The Philadelphia Country House by Mark Reinberger and Elizabeth McLean

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

The Philadelphia Country House: Architecture and Landscape in Colonial America
by Mark Reinberger and Elizabeth McLean
Johns Hopkins University Press, 464 pp., cloth $69.95

Architectural historian Reinberger and garden specialist McLean’s Philadelphia Country House is the most complete study ever of the city’s colonial rural residences. It is likely to remain the definitive word on its subject in the pre-Revolutionary period in Philadelphia’s orbit for a long time to come. The volume has been years in the making, and the wealth and depth of information from archival sources and surviving sites that the authors have deployed here is prodigious. This well-illustrated volume includes current photographs complemented by numerous reproductions of historic images, as well as new analytical architectural drawings commissioned for the publication of both existing and historic conditions. As the substantial attention given to the plans and elevations of the buildings suggests, the primary focus of this study is architecture; the gardens and greater landscape receive proportionally less, if useful, treatment.

The authors begin with an overview of the English and colonial context for their subject and identify and analyze periods of development for the chronological trajectory from William Penn’s late 17th-century Pennsbury on the Delaware River to his grandson John’s Lansdowne on the Schuylkill nearly a century later. They make an interesting case for the influence of Quaker religious retreat from the world in the first generation of country seats, which adds to the understanding of this formative period. A picture of the area’s estates at midcentury is fleshed out by an investigation of the properties depicted by Nicholas Scull and George Heap’s well-known map of 1752. The seats of the Anglican elite of the 1760s, particularly surviving Belmont, Cliveden and Mount Pleasant, receive special attention as a “flowering” before 1776. The final period before the Revolution is characterized as a “denouement,” and focuses on a handful of more modest surviving buildings as well as the more substantial Lansdowne, gone since the mid-19th century. Among the other topics the authors address are building organization, service spaces, “parade” or hierarchical sequences of movement, construction techniques, designers, and the rich complexities of social fluidity and wealth in the Philadelphia region. The sheer volume of information contained in this work occasionally leads to awkward sequences, and the authors’ assumptions are not always as clearly articulated as they might be. Both of these relatively minor details bespeak the enormous amount of fruitful time spent on this project, however, and the result is proportionally rich.

 

Emily T. Cooperman is an architectural and landscape historian and historic preservation consultant based in Philadelphia.