52 – Mount Tammany, circa 1780, north of Williamsport, MD

Mount Tammany circa 1780,  Williamsport MDNortheast of Williamsport, off Virginia Avenue, Tammany Lane leads to a driveway circling before an elegant brick home surrounded by old trees. Other, newer houses built on parcels of the original estate do not detract from the dignity of this early home. The main block of the house is two stories high and three bays wide, set on low fieldstone foundations. Most of the windows have twelve panes in both the upper and lower sashes, many of them original early glass. Above the windows of the front elevation are flat arches with large keystones. These arches are wood, made to look like stone. The main door, set in the north bay, has a similar arch and an ample four-light transom. A one-story porch across the width of this section has a hip roof supported by round, Doric columns.

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To the north of this section is another, lower two-story wing. The roofs are raised-seam sheet metal, and the eaves along the front section are finished with modillions over a course of dentils. The front (east) and south elevations are set in Flemish bond brickwork. The house is painted white.

The door enters a spacious hall twelve feet wide and 40 feet long with ceilings over eleven feet high. A stairway on the right side of the hall winds to the attic, and an elliptical archway at the midsection of the hall supports the upper hall and stairs. The molded walnut rail is carried by turned balusters painted white. To the left of this hall are two parlors, front and back, joined by a wide opening that is not original to the house. The original woodwork around the doors in the hall and parlors has crossettes or “ears” at the upper corners and is deeply molded. The back parlor has an elaborate classical cornice and frieze, and built-in bookcases flank the tall mantelpiece. On the other side of the hall, in the earlier wing of the house, is a formal dining room with a simple, original mantelpiece. Beyond is the kitchen with a fireplace mantel of flamboyant cast. It has deeply fluted, scroll-cut modillions on either side of the firebox, pierced work and deep moldings.

Staircase at Mount Tammany. Photo by Kevin G. Gilbert/Herald-Mail Company.

Staircase at Mount Tammany. Photo by Kevin G. Gilbert/Herald-Mail Company.

John Van Lear came from Holland to Philadelphia. In 1789, his grandson Matthew Van Lear purchased land near Williamsport that had been owned by Hugh Parker and had been called Salisbury. Van Lear renamed the land Tamny’s Mount in honor of a Chief of the Delaware Indians who was noted for his wisdom and with whom Van Lear is thought to have traded. Tamny’s face still lives on the mountain at the Delaware Water Gap, and Van Lear named the property after that. Over time, the property was called Tammany and Mount Tammany; and both names are still used.

The original structure on the property was a log house with a loft, and to this was added a story-and-a-half brick structure. The elegant, formal main block of the house came later. The bricks were burned on the property, made from local clay. The main block of the house is hung from two massive, 36 foot long beams laid from gable to gable at each level with the floor joists mortised into these beams.

 In 1782, Matthew Van Lear married Mary Irwin; and this union produced twelve children. Van Lear was an intelligent, principled man who ran once, unsuccessfully, for congress and spent his life as a merchant/farmer managing his estate. He died in 1823, and his wife followed five years later. Her will decreed that her slaves be freed and ordered her executors …to provide for and comfortably maintain all infirm or superannuated slaves of which I may be possessed at the time of my death, in the manner they have hither been supported for and during the term of their natural lives respectively… This was unusual for the time; for, while slaves were sometimes freed at the deaths of their owners, it was often to rid the heirs of the responsibility of caring for them when they were too old to work. The will also stated, …It is my will and desire, that all my children who shall survive me and remain unmarried, shall remain and dwell together as a family, at least as long as my estate may remain undivided.

Mount Tammany, circa 1780, barn interior

The Van Lear estate, while extensive, was not sufficient to serve the needs of the extended family if it were divided. Therefore, four of the Van Lear sons agreed to keep the estate together in order to support and educate the next generation. One of the brothers died, another married and withdrew from the contract, but John and Joseph Van Lear remained bachelors, managed the estate and educated numbers of orphaned nieces, nephews and grand nieces and nephews. Under their aegis, the property grew to 1,200 acres.

During this period, the original chair rails of the home were removed. Original mantels were replaced with, as one descendant describes them, “…black marble abominations which were then considered quite elegant.” And the broad porch replaced the original portico that protected the front door. According to a document left in the house, it was …Sophia Van Lear Findley who…raised the one wing to two stories to accommodate a rapidly growing family… in 1861. The estate was finally divided in 1862 following the death of the last of Matthew and Mary Van Lear’s children, their youngest daughter, the same Sophia.

With the present owners, Vincent and Barbara Groh, the black marble abominations have disappeared, replaced by comely reproduction mantelpieces. Original features of the house have been restored, and the home has been beautifully furnished in formal antiques and oriental rugs. A previous owner tore down the original log structure, but its fireplace remains on the side porch that replaces the log building.

Beyond the house, to the north and west, is a large brick bank barn probably built by Matthew Van Lear’s son John early in the 19th century. This building has been creatively renovated to provide living quarters for the Groh’s two grown children. The lower level of the barn remains stalls and storage as it has always been, with the original batten doors hung on hand wrought strap hinges. Under the earthen ramp to the second level is a barrel vault, which both relieves the stress of the ramp on the foundation wall and provides storage space that is accessed by a small door on the lower level of the barn.

Above, on the threshing floor level, the wall of the south-facing forebay has been opened with floor to ceiling glass doors; and a narrow porch beyond these has a rail made of the hayracks that once fed livestock in the barn. Within, the space is divided in the middle, creating two large living areas that soar to the barn roof. The rafters are still there, but between them is K–13 insulation that has been sprayed on and looks like a fuzzy white rug. The hand-hewn oak posts and beams, joined by pegs, are still exposed, as are the brick end walls. The west wall was built with six diamond patterns worked through the brickwork for ventilation. These have been preserved on the interior by constructing another wall on the outside of the barn, with rectangular windows covering each of the diamonds. The windows can be removed from the outside so that they can be washed.

On the main level are two kitchens and baths, a double garage and two metal, spiral stairs that wind to sleeping quarters and baths above. The brick granaries on either end of the north side of the barn have been converted into dens. These living spaces are separated by huge doors that slide on tracks, allowing them to be opened into a single vast space when needed. These light and airy areas are sparingly furnished with comfortable chairs and sofas, some handsome antiques and a Moller pipe organ. Even the most massive piece looks almost delicate against the scale of the barn.

Tammany’s ties to the past are strong. The spring, where General Braddock’s troops are said to have stopped on their fateful march westward, still flows there. A depression near the barn marks the old wagon road that was used by federal cavalry September 15, 1862, to spirit 40 wagons of munitions to Greencastle, Pennsylvania, munitions they had captured from General Robert E. Lee. In 1841, President William Henry Harrison, a distant relative of the Van Lear family, dined at Tammany on his way to his inauguration. But Tammany is, most of all, an elegant and comfortable home for the Groh family who have cared for it with such devotion.

Epilogue: Tammany is now the home of the Groh’s daughter Katharine, her husband Brendan Fitzsimmons and their daughter Barbara. They have kept the house much the same as it was, except for an addition they put on the back of the house. Existing doors were used so that no original fabric was lost, and effort was made to blend the old with the new. The barn is now rented.

This article appeared in the Herald Mail Sunday, December 5, 1993 as the 52nd in the series.BookBanner