One House, Two Kitchens: Cliveden's Unique History Lesson
When I picture my dream kitchen, I have a very clear vision: I want a giant island in the middle with a built-in range and lots of pots and pans hanging above for easy access. That island also has a handful of barstools around it, because I like having company when I cook. I want my kitchen to be open to the rest of my house, so I never feel too closed off. I want my apron-front kitchen sink to overlook a beautiful garden (something to entertain me during the tedium of dish-washing). I want a double oven and all the usual amenities—a big refrigerator, a dishwasher, a garbage disposal. I want ample space for my Kitchen-Aid mixer, and, while I’m dreaming, a set-up for a full espresso bar. I don’t ask for much, right?
What I’m envisioning is very much a 21st-century kitchen. The kind of kitchen you see in every Nancy Meyers movie. I am a product of my time, I suppose.
Kitchens can tell us a lot about the era in which they were built, and their evolution over time tracks various social and cultural changes that have taken place—like when ice boxes gave way to refrigerators, or when time-saving appliances became de rigeur as more women began moving into the workforce, or when kitchens became a central gathering place, rather than a utilitarian room tucked out of sight.
To see this evolution up close and personal, take a trip to Cliveden, a National Trust Historic Site in Philadelphia.
Built between 1763 to 1767 as a summer home for Benjamin Chew, colonial Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, and his family, Cliveden today showcases three centuries of furniture, decorative arts, and artifacts from the seven generations of Chews who have lived there. (The house and its 5.5 acres of land were donated to the National Trust in 1972.)
But one of Cliveden’s greatest assets is its kitchens—one dating from 1767 and the other from 1959. They’re about as different as they can be, and together, they show how a single household evolved over 200 years. Here’s a snapshot:
1767 Kitchen Dependency
The 1767 kitchen dependency was built separately from the main house. This helped reduce the risk of fire damage to the residence, while also keeping the sounds and the smells of kitchen activity out of the main living quarters. A covered colonnade was eventually constructed to connect the two structures, and this space continued to be used as a kitchen into the 1900s.
The kitchen dependency featured an open hearth. A cast iron stove and range were added later. It was not the kind of kitchen where the Chew family spent any time. All the cooking was done by enslaved people. And research has indicated that the kitchen dependency may also have been living quarters for Cliveden's enslaved people.
Today, you can see traces of the past on the walls and on the floors. There’s the outline of the original hearth and outlines of shelves and cabinetry that had once been installed. You can also see marks on the floors where walls once stood. It’s a layered history, giving hints at how this kitchen functioned throughout the course of 140-some years. And there has been significant, ongoing archaeological work at the kitchen dependency, to better understand these layers.
In the 1950s, Sam and Babbie Chew decided to renovate sections of Cliveden. It was then, in 1959, that they added a new kitchen just off the main house’s dining room in the colonnade that connected the kitchen dependency to the main house. This meant the kitchen was no longer separate from the main house, but it was still tucked out of sight.
While positively retro by today’s standards, in mid-century Philadelphia this kitchen was the height of modernity. The pre-fabricated kitchen included seafoam green enamel cupboards and stainless steel appliances. Today, thanks to a recent deep cleaning, the kitchen quite literally gleams.
That one site can offer visitors two wildly different kitchens from two wildly different eras mere steps away from each other is an enormous opportunity, and it’s one the Cliveden staff is using to its fullest advantage.
The site recently received a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to preserve and interpret the two kitchens through its Living Kitchens project, which explores domestic life over two centuries and how architecture, design, and technology changed and shaped the experiences of those living and working in the household. It’s also diving deep into the people who lived and worked in these kitchen spaces.
It’s a new way to understand Cliveden, a new way to understand history, and a new way to understand your own kitchen—dream or otherwise.