HISTORY OF THE RUAN HOUSE, CIRCA 1796

 

The Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library is housed in the Ruan House, named to the National Register of Historic Sites in October 1985.  When the building was purchased by the museum in 1958, its historic significance was not known.  Research in the early 1980�s revealed an interesting history and architecture and applications to the Philadelphia Historic Register, the Pennsylvania Historic Register, and the National Register were subsequently approved.  

DR. JOHN RUAN

The building was erected in 1796 by John Ruan, physician. Born in St. Croix, West Indies on June 9, 1771, he was the second son of a gentleman planter.  When his father died in 1782, his mother was already deceased and he and his elder brother were sent to this country to complete their education.  While under the care of Mr. Isaac Barnes of Trenton, New Jersey, the young Ruan studied four years in the Academy in Trenton.  In 1788 he entered the Junior Class of Princeton College, obtaining his degree in 1790 and following this with a Master of Arts.  After attending medical lectures in Philadelphia, he went to medical school in Edinburg in 1791, remaining until the conclusion of his studies in 1793.  Upon his return to Wiscasset, Maine, he obtained his medical degree, although the name of the institution issuing the degree is unknown. 

Dr. Ruan, deciding to pursue his medical practice in the borough of Frankford, first had a small building erected, paying taxes on it in 1794.  In 1796, tax and insurance records indicate he built a two and a half story brick building, attaching it to the original house. This section then became the northeast wing and appears to have been used as a kitchen and servant�s quarters.  During this period, in 1793, he married Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Gibbs, English gentleman of fortune.  Elizabeth bore him two children, one of whom survived to adulthood.   John Gibbs Ruan, born January 5, 1798 died at the age of 70 on October 28, 1868, in Apalachicola, Florida.  The museum records contain a photograph of his gravesite.      

In addition to his medical practice, John Ruan became an important figure in Frankford, a major  town with many industries including textiles, tanning, lumber milling and farming.  The area had attracted a large migration of English and Germans and contained a large free black community.  Wealthy Philadelphia families maintained 40 summer and yearlong mansions, however the Ruan House is the only survivor of the large homes of that era.  John was among a group of residents from the area forming a group known as �The Trustees of Frankford Academy�. This first academy in Frankford was chartered by the Supreme Court on March 30, 1799.  He was elected to the Board of Managers of the Frankford and Bristol Turnpike Road Co. Inc on June 6, 1803.  (Currently known as Frankford Avenue and having previously been designated the �Frankford Turnpike �or the �Kings Highway�, this road was the main thoroughfare from Philadelphia to Bristol.)  During this time period, John Ruan also partnered with other local residents in purchasing pieces of property throughout Oxford Township. 

Dr. Ruan remained in Frankford for fifteen years, marrying for the second time in 1805 to Rachael Rodman McIlvaine.  In 1808 they moved to a farm, subsequently retiring in 1811 to a plantation in Maryland where they resided for ten years.  No records have been found of any children from this marriage. Upon the death of Rachael in 1820, he spent the winter of 1821 in St. Croix visiting two brothers who were planters there.  Returning to the United States, he suffered financial losses and had to resume his practice, settling in Newportville, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and marrying Rachael�s cousin, Susan Rodman, in 1822.  However, a country practice proved too strenuous for a 51year old gentleman and he returned to Philadelphia (the location of his place of residence is unknown).  For the next twenty-two years of his professional life, he attended more obstetrical cases than any other practitioner in the city, delivering an average of 160 to 214 babies each year.  John and Susan had six children, three of whom died in childhood while none of the others married.  In the summer of 1844, poor health compelled his retirement from medicine and the family moved to Bristol, Bucks County.  On July 2, 1845, he died at the age of 75. His widow Susan, 62, passed away February 22, 1849 followed by a daughter Susan on January 26, 1858, at the age of 34.  Copies of the wills of Dr. Ruan and his wife are on file at the museum.  A record was found of a William Rodman Ruan, born in Philadelphia September 15, 1826 who resided in Apalachicola, Florida and died in 1881.  He served in the Confederate Army.  The date of his birth would indicate he was from the marriage of John and Susan.  

 

OTHER OWNERS OF THE PROPERTY

When the financial reverses of Dr. Ruan occurred, they forced a sheriff�s sale of the property in 1822 to Daniel Smith, merchant.  In 1824, the same year that a parade was held on the Frankford Pike honoring the Marquis Lafayette, Daniel Smith sold the home to Dr. Samuel Pickering for $2500.  Once again the house served as the home of a physician.  The Alumni Catalog of the University of Pennsylvania indicated Samuel Pickering received a degree in 1816 authoring a thesis on the �Functions of the Nervous System�.  The U. of P. records also relate he received a letter from John Adams in 1820 detailing his recollections of a function he attended in 1774 when the Continental Congress met in Frankford.  On Christmas Day, 1837, at a public meeting, Samuel Pickering was elected along with Samuel Griscom and Joseph Walmsley to a committee to report on the need for a suitable school to be erected in Frankford.  When the doctor died at the age of 50, his family leased the house to Dr. LaRoche, a French physician.  The guardian of Dr. Pickering�s three children, Lewis, Edward, and Emily sold the building in 1847 to Samuel Brooke for $6,000. 

The next occupant was Samuel Brooke, a machinist, who had a business at Frankford and Adams Avenue.  At this time, the building was surrounded on all sides by Pine trees and was called the Pine Orchard.  Later maps from 1876 refer to it as Saenger Park.  The local streets also carried different names than the current ones in use.  Church Street was Pine Street, Griscom Street was Franklin Street, and Penn Street was Edward Street.   Mr. Brook�s death occurred in 1865 and on February 1, 1872, the executors of his estate sold the property to the Frankford Enterprise Land Association.  It was also in this time period that Griscom Street was extended to pass in the front of the building.  As the house was situated at the top of a rise in the land, six feet of earth was excavated from the ground in front of the building, leaving the fieldstone basement walls exposed.  This area was covered with stucco, windows added, the front door elongated, and steps placed inside the front entrance to gain access to the first floor. 

The Frankford Land Enterprise Association, owned by Adam Mann, president and Samuel Kenyon, secretary, retained ownership of the building until April 19, 1881 when they sold it to Edwin Stearne, who resold it on April 22, 1881 to the two gentlemen as individuals.  Adam Mann was a confectioner with a business at 4240 Frankford Avenue and Samuel Kenyon owned a home furnishing business at 4204 Frankford Avenue, in the area where Womrath Park now exists.  

On May 2, 1990, the property was sold at sheriff�s sale for $50 to Mary Mann, who appears to be Adam Mann�s daughter.  She operated a public kindergarten on the premises until 1921.  In 1988 Mr. Franklin P. Luckman, a Frankford resident, visited the museum and recalled attending the kindergarten on the first floor.  He vividly described the day when a child from the school ran out into the street and was struck by a horse and carriage. 

On June 10, 1921, the Home Association Council Knights of Columbus acquired the building, using it for meetings and social events, including wedding receptions.  The Philadelphia Camp Corporation, owners of the G. A. R. collection and museum building at 661 N. 12th Street, purchased the Ruan House on June 6th, 1958.

 

ARCHITECTURAL DESCRIPTION

The two and a half story Ruan House, 35 by 40 feet, is an exceptionally large building for its time and place and contains many of the classic elements of Georgian design.   On the exterior, these elements include the five symetrical bays; gabled roof; hand pressed brick walls circled by a brick string course; several original 6/6 sash windows on the first floor; and a handsome punch and gougework cornice.  On the interior, the Georgian style finds expression in the center hall plan, carved wooden mantels with Welford figures, and delicately winding wooden staircase. The panels below the sills of the first floor windows on the southern side of the building indicate there may have been a piazza.  When first erected, the building was connected by several archways to the original house built by John Ruan, providing access for the servants. In later years, these arches were bricked up and the building sold as a separate dwelling.  

In 1984 Margaret Atkinson researched the history of the building using the following sources: