Historic Structures

Graeme Park – Horsham Plantation, Horsham Township Pennsylvania

Date added: August 3, 2016 Categories: Pennsylvania House Mansion Plantations & Farms

Graeme Park, originally called Fountain Low, was the one of the improved portions of Lieutenant Governor Sir William Keith's 1,735 acre Pennsylvania plantation. The extant three-story, one-room deep house was conceived of as a malt house—a utilitarian structure where grain would have been processed for later conversion into alcohol—and started in 1722. While the shell was finished the interiors were not completed until after its sale to Dr. Thomas Graeme. In 1739, Graeme, Keith's son-in-law, purchased the plantation and during his tenure converted the malt house into a summer dwelling for his family's seasonal, and later, fulltime use. After his death in 1772, Graeme's daughter Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson—a well-known Philadelphia poet and intellectual—inherited the house and continued to use it as her full-time residence. In 1801, the Penrose family purchased Graeme Park, constructed a new primary dwelling, and left the eighteenth-century mansion house vacant.

Because very little documentation exists for the Graeme-era renovations, Graeme Park's history as a dwelling house has been left open to debate. The earliest interpretations, appearing in late-nineteenth and earlytwentieth century Philadelphia histories, assumed that the building was originally constructed as a residence and that the later renovations were merely augmented its as-constructed elegance. In many of these antiquarian sources, Graeme Park was described as a site of colonial grandeur where the Governor "lived in a state unknown in Philadelphia and more resembling the manorial regime of some of the wealthier southern plantations" and where "lavish entertaining" was carried on in splendor. Although a few new studies have questioned the extent of "lavish entertaining" during the Keith era at Graeme Park, most references to the edifice continue to describe it as both an early eighteenth-century house and as the site of distinctive Keithian entertainment.

Graeme Park became a memorial, a colonial shrine, to remind both immigrants and "older-stock" Americans that they did have a history. It was necessary for Graeme Park to be remembered as a dwelling house because the intangible images of Governor Keith needed a symbolic place, a setting, in an effort "to embed public memory in narrative elements of buildings." At a time when it was no longer possible to experience the nation as a new and relatively unadulterated place, and when immigration and industrialization were rapidly transforming the cultural landscape, historical imagination emerged as a method for the construction of nationhood.

The "smoking gun" upheld as nearly conclusive evidence that the large stone structure at Fountain Low/Graeme Park was conceived of as Governor Keith's fine country house is the presence there, in 1726, of vast quantities of household, luxury, and agricultural goods—"the inventory of 1726 indicates that, after Keith was dismissed as Governor, his household was moved to Horsham." A recent study casts doubt on Keith's life in Horsham—"how much Keith lived at Fountain Low is uncertain"—but it does not discard the idea that the structure was meant to be a country house from the start. The investigation correctly acknowledges the probability that the contents of the Governor's house in Philadelphia were moved to Graeme Park after Keith lost the governorship. It even notes, based on the odd object-type listing of the 1726 inventory as opposed to the almost ubiquitous room-content method of listing, that these goods were probably crated and in storage. The report, however, refuses to accept the possibility that these goods were stored in the shell of an unused utilitarian structure, but rather states they existed in an "unfinished house."

The authors cite the common unfinished state of many colonial houses and a quote from son Robert Keith regarding the presence of his parents' portraits at Horsham as evidence of partially completed domestic space— "with the family's fortunes declining, it seems very likely that the Keiths lived in an unfinished house." However, is it implausible that the goods were stored in what was actually a substantial, though decidedly nondomestic, structure while the family lived in another edifice on the grounds or even inhabited a portion of the large, failed malt house? Their fortunes and Sir Keith's colonial power were undisputedly in major decline and surely the finely crafted building shell at Fountain Low, even as more open production space, would have been more than adequate for shelter. Furthermore, as noted in the report, Sir Keith for the most part remained in Philadelphia (leaving permanently for England in 1728) and given his documented economic ill-treatment of his wife, probably cared little that she and their children resided in what was probably "genteel poverty." At her death, "Lady Keith owned very little" and it seems likely that economic realities forced her to sell much of the stored estate for survival. Consequently, the movement of the portable Keith goods to Fountain Low does not conclusively support the theory that the structure built by Keith in the 1720s was ever intended to serve a domestic function. This conclusion, as will be shown, is supported by both documentary and physical evidence.

Throughout the twentieth century, the architectural histories of Graeme Park primarily surveyed the building's architectural features and either accepted the constructed social contexts of Graeme Park as documented in the general histories of Philadelphia or ignored them all together. The problem with many traditional architectural historical evaluations is that they view buildings as objects, in a vacuum, with little or no regard for complex contexts or their historical spatial surroundings. Architectural historian Dell Upton argues that it is both the seen and unseen in the landscape—architecture plus surroundings—that defines historical space: “A fruitful approach to landscape would be to start from its claim that it is a complete record of evidence and to inquire why that claim is effective—while demonstrating how much the scene demands that we do not see. By picking apart the seen and unseen, we can begin to get at the variety of human experience in a way that shatters the landscape is pretenses. This conjunction of seen and unseen, then, draws our attention to the experience of landscape as well as its initial creation. It emphasizes the relative roles of vision and intangible in the interpretation of landscape.”

This essay focuses on Graeme Park as an all-encompassing landscape where architecture, ideology, power relations, gender issues, and innovative agricultural production converged as parts of a constructed whole. By examining the lives, words, and thoughts of those who lived at Graeme Park, as well as the memories of those who were a part of its living culture, this essay places the mansion house at Graeme Park within its greater physical and cultural landscape.