconstructions were considered an ac­ceptable way to interpret history. Reconstructions had been built at Williamsburg and many other historic sites.

It was the success of Williamsburg in particular which gave the Pennsylvania Historical Commission its point of reference. In fact, Williamsburg loomed so large on the minds of the Commission members, especially Frank Melvin, that they came to measure Pennsbury almost exclusively in terms of the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg in spite of the fact that the two houses were worlds apart in style and function. Melvin wanted sites in Pennsylvania that would rival Williamsburg, so Pennsbury was simply not seen as a seventeenth century house. As a result, it was not recon­structed as one, try as Okie did to recon­cile archeological evidence and twentieth century craftsmanship.

If the waters were muddled by what Pennsbury was supposed to represent, the surface at least was smoothed over by the word “memorial.” All of the critics of Pennsbury failed to take this into account. Pennsbury made no pretensions about being anything other than a memorial. That is quite explicit in the state’s contract with R. Brognard Okie. Furthermore, the idea of constructing a William Penn Memorial had been in circulation long before the Com­monwealth entered the scene.

Pennsbury has always been hallowed ground for Quakers. They visited the manor while Penn was there. They visited it after it had been abandoned. They described it in diaries and reminiscences, and they carted off frag­ments of the ruin as mementos of their trip. Friends went to Pennsbury with as much a sense of curiosity as religious awe. So it is not surprising that it was among the Quakers that the idea for rebuilding Pennsbury first surfaced.

It might be argued that if Friends had been firmer in their testimonies at the turn of this century, such a scheme might have received more open opposi­tion, for no matter how much Friends try to disassociate themselves from the idea of creating a religious shrine, for Quakers, Pennsbury will always have that aspect. It is quite unavoidable since William Penn was one of Quakerdom’s most important ministers. This in itself should have warned the state that the re­building of Pennsbury might prove con­troversial. Yet it was Charles Henry Moon, a Quaker member of the Histori­cal Commission, who became the prime mover in getting the project underway and used the considerable influence of Sen. Joseph R. Grundy of Bristol. As chairman of the Commission’s Penns­bury Committee, it was Moon who sug­gested that rather than call it a “shrine,” Pennsbury should be styled a “memori­al.” Pennsbury was to become a symbol of William Penn. Building a memorial in the form of an architectural reconstruc­tion may involve philosophies which are at best unreconcilable. This is part of the difficulty critics of the project had when they were eventually confronted with a house.

While it is not explicit, reconstruc­ting Pennsbury was evidently one of the underlying themes of Samuel C. Eastburn’s address presented at the May 26, 1907 meeting of the Friends’ Historical Society of Philadelphia. Charles Henry Moon was present. The meeting was held during an outing to the site of the original Pennsbury Manor, at the time the property of a Bucks County gravel company. The Quaker architect Addison Hutton made a conceptualized drawing of the manor house which he loaned for the occasion. Pictures gave shape to ideas. The image of a rebuilt Pennsbury took root in Charles Henry Moon. Thus it was through his persis­tent maneuvering in the 1920s that the state was finally able to purchase Penns­bury in October 1932.

Dr. Albert Cook Myers, then the leading authority on William Penn and secretary of the Historical Commission, also became interested in the reconstruc­tion idea. His correspondence concern­ing Pennsbury, now in the collection of the Chester County Historical Society, reveals a great deal about the Pennsbury project and how it took shape. Myers was surprisingly naive when it came to architectural reconstruction – his letters reveal that. He was an excellent historian, but even excellent historians cannot reconstruct houses from facts alone. Nevertheless, by 1932, Myers had begun searching William Penn’s extant papers for references to the building of Pennsbury. Myers found a wealth of material, mostly in the form of instruc­tions to Penn’s carpenters and the like, but he was never able to locate original architectural drawings or even a detailed picture of the house. In any case, most of the data that Myers found were given to R. Brognard Okie as a basis for his reconstruction work.

In addition to Myers’ research, Okie was also supplied with firsthand evidence uncovered by the archeological work of Donald A. Cadzow, an Ameri­can Indian specialist who assumed the position of state archeologist in the 1930s. From 1932 to 1936, Dr. Cadzow worked at Pennsbury with three assis­tants and eventually uncovered the foun­dations of the manor house. Since ar­tifacts were coming to light daily, press interest was extremely high. From time to time, feature stories appeared on the progress of Dr. Cadzow’s work. This publicity was useful for setting the stage for all that followed.

Without architectural drawings or a sketch of the manor house, there was much that even the archeological work could not answer. In November 1934, however, Dr. Myers announced that he had “found” a small sketch of the house on a 1736 survey map. As the Harrisburg Capital News pointed out in its article on the announcement, the sketch “solved a difficult problem for the Pennsylvania Historical Commission.” It was the evidence the Commission had been look­ing for. It was enough to justify plans for a reconstruction.

Most architects would have serious reservations about reconstructing a house on the basis of such a feeble sketch, since there is no way of knowing whether it is accurate or just an approx­imation. As it happened, this sketch seemed to agree with other information on the house, such as number of win­dows, placement of the chimneys and so forth.

In spite of the information about par­ticular parts of the house in the Penn Papers and evidence coming to light in the archeological work, Dr. Myers was perceptive enough to realize that outside advice was necessary. In the course of writing to individuals whose expertise he felt would be helpful, Myers fell into correspondence with Leicester B. Holland, head of the Fine Arts Division of the Library of Congress as well as chairman of the Committee on Historic Buildings for the American Institute of Architects. In a letter written in 1934, Holland warned Myers about the advis­ability of reconstructing Pennsbury for two reasons. First, there were scores of seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings that were falling into ruin for want of restoration money. In his opin­ion, it would be better to spend money on existing buildings rather than on re­constructions. Secondly, since a recon­struction can never duplicate, nail-for­-nail, moulding-for-moulding, the in­tegrity of an original building, it will always be a reproduction. In reproduc­tions, there are compromises. The average person, untrained in architec­ture, will invariably mistake the “fake” for the real thing, and this to Holland amounted to rewriting history.

One cannot argue with Holland’s criticisms, but what he said of recon­structions might also apply to a good many restorations. It is surprising, however, that his rumblings were not given more weight by the Historical Commission because it was Holland in 1938 who led the movement at the na­tional meeting of the American Institute of Architects to censure the Pennsbury project and recommend that federal money be withheld from all projects of this sort. Whatever the usefulness in drawing the line with Pennsbury, it would be pure delusion to imagine that the falsification of history came to a halt in 1938.

Holland, who was originally from Philadelphia, made no secret about his adamant dislike for the architecture of R. Brognard Okie, and this no doubt had some bearing on his feelings about Pennsbury. In his letter of warning to Albert Cook Myers, Holland specifically referred to the suspect authenticity of the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia and the “entertaining object lesson” that might be learned from studying the sort of colonial architecture represented in the High Street reconstructions at the U.S. Sesquicentennial in 1926. Both the Betsy Ross House and the High Street reconstruction were the work of R. Brognard Okie. They contributed to the increased popularity of Okie’s work (most of his major commissions came after 1926), and they evidently figured in Okie’s selection as architect for Penns­bury. Since the High Street reconstruc­tion was the only part of the Sesqui­centennial Exhibition that was finished in time for the ribbon cutting, Okie proved that he was able to meet state funding deadlines. Unfortunately, at Pennsbury, this is precisely what Okie spent most of his time doing. When time is of essence, it is usually art that pays.

Okie’s art originated in philosophies totally alien to Leicester Holland. Holland was a scholar and purist. Okie was extraordinarily adaptive. He was creative. His chosen medium was a blend of Arts and Crafts and Colonial Revival. He was in tune with the work of such English architects as Sir Edwin Lutyens, and was, in fact, influenced by Lutyens. Nevertheless, for critics like Holland, Colonial Revival smacked of the sort of falsifications that were so much a part of period reconstruction ar­chitecture. Okie, on the other hand, was willing to go beyond the shortcomings of the material he had been given and create a work of art.

The question is: ls art falsification? Or does it create its own reality? In spite of the misconstrued visions of Penn – no matter how well intended, the prop­aganda, and the other subjective things that went into the making of Pennsbury – Okie subordinated all of this to his art. In Pennsbury, he created an artistic pres­ent based on what he could faithfully reproduce from the past. Like Hudson Valley Gothic or a Lutyens country house, Okie’s Pennsbury is absolutely a product of its own times. It is un­mistakably Okie in the multitude of details borrowed from old Pennsylvania farmhouses, from Ephrata Cloister, yes, even from John Penn’s “Solitude,” the little villa that was for many years the Reptile House at the Philadelphia Zoo. That touch is typical of the son of humor Okie employed in all of his buildings, from eighteenth century datestones on turn-of-the-century log cabins, to John Bartram’s closets up and down the Main Line. Okie was probably one of the last Philadelphia architects who could wink at history by making it.

Where does this leave Charles Henry Moon’s vision of a rebuilt Pennsbury? ironically enough, research is beginning to show that Okie had a better grasp of what he was doing than his critics gave him credit. On some points, his judg­ment has proven remarkably accurate. What scholars have lacked, however, is Okie’s own account of his work at Pennsbury. Okie died in a tragic auto­mobile accident in 1945, and with that, history more or less closed the book on his part of the Pennsbury story.

Shortly before the political furor over Pennsbury moved the state to terminate its contract with him in 1940, Okie prepared a confidential justification for what he had done. Recently discovered among the R. Brognard Okie Papers in the Pennsylvania State Archives (MG 303), this report is one of the most important documents to come out of the entire Pennsbury controversy. Not only does it explain Okie’s reasoning for what he did, it also contains all that is known about the archeological work under­taken before the manor house was re­constructed over the original founda­tions. Although the Historical Commis­sion repeatedly requested a detailed ar­cheological analysis of the work at Pennsbury, Dr. Cadzow evidently never committed all he knew to writing. For that material, we must now rely on Okie.

In an article on Pennsbury in the Public Ledger of March 18, 1939, Allen W. Harris quoted the Philadelphia architect Carl A. Ziegler, who char­acterized the Pennsbury project as “stupid” and a “dream.” Ziegler was not only a well known Colonial Revival architect, but also one of Okie’s former partners in the firm of Duhring, Okie and Ziegler (1898-1918). He was fully capable of the same kind of architectural myth-making for which he so soundly condemned Pennsbury. His expose in the press must be viewed as poor judg­ment if not bad taste. This should serve to illustrate how unnecessarily personal much of the criticism of Pennsbury was.

On a personal level, Okie was sensitive and reticent to begin with. To make mat­ters worse, he lost money on the Penns­bury project. Ln his defense, he seems to have felt that his report to the Commis­sion was enough said. The report, which will appear in the second part of this ar­ticle, may not lay to rest the opposing opinions about Pennsbury and what it should be, but it ought to underscore the fact that Okie was taken to task for the wrong reasons. Allen Harris probably came closest to summing up the public’s perception of the entire Pennsbury con­troversy when he wrote in 1939: “Dream or nightmare, correct or inaccurate, [Pennsbury] is likely to be a much­-visited memorial to William Penn for many decades.” Memorial or recon­struction, it is also a monument to Brognard Okie.

 

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 was appointed historic site administrator of Pennsbury Manor, Morrisville, and support curator of Graeme Park, Horsham, in June 1979. Prior to joining the PHMC’s profes­sional staff, Mrs. Kolb was project director for a one-year National Endow­ment for the Humanities research and planning grant given to The Pennsbury Society, a non-profit associate group under contract with the Commission at Pennsbury Manor. Her responsibilities involved research into the primary documents and correspondence of William Penn, the reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor and the social and material life of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in America and England.