In light of the impending demolition by the University of Pennsylvania of the David Porter Leas mansion at 40th and Pine, it is a good time to revisit the life and work the man who designed it….
Longwood Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi sits just as it did in 1861, when scores of carpenters laid down their tools and fled to their homes up North. The largest and grandest of this summer colony’s mansions, Longwood is a bizarre blend of styles: an octagonal Italianan Renaissance palazzo crowned by a Byzantine onion dome. The houses’s owner, cotton planter Dr. Haller Nutt, died one year before the Civil War ended, and his impoverished family moved into the basement. Right out of a William Faulkner novel, it was known simply as “Nutt’s Folly.”
The career of Longwood’s designer followed a similar trajectory: astonishing success and extravagance followed by decline and neglect. Samuel Sloan (1815-1884) was not a Southerner, but a Philadelphian. A native of Chester County, Sloan was trained as a carpenter, a common vocation for up-and-coming architects before formalized training was available in the United States. Sloan was an artist to a certain extent, but he was also a very practical and aggressive businessman, described by a biographer as, ”brash, opportunistic, inventive, a quick learner and a driving worker who was hungry for success and who had, throughout his life, an abiding belief in America’s destiny.”*
During his peak in the 1850s, Sloan specialized in speculative suburban twin homes for the upper-middle class and mansions for the wealthy. Sloan’s blue ribbon commission was Bartram Hall, a veritable castle for railroad baron Andrew Eastick that included the grounds of the old John Bartram estate. It was probably the Eastwick palace that attracted the attention of the eccentric Dr. Haller Nutt, who probably instructed Sloan to outdo his Philadelphia counterpart.
Bartram Hall is long gone, but his residential designs are still extent in the Philadelphia “Streetcar Suburbs” of Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and West Philadelphia. Perhaps his most famous surviving commission is Woodland Terrace, erected in the early 1860s for developer Charles M.S. Leslie. Woodland Terrace occupies a small side street near the intersection of 40th and Baltimore Avenues (immediately to the north of scenic Woodlands Cemetery) and consists of several four-story Italianate twins and detached houses. This gem of a development is one of the last expressions of the “picturesque” suburban movement that reached its height before the Civil War.
Sloan’s signature Italianate style is a romantic interpretation of the Tuscan villas of the Renaissance. According to James C. Massey and Shirley Maxwell, the Italinate style was “every bit as romantic as the Gothic Revival but infinitely better adapted to the freer (and more family-oriented) lifestyle of an increasingly large and prosperous middle class.”* It is defined by flat roofs, large overhanging cornices supported by elaborate brackets, and as well as whimsical features such as campanile towers, conservatories, and cupolas. Cross ventilation was important in Philadelphia’s humid summers: these houses boasted large floor-to-ceiling windows and generous porches overlooking tree-shaded streets. The exterior walls were either exposed random-cut ashlar or stuccoed.
During the late nineteenth century, most of the big twin houses on Woodland Terrace were owned by Center City merchants who commuted to work on the horse-drawn trolleys.*** Because of its proximity to the University of Pennsylvania, Woodland Terrace and the immediate area also became a favorite address for faculty and for the city’s early twentieth century “creative” class. Paul-Phillipe Cret (professor of architecture and designer of Rittenhouse Square, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Rodin Museum, and the original Barnes Foundation) lived with his wife in a large twin at 516 Woodland Terrace and frequently hosted dinners for students in true French fashion. Just to the north, artist Adolph Borie occupied a Sloan-designed villa at 4000 Pine Street, which included a walled garden and a modern studio addition. During the 1920s, the Bories hosted salon-style parties where artists, writers and the city’s moneyed elite could freely mingle.****
After the Civil War, Sloan’s picturesque but relatively restrained style fell out of favor, and was replaced by the “baroque” grandeur of the Second Empire a and the cool classicism of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The once-prosperous Sloan fell on hard times, and supported himself by publishing a series of architecture books and a magazine entitled The Architectural Review. He died forgotten in 1884.
*Samuel Sloan (1815-1882), Architect, Philadelphia Architects and Buildings. http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm?ArchitectId=A1287
**James C. Massey and Shirley Maxwell, “Architectural Styles: Italianate,” Olde House Journal, http://www.oldhousejournal.com/architectural_styles_italianate/magazine/1565
***WEST PHILADELPHIA: THE BASIC HISTORY, Chapter 2: A Streetcar Suburb in the City: West Philadelphia, 1854-1907. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/wphila/history/history2.html
****Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 339.