Alexander W. Longfellow and the Unknown Mansion in Penllyn

So far in my research on the Wissahickon Valley Region, I have NEVER seen any architectural drawings of a historic home in the region... until now.


I was scrolling through results from Google Books to find anything interesting in Lower Gywnedd and Penllyn, and I suddenly saw a book that contains architectural drawings of a home in Penllyn. The architect of this home was Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow Jr.

 

Alexander W. Longfellow, Jr.

Alexander W. Longfellow, Jr. (1854-1934)

Alexander W. Longfellow, Jr. was born on August 18th in Portland, Maine to Alexander and Elizabeth Longfellow.


Fun Fact #1: Alexander was a nephew of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who wrote "Paul Revere's Ride."


He graduated from Harvard College (now Harvard University) in 1876 with a degree in architecture. He then went back to school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to take special courses in architecture where he finished in 1878.


Alexander spent 2 years in Paris where he attended the École des Beaux-Arts and worked in the studio of M. Émile Vaudremer. When he returned to Massachusetts, he worked for Henry Hobson Richardson.


In 1886 after Richardson's death, Alexander, Frank Ellis Alden, and Alfred Branch Harlow formed the firm Longfellow, Alden & Harlow that were both based in Boston and Pittsburg. Their most important work was the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh which they won the design competition for in 1892. Ever since their design was selected, Alden and Harlow ended up moving to Pittsburg while Alexander stayed in Boston to practice alone.


His most important works were...

The houses he built were located in Portland, Bar Harbor, Cape Cod, and even Penllyn!

 

The Truth Behind the House in Penllyn


Ever since I found out about this building, I began scanning every section of every historic map of Lower Gwynedd to find the home. But every time I go back to those maps, I didn't find a single home's plan that looks like the architectural design plan below.

Plan and elevation drawings of the House designed by A.W. Longfellow; Source: Brickbuilder (1903)

So what does this tell me? Does this house even exist? Was it even located in Penllyn?


I began to contact libraries and archives in the New England area that have collections relating to Alexander W. Longfellow and his work. One of the contacts I talked to was an archivist from the Longfellow House - Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge, MA. She said she found nothing relating to either Longfellow or Penllyn. That was when I was about to give up, but I didn't.

Page from The Brickbuilder (1903)

I began researching non-stop online using different search terms hoping to find any leads. During my tiring search, I began to give up.


I started working on different blog posts in the meantime. While researching for one of blog posts I was working on, I stumbled upon a website that talked about a particular home called "Pine Run Farm" from the Horsham Preservation and Historical Association website. When I took a look at the image they had, I began to realize how remarkably similar the building is to the photos from the 1903 Brickbuilder periodical.


I began to search through Google Maps based on the photos they provided of where this building is located. Here's the actual location of the home designed by Alexander W. Longfellow:

Montgomery County 1893, Horsham Township, Colmar, Hatfield, Prospectville Left; J. L. Smith, Publisher
Atlas: Montgomery County 1934 Vol A, Plate 11, Franklin Survey Co., Publisher

While reading an article about the Pine Run Farm, I discovered that the owner of this home was Henry Pratt McKean (1866-1922).

 

Henry Pratt McKean


Henry was born in Philadelphia and was educated at Harvard, where he graduated from, in 1889. It was that same year he married Marian Shaw. The couple lived in Germantown where they bought an extravagant house named "Fern Hill" that was designed by John Notman, a Philadelphia architect who popularized Italianate architecture into American architecture.


During the 1890s Philadelphia, the city was known was the "Workshop of the World" during the Industrial Revolution. And due to the exposure of smoke to the public from the factories and textiles, Henry and his wife decided to move away from the city.


That was when he noticed the success of the communities in Ambler and Penllyn. With its railroad stations in Ambler, Penllyn, and Gwynedd Valley, businesses relocating to the suburbs, and other wealthy Philadelphians purchasing land and building summer homes, Henry found the opportunity to build his home around the area:

"At the time, Penllyn generically described all of the desirable areas within and adjacent to Gwynedd Township. As Polly King (Miller), a long-time Gwynedd resident explained, 'Penllyn is what we called this whole area of Gwynedd.' Specifically, Penllyn referred to the interconnected estates extending from Horsham to Whitemarsh that permitted the 'horsey set' to ride to the hunt from one property to the next. Horses and cross-country riding were Henry McKean’s enduring passions, and so Penllyn was an ideal locale for his entry in the ostentatious estate derby. Seeking something impressive to suit the tastes and lifestyle of his highbred Boston wife, Henry Pratt McKean and his agents assembled several parcels of land in Horsham Township along Welsh Road in 1894."

- Dr James Hilty, "History of Talamore"


Henry purchased the land where the Kneedler-Comly Farm was originally located.


The Pine Run Farm was described as a "gothic styled country mansion following the shape of luxurious English manor houses, with two large wings framing an open courtyard and carriage turnaround in the front."

The Former Henry P. McKean Mansion; Now owned by the Bradford White Corporation; Source PHCP Pros
 

Conclusions


In regards to the relationship between Henry McKean and Alexander Longfellow, there is no evidence of their connections or interactions. But, the only factual evidence is the architecture design under Longfellow's name. According to the archivist from the Longfellow House, she would agree that there might be a connection between the McKean family and Longfellow since both of them lived in Massachusetts.


In regards to the location of the home, we have to understand why the home was said to be located in Penllyn. The train stations are located purposefully in places where it's more populated and where businesses took place. In this case the home is located in Horsham Township, right on the edge of Lower Gwynedd, but the home is nearby dense communities like Ambler and Penllyn. And since the home is right next to the Lower Gwynedd border, it would make sense that Penllyn was labeled as its location.


According to George Thomas, a professor and architectural historian at the University of Pennsylvania, he wasn't sure exactly who the architect was behind the mansion. He thought it was Horace Trumbauer, one of the most prominent architects in Philadelphia.

"The building, according to Thomas, was 'probably' designed by noted architect Horace Trumbauer and erected 'around 1904, or another explanation is that the McKean manor house may not be an original design at all, but rather, an expensive expansion and renovation of the Kneedler-Comly farmhouse."

- Dr James Hilty, "History of Talamore"


George Thomas's statement was from 1986, so it could be that he couldn't find the architectural drawings of the building during that time. Now that we're living in a world where we can access digital content, I was able to find the drawing from Google Books.


It was luck that I found this particular home. It was an opportunity for me to try to find information on the former mansion of Henry P. McKean. I am grateful to take on this challenge to do research on something no one would ever do.


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!!!

Clipping from Ambler Gazette (January 1, 1914): Page 1
 

Bibliography


"Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow Jr." National Park Service. Last modified March 10, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/people/alexander-wadsworth-longfellow-jr.htm.


Franklin Survey Co. Atlas: Montgomery County 1934 Vol A, Plate 11, 1934.


Harvard College, The Class of 1876, Seventh Report of the Secretary Covering the Class History for Twenty-Five Years to MDCCCCI. (Boston: The Merrymount Press, 1901): 53-55.


"Henry Pratt McKean." Horsham Preservation and Historical Association. Accessed June 17, 2021. https://horshamhistory.org/history/people/henry-pratt-mckean.


"Ill Talamore - Pine Run Farm - McKean Estate." Horsham Preservation and Historical Association. Accessed June 17, 2021. https://horshamhistory.org/history/places/pine-run-farm.


O'Gorman, James F. On the Boards: Drawings by Nineteenth-Century Boston Architects. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989): 129.


Smith, J.L. Montgomery County 1893, Horsham Township, Colmar, Hatfield, Prospectville Left, 1893.


"The Brickbuilder." The Brickbuilder 12, no. 6 (1903): 122. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Brickbuilder/QyFbAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=penllyn+pa&pg=PA122-IA13&printsec=frontcover.


"Wissahickon Valley Public Library's Ambler Gazette Collection." POWER Library: Pennsylvania's Electronic Library. Accessed July 30, 2021. http://digitalcollections.powerlibrary.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/wivp-gazett.


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