Until the 20th Century, this small unassuming brick townhouse on Letitia Street (now relocated to Girard Avenue) was assumed to have been built in anticipation for the first arrival of William Penn in the New World. Instead, the story of the Letitia Street House is indicative of the power of rumor, myth and the urge to preserve a historical legacy. This legend seems to have gained popularity in the early 19th Century when Philadelphia historian John Fanning Watson examined records from Gabriel Thomas, one of the first Englishmen in Philadelphia. Before Penn’s arrival in 1682, Thomas described a cellar being dug for the use of the new Governor. Thus, many had theorized on scant additional evidence that the cellar which Thomas was describing was a similar cellar beneath Letitia Street House. When Watson published his Annals of Philadelphia in 1830, the idea spread so far that in 1846, when Penn’s great-grandson Granville John Penn, visited Philadelphia as a guest of honor, he was treated to a reception at Letitia Street House. . . . We now know that the home was constructed not in 1682, but in 1713 by Thomas Chaulkney, a Philadelphia merchant and Quaker preacher. The land had been previously owned by William Penn’s oldest surviving daughter from his first marriage, Letitia Penn Aubrey, for whom the street is named after. However, the house was never intended to be the residence of any member of the Penn family.
The Constitional Walking Tour
Letitia Street House is a modest eighteenth-century house in West Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. It was built along the Delaware riverfront about 1713, and relocated to its current site in 1883. The house was once celebrated as the city residence of Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn (1644–1718); however, later historical research determined that he never lived there. . . . It was well documented that Penn had rented the Slate Roof House as his city residence during the 1699-1701 second visit — John Penn was born there. But despite that building’s direct associations with the Penn family and Pennsylvania’s colonial government, and despite desperate calls by antiquarians to preserve it, the Slate Roof House was demolished in 1867. Every other building associated with Penn, including his country house, also had been demolished. As the two-hundredth anniversary of Pennsylvania’s 1682 founding approached, there was a desire to honor Penn with a monument. The Letitia Street House became that monument. The Bi-Centennial Association of Pennsylvania was formed to raise funds through subscription to relocate the house, and to organize a week-long anniversary celebration for October 1882. The parades, historical pageants, athletic events (including a regatta on the Schuylkill River), concerts and fireworks went on as scheduled. But relocation of the house wasn’t begun until June 1883, with restoration completed in October.
Toward 1680 there appeared for the first time certain brick houses built from the start with a depth of two rooms in each story: the Sergeant house, the Tufts house, and the Perm house, all built within a period of five or six years. The Perm house is even deeper than it is wide. In it the door opens directly into the chief apartment, which must be traversed to reach the rear rooms; but in the other two a central hallway for the first time gives privacy of access. This doubling of rooms and introduction of passages which marked the post-Renaissance dwellings of the continent and of England in the seventeenth century, was, in America also, a symptom of the onset of a new style.
“Domestic architecture of the American colonies and of the early republic”, Fiske Kimball, 1922