The One That Got Away: Marian Carson’s On Washington Square

South Washington Square, December 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

The six, second-floor windows look out on Washington Square. They’re not very high, not even at the tree tops. On the outside they appear to be adjacent houses, except they are one, bought and joined together by Marian S. Carson, the widowed, single mother of two girls who traded their sprawling farmhouse in Bryn Mawr for whatever city life might offer—an unusual and bold move in the mid-1950s.

Across the square, Mayor Richardson Dilworth’s colonial replica was under construction. He’d move in, too, staking out a social/political/urban commitment that inspired the city’s first wave of gentrification. At Washington Square’s quieter southwest corner, Carson was more interested in the authentic, the vintage—the actual and historical. Her pair of rowhouses would be connected on the second floor creating a double-wide parlor, a gracious, even palatial room of more than 1,000 square feet. There she’d raise her daughters, host salons of sherry-sipping editors from nearby publishing houses and conduct a decades-long game of show-and-tell with collectors of all stripes from all over the United States.

Marian Carson had the stuff of history. She inherited much from generations of collectors on all sides. And over the decades she added acquisitions in great sweeping swaths as any seasoned, capable collector would—if they had the chance.

Visiting Marian never failed to be a treat, or a tease—depending on what she chose to share with you, or promise you might get to see next time. Behind those windows, you’d encounter early American gems of cabinetry illustrated in the volume  (Blue Book, Philadelphia Furniture) that she and her first husband William McPherson Horner, Jr. compiled and published privately in 1935. Visits often went beyond the woodwork and into the broader strokes of history. The tables in Marian’s parlor would be littered with specimens accumulated over the generations and added to in her own time: paintings, watercolors, archives, manuscripts and photographs. Not any photograph, mind you, but the first self-portrait (now known as the first selfie) by pioneering daguerreotypist Robert Cornelius. Marian might have had Francis Hopkinson’s toast to his friend George Washington from 1778, published in the Pennsylvania Packet, but she certainly had the original manuscript in Hopkinson’s songbook, purchased in Paoli at a consignment shop where a Hopkinson descendant had left it.

Home of Marian S. Carson 704/706 South Washington Square, December 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

An early printing of the Declaration of Independence? Marian had one of two known copies of a July, 1776 printing from New York City. A post-humus portrait drawing of George Washington himself by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin? Marian’s dated to 1800. A depiction of the senate of Liberia, a new nation settled by former American slaves? Marian’s watercolor was from 1856.

After an hour of looking at such treasures, one welcomed the calming view of sycamore branches out on the square.

Marian developed a revised vision of what history could and should be about. It would move away from celebration by those fortunate enough to inherit heirlooms. Her vision accommodated those who might make the past part of their lives and the life of their communities. As Marian expressed this shift, this awakening, in the 1977 reprint of her Blue Book, it would be “a new breed of informed collector” whose labors, explained historian Robert V. Remini, “would include research, public forums, restoration and publication, not simply acquisition.” This was Marian’s new creed as steward and collector. That commitment, as well as her vast collections, would make Marian a target for scholars, curiosity seekers, curators, librarians, philanthropists and collecting institutions.

In her later years, when Marian answered the doorbell at 706 South Washington Square, she looked frail, at first. But the more knowledge and appreciation shared, the younger she’d appear. For those who made it inside, it would be a decades long courtship requiring persistence, but most of all, patience.

It cane to an end in the mid-1990s, when Librarian of Congress James H. Billington stepped over the threshold for the first time. With the generous help of his James Madison Council (described by The Washington Post as “the wealthiest Friends of the Library group in the world”), Billington’s people negotiated a combination gift and a $2 million purchase of more than 10,000 manuscripts, photographs, paintings, books, broadsides, letters and official documents valued at approximately $6 million.

In the Fall of 1996, at a celebratory dinner in the Library of Congress’ Great Hall, Billington called the acquisition nothing less than “the most significant acquisition of Americana by the Library of Congress in this century.”

Good for the Library of Congress. Not so good for Philadelphia, the logical, contextual home for the Carson collection.

Other collections got away over the years, but nothing quite like this one.

[Sources: Marian S. Carson Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room, The Library of Congress; Sarah Booth Conroy, “Philadelphia Stories,” The Washington Post, October 14, 1996; Bernard Reilly and Gail Fineberg, “Library Acquires Carson Collection,”LOC Information Bulletin, October 21, 1996; Gathering History: The Marian S. Carson Collection of Americana, (Washington, D.C. Library of Congress, 1999); Gayle Ronan Sims, “Marian S. Carson, 98, preservationist,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 16, 2004.]

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One Comment

  1. Gene Coppola
    Posted July 14, 2019 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    What a fascinating story!
    This is truly hidden Philadelphia at it’s finest.
    I love reading about the history of this great city, and this adds another chapter that i never knew about.

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