Emlen Physick Estate
The Emlen Physick Estate, an 18-room mansion built in 1879 and attributed to renowned architect Frank Furness, is one of the finest examples of Victorian Stick Style architecture in America. After decades of decline, the Physick Estate and the nine outbuildings on the four-acre Estate were saved from the wrecker's ball and have been fully restored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC). They now serve as Cape May, New Jersey's only museum of Victorian Living.
Furness (1839-1912), a Philadelphian, is acknowledged as one of the nation's leading Victorian architects. He was selected as one of America's ten greatest architects in a 1991 survey of architects, conducted by the American Institute of Architects. He's best known today for his Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Furness was the teacher of Louis Sullivan, who was, in turn, the mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Physick Estate was built for a rather unusual household: Dr. Emlen Physick, who never married; his widowed mother, Mrs. Ralston; and his Maiden Aunt Emilie.
Dr. Physick was descended from a famous and wealthy Philadelphia medical family. His Grandfather, Dr. Philip Syng Physick (1768-1837) was known as the Father of American Surgery. He also invented the stomach pump. Among his famous patients were U.S. chief Justice John Marshall, upon whom he performed a successful gall bladder operation in 1831, and Dolley Madison, the wife of the fourth President of the United State, who was a patient for several months during her husband's term in office.
His great-great grandfather, Philip Syng, Jr., was a silversmith who designed and executed the inkwell used by the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The inkwell is now on display in Independence Hall.
Dr. Emlen Physick followed family tradition by completing medical training, but never practiced. In Cape May he lived the life of a country gentleman and animal breeder. He is remembered for having the first automobile in town -- and for getting into the first auto accident.
The Physick Estate exterior is distinguished by the grid-like pattern on its exterior walls, its gigantic, upside-down corbelled chimneys; hooded "jerkin-head" dormers; distorted, oversized features (a Furness trademark); and huge stick-like brackets on the porch.
The interior also bears the distinct signature of Frank Furness, who designed much of the interior moldings, fireplaces, and even furniture, repeating many of the same designs, patterns and details throughout. Many of the original Furness-designed furnishings are on display, as well as some from an 1889 renovation.
The largest Physick Estate outbuilding is the Carriage House, built in 1876, and the first structure built on the Estate.
The Hill House, located directly behind the Physick Estate, was Dr. Physick's hobby house. It is now the offices of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC).
The estate now covers 4 of the original 22 acres and contains nine outbuildings. The estate steadily deteriorated after the last resident/owner left in the 1960s. By 1970, abandoned and vandalized, the one-time mansion was considered a 'haunted house' by local residents, and was scheduled for demolition when several MAC founders persuaded the owner to sell the property for $90,000.
As the founders met to discuss ways of financing the purchase, they formed the organization now known as the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts.
The City of Cape May purchased the property in 1973 using state and federal grant monies, and leased it to MAC for up to 99 years for $1.00 rent per year, with the proviso that MAC restore and maintain the estate for civic purposes.
At that point, MAC began its work developing the Physick Estate into a nationally recognized Victorian house museum. Over $1 million dollars and thousands of volunteer hours have gone into the project. Thus, what was once an overgrown, gutted derelict has been transformed into one of Cape May's leading attractions -- a top-quality museum with well maintained grounds which host a wide range of community and cultural events. It was featured in the March 1989 issue of Architectural Digest.
Photos courtesy of MAC
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