Theses (Historic Preservation)

Document Type

Thesis or dissertation

Date of this Version



Suggested Citation:

Mester, Joseph C. (2016). From Philadelphia Country House to City Recreation Center: Uncovering the Architectural History of the Building Known Successively as Blockley Retreat, Kirkbride Mansion, and Lee Cultural Center Through Building Archaeology. (Masters Thesis). University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.


In this thesis, I analyze the Federal style country house, initiated in 1794, that stands today near the corner of 44th Street and Haverford Avenue in West Philadelphia. As it aged, the owners and occupants slowly transformed the country house from a private “country seat” to a public recreation center in the midst of a dense urban neighborhood. I examine the house and its additions, known collectively today as the Lee Cultural Center, through both documentary and material evidence. This building-archaeological approach studies building materials, finishes, and construction technology in order to date and interpret the construction, alteration, use, and significance of remaining fabric. My study focuses on three important stratigraphic layers within the house. These correspond to the McConnell-Busti Country House period (1794-1824), the Kirkbride Family Residence period (1840-1883), and the Lee Cultural Center period (1957-present).

This thesis argues that the distinct layers uncovered during building archaeology reveal a nationally significant story of a building in continuum. Never loudly advertised, the preservation and reuse strategies employed by the building’s stewards over the last 60 years offers a valuable counter-example to the more explicitly curatorial approaches taken to such buildings in Philadelphia and beyond. In the twenty-first century, this country house turned cultural center stands not only as a monument to its early occupants but also proof that a major change in use to suit new social needs does not need to equal the wholesale destruction of historic fabric.


Mill Creek, Federal style, Hospital for the Insane, adaptive reuse, Harbeson Hough Livingston & Larson



Date Posted: 31 May 2016