WILLIAM ALLEN AT HOME IN MT. AIRY
by Burt Froom
West Mt. Airy: Yesterday and Today
September, 2012 (Article 1)
With this article, entitled Mt. Airy’s Name, we begin a new series of essays on the theme: A History for Mt. Airy. My underlying theme will be that everything has a history and we need to know our history better: the history of our families, our residences, our neighborhoods. Then we can better appreciate who we are and who we want to become. Let us begin with our name, Mt. Airy. Where did it come from? Who coined it? What meaning does it carry?.
Let us begin by standing on Germantown Avenue in front of the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. Off to the west, stretches Allens Lane for a mile and a quarter, with its mix of 19th century houses and architectural styles. If we turn around, we see the square Italianate style seminary administration building, built by James Gowen after 1846 as his residence, named “Magnolia Villa.” This is roughly the location of ”Mount Airy,” at 495 feet above sea level, the highest elevation in West Mt. Airy.
Here, William Allen (1704-1780), the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, built his country home on 47 acres of land in 1750. He called it “Mount Airy” because of the location’s fresh breezes. There were few mansions out in the countryside in those early days. His principle residence was on what is now Water Street, in Center City, Philadelphia. The book, Ancient and Modern Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill by Rev. S.F. Hotchkin, published in 1889, gives us pertinent material about William Allen and his era.
The Mount Airy mansion was described as a “fine large stone house” and was constructed with its porch extended over the sidewalk in front of it. The porch provided an arcade where passersby could find refuge from the weather and talk with Justice Allen. William Allen’s father was a merchant, of Scottish-Irish descent, with close ties to William Penn, the proprietor of Pennsylvania. Allen studied law in London, and returned to Philadelphia after his father’s death in 1725.
With Andrew Hamilton (1676-1741), the Scottish lawyer, whose daughter, Margaret, Allen married, he bought the land for the building of the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall. Allen was elected mayor of Philadelphia in 1735, at age 31. At the opening of the state house in 1736, Allen gave a great feast for all citizens and guests. (Philadelphia had 15,000 people in 1750.) Andrew Hamilton is best known for his legal victory on behalf of newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger in 1735 in New York that helped establish the freedom of the press in the U.S.
William Allen was Chief Justice from 1750 to 1774. In that office he presided with “dignity, learning, impartiality and intellectual force.” He was a merchant and land speculator, and was one of the wealthiest and most powerful persons in Philadelphia. He gave all his salary to charity. He was patron to the artist Benjamin West. He was called a “grandee of his generation.” He contributed generously to the new Pennsylvania Hospital and was a trustee of the predecessor of the University of Pennsylvania. His daughter, Ann, married Governor John Penn, grandson of the first proprietor. Another daughter, Margaret, married James DeLancey, oldest son of James DeLancey, chief justice of New York colony and later governor. The Allen family was at the summit of colonial aristocracy.
Allen was a Presbyterian. He rode in a phaeton coach, drawn by four black horses, that was famous to all. It is said that the Quaker leaders of Pennsylvania, whose religion taught them modesty, were critical of his tendency to ostentation.
In 1762, William Allen founded the city of Allentown as a commercial center on the Lehigh River near to Philadelphia. His son James Allen built a Georgian mansion, Trout Hall, there in 1767. Allentown is now the third largest city in Pennsylvania, with 106,532 people in 2010.
As the Revolutionary War approached, William Allen was very sympathetic to the grievances of the colonists. But he did not approve of the Declaration of Independence. He feared anarchy and distrusted violence against laws. Allen was unwilling to fight against his sovereign, King George III, to whom he had sworn allegiance.
Finally, in 1774, Allen resigned as Chief Justice because of his loyalist beliefs and health concerns. He was succeeded as Chief Justice by Benjamin Chew of Cliveden. He lost much of his wealth because he was a loyalist. Allen retired to London, but returned to die at his Mount Airy home in 1780.
Elizabeth Farmer Jarvis, author of the book Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, tells us that at his death, William Allen freed his slaves. As a merchant, he was a part of the slave trade, but his will stated “my three negro Slaves Frances, Sampson and Harry, shall be henceforth free and manumitted, I having ever been persuaded of the injustice.”
And what happened to the Mount Airy mansion? After William Allen’s death, his family lived in the Mount Airy mansion. Later, the famous Mount Airy College, led by mathematics, classics and French teacher Benjamin Condon Constant, occupied the house. After 1826, West Point graduate August Roumfort, operated the American Classical and Military Lyceum here. Many of the 150 school boys in 1826 were from aristocratic Southern families. Union general George Gordon Meade, the victor at Gettysburg, and Confederate general Pierre Beauregard, to whom Fort Sumter surrendered, attended the Mount Airy College as adolescents. Immigrant and grocer James Gowen, father of Franklin Gowen, who was a president of the Reading Railroad, bought the property in 1846, and tore down the venerable old Mount Airy mansion about 1848.