The Powel House — A House of Historical Philanthropists
The Powel House at 244 S 3rd Street is one of Philadelphia’s colonial treasures. The house dates back to 1765 and is primarily known for being the residence of Samuel Powel, the last mayor under colonial rule and the first after independence. Powel entertained people like John Adams and George Washington, and he was an excellent host who spared no expense for his guests. In Adams’s journal, he called a feast that he attended there “most sinful” due to the extravagance. Powel and his wife also were very good friends of George and Martha Washington. In fact, Elizabeth Powel, Samuel Powel’s wife, sent a letter, which was a key factor in convincing George Washington to run for a second term. Powel died in 1793 from the Yellow Fever epidemic that raged in Philadelphia.
Charles Stedman built the house in 1765 and then sold it to Powel in 1769.The house was built in the Georgian style of architecture, which is known for being very balanced and symmetrical. The house also was similar to English houses at the time with its second floor ballroom.
Since all of Powel’s children died before he did, he gave the house to his wife. Elizabeth herself successfully ran the family’s 90-100 properties and merchant business. Elizabeth was easily just as capable as Samuel in running everything. Elizabeth sold the house in 1798 to William Bingham, the husband of her niece.
In 1805, William Rawle purchased the house. He was the first president of HSP and a president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. In Elizabeth’s will, having died in 1830, she gave the Pennsylvania Abolition Society large donations of money for 20 years, the amount of time she thought it would take to eradicate slavery.
The Powel House resides in a part of the neighborhood known today as Society Hill. While Society Hill today is a thriving neighborhood known for its historical value, it was originally a concession to the Free Society of Traders by William Penn. Society Hill gradually lost importance during as the City expanded in the 1800s. The wealthy people moved out while the City industrialized and the main commercial areas moved elsewhere. Immigrants moved in to the empty houses, allowing for a lot of the buildings that were present in the 1700s and 1800s to remain. Some of these houses were repurposed for things like factories, including the Powel House.
Wolf Klebansky was the last owner of the house before its renovation as a historical site. He bought the house in 1904. He was very active in the Jewish community, giving money to Jews who were being persecuted in Europe in the early 1900s. He built Hebrew schools and was a founding member of Kesher Israel. Wolf Klebansky sold parts of the house, such as elaborately carved woodwork, to museums like the Metropolitan and Philadelphia Museums of Art. He then used the house as a warehouse for his horse hair business. Wolf himself lived next door to the Powel House.
The neighborhood remained mostly inhabited by minorities until its rejuvenation. After World War II, changes to Philadelphia’s political system and to the nation brought Society Hill back to life. The nation focused on historical preservation and urban planning while new blood entered Philadelphia politics. The City Planning Commission eliminated all commercial activities from Society Hill except for activities that would aid the residents of Society Hill. It also renovated some historic buildings while taking down others to create modern buildings and walkways that would attract people to the neighborhood. The plan was successful, and Society Hill began to thrive again with property selling in the six figure range. Median income was over $80,000 in 2013, which was over double that of the city as a whole.
The Powel House led the way. In the early 1930s, the house was under consideration of being demolished because Wolf’s nephew, in an effort to salvage his uncle’s business, wanted an open air garage. Some people raised $30,000 to buy the property from the Klebansky family. They went on to create the Society for the Preservation of Landmarks and renovated the building to what it would have appeared in the 1700s.
The house still is under the care of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks and functions as a museum. The many people who lived here gave so much to their communities. Now, the people who take care of it now give back in their own way. Even though they might not give huge amounts of money, they keep the Powel House running to teach future generations about the history that took place here. The Powel House and the neighborhood around it stand today as a shining example of a restoration of history.
Special Thanks go out to the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks for all their help in creating this article. Find them at their website philalandmarks.org or on social media @PhilaLandmarks.
- "Median Household Income in Philadelphia, PA by Zip Code." Median Household Income in Philadelphia, PA by Zip Code. Web. 31 May 2016. Available at: http://zipatlas.com/us/pa/philadelphia/zip-code-comparison/median-household-income.htm
- "Society Hill Civic Association || About Society Hill." Society Hill Civic Association || About Society Hill. 2007. Web. 31 May 2016. Available at: http://www.societyhillcivic.org/aboutSH/history.asp
- Burns-Lynch, Bethany. “The Widow Carried on the Business”: Elizabeth Willing Powel and Widowhood in Early National Philadelphia. PDF.
- Burton, Jonathan. Personal interview. 26 May 2016.
- Funk, Lyell. "BEYOND THE POWELS: ALTERNATIVE NARRATIVES AS PRIMARY SOLUTIONS FOR THE POWEL HOUSE." Thesis. Temple U, 2015. PDF.