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Solitude House

Posted on Friday, August 7, 2020

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Solitude House - Photo Credit: Free Library of Philadelphia

The Solitude House is the only remaining building in the United States that housed a member of the Penn family. Its presence tells the story of Pennsylvania’s most prestigious family struggling to claim its birthright in the aftermath of Revolutionary War. When American Revolution broke out amongst the American Colonies, Governor John Penn hesitated.

As the grandson of Philadelphia’s and Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, he was concerned for how his land entitlement would be threatened under this new radical Commonwealth government. Although he tried to remain neutral, the Patriots of Philadelphia forced Penn out as the British descended upon the city, exiling the Governor to nearby New Jersey. Upon his return in July of 1778, he swore an oath of loyalty to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in order to maintain his lands.

However, in 1779 the Pennsylvania Assembly passed the Divestment Act, claiming 24 million acres of unsold land across the former Colony. Governor John Penn fought to be compensated for this land. His younger cousin of the same name, also a grandson of William Penn, joined him in this fight. The younger John Penn had only been born in 1760, and as such, the young man waited until after the Revolutionary War was over before sailing to Philadelphia from England. As the heir of William Penn’s oldest son Thomas Penn, the younger John Penn staked his claim on 75% of the proprietorship from his father’s sizable inheritance. Thus, in 1784, he joined his older cousin Governor Penn to demand compensation. And it was during this lengthy dispute that young John Penn sought housing.

Although young John Penn initially had stayed at his older cousin’s opulent mansion known as Lansdowne (that has since tragically burned down), he later desired his own bachelor suite. To that end, in 1784, a few months after his arrival, he paid 600 pounds for a quaint 15 acres on the Schuylkill’s west bank, not far from Lansdowne. The home that would be built on this land would be dubbed The Solitude, a reference to the expansive Castle Solitude of Stuttgart, Germany.

John Penn designed this villa as a stylish cubical abode for a young single gentleman, and thus the two-and-a-half story Federal estate contained a library full of classics and English poetry, as well as a parlor graced with a refined plaster medallion, while two small bedrooms were featured upstairs. According to the 1912 history “The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and its Neighborhood”, the elegant retreat hosted parties featuring much of Philadelphia’s high society, who would arrive by boat. The book even asserts that George Washington himself spent a day with young John Penn at The Solitude during the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention, which famously took place at Independence Hall, a stop on The Constitutional Walking Tour.

Progress was eventually made in the case of the Penn inheritance. The Penn family was paid 130,000 pounds as a final settlement for the lands that they had lost, thus ending the proprietary claim of the Penn family to Pennsylvania. The young John Penn, after having spent just 5 years in his grandfather’s former colony, realized that there would be no further concessions or compensation.

The younger Penn left Philadelphia for his home in England, never to return. Back in his home country, the royal government compensated both the younger John Penn and the former Governor John Penn for their losses. The latter remained in America for the rest of his life, the only Penn to do so. The former indulged in poetry, a brief career in Parliament, and even forming a matchmaking society. Meanwhile, his former residence, The Solitude, was emptied of its contents, which were all sold at auction. The house itself remained under John Penn’s ownership until his death in 1834, when it fell to his brother Granville Penn. From then on, the house was passed to a nephew of John Penn’s, Granville John Penn, and after him, another nephew.

This nephew, Reverend Thomas Gordon Penn, was the last direct male descendant of William Penn, and The Solitude’s last private owner. Upon his passing, the property was given to Fairmount Park in 1867. Half a decade later in 1873, the house and 33 surrounding acres were made into the grounds for the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens.

Used briefly as a reptile house and later into administrative offices, The Solitude has since been restored to its appearance during the time of John Penn. It has also been provided time-appropriate furnishings from the era, and currently is only available for private events and group tours. It is surrounded, however, by a modern renovated garden that since 2008 has embraced its historical 18th Century sensibilities in tandem with an indigenous plant array, fostering a positive relationship with native wildlife.

Although initially built in the middle of a contentious land dispute, The Solitude today embraces the harmony between mankind and nature, as well as history and the future.

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