Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Early Days of the Poe House in Philadelphia

I’ve spent the last two days of my week-long break at the Independence National Historical Park (INHP) Library and Archives looking into the early history of the Edgar Allan Poe House here in Philadelphia.

Although I’m trying to start at the beginning of the history of this site, it is hard to do. The house was purchased by a rare books and manuscripts collector, Richard Gimbel in 1933 and converted into a house museum. The image above is of the house sometime before Gimbel converted it into a house museum; this photo comes from the Library Company of Philadelphia's collection. It doesn't look much like a literary landmark yet.

In 1933 house museums, despite the Great Depression, were all the rage. Lawrence Vail Coleman, in his book Historic House Museums, wrote that there were twenty house museums open in the U.S. in 1895 and that this number grew to “nearly a hundred in 1910 and to more than four hundred now [roughly 1933].”* The Poe House was one of these new house museums devoted to celebrating famous Americans.

It appears as though Gimbel, the grandson of the founder of Gimbels department stores, saw the house as a traditional house museum. He and his curator Anthony Frayne filled the house with carefully chosen period furniture, but Gimbel also used the house as a display place for his growing collection of Poeana (which is now part of the Free Library of Philadelphia's Rare Books Collection). The museum operated as a small private enterprise, run almost entirely by Mr. Frayne and his wife Barbara until Gimbel’s death in 1971.

In 1971 the house was left to the City of Philadelphia, which deemed the Philadelphia Free Library (a branch of the city) should operate it. The photo above is a HABS photo of the inside of the house in 1976 while it was being administered by the Free Library.

Mr. Frayne died in 1973, but Mrs. Frayne lived well into the National Park Service's acquisition of the property in 1978 and its reopening after restoration and remodeling in 1981. She successfully petitioned the Park Service to let her stay on as the house's "security" after hours. She lived in the adjoining house, led tours and raised a family in the "Poe Complex" for at least 45 years.

I haven't yet been able to track down Barbara Frayne's obituary, or the records from the Gimbel Foundation relating to the 38 years that they kept the house open to tourists. My hope is that these records may be with the Free Library.

Many, many thanks to the INHP's incredibly able Archivist and Library Manager Karen Stevens who made this first foray into research on the house easy and absolutely enjoyable!

* Coleman, Laurence Vail. Historic House Museums. Washington, D.C.: The American Association of Museums, 1933, 18.


Undine said...

I'll be interested to see if you come up with anything more. Poe lived in many different houses during his life, but very few of them survive, so they have a particular importance as historical relics.

Daniele said...

May I translate your post and publish it in my Poe's italian blog?


You can certainly translate my post, just make sure to attribute the proper citation to me and to any sources I use. Thanks!

Daniele said...

Thanks Hilary, you can see the article here:

machinery said...

Do you know Christopher Morley's story where he discusses the Poe House? He would have been familiar with it in the 1910's. Mentions a woman, perhaps recently deceased, who remembered hearing Virginia's harp playing through the window.


I'm not, but this would certainly help me make sense of the photographs of the interiors from the 1970s that include harps. I'll look up Morley's piece. Thank you.

Undine said...

I believe Morley's book (I'm sorry I can't remember the title) is available on Google Books. It didn't really give any details about the house, as I recall. He just mentioned knowing an elderly lady who remembered, when she was a child, seeing Virginia Poe sitting at one of the upstairs windows playing her harp.

Unfortunately, I can't think offhand of any detailed contemporary descriptions of any of Poe's homes, other than the Fordham cottage. When they are described at all, the observers invariably merely say the interiors were very simple, but always scrupulously neat and well-kept.

Chris Storb said...

Checking Morley's stories at home I see it is "Catterina of Spring Garden Street" that has the Poe reference. At the time of writing, (1920?) Mrs. William Owens had lived in the house in front for 8 years.

This is a great project, good luck.

(goggle assigned me that "machinery" tag for some reason.)