Golden Years

I covered much of the history of the Neebor Lee property in past posts, from its period of colonial ownership in the early 18th Century,  through the conflicted period of the American Revolutionary War and post-war construction of the Neebor Lee house, to the farmers who worked the land in the first half of the 19th Century, and to the purchase of the home and property in the  mid-9th Century by a wealthy Philadelphia family as part of its growing summer estate. It is thus that we now follow the home’s history into the 20th Century, which began with the major transformation that sparked what appeared to be a golden period in the history of the home.  The early 20th Century owner of the home, Charles Wetherill Gumbes, Jr., left substantial marks on the Neebor Lee and its property, and his influence very much remains visible today.

The 20th Century starts with the Neebor Lee’s transformation in 1903 from a simple two-story farmhouse to a three-story mansion.   The catalyst for this transformation was Charles Wetherill Gumbes Jr., a young Spanish-American war veteran who inherited the home and farm upon his father’s death. He moved into the home with his wife, Susan, and his then 3-year old daughter, Susanna, the first members of the Gumbes family to have done so. Also moving onto the estate were the Gumbe’s servants, who were assigned residence to the newly renovated smoke house, which had been converted into a small residence.

The “Servant House”

The renovations of the smoke house were by no means extravagant. It was a small and arguably cramped two-story structure that had but one room on the first floor and one other room on the second floor that was added during the 1903 renovations. The first floor was and continues to be dominated by a large fireplace that was the estate’s former “summer kitchen”, the oldest structure on the property that pre-dates the original farm house. Connecting these two floors was a spiral staircase that protruded so far into the room on the first floor that one has to turn sideways in order to pass between it and the fireplace. This staircase still serves as the only means of access to the second floor. With small rooms and low ceiling, the new servant house presented a small but cozy living space for the household’s servants.

Servant House - First floor
Spiral stairway inside the “Servant House” with the fireplace on the right. The fireplace is currently covered by two large wooden doors that were reported to have come of a ship.

The Federal Census indicated that the Gumbes family had two live-in servants in 1910, one of whom was a 58 year-old Irish-born widow named Julia Crim and the other a 38 year-old single Pennsylvania-born gentleman named John McBride. Subsequent censuses indicate that servant turnover was high for the Gumbes family, with their servants either quitting or being dismissed far more often than every 10 years.  In the 1920 Federal Census, for example, no servants are listed in the household. Ten years later, in 1930, two new servants are listed.  They included 48-year old English-born Constance Cowen and her English-born 17-year old daughter, Jean Cowen.

The renovations of the main house did not end with the 1903 remodeling, but rather continued intermittently in  later years with additional upgrades. In 1918, for example, Charles Gumbes Jr. commissioned a renovation of the home’s large front foyer, then known as the “smoking room”. Based on architect drawings were prepared by Oliver William Perry of Philadelphia, these renovations included the addition of wainscoting wall paneling, relocation of the stairway to the room’s interior wall, enclosing the foyer’s fireplace behind paneling and the reconstruction of the archway between the foyer and the parlor. An architectural historian commented years later that these renovations provided the home with a “misleading English atmosphere”. While this late 19th Century Victorian-style woodwork may be out-of-sync with the 18th Century cast iron hinges, rim locks and latches that are still found on all but one of the first and second floor doors (the only doorknob being part of an 1830 Carpenter rim lock),  it still presents a rich and warm atmosphere that is rarely found in homes constructed in the post-Victorian architectural period following the Second World War.  Renovations by Mr. Gumbes continued into the early 1930s,  with inlaid hardwood flooring being installed in the parlor areas and the second-floor hallways.

Oaks 041
View of inside the main house looking from the foyer “smoking room” to the parlor. The wainscoting and wood archway added in 1918 and the inlaid hardwood flooring installed in the early 1830s are shown.
Oaks 042
A view from inside the main house looking up a the relocated stairway up to the second floor.

And then there was the garden.  Extending northward about 1,000 feet from the main road servicing the house, Charles Gumbes created a “garden”, which was a wooded area that was left largely in its natural state but which included a man-made stream which was fed by a large water tank, walking trails and other man-made features such as trellises, gazebos, a sundial and even a birdhouse that was patterned after the Neebor Lee house itself. This likely served a quiet santuary for the Gumbes family, where  they could escape the grief that followed the death of young Susanna in 1913 and the stresses of the Depression and two World Wars. However, neither the garden nor those golden years of the early 20th Century would last. They survived the Depression and the war years, but would would eventually succumb to post-war urbanization. Urbanization would ultimately pull the estate apart and almost destroy the Neebor Lee house itself were it not for a military man who would fight his final battle to preserve the home. Today, the wonderful and imaginative garden created by Charles Wetherill Gumbes Jr. is gone and in its place is a public road that is lined with late 20th Century-style suburban homes.

The location of the Neebor Lee’s gardens along with other features that existed in 1937, when this aerial photo was taken. The red lines encompass those parcels of land that comprised the Neebor Lee property under Charles Wetherill Gumbes. The blue line is the Broadview property which was owned by Francis Macomb Gumbes, brother of Charles Wetherill Gumbes. The location of the Broadview and Roselawn Mansions, which were other former Gumbes family homes, are shown.
The Garden (date unknown) showing a pathway, the sundial and various wood structures.
The garden (date unknown) with a birdhouse constructed to look like the Neebor Lee house.




3 Comments Add yours

  1. Katie Bee says:

    An incredible home! How did you find out the date of the smokehouse and the details of renovations? These are two things I have tried searching for for my house but no luck. Your house is beautiful. I look forward to reading more.


    1. Thank you. Regarding the date of the smokehouse and the details of the renovations, we were fortunate that many of those details were captured by the last member of the Gumbes family to have owned the home. The information was documented in 1970 in a “Statement of Significance” as an attempt to save the home from condemnation and demolition (I’m saving the details of that story for a future post!). The Statement, which was prepared by architectural historians, was submitted with an application to have the Neebor Lee listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Unfortunately, the renovations were too much of an obstacle for approval by the National Trust; the 20th Century renovations had altered the appearance of the original home too drastically. Despite this, the “Statement of Significance” became a valuable record of the home’s history and renovations that was passed down to subsequent homeowners. And, needless to say, the home was saved from demolition, but by other factors, perhaps among them was the listing of the Neebor Lee with the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Site and Landmarks.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Katie Bee says:

        That sounds like great progress! I look forward to reading more. Maybe I will have to work on a similar document. The previous owners of my house said they considered bulldozing it and selling the land (how anyone could be that blind to the value in a historic house is beyond me).


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