Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Pennsylvania

History of the Joseph Priestley House

Sambourne Plan

Soon after their arrival in Northumberland, Joseph Priestley and his wife Mary began construction of a house on land overlooking the Susquehanna River. It was intended as the re-creation of a self-contained, English gentleman’s estate. The Priestleys’ pleasure in their new habitation is reflected in their letters. Joseph wrote, “I do not think there can be, in any part of the world, a more delightful situation than this.” It was Mary Priestley, however, who took the greater delight in the planning; sadly, two years after their arrival in Northumberland, she died and was never to see the completion of her house.

Priestley the widower moved into the home in 1798 and resided there with his eldest son Joseph, Joseph’s wife Elizabeth, and their children. In addition, there were servants.

The exterior and plan of the house are typically Georgian in style with some decorative elements more characteristic of the Federal style of architecture, the hallmark of which is an attention to balance and symmetry. The balustraded deck on the roof and the semi-circular fanlight above the main entrance doors are characteristic of this style. Arches in the entrance and second floor halls attest to a stylish and grand design for the house. The construction, which employed local workers and carpenters from Philadelphia, continued from 1795 to 1798. Each piece of timber was kiln dried for two weeks at the site. “A house constructed with such boards I prefer to one of brick and stone,” wrote Priestley.

After Priestley’s death, Joseph Junior and his family lived in the house until 1811, when they returned to England. The house was sold in 1815 to the first of several subsequent owners. In 1874, the Priestley House was the gathering spot for American chemists who celebrated the centennial of chemistry on the 100th anniversary of Priestley’s discovery of oxygen gas.

The creation of a museum at Priestley House first occurred to chemists from Penn State College (now Penn State University), who honored their colleague, Dr. George Gilbert Pond, professor of chemistry and dean of the School of Natural Sciences, by building a brick museum building named for Dr. Pond on the property. Dr. Pond had been the successful bidder when the Priestley House was offered at public auction in 1919. His untimely death shortly after the purchase derailed a plan to move the house to the college campus for use by the chemistry department. Instead, trustees appointed by the college hired caretakers who lived in and maintained the house as a museum in Northumberland. In 1955, the college gave the property to the Borough of Northumberland, which maintained the museum property until 1959.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania next acquired the house. In 1961, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission was appointed to administer and restore many of the property’s original features. In 2000, as an enhancement to the site’s historic landscape, the Commission completed reconstruction of outbuildings, including a carriage barn, associated with the property during Priestley’s residency.

Further Reading:

Hirsch, Alison Duncan. (2003). Joseph Priestley House: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Stackpole Books: Mechanicsburg, PA.