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Mill Rae, once a retreat for suffragists, earns its place in history

The little-known home on the edge of Philly was designed by female architect Minerva Parker Nichols

Susan B. Anthony was most displeased. It was 1888, and Rachel Foster, her long-time protégé and “most cherished young lieutenant,” was to marry. The engagement marked the second strike in Anthony and Foster’s relationship, the first being one year prior when Foster announced she had adopted a child. Her marriage to a Cyrus Miller Avery, a supporter of the women’s rights movement, was the end of her mentorship and friendship with Anthony for the next several years. But it also marked the beginning of a significant women’s suffrage movement in Philadelphia’s Somerton neighborhood at a hill-top house called Mill Rae.

Mill Rae’s role in the suffrage movement in Pennsylvania only recently earned national recognition when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 10, 2017. But the story of the home begins in 1890, when Rachel Foster Avery, flush with cash as the sole heir to her father’s fortune, decided to buy nearly 12 acres of land in Somerton. Her home in Spring Garden proved to be too small for her expanded family and she needed a gathering space for her colleagues in the growing fight for women’s right to vote.

She turned to local architect Minerva Parker Nichols, a recent graduate of Philadelphia Normal Art School, who had recently established herself as the first female in the country to practice architecture independently—with no man attached to her firm.

Left: Mill Rae was commissioned by Rachel Foster Avery in 1890 as a home and retreat for suffragists. Right: Minerva Parkers Nichols designed the home for Avery.
Courtesy of Cranaleith Spiritual Center and Wikimedia Commons

That’s the key detail that drew Molly Lester, then a Penn graduate student in historic preservation, to Nichols’ work. Soon, Lester realized how little of the architect’s work, including Mill Rae, had gone unnoticed or undocumented.

“I really became enamored with her,” recalls Lester. “I had this long list of client names, but no addresses to go with those names.”

“Then, I saw that one of the client’s names was ‘Rachel Foster Avery.’”

Avery and Nichols were both powerful women in their respective fields, so the pairing made sense for the Mill Rae project. Avery was deep in her role as corresponding secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and Nichols had started to earn the respect of clients and contractors alike for her know-how and modern approach to design.

“She really advocated to return to individualized design that fit the client’s needs and personality,” says Lester, who nominated the home for historic designation.

And Avery had many needs. Her hope for Mill Rae, a combination of “Miller” and “Rachel,” included multiple gathering spaces to host many meetings for NAWSA and a handful of other organizations. She also stipulated that multiple bedrooms be included on the second and third floors for the various visitors. Play rooms and education spaces were also required for her and her husband’s children.

Top: Minerva Parker Nichols was a fan of light, evidenced by Mill Rae’s many large bay windows. Bottom left: The winding staircase leads to nine bedrooms upstairs. Bottom right: The dining room.

At its core, says Lester, Mill Rae, “was designed for women to be able to gather and plan events and conferences associated with the suffrage movement. The combination of large and interconnected social spaces, with a lot of bedrooms on the second and third floors—all of that stood out to me in the design of the home.”

Nichols’ design also emphasized the importance of light and air in the home. That’s evidenced by the front-and-back porches and large windows found throughout the three-story home. There’s a second-story floor-to-ceiling window, and in the living room the chimney has a window cut-out. A year after Mill Rae was built, Nichols wrote of her work, “Don't build a house to look at; let every room be designed for some purpose, and see that it is used for that alone. Don't be afraid of light and air, they are the things that do most to beautify our homes.”

“It’s not that you would see something here that you won’t see anywhere else,” says Lester of the Shingle-styled Mill Rae, “but the level of attention to detail means that what you do see elevates it beyond just a pattern book.”

The original servant’s call bell system hangs in the kitchen, which was renovated in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mill Rae almost immediately became a welcome retreat for suffragists who take the train directly to Somerton and put up their feet and relax in one of the home’s nine bedrooms or many parlors. In 1896, the Philadelphia Times newspaper mentioned Foster and her home, writing, “She is a delightful hostess and her pretty home in Somerton is constantly filled with visitors.”

Given Foster’s prominent position at NAWSA, she hosted many leaders of the women’s rights movement, from Anna Howard Shaw to Lucy E. Anthony. Eventually, Susan B. Anthony traveled down to Philadelphia many times to stay with Avery, once the two rekindled their friendship.

Avery and her family eventually moved from Mill Rae to the suburbs of Philadelphia in 1900, though she owned the property for another five years.

Meanwhile, Nichols went on to design as many as 60 homes and buildings in Philadelphia and around the Main Line, including the now demolished New Century Club of Philadelphia, at 12th and Sansom, which began the first to be designed by a female architect. Lester estimates that of those 60 or so projects, 20 of them were for female clients.

Susan B. Anthony and Rachel Foster Avery.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1906, Joseph C. Trainer bought the property, renaming the estate Cranaleith after his parents birthplaces of Cranlome and Arvaleith.

The Trainer family owned the property for more than a century, during which they made few changes to the original Mill Rae structure while building a new carriage house on the property. Today, Mill Rae is known as Cranaleith Spiritual Center, run by a non-profit organization and sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Mercy.

Similar to Mill Rae’s original purpose, the center serves as a retreat space for “people of all races, religious backgrounds, and any ethnicity,” explains the center’s director, Veneta Lorraine.

It’s why Lorraine was so intrigued when Lester reached out to the center about the historical significance of Mill Rae just a few years ago. “They were aware of the Rachel Avery Foster history of the home, but the added dimension that it was designed by female architect for a female client? They were excited about that,” says Lester.

Mill Rae’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places is largely honorific, explains Lester, and it is not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. So if any exterior alterations or demolition requests were proposed down the road, they would not have to go through state or city review.

That’s not likely to happen any time soon, assures Lorraine, who hopes the national recognition will help Cranaleith continue Avery and Nichols’ mission of providing a retreat for others. “I felt as though opening the doors to the history of [Mill Rae] would bring in a lot of new people and audience to Cranaleith,” Lorraine says. “We want to let people know that we’re here, for everyone.”

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