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A brief history of Chamounix Mansion

Originally built as a country home by a prominent Philadelphian, Chamounix Mansion, like other estates in Fairmount Park, shares a long history dating back to Colonial America.

 

Earliest records show that in 1677 John and Andreas Wheeler purchased a 400-acre land tract called “Metoptum.” The land was subdivided in 1699 and then again in 1776; and had numerous owners including former Governor Thomas Mifflin. In 1799, a 27-acre parcel of the property was sold at a Sheriff’s sale for $2,250 to prominent Philadelphian, George Plumsted. It is at this point that the history of the Chamounix Mansion - the building - begins.

Chamounix Mansion, possibly called “Montpelier” by its first owners, was built in 1802 by George Plumsted. Plumsted, was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, whose father and grandfather were both mayors of Philadelphia and prominent members of society. Mr. Plumsted, like other wealthy city dwellers, built his seasonal retreat in the country -- within a day’s journey of the city, but far enough from Colonial Philadelphia to escape its crowds, disease and summer heat. Isolated in a secluded area of the park, on a hill overlooking the Schuylkill River, Chamounix Mansion embodied the quintessential qualities associated with a country “villa.”  When it was constructed, it would have been an idyllic setting in which to rest the mind and body as well as provide an unobstructed view of the river and the long meadows of what is now Fairmount Park. Chamounix was a modest house compared to some of the other Schuylkill villas such as Lemon Hill or Mount Pleasant, but it still signified wealth and prominence. Although the architect or master builder of Chamounix is unknown, some deductions can be made to regional and local influences. The house is an example of Federal architecture. The semicircular bow on the south façade, (which translates into rounded interior walls), the position of the interior stairways, the hipped roof, delicate moldings, well-proportioned facades, exterior decoration limited to porches and a simple entrance are all characteristic Federal style. The house was two and a half stories. The first floor was divided into two rooms, a hall and a staircase. The second floor and garret each contained four rooms. The kitchen and ironing rooms were in the basement, where the original ovens can still be seen today. The tenant house on the site was most likely built as servant’s quarters.

Unfortunately, George Plumsted seemed far from a success. When he died on April 5, 1805, at the age of thirty-nine, he had accumulated an enormous debt of $40,000. Since he left no will, his wife and John Craig became joint administrators of the estate. Because the debt was so large, the Commonwealth forced Mrs. Plumsted to sell almost all the property and every object the family owned at an auction in order that their four children, three girls and one boy, could be reared in a "proper manner."

A publisher of law books, Benjamin Johnson later bought the property for $4,498.40. In 1813, Johnson sold twelve of his property's twenty-seven acres, including Chamounix Mansion, to Benjamin Warner. Unfortunately, Warner was unable to pay his mortgage and after his death in 1828, the land was foreclosed.

However, Joseph Warner, Benjamin's brother and one of his heirs to his estate secured the property. In the 1830's, Joseph Warner acquired a fire insurance policy from the Philadelphia Contributorship for the house. In the policy, the Mansion was referred to as "Chamounix," and so remains to this day.

In 1853, the property was sold to the Topliff Johnson’s, the first family to live in the house year-round. Their constant use of the house necessitated that alternations be made, in fact, they almost doubled the size of the mansion. Bedrooms were added to the second floor. An additional parlor and conveniences such as a dumbwaiter were also added, possibly indicating a greater amount of entertaining. And, to add comfort for year round living, a furnace was installed.  It is believed that the carriage house (which sits just west of the main house) was built when the house alterations were made. The carriage house’s gothic revival style would have been in fashion in the 1850’s and the Johnsons, being a large family, may have needed extra space for their carriages and storage. The mansion today is very much the same as in Topliff Johnson’s time.

The Johnson family was ultimately forced to give up both their land and the house in 1867 when an act of the assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appropriated the grounds for public use; this site was to become Fairmount Park. This act included Chamounix and its grounds. Information on the management of the Mansion at that time is unclear, except that for a time, it served as a boarding house and restaurant between the months of June and September. In the early 1950's the Mansion was used as a refreshment stand, eventually falling into disrepair.

After a fire damaged the central hallway and the main staircase, the Fairmount Park Commission intended to demolish Chamounix Mansion. However, the Committee to Establish a Youth Hostel in Philadelphia actively petitioned to save this historic site for community use. Fortunately, the Director of the Fairmount Park Commission, Hal Noble, was sympathetic to the idea of converting Chamounix to a hostel.

Early leaders on the Committee to Establish a Youth Hostel included Marion Rivinus, Charles Glanville, Putnam Stowe, and Robert C. Wolfe. The Committee was augmented to include representatives of such organizations as the Girl Scout Council, the Council of Churches, International House and the Council for International Visitors.

Despite its physical problems, Chamounix Mansion was selected as the site. An architect serving on the AYH National Board drew up plans for converting the building. Furnishings were solicited and put in place, house parents were recruited, and Chamounix was ready for business. In July of 1964 a dedication ceremony was celebrated at Chamounix Mansion. Frederic Mann represented the City, and Dr. Paul Dudley White, the celebrated Boston physician and honorary president of American Youth Hostels, gave the main dedication speech.