Harriton House's history is America's Heritage

by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

Harriton House’s history is America’s Heritage

Today Bryn Mawr is perhaps the most recognized Welsh expression – not that there is a lot of competition – and in most people’s mind means the Main Line. Mavens in Memphis or Socialites in Seattle can make that connection.

The high hill

Ask most people where the name Bryn Mawr (which means “high hill” in Welsh) came from, and they’d presume a dramatic tale of Welsh courage and spirit – with mist and the sound of stirring music in the background. The truth is less thrilling: it was a name given by Welsh Quaker Rowland Ellis in 1704 to the estate now known as Harriton House. And if there were fewer trees today around the house it would be possible to actually see the hill, rather than merely feel it.

He actually named his new estate after his ancestral farmstead, Bryn Mawr Farm. It was located in the county of Meirionethshire near the northwest coat of Wales, where he had been born in 1650.

Bruce Cooper Gill, executive director of the Harriton Association, knows a lot about this house and its hill. The house and lot are actually owned by Lower Merion Township, who took possession of it through eminent domain in 1969 using funds raised by the Harriton Association, which bears the costs of the facility. The township actually pays nothing for its upkeep. The house is open to the public, but its small size limits groups inside to 15 at any one time.

First Purchaser

The house was built in 1704 by Ellis, who was what’s called “first purchaser” of the land in Pennsylvania. He received the land patent for 695 acres of a 5000-acre tract of land given to “Company #7,” one of the nine Welsh companies receiving land. The parcel was called “Meirion in the Welsh Tract” and was as part of a much larger 45,000 or 50,000-acre tract known as the Welsh Barony.

This tract formed something of a ring around the City of Philadelphia and was settled by Welsh Quakers who wanted a Welsh-speaking self-governing township in Penn’s colony. As a political entity it didn’t work out, but the Welsh did settle here, speak their own language and deal with each other out in the country.

Ellis was a significant member of his Welsh community, serving as a member of the Assembly and as an overseer of the Quaker schools in Philadelphia. In addition he wasa translator in the marketplace, a justice of the peace and a tax assessor. He built himself a substantial house 10 miles from the town of Philadelphia.

Back then 10 miles was a long way to go, pretty much outside of civilization. “At that time there’s nothing here, no roads, no bridges, no neighbors, nothing,” says Gill. “But then Ellis goes bankrupt,” he says. He mortgages the place with no income from the property, and has to sell it.

The name changes

The name change of the house and estate came in 1719 with Ellis’ sale of the property to Maryland tobacco planter Richard Harrison. “It was Harrison for whom the house was named,” he says. From 1720 to about 1745, when he died, Ellis grew tobacco here with slaves. Much like Norriton, the name gave by Harrison’s prominent Quaker father-in-law, Isaac Norris, to his estates across the river. Harrison added the ending to a shortened version of his own name, perhaps reminiscent of British town names ending in “ton” for town or perhaps as a compliment to his father-in-law.

At that time the name of Bryn Mawr vanishes into obscurity until 150 years later when the Pennsylvania Railroad assigned Welsh names to most of its new stations along the Main Line. Since these stations also often included post offices, older communities often changed their names to end confusion. The nearby village of Humphreysville changed its name to Bryn Mawr.

“Harrison brought tobacco culture and African slaves to Harriton This property is considered to be the northernmost tobacco plantation operated on the slave economy in the colonies prior to the American Revolution,” according to Gill. Harrison’s son, Richard, kept the plantation in operation after his father’s death in 1745 until his own death in 1759. At that time Thomas Harrison’s widow Hannah, her daughter (also named Hannah) and Thomas’ widow left the estate.

Harrison’s daughter, Hannah, eventually became the owner. “In the summer of 1774, her mother dies, she inherits the property, she married Charles Thompson, who leaves the house, goes to become the secretary of the Continental Congress and practically doesn’t come home for the next 15 years or so,” says Gill. “So it was a big summer for her.” Harrison family members would not live on the estate again for nearly 30 years until the daughter Hannah returned with her husband Charles Thomson on his retirement from public life.

During that time they mostly lived in Philadelphia, and the estate was probably managed. According to Gill, slavery on the property ended with Hannah’s marriage to Thompson, who was an abolitionist. Hannah actually inherited eight slaves from her mother, but Thompson was ardently attuned to human rights from an early age.

Not having children, Thompson arranged for him and Hannah to have a life tenancy and then descend to another Harrison heir, Hannah’s great nephew. He was killed in a riding accident in 1811 and his six-week-old daughter, Naomi, inherited the property.

It was held in trust for her, and she married a man named Levi Morris, a Philadelphia Quaker. The estate was divided into farms, with this area being the Harriton Mansion Farm. “The idea was to make this an income producing property,” reports Gill.

The dividing of the estate

Naomi had three daughters, and when she died, close to the end of the 19th Century, the three daughters split the property. “This was the largest piece of ground in Lower Merion Township at the turn of the century,” he says. One daughter, Sarah, married a man named George Vaux. “They received this end of the property,” Gill says.

Another daughter, Anna married a man named Shinn, who got the other end of the property. The piece in the middle was sold out of the family in 1901, essentially splitting the estate in half. That was sold to a man named William Austin. He built a house named Beaumont. Today that is the Beaumont Retirement Community.

The last use of the Harriton Mansion end of the original property was when it became the “Harriton Guernsey Dairy” from 1908-1927 before it was sold out of the family. The dairy provided fresh milk throughout the Main Line area.

An interesting side note, Doctor George Huggler, who until his retirement in the mid 1980s was known as “everybody’s” veterinarian on the Main Line, grew up in the house was worked on the dairy farm as a boy. It was sold out of the family in 1927. The other end of the estate is now being developed, according to Gill, and is called “Harriton Farms.”

The house

It was the largest and architecturally most sophisticated house in the Welsh township west of Philadelphia. It was a two-and-a-half story T-shaped stone house with its flaring eaves and tall brick chimney. There were two interior rooms in the front, a stair hall and third single room behind. Each of the three gables sports a tall brick chimney with a heavy decorative brick cap or top. Overall, the house measures 37 feetin width and has a depth of 42 feet.

Three heavy gabled dormer windows across the roof illuminated the half-story, or third floor. A large pent-eave roof divides the first story from the second across the front of the house, and at its center is a small balcony, which looks south across the meadow. Access is through a door from the large second-floor sleeping chamber.

According to historians, the house is very much the pretentious house Rowland Ellis built, although there have been a number of changes. The most noticeable is the kitchen added by the Thompsons behind the original kitchen. That room became a large dining room, although the huge fireplace offers evidence of its original purpose. It is a unique survival of substantial early American domestic architecture in the Philadelphia area. Interior paneling and the closed-string staircase endure in the house from this early period.

On the back of the house is a wing built in the 1920s, which is leased out and the income goes to maintaining the estate. Another outbuilding, bought by the association, was the horse stable for the milk wagons. “We bought that to protect the property, and it has been turned into a house and it is also leased,” he says.

“It was truly amazing that in a neighborhood of million-dollar houses people were lined up to live in a stable,” Gill says. “Now it’s a nice place, I’d love to live there, but can’t afford it. It’s the same thing with the part of the house we’re renting out Ð they were the maid’s rooms.” It must be popular though: in 18 years of renting the rooms, they’ve only missed three months of rent income.

The house is furnished with a fine collection of 18th-century American decorative arts, including objects owned and used by the first and only Secretary to the Continental Congresses, Charles Thomson.

Most of the furnishing in the house came as one gift from the descendants of Thompson’s best friend. “It his later hears Thompson really cut himself off from people, other than Jefferson,” he says. “But he had a neighbor around the corner, a man named George Curwin, from whom the collection came.”

The association is preparing to renovate the dairy barn Ð and fill in the swimming pool built by a previous owner. The project will allow the association to host more events as the barn will be made into an activities center.