Friday, March 16, 2012

The Dog at the Mill: Powel House and the Environment

Dorothy Merritts and Robert Walter, my colleagues at the Department of Earth and Environment, have been doing some amazing research on the aggressive manipulation of the natural environment in 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania. They have been studying the proliferation of mills through the country-side and the radical alteration of streams.

The Powel House is one of the most historical interiors of Philadelphia. It is important both for its historical value but also for its contribution to the development of the preservation movement in the 1920s. One room, for example, formed the core of the Metropolitan Museum's American Wing when it opened in 1924.

The parlor from the second floor of the Powel House was installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Room 287) by Fiske Kimbal, a preservation pioneer. Fittingly, the room is right next door to the installation of a Pennsylvania German kitchen that belonged to a prosperous miller from Milbach, in Lebanon County (Room 285). Looking at the Powel House's Baroque decoration, I noticed a wonderful detail at the center of the parlor's mantelpiece. It shows a pastoral scene with a dog drinking from a stream beyond a water mill. With Merritts/Walter's geological research in mind, I realized that this was more than an idyllic scene, but rather a testament of bold environmental interventions. This is an image of aggressive exploitation.

Dorothy Merritts was the recipient of the 2010 annual Dewey award for Outstanding Scholarship. She was honored at Common Hour, where she presented her work on the geology of 18th-century mills (see lecture here). Merritts has also produced a great array of undergraduate papers, a regular presence in F&M's student research fairs.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States