A Furness Mansion in Fox Chase
William Rhawn, a successful Philadelphia banker, was the president of the National Bank of the Republic in 1879 when he resolved to build a summer residence outside the city. He purchased a parcel of almost 13 acres in what is now the Fox Chase section of Northeast Philadelphia. To design the project, he chose no less than Frank Furness, a prominent Philadelphia-based architect whose work would eventually become synonymous with the mansions and public buildings of the Gilded Age. The banker’s country estate was to include a carriage house and gatekeeper’s house.
Furness himself oversaw much of the work, which went on for more than two years. Rhawn and his wife, Hettie, moved in in 1881.
Rhawn named the estate “Knowlton” for his wife’s great grandfather, John Knowles, because he felt it resembled Knowles’ estate in England and in honor of Hettie’s affection for her great grandfather. The City of Philadelphia named the thoroughfare in front of Knowlton “Rhawn Street” because the banker paid for the City to pave the distance between the new house and the City’s established streets.
Knowlton Mansion was and is an imposing three-story house built of local fieldstone quarried on site. The roof shingles are slate. With its gabled roofs, dormer windows, and expansive porches, the house provides an excellent example of the style of the famous Victorian architect. Furness’s interior touches include richly colored stained glass windows, geometric patterned woodwork, Minton tiles, brass chandeliers, and inlaid hardwood floors.
The house included many of the technological advances of its day. Indoor plumbing and a heating system were just two of the amenities. There was also an icehouse in a sub-basement that provided cold storage year round.
The total cost of the home when finished was $32,636.16. Rhawn had paid $4,750 for the land. As architect, Frank Furness earned $600.
A Century of Powells
By 1899, Rhawn had died and his wife and son had sold Knowlton to the John Powell Family. A wealthy industrialist, Powell was a partner in the Powell Knitting Mill Company. His daughter, Nettie Missimer Powell, had married Robert McCray Green in 1896, and given birth to her first child, Elizabeth Missimer Green, in1898. The Greens were themselves a noteworthy Philadelphia family: They had established the Robert M. Green and Sons Soda Fountain Company on Vine Street in the 1860s. According to family lore, Robert invented the first ice cream soda at the Centennial Exhibition when he ran out of the crème he used in his soda drinks and used scoops of ice cream instead.
The Powells and Greens together moved into Knowlton. There, they were soon joined by the Greens’s new twin daughters, Eleanor Wickersham Green and Ruth Vernon Green in 1899, and their son, John Powell Green, in 1901. The Powells added an additional two bedrooms and a nursery to accommodate the growing family.
The Powell/Green family so loved Knowlton that they stayed for nearly 100 years, keeping the interior spaces and furnishings much the same for the entire period. Powell’s granddaughter Elizabeth, who married and later divorced Dr. Lemon Snodgrass of Philadelphia, was the last of the family to live on the estate. She died in 1990.
Following the death of Elizabeth Snodgrass, Knowlton was put up for sale. Years of uncertainty followed. The property was considered for several mundane uses, including a funeral home, a conference center, a supermarket, and a church. Then John and Beth Conroy of Conroy Catering offered a different sort of possibility. They wanted to preserve Knowlton and transform the property into a treasure for the community.
A Home for Conroy Catering
The Conroys purchased Knowlton in 1996. It would become Conroy Catering’s base of operations and show place venue for the company’s catered events. The agreement of sale encompassed the mansion, the carriage house, the gatekeeper’s house, and the contents of all. That included collections of paintings and prints, rare books, objects d’art, and period furnishings from the late 1890s.
The Conroys spent two years painstakingly researching, restoring, and renovating the mansion to accurately recapture its Victorian splendor. Artisans sanded and polished hardwood floors, stenciled walls and ceilings, hung authentic reproduction wall coverings, and reupholstered furnishings with fabrics in the Victorian style. Lavish window treatments were hand sewn with great attention to detail. Finally, the interior furnishings were carefully arranged to authenticate the mansion’s original presentation.
The Conroys’ work also included the construction of a carefully designed, 8,500-square-foot addition in the form of a conservatory for use as a ballroom and banquet facility. The addition, built with the same artistic vision Furness would have appreciated, includes glass skylights, 30-foot vaulted ceilings, and a center cupola, among other architectural highlights.The quality of the Knowlton restoration has earned the Conroys accolades from both the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, Knowlton is open to the public by appointment. In addition to taking in the splendors of the restored mansion, visitors can walk the idyllic grounds with a family of ducks and visit the horses and pony in the restored stables. For the most delightful experience of all, however, schedule Knowlton Mansion and Conroy Catering for your own private party, meeting, or wedding.