Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Works of art featured in “Rediscovering the People’s Art: New Deal Murals in Pennsylvania’s Post Offices” by David Lembeck, beginning on page 28, are some examples of the legacy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in Pennsylvania. Another is the reconstruction of William Penn’s Pennsbury Manor overlooking the banks of the Delaware River in Bucks County. A popular attraction along the Pennsylvania Trails of HistoryTM, Pennsbury Manor is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

An architectural drawing depicts this highly controversial reconstruction project by the distinguished Devon, Chester County, historical architect R. Brognard Okie (1875–1945), who designed a number of Colonial Revival-style residences in the greater Philadelphia area. In his zealous effort to re-create Pennsbury Manor, Okie was guided only by fragments of foundations and building materials and Penn’s letters of instruction to his steward at Pennsbury, James Harrison. Inspired in part by Colonial Williamsburg, the effort by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, predecessor of PHMC, to re-create Penn’s vanished country house reflected a romanticized view of the past that possessed broad appeal in the midst of the Great Depression. Critics decried Okie’s creation as a “fabrication.”

The reconstruction was coordinated through the General Services Administration and funded in large part through the Public Works Administration, created in 1933 by FDR’s administration to stimulate America’s flagging economy. The R. Brognard Okie Architectural Papers (Manuscript Group 303) at the Pennsylvania State Archives consists of eighty-five cubic feet of materials that include correspondence and architectural drawings for the architect’s major commissions, but especially for the rebuilding of Penn’s manor house and its ancillary buildings. The group also contains historical engravings used as research materials, a postcard file, records of accounts, and catalogues of architectural parts, in addition to correspondence and contracts with Edward R. Barnsley, Newtown, Bucks County, a Pennsylvania Historical Commissioner responsible for monitoring the project. The contracting firm of Sessinghaus and Ostergaard, Inc., of Erie, completed the house in 1939, although work on landscaping and the gardens continued.

Individuals interested in materials relating to this project at the Pennsylvania State Archives should also examine the Pennsbury Manor Collection (Manuscript Group 394) and the Edward R. Barnsley Papers (Manuscript Group 439). Architectural drawings and related materials for other Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects throughout the Commonwealth are included in the Records of the General State Authority (Record Group 9) and among WPA materials in the Records of the Department of General Services (Record Group 20).


Willis L. Shirk Jr. is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives.