Selma Mansion located northwest of Philadelphia and about 40 minutes from the New Jersey border is the borough of Norristown, PA. This historic town was named as the seat of Montgomery County when the latter was formed in 1784.
There are many beautiful old buildings in Norristown. Some of them date back over 200 years but are tightly nestled between supermarkets and fast food chains that have risen up since. The old and new worlds are mixed together here.
One Norristown property in particular has come to symbolize the juxtaposition of modern life with the quiet old town of history – the Selma Mansion.
The Selma Mansion stands on a hilltop where its pale paint often matches the grey clouds above. This once grand property place has certainly seen better days. The exterior is in the Federal style, while the interior woodwork and proportions are Colonial or Georgian.
There are two large marks on the exterior – one surrounding the front door and the other extending around the two windows on the left-hand side. These imperfections mark the place where once a beautiful porch and balcony stood.
In other places, rain and harsh weather have eroded the stucco facade, exposing the original stonework. Standing before this building makes visitors feel as if they are looking at a house that has been lifted from the pages of a horror novel – quite appropriate, given that ghost tours are undertaken here.
Inside, there is wallpaper still on some of the walls, but it is faded and torn. The impressively large wooden floorboards show the shadows of rugs and stair runners from lifetimes past. Long disused gas lamp fixtures are still present on the walls. Moving upstairs, chandeliers hang from the ceiling, their sparkle is dulled by a coat of dust.
The man behind the mansion’s construction in 1794 was Andrew Porter. His name crops up in history as evidence suggests that he helped with early recruiting for the United States Marine Corps. He was commissioned in the Corps in 1776 as a captain and remained there for one year. He then went on to work in the Continental Artillery (1777-1782) in a role that was crucial to the war effort.
Porter is also known for more than his military service. As a surveyor, he helped audit the Mason-Dixon line in the 1780s for the state of Pennsylvania, and later became the state’s Surveyor General.
And it wasn’t just Andrew Porter himself who became well-known. He had 12 children who survived into adulthood, four of whom went on to have impressive careers.
Robert Porter became president judge of the 3rd judicial district of Pennsylvania, and David Rittenhouse Porter was the governor of Pennsylvania 1839-1845. George Bryan Porter was appointed governor of Michigan Territory, and James Madison Porter was not only the secretary of war under President John Tyler but was also the primary founder of Lafayette College in Easton.
Furthermore, Andrew Porter’s great-granddaughter, Mary Todd, became Abraham Lincoln’s wife.
In 1821, Selma changed hands, coming into the ownership of the Knox family. It was passed down through the family for a couple of generations until it came into the possession of Joseph Fornance who had married Ellen Knox, the sole surviving member of the Knox family.
The Fornance family became the last family to own the mansion. When Ruth Fornance, a widow, passed away in 1982, she planned to donate the Selma Mansion to Montgomery County.
Ruth had been planning this donation for a long time and even had a plaque made up that she proudly hung on the wall. Her caretaker later commented she would often point to the plaque when passing it, saying the home would be in good hands after she was gone. Sadly, this proved not to be the case.
Neither the county nor township wished to take possession of the home after Ruth passed on, and an estate sale was held on the property in the late 1980s, which essentially liquidated the historical artifacts from the once-proud home. Even Ruth’s plaque was not spared.
The land was then sold to a developer, who quickly began erecting apartment buildings on the estate’s outer perimeter. The intention was to convert the Selma Mansion itself into a recreation center after the nearby apartments were completed.
When those plans fell through, the developer then began weighing the possibility of leveling the old mansion to make room for a new construction or possibly additional parking for the complex. A fast-food burger chain was even on the cards.
But a group of concerned citizens banded together and formed the Norristown Preservation Society with the sole purpose of saving the Selma Mansion. They succeeded and were able to purchase the old house and surrounding parcel of land from the developer in the 1990s.
Selma Manor might not be home to a family anymore, but people still walk through its rooms on a regular basis. The Norristown Preservation Society runs various events throughout the year, including tours, special open house events, a History Day where people in period costume will guide visitors through the house, and ghost tours.
Thank you to Antiquity Echoes for some of the photos in this article, and big thanks to the Norristown Preservation Society for their original and up to date photos.
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