HOME   |   VISIT   |   EDUCATION & TOURS  |   HISTORY   |   PRESERVATION   |   SUPPORT   |   NEWS & EVENTS   |   RENTALS   |   CONTACT US


History

Two Hundred Years of Splendor in Fairmount Park

Henry Pratt, Merchant Trader

Pratt Family Tree

Historic View

Lemon Hill, Early 19th century etching

200 YEARS OF SPLENDOR IN FAIRMOUNT PARK

Overview

Lemon Hill, one of the nation's finest examples of Federal-style architecture, was built between 1799 and 1800 by Henry Pratt. Situated on a spectacular site overlooking the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, it is a fitting testament to Philadelphia's apogee as a cultural and political center in the post-revolutionary era.

Pratt, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, purchased the land at a sheriff’s sale in 1799. Included in the sale were 43 acres of ground, a large and elegant greenhouse, hot houses and "pleasure" gardens, for which he paid $14,654 in new American currency. Construction of Lemon Hill was completed in 1800. Pratt named his showplace after the median lemon, a variety of citrus grown in the greenhouse. He transformed Lemon Hill into one of the finest country estates of the colonial era. He opened the greenhouse and surrounding pleasure gardens to the public by "ticket of admission." The gardens were written up in numerous gardening publications and attracted visitors from all over the world. Lemon Hill's famous gardens fell into disarray after Pratt's death in 1838. Nevertheless, visitors continued to flock to Lemon Hill in the mid-1850s when it served as a recreational site for participants in German singing festivals, known as "Sangerfests." Beer was served to the public and lager beer signs could be seen hanging on the mansion. Lemon Hill became part of Fairmount Park in 1855.

During the Victorian era, Lemon Hill was leased to various concessionaires, who ran a restaurant, candy shop and ice cream parlor on the premises. The mansion and surrounding grounds were in such disrepair by the beginning of the twentieth century that it was hardly recognizable as a mansion in the Federal-style.

A major restoration of Lemon Hill was undertaken in 1926 by Fiske and Marie Kimball, who lived at the mansion from 1926 to 1955. Since 1957, when the Colonial Dames of America, Chapter II, were entrusted with custodianship of Lemon Hill, it has been the mission of the Dames to preserve this national treasure, both for its intrinsic beauty, as well as for its great historic value. It is largely due to their efforts that Lemon Hill retains its original appearance of two hundred years ago. The architectural beauty of Lemon Hill has withstood the test of time and remains as impressive today as it was in 1799. For most of its two-hundred year history, Lemon Hill has been in the public domain, providing continuous inspiration and recreation to its visitors. For over two centuries, Lemon Hill has been a favorite spot, beginning with the luxurious pleasure gardens cultivated by Henry Pratt, which drew crowds from around the world, and culminating today with the thousands of visitors who tour the mansion as part of the historic house tours of Fairmount Park. Lemon Hill truly represents two-hundred years of splendor in the Park!

The Colonial Years under Robert Morris (1770-1799)

The site of Lemon Hill was originally part of Springettsbury, a proprietary manor owned by William Perm and his descendants. Robert Morris purchased 80 acres of this tract in 1770, expanding it to encompass 300 acres, plus a number of "perches." A perch is equal to a square rod of land. Morris paid 1,821 pounds, 19 shillings and 6 pence of the King's currency for the site, naming it "The Hills." He lived there from 1770 to 1779. He constructed the greenhouses, hot houses, gardener's quarters, vaults, and root cellars on the property which Pratt purchased in 1799.

Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, helped finance the American Revolution. After the Revolution, misfortune befell him. He speculated in land deals, which did not materialize, leaving him deeply in debt. In 1799, he was taken to debtors' prison. The Hills was confiscated and sold at a sheriff’s sale. He died in 1806, a virtual pauper.

Lemon Hill Becomes the Country Estate of Henry Pratt (1799-1836)

Henry Pratt was born in 1761 in Philadelphia, the son of portrait painter Matthew Pratt. He was a shrewd businessman, who amassed a million and one-half dollars during his lifetime (a considerable fortune for that time). Pratt owned a fleet of merchant ships that sailed to ports as far afield as Canton, China. He also speculated in real estate and owned numerous rental properties in Philadelphia. The voluminous gardens Pratt cultivated at Lemon Hill between 1799 and 1836 were an outstanding achievement of the time. There was an elaborate system of paths with arboretum-type planting, classical statues, and numerous fishponds and grottoes. According to sources, these celebrated gardens contained approximately 3,000 plants, including many choice exotics from around the world. Pratt sent his chief gardener to England three times. As a result, the first gardenia bush in this country was planted at Lemon Hill.

Surprisingly, Pratt never lived at Lemon Hill, preferring to use it as a warm-weather retreat for social and business entertaining. He lived most of his life at his townhouse at 112 North Front Street below Race Street.

Pratt sold Lemon Hill for $225,000 in 1836. He died two years later in 1838 at age 77. His three wives and thirteen of his fifteen children, including his favorite, Sarah Clementine McKean, had died before him. His plants were sold at auction on June 5, 1838. The catalog, published by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, offered for sale over 2,700 individual plants of 700 varieties, all properly described with both botanical and common names.

Beer and Sangerfests (1836 -1876)

Lemon Hill experienced a succession of individual owners from 1836 until 1844, when it was purchased by the City of Philadelphia for $75,000, less than one-third of Pratt's selling price. In the mid-nineteenth century, Lemon Hill became a beer garden, which was frequented mostly by Philadelphia's German population. The history of German singing societies in America began with the founding of the "Mannerchor" or "Men's Choir" in Philadelphia in 1835. These societies held joint concerts, known as Sangerfests or "Singing Festivals," hosted by clubs in various cities.

The First National Sangerfest was held in Philadelphia in 1850. Philadelphia was again host city for the famous Seventh National Sangerfest of June 1857. It was a four-day celebration which opened with a reception on Saturday evening. Parades and concerts took place on Sunday. The singing groups rehearsed on Monday for the evening's concert at the recently opened Academy of Music on Broad Street. On Tuesday, a procession marched from center city to Lemon Hill for the "great Jubilee picnic" which included singing, instrumental music, athletic games, dancing, eating and much flowing lager. Sources report 8,000-10,000 people attended.

A broadside on exhibit in the morning room at Lemon Hill illustrates this event. The crowd was so large that some "40 barrels of beer were called into requisition, besides any amount of wine, to supply their guzzling propensities."

Although the gardens surrounding Lemon Hill were still in active use as public grounds during the mid-1800s, they were no longer carefully maintained. The American Gazette of March 29, 1859 reported: "It is lamentable to see the extent to which ruffianism and malicious lawlessness have wrecked everything about Lemon Hill. We remember it in its prime, one of the most elaborately laid out and fitted up places in the country—but with the advent of picnics and lager beer, came violence void of sense of object".

The Victorian Era (1876-1926)

The 1876 Centennial Exposition sparked renewed interest in Lemon Hill. A music pavilion was built on the grounds. Guide booklets of that year included Lemon Hill in its list of choice places to visit. The years following, however, were not kind to Lemon Hill. Cast-iron porches were added to the main facades. In the late 1800s, a confectioner's shop and ice cream parlor took up residence and sold their wares there. Band concerts continued to be held on the premises. Without a dedicated caretaker, however, the interior and exterior of this once-elegant house further deteriorated.

The Fiske Kimball Period: Restoration (1926-1955)

In 1926, Lemon Hill became the residence of Mr. Fiske Kimball and his wife, Marie. They lived there until their deaths in 1955. Kimball moved to Philadelphia in 1926 to become the first director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was in construction at the time. Kimball often watched the progress of the construction, just a short distance away, from an upstairs window at Lemon Hill.

The serious state of disrepair existing at Lemon Hill in the early part of the 20th century is evident from the description Kimball gave of his first glimpse of the mansion: " Below a heavy bracketed cornice and behind immense Victorian cast-iron porches all about, I could see the mass of a superb mansion of the end of the 18th century, the fanlight of a great doorway and a Palladian window above... Inside, there was all the dilapidation of poor occupancy by a refreshment concessionaire... One square room however… preserved a lovely Carrara marble mantel, carved with arabesques and the myth of Leda... The wall covering of pasted newspapers could not obscure its form, a noble ellipse 30 feet by 20 feet and 14 feet in height projecting broadside toward the river. Above it and below were similar oval rooms which had been the dining room and principal bedroom, all of them having two balancing fireplaces on the inner wall." The Kimballs, who were architectural historians, began the restoration work that returned Lemon Hill to its original and present state in the Federal style of architecture. The extraordinary architectural features of Lemon Hill are its stack of three oval rooms, one above the other, with double-hung windows that allow access to the exterior, and its tall Palladian window on the second floor. Such high-style, neo-classical rooms were unique in America in 1800, which is why Lemon Hill is so historically significant. The Kimballs removed the cast-iron porches from the façades and recreated the original porches as much as possible. Additional renovation work included reconstruction of the roof and cornices, and the installment of bathrooms and a fireplace in the center bedroom on the second floor.

The Colonial Dames of America, Chapter II (1957- Present)

On May 1, 1957, the Commissioners of Fairmount Park granted the Colonial Dames of America, Chapter II a license to "occupy Lemon Hill as their headquarters and to use the building only for its stated purposes and as a place of public exhibition." Since 1957, the Dames have been consistent in their commitment to restore, preserve and maintain Lemon Hill for historic and educational purposes.

In 1976, The Dames undertook a major renovation effort, replacing the entire exterior stucco, covering the existing metal roof with cedar shingles, replacing downspouts and repairing windows. Cross-bracing was added to the floor of the first floor Oval Room. Projects such as these, however, are costly and would not be possible without major funds raised from contributors. One notable fundraising event was the delightful Garden Party held on a glorious June day in 1987. It raised a handsome sum for Lemon Hill and marked the initiation of the ‘Friends of Lemon Hill’ as a fundraising arm of the Colonial Dames. The Dames held a Centennial celebration in 1995 and a "Carpet Caper" in 1997, which raised funds earmarked for purchase of new, historically correct carpeting for the first floor Oval Room.

As restoration of the house is well underway, attention has now turned to the grounds. In 2002, the Friends of Lemon Hill commissioned a cultural landscape study to discover what the Lemon Hill landscape looked like in its early days, and to decide how best to restore it. This study, by landscape architects Menke & Menke (Swarthmore, PA), is a first step toward a historical restoration of the gardens surrounding the house.

As part of the Chapter II Dames' twofold mission to increase awareness of this unique and nationally important Federal-style mansion; and to teach awareness of our nation's heritage, particularly, the period from 1800 – 1836 in Philadelphia, they have launched new interpretive and educational plans. These plans will serve approximately 8,000 visitors annually, including students of all ages, who come to the mansion for study, research and observation. The new interpretive plan highlights the people who lived there and how they lived. The new, interactive educational plan seeks to give young visitors a memorable glimpse into the history of Philadelphia.

Lemon Hill, a national treasure located in Philadelphia, belongs to the world. All are warmly invited to visit.

Revised June 14, 2005


LEMON HILL MANSION · SEDGELEY & LEMON HILL DRIVES · PHILADELPHIA, PA 19130 · 215.232.4337 · Contact Us