11 October 2015

Saturday Spotlight- Circa 1860's Second Empire in Gwynedd Valley

This week's Saturday Spotlight house is a stout and well-kept Second Empire in Lower Gwynedd, PA.

Although this house is a robust 3,800 square feet and commands its fair share of attention on Brushtown Road, it is dwarfed by many of the multi-million dollar mansions on the same road and in Lower Gywnedd at large. Yet, unlike the neighboring estates, this house has stood the test of time. It exhibits the characteristics of the Victorian Second Empire style, which was most popular in the post-civil war era.

The most distinctive feature of the Second Empire is the mansard roof, and on this house we see a straight-lined and shingled mansard. It's simple shape and lack of curves or flares owes to the simple nature of the rest of the home's exterior, as it lacks bracketing or other ornate details that many Second Empires exhibit. Yet, nonetheless, the three-ranked main facade of windows is typical of the style, and the two-story centered porch fits in as well. The dormer windows at the third level have an arched top, which is common.

Though you can't easily tell from the road, this house has significant addition square footage built onto it with a series of single-story additions: one on the rear, and one on the side. The single-story greenhouse is also clearly visible on the right side of the house from the road. The architecture of the house, both original and addition, is unified by some fine-looking wood german siding and what appear to be original wood shutters (at the least, if they are not original then they appear accurate historical reproductions from the street).


This one was a tricky one to date, as the county assessor's office has a construction date of 1832 listed. However, homes of this style simply were not built in the 1830's. The Second Empire style came into prominence as a modern style, both in the U.S. and in France, not until the 1850's at its earliest. Furthermore, although I labored to find documents or maps (within my reasonably short Saturday Spotlight research scope) that gave any indication of its existence prior to 1870, I was unable to do so. Perhaps further research would prove me wrong, but the house seems to be indicated on an 1871 map, but not on one from 1857. Thus, I am going to date this as an 1860's house.

A brief note about the land where this house sits. It appears to be part of the 700-acre tract originally settled by Edward Foulke, one of the earliest settlers of Gwynedd Township, in 1698.

The earliest owner which I was able to verify was Ms. Rachel Burrows, who owned the house at age 61 in the 1870 US census. Her husband John Burrows had previously passed away (possibly only a few years earlier, in 1867), but it is possible that the Burrows' were the home's original owners. Their son, 29-year-old William, is listed in the same household as a farmer, presumably farming the 4-acre land surrounding the home after his father's death. William's older sisters Matilda (age 34) and Mary (age 38) lived at the house as well in 1870, along with an 8-year-old girl named Ida May Scott. I did not dig too deeply into the genealogy of this family, but Ms. Rachel Burrows' maiden name was Scott, so it is easy to assume that the little girl was of some relation, perhaps even just visiting her aunt Rachel for the summer. The value of the home was estimated at $7,000 in 1870.

Rachel Burrows passed away in 1876 in Gwynedd, presumably at this house (an assumption, not a verified fact). Her son William continued to own the farm through at least 1880. The sisters, Mary and Matilda, continued on living at the house as well. An adopted 9-year-old girl also lived with the three single siblings in 1880. Somewhere within the next decade, however, ownership transfer to a Frank Woodhead.

By the time 1916 comes around, all the single-story additions appear to have been built already, and the house is owned by an Albert Boyle McMullen. County records indicate the construction of a garage structure (still present) in 1930. In 1934, and through at least 1940, the house and farm were owned by John B. and Jenny "Jennie" E. Heilman. John, a retired confectioner, was age 75 at the 1940 census, while Jenny was 68 years old, and the couple's son, 37-year-old Francis lived with them. The property was valued at $9,000 at this time. John Heilman, being French-born, perhaps was drawn to the Second Empire style of the house. He passed away in 1941 in Gwynedd Valley (again, maybe at the house, as no hospital or institution is listed on his death certificate).

1970s to Present

This house and its land have continued an interesting life in the past few decades as well. From late 1975 to early 1987, the house was owned by Francis Dring Wetherill Jr. Mr. Wetherill is a descendant of John Wanamaker, of department store fame, and his stepmother was a member of the Du Pont family. In 1987, the house was sold to Hugh A. A. Sargent, a senior partner in one of the most prominent law firms in Philadelphia.

Photo of the house, estimated from 1990s. Courtesy of Montgomery County
In 1998, the house, and perhaps more significantly, the land, were sold to a corporate entity-- Walmere Manor Land Development. At a time when incredibly large and impressive mansions were being built throughout Gwynedd Valley, this land was subdivided the following year into three parcels. Luckily, the 1860's house and its accompanying structures were spared and sold to a new owner that same year.  The remaining land was used to house a new multi-million dollar estate for Walmere's executive vice president. It is indeed a gorgeous building (I can't fathom using the word "house") and it was chronicled in a publication for luxury real estate listings in 2012.

The mansion built behind the 1860's house. Courtesy of Unique Homes Magazine

As for our Spotlight house, it was sold again in 2007 for $620,000 to a new steward-- a pittance compared to most of its neighbors. But it stands proud, kept in order, with its german siding and mansard roof, taking a proud position right against the street, whereas all the mansions are set back hundreds of feet. Take a drive along Brushtown Road, and admire this historic house as a stand-out among its fancy neighbors.

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