Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.
Pennsbury Manor, the reconstructed estate of Pennsylvania's founder, William Penn.

Pennsbury Manor, the reconstructed estate of Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn. Photo by Kyle R. Weaver

The year 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of Pennsbury Manor, the reconstructed estate of Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn (1644-1718), located along the Delaware River near Morrisville in Bucks County. On March 9, 2014, in commemoration of the anniversary, the original 1681 charter from King Charles II of England granting the land that became Pennsylvania to Penn was exhibited and interpreted at the site through special arrangement with the Pennsylvania State Archives. Governor Tom Corbett and First Lady and PHMC Commissioner Susan Corbett officially opened the site that day to nearly 800 visitors.

From its dedication in 1939 Pennsbury Manor has been the only historic site in the nation that is wholly dedicated to the life and contributions of William Penn. Today the 43-acre site continues to capture the essence of the era it commemorates and the spirit of the pioneer of religious freedom it celebrates.

William Penn’s vision for Pennsylvania was to offer a safe haven for persecuted religious groups. He and fellow Quakers of the 17th century understood the hardships of being oppressed by the accepted secular and religious authority of England. While most of the colonial governors or governments were recruiting solely from England and her holdings, Penn brought diverse peoples from throughout Europe to Pennsylvania. In a letter to his friend Robert Turner on March 5, 1681, Penn wrote, “May God Bless it and make it the seed of a Nation.” His liberal policies for land acquisition and religious toleration made Pennsylvania the fastest growing colony by 1700.

Penn’s personal vision for a better life was reflected at his estate in Pennsylvania. Shortly after the charter was enacted, he dispatched his cousin to act as his agent in the new colony. Capt. William Markham held the first official meeting with Native Americans, and at the Greystones in Morrisville he purchased land along the Delaware River from the Lenape Indians. This initial purchase included land just below the river’s curve, south of present-day Morrisville and Trenton, New Jersey. Pennsbury Manor was to be Penn’s home in his new colony. Throughout his life Penn would live in many homes, but Pennsbury is the only one that he had built for himself.

In 1681 Penn gave detailed instructions for the construction of Pennsbury Manor. Ancillary and support structures were added, gardens were planted and the estate was populated with paid workers, indentured servants and African slaves. Penn himself lived at Pennsbury for only two brief periods – 1683 to 1684 during his initial visit to Pennsylvania, after which he returned to England to settle a boundary dispute with Lord Baltimore, and then again from 1700 to 1701, when he occupied the house with his second wife Hannah, their infant son John and his daughter Letitia (born to his first wife, Gulielma).

More than 250 years later Penn’s original home had deteriorated and was long gone. Archaeological investigations of the site informed and influenced the idea of reconstructing the estate. Local citizens had long shown an interest in the site, and throughout the 19th century groups wanting to connect with Penn and early history came to visit the farm where the manor once stood.

By the early 20th century the Warner Company, a sand and gravel quarrying business, had acquired the property, assuring the previous owner that they would set aside a part of the tract for a park in Penn’s memory. When this issue stalled, engineer and surveyor Charles Henry Moon, also a Quaker and local historian, volunteered to work with the company. Moon immediately visited the company president’s office and requested a meeting; he was politely directed to a seat to wait. For a month Moon steadfastly repeated this process until the deed was signed for the transfer of nearly 10 acres of land to the Commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Historical Commission (PHC) was given responsibility for the site in 1932.

Local politician Joseph R. Grundy (1863-1961) was equally involved in convincing the Warner Company to take action. Grundy also played a key role in securing Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding that ultimately led to the reconstruction of Pennsbury. Volunteerism and determination have always surrounded Pennsbury as a historic site.

WPA funding supported extensive archaeological investigations from 1932 to 1936 led by state archeologist Donald A. Cadzow (1894-1960), in which building foundations and some artifacts were unearthed. Architectural research began with the work of prominent historian Albert Cook Myers (1874-1960). Myers served with PHC but found that sketches based on his research were unsatisfactory, lacking in a basis that could be documented by scanty originals from 17th-century source materials, and so he withdrew from the project.

Restoration architect R. Brognard Okie (1875-1945) was selected to continue the research and design of Pennsbury. Noted for restoring many Colonial Era residences for wealthy clientele, Okie worked in the Colonial Revival mode, which represented a reawakening of colonial designs in the 20th century but often resulted in a romanticized ideal of the original styles. Okie started his work as a volunteer as well, with the understanding that as funds were secured he would be compensated. Penn correspondence directing his wishes for Pennsbury in the 1680s was combined with archaeological evidence and study of extant period houses to inform the project. Okie employed his own aesthetic as a skilled architect with the evidence available to develop his vision.

In 1937 the chairman of PHC, Frank Melvin, secured approximately a quarter of a million dollars for the reconstruction. Okie felt the project needed more research but Melvin, a strong leader, insisted that it proceed. As early as 1933 the American Institute of Architects (AIA) questioned if there was sufficient evidence available from Pennsbury to warrant an accurate reconstruction. Nevertheless, construction began in 1937 and the manor house was completed by the end of 1939. Again, the AIA raised the issue of the “fabrication” of Penn’s home.

In 1939 the site was ready to officially open to the public, regardless of the critics of the project. The reconstruction included a manor house, bake house, barn, workers cottage and ancillary structures, including a smokehouse, blacksmith shop and wood shed. The grand opening had all the pomp and speeches one would expect for such an event and the site was well received by those who attended.

The following year Thomas W. Sears (1880-1966) was hired to develop the landscape of the site. Sears drew inspiration from the previous research, but his was a Colonial Revival landscape that remains partially intact to this day.

Volunteers played a key role in the selection and acquisition of furnishings for Pennsbury. The decorative arts at the site, seeded by the committee of volunteers, are now part of one of the finest collections of 17th-century artifacts in the region.

In 1966 a band of volunteers came together to form the nonprofit Pennsbury Society just a few short years after the opening of a new visitors center in the early 1960s. Previously, orientation of visitors had been held in finished spaces in the barn complex. The society began its work with a handful of volunteers and an annual budget of just a few hundred dollars. Their efforts helped support and inspire the Pennsbury Forums of the 1970s and 1980s, which brought to the site skilled professionals for programming and scholars whose research topics dovetailed with Penn’s home. Now partnering successfully with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Pennsbury Society has ever since remained a model for support organizations in the museum world.

By the turn of the 21st century the old visitors center had become inadequate to the needs of the site and the expectations of visitors. In 2007 it was replaced with a new center, featuring a 2,400-square-foot, climate-controlled exhibit gallery. It was officially opened with a United States citizenship ceremony, reminiscent of Penn’s original plan to bring new people to his colony. Appropriately, naturalization ceremonies are becoming a regular part of the program at Pennsbury Manor. Most recently on July 18, 2014, 45 individuals from 22 nations around the world took the oath of U.S. citizenship before two judges of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on the grounds in front of the manor house.

The museum operation has received and maintained accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums since the 1980s. The American Alliance of Museums lists over 35,000 museums nationally and fewer than 1,000 achieve and maintain the standards of professional excellence that accreditation represents.

Further accolades were received in 2012 when the American Association for State and Local History recognized Seed of a Nation, the orientation exhibit in the visitors center at Pennsbury Manor. The exhibit is a culmination of years of research projects such as Raising Our Sites, funded by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, which allowed Pennsbury Manor to explore women’s roles and voices, as well as the enslaved Africans who populated the estate in Penn’s day.

The William Penn Foundation supported early exploration into the use of hands-on reproductions of artifacts nearly 25 years ago, helping Pennsbury Manor remain an industry leader in education. Living history was refined and included in monthly programs that feature such topics as the origins of the antislavery movement (the Germantown Friends protest to slavery), piracy (an issue for Penn) and witchcraft (Penn presided over a witch trial here in Pennsylvania). William Penn and other members of the 17th-century Pennsbury community even make frequent visits to the site – in the form of reenactors – to tell their stories.

For 75 years Pennsbury Manor, with the support of dedicated volunteers, has been offering visitors a chance to discover William Penn’s life and legacy through education, preservation and living history. The site is not only a memorial to Penn, but also to the ideals of religious freedom and individual rights that he helped propagate in America. Today we celebrate the rich diversity of our people as a nation, that cultural strength that owes its origins in part to a seed that Penn was responsible for planting.


Douglas A. Miller is the site administrator of Pennsbury Manor and has been a site director for 25 years, also serving at Curtin Village, Hope Lodge, Graeme Park and Washington Crossing Historic Park.