At 1548 Adams Avenue in Frankford there is a small, modest home with a big, important history. The two-story house is believed to have been built between 1712 and 1718 and is one of the oldest historical structures listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historical Places. The 18th century dwelling, where Thomas Jefferson recited the Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776 before it was read publicly, is currently vacant and in a decaying, fire-damaged state. The property has gone by various names in the past: the Worrell-Winter House, the Wilmerton House, and the Leech House. The home was recently sealed by the Department of Licenses and Inspection and will be auctioned off at a sheriff sale on May 15.
1548 Adams Avenue is thought to be the oldest building in Frankford and it predates existing properties on Elfreths Alley. It was built as a detached structure with stones from the bed of Frankford Creek, which is only a few steps away. The house was likely built by Paul Wilmerton and was occupied in 1718 by a maltster (malt brewer) named John Worrell, who had purchased the land on which the house was erected from Robert Adams (of Adams Road/Avenue). Worrell lived there with a yeoman, George Winter. In 1728, Wilmerton and his wife sold the property to Isaac Leech, a farmer, tanner, and judge. Leech left the house to his wife and his son, Isaac Leech, Jr., who was a cousin of Dr. Benjamin Rush.
Dr. Rush, of course, was a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, but the home’s association with the Declaration goes further than that, for it was a silent witness to Thomas Jefferson’s reading of the document on July 4, 1776 before it was read to the public at large.
The house is catty-corner from Womrath Park at the triangular intersection of Kensington, Adams, and Frankford Avenues. This green space was once part of the estate and summer home of prominent Philadelphia shipper Henry Drinker. Local historian and longtime Hidden City contributor Jack McCarthy wrote in 2012 that Thomas Jefferson was said to have read the completed Declaration of Independence out loud to the Founding Fathers when they visited Drinker and had a meal there on July 4, 1776. Womrath Park, incidentally, was renovated in 2012 to convert it into an active stormwater basin as well as a recreational facility.
The house was purchased by the Diehl (or Diel) family in 1785. The Diehls were descendants of some of the first German immigrants in Pennsylvania. Deal Street, in the back of 1548 Adams Avenue to which the property extends, is named after the family. By the late 1890s, the modest structure was converted into an oyster house. It has had many owners since.
The building escaped demolition in the early 20th century when Adams Avenue was projected to be widened between Castor and Frankford Avenues. Seen on period maps as lines showing the expanded roadway, this widening was to have eased congestion in that fledgling area of Northeast Philadelphia. For one reason or another, the work was never completed, sparing the old stone home and many other properties along Adams Avenue that were to have been condemned to widen the street.
1548 Adams Avenue has been the focus of local preservation efforts in recent years. It was nominated for historic designation by the Frankford Historical Society and was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historical Places on June 14, 2013. Listing a property on the local register provides legal protection against unnecessary demolition and inappropriate alteration. It is the first step in preserving a landmark piece of architecture or a beloved neighborhood gem.
The style of the home is a “classic example of rural Southeastern Pennsylvania farmhouse architecture,” according to Kristin Hagar, the historical consultant who prepared the nomination for the Frankford Historical Society’s Preservation Committee. Hagar ‘s work was funded by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. 1548 Adams Avenue is distinct for both its architecture and its small size. The home is about 18 feet in width and is no wider than a typical Philadelphia row house.
(Hidden City Philly)