For over eighty-seven years, The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks (PhilaLandmarks) has played a significant role in the historic preservation movement in Philadelphia by restoring, furnishing and presenting to the public its distinguished house museums.
The founding of PhilaLandmarks is an interesting story. In 1930, the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects undertook a Survey of "Old Philadelphia" to document details of all the important historic buildings. Within the first few months of the survey process architect H.L. Duhring alerted Frances Anne Wister of the fact that the historic Powel House might be headed for demolition to make way for a taxi cab parking lot. The long-time owner of the Powel House, Wolf Klebansky, was infirm. His nephew, acting as Klebansky's agent, invited people to tour the house prior to its being razed. In December of 1930 they toured the house and found most of the woodwork gone, the plaster cracked and falling, and the rear of the house open to the elements.
Frances A. Wister wrote:
"The plight of the mansion, far from deterring us, aroused a determination to save it...rooms of noble proportions, and the last house in the "Old City" where Washington was a frequent guest. It would have been a crime to destroy this historic mansion where the feet of so many patriots trod; a place which was the center for all the important people of the time in national and local history."
And so on February 27, 1931, Frances Anne Wister called the first meeting of The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks at the house of the Colonial Dames on Latimer Street. Her purpose was to rouse a group of strong supporters to save the Powel House. In attendance were members of many old Philadelphia families
including well-known names such as Biddle, Barnes, Curtis and Lippincott. The group quickly raised the money to purchase the house as well as the property next door for $30,000 in May of 1931. They also persuaded private owners to return original parts of the house, including interior woodwork in storage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
"...long were our deliberations over what might be done in Philadelphia to stop further disappearance of buildings of historic importance and architectural beauty, and long were our deliberations over the selction of a president. I naturally assumed that some prominent man would be found who would untertake this job, and nobody was more surprised then myself when the Committee invited me to be that prominent man."
Frances would continue on as the President of PhilaLandmarks for 10 years. In that time PhilaLandmarks became a noted pioneer preservation organization in the region. The organization was instrumental in preserving many historic buildings including the Old Franklin Institute built in 1824 (now the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent.) In 1934 PhilaLandmarks created a special committee to consider means to preserve the United States Custom House on Chestnut Street, which was originally the Second Bank of the United States, and the first of many American copies of the Parthenon. PhilaLandmarks purchased 126 Cherry Street at the foot of Elfreth's Alley and established "Elfreth's Alley Day" encouraging neighbors to band together and attracting the general public to actively engage in the preservation of the street. In 1938 PhilaLandmarks lobbied the State Housing Authority to "not demolish architectural treasures and of historic importance" and that "new building to be erected in sections where old building still stand should be harmonious in design with the old buildings."
In her 10th Annual Report on March 19, 1941, Frances proudly reported these accomplishments. At the same time she lamented historic houses lost when time and money had run out and listed those of significance that needed the attention of PhilaLandmarks. "You will see from this list that places of interest and importance are to be found in every section of Philadelphia, but how long they will be found is another question. How many years will it take to educate the public to preserve landmarks? People endow art galleries, collect pictures, take some interest in orchestras, but little in old buildings."
After more than seven years of restoration work, the Powel House was officially opened as a museum dedicated to the Colonial Revivalism (popular at that time) on November 23, 1938. It featured furnishings and stories of Samuel Powel and his wife Elizabeth Willing Powel.
In 1940, PhilaLandmarks took title of France's ancestral home, Grumblethorpe in Germantown, which had been owned by an independent group of 35 Wister heirs. It underwent a major restoration from 1956 to 1967, to become a museum focused on 18th-C Germantown history. Towards the end of the Grumblethorpe restoration period, PhilaLandmarks was approached by Ambassador and Mrs. Walter H. Annenberg about a house located a few blocks from Powel House in the now revitalized "Society Hill" neighborhood. Once owned by Frances' younger cousin Elsie Wister Keith, it was the sole-surviving freestanding Federal townhouse in the area. With support from the Annebergs, several Physick descendents, and prominent neighbors, the property was completely restored to the American Neoclassical style of resident Dr. Physick. It opened as a museum in in 1965.
In 1980 Easttown Township in Chester County purchased the farm estate of General Anthony Wayne with help from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. PhilaLandmarks became a partner as the administrators of a newly opened house museum in 1981, along with the Anthony Wayne Foundation and (later) the Friends of Historic Waynesborough.