Laurel Hill

Philadelphia City, Philadelphia County, PA

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Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from documentation of the Historic American Buildings Survey. [1]

Location: Between Kelly Drive and East Edgely Drive, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.

Significance: Erected about 1765, Laurel Hill represents one of the earliest in a series of villas commissioned by affluent Philadelphians along Edgely Point Lane and elsewhere in the Northern Liberties until the early nineteenth century. It is a small Georgian house with two major additions and bears formal similarities to other villas along the Lane. During the Revolution, the Pennsylvania legislature confiscated Laurel Hill; it came into the hands of pioneering surgeon Philip Syng Physick in 1828, and three decades later became a source of public rather than private enjoyment when, along with other villa properties, it was purchased by the City of Philadelphia and incorporated into Fairmount Park.

Description: Located about 300, east of the Schuylkill River, Laurel Hill is two-story brick building of highly irregular form. The earliest portion of the house is the hip-roofed central section; rectangular in plan, it consists of Flemish bond brickwork and was originally characterized by rigid Georgian symmetry. This section's north (rear) and south (front) facades protrude at the center, forming entrance pavilions flanked by twelve-over-twelve-light windows on the first floor and eight-over-eight-light windows on the second floor. Pediments adorn the entrance pavilions at the roof line and above the front door.

Inside, a number of partitions obscure the original layout: one room on the first floor and two rooms with a stair hall on the second. The east wall supports a chimney. Adjoining the west wall of the central section is a one-story addition that maintains the earlier structure's fenestration and brickwork. It encompasses two rooms and is capped by a gable roof with a chimney at each end. A two-story, octagonal addition rises on the east side of the original structure and represents a Federal Style deviation from the latter. Six-over-six-light windows illuminate a single space on the first floor while three-over-three-light windows illuminate two rooms on the second floor. The octagon's walls are laid in common bond, and its eastern, chimney-bearing wall is blind. Food preparation probably occurred in an outbuilding, since neither the central section nor the additions originally contained a kitchen.

History: In 1760, successful Philadelphia merchant Francis Rawle purchased the 31-acre tract of land upon which Laurel Hill would eventually be built. He died the following year, leaving the newly-acquired property to his wife Rebecca. She remarried in 1767 but in the meantime commissioned the villa at Laurel Hill (Halpern,8/15/95; Thompson, 12). Rebecca's second husband, Samuel Shoemaker, came from the same social set as Francis. A Quaker merchant residing in Philadelphia, Samuel also owned a secondary house in Germantown, was active in local politics and went on to become Mayor of Philadelphia.

Samuel's Tory sympathies prompted the Pennsylvania legislature to confiscate Laurel Hill during the Revolution, despite Rebecca's insistence that owned the property and did not share her husband's political views. Real estate investor Major James Parr bought the Shoemakers's rural retreat from the state in 1779 and soon leased it to French Minister Monsieur Chevalier de la Luzerne. Rebecca managed to buy back Laurel Hill in 1784 and Samuel, who had fled to England with their son Edward, joined her there two years later. Over the following decades Edward began spending much time at the family villa, and the first addition seems to have been built sometime before 1813 to accommodate his growing family.

The Shoemakers's increasingly dire financial straights forced them to lease their retreat in 1813. The lessee was Dr. Philip Syng Physick, an important figure in the early history of American surgery. He may never have lived in the house but bought it outright in 1828 and, upon his death ten years later, left it to his daughter Sally. Either Dr. Physick or Sally and her husband Jacob Randolph commissioned the octagonal addition which was built between 1830 and 1846.

Sally Randolph was Laurel Hill's last private owner; the City of Philadelphia acquired the property in 1869 and included it in Fairmount Park. From 1900 until 1915 the Colonial Dames of America occupied and maintained the villa, and are the earliest party known to have painted the exterior walls. The Women for the Bicentennial (later Women for a Greater Philadelphia) restored the house in 1976 and have been responsible for its upkeep since that time.

Sources: Fairmount Park Files, Historical Commission of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Fong, Kecia L. "Laurel Hill Historic House, East Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania," a report prepared for University of Pennsylvania Professor Roger W. Moss, 1994; includes substantial bibliography and the following appendices: National Register nomination (also by Fong), annotated chain of title, and 1935 HABS drawings.

Halpern, Martha Crary (Department of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Interview regarding recent research on Laurel Hill, 8/15/95.

Laurel Hill Files, Fairmount Park Commission, Office of the Park Historian, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Rawle Papers, Shoemaker Papers and related collections, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Thompson, Maria M. "Evolution of a Country Property: 'Laurel Hill,' East Fairmount Park, Philadelphia." Unpublished manuscript, Fairmount Park Commission.

Historian: Aaron Wunsch, HABS Summer Historian, 1995.

  1. Historic American Buildings Survey, Addendum: "Laurel Hill" (Randolph Mansion), (Randolph Rawle House) [HABS PA-13], 1995, National Park Service, Washington D.C.
  2. Photos: Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS PA-13], 1995, Jack E. Boucher, photographer.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Edgely Drive East

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