Let’s indulge our romantic notions of American history for a moment and step back in time. (My use of that phrase should give you a hint about how this will go.)
You are a colonist; one of the elite thinkers of the late 18th century; a political and social rebel who has settled in the city of Philadelphia – poised to be our new nation’s capital.
You’ve been in meetings at Independence Hall all day, and you’re beat. You walk out onto the cobblestone streets and head east on Walnut Street, make a turn on 2nd Street and walk south. As you near Sam and Elizabeth Powel’s home, a carriage slows in front and your friend steps down. You wait to be greeted at the door and commiserate about being ravenous – fortunately the Powel’s know how to throw a good party.
Spruce Street Supper Club’s dinner at the Powel House upheld a centuries-old tradition: gathering to relax and socialize over a good meal. PhilaLandmarks has enabled the tradition to continue by simultaneously preserving the house and keeping it open as space to hold tours, meetings, dinners, and weddings.
On the night of our supper club we enlivened the home, treating it not as a museum or artifact, but using it for the purpose for which it was built. (It’s like using your great grandmother’s set of China for weeknight dinners rather than keeping it stowed away in a dusty cabinet.)
We sipped creamsicles in the dining room; snacked on pork rilletes in the parlor; clustered around paintings in the hallways; and shared a family-style meal with 20 dining companions in the ballroom.
And we learned about the former resident hosts, Samuel and Elizabeth Powel, who bought the home in 1769. “The Powels were foodies,” Powel House site manager Jennifer Davidson told us, “They were very wealthy and did a lot of entertaining — they’d get together artistic minds of the day to party.”
Samuel Powel was the mayor of Philadelphia, both pre and post-revolution, and he and his wife hosted many of the big names that shaped our early colonies. “Everything happened at Carpenter Hall and Independence Hall,” PhilaLandmarks executive director Jonathan Burton said, “And then they’d come over here to have a good time.”
When Burton mentioned that we were standing on the very floor where George and Martha Washington danced on their 20th wedding anniversary, there was a hush in the room and we all glanced towards our feet.
Later in the evening, I spilled half a bottle of red wine on those floors. After an initial shudder of panic, I relaxed, imagining two-centuries worth of wine darkening those wooden slabs. My spill was just a drop in the bucket.
To host an event in a preserved landmark is to bring history into the present, make it imaginable. It’s where the stories of our past can some alive and hold significance in our contemporary world.