Woodford Mansion is one of the most elegant survivors of the group of early “country seats,” which were built in the countryside along the Schuylkill River outside of colonial Philadelphia. The house is said to have been named after the nearby woods and the ford across the Schuylkill River. Its owners have included some of the most significant names in early American history.
A Summer Home in the Country
William Coleman (1704-1769), an influential figure in early Philadelphia history, built Woodford–a 1.5-story Georgian-style summer home with a servants’ house and stables–in 1756-58 on 12 acres of land. Coleman was a highly educated and successful merchant who also served as a judge in the colony and became a justice of the provincial Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He and his wife Hannah raised Hannah’s orphaned nephew George Clymer, who went on to be a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Benjamin Franklin, a close and long-standing friend, said of Coleman, “He has the coolest, clearest head, the best heart, and the exactest morals of almost any man I ever met.”
Following Coleman's death, Woodford was owned briefly by Alexander Barclay, the Customs Comptroller for the Port of Philadelphia, until his untimely death in 1771.
Loyalty & Treason
That same year, Woodford was purchased by David Franks, an agent for the British crown in Philadelphia, who supplied the British Army in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Though his wife was Christian, Franks himself was Jewish. He had moved from New York City to Philadelphia to partner with his uncle, Nathan Levy, and establish a Philadelphia branch of the Franks family business, which imported European and Asian goods to the colonies. The Jewish population in in colonial Philadelphia was very small, and Franks maintained his membership in his New York synagogue, though his children were raised as Christians. To make room for his four children and the many guests they entertained at lavish parties, Franks built a second floor and a rear two-story addition, tripling the size of the house.
The Frankses were Loyalists to the British Crown. Lord Howe, the Commander-in-Chief of British land forces in the American colonies, often dropped by to visit Rebecca, the Frank’s youngest daughter who was celebrated for her beauty and wit. In 1778, the newly formed nation’s Congress ordered Benedict Arnold (the famed Revolutionary War hero turned British spy) to arrest Franks for treason. Though Franks was acquitted of the charge, the family was ordered to leave and eventually relocated to England where they ended up in abject poverty. David Franks eventually returned to Philadelphia, seeking to regain his fortune by pursuing various land claims in the West. He died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793.
That same year, Woodford was purchased by Isaac Wharton, a member of the influential Quaker Wharton family in Philadelphia. The house stayed in the Whartons’ hands for many years and served as their summer home until after the Civil War.
Conserving the House and the Land
In 1868, just a few years after the Civil War ended, the Wharton family sold Woodford to the City of Philadelphia to become part of Fairmount Park. The Fairmount Park Commission had been established a year earlier with the goal of protecting the city's water supply by purchasing properties near the Schuylkill River. The mansion served a variety of Park uses, including headquarters for the Fairmount Park Guard, who used it as a police station and lock-up until 1927.
In 1927, Daniel Huntoon, a close friend of the collector Naomi Wood and a collector himself, selected Woodford as a suitable home for the public display of Wood's “colonial household gear.” Huntoon, the first Trustee of The Naomi Wood Trust, entered into a long-term lease with the Fairmount Park Commission, and under his watchful eye Woodford was restored and the collection installed. Woodford officially opened to the public in 1930 and continues to be operated by the Trust to this day. Many additional objects have been added to the collection over the years.
A Fire at the Mansion
In July 2003, a fire broke out at the house, and a portion of the attic was burned. Very little of the collection was lost, but everything in the house was damaged by smoke and water. Following two years of repairs and renovations, a completely restored Woodford re-opened in 2005 with new mechanical and electrical systems. In addition, the house now features historically accurate fabrics, paint, and floor finishes, making the interior an authentic reflection of the lives and tastes of its original owners.
As the property changed hands over the centuries, it went through many changes. Learn about Woodford’s architectural history here.
Woodford's Enslaved Residents
At least three of Woodford's first five owners owned enslaved African people during their lifetimes. Although some German Quakers opposed the practice of slavery from a very early time, the Quakers as a whole did not formally bar slaveholding Friends from retaining their membership in their congregations until 1775. Slavery was abolished in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1780, though it took some time for the law to take hold.
Though we know very little about the individual enslaved people who labored as domestic servants at Woodford, we do know three names of the first enslaved residents of Woodford, thanks the last will and testament of William Coleman, the mansion’s first owner. Suffering from ill health, Coleman drew up a will stipulating that Woodford be sold upon his death and the proceeds be used to provide payments for three adult enslaved women—Azmin, Hagar, and Philae—and their children, all of whom he ordered to be set free. The children were to be placed as apprentices with a “reputable person or persons” in order to learn a trade.
Soon after Coleman’s death, Woodford came into the possession of David Franks, who not only owned enslaved people but also participated in the slave trade. Franks was involved in the importation of at least one shipload of enslaved Africans from the coast of Guinea, as well as at least one shipload of indentured servants from Europe. There is also documentation of an advertisement paid for by Franks offering a reward for the capture and return of an enslaved African man named “Greenwich,” who had freed himself from Franks. In addition, an enslaved man named “Peter,” who had worked as a coachman for Franks, was later sold by Franks to another enslaver in New Jersey. Peter escaped from that man twice.
William Paschell, who bought the Woodford Mansion from Franks, though he never lived there, also owned enslaved people, according to tax records.