Mansion's past is creepy, kooky, altogether spooky

September 05, 1993|By Joe Clark | Joe Clark,Knight-Ridder News Service

On one of the walls of Walt Ritchie's office in an old Philadelphia mansion is a poster of "The Addams Family." Morticia, Gomez, Lurch, Uncle Fester . . . the whole gang. Mr. Ritchie didn't put it there. His predecessor did. Sort of came with the job. Truth is, Mr. Ritchie never saw the once-popular TV series, "not even the reruns."

In fact, Mr. Ritchie hadn't yet touched his first Lincoln Log when "The Addams Family" was on in the mid-1960s.

"I watched 'The Munsters,' " he says.

The poster isn't hanging in Mr. Ritchie's office just for kicks or to hide a hole. It's there because scuttlebutt has it that the building where the 26-year-old bachelor works "provided inspiration" for the creator of the Addams Family cartoon that debuted in 1938.

Who's to argue?

Mr. Ritchie is director of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, a 134-year-old ominous-looking landmark at Greene and Tulpehocken streets in Philadelphia. Though off the beaten path, the certified historical house is listed in travel guides and tourist brochures as one of the places to see while visiting the city.

For good reason, too.

Mr. Ritchie says the three-story, stone mansion is the only fully restored Victorian house museum in the city. Some portions aren't even restored. They're original. Like the lock, key and hinges on the front door. Even the door itself is the real McCoy.

Mr. Ritchie calls the 14-room jewel "one of the city's little treasures."

Neighborhood kids used to call it worse. But that was before residents fought to prevent the mansion from being replaced by a gas station and car wash. There was a time when Mr. Ritchie called it worse, too. That was back when he was a student at Archbishop Wood High School in Bucks County. He was paging through his first book on the history of American architecture when he came upon "this quirky house."

A few months later, his father took a shortcut en route to visit relatives in South Philadelphia when "by accident we passed it. I remember thinking, 'That's the weird house I saw in the book.' "

Little did Mr. Ritchie know that 10 years later he'd be its director.

"When I was young, I wanted to be an architect," says Mr. Ritchie. "I always liked playing with anything that had to do with building things." Lincoln Logs, Legos, erector sets, those colored blocks that come in canisters . . ."

Ebenezer Maxwell liked building things, too. Only he did it for profit. A successful dry-goods merchant, Maxwell had his seven-bedroom mansion built "on speculation" in 1859. One of the first homes on Tulpehocken Street, it cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

Three years later, Maxwell, who had six children, sold the mansion "for a profit" and moved into another home he had built next door. That house was eventually demolished.

Over the years, only two other families lived in Maxwell Mansion. The last descendant was a woman named Gussie who was in her 90s when she died in 1956. Gussie was "somewhat of a recluse," says Mr. Ritchie. She'd keep the shutters closed and a light burning in only one window, "giving the mansion a haunted effect."

4 It was more than an effect to neighborhood kids.

Following Gussie's death, the mansion was put up for sale. Because of its past, one tongue-in-cheek ad referred to it as the Addams House.

Mr. Ritchie says the cartoon's creator, Charles Addams, a 1934 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, once lived nearby and could very well have been inspired by the Maxwell manor for the Addams Family mansion in his cartoon.

"There is an architectural similarity," says Mr. Ritchie, noting the roof lines, stone walls, diamond-shaped windows and tapered tower.

Eventually, a couple of brothers purchased the mansion with the intent to demolish it and build a gas station and car wash.

Residents resisted. "They came together and saved the house," says Mr. Ritchie. They resisted a second time when an adjoining retirement home bought the property with intentions to also demolish the house for expansion.

Again, the mansion was spared.

Finally in 1975, a group of residents got together, formed a corporation and purchased Maxwell Mansion. The corporation now handles the mansion's upkeep.

After high school, Mr. Ritchie majored in architectural history at Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, followed by additional studies in New York, Baltimore and England.

His travels ended last October when he became Maxwell Mansion's assistant director. In April, he was named director of that "weird, quirky" house. As director, Mr. Ritchie oversees the operation of the mansion and occasionally gives tours. His office is on the side of the mansion, just off the kitchen.

Because of its location, only a handful of people ("15 or 20") visit Maxwell Mansion each week. Most come on weekends, but a few might show up during the week.

It doesn't matter when they visit. "I take them as they knock," says Mr. Ritchie.

IF YOU GO . . .

The Maxwell Mansion, Greene and Tulpehocken streets, is open to visitors Thursday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., other times by appointment. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for senior citizens, $2 for students and children. Call (215) 438-1861.

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