Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 13
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: October 1964 Volume 13 Number 2, Pages 26–31
John Wilson's Mansion
On November 1, 1872, my great-uncle, John Morton Wilson, purchased from his father, David Wilson, Jr., 112 acres of ground on Swedesford Road, north of Paoli, this property being part of the original 322 acres purchased by his great-grandfather, John Wilson, in 1760. The 112 acres included "The Homestead" and surrounding farm on the south side of the road, and 37 acres on the north side.
The 37 acres extended on the east to Worrall's Road (now Le Boutillier Road) on the north almost to the Valley Creek (including a point on the far side of the creek near Great Valley Mill), thence south paralleling North Valley Road to Swedesford Road. The property line crossing the creek was thus laid out to afford a water supply for cattle and horses.
On a knoll, near the center of the 37 acre tract, John Wilson and his wife, the former Anne Harrar, chose a site for their new home. When Uncle John purchased the property, a small stone house stood on Swedesford Road, opposite "The Homestead" lane, and also one on LeBoutillier Road, at the top of the steep hill. After having lived at "The Homestead" for many years "John", it was said, was tired of low ceilings, fireplaces, and out-of-door plumbing, so therefore decided to build one of the then popular Victorian houses, with high ceilings, hot-air furnace, and a bathroom. Evidently, when the house was completed, it was quite a "show place" and a good example of the architecture of the Victorian era, for it became known as John Wilson's Mansion. We do not have a record of the years in which it was built, but think it was probably about 1877-79.
Since both the buildings and grounds have been changed from time to time, let us try first to picture the property when Uncle John, Aunt Annie, as she was affectionately known, and her three nieces first occupied it.
Marking the edge of the lawn on Swedesford Road was a low grey stone wall capped by marble slabs, on which was welded a low ornate iron fence. Large iron gates swung from square stone posts at the carriage drive. At the east end of the wall was a small iron gate at the end of a gravel path used by pedestrians going between "The Homestead" and "The Mansion." The wall and the small gate remain, but the large iron gates were turned into scrap metal during World War I.
The John Wilsons were horticulturists, as was evidenced by their unusual choice of specimen trees and shrubs for their lawn: yew, Chinese fringe, white birch, pink and white magnolias, white and dwarf horse chestnuts, Douglas fir, etc. Of course, they planted the more conventional trees, too, such as arborvitae, Norway spruce, Norway maples, English and black walnuts, chestnuts, etc. There was also an orchard of many varieties of apples, peers, plums, peaches, quinces, cherries, etc. On the north and west side of the house, was planted a semicircular row of Norway spruce trees to serve as a windbreak. It did this, but at the same time obscured the magnificent view of the valley. West of the house was a large vegetable garden surrounded by a white picket fence. Herbs grew on either side of the gate. One large clump of purple sage still remains. An unusual feature east of the house was a "grapery" a large greenhouse built just to raise hot-house grapes!
Round flower beds gay with ragged-robins, petunias, and zinnias were in the lawn. Large clumps of pampas grass grew on the bank outside the wall, and a huge round clump of variegated pampas grass marked the curve of the drive.
Narrow rose-beds were at the foot of the terraces on either side of the front stone steps. On the, terrace, at the top of the steps, stood white square-based fluted Victorian flower urns. No doubt, these wore filled in summer either with pansies from the cold frame or red geraniums, white sweet alyssum, and vines.
The wide-wooden porch, which extended across the front of the house, was partially screened by vines of wisteria and clematis. Hanging baskets of ferns were suspended between other pillars. These pillars are the octagonal, panelled white variety. This sunny porch, with many rocking chairs, made a delightful spot in which to entertain ones' friends. The then almost square house with its 18" field stone walls, plastered, had three stories and also a large cellar. Since the house was built during the popularity of the Mansard roof, it too boasted of one. The flat tin roof was outlined by a black ornamental iron fence around its four sides. To be sure, there were advantages in this type of architecture, for it gave the third floor full-height walls and windows. Spiral steps in the north end of a large room led up to a trap door opening on the roof no doubt designed to facilitate repairing and painting the roof. (We used them also to show our friends the view and on the 4th of July to watch distant fireworks.)
In addition to the bedrooms and a storeroom, there was a huge open rectangular iron tank for storing water. This had drained from the roof and was pumped up there from the deep cistern which held it.
One entered the house through heavy double walnut doors with decorative bronze hinges and knobs. These opened into a narrow hall with rather steep open stairs leading all the way to the third floor.
On the west side of the hall was the formal parlor. It had five full length elaborately panelled windows. Between the two front windows hung a long ornate gilt framed mirror with a narrow marble shelf for treasured trinkets. In the center of the ceiling was an elaborate plaster centerpiece. A 10" plaster molding decorated this and all the other first-floor rooms. Lace curtains, dainty furniture, and Brussels carpeting made this a room saved for special occasions.
On the east side of the hall was the family "sitting room." It had a large sunny bay window and a "chunk" stove to augment the hot air central heat. Black marble mantels were in nearly every room. Large sliding doors separated the "sitting room" from the dining room. (These doors are an earlier period than the other woodwork and are supposed to have been brought from "The Homestead.")
Beyond the dining room were the breakfast room and a shedtype summer kitchen. This was a large airy room and had plenty of space for the Spear range with a hot-water boiler attached, a hand pump and a large icebox. Outside the kitchen was a semicircular covered porch, and a grape-vine-covered brick area where the wooden washtubs rested on a long bench. And, of course, the necessary woodshed.
As one went up the back stairs from the "breakfast room" and turned to the left, there was a room with long windows on three sides made for a conservatory for house plants. Five bedrooms, two narrow halls, and a bathroom completed the second floor.
Now that we have seen the first, second, and third floors, let us look at the cellar with, its hard-packed clay floor. One section had long rows of shelves for storing jars and cans of fruit, vegetables, and jellies. A hanging screened set of shelves held the more perishable dried fruits and vegetables. Pickling crocks, no doubt, stood on the floor. A crude half-log butchering table, a heavy cleaver, and iron hooks in the ceiling for curing hams, tell us of busy winter days. In one corner is a huge cauldron for making soap.
Out-of-doors a flagstone walk led from the kitchen to the "cold storage." This was a brick-lined excavation with stone steps leading down to two levels. The upper level was a planked platform with shelves where food was kept; the lower level had a dirt floor and was used to store potatoes, turnips, cabbage, etc., for winter use. For colder storage, a small cave room was built into the adjoining icehouse.
The deep "icehouse" was filled annually with ice out at a neighboring pond. This was cut into blocks which were slid down a plank into the deep pit. Thick layers of straw separated the layers of ice and helped prevent thawing. The ice had to be carried up a ladder. This was the supply for the icebox and making ice cream during the hot summer months.
Beyond this group of buildings was a small, well planned barn, chicken house and carriage house. On the second floor of the barn, in addition to the haymows and granary, was a room for the "hired man," & repair shop,and a storage space. The Sunday carriages were housed in a separate building.
The barn was just large enough for a few cows and horses. The dairy barn and farm equipment were at "The Homestead."
Uncle John's home and grounds were designed for a gentleman's country home in a rather elegant manner. Unfortunately, he did not live many years to enjoy it. He died in 1887, but "Aunt Annie" and her three nieces continued to live there until her death in 1897.
To settle the Anne H. Wilson Estate, the property was advertised for sale and purchased by my father, C. Colket Wilson. Early in April, 1898, the family moved from their home in Bridgeport, Montgomery County-the Rambo ancestral home-to the Wilson home.
The John Wilson stately, formal mansion must have been rather shocked to suddenly house a large family: Mother, Father, Grandmother Anderson, an elderly invalid cousin, my nine-year-old sister, three noisy brothers, ages 7 to 3 years, and I, a baby of a few months with a nurse. Jacob, an elderly English gardener who had been with "Aunt Annie" remained with us, too. Altogether, quite a household! My youngest brother was born here four years later.
The formal parlor soon became the family living room. Gone were the lace curtains and gold chairs. A large stone fireplace, added a few years later, seemed much more suitable and necessary. Even the name changed, from John Wilson's Mansion, to Wilson farm.
A case of typhoid fever proved the inadequacy of a cistern, and "Springfield Water" was piped from North Valley Road. Thus, the large water tank in the third floor was no longer needed, and the cistern, now dry, stored apples.
In order to enjoy an extensive view of the valley, the lower branches of the Norway spruce windbreak were removed. After many years, the grapevines in the grapery no longer produced extra large grapes, so this building was converted into a workshop and carriage sheds.
The arrival of our first automobile in 1908 changed the Sunday carriage house into a garage.
About 1911, the family planned a large addition to the house. This included a recreation room with a stone fireplace, a dining room with a bay window facing the view, pantry, kitchen, and laundry; three bedrooms and bath on the second floor and a large bedroom and bath on the third. A huge two-story Southern style pillared porch was built on the north side, where the family enjoyed the view of the Great Valley, as well as the breezes.
The additional rooms necessitated a new hot-water heating system. Electricity was now available, so it too was installed at this time.
The years from 1912 to 1929 were very busy ones at Wilson Farm. Family, school and college activities, and friends, church, and community affairs, weddings, Red Cross center, scout meetings, grandchildren, etc., made this a much used and much loved home.
Father died suddenly in January, 1929, and about five years later, my husband. Three children and I moved from our house on the Horseshoe Pike beyond Downingtown to Wilson Farm to be with mother and my two single brothers.
My husband and son soon built a tennis court west of the garden. For thirty years it has seen active service and is currently being enjoyed by three generations. After mother's death in 1941 we bought the house and the thirty-seven acres on the north side of Swedesford Road, my brothers retaining "The Homestead" and surrounding farm.
Music has always been a major interest of the Nassau family. So for many years the living room has had two Steinway grands, and monthly evenings of music and song were held here for about ten years.
A disastrous fire in 1959 swept away the barn and surrounding buildings, and when we built the present garage and stable in 1952 we planned a large barn-floor for square dancing, indoor picnics, scout meetings, etc.
Now our children and ten grandchildren share with us the pleasures of life at Wilson Farm, and each year on Christmas Eve the family gathers to light the Yule-log in the living room fireplace, just as their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandmother have done ever since the fireplace was built in 1902. This year we hope our great-grandson will be with us in December to light the log. Thus life in John Wilson's well-built mansion continues from generation to generation.
Page last updated: 2015-04-27 at 16:20 EDT