Philadelphia reproductions: elegance at modest prices

As reproduction programs increase, the furnishings of aristocratic and historic Philadelphia now join the ranks of present-day copies or adaptations from places like Colonial Williamsburg, Charleston, Newport, the James River plantations, and Winterthur.

The new American Independence Collection, made in solid mahogany by American Drew of High Point, N.C., restates both the 18th-century elegance and the practicality of those original pieces once used by such famous Americans as William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and other distinguished signers of the Declaration of Independence.

All of the 54 pieces are reproduced or adapted from the antique furnishings that now stand in Independence Hall or in other historic buildings within the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. The company worked in close collaboration with Hobart Cawood and Jane Kolter, the superintendent and curator of the park, respectively, in taking more than 600 photographs and making hundreds of sketches and measurements of various authentic pieces under study.

Mr. Cawood and his staff were allowed to see all the working drawings and to critique each step of the reproduction process. They were also invited to write or edit all the descriptions and copy about the park and the furniture to ensure correct information about the year each original piece was made, who made it, who owned it, and where it stands today in the park.

''The curatorial staff,'' Mr. Cawood explained at the Philadelphia launching of the group, ''was skeptical at first that a highly efficient modern American plant could reproduce, by machine, those superb pieces patiently made by hand by earlier Philadelphia cabinetmakers. They were, however, surprised and delighted by the appearance of the reproductions and by the quality of their construction and finish. And we were all pleased that this collection was aimed at Americans of average incomes and was produced at what seemed to us to be 'affordable' prices. Actually, many of the pieces are far better made than their 18th-century predecessors.''

An outstanding example in this collection is the Philadelphia highboy that will retail at $999, a fraction of the cost of many reproduction highboys now on the market. A dining table and six chairs, china cupboard, and buffet will sell for $3,900, and the Benjamin Franklin desk for $1,500.

Both company and park officials agreed that history itself would be the collection's most persuasive selling tool. It will be easier, commented N. Sherwood Robertson, vice-president of marketing for American Drew, to sell the ''Todd House dressing glass,'' because it is a reproduction of the 1760 dressing glass owned by Dolley Todd before she married James Madison, the fourth President of the United States. Or the reproduction of the high tester bed, because it is patterned after that one in Dolley Todd's Philadelphia bedchamber.

For admirers of Benjamin Franklin, there is the secretary desk like that owned by Franklin, or a double pedestal table similar to the one at which William Penn dined, or a handsome Philadelphia Chippendale highboy like the one in the room rented by Thomas Jefferson when he was working on the Declaration of Independence. There are Queen Anne chairs adapted from those in the Governor's Council Chamber, and a bamboo Windsor settee inspired by one made by John Letchworth, who worked as a Philadelphia chairmaker until 1805.

The collection made its official debut in the 1795 First Bank Building of Philadelphia in September in the city termed the ''cradle of American independence,'' and at the Southern Furniture Market last month. It will be in stores nationwide in January.

William Fenn, president of American Drew, cited a consumer buying trend: ''Traditional home furnishings generally surge ahead in turbulent times like these. Having stood the test of time, they seem to represent an enduring stability and comforting familiarity.''

The Philadelphia style is unique and distinguishable from furniture produced in other cabinetmaking centers in 18th-century America. The elements that American Drew chose to unify its collection include a distinctive fluted post treatment called ''an engaged corner quartered column,'' a combed shell motif, a warm acorn brown finish, and brass hardware that is an exact reproduction from a fine 18th-century chest. The design firm of Stillwell & Koontz helped distill the Philadelphia treasures into mass-produced ''affordable'' American furniture.

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