The Richard Wall House is the oldest structure in Cheltenham and the home of “first-purchasers” Richard and Joane Wall. It was the headquarters of the Wall’s original grant of 300 acres that extended from the Abington Township line to the Philadelphia county line, now Cheltenham Avenue. The House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was honored as the oldest house in Pennsylvania which had continuous family residence to that date. It is also listed on the state register of historic sites.
Early History of the Wall House
The Richard Wall House has been assigned the date of 1682, concurrent with the beginning of the Pennsylvania colony and the foundation of today’s Cheltenham Township. The historical importance of the Wall House includes the meetings conducted by the Society of Friends in the Wall home. It arises mostly from the early families who lived here, their significance in the community, and how their marriages for generations connected many of the personalities who became prominent in Cheltenham and American history. In addition, their family enterprises were important in the growth and wealth of Cheltenham Township.
This brief history focuses on four men prominent in the Wall House's early history: William Penn, Tobias Leech, Richard Wall and George Shoemaker.
In 1650, George Fox was preaching Quakerism in England and Richard Wall was holding Society meetings in his home, just 15 miles from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England. When William Penn received his land grant from Charles II, he announced that if a certain number of purchasers agreed to have their lands adjoining and wished to form a small township, they could do so. It is interesting to note that with the exception of a few small pieces of land gained at a later date, the boundaries of Cheltenham Township are those conceived and executed by lawyers in London over 300 years ago.
One of the original purchasers of the Cheltenham Township land was Tobias (“Toby”) Leech, who sailed up the Delaware in 1682 on the ship, “The Bristol Factor." It accompanied the ship “Welcome,” which carried William Penn. Leech named the Township "Cheltenham" after his hometown in England. In the new Cheltenham, he built several structures, one of which is still standing in the community. Leech was also a friend of Richard Wall. They both came from the same Quaker Meeting, “Stokes Orchard” near Cheltenham, England.
Although Richard Wall's specific emigration details are not certain, he transferred out of his Society of Friends group in England in April 1682 and into the Philadelphia Society of Friends in October, so his arrival in America likely was with Toby Leech on the Bristol Factor. In the fall of 1682, Richard, his son Richard Junior, and Tobias Leech made their way through the wilderness along the old Leni Lenape trail to their property in the uncharted countryside northwest of the new city. There they constructed a log cabin with a stone fireplace wall on the west side over the winter of 1683 and began their farm. Richard Wall’s home was the scene of Quaker weddings and services, making the house one of the original Quaker meetinghouses and is one of the oldest still standing in America. The Cheltenham Friends were originally attached to the Frankford and Byberry Meetings but because of distance, the Wall House was used as a meeting place. Cheltenham was also the parent Meeting of the Germantown Friends. Meetings continued in the Wall House until the Abington Meeting House was built in 1702. Unfortunately, Mr. Wall, who was active in the planning, died before the building was completed.
Also in 1682, William Penn heard of the plight of the Quakers in Germany, and therefore, he encouraged them to form a group that would settle on his land where a new “German Township” could offer them religious freedom. A Company was formed with an agent, Francis Daniel Pastorius. George Shoemaker emigrated with the group. George married Sara Wall, Richard Wall’s granddaughter and heiress.
Interested in universal freedom, Pastorius wrote a proclamation - or “Remonstrance” - protesting slavery that had its first public reading at the Wall House in February of 1688. This was the beginning of the lengthy abolition movement in America. George Shoemaker, along with Tobias Leech and others, laid out York Road in 1711 to improve transportation of their farm goods to the city. The surrounding land became known as "Shoemakertown," then “Ogontz” after Jay Cooke's opulent estate, and then it was renamed "Elkins Park" by the railroad after the Elkins family constructed their Gilded Age estate. Later, George and Sarah’s son Isaac married the granddaughter of Tobias Leech, Dorothy Penrose. Thus the families of two of the original purchasers were united and lived under the roof of the Wall House. Of interesting historical note, another of the Leech granddaughters married a Reverend Ross of the Trinity Oxford Church where Leech worshiped, and one of their sons married “Betsy,” who then became Betsy Ross, creator of the first American flag.
In 1746, recently widowed Dorothy Penrose Shoemaker, with the help of neighbor and brother-in-law John Mather and John Tyson of Jenkintown, founded a corn gristmill on a site opposite where Walgreens now stands. There is a grinding wheel, which was never uncrated, still in the Wall House smoke house. Dorothy Shoemaker could check on the mill’s activities by looking out the Wall House window across her front lawn. John Tyson had a farm at West Avenue and York Road where he developed a pear called the “Tyson Pear”.
Of interest to local residents, the Tysons also married into the Shoemaker family. The Wall House exhibits Tyson Christening gowns, and therefore, probably Shoemaker gowns as well.
Subsequently, Dorothy Shoemaker became the sole owner of the mill, and she and her heirs successfully operated the mill for a century. As interest in the enterprise finally waned, great-grandson Charles H. Shoemaker sold it to an employee, Charles Bosler, in 1847. He sold the house to them at the same time, ending the occupancy of the direct Wall descendants.
The Boslers were also a distinguished family and connected with other business enterprises. In 1905, Joseph Bosler was an Assistant Treasurer of the United States under Theodore Roosevelt and, for a short time, president of the Cheltenham Township Board of Commissioners.
So, from the days of the Leni Lenape who originally named the Tacony Creek, to the original Cheltenham settlers who phonetically spelled the name “Tookany,” to the industrialization of the area by means of numerous mills which owed their existence to its waters, the Wall House has seen not only the history of the Township, but Pennsylvania as well.
According to present research, four families lived in the house before the Township purchased it in 1932. It became the residence for Township Manager Harold Pike in 1941. His stepchildren, the Flecks, left some toys and cards in the attic nursery. Mrs. Pike was the last resident. She left a widow in 1979. In 1980, the building was placed under the aegis of the Cheltenham Township Historical Commission.
Money was raised for rehabilitation through flea markets, antique and craft shows, tour donations, and contributions from generous clubs, organizations, and interested individuals, such as the Knauer Foundation, Questers International, and Rotary International. The largest grant by former State Representative Charles Nahill, enabled the house and carriage house to be opened to the public as a museum. There is also a research room, a colonial herb and flower garden conceived and maintained by the Old York Road Garden Club, a two-level springhouse, a gift shop, and an orientation center.
Constructing the Wall House
1682 – Over the fall of 1682 and winter of 1683, Richard Wall constructed a log cabin on his property in the wilderness. Following William Penn's own recommendation for settlers, it was probably an 18’ by 30’ log structure with a stone fireplace.The original stone may be viewed from the outside, and its retaining wall, which was the support for the fireplace and the stone end, may be seen in the present basement.
1730 – Approximately this year, or possibly earlier due to Isaac and Dorothy ’s marriage, a two-story addition was constructed at the stone end or west end of the log cabin.
1760 – Probably due to the birth of seven children to Dorothy and Isaac, the western addition was expanded to the north to include a kitchen and a third story added.
1760-1790 – Sometime herein, the original log cabin was demolished.
1805 – Expansion of the family requires additional space. A large two-story addition was attached to the east end of the house. The eastern section of the house began with interlocking walls rather than the usual side by side placement. A will, dated 1842, proves that the House was fully constructed and furnished before that time.
1860 – A water closet and laundry were constructed on the outside west wall. A door on the second floor replaced a bedroom window leading to a second floor privy. Also a covered enclosure was added to cover the new brick floor, laundry, pump, and existing well.
1927 – Extensive modernization, including electricity, modern plumbing and bathrooms, and a new heating system were added. Modern plastering and hardwood floors were included in the modernization. The outside water closet was removed and its door replaced.
During the Township's ownership of the property, there have been extensive renovations through 1994. Extensive architectural research places the present building sections in the timeframes outlined above. Thus a picture of the evolution of the house can be approximately formed, if not completely defined. Most of the material contained in this section has been obtained from “The Historic Structure Report of Cope & Lippincott, Architects - January 1981”.
The Restoration of the Richard Wall House was based on the comprehensive report compiled by architects Cope and Lippincott in 1981, which combined extensive research along with a detailed examination of the structure. A copy of the report is available in the Wall House library. Interestingly, Lippincott was a member of the Lippincott family who founded the Lippincott Publishing company and were descendants of the original Wall House families. Much of the historical information which has been gathered about the Wall House has been gleaned from the writings of Horace Mather Lippincott, a direct descendant.
The Cheltenham Township Board of Commissioners hired the architect firm of Robert Skaler to convert the house to a museum in 1989. As recommended by the Cope and Lippincott report, a complete heating and air conditioning system was installed, while preserving the historical importance of the building. Next, a working beehive oven was installed to replicate the original 1760 structure that had been removed during a 20th century modernization.
A second architect, Leon Clemmer, was hired for the next stage of restoration. Continuing the work of Mr. Skaler, an archive room with space for a tool exhibit was installed in the lower level. The ground floor was made handicapped accessible. The third floor featured exhibit space and an office. Finally, the driveway level of the springhouse was preserved, while the carriage house was converted into an orientation center with a meeting room and exhibit space. Clemmer also developed a master plan for future expansion of the Wall House grounds. All work was completed under the supervision of the Township Historical Commission, and the drawings and specifications are stored in the archives of the Philadelphia Athenaeum and the University of Pennsylvania.
A Colonial-style herb garden, planted and maintained by the Old York Road Garden Club, is located outside of the kitchen. It illustrates the home-growth culinary herbs and medicinal plants so necessary to homemakers of the age. It may be viewed at any time.
The street level of the springhouse was once used as a wash house, chicken coop and storage space. It now depicts all three uses. Eventually, the lower level of the springhouse may also be restored and opened to visitors.
Before and After Photos