Destination: Asa Packer Mansion, 30 Elk Street, Jim Thorpe, PA 18229
Travel Time from Philadelphia: 1.5 – 2 hours by car
Hours: 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (seven days a week from Memorial Day to October 31)
Contact: Call 570-325-3229 or visit http://www.asapackermansion.com/
It’s springtime, the weather is getting warmer and the sun is shining (at least more than it was this winter). Now is the perfect time to start thinking about venturing outside the city and exploring the beautiful areas surrounding Philadelphia. If you’re not sure where to go or what to do, stick with me. I’ll be sharing stories as I explore Philadelphia’s surrounding areas and beyond.
The first of these adventures was with about seven of my closest friends and involved a scenic drive to the town of Jim Thorpe — originally known as Mauch Chunk, taken from the term Mawsch Unk, meaning Bear Place in the language of the native Munsee-Lenape Delaware people. The town, which is located at the base of a steep valley carved by the Lehigh River, is only about an hour and a half to two hours outside of Philadelphia, depending on traffic.
A lot of my friends grew up near Jim Thorpe, so we frequently make visits to places nearby. However, on this particular day, we decided to go into the heart of the town and do something none of us had ever done — visit Asa Packer Mansion. I know it’s not something you’d envision seven thirty-somethings doing on a Saturday afternoon, but what can I say, my friends and I are a unique group.
As our caravan of cars pulled into the only parking lot in Jim Thorpe, we all gazed up at the mansion. You have no choice but to gaze up since the mansion is perched high atop a hill overlooking the town. I remember the sky was clear and all the plant life was in bloom, making the property look more beautiful than ever.
After exiting our air conditioned cars and whining about the heat for 15 minutes — it was about 90 degrees that day — we made our way across the street to the entrance of the property. Now, one thing you need to know when visiting Asa Packer is that in order to get to the actual mansion you have to climb up a pretty steep hill. This shouldn’t be a problem unless you’re elderly, have an injury OR are seven thirty-somethings who hate the heat and were up partying the night before.
Arriving atop the hill was like walking into the 1800s and appropriately so considering the mansion was built in 1861 by Philadelphia architect, Samuel Sloan. According to our guide, who was a college aged guy who was ready to kill the seven of us by the end of the tour, Sloan worked on the mansion over a span of two years and for a total cost of $14,000 dollars — that may seem like chump change nowadays, but in that era it was a big deal. It was built over a cast iron frame and consists of three stories, 18 rooms, and approximately 11,000 square feet of living space.
Once we were inside the three-story Victorian building we learned more about the man behind the mansion — Asa Packer.
Packer was born in 1805 to Elisha and Desire Packer in Mystic, Connecticut — yes, the same town that the movie Mystic Pizza took place. He left home when he was 17 and set out on foot to Brooklyn, Pennsylvania, where he apprenticed as a carpenter to his cousin. In 1827, he traveled to New York seeking employment, but when he had no luck returned to Susquehanna County. A year later he married Sarah Minerva Blakslee.
It wasn’t until the winter of 1832 — after hearing men were needed to captain coal barges on the Lehigh Canal — that Packer traveled to Jim Thorpe (then known as Mauch Chunk). He started in Jim Thorpe as an apprentice boat builder, specifically working on canal boats, and over the years became a prominent Pennsylvania industrialist, philanthropist, and public servant. He’s best known for founding boatyards, construction and mining companies, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and Lehigh University.
As interesting as it was to hear about Packer, my friends and I were more interested in the mansion. It had so many stylistic details marking its exterior, including an Italianate roof and elaborate wooden brackets. For those of you who don’t know what Italianate is, I know I sure didn’t, it’s one of the most popular Victorian-era housing styles from the mid-to-late 1800s and usually was a mark of wealth. Our guide said that these type homes were typically two to three stories in height, with flat or hip roofs, bay windows with inset wooden panels, corner boards and two over two double-hung windows. The windows often had curved or molded window caps.
What I remember most about the design are the gothic window arches and gingerbread trefoils, which are really pretty ornamental designs of three rounded lobes like a clover leaf. Oh and the woodcarvings were beautiful.
At the end of the tour our guide told us that Packer, who had been a lifelong philanthropist, donated $33 million dollars to the town of Jim Thorpe and the Lehigh Valley. And that by the time Packer passed away, his estate was valued at $54 and a half million dollars. Now if that isn’t return on investment I don’t know what is!
My friends and I all agreed that the trip to Jim Thorpe and the tour of Asa Packer Mansion was well worth the drive. I know I’d make that long, hot walk up the hill again.