Week Ten: Self-Guided Tour Update

This week for our Managing History class, we were tasked with looking back and reflecting on our work so far for the Powel House self-guided tour. This project has involved extensive research and trips to various archives throughout the city. My research began with the sources that Lyell Funk, a volunteer from the Powel House and Temple alum, gave the class to build up our understanding of the history of the house. For my project on the preservation of the Powel House and the role of Fiske Kimball, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the 1920’s, the two main works were George Tatum’s Philadelphia Georgian: The City House of Samuel Powel and Some of Its 18th Century Neighbors and Alexandra Kirtley’s “Front Parlor from the Powel House, Philadelphia, 1769–70.” These two works provided good background into the architecture of the Powel House and some of effects of Kimball’s involvement with the house. The next stop during my research was the archive of Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks (PhilaLandmark) in their offices at the Physick House, which I was able to use thanks to Lyell Funk and Jonathan Burton, the Executive Director. Here with my classmate Aliana McNaughton (http://alainamcn.weebly.com/), we went through and took pictures of as many of the documents we could on the preservation. While most of the material dealt with Aliana’s topic of Frances Anne Wister, such as a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings of events she ran at the Powel House, I was able to find a few good sources on Kimball’s interaction with PhilaLandmarks. These included a list of the work the museum did when removing all the pieces from the house to display in the Art Museum, plus a promise to return the woodwork from the first floor to Wister.

A few weeks later, I was able to visit the archives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where the archivist, Susan Anderson, was able to find me two boxes that dealt with Kimball and the Powel House. While some of the material was the same as I found in the boxes at the Physick House, there were two major sets of sources that made this visit a huge success. The first was a series of letters between Kimball and a plaster contractor named Reeves over the destruction of the Rococo ceiling pieces removed from the Powel House, in which they blamed each other for the damages. While there was no document discussing the outcome of the argument, the letters helped show the problems in these early ‘preservation’ techniques as well as the aggressive character of Fiske Kimball. The other major source I found were two letters to the descendants of the Powels, Mr. Hare Powel and Mrs. Harford Powel, in which Kimball and Joseph Downs, a curator at the Art Museum, said that the Powel House was no longer worth saving as all of the important architectural and historical pieces had been removed. These letters were the best sources that I have found because they illustrate the different perspective on preservation back in the early 1900’s, in which only the actual material was seen as valuable without concerns over the stories that the space could tell.

With all this primary source information along with many secondary readings, including a very interesting biography of Kimball revealing his abrasive personality written by George and Mary Roberts, a couple which was close to him, I was able to begin to plan my tour on the preservation of the Powel House. Furthermore, the readings that we have had throughout the Managing History class have also helped focus my understanding of proper methods and concerns within the field of public history. One of the main themes that was repeated through the readings was theneed to invite the visitors to think deeply about the topics and to no just give a one-dimensional history of the place. With this in mind, I plan to use the stories of the process and ideas behind these early preservation techniques to connect the preservation during the 1920’s to wider and modern day concerns over preservation, such deciding what deserved to be preserved. So far, the tour will likely have four or five stops, each room telling another piece of the preservation story. For example, the Ballroom discusses the letters of Kimball and Downs to the Powels and aims to connect how preservation was understood in the 1920’s with how things would have been today. Thus through the tour, the visitor will learn not only about what happened at the Powel House but also to think about how preservation works and its effects on how history is told.

This is the letter to Mrs. Powel by Joseph Downs describing how the Powel House is no longer worth saving!
This is the letter to Mrs. Powel by Joseph Downs describing how the Powel House is no longer worth saving!
Here I am checking some boxes at Independence National Historic Park Archives, where I volunteer, while they did have some information of the Powel House, most of it was floor plans from the 1980’s so not really connected to my project.
Here I am checking some boxes at Independence National Historic Park Archives, where I volunteer, while they did have some information of the Powel House, most of it was floor plans from the 1980’s so not really connected to my project.
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