Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania

Date added: August 17, 2023 Categories:
South and East facades viewed from near river bank (1986)

In addition to being one of the grandest riverfront mansions on Radcliffe Street in Bristol, PA, the Dorrance Mansion is also the only example of Italianate architecture in the borough. The distinctive rear porch and elliptical five-story tower add to the mansion's grandeur and set it apart from the two other examples of Italianate architecture along the Delaware River in Bucks County. Whereas the Dorrance Mansion has an urban setting, the two other examples, The Dell in Bensalem Township and Fruithouse Wharf in Bristol Township, are houses erected on large country estates. The mansion is associated with John Dorrance, Sr. Dorrance, one of Bristol's leading citizens from his arrival circa 1827 until his death in 1869, commissioned the house which was completed in 1863. Active in commerce as the owner of the Bristol Mills, he was also involved in Bristol politics and various improvement-oriented companies.

Situated on a street of numerous Victorian mansions and houses, the Dorrance Mansion stands out as the sole example of Italianate architecture. Erected in 1862-1863, it represents one of the earliest mansions to be built by the industrialists that made Bristol their home. Several mansions erected on Radcliffe Street during the same period were later enlarged or remodeled in the 1880's to satisfy the needs or egos of wealthy new owners, resulting in asymmetrical residences reflecting the influence of various architectural styles. The Dorrance Mansion by comparison is an imposing residence with square proportioned symmetry.

Built in one section with no subsequent alterations, it is an outstanding example of an Italianate-style residence. Distinguishing features are the ornate centered front entranceway, the flat roof broken by low-pitch gables, projecting eaves with carved brackets, rusticated quoins, round arch upper windows, and belt courses on the front facade which highlight the descending ceiling height per ascending floor.

There are two identified Italianate houses along the Delaware River in Bucks County. The Dell, located along the River in Bensalem Township, was built circa 1860 as a country estate. It is a two-story, three-bay, square, stone house with one-story porches on the front and side facades and a rectangular addition to the rear. Fruithouse Wharf, located on the Delaware River in Bristol Township, was also built as a country estate outside Bristol, circa 1869. It is a three-story, asymmetrical, sprawling house exhibiting the Italianate features of rounded windows, a tower, and small third-floor windows placed between brackets. These two houses, as examples of riverfront country estates, pale in comparison to the Dorrance Mansion in its urban setting with its symmetrical, grand facade and unusual elliptical tower and three-story porch.

John Dorrance, Sr. acquired the lot on which his mansion was built in 1860. He was living across the street at the time ina house which he had purchased in 1828 and which he continued to own until his death. A house on the newly purchased lot was demolished before construction of the mansion began in 1862. Dorrance came to Bristol in the 1820s and purchased an interest in the Bristol Mills which dated back to 1701. He eventually bought out his partners to become the sole owner. Prior to the Civil War, the mill supplied large amounts of corn meal to the South and the West Indies. When the mill was sold after Dorrance's death by his sons, the property was comprised of grist and saw mills, a lumber yard, canal stables, coal sheds, a blacksmith shop, a store, two dwellings, and a mill race and pond. Besides his involvement in local commerce, Dorrance was also active in various improvement projects including the digging of the Bristol portion of the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal and the construction of the Trenton and Bristol Railroad in 1834. Dorrance was also involved in the short-lived Neshaminy Lock Navigation Company and the Bristol Building Association. He was an original shareholder of the former which was chartered in 1832 to establish lock navigation in Neshaminy Creek. The project was later abandoned. The Bristol Building Association, of which Dorrance was a director, was the second building and loan association organized in Pennsylvania. It closed in 1859, twelve years after its founding. In partnership with Henry Wright, Dorrance acquired a farm and divided the land into building lots and opened Dorrance, Washington, and Lafayette Streets, thus enabling the further expansion and development of Bristol. In addition to his business pursuits, Dorrance was also active in Bristol politics. He served as a member of the Borough Council for nine terms between 1835 and 1860. Although Dorrance built the house toward the end of his illustrious career and only lived there six years before his death, it is the one extant building with the closest association to him and his business career. The Mansion, as commissioned by Dorrance, signifies the success, wealth, and stature he was able to achieve through his ownership of the Bristol Mills. As one of the earliest nineteenth-century mansions, it set the standard for later buildings on Radcliffe Street. Ownership of the Mansion passed to his sons after Dorrance's death in 1869. John Dorrance, Jr. purchased his brother's interest in 1879 and bequeathed the Mansion to his son, G. Morris Dorrance. The Mansion passed out of the Dorrance Family in 1921. Shortly thereafter, it was acquired by the Bristol Knights of Columbus who owned it for sixty years. In 1982, it was sold for use again as a residence. Despite its longtime non-residential use, the Mansion retains all of its original interior features.

Building Description

The Dorrance Mansion is a three-story, three-bay, rectangular brick, Italianate-style residence, built in one section in 1862-1863, located at 300 Radcliffe Street in Bristol Borough, PA. It is situated on a one-quarter acre lot bounded to the north and west by Radcliffe and Mulberry Streets, respectively, to the south by the Delaware River, and to the east by another residential lot. The seamed metal roof is flat with four low-pitched cross gables in a cruciform pattern. Carved eave brackets dominate the cornice line. One interior chimney on the western section of the roof and two interior chimneys' on the eastern section serve four fireplaces on each of the first, second and third floors. The front facade is symmetrical with proportionally decreasing size windows on the second and third stories, giving the structure the illusion of greater size. The rear facade is dominated by a three-story full-length porch and a five-story elliptical tower.

The brick mansion is erected on a random coursed fieldstone foundation at river level. Owing to the grade of the property, the basement foundation is exposed on the west and south facades. The front facade is dominated by a centered double door arch-headed entranceway with inset fanlight surrounded by classical sandstone pilasters supporting a sandstone entablature. Four-light rectangular windows flank the entry as well as the centered palladian-style window on the second story. Paired single-light windows flank a centered, arched, four-light window on the third story. Decorative features of the front facade include the heavy sandstone window surrounds and rusticated quoins that terminate above the second story. Descending ceiling heights per ascending floors are delineated by a sandstone wash at street level, a sandstone belt course at the second story, and a sandstone string course at the third story.

The centered five-story tower on the rear facade provides the structure with a continuous circular main staircase and a separate staircase for passage between a basement kitchen and first-floor dining room. The roof, eaves, and brackets duplicate the treatment on the main structure. Each facade of the tower's fifth story contains three arched two-light windows. The south facade also contains a centered round window on the fourth story. Each staircase landing of the tower is lighted with a window. There is an exterior entrance to the tower at the basement level.

The tower is flanked by arched, paired, windows on the third story of the main rear facade, four-light rectangular windows on the second story, and four-light rectangular windows and an entranceway on both the first story and basement. Sandstone window surrounds are on a smaller scale than on the front facade. A three-story, full-length, porch extends out from the tower and basement level of the structure's rear facade. The porch roof is flat with an off-center rounded entrance hood and a less pronounced overhang with decorative brackets highlighting the third story. The upper levels of the porch are supported by keystoned, round arches with squared wooden columns with capitals, two arches deep and six arches long. The upper levels also feature railing supported by large carved and turned balusters. The archless supports of the basement-level porch are plain in comparison.

The west and east facades both feature two four-light windows on the second story and paired single-light windows flanking a centered, arched, four-light window on the third story. The west facade features a centered, slightly protruding bay window on the first story and two windows on the exposed basement level. Window surrounds are similar to those on the rear facade. Quoins, a belt course (partially removed) and string course, matching those on the front facade, are additional decorative features of the west facade. The east facade contains a four-light rectangular window on the first story and a three-sided two-story bay window (basement level and first floor).

The interior features a center hall floor plan which provides access to the flanking rooms and rear staircase tower. The hallway contains elliptical arched openings and ceiling supports. Black walnut and mahogany are used throughout the house for interior doors, staircases, baseboards, mirrors, shutters, and trim. Notable features in the first-floor living room include a decorative plaster cornice and applied linear trim of wood forming a geometric pattern on the ceiling. Two marble living room fireplaces with round arch openings, plain colonettes, paneled spandrels and centered cartouches flank the hall opening. They are surmounted by oversized black walnut-framed mirrors which extend to the ceiling. The rounded staircase features delicately carved and turned balusters and a handrail of black walnut with mahogany steps. It is lighted by stained glass windows at the second and third-floor landings. Light fixtures are not original to the house but are of the appropriate period.

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania Front facade facing Radcliffe (1986)
Front facade facing Radcliffe (1986)

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania Front and East Facades viewed from Radcliffe Street (1986)
Front and East Facades viewed from Radcliffe Street (1986)

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania Facade viewed from sidewalk of Radcliffe Street (1986)
Facade viewed from sidewalk of Radcliffe Street (1986)

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania Front (north) and West facades viewed from Radcliffe Street (1986)
Front (north) and West facades viewed from Radcliffe Street (1986)

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania South and East facades viewed from near river bank (1986)
South and East facades viewed from near river bank (1986)

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania First floor living room looking south west (1986)
First floor living room looking south west (1986)

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania First floor hallway and tower entry looking south (1986)
First floor hallway and tower entry looking south (1986)

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania Basement floor plan
Basement floor plan

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania First floor plan
First floor plan

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania Second floor plan
Second floor plan

Dorrance Mansion, Bristol Pennsylvania Third floor plan
Third floor plan