Strawberry Mansion — From Mansion to Ruins and Back Again
Fairmount Park’s Historic Strawberry Mansion and the neighborhood to which it lends its name have gone through many periods of change throughout their histories. The property was not called Strawberry Mansion originally, though. Different sources call it Somerton, Summerton or Summerville.
Around 1765, the first house on the land was built. It belonged to Charles Thompson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress. His rebellious political activity made him the target of British retaliation. The British Army set the house on fire in 1777 during General Howe’s occupation of Philadelphia. Thompson and his family had fled, never to return to the house.
After the fire, the house was neglected and left to nature. Despite the ruins, it had a beauty that made it a well visited spot for an afternoon ride into the countryside. Tradition stands that President Washington, Secretary Hamilton, and Judge William Lewis even frequented the site to relax and discuss the impending Constitution. This connection to early American history solidified the home as an important fixture in the Philadelphia landscape.
Judge William Lewis was a prominent lawyer and activist for Quakers’ rights, who rented nearby Woodford Mansion while refurbishing Somerton for his and his family’s use. He finally moved into the modestly elegant country home in 1798. The Lewis family occupied the house until Lewis’ death in 1819.
Judge Joseph Hemphill, also a prominent lawyer and judge, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives, bought the house two years later. Hemphill added the two Greek revival style wings on either side of the house in 1828. This addition gave the house a more impressive look and changed it from a humble country home into more of a mansion.
Following Hemphill’s death in the early 1840’s, the house was rented as a dairy farm to the Grimes family. The property finally earned its present name during this period. Park visitors who stopped by for strawberries and cream, jokingly referred to the house as “Strawberry Mansion.”
Eventually, the Grimes family moved away, and the estate ceased as a farm. Beginning in 1867, the building was used for a variety of purposes. Some of these uses included an Italian restaurant, a “sailors’ rendezvous,” a rumored-of speakeasy, and a beer garden. One source explains that these were not respectable uses at the time, unlike the popularity they receive today.
The house fell into disrepair and social “disgrace.” The city threatened to tear down the building, but Strawberry Mansion found a savior. The Committee of 1926, a group of women dedicated to preserving colonial life history, took on the project of restoring the building. They opened the mansion to the public as a historic house museum in 1931.
At some point during the historic building’s history, the neighboring area absorbed the house’s name. The Strawberry Mansion neighborhood is bound by Fairmount Park to the west, Glenwood Ave diagonally along the east, and Lehigh Ave and Oxford St to the north and south. The neighborhood, like its namesake, has seen many changes in its demographics and economic successes.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became a destination for recent German and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Jewish-owned businesses of many types, including drug stores, bakeries, groceries, dress stores, shoemakers and over 40 kosher butcheries helped it be an economically prosperous area. Even the South Philly famous Pat’s Steaks opened a location in the area, nearby to the trolleys connecting Strawberry Mansion to South Philadelphia. After World War II, the nature of the community underwent large changes. A large majority of the Jewish residents began moving out of the neighborhood and out of the city. The neighborhood began to shift from being predominately Jewish to being home to a growing African American community. This change unfortunately happened at the same time the majority of the local commerce was moving out. Hard times were falling upon many urban areas in America, and Strawberry Mansion was no exception. Many of the buildings fell into disrepair and the area gained a negative reputation. It has been largely overlooked through the years, reminiscent of the historic Mansion’s period of neglect and decline 150 years earlier.
If the neighborhood can mirror its namesake, then there is still much hope for the neighborhood. It has been getting increasing attention in the media. A news segment that aired in 2013 even caught the attention of popular artist, Drake. He donated a music studio to the local public high school, which has now been built and is in use.
The historic Strawberry Mansion in Fairmount Park and its next door neighborhood may be at different places in their histories, but there is the hope that both will be able to tell stories of resilience and success.
- ABC News. "Strawberry Mansion High, Once One of US's Most Dangerous Schools, Receives Hope, Help." 2013.
- Lowrie, Sarah Dickinson. Strawberry Mansion: First Known as Somerton: The House of Many Masters. 1870-1957. Committee of 1926 of Pennsylvania. New York: Harbor Press, 1941.
- Meyers, Allen. Strawberry Mansion : the Jewish community of North Philadelphia. Charleston: Arcadia, 2000.
2450 Strawberry Mansion Drive