Montco manse will bloom again

Members of the Norristown Garden Club (clockwise from top) Trina Bayne, Jane Comroe, Bette Ulrich, and JoAnne Tornambe.
Members of the Norristown Garden Club (clockwise from top) Trina Bayne, Jane Comroe, Bette Ulrich, and JoAnne Tornambe. (KRISTIN E. HOLMES / Staff)

Volunteers planted 270 daffodil bulbs and more at Selma.

Posted: October 08, 2012

Oodles of daffodils.

That's what Joan Lenhardt remembers most about the historic Selma Mansion in Norristown.

Yes, the Federal-style manor on West Airy Street was once the home of a Revolutionary War general and of the mother of Mary Todd Lincoln. But when Lenhardt, as a young girl, walked by on her way to school, it was all about the estate's field of yellow flowers.

"Not only do I remember the daffodils, my mother remembers the daffodils," said the now 70-something Lenhardt, of East Norriton. "They were there as early as the 1920s, and probably before that."

On Saturday, Lenhardt and fellow members of the Norristown Garden Club set out to re-create the historic mansion's garden by planting 270 daffodil bulbs.

The project is a partnership of the garden club and the Norristown Preservation Society, and is part of an ongoing effort to refurbish the worn-down and weather-beaten mansion. The house has been vacant since 1982, when its last occupant died.

"We haven't yet been able to restore the house because there is still considerable physical work to be done," said Russell Rubert, the society's president. "But at least we can do the gardens and recall the way it used to be."

The three-story manor of stucco and stone was built in 1794 by Gen. Andrew Porter on his family's 115-acre farm, which was named Selma - Gaelic for "high seat."

Porter fought in the Battles of Germantown, Brandywine, and Princeton during the Revolution. He is considered one of the founders of the U.S. Marine Corps.

His sons achieved their share of fame - David Rittenhouse Porter served as governor of Pennsylvania; George Bryan Porter was governor of what was then known as the Michigan Territory; and James Madison Porter was a secretary of war and a founder of Lafayette College in Easton.

Gen. Porter's granddaughter Eliza Parker married a wealthy Kentuckian, Robert Todd, and gave birth to Mary Todd, who grew up to marry Abraham Lincoln.

In 1821, the Porter estate was bought by the Knox family, who sold off parts of the property for development in the west end of Norristown.

The home's next buyer was Joseph Fornance, a lawyer and president of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, who eventually passed the house to son Joseph Knox Fornance and his wife, Ruth Ryder Fornance.

Soon after Ruth Fornance's death in 1982, developer Clark Natali bought the property and built apartment buildings next to the mansion. The house was left to deteriorate until Natali sold it to the preservation society several years go.

The preservation group has done some restoration, but extensive work remains, said Janice Pearce, a society board member.

Paint is peeling off the walls and shutters. Worn wooden floors creak.

The society plans to turn the house into a museum, community center, and event space. That goal is about $200,000 away, Rubert said, but the gardens, by comparison, are easy.

Lenhardt and Marge Eberz, the garden club's horticulturist, began working on the project last year. They talked to longtime residents to find out what they remembered of the gardens. Eberz researched plants typical of home gardens starting at the turn of the century.

The two women then created a plan that included trees, shrubs, and flowers.

Garden club members donated plants. Memma and Melanie Kilgannon dug up the daffodil bulbs from their garden.

On Saturday, members of both groups planted white dogwood, redbud, maple, and birch trees along with winterberry holly, lilacs, mums, daisies, roses, as well as daffodils.

Steve Foersch and Doug Seiler, preservation society members, used heavy equipment to turn the soil. Others dug holes and spread mulch.

JoAnne Tornambe, a retired innkeeper, helped dig an edge for a flower bed.

"I was born and raised in Norristown," said Tornambe, who maintained an elaborate garden at her Cape May inn. "I'm so happy they are preserving some of our history, and it's so nice to be part of that."


Contact Kristin E. Holmes

at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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