Long about early May, when Philadelphia's abundant azalea bushes burst into their spring suits of orange, red, yellow and pink, some of the city's most intriguing doorways swing wide open for visitors to come inside.
Called Philadelphia Open House, the week- long event is becoming as much a seasonal happening as the blooming azaleas. Historic houses and private homes throughout the city and suburbs are featured on a series of tours that provide an inside view of Philadelphian domestic life from the 18th century to the present.
On my first trip to Philadelphia last spring I found the open-house tours to be a splendid introduction to the city's history, architecture, and ambiance. My first glimpse of all three came not in the city proper but on a tour of Chestnut Hill, a fashionable suburb with some of the most unusual and varied architecture to be found anywhere.
Winding along the highway flanked by the Wissahickon River on one side and flowering pink and white dogwood trees on the other, it is not hard to see why Philadelphians were lured to build homes in Chestnut Hill during the last century. The essence of what was a romantically beautiful wilderness is preserved in the lush landscaping surrounding the area's charming homes, many of them out of the highly prized Chestnut Hill stone.
In the 19th century eager arrivals to the new suburb could choose homes out of pattern books offering villas and cottages in the Grecian, English, Italian, Swiss, Gothic, or French style. This eclecticism still characterizes Chestnut Hill, something our tour found at stops that ranged from a gracious Italianate villa complete with bell tower to a striking post-modern house designed by Robert Venturi and described by its proud owner as "something a child would have drawn of a place where he'd like to live."
The owner were on hand at many of the private homes to share with us the trials and joys of restoration and upkeep. After admiring Ernesta and Fred Ballard's terraced garden, resplendent with wisteria, grape arbors, bonzai, azalea, and rhododendron, we were handed a sheet elaborating on its evolution and maintenance. Knowing the painstaking care behind it, we were able to appreciate the garden all the more.
But nothing I had seen previously in Chestnut Hill was preparation for the stop at Guildford. In fact, the only basis of comparison I had was a tour of stately homes in England some years before. That is because Guildford, an imposing mansion built for Mr. and Mrs. Samuel P. Rotan in the 1902s, consists mainly of dismantled parts from historic English homes.
After a visit to Sutton Place in Surrey, a palatial house dating from the early 16th century, Mrs. Rotan was determined to have a home like it in America. After years of collecting old paneling, doors, stone flooring, carved beams, rain spouts, roof tiles, and window glass from all over England, she hired architect Robert McGoodwin to put them together. The result, set back on a sweeping drive flanked by clipped yew and towering cedars, bears an uncanny resemblance to en English manor house.
Passing through the 500-year-old Willoughby Gateway and into the hallway lined with burnished linen-fold paneling, one enters the world of Tudor England. The ceiling, windows, wide floorboards, and stone fireplace in Guildford's living room are from Cassiobury Hall, home of Lord Essex, noted naval leader and a lover of Elizabeth I. One of the windows bears the Tudor Rose roundel which suggests that Elizabeth was a visitor to Cassiobury Hall.
A good deal of 18th-century literary history abounds in the house as well. The library, paneled with cedars of Lebanon, was bought from the home of Lord Bolingbroke, who frequently entertained such friends as Swift, Addison, Voltaire , and Pope. Because Pope came over so often, the library became known as "Pope's Parlour."
Partway up the drive to the mansion is a more humble and totally charming English acquisition: a 16th-century half-timbered cottage that was taken from the town of Guildford and used by the Rotans as a gardener's cottage. Now owned by the University of Pennsylvania, the estate is used primarily for academic conferences.
But English history is far from being the focus of the open-house tours; most , especially those within the revitalized city center, are as American as Philadelphia itself. Two of the most interesting are the walking tours of Society Hill and Queen Village. As in other US cities, Philadelphians have been active in rescuing their old homes from decay and demolition, turning them back into the lovely places they once were. For the large townhouses in Society Hill this began in the 1930s and is largely completed; for the somewhat smaller dwellings in Queen Village the process began in the 1970s and still under way.
As the tours quickly revealed, Philadelphia has an unusual number of fine 18 th- and 19th-century residences that were well worth saving. Among the private homes on display there was decor and design to suit almost every taste; some homes had been gutted and done over in a contemporary style while others had been faithfully restored and furnished with choice antiques.
While the front of the tall and narrow brick homes present the same stately exterior, behind many are individually landscapred "hidden" gardens. A notable exception to the historic dwellings of Society Hill is a complex of brick townhouses designed by I. M. Pei, contemporary yet in harmony with their venerable neighbors.
By far the most dramatic example of what has happened in these neighborhoods is in evidence at the Samuel Powel House, a memorable stop on the tour of Society Hill. In its 215 years the magnificent Georgian-style house has made the circle from mansion to mattress factory to slum property to mansion.
The original owners, Samuel and Elizabeth Powel, were famous for their hospitality, hosting lavish parties where friends such as John and Abigail Adams and George and Martha Washington ascended the grand stairs of Santo Domingan mahogany to dance in the second-floor ball room spanning the width of the house. Rescued from demolition in the 1930s, the house is owned and maintained by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks which has found and returned many of the original furnishings and decorative objects.
The dozen or so tours offered by Philadelphia Open House illustrate how many national treasures such as the Powel House abound in the city. Excursions to the historic mansions of Fairmount Park, the charming stone dwellings of Germantown, and the restored farmhouses of the Main Line show different dimensions of Philadelphia's impressive heritage.
Other tours take in the more well-known sights such as Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House, and quaint little Elfreth's Alley. Many of the tours are in the daytime and provide a catered luncheon at the journey's end, but some take place in the evening by candlelight and feature elegant buffet suppers and 18 th-century music.
Tickets for the tours and complete information on this year's schedule are available from the Friends of Independence NAtional Historic Park, 313 Walnut St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19106. (215) 928-1188. Some of the tours are sold out by the end of February, so it is wise to book early.