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Andalusia, Host to History
By Lynn Whitney
A leisurely sail on the Delaware River, just north of Philadelphia, will take you past a magnificent Greek Revival estate. This is Andalusia, with its sweeping green lawn, leading to a massive temple façade and dramatic colonnade. Floor to ceiling windows look out on a porch beneath the façade, where guests could gather and view the manicured grounds and sparkling river.
Just whose home is this and who would his esteemed guests be? The original owner was John Craig, a noted Philadelphia merchant, who built the main portion of the home in 1806 as a summer residence for his wife and daughter. To design his house, he hired the neoclassical architect, Benjamin Latrobe. Often referred to as the founder of the modern architectural profession in this country, he and his friend Thomas Jefferson collaborated on many projects, culminating in Jefferson’s masterpiece, the Lawn of the University of Virginia. Through his friendship with Jefferson, he became the second architect of the United States Capitol. Among his other accomplishments were the Bank of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Waterworks, a landmark in civil engineering. Following his success on that project, he worked as an engineer on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
In 1811, Craig’s daughter Jane, married Nicholas Biddle, a renaissance man, accomplished as a lawyer, banker, publisher, agriculturist and expert on Greek culture. Biddle, a child genius, was born into an established Philadelphia family, who had originally arrived in America with William Penn. At the age of 10, Biddle enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania, but was denied a degree because of his age. He went on to graduate from Princeton at the age of 15 and then began to study law. While still a teenager he went to Europe as secretary to John Armstrong, the U.S. Minister to France during the Napoleonic War, and was instrumental in working out the financial details of the Louisiana Purchase. He later became secretary to James Monroe, the U.S. Minister to Britain and future President. Upon his return to America, he began writing for The Portfolio, a respected literary magazine. After the original founder’s death, he assumed the position of publisher. As editor, he prepared the journals from the Lewis and Clark expedition on Clark’s request. Biddle also encouraged Thomas Jefferson to write a biography of Lewis for the introduction. As he began work on that project, in 1810 he was elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature. He eventually relinquished his role in the project to concentrate on his governmental responsibilities. He was never given recognition for his work. As a member of the Legislation, he established a public schooling system in Pennsylvania and won the renewal of the charter for the Bank of the United States. This launched his next career, first as director and then as president of the Second Bank of the United States, following it’s re-chartering by President James Monroe in 1816. An epic clash occurred in 1832 between then President Andrew Jackson and Biddle. Jackson withdrew all government deposits, weakening the bank and leading to Biddle’s resignation in 1839 and the bank’s eventual closing two years later.
Biddle’s marriage to Jane Craig and his possession of Andalusia had afforded him the opportunity to indulge in his other interest, Greek literature and the Greek Revival Movement. He hired architect Thomas Walter to expand and renovate Andalusia. In 1833, the “Big House” renovation began. The riverfront Grecian porticoes were added, an exact copy of the Greek temple of Neptune in Paestum, Italy. Gardens were incorporated, famous for growing grapes in forcing houses designed by Walter.
Following the death of Benjamin Latrobe, Walter had become known as the dean of American architecture. His accomplishments include the Moyamensing Prison and Girard College, one of the grandest expressions of the Greek Revival Movement, and a project in which Nicholas Biddle played an instrumental role. Walter is best known as the fourth Architect of the Capitol. Under his direction, the north and south wings and the central dome of the Capitol building were added.
For their contributions to the discipline of architecture, and their numerous accomplishments, both Thomas Walter and Benjamin Latrobe are honored in a ceiling mosaic in the East Mosaic Corridor at the entrance to the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress.
So, who would the esteemed guests of the Biddles have been? Well, to mention a few – President John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, The Marquis de Lafayette and Joseph Bonaparte. The house holds a grand collection of 18th and 19th century French, English, Chinese and American furniture collected by the Biddles. The grounds were used by Biddle as an experimental farm where the first Guernsey cows arrived in America. They contain a walled wisteria garden and have been maintained in the 19th century tradition, with a number of out buildings, including a temple-like Billiard House and a Gothic Grotto.
Andalusia is a registered National Historic Landmark, supported by the Andalusia Foundation and the Friends of Andalusia. It is open to the public.