Woodford Mansion did not begin as the property it is today. Built on 12 acres on the riverside of what was then known as the Wissahickon Road, Woodford was originally a 1.5-story Georgian home with a servants’ house and stable. The relatively small size of the property indicated that Judge William Coleman’s intention was not to farm, but to use Woodford as his “gentleman’s retirement,” or country home. Coleman placed the house and two outbuildings symmetrically to evoke Palladian architecture and landscaping design, which was inspired by classical Greek and Roman architectural traditions.
The formal entry hall at the center of the house is distinguished by its Doric frieze and unusual coved ceiling. The parlor is on the south side, to the right of the entry, and features a carved overmantle that has been called one of the “finest in America.” Two bed chambers were located on the north, with a kitchen in the basement below. In 1771, then-owner David Franks added the second floor and rear “el” addition. An airy stair hall and kitchen were installed in the rear of the first floor. Bed chambers and a large room that is thought to have served as a ballroom or parlor were added to the second floor, with an attic above.
Above: View of the original house and the additions made by David Franks in the late 1700s; Below left: The widow's walk at the top of the house; Below right: A view of the servants' house from the widow's walk
It was during the Franks period that all the interior and exterior doors and the woodwork in the stair hall were painted to look like expensive mahogany. Faux mahogany graining was very fashionable at the time.
Around 1800, subsequent owners, the Wharton family, made several updates to Woodford to reflect the popular style of the day. On the first floor, two bed chambers were combined to create a dining room. The same was done on the second floor, where two bed chambers were combined into one large room. Both the dining room and the large second-floor chamber have Federal-style mantle pieces from that period.
In 1868, when Fairmount Park transferred control of the property to The Naomi Wood Trust, its first Trustee Daniel Huntoon undertook significant restorations. When Huntoon moved into the house, a small two-story addition had been added to the rear of the structure to accommodate a modern kitchen with a bedroom and bath upstairs.
The fashionable faux wood graining added by the Franks family
The Piazza Project
In 2020, The Naomi Wood Trust, with generous support from the William B. Dietrich Foundation, completed the restoration of the mansion’s 18th-century piazza, or porch. The project received a 2021 Preservation Achievement Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. The restoration addressed an important aspect of how Woodford’s 18th-century occupants likely enjoyed the property. Since the house was used primarily in the summer months, the piazza would have been a place to sit and enjoy the surrounding garden and orchards.
Digging into History
The first insurance survey for Woodford was prepared in 1769, shortly after Alexander Barclay, the mansion’s second owner, purchased it. The survey notes the presence of a “quite new” piazza, ten feet wide and extending the whole length of the house. A subsequent insurance survey, done in November 1778 for Woodford’s third owner, David Franks, shows major renovations, including the addition of a second floor and a whole new two-story wing extending back from the rear of the original 1756-58 structure. At the back of the house, the surveyor noted a piazza “26 by 10 feet.”
That piazza survived a remarkably long time, but by 1897, it had been demolished and all that remained was a smaller stair and platform. Following The Naomi Wood Trust’s 1927 agreement with the City to move the collection into Woodford Mansion, a new enclosed rear porch was built to link the front and stair halls to the exterior of the house. Though useful, this Colonial Revival porch did not replicate the original 18th-century piazza.
Left: A view of the rebuilt Piazza, overlooking the orchard and garden; Right: Handmade reproduction Philadelphia Windsor chairs
Starting Again from Scratch
In 2016, The Naomi Wood Trust commissioned preliminary studies and architectural drawings for a new piazza that would faithfully replicate the 18th-century structure. Archaeological work at the site identified the location of the foundations for the brick piers that upheld the piazza, so the exact dimensions of the original piazza were finally known. The excavation also uncovered other exciting discoveries: ceramic shards and milk bottles dating to the 1927-30 renovations to the mansion.
Unearthing the Original Piers
Construction began in August 2019, thanks to a generous William B. Dietrich Foundation grant. The contractor first excavated down to the 18th-century piers that supported the original porch and discovered more ceramic shards dating as far back as the mid-to-late 1800s.
It proved to be impossible to use the original brick piers to support the reconstructed porch, since un-mortared brick-on-brick construction would not have met modern standards. So the original piers were encapsulated in a concrete footer to support the new brick piers holding up the piazza. This method preserved the original brick piers while ensuring that the reconstructed piazza met today’s structural requirements.
Adding the Finishing Touches
Next, Tuscan pillars were fabricated to support the roof, replicating the design of the original columns at the front of the mansion. Handrails and spindles were crafted to match the handrails and spindles on the 1772 David Franks staircase inside the house. Finally, yellow pine floor planks were created from reclaimed wood beams and installed.
Today, weather permitting, visitors can relax in four hand-made reproduction Philadelphia Windsor chairs on the piazza and enjoy the lovely garden and orchard, just as Woodford’s early owners and their guests once did.