the finest house in america -- 5/30/21
Today's selection -- from The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804 by Robert C. Alberts. In Philadelphia in 1787, the very year that the Constitutional Convention was convened, William and Anne Bingham finished construction of the finest house in America, quickly known as the Mansion House, at Philadelphia’s Spruce and Third Street. William was reportedly the wealthiest man in America, and Anne was deemed America’s most dazzling and gracious hostess, and they entertained the likes of George Washington at the lavish parties they hosted:
"Sometime late in 1786 or early in 1787, the Spruce Street house -- already known as the 'Mansion House' -- was completed, and the Binghams took up residence there.
"Bingham had set out to build the finest and best-furnished house in America, and there is evidence that his contemporaries felt he had succeeded. The whole area, including extensive gardens, was surrounded by a high painted board fence, which caused some critical comment, though high fences were not uncommon in the city. A circular driveway led to the entrance set back from Third Street and raised only one step. The floor of the wide hall was of marble in a mosaic pattern -- the first of its kind seen in America. The center staircase, built of white marble, was broad enough to hold flowers on both sides on special occasions.
"It was a three-story house with spacious rooms. The study, the library and the banqueting room opened to the right on the ground floor, with the ballroom and several parlors on the left, one of them leading into an extensive conservatory. The drawing room, dining room, card room and bedchambers were on the second floor. (Anne had a state bedroom, holding the curtained seven-foot bed, and a boudoir.) The walls of the house were hung with the paintings chosen so lovingly in Europe, the elegant carpets were laid, the mantels adorned with their ornaments, the pedestals topped with their busts and bronze figures, the japanned dove cages filled with birds.
"The windows overlooked almost three acres of gardens 'rich with curious and rare clumps and shades of trees,' including orange, lemon and citron trees set out in tubs, and rows of Lombardy poplars, new to America. An alley called Bingham's Court led into the grounds and to spacious stables, with a greenhouse and various 'domestic offices' nearby. Two fawns, a gift of the Jacob Reads of South Carolina, grazed on the lawn. 'They sport and frolic,' Bingham wrote to Read in thanks, 'and are a perpetual fund of amusement to my children.' The imported servants, many of them dressed in livery, included coachmen, footmen, a butler, a head housekeeper, a confectioner, a French cook, a gardener, and the lesser servants usual in other households.
"The Boston architect Charles Bulfinch wrote in 1789:
. . . The house of Mr. Bingham . . . is in a stile which would be esteemed splendid even in the most luxurious part of Europe. Elegance of construction, white marble staircase, valuable paintings, the richest furniture and the utmost magnificence of decoration makes it a palace in my opinion far too rich for any man in this country. We are told that his mode of living is fully equal to this appearance of his house. Of this we shall be better able to judge in a few hours as we are to dine there today.
"Henry Wansey, an English traveler, a textile merchant, dined at the Mansion House and in his inevitable book on life among the Americans wrote, 'I found a magnificent house and gardens in the best English style, with elegant and even superb furniture.' The dining room, he said in a passage that puzzles the imagination, 'was papered in the French taste, after the style of the Vatican at Rome.' Said a cousin of Mrs. Bingham many years later, 'I have never seen any private house more admirably adapted for the reception of company.'
"The Binghams began at once to receive company and did so in a style somewhat too brilliant for a Quaker city in a new republic. But certainly a large number of people enjoyed the Binghams' hospitality with the gay life that accompanied it, and the many out-of-town visitors who were put up there instead of at the flea-infested hotels were appreciative and grateful.
"The closest look at the style of the Bingham household was provided by Samuel Breck, a young friend and neighbor who had moved from Boston. Years later, as one of the last survivors of a bygone era, he wrote:
William Bingham, a millionaire . . . lived in the most showy style of any American. The forms at his house were not suited to our manners. I was often at his parties, at which each guest was announced; first, at the entrance-door his name was called aloud, and taken up by a servant on the stairs, who passed it on to the man in waiting at the drawing-room door. In this drawing-room the furniture was superb Gobelin, and the folding doors were covered with mirrors, which reflected the figures of the company, so as to deceive an untravelled countryman, who, having been paraded up the marble stairway amid the echoes of his name -- ofttimes made very ridiculous by the queer manner in which the servants pronounced it -- would enter the brilliant apartment and salute the lookingglasses instead of the master and mistress of the house and their guests.
This silly fashion of announcing by name did not last long, and was put a stop to by the following ridiculous occurence: On a galaevening an eminent physician, Dr. Kuhn, and his step-daughter, drove up to the door. A servant asked who was in the carriage. 'The doctor and Miss Peggy,' was the reply. 'The doctor and Miss Peggy!' cried out the man stationed at the door. 'The doctor and Miss Peggy!' bawled out he of the stairs, which was taken up by the liveried footman at the door of the drawing-room, into which Miss Peggy and her papa entered amid the laugh and jokes of the company. This and several preceding blunders caused the custom, albeit a short-lived one, to be suppressed."