There are seven historic house museums in the City of Philadelphia and each one has a unique history. These houses are the city’s link to its historic past. One of these houses, Historic Strawberry Mansion, was built in 1789 by Judge William Lewis, a lawyer and abolitionist. Then called Summerville, Strawberry Mansion was Lewis’ home along the Schuylkill. For some decades, around the turn of the 20th Century, the mansion was a popular restaurant. It later devolved into a less-prestigious place to eat until the Committee of 1926 restored the mansion and opened it to the public as a house museum in 1930.
Today, the house stands as one of the city’s crown jewels, thanks to a recent $2,000,000 renovation. Tour groups regularly meet there and the house is also rented out for banquets, wedding receptions and the like.
Not far from the mansion is the Dell Music Center, an impressive 5,284 reserved seat outdoor amphitheater, which many say is the best amphitheater in the country. The Dell has experienced its own growth odyssey. In 2007 the concert venue was closed but adequate funding saved the day and led to its rehabilitation and reopening in 2010. Along with the Dell’s 5,000 plus reserved seat capacity, its lawn can also seat 600 concert-goers.
As with every big concert or sports venue, you will also find a large number of tailgaters. There’s nothing wrong with a good tailgate party. Tailgate parties are a big sports tradition, most notably near the stadiums in South Philly. There are many varieties of tailgate parties, including those with fully stocked bars in car trunks where the participants don seersucker suits, white straw hats and bow ties. These are Radnor Hunt and Devon Horse Show tailgating parties. Unfortunately, much of the tailgating that goes on outside the Dell during concerts has become a super-trashy event.
Pretend for a moment that you are part of a wedding party, celebrating on the lawn of historic Strawberry Mansion. It’s an evening wedding and the sun is beginning to set. A little earlier in the evening, you and fellow wedding guests noticed the rows of cars and SUVs parking illegally all over the mansion lawn. You probably guessed that the rogue parked cars have something to do with the music coming from the Dell. Since you have already gotten a little used to the loud music and have all but given up on trying to hear the violin trio that the bride’s father hired for the occasion, you’re okay with the cars. You realize that you have to make some concessions in the big city. Like it or not, in a city, loudspeaker-style, surround-sound music seems to rule.
After a while, you notice the bride’s parents trying to maintain brave, tolerant smiles as more and more cars drive up alongside the mansion’s lawn, parking anywhere they please after leaving huge track marks on the grass. Although there are barricades and yellow tape prohibiting rogue vehicles from entering the mansion’s property, people are getting out of their cars, moving the barricades and cutting the yellow tape so that they can park wherever they please.
You join the bride’s parents and watch as more people drive sloppily over shrubs, sometimes backing into flower beds. The mansion house manager looks at the scene with a growing sense of alarm. He knows that historic Strawberry Mansion, the largest of the historic Fairmount Park houses, has just been through an extensive restoration. This has made the mansion a major tourist spot, but now it is being ruined by bellicose tailgaters.
You are chatting with friends when you see figures moving along the edge of the lawn. One of the figures crouches down in a bathroom position and — you can hardly believe your eyes — defecates on the grass. A moment later, another person follows suit.
“Where are the police?” someone in the wedding party asks. Isn’t running over flowerbeds and removing barricades and defecating in public an offense of some sort?
You try to forget the scene for a moment and head into the house where things are a little quieter. You down a cocktail or two and then talk to someone about the upcoming presidential election. Just how crazy is Donald Trump? How long will the system continue to allow Bernie Sanders to beat out Hillary Clinton? Then you hear a loud thump. No, it is not a Dell drum concert sequel from Chaka Khan, Boney James, Jeff Bradshaw or Monifah. Instead, it is a car-colliding-with-something thump. You go outside and have a look around and see that a car has actually backed into a fire hydrant, upending it and pulling it out of the ground. The wedding party at this point has become a little like a freak show. More tailgaters are piling in; there’s a rush, as if a dam has burst.
The house manager tells a few of the guests that the scene they are witnessing has been a problem at Strawberry Mansion for years, but no matter what they do — write letters, make telephone calls — the mansion’s complaints go unanswered by City of Philadelphia officials. This doesn’t make sense to anybody connected with the mansion; with all of these tailgaters, the Dell is losing parking money. At the same time, the property of the city’s largest historic house is slowly being ruined. The wedding guests then notice that the tailgaters are setting up cook ranges, tents and pieces of outdoor furniture on mansion property. BBQ smoke begins to rise over the tree tops as slabs of meat are piled on the grills. Picnic baskets appear.
The wedding guests spot another public defecator, but the shock isn’t so great this time –– proving William Burroughs’ observation correct: human beings can get used to anything. Still, the wedding guests wonder why the tailgaters can’t be more discreet. Why not hide behind a tree? Why the blatant show-and-tell? By this time, every wedding guest knows that the tailgaters are not paying Dell customers at all, and of course it bothers them that there are no provisions for bathrooms or garbage collection.
Garbage and trash collection is a major undertaking after concert and sporting events. Compound this with Philadelphia’s chronic litter problem, and you have a Filthadelphia mess. Unfortunately, the Dell, unlike the Mann Music Center and the stadium area after a Phillies game, is not very quick in the area of cleanup. When the Dell concert area is cleaned up, the area around the mansion is ignored. The mansion area clean-up is done by the city almost a week later.
Sadly, the mansion bears the cost of its own groundskeeping making repairs to damages caused by tailgaters. This includes making repairs to damaged infrastructure and planting new grass where the cars have driven. Walk around the mansion lawn after a Dell concert and you’ll see some shocking sights, such as tampons and an occasional diaper in the grass. You’ll also find beer bottles, chicken bones and Styrofoam food containers. On one recent lawn inspection, Strawberry Mansion officials found paper towels and napkins soiled with –– you guessed it –– feces. Happy Labor Day!
Historic Strawberry Mansion is not the only historic house museum affected by these Dell tailgaters. Woodford Mansion, Strawberry’s immediate neighbor, has also experienced similar problems, although there’s been no problem with outdoor water closet activities –– at least not yet.
One mansion official called the situation “lawless” and asked why no police are present to hand out tickets or prohibit illegal parking during concerts. He’s right. If the Dell parking lot is too small and insufficient to handle the huge crowds that make it such a popular concert venue, then why not build a multi-level deck over the present parking lot –– especially if the Dell is making profits? If the construction of a deck is against some obscure city code, then why not grandfather it in, in the same way an unidentified source told me that the Dell was able to do with their illegal digital signage? But that’s another story. Barring this, how about just hiring parking regulators?
The most important question is why the city is not listening to Strawberry Mansion when it requests help to remedy the situation? This is not a complaint against loud music. It is also not a war of musical tastes posing as a litter and property destruction problem. Everybody knows that the Dell’s great amphitheater and its musical programs are a good thing for the city. The very least that the city can do is to install “no parking” and tow signs on Strawberry Mansion’s property
Historic Strawberry Mansion has already petitioned the city to make these changes, but the question remains: Will the city listen this time? How long will it take before the changes are made? Will Susan Slawson, First Deputy Commissioner of Recreation and Programs, help make these needed changes?
Let’s hope that the city will come to its senses and help out this crown jewel of house museums.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based author of nine literary works and previous recipient of the 2005 Philadelphia AIA Lewis Mumford Architecture Journalism Award, and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and a Hugo Award for his book, Two Novellas.