The Speaker’s House

The property at 151 W. Main Street changed hands over twenty times since it was constructed in the early 1760s. The narrative below highlights the background of some of its better known owners and residents.

The Speaker’s House was built in 1763-64 for John and Silence Schrack. The eldest son of the founder of Trappe, John Schrack commissioned an elegant and commodious stone mansion for his family, situated prominently along the main road leading from Philadelphia to Reading. The original house (the front section of the present structure) was built as a side-passage stair hall flanked by double parlors, heated with back-to-back corner fireplaces. The Schrack family owned the house until John’s death in 1772.

After passing through a succession of owners, in December of 1781 the house and 50 acres were purchased by Frederick Muhlenberg. He built a general store. The stone structure was attached to the east side of the main house and extended approximately 30 feet wide by 20 feet deep. The store was an outgrowth of Muhlenberg’s extensive mercantile connections in Philadelphia, including a partnership in his father-in-law’s sugar refinery and importation business. A stone addition of about 15 by 20 feet was also added to the west side of the main house, likely during the Muhlenberg family’s ownership. The original purpose of this structure is not yet known; it may have been a kitchen based on remains of a brick hearth found and tax records that indicate a 15 by 20 foot stone kitchen was present by 1798. Archaeology is yielding additional information about both the store and the west wing.

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Advertisement placed in the Times Herald in 1801 by Francis Swaine.

In 1791, Frederick Muhlenberg sold the property to his sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Francis Swaine. The Swaines were likely responsible for expanding the house to the rear with another stone addition, now the center section of the present structure. This section may have been the “store room” referred to in the 1798 Direct Tax List description of the property. A “store room” did not necessarily have to do with a store; rather, it was a period term for a pantry or storage room. Sadly, the Swaines had the misfortune to lose all four of their children while living in the house.

In 1799, the Swaines advertised the store for rent, and in 1801 placed the house up for rent and moved to the new county seat of Norristown. In 1803, they sold the house to Charles Albrecht, a musical-instrument maker from Philadelphia. Albrecht sold the property in 1808 to Abraham Gottwals, a local miller. The house was next owned by Dr. William and Sarah Johnson, whose daughter Sarah inherited the property after her mother’s death.

Detail of Piano by Charles Albrecht

Detail of the nameboard on a piano made by Charles Albrecht. This piano is in The Speaker’s House collection.

Charles Albrecht, who resided in the property from 1803 to 1808, was listed on the deed as a “musical instrument maker.” Albrecht (also known as Albright) was one of the earliest piano makers in America. First working in Philadelphia, where he began manufacturing pianos sometime before 1789, it is likely that he carried on his trade while he lived in Trappe.

In 1867, the house was purchased at auction by Dr. Lewis Royer. He updated the main house by replacing the pitched roofs of the front and center sections with the current mansard roofs, as well as adding a large stone addition to the rear as a kitchen. Royer also demolished the stone wings to the east and west of the main house (Muhlenberg’s store and probable kitchen), erecting a frame office on top of the west foundation and constructing a porch along the front and east sides of the house.

The Speaker's House as Highland Hall

The Speaker’s House as Highland Hall, 1925. Courtesy, Ursinus College Archives.

Ursinus College purchased the house in 1924 for use as a men’s dormitory and athletic training center. Named Highland Hall, the house also served variously as women’s housing and, in the 1930s, as the home of the college’s first athletic director, former Philadelphia A’s pitcher Russell C. “Jing” Johnson and his family. Under the college’s ownership, the house was extensively remodeled to make it fit for dormitory use, including the construction of multiple closets and bathrooms, as well as demolition of the front porch, barn, and a frame addition at the rear of the house.

In 1944, the property returned to private ownership. In the 1990s, the second and third floors were converted into apartments and the house began to fall into disrepair. In 1999, CVS expressed interest in demolishing the house to make way for a new pharmacy. A grassroots effort began by local citizens to rescue the property from the wrecking ball. This group gained non-profit designation in 2001 as Save the Speaker’s House, Inc. After several years of negotiations with the owner, on April 1, 2004, the house and two acres was acquired by the organization with the intent to restore it to the time of Frederick Muhlenberg’s occupancy. In 2006, a grant from the Montgomery County Open Space Program enabled the property to be purchased and placed under conservation easements to ensure that it is permanently preserved. Late in 2007, the Board approved officially changing the name of the organization to The Speaker’s House. While major work lies ahead in stabilizing and restoring The Speaker’s House, the property is no longer in danger of demolition or commercial development.

Residents of Highland Hall

Residents of Highland Hall posing on the front porch for a dorm photo.

If you ever resided at The Speaker’s House while it was a college dormitory or an apartment building, please visit our contact page so we can include you in the list of residents!

 

 

 

Owners and residents of The Speaker’s House