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Photos by David Michael Howarth

Ken Smith and Mary Louise Bianco-Smith

It’s a common sight: Cars cruising by Riverton’s scenic riverfront often pause to stare at the majestic home on a charming corner with perfect views of the Delaware River. The combination of its handsome pillars, sloping lawn, graceful balconies and its air of elegance are hard to resist.

And once upon a time, a 10-year-old little girl who lived nearby used to dream of someday living in it.

“The closest I came was to sit on the lawn and read, and nobody chased me away,” remembers Mary Louise Bianco-Smith, who was fortunate enough to see her dream realized in 2010.

Yes, there are still times when this homeowner and her husband, Ken Smith, have to remind themselves they are indeed quite awake, and the 13-bedroom house – the first ever in Riverton to earn an official historic marker on its lawn – is truly their property. But some homes sometimes seem to have a certain determinism about them, and the right owner finds the perfect house in a residential match that was meant to be.

Such is the case on Riverton’s grand Bank Avenue.

As the previous owners grew old and had challenges keeping up the home, they became determined to sell their special house to new owners who would forever preserve its history. Ultimately, the surviving widower knew he’d found the right successors. Not only are Ken and Mary Louise devoted to preservation; they also have made recording the history of this remarkable home their personal project, tracing everything from the biography of its original architect, the celebrated Samuel Sloan, to uncovering what they believe was its role as a vital link in the Underground Railroad.

“Many scholars agree this was not just a logical location, but the basement has features that would allow for secrecy. Sheltering slaves was considered a crime, and New Jersey was sadly the last state in the North to join the abolition movement,” says Bianco-Smith.

In deference to their commitment to history, the couple has not only become Civil War scholars, they have opened their home to tours of the preserved basement to show visitors its unique place in history. Mary Louise and Ken have spared no effort in their search for artifacts that reflect the Civil War era – and that includes custom-made costumes they don for their tours.

 

But the house they occupy is also a home in every way. In it are housed things that have meaning in their lives, that speak to the past, of course, but also the present and future.

This Riverton home is brimming with grace and elegance. Everywhere you turn, there is a reminder that a home need not be spare and practical, but can instead celebrate beauty for its own sake. Some favorite possessions are the settees of brocade, antique mirrors and historic gems like Lady Liberty sconces that reach back to the early uses of electricity by Thomas Edison. You’ll also find a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and the text of his Gettysburg Address in this historic mansion that its owners admittedly hope can one day become a kind of living museum, where modern life embraces the past.

Turn a corner and you may spot a painting that intrigues, a handsome cabinet, or a harp – yes, a harp. Gracing the downstairs library is a splendid piano that once was the practice instrument for Carnegie Hall, passed on by a relative of Ken’s. All of these personal, historic treasures grace this home, part of a cluster of riverfront houses in this small, proud town.

It seems that back in the mid-1800s, 10 Philadelphia businessmen got together to stake out homes in what would turn out to be the country’s first planned residential community. Prominent Philadelphia Quakers sought a peaceful place to bring their families, a place that also had the spectacular beauty of the Delaware River as its front yard.

Caleb Clothier was one of those Philadelphia men who built the Bianco-Smith home in 1851, and yes, he is the same Clothier of the Strawbridge & Clothier mercantile fame. He and his wife filled the house with six children, and their son Ogden later moved into the residence. Ogden became Riverton’s first mayor and founded both the Riverton Country Club and the Riverton Yacht Club. It is Ogden who is believed to have rallied around the abolitionist cause and sheltered runaway slaves.

This home with 13 bedrooms and three floors is no minor operation, and over time has been shared by Mary Louise’s late father and Ken’s late mother and father, at separate times. It was, they say, a wonderful way to share the gift of this unique house.

“We’ve tried never to make this a ‘don’t touch’ kind of place,” says Mary Louise. Both admit that caring for this home and its expansive land is demanding, but well worth the devotion.

Both are committed to open their doors to friends and family, of course, and that includes Mary Louise’s daughters and Ken’s sons, all South Jersey residents. Two grandchildren have delightfully rounded out the family, and Angelica, the adorable white Bichon Friese who also resides here, brings it right down to earth.

Because the home is such a special example of older traditions and civility, a new crusade led by Bianco-Smith is to bring young people in the community into this gilded world in order to remind them that manners and civility mattered centuries ago and matter now.

In her lush period costumes, this unique homeowner guides the youngsters – both boys and girls – through a basement tour and some lessons about the Underground Railway, and then to a lunch where she teaches simple manners.

“I think it’s a very needed part of the education of today’s kids,” she says. And I’m gratified to report that they do catch on, and they do begin to understand that good manners can even be confidence-builders.”

Holidays and celebrations at this home are exceptional. The magnificent dining room, often dressed in carefully collected linens and accessories, set the mood.

When Mary Louise recently celebrated a milestone birthday, the celebration was notably and appropriately home-centered, with an opera party at the home she loves featuring a well-known opera singer performing.

“Home is where I love to be,” she says, noting that every morning, this spiritual woman places herself on a chair facing the river as she simply takes in the world. It may be a reminder of that little girl who dreamed of owning the grand house around the corner – and a world away – from her own more average home.

It’s almost certain the former owners of this extraordinary house on the Riverbank would be overjoyed to know its current owners treat it with the deference it deserves and open its doors to others.

“We really can do no less,” says Ken. “A home is more than just the materials that make it. And this home is a very special reminder that we are, for now, its devoted guardians.”

December 2017
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