Friday, September 08, 2006

Visiting the Speaker's House

About 25 miles due west of Center City Philadelphia is the small town of Trappe, Pennsylvania. There, along a busy commercial strip, stands the home the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Currently in dilapidated condition, the 18th-century residence of Frederick Muhlenberg has recently been purchased by a group of local residents interested in preserving this bit of history and restoring it for educational, archeological, and tourism purposes.

Most Americans know who our first president and vice-president were (George Washington and John Adams, in case non-Americans are reading this), but if asked, probably few could name Frederick Muhlenberg as the first Speaker of the House.

A first-generation American, Frederick Muhlenberg was born in Trappe on January 1, 1750. His father, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, founded Augustus Lutheran Church in Trappe, which is thought to be the oldest Lutheran church continuously in use, without major architectural or decorative changes, in the United States.

Following in his father's footsteps, as a young man, Muhlenberg went to Germany for his education and became a Lutheran minister. During the Revolutionary War, he was in New York when the British marched on the city, forcing him and his family to flee to his parents’ home in Trappe. There Frederick purchased a fifty-acre property in 1781.

Architectural evidence indicates that Muhlenberg modified an existing dwelling into a side-passage, double parlor residence in the manner of a stylish urban townhouse. In a letter to his brother Henry, Muhlenberg described how he greatly enjoyed working in his gardens, fields, and the dry goods store he operated on the property. While living in this house, Frederick was elected speaker of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and president of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. Muhlenberg was a powerful leader in local and state politics, serving as the president of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention and first President Judge, Recorder of Deeds, and Register of Wills in Montgomery County.

In 1789, Trappe-area voters sent Muhlenberg to the first U.S. Congress, where he was elected to the precedent-setting role of the first Speaker of the House and became the first to sign the Bill of Rights. Muhlenberg sold his Trappe estate to his sister and brother-in-law in 1791 and moved to Philadelphia, where he served in the next three congresses and was elected again as speaker of the third congress. In 1800 he moved to Lancaster, where he died the following year at the age of fifty-one. (He accomplished a lot in a short lifetime.)

I have been in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, for the past couple of days on business, and I had an opportunity to visit the Muhlenberg House in Trappe. To be perfectly frank, it is not ready for prime time, but a local group called Save the Speaker's House, Inc., has acquired the property and is now laying the groundwork for restoring it. Plans include building a facility with a lecture hall, classrooms, and administrative offices in the large backyard, and digging trenches for exploration by archeologists and archeology students. (The history department at Ursinus College is partnered with Save the Speaker's House for educational programs.)

The Montgomery County Commissioners have called the Frederick Muhlenberg house “a vital piece of our history” and Trappe Borough Council declared the Speaker’s House an official “historic treasure.". The house, across from the Trappe Shopping Center, has seen much change and neglect over the last century. Save the Speaker's House says that the restoration will revitalize its Main Street neighborhood and attract visitors to the historic and cultural resources of the local community. (Other nearby landmarks are Ursinus College, in next-door Collegeville, and Valley Forge National Historic Park, which is about 8 miles away.) The goal of Save the Speaker's House is to raise the $1.5 million necessary to restore the house to the period of 1781-1803, when Muhlenberg and his family lived there.

While in Trappe, I snapped a few photos of the Speaker's House (which is not yet open to the public) and his father's church down the street, using my handy camera phone. The Frederick Muhlenberg house, modest as it is, is not exactly Mount Vernon or Monticello -- or even Ash Lawn-Highland -- but it still represents an important, if relatively unnoted, part of our early post-revolutionary, early-republican history.

This sign in front of the Speaker's House is the only visible indication of the historic site behind it

The back of the house dates to the original construction in the 1740s...

...the front of the house, which faces the street, is only about 110 years old

In the backyard is the Speaker's Outhouse.

Far better preserved, largely because it has been in use, serving its original purpose, for more than two centuries, is Augustus Lutheran Church, just a few blocks west of the Speaker's House along Main Street in Trappe:

The church is a simple structure, shaped much like a barn.

Lutheran congregations from across the United States have contributed financially toward the upkeep and preservation of Augustus Lutheran Church; this plaque offers them some thanks.

Contrary to what some wags suggest, this well is not also a baptismal font.

The church cemetery is large and still in use.

While the old Augustus Lutheran Church is still used for special occasions, a larger sanctuary serves the congregation for regular services.


Tim said...

Most Americans know who our first president and vice-president were (George Washington and John Adams, in case non-Americans are reading this)

Non-Americans would probably know. An average American high school graduate, on the other hand ....

Anonymous said...

So glad you enjoyed your time in Trappe and managed to see the Speaker's House. I wanted to clarify for you and your blog readers that the rear section of the house is actually the most recent addition, not the oldest c. 1740s part. The front and middle section of the house were built c. 1780 by Johannes Ried. The rear section was likely added by Muhlenberg after he bought the property in 1781 and it served as a kitchen wing. There is no physical or documentary evidence that any buildings stood on the property prior to 1778 when Johannes Ried bought the property. The frame addition to the west of the front was built in the late 1800s. The outhouse, by the way, is not original to the site.