Philadelphia is a city where American history is in the air, giving it its very identity. Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House, and the Liberty Bell sit at the heart of the Old City neighborhood, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were designed and where that history is now carefully preserved, taught, and marketed to the thousands of tourists who flock here. It’s a neighborhood bursting with life both reenacted from long ago and in all of today’s relentless glory.
The Morris House Hotel sits tucked away on one of Old City’s quiet, charming side streets; one of its greatest charms being that it’s easy to just happen upon this peaceful respite from the historical attractions just a five minute walk away. The hotel’s square brick façade and columned entrance appear suddenly before you and are somehow majestic and unobtrusive at the same time. You wonder how you could have missed it but the building gives off an air of secrecy. It has been quietly watching Philadelphia grow up around it for over 200 years, miraculously unchanged. Though no tour groups of school children parade through it and no park rangers surround it, it has a colonial history as rich as any other landmark in Philadelphia. To stay there is to take a step off the beaten track and back in time to when America was newly born.
A Quiet Beginning in a Time of Unrest
Even from its beginnings, the Morris House was the quiet one, standing unfashionably apart from the crowd in a time that was fraught with frenetic uncertainty. In 1786, America was freshly independent of Britain, with all the problems of a fledgling nation. The thirteen colonies were bickering amongst each other as President George Washington and such heads of state as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were trying to hammer out a Constitution to guide the country in the expanding new city of Philadelphia. In this turbulent time, William Reynolds, a physician, and his brother John, a brick maker, decided to build a house apart from the hustle and bustle all the way on 8th Street, which was on the outskirts of Philadelphia across from a meadow and the Philadelphia City Jail. Even then, no one of consequence would elect to build a house that far away from the action on 1st, 2nd or 3rd Streets, where the finest homes in the city first stood. Plus, the country was in the first recession of its young life following the Revolutionary War and investing in a home wasn’t considered a wise way to spend one’s money. But the Reynolds brothers didn’t care.
Building a House in the 1700s: By Hand
They also didn’t care about what fashion dictated for the architecture of their home, choosing to stick with the square and simple pre-war Colonial style as opposed to the new French Baroque style that emphasized ornate carvings and heavy ornamentation. John Reynolds, being the brick maker in the partnership, was the likely architect of the house, though no such job description existed in America at the time. His vocation also likely made him familiar with building processes and the numerous carpenters who made up a large percentage of Philadelphia’s working class in the growing city. Wallpaper, vivid paint colors, and any wood other than the local pine were imported luxuries only for the very rich. Consequently, the Reynolds brothers furnished the interior of their home with rough-hewn pine floorboards of mismatching width on top of a webbing of rope to prevent mortal injury should a floorboard and nails ever give way. Pure white paint was hard to make so beige, brown and green earth tones were the likely colors of the walls, with dark blue as a splurge for their living room. In one nod to the fashion of the times that the brothers couldn’t afford, they varnished the first floor doors with a dark mahogany stain to emulate those in finer homes a few blocks away. Needless to say, building a house by hand with nothing but hand tools, wood, bricks, mortar and plaster was not a quick process. By the time the marble date stone bearing the year 1787 was set under the eaves, the final brick placed, and the roof completed, it had taken almost a year and a half of manual labor to create this three-story home.
Witnessing History in the Making
The Reynolds Brothers led a quiet life in their chosen professions in the years following 1787, in direct contrast to the exciting times outside its walls. By 1790, Philadelphia had become the first capital of the United States and President George Washington himself chose to move only two blocks away on 6th Street. Only four years after it had been built, the Reynolds’ house had come to be admired throughout the city as an example of exemplary Colonial craftsmanship, and Washington himself chose to emulate this style for his own home and what became the first presidential residence in America. Though no proof exists that Washington ever visited the Reynolds’ house, William was likely the closest physician to his home and his profession likely put him in the same social circles. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson kept a residence only three blocks away and likely strode past the Reynolds brothers’ home to meet up with Washington on the way to Independence Hall. The new invention of the steamboat sailed up the nearby Delaware River in 1791 while the American dollar system was ratified a few blocks away that same year, and the hot air balloon took its inaugural American flight from the meadow across the street in 1793. The French Revolution raged in Europe, with Americans hotly taking sides and pushing Washington to involve America against Britain. The conversations in the navy blue living room and in the brick courtyard outside must have been lively ones as history was being made.
A New Life Honoring the Old
By 1796 John Reynolds had overextended himself by buying nine other pieces of real estate and was deeply in debt. The Reynolds brothers were forced to sell their home and they did so to a widow named Ann Dunkin, who lived a quiet life in the house for the next 20 years. However, in 1817, the house got a new lease on life when it was sold to Luke Wistar Morris, once again entering Philadelphia’s cultural and social spotlight. The Morris family was heavily involved in all things Philadelphia. The first Morris had arrived in 1685, opening a brewery that would become a branch of the family business until the 1930s. He later became one of the first mayors of William Penn’s “country town” of Philadelphia in 1685. Other Morrises had gone on to fight in the Revolution and also remained involved in city politics. By 1817, the Colonial period of time was so long past that the architecture of the house had gone beyond “old-fashioned” and was now considered “classic.” The Morris family loved their home; so much so that seven generations went on to live there, furnishing it in the Colonial style and trying to maintain it as closely as possible to its original condition. Additions to the house were made to accommodate the growing family, but always in keeping with the Colonial nature of the house. Bedrooms were added; a new kitchen was expanded off the back, and even outbuildings were constructed on an adjoining property. Meanwhile the Morris family entrenched themselves in Philadelphia society as doctors, bankers, and manufacturers, continuing to keep their home a living and breathing monument to the past. In 1914, the last known major restoration to the property, the family tore down the outbuildings and the north and south sides of the building were restored to their original appearance. Aside from minor maintenance, the architecture of the house remains the same to this day.
A New Century Maintains the Old
By 1967, coincidentally the same year the Morris House was designated a National Historic Landmark, the Morris family had run out of generations to live in what had been their home for the past 150 years. Over the next forty years the house would pass through the hands of multiple private owners, before becoming office space in the 1990s. In 1996 two local real estate developers by the name of Gene Lefevres and Mike DiPaolo saw that the house was for sale and immediately fell in love with it. They were no strangers to restoring and preserving historic buildings, having worked on the massive restoration of Philadelphia’s Mellon Independence Center in the 1980s, and were well aware of the blood, sweat, and tears that were ahead should they choose to move forward.
By 2001, they made their decision to purchase the Morris House and wanted the world to see what it actually felt like to live in a Colonial-era home. The partners began restoring the building with the intention of turning it into a boutique hotel, giving guests the feeling of living history. Restoration revealed the original paint colors used by the Reynolds’, which were emulated in some rooms and public spaces, as well as the Victorian-era wallpaper favored by a generation of the Morris family, which was replicated and used in the stairway. The home’s original fireplace, visible on the left wall as soon as you enter the front door, was unearthed after a plaster wall was removed and displayed it in near-perfect condition. Original wood moldings around the doorways in the library and the original pine floor in the entranceway, with supportive rope still intact, were also discovered and restored. Meanwhile, many of the Morris family’s carefully-collected Colonial artifacts were located and used as décor throughout the hotel, including a grandfather clock manufactured in London in 1730 containing several bullet holes in the back panel, allegedly made by British soldiers raiding the owner’s home during the Revolution. Among the Morris family’s collection, Lefevres and DiPaolo also found a pamphlet from the 1920’s, detailing the history of the house from its beginnings in 1786. In a final touch to their Colonial-era masterpiece, Lefevres and DiPaolo immortalized themselves, their spouses, and friends in several Colonial-style portraits hung over the mantles on the first floor.
When the Morris House Hotel opened in 2004, it immediately began attracting history buffs, tourists and even city natives who were searching for a quiet, intimate, but historical Colonial experience. Today the hotel boasts 15 rooms, some with Colonial décor and others with modern furnishings, in addition to a farm-to-table restaurant that specializes in American Colonial cooking with a contemporary flare. It plays host to jazz nights in the courtyard in the summer and is a favorite city spot for intimate weddings and family events. And as life goes on in and around it, the Morris House itself continues its centuries-old post as a quiet timekeeper of all that unfolds.